Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Dennis Carter and Anneli Carter-Sundqvist at their Deer Isle Hostel. Photo by Noah Kalina

Spiritual, political and philosophical reasons to homestead in the 21st century

By Anneli Carter-Sundqvist

Living in self-reliance and simplicity is something many dream about and some fulfill by living as homesteaders. My husband, Dennis, and I do that on Deer Isle, Maine, where we have a small off-the-grid homestead. We grow and store almost all of our food, rely on solar for electricity, produce our own lumber and firewood, raise pigs and chickens, and meet our minimal financial needs at home by running the Deer Isle Hostel through the summer.

I came from Sweden to Maine in 2008 to help Dennis start the hostel and didn't even know what the word homesteading meant. In the years leading up to coming here, I traveled and financed my travels by working at an office job in Sweden, with long commutes, many hours in front of a computer and little or no tangible gain other than a paycheck. While that work did enable years of traveling, I struggled with the shallowness of it all: I found no real purpose with my work; I felt reduced to a disposable part of the machinery and trapped in a grid made up of my office, the commuter train and my apartment. Looking back, it was like wearing a sweater that never really fit, and not until shedding it did I fully understand how uncomfortable it had made me.

As the years go by, my current lifestyle makes more and more sense, and my fundamental motives for working at home and providing for our own needs are increasingly clear. Below are a few spiritual, philosophical and political reasons for my homesteading. What we're doing is at its core ethically sound: We live a life that is not only good for us but also improves our surroundings and the people in it. Perhaps one of the most common motivations to homestead is to gain a sense of security over basic needs such as food, water, shelter and finances – especially when facing an uncertain future. But even in the present, I pursue this lifestyle for many reasons – reasons that I'm reminded of every day and that are reinforced and deepened with every passing year.

The gardens at Deer Isle Hostel provide abundant food. Photo by Ali Kaukas

Homesteading allows for a broader meaning of wealth.

Homesteading is self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency is a political agenda. Each day of growing our own food, producing our own energy and not commuting to work presents an opportunity to decline partaking in the money economy. That system is creating gross inequality among people and among places. In the common economic system, everything's worth is measured by a monetary value. Even people, like employees or customers, are ranked by that value, or by imaginary things, like stocks, treasury bonds and time. Value measured in money is a narrow way of thinking that often overlooks values such as biodiversity and spiritual health.

As homesteaders we can create a holistic system for small-scale production where the conditions of the global financial system do not apply. First and foremost, our time does not equal money. The outcome of my labor here at home or my satisfaction with the result rarely translates into a figure; hence it can't be measured by the same standards, usually financial profit, as in the general system. Even when I sell some garlic here on the island, I cannot put a dollar value on the positive impacts that matter to me: the connection I get to the soil by planting the bulbs, the delight of watching red robins feed in the horse manure with which I fertilize the garlic, the friends made and conversations had while digging and cleaning the crop.

Homesteading encourages a narrow definition of what's enough.

Knowing when enough is enough is the biggest challenge with homesteading in the 21st century. This goes for both materialistic accumulation and time commitments and is contrary to the contemporary ideal that more is merrier, big is better and growth is greater. The challenge lies not only in making many deliberate decisions about what's really essential for a healthy and happy life, but also in holding out against the norm that one ought to take as much as one can get, necessary or not.

By our definition of homesteading – living close to the land and meeting most of our needs at home – we often choose to get by without things that would compromise our goals. For example, by being satisfied with eating mostly what we can produce, we control the quality and we don’t depend on paying jobs to purchase food. Some consider our comparatively limited range of supply a deprivation, while for us the beauty of our vegetable gardens, the quality of our food and the integral part it plays in our lives is an enhancement.

For the past few years, we've closed the hostel in early September, before most other seasonal businesses in the area. Each year people question our decision, stating that we could make so much money by staying open a few more weeks. By voluntarily and intentionally choosing not to have (more money, belongings, etc.) and by keeping our definition of "enough" narrow, we can meet our financial needs by running the hostel for a few months, and then we can focus on providing our food from the gardens, improving our homestead and enjoying the quieter season at home, together.

A sampling of the delicious fare from the gardens. Photo by Ali Kaukas

Homesteading brings us in close connection to nature.

Some of the essence of homesteading is to recognize ourselves as a part of the natural world – to not simply understand our kinship to nature intellectually, but to spiritually embrace all life forms and their dependence on each other.

When I lived in a city, food simply came from the store, water from the tap, and nature was something I could visit on the weekends. I fully understood the connections among nature, my sustenance and myself only after having spent years following seeds to plants to fruit and back to seed and soil; seeing dry years and wet years; observing pollinators, flowers, predators and prey and acknowledging how few degrees of separation exist between us and the earth.

No longer am I here and nature is there: We give to our land and it gives to us. This interconnectedness allows both it and us to flourish and enables us to live as homesteaders. Experiencing this coexistence firsthand has illuminated my place in the world in a way the intellect could never do.

Back to basics means improved health.

Homesteading invites us to go back to basics and to move toward some fundamental aspects for improved and sustained health – such as the outdoor physical work, "real" food and connection to nature. I believe that throughout our existence as human beings, our brains and bodies have evolved for a certain range of impressions – what we touch, see, eat, smell and hear. These impressions have largely been the same for millennia and have come from nature.

The last century has drastically altered many of the environments we as humans surround ourselves with; hence the impressions have changed too. We're now faced with a vast range of artificiality – from processed or modified food, for example; from climate-controlled living spaces with unnatural light; from the mental and physical alienation from nature and our sustenance. I think the vast majority of today's health issues come from the stress and negative impact these relatively new influences have on our systems.

I attribute my own improved physical and spiritual health, compared to when I lived in a city, largely to how so much of my life now is closer to what humans evolved for. My days are spent surrounded by nature and natural materials, following the rhythm of the sun, and my years follow the rhythm of the seasons. I live in a non-sterile environment, and my body is used to handling bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. I eat food to which I'm spiritually connected and that my body can recognize. I believe that the decreased unconscious stress level on my brain makes that sweater now feel like it fits.

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To me homesteading is not about retracting from problems in modern society but rather a way to explore solutions to some of the challenges I see in the world. I'm no longer just an observer of what I don't agree with, but rather I can take action to be of constructive influence and focus on the opportunities given by this lifestyle to walk this planet with a positive impact.

About the author: Anneli Carter-Sundqvist is the author of "A Homesteader's Year on Deer Isle" (self-published, 2014).