“Hunker Down” Days

By , September 25, 2009

This morning, like every morning, I walked out into the teeth of the weather in my pajamas. We, like generations of Americans before ours, have a “little house,” an outhouse. For most contemporary Americans such a thing is unthinkable. For us it’s a very real connection to our environment. Looking out the window to see what the day is bringing you can’t compare to getting out into it half-dressed to feel what it’s bringing you!

What I felt today was a Hunker Down Day. Here’s the deal: every day we ask ourselves, “what will (or did) I do today that will sustain this lifestyle?” It’s an important question. Other than maintaining a handful of investments and micro incomes, most of our time and energy focuses on keeping us clothed, fed, sheltered, and warm. So, what did I do today? Did I gather firewood? Did I catch a fish? Did I work in the garden? It’s important to move ahead, not to get complacent and fall behind.

Then there are days like today. The wind is somewhere around 30 knots and it’s raining heavily. These are fairly common conditions in Southeast Alaska, even in our area, where it’s a bit drier than the rest of the region. On a day like today it’s not difficult to get outside, but it’s the kind of day when you look for indoor projects that allow you to sit down, enjoy a cup of coffee or hot cocoa. A project like updating the blog perhaps . . . .

Some days are best declared Hunker Down Days, although we’ve learned to be very cautious about such declarations. Just like the last administration’s ridiculous color-coded threat assessments, such a declaration can quickly get out of hand.

The first winter we spent on the homestead was a pretty tough one. It was the harshest winter any Haines old timers could remember—and our old timers have a lot of winters behind them! The schools closed for an unusual amount of time. Irresistibly drawn to the allure of an honest-to-goodness snow day, even at our age, Michelle and I were quick to decide that if her public school peers weren’t studying, Aly didn’t have to homeschool that day, either. We would observe these snow days in solidarity with the townsfolk. With several feet of snow in the dooryard, freezing spray dashing in from the wave-torn rocks, and the wind howling above 30 knots, it was a Hunker Down Day if any deserved the term.

So we snuggled down in front of the woodstove, hot drinks at our elbow, to read or play games, or perhaps write letters.

Then a funny thing happened. Of course, we couldn’t tear our eyes from the windows. The storm proved more exciting, and more comprehensively plotted than most television shows. Soon Michelle noticed the weirdly shaped hollows the wind had carved around every unmovable object. Our curiosity grew, and before long we bundled up and went outside to strap on snowshoes. We had to climb the trail up the ridge behind us, the trail that leads eventually to the bay, and then to the road.

What we found is hard to describe. Imagine, if you will, a steep wooded slope, over which tons and tons of refined white sugar, or perhaps foam, had been poured. Then, in mid flow, it suddenly congealed. The wind, baffled by cliff faces and slopes, swirled through the forest, sculpting the snow. It was breathtaking! We decided that since we were out, we should hike as much of the trail as we felt like, breaking the new snow to preserve the track. We knew what could happen: one night Michelle hiked out for a community meeting. She was gone only two hours at most, but when she returned, the piling and blowing snow had erased all trace of the trail. Luckily, she knew the way well enough to make it home, but we learned the wisdom of repacking the trail now and then.

Snowshoeing is a pretty good workout, and by the time we turned back toward home, we’d covered more than three-quarters of the trail. We arrived home hot, winded, and flushed.

So much for hunkering down. True, we weren’t really working, but we had accomplished something, and, as far as recreation, it was a lot more strenuous than working on a puzzle or shuffling a deck of cards.

This is just one example. I have observed that a declared Hunker Down Day almost always guarantees more work will be accomplished that day than on a “regular” day on the homestead. Either the weather improves unexpectedly (which often happens) or restlessness sets in, or our attitude changes after a couple of hours of rest and relaxation. Perhaps more significantly, I suspect that by giving ourselves permission to take it easy for a day, we remove the pressure to be out and doing, and focus switches from the obligation to achieve to the pleasure of achieving.

Because I’ve learned an important lesson. Actually, I think I’ve always known it, being raised this way, but I’ve proved the lesson time and time again living on the homestead: not all work is work. Working for the good of one’s family, on projects that make a better life for yourself and the ones you love is not the same as working for wages. Yes, the ends are the same—working a “real” job earns the money to spend on family needs, so the effect is much the same. But, having worked most of my life at a strange variety of jobs, none can compare to the satisfaction of the work I do now. Working at making a living for yourself and your family is more than work, it’s prayer, or meditation, maybe even recreation in the most literal sense of that word. It’s much more physically challenging than the office jobs I used to have, but at the end of a day on the homestead, I think I’m less tired than I ever felt after a calm day at the office. Maybe the tiredness I’m talking about is spiritual, not physical.

I see two important differences between these two types of work. First, our kind of work is self-scheduled. We work our own hours, at our own pace. If something more important (or even just more fun) presents itself, we switch to that. Or, we knock off for a while, to see a whale go by, or to bird watch, or snack. Secondly, we do it as a family. This is not to say that all of our projects are worked on together. Most are not. But we have access to each other. If Aly has a question for me, she knows where to find me. She doesn’t have to call the office, and have a receptionist or the voice mail tell her that Dad’s busy and can’t take her call. If Michelle finds yet another large rock in the garden, she can summon me to help pull it out. If a neighbor drops by to visit, we can stop what we’re doing and sit down to chat over a cup of tea. These are the things that make work a pleasure, rather than . . . well, a job.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that while it is important to move ahead, to make progress on ensuring our continued existence here on the homestead, the whole thing won’t come tumbling down if, every now and then, we hunker down. That is going to prove one of the most important lessons learned here. We do have to keep our eyes on the prize, as it were, but we don’t need to create stress over it. To do so would be to jeopardize the whole plan. Little by little, things will get done.

This is a hard lesson for me. As head of the family I feel a responsibility to ensure our survival. But I am beginning to see that my perception of what should happen, and when, is not the best plan.

For instance, accumulating firewood seems like a no-brainer: obviously, the woodshed must be filled with enough wood by mid-autumn to see us through the winter. But in reality, this may not be the best, safest course. While the vision of a huge pile of wood, dried, seasoned, neatly stacked stored up against the ravages of the coming winter is overpoweringly seductive, it is far more sensible to focus my energies elsewhere, and accumulate that supply of wood more slowly. It doesn’t make sense to be up in the woods on a warm day, sweating and bug-bitten as I buck up a fallen tree, when the salmon are running past the rocks. The tree will still be there a month or two later, the salmon won’t. A month from now, the bugs will be gone, the days will be cooler to the point where a good vigorous workout with a saw would be welcome. There may even be snow on which to sled the rounds down to the cabin for chopping. If I reject the ideal I’ve conjured for myself and attend to each task in its proper season, I lessen the work and discomfort of one job, and avoid missing the window of the other.

So, the Hunker Down Day is there for us when we need it, but, like most treats, it must be doled out carefully. You never know what might come of it.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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