Imagine a world where you are the creator and the decider. And where you are the king in a kingdom of critters. It's a dream land, of course, but for River Alice Stillwood it was more than a dream. A Paradise, she calls it in her book, News from the Homestead.
River was in San Diego, California sitting at her news desk when she saw her dream come true. A heavily wooded 40-acre land adjoining a lovely stream was up for auction on eBay. She placed a bid and won it. Two months later, she quit her newspaper job as a crime reporter, sold most of the worldly things she owned, and fixed a date to move to her new home in Douglas County, Missouri. All alone!
But why such a seemingly crazy decision? It was sudden but not un-dreamt of. River had long treasured the idea of homesteading, had always thirsted to start from scratch, live without electricity or plumbing, and attempt to make a life for herself thus.
So one day, River, middle-aged and single, stuffed all her belongings into a Wrangler Jeep, took her three dogs along with her, and set off for her Paradise two thousand miles away. And that's the beginning of her adventurous life. News from the Homestead is a book in which she penned her experience of living on a farm.
At what she called “The Homestead” she truly lived life in a nineteenth century ambience. No electricity. No running water. She had only a handful of modern conveniences—a jeep, a telephone, a solar-powered radio, a flashlight, and a chainsaw. While living in a tent for months, she single-handedly built her twelve by sixteen feet cabin. She bought seventy-five chicks, four rabbits, three goats and an appaloosa horse. And it was thus that she lived the life she desired to live.
But even before she had built her own cabin, she had to worry about homes for her animals. The hutch she had built earlier soon proved inadequate for the growing chicks. “By the first of July,” she writes in News from the Homestead, “my adorable chicks had grown into gangly adolescents who were making it abundantly clear they would soon be sleeping in shifts if they didn't get a larger home. So I spent the next few weeks building a coop.”
In the book on farming she was using, she didn't find everything she needed. And so she learned about farming through doing it. The behavior of farm fowls is beautifully rendered in her sharp observations of life in the farm in lines such as the following: “About eighteen week old, the roosters began eyeing the hens with something akin to desire. A week or so later, they began chasing the hens about the coop and chicken yard.”
Cleanliness is next to Godliness, as the saying goes. When it came to the question of bathing on The Homestead, winter in particular, it was not something simply done though. A galvanized tub required a lot of hot water. And you had to have the water heated on a woodstove. One day, prior to preparing for a bath, she got trapped in an oak tree while removing its dead limbs for fire wood. When she was on the tree and tying to saw a sturdy dead branch it fell through the air and hit the ladder she was on. Soon it was sprawling on the ground while she was twenty feet up on the oak tree without the ladder to take her down. Would she have to jump and break a bone?
She rolled the flannel shirt she was wearing to a long cord, and wrapped it around the tree trunk. She held the sleeves tight and wrapped her legs around as much trunk as possible. ''For the next few minutes,'' she writes, ''my entire world consisted of slide, grip, shift the shirt, slide, grip, shift the shirt.'' Finally, she landed on the ground.
In this brilliant book on life and living it, the writer tells her tale with her heart, humorously and passionately. She describes her goat Damsel giving birth for the first time with delightful skills. But as a reader I was also saddened by her depiction of the eventual death of two other kids it had given birth to. These four-weeks-old kids had died because the mommy goat happened to be uncaring!
There were a good number of people who believed River would fail, give up on her dream, and head back for city life. She proved them all wrong. For about seven years she happily lived off-the-grid in her hand-built cabin, until she was diagnosed with cancer. Having fully recovered now, she lives in a modern stone house in the Missouri Ozarks with eleven dogs, two horses, a llama, and lots of chickens and ducks. But we can share her experience with her in her delightful News from the Homestead.
Rahad Abir is a fiction writer. He is the recipient of the Charles Pick Fellowship 2017-18.