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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Modern Day Homesteading

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood interviews Linda Tatelbaum, who teaches English at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. She has just written and self-published a book of essays about the struggles and blessings of living the simple life; about which she says there is one prerequisite. Her book is Carrying Water As a Way of Life from About Time Press, Appleton, Maine.


CURWOOD: The simple life. Ever since Americans haven't had to live close to the land, some folks have been urging us back to it. From Henry David Thoreau to Helen and Scott Nearing, eloquent and convincing voices have extolled the virtues of living simply and frugally. But many people who have tried the simple life have found it, well, too complex. Linda Tatelbaum is one of the few who stuck it out. In 1977, she and her husband Kal bought 75 acres in Maine and built a house with no electricity and no running water. Today, with a few small adjustments, they're still homesteading. Linda Tatelbaum, who teaches English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has just written and self-published a book of essays about the struggles and blessings of living the simple life, about which she says there's one prerequisite.

TATELBAUM: I think you have to have a good sense of humor. I think you have to realize that what you're doing is totally ridiculous (laughs) and therefore worthwhile. Because you're doing something only because it pleases you, not because you have to.

CURWOOD: This is a wonderfully written book and this little passage I'd like you to read for us if you could.


CURWOOD: It's the last 2 paragraphs of the title chapter of your book, Carrying Water.

TATELBAUM: Yes. It's inconvenient in practical terms. How much easier it is not to think about the water you use. To open the faucet and let her run: this is a glory of another life. And yes, I could wish that the spring were up the hill from home, so that like Jack and Jill I could come running down when the jugs were full. But the spring is where it is, down in the vale, a stone-cool grove spiced with the scent of fern and rock and water. I walk uphill to the house, steady, my arms hanging straight from my shoulders as they are made to do, weighted by 40 pounds of water.

CURWOOD: The title of your book is Carrying Water as a Way of Life, and I have to say as a little boy I remember us always carrying water to this place in New Hampshire that had no running water. Or the standing joke was yeah, you run for the water.


CURWOOD: It's a heck of a lot of work. Water is heavy!

TATELBAUM: Right. It's heavy. But it's clean, at least, if you spill it on yourself.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) But I mean, the physical labor involved with homesteading this way is tremendous. Why do that much work?

TATELBAUM: Well, you do a lot of work if you don't do that, too. You might not think about it that way, but for instance, if you have all the conveniences and you live more of a standard American life your chances are you're working at least 40 hours a week and commuting, and having to put up with a lot of stress, and not really being very connected to your food, for instance, which is really important to me. And so there's a lot of tradeoffs, is that I do a lot of physical labor but I get some really substantial benefits from that. I'm strong, I'm healthy, I know what I'm eating. You know, those to me are very large benefits. And we eat in season from, I'd say, from April until November. And then after that we're eating stuff that we've put by.

CURWOOD: Put things by for the winter. That sounds like an awful lot of work.

TATELBAUM: Oh, it is. And I'm just at the beginning of it right now, right when teaching starts. So that's always an interesting trip is, you know, you start back to teaching just at the time when you're starting to bring all the tomatoes into the house, and you know what your weekends are going to be involved with, is jars. You've read the essay in there, there's a chapter in the book called Jars.


TATELBAUM: In which I say my life is involved with jars. Which it is.

CURWOOD: Well, how is this different from the rat race that most of us live, say, with a lot more electricity and a lot less canning? I mean, we're busy running from one thing to the next. You sound pretty busy, too.

TATELBAUM: Oh, I'm very busy. I mean, people who think the simple life means you sit around and admire trees all day don't have it right. It's very, very busy and it's complicated. But I guess to me it's a rat race of my own making, and that makes it different. You know, it's like I chose this. I got into this myself. But there are times, especially the end of September, I guess, when I'm in the midst of all the tomatoes and I'm thinking: why am I doing this? But then all I have to do is go to the supermarket and price what it would take me to replace my labor. One year I said that's it, I'm not doing this any more, and I went to the supermarket with a little list. And I got as far as the fruit juice, and I could see already that it would mean teaching full-time, being away from home all the time, in order just to replace fruit juice.

CURWOOD: Two years after you built this house, you had a baby.


CURWOOD: I'm wondering, you know, what was it like?

TATELBAUM: Well, we were very methodical about it. Before we even decided to have a baby, we went scouting around to look for a doctor that would understand us. And we actually wanted to have a home birth. And we found a doctor that did home births, and we went to see him, and he said no, sorry, I don't do them when there's no running water and electricity. So he drew the line at that. So we said well okay, we'll have a hospital birth, then. The nurse was a little concerned; she said we had to get a refrigerator right away. As soon as she told me I was pregnant she said, "Well, you're going to have to get a refrigerator." You know, as if that was sort of the prerequisite for raising a baby. She didn't understand the concept of a pregnant woman going up and down cellar stairs several times a day but, you know, I stayed pretty healthy all through the pregnancy, and I think that the work had a lot to do with that.

CURWOOD: And yet now, today, you do have electricity from photovoltaics.


CURWOOD: What made you change your mind that, well, maybe it was time to get solar power?

TATELBAUM: You get tired of kerosene lamps after a while. They are dirty, you know, it
doesn't smell too good. You're dealing with kerosene. You're trimming wicks all the time. You're cleaning chimneys. It's not that much fun. And we decided lights would really be great. I mean this is something most people take completely for granted, so we were, like, this is what we want in our lives. One of the things about living this life is, and for a long time, is you have to make choices. If you feel like you're starting to wear out, chances are you're going to have to quit the whole life unless you make some changes, and to me some of the easiest changes to make were to, say, buy my flour and not grind my own flour. And then even now, you know, I don't even usually bake bread any more. So that was one thing that went. I try to make it really, really clear that we don't do everything pure. That we do have modern, some modern pleasures and conveniences, because I think people are very threatened by the idea of, at least the concept that they have that you live this pure life. Because then they feel bad, you know, they feel insecure. Like, oh well, uh, I eat prepared foods so I must be bad because you're so pure. So one of the reasons for writing the book was to let people know that whatever little piece of a simple way of life that you can do and that you like to do, that's going to help you feel a little bit more connected to making some choices about your life.

CURWOOD: So compromise is a way to keep your ideals?

TATELBAUM: Yeah. I think so. Somebody that came to one of my readings said something very interesting to me, and I hadn't thought about this. He said, you know, you haven't changed. You've just, you just had all these youthful ideals that were in the way of what was your core values, and you kept your core values. But you were able to drop some of that youthful, you know, insistence on doing everything pure. And I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at it and I was very pleased to hear that. I like to imagine that I'm sort of picking up on somebody's wasted labor, you know, somebody whose place went to seed and, you know, the well tumbled in and the house burned down and all that. And I like to think of myself as kind of fixing that up and bringing it back to being a productive place where a family can live and eat and have health.

CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum's new book is called Carrying Water as a Way of Life. Published by About Time Press in Appleton, Maine. Thank you for joining us.

TATELBAUM: Thanks a lot, Steve.



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