Living off the Land
A Subsistence Way of Life
The stairs were steep, and the ceiling was low. I crouched low to enter; the cellar smelled of wet dirt and sulfur from the soft coal. The small windows provided little light, not cleaned in fifty years, and thick cobweb curtains covered them. A dim bulb hung at the base of the stairs could not cast light on the walls, a tiny halo in the center of the room. I could feel the creepers hiding in the darkness. The floor above creeks as my grandmother cooks supper. I could hear their muffled conversation—suddenly,” Jimmy, did you find the corn and pickle jars?” “I am on it.” My eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness. Three walls had shelves to the ceiling of canning jars labeled: stewing meat, corn, peas, carrots, strawberry jam, and apple pie filling. Dried corn on the cob was in the crib and ready for grinding into a meal. Potatoes were in sacks nearest the coldest place. Everything was pickled, dried, smoked, or salted. Grandma and Grandpa rarely traveled the thirteen miles to the Lonetree General Store, only if Grandpa Stephen needed some brandy, tobacco, or snuff. Everything they needed was farmed, fished, or hunted, then prepared and preserved for the winter. They lived a simple near, subsistence life.
Living off the land is hard; my grandfather’s face and grandma’s hands are testaments to the work. As wildlife spends most of its waking hours finding food, the original homesteaders labored at hunter-gathering, preparing, preserving, and cooking. In the evening, a good book, a game of cards, a smoke, and a sip of brandy. Homesteading is a suffering, lonely lifestyle of self-sufficiency characterized by subsistence agriculture and home preservation of food and may also involve the small-scale production of textiles, clothing, and craft work for household use or sale. Isolation was a significant part of homestead living. Trips to town and community for church gatherings needed supplies, and a treat happened weekly at best and in the winter months never.
North Dakota is rich in soft coal, called Lignite. It burns hot but dirty and smells of sulfur. In this prairie, sparse with trees, wood was precious and used mainly in the kitchen—the coal was for heat, burned in a small potbelly stove in the center of the living area, one of the three rooms of the house. Old newspapers and some vermiculite could not stop the cold and frost. The Chippewa and Sioux stayed warmer in tents and covered in hides of buffalo, often as the saying goes, with three dogs on the coldest winter days.
My mother told me that she and her sister were born between lunch and supper; the fresh bread had just finished, so mom and her twin sister lay next to the warm bread on the oven door until grandma could finish and get them fed. My mother’s twin sister did not make it to supper. I would have loved a world with a mom and a twin of equal character. My grandmother Caroline was a tiny lady on my father’s side. I wonder if she broke five feet. Caroline birthed nearly a dozen children. She said my father was born similarly to my mother between meal preparation to feed the harvest threshing crew of twenty men. Grandma went into labor between making bread, cooking a stew, and making fruit pies. She squatted and gave birth to Dad and then cleaned up and fed Arthur, her new son—then went about her cooking as if nothing had happened.
In my grandparents’ day, the description of an American was resilient, relentless, determined, fearless, hearty, and in a group, they are a community. Today, too many Americans are feckless, weak, timid, fearful, and self-centered, with little interest in helping others. Many Americans need to understand or accept our nation’s spirit as designed by the founding fathers. Our constitutional Republic structure, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and most importantly—”In God, We Trust” virtues and morals. God blesses America for the foundations that built it, but the day will soon come when God will remove his grace as America’s foundation erodes of moral decay into ash. Does this sound like an overreaction to just another turmoil in our history? I think not; the evidence splatters every media source. I am authentic and want to play a role in changing America’s path to perdition.
What do gardening and returning to old ways have to do with America’s decay? The news is rampant with talks of inflation and weakening supplies of the daily commodities we need. Bill Gates is buying farmland with water—he thinks it is the best future investment; he will never live a subsistence lifestyle; he sees the future currency as food and water, not gold or Bitcoin. Gardening is much more than producing food for the body; it is the antitoxin to what ails America. Gardening cleanses the mind and soul of the seven deadly sins. When you garden barefoot, the minerals from the soil are absorbed through the skin, grounding you to the earth. Perspiration cleans the toxins from sorrowful living. Plants and humans exchange the breath of life. In the garden, your focus is on the plant, not the evil in the world; it is meditative. God placed man and woman in a garden to work and take care of it; gardening is of God’s design, the work is soulful, and the food is sweet.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden, where he put the man he had formed.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
We are building a new garage; the plans include a modern root cellar. We are not doomsday preppers. Our trust is in God. The practices that Grandma and Grandpa used provide plenty of advantages:
- Healthier food
- Tastier food
- Healthier lifestyle from the efforts and sweat
- The peace provided in the garden and mother earth
The farm that Linda grew up on had the same cellar with jars of preserves, cobweb curtains, steep stairs, and smells of coal. All the homesteader basements are the same. Linda’s mother, Lois, grew an enormous garden. Lois knew God and lived a righteous life based on scripture, and she infused faith into her daughters. Her garden wasn’t about food alone, and her garden was her “how to live life” classroom. Lois passed to the Lord on the first day of September 2001. Her garden lay idle while the weeds and grass overcame the soil.
In the spring of 2021, Linda began to reclaim the dirt and convert it back to fertile soil. Producing healthful food does not stop at harvest or in the pot on the stove. Somebody must preserve the garden treasures of potatoes, squash, peppers, tomatoes, peas, beans, onions, celery, cabbage, lettuce, asparagus, corn, and other garden goodies in some manner: freeze-drying, dehydrating, canning/preserving, freezing, and held in cold storage. We even freeze dry pastured eggs, avocado, meat, and prepared meals. This preservation work continues through the winter months. We use the freeze-dried food for our camping trips in Lucille, the RV, and hold for times of need. Anything in overabundance we give to friends, family, and those in need.
Linda was going through her mother’s kitchen books and recipes and came across these items. Victory Gardens were in total production during the war—we are in a great, spiritual warfare. So trust God, grow a garden, and learn to preserve it. Someday soon, these subsistence skills will be invaluable—sometimes seems to be today.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. ~ Philippians 4:12
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap; they have no storeroom or barn, yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!
“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.”
― Abraham Lincoln
“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”
― Claude Monet
Lovely thoughts. Holly promoted Victory gardens too! And Psalms 24:1 “the earth is the “Lord’s with it’s fullness” so as renters of his great creation we must carefully care for everything God created.
I truly envy my friends with the experience and skills and the terrain that enables them to carry out these activities of feeding their bodies and souls. I am a borne and bred city girl who grew up without this knowledge or the skills to be productive in this way. Now, at a relatively ripe old age, older than you Jim, or Linda, I am beginning to see the meagre fruits of my labour, with some of the barrels and planters that are spread about my small yard and deck. Yes, there is joy and satisfaction there and the pleasure of learning new skills, even at the twilight of my life.