White Picket Fences, Free Range Fantasies, and the Many Paths of Sustainable Living


We live in a time of grand and sweeping narratives, powerful narratives that tell us who to be, how to live, what to buy, and what to believe–and these shape our actions and identities. When I was a child in the 1980s, the narrative of the American Dream, complete with the white picket fence, was compelling. A beautiful suburban home, a middle-class lifestyle, a loving partner, 2.5 children, a large house, a beautiful lawn, a husband with a well-paying job, and a generally peaceful existence were the cornerstones of this dream. Of course, there’s a lot of critique of the white picket fence today, spanning from racial injustice and socioeconomic realities to sustainable living issues. In the sustainability community, in particular, the white picket fence has become a sense of what we are working against, as the white picket fence surrounds the chemically-treated and weed free grass…and certainly, that’s not what is going to help us transition to earth-centered living.

Loving the Land
Loving the Land- in many different ways!

However, what I fear is that sustainable living communities have replaced this white picket fence narrative with our own grand narrative, as equally powerful and as equally limiting. I call this narrative the “Free Range Fantasy” and it goes something like this: you and your perfect partner decide to quit your day jobs, purchase 50 acres in some remote area (which you somehow manage debt-free), and build a fully off-grid homestead using an awesome ecological design method (cob, earth shelter, passive solar, etc). This homestead is complete with solar panels, acres of abundant gardens, fields of cute goats wearing daisy crowns, happy free-range chickens, and two cute children covered in strawberry juice from your own strawberry patch.

The Free Range Fantasy is strongly promoted by a number of sustainable living magazines, events, books, and other forms of media. As an example, Mother Earth News does a superb job. For the record, I love Mother Earth News and enjoy reading each issue; I also attended the Mother Earth news Fair in Seven Springs, PA last year and have every intention of going again. But I also recognize that Mother Earth News is promoting a specific kind of ecological living and that living is not a reality for many of us, and it is in this grand narrative that much of the danger lies. For example, each year, they select a handful of homesteaders to be their homesteaders of the year. You can see articles on the last few years’ picks (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).  Notice a pattern? I certainly did: every “homesteader of the year” is a couple or a family; nearly all are living on large tracts of land and remote locations–and nearly all fit into my Free Range Fantasy. Now, from a sustainable living perspective, these couples are superheroes. I respect them deeply for the work they are doing, and the way forward they are paving. But I also have to ask: Could a single person ever win this award? What about a non-traditional community? What about someone who is disabled? What about someone homesteading in a big city or in a 1/10th acre plot?

When I meet and talk to people who are practicing sustainable living and permaculture, 9 out of 10 times, they simply don’t fit the Free Range Fantasy. They may not be able to afford to purchase a remote 50 acres and live somewhere–perhaps they are already trying to make ends meet just paying their rent and working two or three part-time jobs. How would they ever save enough up for a down payment, much less live debt free? Or perhaps they are still recovering from years in higher education and have student loan debt and need to keep their job to avoid defaulting on their loans. Perhaps they have sick parents or a sick loved one and are geographically bound. Perhaps they have a bad back or a serious disability. Or perhaps, they are single homesteaders–trying their best to live sustainably while working a full-time job, and doing so without the strawberry-coated children and supportive partner. Maybe they have a partner, but that partner has a different worldview than them, and this kind of living is out of the question.

I really commend people whose life circumstances have allowed for them to make the Free Range Fantasy a reality, and for the daily work of making that happen. I am inspired by the work that they do. However, for most people, the Free Range Fantasy, unfortunately, sends the message that the only way to live sustainably is to live by this ideal.

Urban Garden early in Season!
Urban Garden early in Season!

I have spent a lot of time in sustainable living communities, and I can tell you that it has a powerful hold, being upheld as the “thing everyone should be doing.” It can get lodged deep within you, this dream, of a life you *should* be living, rather than one you are living. I hear a lot of people saying “I wish I was able to buy a place in the country….”  or “In my dream world, I would…”; these are the narratives of the Free Range Fantasy. As the Archdruid of Water in AODA, I mentor people through our curriculum.  Part of the curriculum asks them to make three changes to their living to be more earth-friendly.  So many people feel guilty because they don’t feel they are doing enough when in reality they are doing very good work and pursuing a better path forward in their own lives. The Free Range Fantasy minimizes the important work that they are doing, in their community, and as individuals.

Truthfully, until very recently, I was trapped by this narrative. As a single homesteader in Michigan, isolated on my property, I fell into depression because my life looked different than the Free Range Fantasy. For me, most importantly, it was the family/partner issue–I didn’t have two cute strawberry-eating children, nor a stable partner and it was extremely hard on my own to achieve all I wanted to achieve. I also didn’t have the funds, with my mortgage, to really take my property to the next step in terms of solar power, etc. In truth, I was doing everything I could, and still, my life resembled nothing like what I believed it should, according to the narrative. As long as I bought into the narrative wholesale, and I bought into it for a long time, then what I was doing never seemed to be enough, or sufficient, and there were always pieces lacking. In other words, the narrative made me feel like a failure, rather than encouraging me to celebrate my success and continued growth on this path–and I had much to celebrate! The narrative also encouraged me to place unreasonable expectations on myself. For example, when I tried growing all of my own food by putting in a 2000+ square foot veggie garden, I burned myself out and couldn’t maintain it (and started switching it to perennials, a much smarter option!) I now realize that growing all of my own food was kind of ridiculous when I was also working at the university 50+ hours a week. That is not a sustainable approach–and distance and perspective have helped me understand this, and the larger detrimental effects, of the Free Range Fantasy on my own well-being.

Permaculture – An Adaptable Philosophy, Ethical System, and Design System

As my own confessional here has demonstrated, the Free Range Fantasy can be as destructive as the white picket fence because it limits your vision to this one ideal. It stifles you, preventing you from doing something now that helps move towards sustainability, rather than dreaming of some far-off thing that may never be your reality due to factors, probably many beyond your immediate control. More, if every person wanted their 50 acres, we wouldn’t have enough land available! Part of the work of living in a sacred, sustainable manner is about living better in the circumstances that make up our present reality, not dreaming of a lifestyle that may not be tenable for that reality.  It is a good goal to work toward if your life circumstances allow, certainly, but there are other ways and means of living.

All of this has really been brought to life, and has shifted for me, during my permaculture design certificate and really embracing the alternative perspective that permaculture provided. Visiting small front-yard farms and alternative spaces was highly inspiring! Embracing small, slow and sustaining solutions is the new motto that I strive for. Permaculture isn’t about a one-fits-all model of sustainable living, but rather about applying ethics and design principles that can work for any life situation. It is here, that the power of these principles, that I found my path forward for regenerative, sacred living. And there are lots of books and resources that share alternative paths for such living, for example, how to make a permaculture patio! Permaculture isn’t the only way into what I’m talking about here, but it is certainly a way that has helped me get beyond the Free Range Fantasy in positive and productive ways.

I’m now at the point where I’m starting to consider buying a new piece of property after my life transition to a new job in a new state. The urban homestead appeals to me at this point in my life, the idea of creating a site where people can walk to, that is easily accessible, that is very visible, and that can host permauclture meetups, herb classes, plant walks, and more. This site could provide sustainability and permauclture education right in the middle of my own community and town. That’s probably going to be the route I go for one simple fact–while I am blessed to physically be able to do this work, my call is to educate others. To me, this education must occur where people, here and now, where people are rooted, and where they live their everyday lives. And those people aren’t just those who are privileged with being able-bodied, have abundant finances, have a perfect partner with which to do the work, or have their 50 acres debt free and ready to go. Rather, they are poor people, middle-class people, disabled people, students, single parents, people of different walks of life–and I think its important to meet them where they are, in the places they inhabit, and show them options of sustainable living that they can do right here and right now. I now understand that the kind of off-grid living promoted by the Free Range Fantasy takes a community. If I have no family, partner, or community to bring to a homestead then it seems that I will bring the homestead to the community and create family right here where I am.

But another piece of this is that there are always trade-offs and decisions to make, and each kind of living has its benefits: fossil fuel use and finances being two of them. In my case, I can substantially reduce my fossil fuel dependence if I live in a place where I can walk or bike to work and eliminate most of my car use–and seeing the destruction that fossil fuels have brought firsthand on the land here in PA makes me even more eager to go that route. In MI, I used to commute 18 miles to work one way, and although the rest of my living was quite sustainable, nothing I did could really address 36 miles round trip 4 or so times a week. Further, acreage is expensive, and I can also stay out of debt if I live in town modestly; that’s another critical factor.

In sum, it’s important to realize that the Free Range Fantasy is an option for certain people who have the means, drive, family, and opportunity to do so.  However, it is certainly not the only vision possible, nor reasonable, given the challenges we face. For many of us, it is only a fantasy, and keeping our heads in a fantasy doesn’t address the importance of living in the here and now. We need a patchwork of unique responses, as many responses and sustainable living practices as we have people. We need people to do everything they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen: abandoned lots in Detroit becoming gardens; apartment dwellers learning vermicomposting; a local school planting a garden; urban beekeeping; whatever it is. We are starting to see those visions emerge, and we need voices doing all of these things. And so, dear readers, I hope you will be inspired by the multitude of ways, the patchwork of options, before us for sustainable living and regenerative, healing lives!

PS: I just realized that this is my 250th post on the Druid’s Garden Blog!  How fitting! 🙂

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree !!!

    1. Thanks, Liz! I wish I had figured this out like four years ago, lol. It would have saved me a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth :P.

  2. Dana – loved this article. I personally have never wanted to live in the middle of nowhere – I’m more comfortable in suburbia. But I have an “imperfect” chemical-free yard, I co-exist with the rabbits and squirrels and birds. I have flowers to attract the bees (and wasps and flies!) I have bare-ground areas also for insects. I compost my kitchen and garden waste and grow a few vegetables. I’m eating a vegan diet, drive an all electric car, and this year bought a reel mower. These are the ways I’m trying to live closer to the earth and reduce my carbon footprint.

    1. Janet – thank you so much for sharing! You are a perfect example of so much of what I’m saying :). Small, slow solutions are the best 🙂

  3. Thank you for this…I took a deep breath as I read it, realizing that I, too, have felt the power of the Free Range Fantasy, and it’s a relief to see it for what it is and let it go….

    On a related side note, my husband and I did recently purchase 10 acres that is 8 miles out of a mid-sized town. We are fortunate to be working with an architect that has focused his entire 30-year career on sustainable building. When I was bemoaning the expense of it all (building truly gree is NOT cheap) and I said something about “maybe doing the Mother Earth thing and building our own place on the super-cheap like they are constantly showing”, he said something really interesting. He said that he has read the articles and also personally known of a fair number of people who claim to do just that, but he said he has never read/heard of or from any of them again after the people went that route, and that made him suspicious. E.g. Mother Earth never did (or does) a “Five Years Later” or “Ten Years Later” issue looking back at all these people supposedly living the Free Range Fantasy, nor has he ever heard from those people he knew of personally. Maybe that’s just because these Free Range Poster Children are just too happy. Or maybe it’s because reality can’t match the fantasy and the people end up leaving that lifestyle and never publicize it. Something to think about.

    The only people I know who went truly “sustainable” and off grid are a couple who are true suvivalists, dedicated to meeting as close to 100% of their own needs off their homestead. The last time I heard from her, they were looking for an intern or WOOFer, because she and her husband were working a total of about 100 hours a week.

    1. This is such a good point. I wonder how many of them are still doing it, 10 years later. I totally burned myself out, and I wasn’t even anywhere as off grid as other folks are.

      And that’s another point you raise–about the expense of it all. I didn’t talk too much about it, but its a serious consideration. I meet so many young farmers, people in their late teens and 20’s, that really want to start an organic farm, and the cost is prohibitive. Even around here, a good 30-50 acre farm with barn, house, etc, could run you $400k, and that’s a good price. Who can afford that?

      Thanks for your comments and insights!

    2. This has been our experience, too — we know a guy who built his own straw bale home, and they have had nothing but problems with it to the point of moving out. He admits to a learning curve as part of the issue, but the other part is that his wife is terribly allergic to heating with a wood stove, and apparently, there is some kind of mite or something that also gives her really bad asthma, so they have needed to revise their eco plans to fit in with their own reality.

      For ourselves, as Dana knows, we are geographically locked in due to David’s parents but actively looking for a better fit. I have totally permaculture our yard here, and I learned so much that I will not be repeating. I love our back and front yard groceries, but harvesting does take a lot of time. In this location, I don’t mind at all because there is nothing else I want to do here, but we are urban people. We long for more of the culture we left behind in Madison and Chicago. We also long for more beauty and nature around us than we have here. When we find just the right fit at the right price, I am not going to want this much of a permaculture project to maintain. I will want some, but not on this scale, because there will actually be people I want to hang out with and loads more things to do. It’s about balance.

      Our area would be quite strategic if the apocalypse ever comes along, but on a day to day basis, we reallllllly dislike it. The yard has been a huge learning curve and will feed some people very well, but in the end, we would prefer to live where we thrive, even if that means having a slightly smaller garden. With the right connections and lots of people doing permaculture in an area, we don’t need to do it all ourselves. I can live anywhere with my work, but given the choice I now know I would go a bit more urban where there are more people I can have real conversations and fun with. I love nature and our yard, but when your yard is your best friend, then maybe it’s time to ditch the fantasy. Despite the should’s we are not craving more of our own land, but more lakes, mountains, rivers, good restaurants and museums. Good to know before manifesting the 50 acres!

      1. I love this idea of living where you will “thrive.” That’s a really good way to put it. Surrounding culture is certainly a problem–I was very isolated in MI not because of the lack of things to do or people to see, but because I wasn’t ok with all of the traffic to get there. It really stressed me out and I hated driving so much there. So it kept me close to harm, and my yard, too, was my best friend. One of my Facebook followers said, “we grow where we are planted” and I think this is so true. We can plant ourselves anywhere, and where we plant ourselves we can manifest growth.

        I wish you blessings upon your search for a better fit for you, Laura! 🙂

  4. This is a brilliant article and you are so right about the free range fantasy – it’s one that it’s very easy to get caught up in. One of the most important lessons we can learn about ourselves is where our roots are and then start from there. I am about to start trying to turn my ‘patch’ into a permaculture garden and have just discovered that I can do a range of permaculture courses online which is great. I am in the UK by the way.

    1. Thank you, Angie. I am very excited to hear more about your permaculture patch! It is a very inspirational set of tools.

    1. Thank you for the reblog!

  5. 250! Holy cow! Congratulations. I know a couple families who are living pretty much the free-range fantasy and have put a vast amount of hard work into it. I admire them tremendously. But I know a lot more people who are doing a little of this and a little of that–me included. In the long run, these small shifts by people in the more populated suburbs and cities may accomplish more in total. And car dependency is a serious problem with the free-range model. (I do know one fellow who proposed riding a horse to work, but given the distance it was wildly impractical.)

    1. Thanks Karen :). I like the “little of this, little of that” approach :). We can all do that!

  6. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    This is one of the most inspiring articles I have read, and Dana is right in sync with discussions David and I have been having, including just moments before reading this post. Do what you can, how you can, wherever you are …with no enslavement to “should’s.”

    1. Thank you so much, Laura! Releasing expectations and fantasies and living in reality seems like a good first step for us all 🙂

  7. Dana, I have read Mother Earth News since it’s beginning… I was 17. I completely bought into that dream when all around me were buying into the Consumer Economy. Every dollar I saved by doing it myself encouraged those around me to believe I didn’t “need” much and should increase their spendable income. Only now is this vision becoming more widespread. Sadly, I love my 5 acres (good size for me) but still wishful think about the partner. Not happening so far. I love my lifestyle now, but any one size fits all story fits 1 percent of the population. Their is no shortcut to really thinking about your own happiness.
    Thanks for writing about this, it helped me clarify my own thoughts about my life. Might have made better partner decisions earlier and saved some time and pain for myself and others! Last guy I loved wanted a life so different from what I want that I released him and went my own way. Finally!

    1. Rebecca, that’s the trick, isn’t it? You want to do the work on the land, and you desperately want someone to join you. I have felt such the depths of loneliness and despair over the last 4 or so years, even before my divorce, because I always felt I was “going it alone.” And in many ways, I really was. I think I had to come to terms with the whole thing on my own time, and some of that “coming to terms” is this post, truthfully! I’m glad that this post has helped you. Your quote about “there is no shortcut to really thinking about your own happiness” really hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts :). Thank you for your comments and reading.

      1. Dana,
        I left out that although there are a lot fewer potential partners out there now, a few old boys are starting to show up and preen their feathers for me because… they are living my same lifestyle. Not the 50 acre magoo but our version of what we love. I have no desire for urban anything nor do they! I have a potager garden around my house and the rest is a food forest I visit every morning. I am also retired so I have time for friends. Go for what makes you happy!

        1. That’s good to hear! There are slim pickings for people in their 30’s, lol. But I know it will come when it’s ready :).

  8. Loved the read. Aunt D

    1. Thank you :).

  9. Reblogged this on Forever Unlimited and commented:
    Thank you for speaking up about this. I won’t feel so left out now. I have often felt that the grass was often greener elsewhere. Currently, I don’t have a deck or sunny yard or garden. I think an alternative for many of us (especially single people and renters) could be to join with friends and neighbors to share community gardens. Many towns and cities provide plots at low or no cost for gardening. Yes, there is often a wait-list, but I also know of people who create community gardens in their yard, sharing efforts and harvest with neighbors. Because I move a lot and work most days, and my work physical, I have not pursued this myself. After I moved here last fall, I was hoping when the trees filled in during the Spring, there would still be plenty of sun in the back yard for growing vegetables, but it is shady. Still, I can probably manage a small container garden in the limited sunny spots, and I do grow culinary and medicinal herbs on my windowsills. Meanwhile, I am always happy to support sustainable growers by visiting my local Farmer’s Markets when I can, which gives me more bang for my buck (quality, quantity and/or price), so I see that as a win-win.

    1. Yes! This is exactly what it is about. And maybe it’s a really good thing that there a wait list for community gardens, it shows that they are in demand, and that we can produce more of them.

      I know what you mean about feeling left out, like the grass is greener. But I’m not sure it really is greener, I think maybe that’s just what we’re supposed to believe about the free range fantasy. I think that I can grow some really nice alternatives to green grass right here, in the middle of my town, where I am planted!

      1. Well, literally, the grass IS greener in my case. Neighboring home is 3 floors, 3 condos, they all have decks and the top one has large garden boxes. They pooled their efforts to make a raised garden bed in the grassy, sunny back yard, and there are many container plants along the sunny side of the fence. They also appear to have a compost area.

        My house is 3 rental units, I am on the top floor. Our back yard is shady with pervasive vines undermining the grassy areas (not really mowable grass, or grass you can sit on) and the bulbs that bloomed in the Spring. The landlord hires guys to keep the yard tidy and shovel snow in winter. I did rake the entire back yard (a real chore with the vines constantly catching in the rake) but his guys bagged the leaves before my roommate and I had a chance to do so. I really can’t afford a garden right now, but at least I am growing culinary herbs in the windowsills, and I have a tree in my bedroom. My container garden that I had when I lived in California was far more extensive and prolific. I hope to duplicate that someday here on the East coast, as it gave me great enjoyment to have so many flowering plants and several potted trees. My best container garden was on a deck away from hungry deer, and it got full sun despite being relatively private, as that house was on an acre of land about a block from San Francisco bay. I am sure someone has since bought the property, razed the house, and hopefully did some landscaping, as the hillside was grassy and wild, and would be a fire hazard with the current drought conditions they are experiencing.

        My sister and her husband moved from this area to the Cape, where they have a large yard and gardens that my brother-in-law tends. They grow vegetables in a small garden plot and have a compost area, too. My sister is a Chef, among other talents, so they really are motivated and use or give away everything they grow.

        1. Sounds wonderful! I’m excited to hear how many of your neighbors are gardening as well :).

  10. Recently saw the film, Inhabit, which breaks up the FRFantasy by showing many different situations from very urban to very rural. Also, the one thing both fantasies have in common is the self-contained, independent thing – rather than the interdependent focus. Thanks for the read.

    1. Yes, I have seen Inhabit! It is such a wonderful film :).

  11. This was a great article. Thank you for writing it. I’ve struggled with trying to figure out how to make the free range fantasy a reality for myself and family. There are people who manage to make it happen (the family I got my PDC from for instance). On the one hand they are awesome examples of how it can be accomplished, yet on the other hand it is impossible for the majority of us to figure out how. It takes money…everything takes money.

    The fact is that we live in this carcentric fossil fueled disaster of a way to inhabit our planet. That disaster is our reality, and that reality got built up over hundreds of years of industrialization. We can only begin to reverse it one intentional planting or change at a time. Collectively it may amount to a lot…one day.

    At any rate, the message of this blog is timely and important. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and struggling with.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Aaron. I think that the disaster you speak of has so many of us looking for options–know that you are not alone in thinking about, and enacting, responses. PDCs have a way of turning you upside down in the best way possible, huh? 🙂

      1. PDC’s definitely present a lot of fringe thought, and done by people who actually practice what they preach can provide a lot of inspiration. The other issue with the free range fantasy is that it’s just not reality. I think it’s Mark Shepard who says in “Restoration Agriculture” that we need farmers. It’s that simple. Because we aren’t all going to turn our yards into gardens (which aren’t farms) and provide for the needs of our over populated populace (not that we shouldn’t all turn our yards into gardens…we should).

        Interestingly, in my case, I came to Permaculture as the answer to Peak Oil after reading James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency.” I had no idea our civilization had a problem before reading that book…I mean other than the evil that seems to be in charge. I joined the Kunslter Casts forum and somebody mentioned The Archdruid Report. I began reading that and realized that I was already a Druid. My life has been extremely interesting and unconventional since joining AODA as a candidate in 2010.

        I quit a career as a medic to chase the free range fantasy down. We moved in with family who owned 1.6 acres with fields behind that are in the family that I was supposed to be able to farm. Family politics didn’t allow that. I trained in Asheville NC in a start up program called “Permaculture in Action,” and then got a PDC. I have a food forest, chickens, and a bamboo nursery. I intern with Keiji Oshima of “Haiku Bamboo Nursery” in NC. I’m also an officer for a non-profit named SUN (sustaining universal needs). We are attempting to create communities that are replicatable and sustained via their engagement with nature.

        Anyways, maybe this is not the best place to be going on about myself and what I’m involved in. Interestingly I got the third volume of Trilithon and began reading it…joined the AODA fb page I wasn’t aware of (I’ve just been on the email list) and then saw the post for this blog. I’m a solitary Druid, with Aspergers, but I’m trying to cultivate the ability to engage with others. Permaculture, if it’s to succeed, is about community first and formost. Community is local. Problem is that most local communities are about the carcentric bit I mentioned in my first comment here.

  12. Love this post. Please send it on to Mother Earth News. I subscribe and love the magazine also. I am disabled and grow some of my veggies but shop at the Farmer’s Market when I can. We need more ecofriendly, affordable housing developments for the elderly and the disabled. Maybe Mother Earth News can promote these concepts.

    Thank you for helping me adjust my own sustainability plans. I have reduced my garden to a more manageable size with more containers working with the shade of beautiful trees with this increase in global warming making gardening in California a real challenge now.

    I enjoy your blogs. Thank you. Cfcriv

    1. Thank you :). I will send it to them with some modifications, I think. Why not? Maybe they need to hear this perspective. Global warming is making a lot of things harder, that’s for sure. It is changing the ecosystem here in really crazy ways :(.

  13. Great article! I just wanted to say that I was turned off by Mother Earth News years ago, because as a vegan, I found the approach of many of their articles is based on using animals for food, fertilizer, etc. What I’ve noticed is that alot of “organic farming” and gardening is not really what I’ve come to think of as truly natural or sustainable gardening. As its thought about and practiced by many people, its really just conventional modern, western growing practices, just substituting organic ingredients and fertilizers. This means that its extremely labor intensive, and revolves around sort of bending the earth to the farmer / gardener’s will, instead of trying to work with the land and exist with it in a relationship that nurtures both people, plants, animals, insects, and the Earth as a whole. Reading about how Native Americans thought about these things has been a big influence for me (I also think that the Indo-European ancestors of many Americans once had a very similar outlook, that was largely lost over time). For me, gardening is now about my relationship with the environment, and local living things, as a friend and caretaker for them. I don’t try to grow things that are not really appropriate or a good fit based on my location, time, and resources. I dont try to turn it into a one-stop, organic factory. Instead, I use my intuition, and I reach out to the plants and other living things here, and I get advice & feedback from them! My goal now is not to grow all of my own food, but to create a little oasis where I live, that helps nurture both me and my family, and my family of outdoor friends.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Nick. That’s exactly what my gardening relationship is about too–sacred tending of the land. The land isnt’ a factory. Even modern organic growing practices, as you say, assume it is. Have you ever read Wendell Berry? One of my very favorite poems has this line (Its from Mad Farmer Liberation Front):

      “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
      Say that your main crop is the forest
      that you did not plant,
      that you will not live to harvest.
      Say that the leaves are harvested
      when they have rotted into the mold.
      Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.” 🙂 Good words, those!

      And did you see this blog post? https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/wildtending-refugia-and-the-seed-arc-garden/

      1. Thank you Dana! I really appreciate your blog and I’m so glad I found it. Your article on wildtending is really inspirational and it means so much to me to know that there are other people out there that think about these things the way I do, like you and your readers, & that are trying to help the land like this. I also appreciate your quote from Wendell Berry. I looked up his some of his writing this weekend and he is amazing. Thanks again:-)

        1. Thank you, Nick! Wildtending has become a critically important part of my druid practice. I’m doing another plant walk in my community tonight, so I hope to spread the practice as I go :P.

          Wendell Berry has been hugely inspirational to me. I actually quoted you a segment of my very favorite poem of his, but all are really good. The other one that I really love (which I have also quoted on this blog) is Work Song, Part II. I think this is probably the closest thing I have to a “motto” :).

          Work Song, Part 2: A Vision (Wendell Berry)

          If we will have the wisdom to survive,
          to stand like slow growing trees
          on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
          then a long time after we are dead
          the lives our lives prepare will live
          here, their houses strongly placed
          upon the valley sides…
          The river will run
          clear, as we will never know it…
          On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
          the old forest, a new forest will stand,
          its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
          The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
          Families will be singing in the fields…
          native to this valley, will spread over it
          like a grove, and memory will grow
          into legend, legend into song, song
          into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
          the songs of its people and its birds,
          will be health and wisdom and indwelling
          light. This is no paradisal dream.
          Its hardship is its reality.
          – Wendell Berry

          1. Dana, thank you so much for sharing this. This is the kind of inspiration that can get one through not just a day, but a lifetime. I’m so glad you are doing the Wildtending in your community. I’m sure your plant and animal friends there really appreciate it! I was sick this winter and early spring, so there are a alot of seeds I had intended on sowing that I couldnt. I think I will try again this fall, so they can stratify over the winter. I’m learning alot and its overwhelming at times but I’ve made alot of progress. The forest told me to rest up and take my time, and that they arent going anywhere;-) I look forward to reading more of your posts this summer, have a great week:-)

          2. Thanks, Nick! This path certainly can be overwhelming. I’d listen to that forest–we can only heal when we, ourselves, are healed. Blessings!

  14. Hi Dana,
    I was talking to a group of young Back to the Lander farmers I know here on my little island and we all agreed that farming is an addiction similar to alcoholism or drug addiction but of course much harder on the body.

    I would cation anyone interested in farming a smallholding to start small and realize there will be days when you are too ill to do much so don’t overprogram.
    Thanks for the very good article.
    Yours under the red cedar,

  15. THANK YOU, Dana, for this liberating article. I, too, live in the city and do my best. I’m getting older; living in the country just isn’t practical. BUT, I can be part of the solution right here. Your comments about feeling a failure, and not doing enough ring very true to me. We can always do more. But we succeed if we just do our best; do what we CAN do, and not fixate on what we can’t do. We can implement and help develop solutions for the urban dwellers, where the need is greatest. Thank you for pointing out WE are part of the solution; without the 50 acres.

    1. You are most welcome, Ruthanna! I’m glad you found it useful! And yes, we all do the best work we can do :).

  16. Great post! It just so happens that I´m in a similar situation as you´ve described: After my marriage broke down, I´m alone now in an old farmhouse in Germany with two acres of land and I´m probably trying to do too much while working a fulltime job. Thank goodness I´m (nearly) debt free, but I do have a bad back and feel like I´m burning myself out at the moment, so I´m thinking about selling and leaving for something smaller. There are a few problems with that, though:
    – I´m 50 now and finding new employment will not be easy, while my current job is not bad (apart from the time it takes away from my life) and not too physically demanding
    – I like the place where I live and I´m loath to leave after having put so much work in (I´ve planted a willow and poplar coppice along with about 30 nut- and fruit trees)
    – I have two cats who I love dearly and I would not like to have them confined in an urban flat and it might be difficult to ´´sell them with the house´´
    – there are people here who are conscious of sustainability issues ; the local beekeeper and his wife are among them and they want to try to open a kind of meeting place in their barn for likeminded people.
    Then there is still the hope that I will find a new partner; in fact I´m just now in the process of getting to know a woman with similar interests (she´s a beekeeper), and although we have talked only via the phone so far there seems to be mutual attraction, but of course it´s too early too tell.
    So I´m deeply torn about what to do – I guess I just have to wait and see for the moment, but I do realize that it can´t go on indefinitely as it is – and that,as we know, is a definition of unsustainability.
    Do you have any advice ? (knowing that advice is a dangerous thing to give or to follow I won´t be insulted if you have none, but maybe you have another perspective on this so that I can think about it).

    1. Hi Frank, I certanly feel where you are coming from, having lived that reality myself. The cats will not appreciate being moved indoors (mine are going absolutely crazy since leaving the homestead!)

      I think if you know that what you are currently doing isn’t sustainable in terms of your own energy (or sustaining you) then the first and most immediate thing is to change your own workflows. As in now, and for the coming seasons. I did this a lot with shifting to perennials–annual agriculture eats up time and energy. Perennials, herbs, and the like can be left on their own much more. I stopped trying to make everything “look perfect” and just let it live fully. I stopped mowing stuff I didn’t need to. I hired someone to come and help me every two weeks for a few hours (and that was a huge relief). I invited friends over, and those without land, and that was hugely successful. I tried to have some WOOFers; those were met with mixed success. So I think getting yourself some help and reducing your overall work is the first thing so that you don’t burn yourself out.

      But the broader path stuff: I would also suggest deep meditation and reflection–ask the universe to open doors that should be opened and close doors that need to be closed for you. But then, you are just along for the ride (which is pretty much where my life is at the moment!) I don’t know if this is helpful to you….but I certainly wish you blessings on the path).

      1. Thanks for your considerate answer, it certainly is food for thought; I have been thinking about getting some help and downshifting my workload, and having someone from an outside perspective confirming that idea gives me some assurance that it might be one of the ways to cope. Thanks again, and I wish you all the best for your own way in life,too!

        1. Thanks, Frank. Do stay in touch and let me know how things go. In our efforts to do the most good for the land, sometimes we forget to also care for ourselves. Both are necessary, and both need to be in balance. Blessings!

  17. Fabulous essay on free range living, which can be manifested in so many ways. Thank you for sharing your wise perspective on a subject so close to the hearts of druids, wherever we find ourselves rooted. Let us all find ways to bloom where we are planted. Bright blessings, kelly, keeper of flames

    1. Kelly, thank you for your kind comments :).

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