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Fear and Why We Homestead
Exploring the link between fear and the desire to be self sufficient - and explaining a shift away from the lifestyle for this writer.
Over the past few months, my life has begun to shift away from homesteading. There are a number of reasons and a great deal of emotion around this shift. I’m using this space to process that change, partly to clear my own mind and partly to explain myself to what I assume will be a judgmental audience - and maybe to provide a little clarity or even inspiration to others.
While a move away from livestock and self sufficiency has been brooding for years now, it will seem sudden to audience members who enjoy watching the goats cavort on my Instagram channel. I haven’t talked about the doubts creeping in, let alone the plans being made. That does not mean this has been a sudden change. My husband and I have discussed options for the past several years, and about a year ago I hit a point were I was ok with a change. And then another full year has passed making sure that any changes are smooth and the best for all involved.
Why move away from homesteading — that is your question, right?
Well, the next few Substack posts will go into detail about this decision. Some reasons are very personal. Some are broad questions I have come to have about the lifestyle. This first entry is the broadest and probably the root of it all: having conquered some of my fears, I no longer need the haven that is a homestead. So without further ado: fear, and why I homestead.
“The farmstead is a haven, we say, but haven implies threat: one idea leads to the other.” — Yi-Fu Tuan in Landscapes of Fear
“Developing a balanced capacity for fear, then, was like learning to drink strong whiskey. You tip your head back; you grimace at the burn. You learn the feeling doesn’t kill you so you do it again.” - Erica Berry, Wolfish
Homesteaders are some of the first people to tell you that they are not afraid. Jump onto homesteading TikTok and find videos explaining that they aren’t doing this out of fear. Talk to one and they’ll proudly announce that their farm is the place to be when, as they put it, “the shit hits the fan”. I am not sure I’ve ever heard a homesteader being accused of being afraid: they begin their protestations without provocation. As Shakespeare once put it, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”.
When I stepped into this lifestyle in 2015, I knew my motivations were rooted in fear. I could go down a laundry list of fears I was trying to alleviate: fear of war, fear of disease, fear of food shortages, fear of my own physical weakness, fear of other people and their pesky personalities, fear of traffic and crowds, fear of airplanes…
The appeal of homesteading was that it put me in control of those fears. In times of war, we could withdraw into our homestead and shoot approaching enemies on sight. In times of disease, we could stay home and not feel the lack of going out. Food shortages would only happen if our crops failed, not by the collapse of some distant supply chain. My body would grow strong because it needed to. Other people could be kept at a distance, crowds avoided entirely, airplanes a thing of my past.
And so a homestead created a haven.
Were these active threats to my well being? No, not a single one of the issues above has ever threatened me personally to a point of physical danger. My real fear, as Winston Churchill knew, was fear itself. What I was creating a haven from was the discomfort of fear, not the various imagined catastrophes themselves.
Is the proper way to address fear to control it or create a safe haven from it? I believe that the proper way to address a threat is to attempt to get it under control, create a safe haven from it, or some how neutralize it. But fear itself is not a threat. Fear is an emotion, and like all emotions it is not alleviated by avoidance.
In my time as a homesteader none of my fears were vindicated. Yes, my fear of disease was somewhat realized by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the reality of lockdowns and masks was a far cry from the visions my mind played out of global panic and dead bodies in the streets. War is a reality in the first world now, but it has not brought mass destruction to my doorstep as I imagined. Food is more expensive, but I have not gone hungry. And yes: much of that is thanks to my privilege, where I live, the balance of my bank account. But my fear considered none of my safety nets: it assumed that when we burned, we would all burn. My reality is that I’m pretty darn lucky and at a lower risk of the things I am afraid of than the most of the world. I would venture that most homesteaders I know are in the same category of relative safety from the worst of the world.
Instead, new fears came to me. Day to day fears I had never before considered popped up: what if the rain kills the vegetables, what if the goat gets stuck in the fence, what if the tractor rolls over and crushes my husband. They filled the space left empty by crowds, traffic, and airplanes.
Life happened. I learned that the fears of my imagination had nothing on the unexpected disasters that the world would throw at you. In all of my paranoid worrying, I’d never considered the death of a family member beyond the inevitable and hopefully peaceful passing of elders. But our family was rocked by a loss unexpected and out of the natural order of things, a loss that pulled the foundations out from everyone it touched and left us crumbled. Our haven did nothing to stop that loss, did nothing to alleviate the pain of it — all the homestead did was create an extra burden when attending to the already overwhelming business of funerals and gatherings.
We lost our entire flock of poultry to avian flu. We struggled with years of rain, years of drought, hay shortages and dry wells. All served to underline: small scale farming, homesteading, sustainable agriculture — they are forms of agriculture which are better for the environment, but they cannot save us from the mistakes we have made over the past centuries. When the wildfire comes, or the hurricane, or the earthquake, the homestead will fall just as surely as the suburban house, the monoculture farm, or the city apartment.
And yes, the coronavirus came and staying in lockdown was simple: we had our own homegrown food and no need to leave. That seemed a pretty minute relief compared to the hardships we had been through.
The haven did some small measure to protect us from the dangers of the world. Most of the dangers were exaggerated in my mind, bogeymen drawn out of far away places. The haven did nothing to protect us from the risks associated simply with being alive, the risks that would rip you apart in any location.
So if we cannot avoid fear, if doing so may even be detrimental, why create a haven? Why not learn to drink whiskey?
Apart from big, abstract fears, my greatest trepidations were around people and travel. I did not like crowds or social situations. I eschewed airplanes out of an absolute terror for their core concept. I didn’t like trains, metros, or even buses much either. Cities were potential targets, as well as being big, confusing, and scary places were Bad Things happened to people.
I took my first sip of whiskey in the summer of 2022, when my husband and I planned a weekend road trip to Quebec City. We picked Quebec City because it was close enough to drive to, had good food, and involved the excitement of crossing a national border.
Plenty of things on the trip did not go as planned: we arrived during a festival and could find nowhere to park, we had two country dogs dragging us across the city, and walking to dinner one night we took a Wrong Turn and ended up in a sketchy part of the city.
But I returned home with the kind of naive wonder that a teenager on their first trip abroad might. You have to leave your haven, I realized. Out there: other people who are not as bad you think they might be, who instead are kind and human and (yes in Quebec City but also in many more far-flung and diverse places in the world) have their own fears and loves and everything in between. You experience culture, and there is no amount of reading or movies that can immerse you in the same way as trying a new and foreign cuisine, seeing the architecture of another place, listening to a different language flowing freely on the streets. This may sound obvious, but it is easy to forgot, overlook, or actively deny when isolating yourself inside your haven.
After that trip, I understood why people love to travel. For myself, I feared traveling just as much as I ever had. But I had also become acutely aware that I had been missing out on something, sheltering myself from experiences that would enrich me and become fond memories. So I took a shot of whiskey and we spent two weeks traversing Norway the following winter.
This is not to say give up your homestead and travel. I am not actually talking about travel except that for me, travel was one of the big fears, and so for me to step onto an airplane and into a city were huge moments. Both homesteading and traveling have their benefits, their detractions. A lifestyle on the road is not necessarily better than a lifestyle in a haven, especially if you are staying on the road to avoid facing a fear. I am saying: never, ever, avoid doing something simply because it scares you.
I’ve taken various shots of whiskey since. When I come up against something I don’t want to do I ask myself: how likely is it to actually hurt me and what’s the real reason I don’t want to do it. If it is unlikely to hurt me and the reason to avoid it is something like “that isn’t me”, “I don’t think I like that kind of thing”, or “only certain kind of people do that” - I try it anyway. Sometimes I don’t like it: so I don’t do it again. Sometimes I do, and a new love is found.
I realized in writing this that I was not going to change anyone’s mind who is wrapped up in fear. Fear requires a full exorcism, before which it will scream and spew pea soup across the room. It will justify itself as rational, it will underline its logic with sources, it will explain itself as identity and preference rather than avoidance. But this is my story, and I have managed to learn to drink the whiskey.
I also realize that many of you may be thinking yes, sure, but what happens to the actual homestead? Well at the moment not too much — a shift away is not an abandonment. We are slowly, surely, and with extreme care rehoming the animals. We are traveling more, getting outside for reasons other than land management. I invested in some clothes that aren’t Carhartts - shocking, I know. We are attempting to create a life that allows us flexibility when the moments present themselves, wether they are moments to adventure or moments to reflect.
Note: many thanks to Erica Berry’s inspiring and thought provoking Wolfish for prompting me to return to this topic. It seems incredibly timely that I am reading this book as I am thinking these thoughts, and I thank her for her insights!