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Winter 2004, Volume 21.2

Essay

 

Jim YoungPhoto of Jim Young.

Homesteading in Virginia: An Academic in Exile

 

Jim Young (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University) teaches Southern Literature, Modern Intellectual Traditions and English Education at Weber State University. His work has appeared in Encyclia: The Journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters and the Journal of the International Society for Teacher Education.

 

During the summer of 1980, after I had completed my Ph.D. studies in English at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, my wife and I moved to New Castle, Virginia, a small Appalachian town of 500 [people] in the northwestern corner of the state. I was eager to start a new life in New Castle because I saw it as a remedy for an illness that had overtaken me during six years of graduate study. During those long, arduous years, I had become afflicted with an extreme case of "word drunkenness." This is an illness that comes to a person who has lost touch with the physical world. As I walked along the corridors of academe, my feet hardly touched the floor. I paid no attention to the touch, smell, sight, sound, and feel of the earth. Instead, I carried on long conversations in my head with professors and colleagues with whom I had studied. I used words not to refer to physical realities but to make comment on other words, theories, and abstract ideas.

Late one afternoon after my last class at Peabody, I got into my old, rickety Volkswagen camper, vintage `79, with its loud muffler and bad heater and drove the 20 miles to my home on the outskirts of Nashville. Just before I was to make the last turn down the street where I lived, I suddenly remembered that I no longer lived at that address. I had moved to a different house in a different section of the city three weeks earlier! I couldn't believe that for half an hour I had driven over interstate highways, making difficult entrances and exits, negotiating lane changes, braking, turning, and accelerating, only to find myself at a house in which I no longer lived. During the whole trip my body had been on automatic pilot while my mind wrestled with complex problems in literary theory and criticism.

As you might imagine, "word drunkenness" can lead to more serious complications than physical disorientation. When you lose connection with the earth, you often lose touch with yourself and others. During those years of graduate study, I was often plagued with insecurities, doubts, and fears about the course of my life and my relationships with family and colleagues. Like Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, I looked forward to going to a rural environment to simplify my life, to reconnect my words and thoughts with reality, and to find a new direction for my life.

Seven miles outside of New Castle, Virginia, my wife and I found for rent a wonderful old two-storied, white-framed farm house surrounded by two hundred acres of land. The owner, Mr. Aiken, had moved to Fairfax, Virginia, several years earlier and rented out this house, which had been his family's homestead. He asked a modest $150 per month. Mr. Aiken thought himself lucky to find a couple who appreciated an old farm house with hardwood floors, a rambling front porch, and spacious, high ceiling rooms, with walnut and oak woodwork around the windows and doors. In 1910, Mr. Aiken's father had cut the timber for the house from his own land, milled, planed and seasoned the wood for a year in an area that was to become the front yard, and with the help of his family and friends built the house with his own hands. The house, in a sense, grew out of the land upon which it sat. My wife and I were overjoyed to find such a house. It was exactly what we had dreamed of.

What did I discover during those three years of homesteading in Virginia? Since I thought of this adventure as an attempt to reconnect my words and thoughts to reality, perhaps my answer can be best expressed in four parts, each representing one of the primal elements of the natural world with which I sought to make a connection: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

 

Earth

One of my first goals in going "back to nature" was to make my family self-sufficient, or as near to self-sufficient as was possible. I wanted to grow the food that we needed to sustain our lives with my own hands. The only drawback to this goal was that I knew nothing, "zero," "zilch," about farming. I had been raised a city boy, and although my mother had been raised on a farm in Mississippi in the early part of this century, she passed nothing of its ways on to her children. She left the farm at the age of 18 to go to a two year business school, and she never looked back. She did, however, foster in us the values of a rural life: hard work, honesty, frugality, and a belief in God. And we certainly benefited from the rural culinary arts that were passed on to her from her mother and grandmother; that is, the aroma and taste of wonderful country food: Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and homemade breads, rolls, fruit cobblers, and cakes. But as to how all these foods came into being, how they were produced from the farm, I was as ignorant as the child of today who thinks milk comes from a spigot in a super market.

On our farm in New Castle we had a large garden plot about 75 feet wide by 100 feet long. Because it hadn't been used in six or seven years, it was covered in weeds, wild flowers and brush. The earth that was once fertile was hard and unyielding. I never will forget our first experience with planting. My wife and I worked for several hours with shovels and hoes, turning the earth on a small section of the garden that we had set aside for flowers. We made four rows and planted the seeds of various delicate flowers: petunias, dahlias, asters. I remember how hesitantly I planted those first seeds. I wondered how deep [do] you place the seed, how many inches apart, how often [do] you water them, and what the distance between the rows should be? I brought to this flower planting all the qualities of a finely tuned academic mind. Needless to say, our first planting was a failure. Nothing came up. No, I think I remember a few delicate spindles of green pushing their way up above the hard dirt, only to be burned out the first week by the harsh gaze of the full summer sun.

After three years of working in the garden, I came into the knowledge that any experienced gardener knows. You don't even try to bring up from seed rare flowers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and delicate herbs. One goes to the local nursery and purchases sets of seedlings about two inches high that have been nurtured in special environments. Then you place these into the earth with special care, paying attention not to set out the tomatoes or bell peppers before the last frost of early spring and to plant the hardy green vegetables, onions, radishes, spinach and lettuce early enough to have abundant harvest before the hot drying days of mid summer. Some seeds, I learned, can be planted directly from the gardener's hands into the soil. Corn comes up from seeds, as do cucumbers, squash, carrots, cantaloupe, snap beans and green peas.

There are hundreds of these common facts to master before one can grow enough to eat. For example, it took me two failed attempts to learn that a promising stand of corn needs to be fertilized after it is about three feet high, or it will never grow to its full capacity. There is nothing sadder than a dwarfed four foot stand of mature corn and nothing nicer than a full grown ear of fresh corn eaten with succulent tomatoes straight from your own organic garden. Once we had mastered the secrets of gardening, we ate like kings, especially in the summer and early autumn when the vegetables were coming in abundantly each day. In fact, the harvest was more than we could eat. So my wife learned how to can and freeze the produce to help us make it through the long, cold winters of Virginia.

You might well ask how I learned all these subtle secrets of raising food. Other than trial and error, which is the surest but slowest method, I fell back on the only thing that I could do well at that time, which was to read and do research. I bought scores of books on farming to get information about growing vegetables: books from the popular press like Ruth Stouts' Gardening without Weeding, which recommends placing hay and straw around vegetables to smother out weeds; Dick Raymond's Joy of Gardening, which shows you how to use a rotor tiller to good advantage; and Jim Crocket's excellent Victory Garden. In addition, I read government pamphlets from the local farm bureau and articles from the indispensable Mother Earth News, a modern version of Ben Franklin's farming almanac. I also received advice from the owners of the mercantile store and farmer's coop in Newcastle where I bought seeds, and sometimes I would hang around the stores, listening to the talk of the local farmers and townspeople. These Appalachian folk are normally a laconic closemouthed group until you praise their gardens and ask honestly for advice.

Over the years, in relationship with the earth element, I learned many things. I learned not to try to turn the earth of a 5000 square foot garden with a spade and hoe. A local farmer can disk with a tractor your entire garden space in less than an hour, and if he is too busy, you can rent a garden tiller and do it yourself. I learned what month to plant each vegetable, which varieties were the most successful, and how to keep away insects with the least amount of pesticides. One of the finest things I learned was how to rest and relax after I had worked with my hands for hours in the garden. Each year that I labored in the garden, watching the food I had nurtured come to maturity, I began to see something young and tender and healthy in my soul take root and grow. It's difficult to say what part of my self was being awakened, but anyone who has ever nurtured a living thing, plant or animal, knows what I am talking about. I can only say that before my experiences on that farm in Virginia, it did not exist, and that today I can still feel its warmth and strength within me.

 

Air

New Castle is located 60 miles north of Interstate 81 that connects Blacksburg, the home of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and Roanoke, [Virginia]. It is a small farming and timber community that America passed over in its haste to become an industrial superpower. The people of New Castle are mostly of German, Irish, and Welsh descent. They came to these mountains a couple of hundred years ago and have continued to live in a fashion that resembles life at the turn of the century. Most of the farms have electricity and indoor plumbing, but many of the less prosperous farmers do not. Other than the handful of professional people who run the two banks, two grocery stores, one mercantile, two law offices, and one five-room hospital/clinic visited by an itinerant doctor, the community is made up of farmers, loggers, and unskilled workers. These unskilled workers either commute the 70 miles to Roanoke to work as day laborers, or they try to survive by living off the land by hunting, fishing and homesteading. On our farm, which was seven miles outside of New Castle, we had only four neighbors, and they were spread out over three miles. They all farmed and raised large
herds of cattle that grazed the pastures between two ridges of Appalachian mountains.

The quality of air in that hidden valley was unbelievable. Breathing the sweet morning air, filled with the aromas of the surrounding forest, was like drinking an elixir. An image that remains in my mind is the mist rising in the morning along the creek beds in the early spring. The trees that ran along the margin of the creek were a translucent green dotted with light red, yellow, and white from redbuds, forsythias and dogwoods. On mornings like that, you don't trouble yourself with philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life. It's enough just to be alive, to see these subtle shades of spring and to breathe the fresh air.

After a few months of living on the farm, I noticed that I was spending more and more time looking at the mountains and the clear blue sky beyond them. Tibetan Buddhists have a beautiful word for that type of sky. They call it, "Sunyata," and they use it to describe the expansive awareness of an enlightened human being, a consciousness in which every object and event in life is perceived in its pristine essence. I used to think: If only my mind were as free and clear as that open sky! My fascination for the clear air and blue sky began to extend to an appreciation for the beautiful Virginia sunsets. Hardly an evening went by when I did not stand on my front porch to see the display of colors. Later I found myself staying outside after dusk. It was then that I discovered the universe of the night sky.

It was amazing how little I knew about the heavens. The few science courses that I had taken in high school described little more than the planets of our local star system. My parents and relatives who had left the farms of America decades before my birth had either never known or had forgotten the movements of the celestial spheres, and how they were used to gauge the times for planting and harvesting. All my early knowledge of the night sky was either cursory or mistaken. I discovered after months of studying the stars that what I had thought all of my life to be the Big Dipper was instead the three major stars in the belt of the Orion constellation. I had also mistaken the Little Dipper for the seven sister stars of the Pleiades cluster. I was delighted, however, to find out that all stars are not white. If you look closely you can see faint shades of blue, gold, and red. Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus and Arcturus in Bootes are good examples of red stars, and Vega in Lyra has a bluish tint. I now know that the entire night sky rises and falls from east to west each night, just as our sun travels across the sky during the day, and that all the stars revolve around Polaris, the hub of the night sky, straight off the lip of the Big Dipper.

The first time I recognized the constellation Scorpio, I could hardly believe how large it was. In the books on astronomy that I studied, Scorpio seemed like a small insignificant configuration of stars, yet the actual constellation spans nearly the entire southeastern horizon in the summer night—the giant tail of the scorpion sweeping across the expanse, as wide as one's outstretched arms against the horizon. All these miracles of light filled me with wonder about my own existence, and caused me to think about my position in time and space. Some philosophers have commented that the expanse of the heavens made them feel small and insignificant. I had just the opposite feeling. The ancient mystery religions of the East (India, China, Egypt) tell us that human beings are microcosms or miniatures of the universe, that everything that is "without" is also "within," and as you look into the vast reaches of infinite space you are seeing and measuring the depths of your own soul.

 

Fire

Our farm house in Virginia had a very old, inefficient oil burning stove. We discovered that the previous renters spent $1000 a year on oil trying to stay warm. Mother Earth News assured me that if I would purchase a $200 airtight wood burning stove, I could stay warm during the cold, wet Virginia winters. Our landlord, who had given us complete freedom to roam over the 200 hundred acres of land surrounding the homestead, told me that I could use for firewood any of the timber along the edges of the pastures.

My second purchase, after the cast iron stove, was a 14 inch chain saw and an ax for spitting wood. If you wonder how 20 or 30 Brazilian natives can destroy 100 acres of rain forest in less than a week, you haven't seen the destruction that a person can reek with a chain saw. I discovered that with that mechanical light saber, I could fell a large tree, sever all the limbs, cut the trunk into one-foot sections, and stack the wood in about 4 hours. The same task would have taken two turn-of-the-century woodsmen working with a cross cut saw about two or three days.

The exhilaration of wielding that power saber is overwhelming, even to a naturalist. It's like sitting on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with thousands of cubic centimeters of raw, mechanical power under you, just begging to be let go. How strange it is that a simple mechanical device could reek such havoc, upsetting the ecological balance on an entire planet. Yet when you hear one of those monsters shriek out its battle cry, it becomes believable.

After I stacked the wood along the edge of the pasture, I would borrow my neighbor's Chevy pickup truck to haul the wood back to my house. There I would unload it and begin the strenuous task of splitting the wood into pieces that would fit into the wood burning stove. What a wonderful cure for a stressed out academic. After three years of splitting wood, there was hardly a tense muscle in my body.

If you pay attention to the job of splitting timber, you can learn a lot about wood. You learn that hardwoods are easier to split than soft woods, that a knot in the trunk due to a damaged limb is impossible to split, that pines and oak and cedar all have different, wonderful smells, that wood that has had a year or so to dry will burn easier and hotter than freshly cut trees, and that pine, though plentiful and cheap, is a dangerous wood to burn because it deposits a resin on the interior of chimneys that can ignite and produce chimney fires.

I never realized how much work it took to simply stay warm on a farm. No wonder our grandparents worked from sunup to sundown. To make it through a Virginia winter, I needed about five cords of wood. (A cord of wood is a stack approximately 8 ft. long by 4 ft. high.) It took me an average of about eight hours of labor each week to keep us in wood. Anyone who says that heating a two-storied farm house with wood is easy is not telling you the truth. It's very hard, and fire is a difficult element to master. There are arcane secrets to learn, like how to start a fire with wet timber in the depths of the January cold. One must know how to lay the wood in the stove, what types of wood are best for starting the fire, and which types are good for a long, slow burn. One must know how to split the dry kindling, which are small slivers of wood that easily catch on fire and help warm up the larger pieces of wood. A good, tall chimney that draws the air from the room, feeding the fragile flame with oxygen, is essential, and you must learn how much air you need to let in through adjustable air vents for different stages of the fire: a large opening for a beginning fire, but not so big as to pull off the necessary heat that is needed to ignite the bigger chunks of wood, and a small air flow for the night when the wood has become hot enough to smolder through the night. If you miss the mark, there will be no embers waiting for you in the morning. You will have to start laying the fire from scratch all over again.

Luck was with me in those days, for I could have easily burned the old house down as I was attempting to master this art. The old house had three chimneys, two were downstairs, one in the living room and one in the kitchen, and one was for the upstairs bedrooms. Since the large wood burning stove was downstairs, I rigged up an inexpensive tin, potbellied stove in our bedroom. Each night I would stack it with slow burning cedar blocks to last all through the night, yet sometimes the blocks would dry out too quickly and burn too hot. I remember the stark terror of waking in the middle of the night to see the lights from the overheated stove flicking on the ceiling, and thinking, "My God, the house is on fire!" I would jump out of bed, run over to the stove, close the dampers so that the wood could return to a slow burn, crawl back in bed with my bare feet still cold from the hardwood floors, and thank God that I hadn't burned the old house down.

I appreciated and respected the element of fire. It warmed us and helped feed us, for we cooked on an old Home Comfort wood burning stove. My wife loved that old stove and cried the day I sold it. I don't think that she has forgiven me to this day. I couldn't convince her that, as we left Virginia, there was no room in the U-Haul trailer for a 500 lb. cast iron stove.

 

Water

My experiences with water were not all positive. In the winter of 1983, I relearned some basic fact[s] about water. I came to appreciate the simple facts that when water reaches the temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it freezes, and when it freezes its surface volume increases, and if this volume of water happens to be in a restricted container, say, the plumbing of your house, this said element will go to great lengths to fulfill its duty to the laws of thermodynamics. Lest you think me overly naive, I had heard of this phenomenon, and I had taken the necessary precautions of leaving an unheated house in the dead of winter to visit relatives in the city. I had conscientiously emptied the water in the commode, put antifreeze in the bowl, cut off all the water, and drained all the pipes. Unfortunately, mastering the labyrinth of pipes in the basement of the house was beyond my skill. The house was mainly supplied with water by a deep water well some forty feet away in the pasture. I closed that line off. However, I overlooked the shallow well underneath the house, and the line that I thought was inactive, was not.

When my wife and I returned from our warm Christmas holidays with relatives, we discovered that while we were away the unused house well had sprung into action and dutifully replaced all the water that I had drained from the pipes. What a welcome home! The commode was split from stem to stern. The sink in the kitchen was filled with two large blocks of ice where the basins had once been, and half the pipes in the basement were split and encased within a sheath of sparkling ice.

Plumbing is a skill that I had not counted on learning in my back to nature experiment. I purchased a new commode from Sears and about $100 worth of pipes and plumbing tools. After a week of working on my back in some tight places so cold and damp that I still don't like to think about, I slowly mastered the art of fitting pipes together without leaks, and life returned to normal at the Young's homestead. I never did, however, live this blunder down with my neighbors. They would not believe that I had taken the necessary precautions against freezing pipes, choosing rather to believe the more entertaining story of the newcomer who "couldn't be made to understand how cold it gets up here in the winter, till he had to learn it the hard way."

All my experiences with water were not disastrous. The creek that meandered through the valley where we lived provided us with an endless source of enjoyment. During the hot summer months of July and August, my wife and I would walk each day to the water's edge, picnicking in the shade
of large Sycamore trees, swimming and sometimes bathing in the gentle, cool flowing water. Nothing makes your body feel so alive as swimming in a mountain creek. After an hour of swimming, we would walk the half mile back to our house with the sun on our backs. Those long summer days in the sun and water helped me re-inhabit my physical body, the body that I had become unconscious of in graduate school. I relearned what every child knows—that the human body is a temple of light and that it celebrates through the senses its bond with the natural world.

Tilling the earth, smelling the aromas of the mountain air, and working long hours gathering the wood to heat our home brought me back into my body. My awareness shifted from the arcane, academic problems of graduate school to the flesh and bones of my own body. I worked hard in the woods and garden; I was not shielded from the cold of winter nor insulated from the heat of summer; my hands and muscles ached from my labors; I swam in the natural flowing creeks of the mountains, went for long hikes in the woods, drank from natural water wells on the land, and ate the fresh, healthy food produced from my own garden. I have never been so healthy in my entire life. My body felt strong and alive. I felt connected to the earth and to the heavens. After three years of living in the mountains of Virginia, I was no longer "word drunk."

I know that many people troubled by the stresses of contemporary life dream of someday living a simpler life. My advice is don't wait until you are 65 and retired to return to the natural world. Age puts certain limits on what it's possible to learn from such a vigorous life-style. Some people, I am sure, hold themselves back from the natural life because of a fear of losing financial security, and that's a real issue. My wife and I were never able to be entirely self-sufficient. We had to continue to work outside the homestead to make ends meet, and after three years, the savings that we had brought to the adventure were gone. But that is not why we left. We left because we had learned what we had set out to know. We had learned to live "simply and deliberately" in harmony with nature.

As I worked the land, I continued to read and study, not the forced reading list of graduate school, but selections of my own choosing. I studied history, science, literature, art, and religion. In fact, in those three years, I probably read more than I did during all my years of graduate study. But this was reading that was personal and fulfilling. I reached a point, however, in my intellectual growth where I felt isolated. I longed for the dialogue and exchange of ideas that takes place in a community of scholars. So in the fall of 1983, I accepted a full time teaching position and returned to academic life. I have not regretted that decision, but I will also never forget all [that] I learned from the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water during those years of homesteading in Virginia.

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