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Back to the Land

By Tina Traster

September 18, 2008 -- When my husband and I moved in together eight years ago, he would pen romantic missives on Post-it notes and tack them to my computer screen. These days he scrawls: "Refrigerate dough @ 1 p.m."

We bake a fresh loaf of peasant bread every two days. He makes the dough in the morning, mixing organic flour, salt, water and yeast in a big bowl. I do my part midday by shoving around the refrigerator's contents to make room for the big bowl. We bake the dough in the early evening in a Dutch oven. All told, each beautifully brown-crusted mound costs us 60 cents - plus the gas the oven uses. From start to finish, it takes about 10 hours. The same loaf costs $3.49 at Whole Foods.

There is something about moving to a large, wooded tract of land in the suburbs after decades of city life that gets you thinking about ways to be more self-sufficient. In less than three years, we've learned how to grow enough onions and garlic to last until the next planting season. Our black gold - compost - enriches our soil, and we had a pretty good yield this past summer of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and herbs.

My handy husband crafted a wood and chicken-wire enclosure that keeps creatures out of the garden. He also built a stone wall along the border of our property after reading Helen and Scott Nearing's seminal homesteading classic "Living the Good Life."

The Nearings, who led the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s, left mainstream life after Scott lost his position as a college professor because of his anarchist views. The couple turned disenfranchisement into a way of life.

"We should become more in charge of our lives," my husband said after reading the screed. (I figured he'd drunk the Kool-Aid, and the euphoria would pass.)

Last winter I was nearly in tears every time a $600 gas bill arrived in the mail. During the spring I became more frustrated by rising food costs and $4-a-gallon gas.

"There's got to be a better way," I'd say and then ask my husband to remind me why we bought an SUV.

I started thinking about how much I like visiting Colonial-era villages where modern-day volunteers dress like early Americans and re-enact daily life. They churn butter and dye wool. What's intriguing is how simple these things really are. My husband was right. It was time to make a plan.

We started this summer by laying the foundation for a greenhouse, where we will grow vegetables and herbs through the winter. On hot August weekend days, my husband cut 2-by-4s and laid them out in a grid. He filled the gaps with small boulders from our property to create a heat sink and inserted plastic piping for a solar heating system.

The plastic 6-by-8-foot greenhouse, ordered through Amazon.com, arrived on Sept. 11. (A symbolic nod, it seemed, as I remember how I felt after New York City had been attacked seven years ago. I wanted nothing more than to find a cabin deep in the woods.) We know there will be a learning curve with the greenhouse. We'll need to collect water in rain barrels and figure out whether we can grow root vegetables in pots.

In the meantime, we would like to stop giving O&R, our utility company, our hard-earned money. We've learned that the truly efficient way to heat one's house is to have a pricey wood-burning insert with a fan installed in the pit of a fireplace. My ax-wielding husband will chop wood from our forest. I will tend the fire. Our furnace will only kick on as a backup. O&R will miss our money.

I suspect this is just the beginning of our newfound freedom. Next spring we will finally build a chicken coop and enjoy free and fresh eggs. We will string up a laundry line. We have signed up for a cheese-making course.

Trying not to be a disbeliever, I nod enthusiastically when my husband tells me he is working on constructing a wind turbine to generate electricity for our house.

Recently, we took a hike at the John Burroughs Sanctuary in West Park in the southern Catskills. This is where, in 1895, the naturalist John Burroughs and his son built Slabsides, a rustic cabin that still stands.

About this retreat, Burroughs wrote, "Life has a different flavor here. It is reduced to simpler terms: Its complex equations all disappear."

I don't think I can rid myself of the chains of modern life that bind, but they're starting to feel a little looser.

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