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Editor’s Note: All photos are by local photographer Annette Naber, owner of Emerald Mountain Sanctuary and fellow Highland County blogger. To read more of Annette’s work, visit her blog, “Beauty Along the Road.“
When my husband and I decided to leave congested Washington, DC behind and pursue the “simple life” in the country, we really didn’t know what we were getting into.
Our property consisted of fields and woods – no road, no water, no electricity, no house. But – no problem – we had a road built, a well drilled, underground electric cables and telephone lines installed. We built our house while we were living in a 30-foot travel trailer. Living in a trailer is conducive to the simple life: there is so little space that you can’t add anything beyond the essentials. You make do with a small kitchen space and a small shower stall.
Developing a property and building a house is anything but simple. And in the process, you acquire things, lots of things. For starters, you need a tractor and all its necessary attachments. Then, you need a garage to house all of the tools and a shed for the garden tools.
You may think that at least the garden is a simple thing? Well, in deer and groundhog country, a garden is pretty much a waste of effort unless you protect your precious seedlings from the marauders. So we built an 8-foot fence around the garden. That means, hole digging for fence posts, attaching metal fencing to the posts with the help of a special tool and the tractor to pull it all into alignment.
Once you finally move into your house with that lovely wood stove, there’s wood to be cut and stored for winter time. Chainsaw and tractor to the rescue, along with a wood splitter. If you think you can split a winter’s worth of wood with an ax and muscle power alone, you are probably in your 20s and have more energy than you know what to do with… or, you are hopelessly in love with the idea of the simple life without actually having put it to the test.
The “simple” life, the self-sufficient life, the make-everything-from-scratch life is a life filled with back-breaking labor. And, forget about a 9-to-5 time frame.
But don’t get me wrong – I love my life out here. The mountains and streams and wildlife all around; the small communities that are fiercely self-reliant with people who know everything from the best marinade for deer jerky, to growing the best grasses for the most nutritious hay, to knitting a sweater, to fixing anything imaginable, to making apple cider and pear butter. I enjoy the arts and crafts of basket and broom making, fine furniture making, the traditional food ways, the writers, painters, and photographers who capture the stunning landscapes and quirky nature of people, animals, and elemental forces.
But – it isn’t a simple life out here, far from it.
There is a highly complex social network of old-timers and newcomers that only begins to reveal itself after years of living here. Ancestral lines, sense of place, and family ties run deep. The government and strangers are not to be trusted.
As far as material things are concerned, you learn to source specialty items from various people and locations (horse manure for the garden, yellow spring butter, deer sausage, freshly dug ramps, or just-picked raspberries).
Going to a medical specialist requires anywhere between an hour to a two-hour drive. A life-threatening injury will necessitate an airlift by helicopter.
If you are a highly-educated professional, you have few if any colleagues in easy driving distance. For any professional, it is impossible to not have multiple roles and relationships with clients and patients. Your children may go to school with your clients’ children. If you are an elected official, you may still have a business and relate to your constituents in a client-consumer relationship; as a lawyer or medical professional, you may find yourself in the same aerobics group with a client or patient or end up at the same parties or community events. As a police officer, you may have to give a speeding ticket to a family member.
To get to the nearest commercial airport requires a 2 to 3-hour drive, the same holds for major bus lines like Greyhound or trains. There is NO public transportation.
Some things, however, are fairly simple: getting into our little town, dropping by the bank, the post office, and a store, may take all of half an hour before I head back home. It would take me that long to just stand in line at the post office in suburban Maryland where I used to live; then another line at the bank and at the super-market. That could easily take two or three hours not including driving time.
When there is a problem to be solved here, you talk to the person in charge (whether that’s the bank president or postmaster or telephone technician) instead of having to work your way through long bureaucratic channels and paperwork. If you ran head first into a low-hanging rafter or stepped into a rusty nail, you receive medical attention quickly without having to wait for hours in a city emergency room.
Gossip gets around really fast, a simple matter of exchanging information (never mind a little distortion or elaboration) at the local breakfast joint, the “liars” nook at the gas station convenience store, or neighbors in town talking over the fence.
If someone’s house burns down or someone sustains an injury that prevents them from working for a while, the community gathers for creative fundraisers to help ease the financial burden…simple and effective community spirit that really works.
If a dog or cat gets lost, the radio announces it until the pet is found.
In our personal life, we have deliberately begun to simplify, starting with material possessions and clutter. We were able to sell a small trailer and donate a truck, give away some tools and left-over building materials, declutter closets and some of our paper files. Also, saying “no” to workshops and events, no matter how interesting, helped to create space in our busy schedule.
To leave large empty spaces in my calendar is a luxury that I am enjoying for the first time in my life. I call it “breathing space.”
Having breathing space may look like doing a mundane task at leisure, taking time to watch the cats play-wrestle or the hummingbirds chase each other at the feeder. The longer I look at a flower, the more I discover its hidden lines and textures, the insects it attracts, the function it plays in its eco-system, its deeper beauty and purpose.
I feel more grounded when I have breathing space. And more content. I laugh more easily, feel more deeply, think more creatively, and feel more inspired about the things I choose to do in my life. Enjoying simple things at a leisurely pace seems to create a rich and complex tapestry of life experiences.
So simple….and yet so complicated in this modern life we have constructed for ourselves.