26. Back to the Land

Published on 4 January 2023 at 09:58

© 2022 Robert Sickles

If you’re ever touring in Massachusetts, do go visit the Fruitlands Museum, about 18 miles west of Concord. It is a restored cluster of buildings on a large tract that is kept in memory of the societal reform experiment of a small band of 19th century intellectuals and spiritual thinkers. Led in 1843 by Transcendentalist Amos Alcott, Louisa May’s father and friend of Emerson, the group included Utopianists and abstainers of all sorts: pacifists, nudists, vegans, abolitionists, teetotalers and socialists. The Fruitlands experiment was well-intended, but really it was a fiasco.

Participants were enthused about self-sufficiency, but none had enough farming or harvest know-how. They named it Fruitlands even though there was only a small cluster of young apple trees. They never wanted to produce more goods than they could use, believing that surplus and trade would dilute their spiritual principles. The people were very soon cold, broke and hungry, and within seven months the whole thing was abandoned. Very sad…

When I visited Fruitlands, I learned about those people who went down a rabbit hole very much like one I was heading for, 130 years later.


Jess, my life partner for a few years in the 70’s, was the truest salt-of-the-earth person I’ve ever known. She was brought up in a family of California field and orchard workers and was familiar with hard farm work and a rural life. She had all kinds of surprising skills, from fruit harvesting and milking goats to arc welding and commercial crabbing. Rather than commit to the urban Seattle life we started out, her dream was to get back to the land, build something on acreage and become self-reliant—an idealistic, simpler life. I was impressed with her determination, she either knew how to do something or decided that she would learn. It was fun to imagine a lovely little farm and a larder full of our own bounty. Yet, as I would learn during our few years together, “getting back to the land” was not at all the same as “getting down to earth!”

I was intrigued with the ideas of leaving a smaller footprint on the earth and becoming less dependent on stores, banks and the consumer-industrial complex. I read through the Whole Earth Catalog and Five Acres and Independence. I saw that a well-managed woodlot could provide heat for a home; a properly designed greenhouse could be warmed by solar rays, that the family orchard, garden, root cellar, dehydrator, and chicken coop could sustain a household; that an efficient windmill or watermill could produce electricity; a small workshop could produce crafts and useful objects for barter, and a system for capturing methane from livestock manure could provide fuel for a stove. Jess really believed that with our combined skill and brawn, we could make this all this happen.  All we needed, she said, was some capital and positive thinking. Uh huh.

The other thing we lacked, or correctly, I lacked, was a fundamental willingness to leave all modern conveniences and start out like hard-working pioneers into the wilderness. At the time I was involved in some very satisfying music and art endeavors that would be difficult to carry on while living off the grid and working long hours on a homestead. 100 miles into the country would detach me too much from clients, partners and artistic connections. While it was nice to daydream, and to support Jess' enthusiasm, my heart wasn’t really into carrying out her big plan. I was hoping the whole thing would blow over. With the help of Eris, the God of Chaos, what we did accomplish could be described better as a series of derailments than as a train ride.

While working our day jobs and saving money, we tried a few things in our suburban back yard to test our know-how. Jess assured me she knew all about basic homestead sorts of things. In the beginning it was fun.

We bought some bantam chickens and I built a pen and coop for them.  They were cute. Their favorite treat was cottage cheese; I’d buy a past pull-date quart of it and they’d dunk their head all the way in, coming up with curds all over their faces.

Also, a foursome of Peking ducks joined the project. I created a little “pond” for them with a galvanized washtub.  When they were little, they would climb into the tub and chase each other’s tails, quacking around and around, faster and faster. They still tried that when they were full grown, but the tub was so small they had a ridiculously hard time of it, especially when the tub was frozen over.

Someone gave us several felled alder and wild cherry trees, and that's where our first setback occurred. We spent an awful amount of time cutting, hand-splitting, loading and stacking firewood. This was quite a lot of wood for us, considering we only had an open-hearth fireplace that barely heated half of the downstairs. "It will be practice for the real thing, when we finally move to the country!" Jess smiled. And damned hard work—poor girl wound up hurting her left wrist and having to wear a sling. From that point on, almost all the chores were mine.

We grew all kinds of beans, potatoes, vegetables and berries, stocking up as much of it as we could. I had a little root cellar full of potatoes and squash, a freezer full of vegetables, and rows of canning jars with jams, pickles, soups and sauces. A lot of it was really good, but we learned the hard way about pests, mildew and shelf life. We put a lot of effort into putting up our abundance, but it took a while to figure out what to grow that we actually wanted to eat—like, what do you do with boxes and boxes of frozen turnips? How often do you want sweet pickled beets anyway… twelve quarts is too much for one year, right? Our sapling apple, cherry and peach trees all withered with disease, never bearing enough decent fruit to bother with.

It was apparent that slugs were taking over the garden, so I let the ducks have a go. Yay, look at them go! But wait, their big flat feet were trampling all the plants! I had to learn how to wrangle ducks—it's kind of like being the ping pong paddle guy at the airport terminal. Left arm out, ducks move right. Both arms out, ducks move back.

I thought of a good use for a failed batch of explosively effervescent homemade beer.  I opened a couple of bottles and set it out in dishes to trap garden slugs. Excellent! Next morning the dishes were full of giant drowned slugs, floating in beer! I started tossing the slugs over the fence to my ducks and they sounded off in a feeding frenzy! I thought they might enjoy licking up the slug-flavored beer, and when I came later to check on them, the ducks could only manage muffled quacks—their bills were glued shut with slug slime! I watched them stagger and fall around, joyously drunk on slug beer. I did this every few days until the home brew was all gone. But then the ducks came around the garden gate looking for more, so I bought them a case of cheap suds. I think they preferred that over my stout home brew.

I questioned Jess what she thought the purpose of our ducks was other than friendly drinking buddies. She shrugged and suggested “Eat ‘em?” I insisted that was not happening.  It was heartbreaking to let them go—we gave them to a woman friend who lived on a pond, and I threw in a couple of 6-packs to get her started. 

Now, our chickens were not producing eggs. We tried everything, so Jess wanted to harvest them for stew meat. She thought she’d start with Boleyn (we named our chickens after famously beheaded people) “OK…” I said, “Well Jess, you go ahead, I can’t do it.” I had no intention of killing, plucking, butchering, or stewing any of our little feather friends.

It could be this was a turning point in our “get back to the land” trajectory.

Jess was fuming. “Boleyn and you have something in common… you are both chickens!” She still had that injured wrist, so not a good way to start out, holding a wriggling chicken in one hand and a big axe in the other, and mad... as a wet hen, I guess.  Instead of finding the hatchet, Jess had unwisely chosen the 13 lb. splitting maul, just a little sharper than a sledge hammer. I commented, “Well… this doesn’t look good. If you won’t cool down and look for the hatchet, Jess, I can’t watch.” And I left the yard.

Yeah, this was definitely a turning point.

From behind the coop, I heard Jess grunting and fussing and Boleyn clucking wildly. There was a big thump and five seconds of quiet, then another thump, followed by some full-throated profanity, “God! Help! Robert! Come here quick! Aw, f**k!”

Jess, Boleyn, and that splitting maul… oh wow, what a mess! Of course, the maul was too heavy for Jess to wield, and without a sharp edge it didn’t do the job. Boleyn was knocked out but still partly attached to her head. She had to be finished off so I found the hatchet. Jess was pissed off, crying and holding her hand in a towel. In the struggle, she missed the chicken's neck with the second blow and landed it on the back of her own left hand, practically peeling the whole skin off.

After a high-speed run to the ER and several sutures, Jess was finally mellowed off on a nice dose of pain pills.  Caringly, I offered, “I hope we've learned a lesson! No more chicken slaughtering around here, I’m sure!” Jess had dull eyes and drool on her chin, so I hardly expected a response.

But even in her slurred stupor, Jess was able to connect thoughts to words and make a point: “You have to do the rest of the chickens; I obviously can’t do anything now.” Jess'  sashay from painful wrist to nearly severed hand left me in charge of all gardening, harvesting and housework. I shivered up my neck. Where would either of us be if the other fell ill or injured when we were actually clinging to survival on a homestead? 

I asked our neighbor if he’d like some chickens. He was happy to take a couple, and the rest went to the same woman who took our ducks.

With our accumulated fatigue, depression, injuries, defeats and losses, things were looking bleak. We had failed at chicken ranching, we owned a freezer full of turnips and looked out upon a backyard exceedingly full of firewood. We had to give away all our livestock and our orchard was dead. My one anticipated pleasure was to enjoy a home brew after a long day. Hah, all consumed by ducks! And, when I finally found the courage to voice my utter distaste for back-breaking labor and fear of catastrophic failure, Jess accepted defeat. We resigned ourselves to being a suburban couple who buy groceries and gasoline, and who make a living by earning money.

Jess had friends who wanted her to come down to the Russian River; moving there, she hoped to find her like-minded community. I acquired wisdom and have memories of my time with Jess to last my life, but I really do miss the ducks!

[All was not lost! To this day, I am an eternally optimistic Spring fruit and vegetable gardener, and sometimes a satisfied Fall harvester! I recently added a couple of small greenhouses and cold-frame planters to extend the seasons. Linda and I enjoy a little canning, freezing, dehydrating and pickling so we can serve up home-grown goodness through the winter. Jess taught me to value that.]


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2 years ago

Nice story, Bob.

Ah, the idealism, simplicity, and naïveté of youth!
Fortunately, you gleaned life lessons from those years.

Happy 2023!

2 years ago

Another great story...and I thought I knew all about my buddy. Can hardly wait for your next adventure that I know nothing about.

2 years ago

What a story, Robert. Reminds me of the one and only time I bought a whole chicken rather than parts. As for Jess, naming a chicken Boleyn should have been a clue. Just rewatched Wolf Hall.

2 years ago

Again, you make me laugh even though I have heard this story often (He really is a gardener now and I am proud of his accomplishments and do enjoy the veggies!)

Kathleen McKee
2 years ago

That is a very funny but painful sounding adventure into becoming self-sufficient in this big old crazy world. I know many are considering having chickens to save on eggs but the idea of slaughtering them is pretty horrific. We all need to consider your life lessons before jumping into big decisions!! Made me laugh again!