Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reflections on This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman

My strong interest in the realities of homesteading and community living drew me to Melissa Coleman's This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone; her gripping story of her family's disintegration with its familiar childhood perspective kept me reading until I'd finished the same day. If you have any interest in these subjects, I highly recommend this as an engrossing, quick and easy read.

Besides saying that, I don't want to review this book so much as jot down my reactions and reflections. You can read more detailed synopses of the book elsewhere, but in short, Melissa describes her first seven years growing up on a rural Maine homestead with her parents Eliot (well known in organic agriculture circles) and Sue Coleman, next to and on land purchased from their mentors Helen & Scott Nearing. Much of the book revolves around the accidental drowning of Melissa's younger sister in a pond on the property, and the assumption of blame for her death.

My Thoughts & Observations

Homesteading in Maine is difficult. I don't want to work so hard during the short growing season of summer and fall to prepare for a bitterly cold, long winter. Not that I didn't already know that.

Organic agriculture is difficult. I don't want to cut down an acre of mature forest by hand, then cut off the roots of the stumps to pry them out by hand, just to create growing beds I have to dig every year to grow vegetables I have to plant, water, and weed every year. Not that I didn't already know that.

Trying to get a homestead up and running with a newborn baby is difficult. Not that I hadn't already guessed that.

Trying to keep a homestead running with a 3 year old and a newborn baby is even more difficult. Usual comment applies.

Trying to keep a failing marriage from deteriorating further and a homestead running with two children and yet another newborn baby is...go figure...even more difficult yet. Usual comment, plus some head-scratching at the seeming inability of otherwise rational folks to understand the effects of popping out babies. (I can never contemplate global demographics for very long; I quickly scratch my scalp raw.)

Interesting that besides the seasonal reappearance of sparrows each spring, and some wild berries, Melissa doesn't talk about their landbase. Perhaps she just didn't want to add that theme to an already dense book, or perhaps this reflects the disconnection from landbase that seems to regularly accompany agriculture.

Melissa mentions a couple of times early in the book that their family bought in a lot of staple foods like nut butters, oils, and grains; plus occasional luxury items like oranges from Florida. Later on I think she mentions growing potatoes, but otherwise doesn't address staple crops again, so it's not clear whether they ever transitioned to growing their staples. I'm guessing they only grew or foraged their produce, root crops, milk, berries, and fruits; selling extra veggies to pay for imported staples along with other cash expenses like their car. So they never really achieved the sort of homesteading self sufficiency we're seeking.

The Colemans' adherence to a vegetarian diet made life harder than necessary. Besides possible nutritional imbalances causing or exacerbating Sue's depression and Eliot's hyperthyroidism, the diet led to inefficiencies:

  • The family only needed one male goat for fertilization, so Eliot killed and buried any male kids as soon as they were born, a waste of substantial energy invested by the mother goat.
  • The Colemans originally kept chickens for their eggs, but after a few years decided the chickens were too many extra mouths to feed during the food-scarce winters, so got rid of the whole flock. This baffled me since our own hens provide our most labor-efficient protein, fat, and calorie harvests. Eventually I figured out that since the family wouldn't eat their chickens, they couldn't utilize the normal temperate climate adaptation of slaughtering most of the flock in fall or winter, keeping just a few hens and a rooster to rebuild the flock the following spring.
  • They probably missed out on labor efficient opportunities to hunt deer or other meat, which one of their neighbors did to the disgust of the vegetarian Nearings.

Don't design a system that requires you to operate near maximum capacity almost 100% of the time. (Or fall into such a system through lack of design.) Limited slack means any significant disruption has extreme consequences. See the history of China for example, with its population maxed out with all land cultivated as extensively as possible, leading to serious famines somewhere in the country almost every year for two thousand years. For the Colemans, who were running at full speed with just Melissa and the homestead to deal with, the expected arrival of their second daughter drove Eliot to exhaustion building an addition to the house. This apparently started his decline in health. Even worse, it initiated or expanded a chasm with Sue as he couldn't meet her need for connection.

Eliot constantly pushed himself. As an athlete in college he kept seeking the next mountain to climb, and apparently he took on homesteading partly as a "mountain with no top," a challenge he could never fully conquer. As soon as he achieved some success with homesteading, he threw himself into advocacy of organic farming, first publishing newsletters and organizing at a regional level and in later years taking multiple long research trips to Europe. This workaholic approach, so often respected as a model of modern success, trashed his health and his marriage as he used work as refuge from emotions and his growing distance from Sue. Eliot reminded me a little bit of myself in years past when I moved from obsession to obsession (Roger Zelazny website, bootleg taping, Kucinich campaign, etc) to distract myself from the pain of civilization. I've slowed down and opened up in recent years, though at times I've used the house project to avoid dealing with relationship challenges.

In the early years Sue generally shouldered all the necessities of child care plus heavy work loads, but even early in Melissa's life Sue had occasional breakdowns and mild depression from the strain and stress of their endeavor. Her exhaustion grew with a second and then third child, Eliot's decline in stamina with his health problems, and his increasing absences as he pursued teaching and research away from the farm. She grew emotionally distant from Eliot, eventually suspecting him of involvement with the cute young interns present every summer, but unable to discuss it with him. She became less and less capable of engaging with life and her children, spending more time sleeping, fasting for the resulting blood sugar spikes, or just emotionally "checked out" as she went through her day.

Sue and Eliot's marital break-up despite fairly successful homesteading demonstrates the overwhelming importance of communication and relationship in these projects. The "hard skills" of growing food, building shelters, and providing water are fairly easy to learn and implement; us modern civilized folks have a much harder time learning to live together and resolve conflict.

Personal Reflections

I see Tulsey going through some of Sue's struggles. When I met Tulsey working on the Kucinich campaign she seemed strong and fully capable as we ran the Portland office. But as I got to know her better, I learned of her brittleness following a long difficult marriage and divorce, years of overworking herself at the small business she and her husband owned, and her mother's death. In the years since, Tulsey has bounced between breakdowns and confident accomplishments, happily with the balance tipping much more to the latter as she's healed herself from past stresses. The house project of the last two years has rekindled a lot of stress, and though Tulsey is mostly coping with it well, it's taken its toll. Reading Melissa's story emphasizes the importance of keeping our workloads manageable in Hawaii, not trying to do too much at once. Always good advice (one of the principles of permaculture, in fact), and even more important when starting from a depleted state.

I also see my mom in Sue's story and myself in Melissa's. As the oldest of three siblings, and with our parents' relationship following a similar trajectory, Melissa's descriptions of her parents' stresses and her own fears and loneliness (felt in the gut more than intellectually recognized) felt painfully familiar to me, raising several tears and even outright crying two or three times. Looking back now, I can better appreciate the strains my mother must have felt working multiple jobs to care for the three of us, breaking down from time to time with the stress of it all.

Towards the end of the book and her parents' relationship, Melissa describes a memory laden with emotions difficult to articulate but so poignantly recognizable from my own long unvisited, time blurred memories of childhood. Coming home from a school where she doesn't fit in, longing for her parents' attention as their limited spare energy goes to her younger siblings, and living with constant background anxiety about her family's future, Melissa trips and lands hard. Convinced that she broke her arm, she rushes home in search of sympathy. Discovering both parents gone, she begins running back and forth, back and forth, cradling her arm even as the diminishing twinges reveal the insignificance of her injury, wanting to preserve her fresh moment of pain and need until a parent returns. She runs, conscious that it makes no sense, but continuing anyway, unable to understand why she does. That confusion resonated so strongly with me I put the book down and bawled.

Final take-home lessons for me: probably good that we're moving to Hawaii instead of northern California, for a much easier transition to fully self sufficient homesteading. Take it easy as we go. Focus on communication and relationship. Carefully scale in the addition of people who will demand more of the community than they can immediately repay (children), making sure the community can integrate and support them without undue strain. And enjoy ourselves!


Rhizowen said...

I just read this for the first time, Norris and your observations ring so true. Good luck in Hawaii.

Anonymous said...

oh sure - question someone's decision to raise children but don't even think twice about your participation in the colonization of hawaii. confusing...

Norris said...

Hi Rhizowen,

Thanks for your thoughts!


You make a good hint towards the issues of moving onto stolen land (though you're mistaken in your assumption that we haven't given this much thought.) As it happens, native cultures still exist in both the destinations we've considered (northern California and Hawaii), so this has been on our mind for a while. Of course, almost *anywhere* we live or move will be on land colonized through genocide and atrocity and commodification of the landbase, but it's definitely more up-front when remnants of the original population still remain.

The best we've been able to come up with is to approach our project with humility and intention to heal the landbase and support the native culture if and as they desire it. (For example by supporting the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.) Part of our trip last November to Hawaii was to get a feel for relations between native Hawaiians and newcomers. Everyone we met, native Hawaiian or not, welcomed and encouraged us to decide to make Hawaii our permanent destination.

Thanks for bringing this up,

Darren (Green Change) said...

This is a wonderful review, thankyou so much for writing it. So often people just post a summary of a book, which gives no more information than just reading the dust jacket. You've found the underlying message and the lessons it holds for those of us heading down a similar route.

You just turned me into a subscriber to your blog!