Chapter One: Africa
It was just another day in the small fishing village of Joal-Fadiouth on the west coast of Senegal where I’d been placed as a volunteer with a non-profit organization. The sun was shining and a soft breeze blew in off the ocean. Fishermen readied their nets and pirogues for the daily catch. Men and women cloaked in colorful boubous went about their daily business at an unhurried pace. Goats bleated as they wandered the sandy streets, feasting on whatever lay in their path. And the scent of fish and spices filled the air as every household in town prepared their daily meal of Thiéboudienne (Senegal’s national dish).
But on this particular morning, there was one thing that was different. As I looked on from our balcony, I noticed that the tide was out and a bunch of those colorfully-clad men and women were hunched over on the flats with their hands dug deep in the sand, an equally colourful bucket beside each one of them.
“What are they doing?” I asked one of our guides.
“Digging for clams,” he replied with a half smile and a somewhat incredulous look on his face, seemingly amused that this pitiful foreigner with her Western understanding of things actually knew very little about the way the world really works.
I must say, if that was what he was thinking, then he wasn’t wrong.
I grew up in the city of Vancouver on Canada’s west coast. I had always lived a comfortable life with all of the modern conveniences that we associate with the Western world: TVs and TV dinners, refrigerators and microwaves, factory farms and industrial food processing plants, takeout, delivery, fast food and endless options to dine out on whatever we’re “in the mood for” at any given time, grocery stores brimming year-round with every ingredient imaginable. All of the things that keep us comfortably numb and out of touch with where our food actually comes from.
Life was different in Senegal. Here, we ate whatever was harvested from the earth or the ocean that same day. Fish went from the boats to the boiling pot the same afternoon. Goats butchered in the morning were served up with rice in the evening. Fresh greens were harvested at sunup and set on dinner plates before sundown. Even our daily bread was baked fresh and delivered to us each morning by the village baker.
That night we ate linguine with clams, and I was in awe that we were eating something that had still been alive in its natural habitat just hours earlier.
Aside from a few fuzzy memories of time spent with my grandpa in his vegetable garden when I was a young girl, this was really the first time I had ever been exposed to this idea of living off the land, eating seasonally, and making everything from scratch.
There was no grocery store, no microwave dinners (or microwave for that matter), and no fast food chains or fusion restaurants with extensive menus. All we had was a small propane burner and whatever was available fresh that day. And I had no idea how to prepare any of it.
At the time, my idea of cooking from scratch involved heating up a jar of store-bought pasta sauce and pouring it over some boiled noodles. I didn’t know how to prepare a meal without a recipe (or the cooking instructions from the package that it came in), and I had no clue what to do with any of the local ingredients on offer at the market — ingredients like collard greens, cassava root, tamarind, okra, hot peppers, baobab fruit, hibiscus juice, and fermented sea creatures, to name but a few.
Although my mother had always cooked more or less from scratch, kitchen skills were just not something that was passed onto me when I was growing up, and I was completely out of my comfort zone.
Luckily I was partnered with another volunteer who had a lot more cooking and traveling experience than I did, and who knew how to improvise with the tools and ingredients we had access to. I watched her cook over that small propane burner, day in and day out. I helped where I could, and I began to develop a desire to learn more about cooking and creating meals from scratch with whatever fresh ingredients were available.
That trip to Africa opened up a whole new world of experiences for me that would eventually lead to a passion for growing, harvesting, and cooking with healthy, whole ingredients that go directly from the Earth to my dinner plate as often as possible. But that was only the very beginning of my journey. I still had years of living and learning to do before I would ever dare call myself a homesteader. Nevertheless, a seed had been planted.
Chapter Two: Australia
Not long after I came home to Vancouver, I moved out and got my own place in the city. I worked a high-stress job downtown during which time I was always under pressure to work longer hours and hit higher sales targets.
I knew this wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted for myself. I also desperately wanted to see more of the world. So after a year and a half of working at this job, I booked a year-long trip to Australia.
A few months into my trip, my boyfriend, Ryan, packed up his life back home and followed me overseas. We lived for a while in a trailer park in Byron Bay. I got a job as a maid and Ryan did odd jobs around the trailer park. It was enough to pay the rent and get us by, but we never had much extra to spend. So we had to make every dollar stretch.
Making ends meet was stressful, but it wasn’t nearly as stressful as life had been when I was rushing to and from work on a crowded skytrain and spending my days walled up inside a city building under artificial lighting, answering phones and hustling all day in a corporate environment.
Over the years, I’ve traveled the globe searching for my place in the world, and in the end, it led me to this quarter-acre of independence, freedom, and self-sufficiency with a home and a family at its center.
Here we lived a pretty simple life and spent most of our time outdoors taking long walks on the beach and exploring the nearby flora and fauna. Otherwise, our evenings were spent at “home” in our trailer.
We soon discovered that we didn’t really need much to be happy. We didn’t need a lot of money to enjoy life. We were actually quite happy to just slow down and live within our means, which was a pretty big mindset shift, having come from a world where we tend to value more over less.
We had also picked up a free television on the side of the road and managed to get basic cable, on which seemed to be playing an endless stream of local cooking shows and competitions like MasterChef Australia and My Kitchen Rules. These shows quickly became our nightly entertainment.
Since we couldn’t afford to eat out, we took inspiration from these cooking shows and began getting creative with our own cooking. Once again I became fascinated with this idea of taking whatever we had on hand, whatever was cheap, fresh and in season, and creating a meal out of it. And so it was there, in our little trailer in Byron Bay that I really started to cook from scratch with my own two hands. After years of that little seed inside me laying dormant, finally, it began to sprout and grow.
Chapter 3: The Depression
Not long after we returned home, I started experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. I had lost several good friends and family members to everything from a plane crash to cancer to suicide in less than a year and a half, most of them while I was overseas. I was also struggling to adjust to life back home and was trying to figure out what my purpose was and what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Finally, some family issues pushed me over the edge and I ended up suffering a complete mental breakdown, and even found myself contemplating suicide at times.
I felt helpless and hopeless as if I had no control over anything in my life. As I spiraled further and got stuck in my own negative thought patterns, I began to feel even more isolated and alone. I started having panic attacks on a pretty regular basis and some days I couldn’t even get out of bed.
When I finally saw my doctor, I was diagnosed with mild depression and general anxiety disorder. She prescribed me antidepressants and sent me on my way. But they didn’t help. In fact, they actually made things worse because, as it turned out, the side effects included insomnia and “worsening depression and suicidal thoughts.” (Is there any worse side effect than “suicidal thoughts” for someone already suffering from depression?)
Around the same time, Ryan and I started binge-watching Netflix documentaries like Food Inc., Farmageddon, The Human Experiment, and American Addict — documentaries that exposed some of the harsh realities of where our food, medicine, and personal care products come from, how they’re processed, and the impact that has on our health. These exposés really opened my eyes to a side of food (and generally, what we put in and on our bodies) that I was still really blind to. In some ways, I felt even more depressed at the state of affairs in this world.
But we also saw, in these documentaries, that there were people out there who were taking matters into their own hands. There were people growing their own organic food, treating illnesses and diseases with herbal medicine, going “back to the land,” and living more self-sufficient lives. And they seemed happier and healthier for it.
I was transported back to my time in Senegal. How fascinated I had been that there were people in this corner of the Earth who were still living a truly self-sufficient lifestyle. At the time, though, I didn’t think it was possible to live that way here in the west. It was a charming idea, yes. It inspired me to take more of an interest and involvement in my food, sure. But I had never considered anything to do with growing my own food or moving to the country and pursuing a homesteading lifestyle.
And yet, here were these self-proclaimed “homesteaders” right here in North America and other parts of the world who were consciously choosing this lifestyle, and they were thriving. I began to embrace this idea of homesteading. I saw the pursuit of self-sufficiency as a way to take back some control over my life and find balance during this turbulent time in my life.
Chapter 4: Healing Through Homesteading
I dove headfirst into learning more about homesteading and self-sufficiency, including how to grow, cook, and preserve food at home, forage for wild foods and medicinal herbs, produce more and consume less, and live a more natural lifestyle in tune with my values and with the seasons and rhythms of the Earth.
I took out books from the library, continued to watch documentaries and shows like Alaska: The Last Frontier and Live Free Or Die. Just learning more about this lifestyle and hearing the stories of other people who had opted out of the rat race and returned to the land in some capacity gave me the inspiration and direction I needed to focus on something other than my depression. In many ways, it offered me a brighter future to look toward.
In the meantime, I practiced my from-scratch cooking skills. I grew a small herb garden on my balcony and felt giddy when I chopped up my first handful of homegrown chives. I shopped at farmer’s markets and began to replace some of the pre-packaged, processed foods in our house with organic, local produce. I foraged for wild blackberries and froze them to eat throughout the year, and I started learning more about food preservation methods. I spent as much time outdoors, in nature as possible.
Ryan’s interest in knowing where our food comes from continued to evolve too, and the more we learned, the more we wanted to start producing some of our own food. So we began planning our eventual move to someplace where we could have some land of our own to grow a large garden and pursue a simpler, slower, more self-sufficient lifestyle. Something far away from the stress and chaos of city life.
We took a few years to plan our move. During that time we got married, I finished school, and we continued to learn and practice whatever homesteading skills we could in our apartment in whatever downtime we had between work and school.
Finally, four years ago, Ryan landed a transfer within the building company he worked for at the time, and we made our big move to Vancouver Island, where we live now. We rented an old house on an acre of land for the first three years, and that’s where we learned how to garden, can and preserve food, make our own candles, cleaners, personal care products, and herbal medicine. I also became a mother in that house, and that really made me want to do everything in my power to feed my daughter organic, healthy food and provide her with a safe, natural environment to grow up in.
Over the last few years, we’ve also made a conscious effort to simplify our lives. Since the pace of life is much slower and much less expensive where we live now, I was able to quit my teaching job to stay home with my daughter (something that is nearly unthinkable in Vancouver where it takes two incomes just to pay the bills). Instead, I was able to center my life around our homestead and pursue my passions — gardening, cooking, creating, spending my days with my young daughter while passing on these valuable life skills to her, and sharing it with the world via my blog The House & Homestead. And Ryan left his job and started his own handyman business.
We’ve built most of our life from scratch — from new gardens to home businesses we’ve started. We’ve taken financial risks, moved away from our family and friends, and created this life for ourselves. Today we own our own quarter-acre property on the edge of the forest, just outside of town. We have a large garden, produce a substantial amount of our own food, and continue to grow our skill sets and learn new things (from how to grow and care for a new type of plant to how to build a rain barrel out of a garbage can or a compost bin out of scrap materials, how to ferment vegetables, make our own toothpaste, and forage for herbal medicine). Next year we’re getting chickens.
Of course, beyond the normal setbacks of life (jobs lost, sickness, limited funds) homesteading also delivers unique challenges. Pests have destroyed plants that we’ve painstakingly grown from seed, and invasive weeds have taken over parts of our garden. I’ve had canning jars break and lost jars of tomato sauce that came from tomatoes I spent months growing from seed. We’ve wasted time and money on projects that didn’t work out — like me thinking I was going to make a quilt (ha!) or Ryan rigging a DIY self-watering system that failed.
You can’t have the sweet without the sour.
But a large part of homesteading is learning how to be resilient, grow from failures and challenges, and let go of the things we can’t control. So we try to embrace this part of the journey too. Over the years, I’ve learned that success and happiness come from accepting that failure, challenges. You can’t have the sweet without the sour. Learning to accept this truth has helped me cope with some of the bigger life challenges we’ve faced more recently, including a major car accident, two pregnancy losses, and a job loss. In the days of my depression, those challenges would have broken me. But despite everything, I feel healthier and happier than I ever have before.
And no matter how hard of a day the universe delivers, we fall into bed at night, wake up as a family the next morning, and possess the freedom to schedule our day according to our own values, pursuits, and dreams. Even on weekdays, we start the day as a family, which includes some lingering cuddles with our almost 3-year-old daughter. Then we head to the kitchen and cook up a from-scratch-made breakfast of scrambled eggs, sourdough pancakes or homemade bread with home-canned strawberry jam. We sit down at our dining table to eat together and talk about our goals for the day. In the summer, we head out to the garden to water and harvest anything that’s ready, and I plan out our meals for the day depending on what’s in season or what we have on hand. Then Ryan heads off to whatever job he’s got scheduled for that day, and I head into my home office where I work on my blog, although I take regular breaks to just be a mom. I start to prepare dinner around 4:00 and then, in the evening, we gather around our table to eat a healthy, home-cooked dinner together once more. And when the day ends, dirt rests on the floor, and dishes sit in the sink. Always.
Looking back, it’s now been more than 10 years since I looked out and saw the men and women of that little African village with their hands dug deep in the sand. That day changed the course of my life. Over the years, I’ve traveled the globe searching for my place in the world, and in the end, it led me to this quarter-acre of independence, freedom, and self-sufficiency with a home and a family at its center. Today, I sit here, sipping my coffee on a cloudy, late-June morning, gazing out the window at our lush garden, breathing in the comforting scent of warm sourdough bread fresh from the oven.
Anna is a mother, homemaker, blogger, and modern homesteader. She lives with her husband Ryan, three-year-old daughter Evelyn, her two cats Luna and Lucifer, and two (pet) rabbits Bunny and Jessica on a 1/4-acre homestead in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. You can follow them on their homesteading journey and learn more about real food, natural living, and self-sufficiency at www.thehouseandhomestead.com.