Earthbound Essay: Pagan Homesteading
I'm in the barn, milking my goats. First Goldie, the big alpha female, then her sister Blue, smaller and much more docile. Then Sister Bertrille, the white goat named for The Flying Nun because her white ears stick out so far. Our new buckling, Angelo, dances around my feet; he gets fed separately from the girls because they're still hazing him and won't let him get to the feed bin. He'll get his revenge, though; in six months' time he'll be huge and annoying, with great, spreading horns, and he'll be the alpha of the flock. He'll corner them against the manger and take them, in heat or out of it. Goats are violent creatures. It's one of the lessons of being a farmer and raising your own animals; you can't anthropomorphize them. They are what they are, and you can't make them different.
Still, when idealistic, bright-eyed feminist students try to tell me that there's no proof that testosterone causes violence, I laugh at them. They don't live in the real world, where the visible differences between buck and whether, bull and steer, rooster and capon are so clear that there's no questioning that link. And yet....Since my sex change from female to male six years ago, I've been shooting that same boy juice into my arm, and I don't act like my buck goat and ram and roosters. Or do I?
After the milking, I go outside to a clear summer sky where you can see every star, like a sprinkling of white flour across the sky. They called it the Milky Way, the galaxy - from galactos, milk - because it looked like a spray of milk across the sky. The moon shines full like a bright-white disc, a mirror image of the bowl of white milk in my hand. I lift the milk to catch its reflection, a tradition I've invented. Blessed by the moon and stars, I take my daily nourishment into the house and strain the goat hair out of it by running it through a coffee filter. It goes into the fridge, another in a row of blue glass mason jars filled with galactic whiteness. On each one, I have drawn with my finger the ancient Norse rune for Ice, as a magic spell to keep it from spoiling.
Day and night, the milkings, bracketing each day like sunrise and sunset. The day milking, when I come out into green-and-blue daylight, or perhaps grey rain; the night milking where I stare at stars. In the real world, animals need to be fed and watered and milked, and you don't get to put it off or skip it, unless you can afford to hire other hands to do it. It's why I have to leave parties early, why I can't stay out overnight; every day has to be planned around the twice-daily chores. Being a homesteader is a lot like being a monk or nun; there's a daily discipline of labor that changes only with the seasons and provides plenty of time for contemplation. You're generally poor, and you can't leave often or for very long. People veer between thinking you're admirably moral and spiritual, and being certain that you're nuts. Of course, on my little monastery, there's no guff about celibacy. If the goats and sheep can do it, so can we, and we do, whenever the labor doesn't leave us too exhausted. Which is more often than we like, or care to admit to.
It's back out to the barn, now, one last time; I give hay to the sheep and goats, put Angelo back in his pen, and stop to pet our new ram Angus. He is black and woolly, with wide curly horns and a wary expression; I'm still coaxing him to like me. The lambs are kicking up their heels and chasing each other around. In the real world, you look at cute little animals and calculate how many of them will need to go into the freezer for you to get through to next February's birthings. Every adorable lamb that I see born in the winter snows will not live to see the following winter's snows. My farm is a closed ecosystem, carefully designed; my fields will only hold so many adult sheep and goats, and the lambs and kids are most of our meat supply. When one of my adults dies, I will bring in new blood from a neighboring farm rather than risk inbreeding. I play the game of life and death, usually out of sight to most modern Americans.
In the real world, before you can have your lamb chops, you have to disassemble a living animal. We have created our own pagan version of the kosher butchering laws - every animal must be raised kindly, given food that it was designed for, and killed as quickly and cleanly as possible. We've found nothing quicker or cleaner than a bullet to the head. In the real world, a gun is a tool, not a plaything to brandish or an instrument for people-killing. The hardest part isn't the killing; it's the four to six hours of butchering afterwards, often in hot, mosquito-ridden weather. Because my spiritual practice demands that all parts of the animal be used in order to respect their gift, we tan the hides, place the skulls on ant mounds to be cleaned for decoration, and give the hooves to a friend who boils them out to make rune sets from the pastern bones. The fat becomes soap, and the bones handles. The bits we can't bear to eat are given to the dog or are put out as offerings to the forest spirits, who always send a stand-in to take care of them.
As the final part of my discipline, I give water to all the critters - goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits. People talk about the four elements - water, earth, fire, and air - but if they don't live in the real world, they don't understand. You can't fully appreciate water until you have hauled it in buckets in a winter storm to thirsty creatures, or dug a well into the earth and watched it gush forth. You can't understand air until you've worked outside in all weathers, watching the sky desperately for the rain you pray will save your crops or the frost you fear will kill them. You can't understand earth until you have kept a compost heap, sowed seeds with your hands, taken your dinner directly from the soil to the kitchen. You can't understand fire until you've been directly dependent on it - like we are on our big cast-iron wood cookstove, named Esmeralda. Yes, we really do cook on her, we tell our skeptical visitors, and no, we don't have a "real" stove, meaning a metal box that heats food with fuel bought from a large corporation. Esmeralda runs on wood that we drag out of our woodlot, log by log; it can be backbreaking labor, but then again when the power goes out and the neighbors panic, we're hardly bothered, except that we can't watch TV or get on line.
My life is a strange juxtaposition of radically different eras. Next to my computer is a basket of wool from my sheep, complete with soapstone Viking-style spindle, and I hand-comb and spin wool while each page of the Internet loads on my slow machine. The wool will later be woven into the poncho that I've promised my wife. I'm a history buff, and it touches my heart when I move in the paths of my ancestors, doing what they did, knowing that this is as close as I will ever get to actually time-traveling. This lifestyle that we've chosen - poverty and all - is more than just a historical experience, however. It is a spiritual discipline, the fullest way we've found to live our reverence for the Earth and her cycles. Everything I do here is an act of worship.
At the same time, I'm sharply aware that if I'd actually been born in an earlier era, I'd been dead now. The intersex condition that I was born with, that gave me two decades of ill health, nearly killed me at least once, and finally mandated my sex reassignment, would not have allowed me to live in the time of my ancestors. I wouldn't have made it to the age of thirty. The medication that I inject into my arm is made from the byproducts of the slaughterhouse industry that I disparage as cruel, and sold by large, corrupt pharmaceutical companies. I am alive by the grace of modern industrial medicine. I never forget this galling fact, as I go about my lifestyle of being close to the earth. I am a mutant. In the heartless dance of the Force of Nature that I worship, I was supposed to be culled out. My redesigned, resculpted, self-created, transformed body is a gift of the same breed of technology that poured DDT into the world's waters, that is currently poisoning the planet possibly beyond repair.
I wonder, sometimes; does my less-polluting lifestyle somehow balance out the fact that I am dependent on its products to live? In some ways it might seem almost ridiculous, as if I was fooling myself by attempting to live close to nature when I am such a Frankensteinian creature, but this is why it's all the more important to me. Most transgendered and queer people live in urban areas, where there's more of a community and a better chance to blend into the crowd. It's all too easy to feel like your "unnatural" status automatically exiles you to the equally "artificial" cities; that Gaea's green world is reserved for the salt of the American earth - conservative, monogamous heterosexuals churning out lots of babies. The "back-to-the-land" hippie movement of the 1960s largely petered out when those same hippies realized how much hard work was involved in subsistence agriculture, and this was unconsciously seen by much of the counterculture as proving the aforementioned guilty assumption. By being here and living the way I do, I blatantly disprove it. I keep my connection to the earth in spite of my technologically-altered flesh, and I never forget where I, or my nourishment, comes from.
I stoke up the fire in my stove and close the grate, leaving it to warm the house overnight. Bella will get up before me, frying eggs from our chickens and feeding the poultry. Bundles of dried herbs hang from the beams overhead, waiting to be made into medicinal tinctures. Although I must consume some modern medications in order to live, I don't resort to them for temporary conditions such as colds and flus. For that I rely on vitamins and my own remedies. Most of the furniture in the house is salvaged or trashpicked, and most of the structures were built with lumber taken from the dumpsters outside construction sites, usually large boring homes covered in vinyl siding in the usual five colors - white, grey, beige, light blue, and light yellow.
It's partly recycling, and partly poverty. It's a challenge to us to subsist on so little money and still live a happy life. We aren't completely independent by any means - Bella works part-time and receives disability money, and I tailor costumes and sell herbs and the occasional book. I also get child support for my sixteen-year-old daughter, who hates the farm, the country, and all the food we grow here. She's chafing at the bit to get back to the bright, exciting city; my stars and trees and wide-eyed newborn kids do not move her. Well, after all, I didn't follow in my parents' suburban middle-class lifestyle. I can't expect her to value what I value; she's a different person. Still, I wonder whether I should leave this place to her, or perhaps create a trust rather than expect her to keep it going after my eventual death.
I'm watching out the window now, on the moon lighting the orchard and forest and the new chicken house. When we first moved here, six years ago, we considered ourselves perverts. Slowly, many of our toys became incorporated into farm projects instead of sex projects - clothesline and clothespins ended up actually hanging laundry, as a real dryer would add too much to the electric bill; chains pulled logs out of the woods; cliplinks and carabiniers held gates and pens shut. It's a good thing that we never found a farm use for dildoes, we joked. Yet there are compensations - having acres of woods with convenient clearings means that you can have loud sex under the starry sky (or bright noonday sun) without waking the neighbors. You can hang from a live tree, or do it on a bed of moss. "We're extremely wealthy," says my wife. "We just don't have any money."
It's not easy being the queers in a small rural town. Our neighbors politely tolerate us, which is better than they might do in other areas of the country, but they do not socialize with us, and we know that they gossip and say things we are glad not to hear. It can be isolating, sometimes; we've dealt with this by making our place a refuge for our urban friends. They flee their cold grey world when they can't stand it any more, and end up on our doorstep, which is always welcoming. We are an earthy anchor to their floating, detached lives; we will always be here. We will be buried on this land, which will receive our flesh as it has received our sweat and blood. And who knows? Maybe someday we'll inspire other queerfolk, and they'll buy the farm next door......