Radical Homemaking for the Real World

Home is built where we are, not around an idealized community of like-minded people. Shannon Hayes on why she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Shannon Hayes canning with neighbors

Photo by Bob Hopper

Shannon Hayes cans local fruit with her neighbors.

Since publishing Radical Homemakers, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at a number of venues filled with new cohorts, eager to begin their path toward a more sustainable way of life. I am humbled and honored as they share with me their innovations, ideas, ideals, worries, and questions about the lifestyle path we are about to share. Over and over, as the people I meet express their longing to step away from the trappings of a consumer culture, they tell me how excited they are to “join a community of like-minded people”—often adding, “like what you have in your community.”

In writing with fondness about my life in Schoharie County, I seem to have given the impression that it is some sort of nirvana, where old and young are united in a shared passion for the culture and landscape; where age-old skills for resourceful living are handed down through family and neighbors, enabling each successive generation to carve out a healthy and sustainable, albeit modest, living in these hills and valleys. I do believe that is happening here. But not necessarily as some might imagine.

If one of my readers visited, they might be disappointed to discover the big-box sprawl on the edge of Cobleskill, the blight of fast food establishments, or the unromantic bouquet of chain restaurant grease, motor oil, hot tar, and cigarettes that permeates the air of our villages on hot summer nights. Schoharie County is very much like many other places around the country: We have some good stuff, some not-so-good stuff. What we do not have is “a community of like-minded people.” Around here, a goal of “like-mindedness” would set ridiculously untenable parameters on local relationships. When we make a commitment to permanently call a place “home,” we must accept that “like-minded” relationships are supplanted by complex relationships.

My favorite example of this has always been David Huse. I first discovered his farm after climbing on the school bus in my kindergarten year. I rode up and down his road twice a day for twelve years, each time leaning my head against the window glass, relishing the view of the Cobleskill valley from his family’s fields, studying his cattle, and marveling at how, on foggy mornings when low-lying clouds settled into the valley below, his pastures suddenly felt like an ocean coast. Years later, as I studied local agriculture in grad school, I came to know David as a vociferous member of the farming community, unabashedly sharing his views, delighting in his ability to make me squirm and grow flushed with his questions and observations. He annoyed me. He liked it that way.

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After finishing grad school, I made a decision that, as best I can figure, finally met with David’s approval. Rather than leaving to find a job with my new degrees, I chose to come home and join my parents’ farm. The more ensconced I became in our grassfed livestock business, the more intertwined my relationship with David became. Both our families raise grassfed beef, but there has never been an ounce of competition between us. Rather, our businesses became interdependent. We’ve purchased his livestock; my aunt has helped him with his wholesale accounts.

But none of that ever stopped David from making me angry. In recent years, we’ve been on opposing sides of issues that have slashed at the social fabric of our community. We’ve disagreed over industrial wind turbines, land use policies, and hydro-fracturing of the Marcellus shale. I thought he was being socially irresponsible. He thought I was “misguided.” He told my father he didn’t like my letters to the editor. On my behalf, Dad retorted that I’d be pleased to know I had a reader.

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At the same time, when he saw me with newborn babies bundled in my arms, he’d fuss and coo over them. He would talk to me at length about principles of grass-farming he felt I needed to understand—the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the importance of animal impact on the soil.

Last week, he came to the farm to see if we wanted to buy some of his cattle. We raised our hackles at each other while discussing the merits and dangers of gas drilling in our mountains; then stood side-by-side and threw sticks for the dogs while we talked about meat processing and watched Saoirse learn to ride her new bicycle. On Sunday he came to our house for a farm tour, brought a plate of brownies, had lunch, smiled through his wiry mustache when my parents asked if we were going to start debating again, then rode up into the higher pastures with my dad to see our Jersey steers. At that point I had been working on this essay for about a week, so I studied him closely. I didn’t dare mention that I planned to write about him. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of my grudging admiration.

On Monday, while he was moving hay equipment, a car collided with his tractor. He was killed. Since I found out, I’ve wandered around in a daze, and find myself periodically bursting into tears of sadness, confusion, and frustration. Bob and I replay the scene as it has been described to us, and we find ourselves daydreaming about the difference fifteen seconds could have made. Then I’m crying again. That damned David Huse. He always did know how to annoy me.

But there it is. Relationships around here are hardly like-minded. They’re complex. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I owe David a debt of gratitude for helping me understand that.

Goodbye, David. You will be missed.