By Abigail M
I’m sitting on what used to be a car seat, torn-out and tanned by the Arizona sun. It rests against a school bus, perhaps its past home, that is half engulfed by the earth with cob walls guarding its entrances. Around me, makeshift abodes — some on wheels, tiny homes, tents, cob houses bedazzled with bottles and other odds and ends — giant water collecting towers, attempted hydroponic greenhouses, a composting toilet, and solar panels decorate the landscape. This is what I call home, or as the owner calls it: The island of misfit toys. A collection of characters color in between the lines; everyone here comes from their own pasts, all around the world, with different beliefs and passions, yet we’ve found ourselves in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, this homestead and ecological sanctuary.
About two months ago, I set off on my first solo cross-country trek. The mission: To mess up. What I mean by mess up isn’t terribly clear: I wanted to push the boundaries of what it means to live in the United States; I didn’t want the next cookie cutter step — graduate college, get a job, get a house, work until you can’t — and I certainly didn’t want to stay complacent, stagnant, during the burgeoning ecological crisis. So, I decided to WWOOF. WWOOFing stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms and is a worldwide initiative to connect people to organic farms, provide an educational platform for more earth-focused agricultural practices, and to build community.
More than anything, I wanted to rid myself of this ongoing sense of disempowerment, devastation, and dread. Nowadays, these are normal responses to our institutionally-dominated sphere where nature is cast aside, along with human wellness. Sustainability, beyond its denotation, its buzz-wordiness for green-washing corporation’s intentions and profit, is inherently an intersectional outlook: the well-being of the natural world is inexplicably linked to the well-being of humanity.
WWOOFing is a radical style of life. Radical meaning root. When it comes to getting to the root of climate change, it is essential that we look at agriculture and our modern-day practices: tillage, chemical exposure from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, water run-off, desertification, monocultures, pollution, habitat destruction, and more. Unfortunately, the USA’s agriculture field is more focused on subsidizing crops for cattle, such as corn, rather than maintaining fertile soil that can sequester carbon and continue to grow food for people. So, small-scale, organic farmers may be the underdogs, but they are the keystone to a sustainable future in farming.
One thing I’d like to express is that WWOOFing is a personal journey — no one experience can replicate another. There are a plethora of farms, skills, people, and other factors that can change the course of events; also, goals, desires, and intentions can heavily influence what is taken from any given situation. Additionally, it is important to be cautious and aware if/when traveling alone. Although the WWOOF.org organization does a wonderful job at regulating feedback, entering into any situation, especially intimate situations where you may live in a shared space with other people, can be somewhat unsafe. That being said, make sure that you have points of contact, consider traveling with a friend, thoroughly check reviews, and be on guard. Overall, WWOOF attracts good people, but safety always comes first.
My personal journey started in Concrete, Washington at a homestead nestled beside the Skagit river and underneath the North Cascades. This land, before westward bound colonialism, was home to numerous indigenous tribes and is still sacred land to numerous people. My host made this incredibly clear, which transformed the nature of my stay. The land where the homestead was located was not only full of thriving microbes and critters living under the earth, blooming flowers, hearty vegetables, and fruiting trees, but also held a wealth of indigenous history, traditions, and sovereignty.
Simplistically stated, homesteading is the practice of creating a self-sufficient system. However, in a culture where most people are dependent on creature comforts such as grocery stores, heating, cooling, water, and plumbing, this act takes a significant amount of planning and upkeep. At this homestead, my host centered her homestead around permaculture principles. Permaculture is the act and art of looking towards nature’s natural systems for solutions to human systems. Now, I’d like to personally add that the separation between “nature” and “humanity” is a social construct; people live within nature and are a part of it. While this distinction may be helpful for describing ideas such as permaculture, it can be harmful to our understanding as living beings that share this world with numerous other living beings. However, when we blur the line between nature and humanity, permaculture actually makes a lot more sense — of course we should be looking at the “natural” world for solutions, we are a part of the world and they are our solutions as well. Permaculture is more of a mindset than a rigid system of rules and regulations: A permaculture mindset provides tools and is an open field of innovation where exploration takes place.
The first rule of permaculture is to observe and then interact. Observation can last as long as it is needed and is ongoing. In order to interact with the land, it is important to observe it for at least a year to fully understand how the seasons interact with it, especially if you intend on building structures, collecting water, and growing food. I also learned the importance of zones. At this homestead, there were different zones which determined the layout of the land: The garden and kitchen were closest to living structures as they are frequently visited; in the middle of the property there are berry bushes, a composting toilet, and the shower; then the property is guarded by a guild (collection of plants that provide support for one another), a chicken coop, and larger trees. This design organically unfolded to adhere to the needs of the people living there and mitigate their energy expenditure.
When I first arrived at the homestead, I was overwhelmed by every detail, every bit of intention, that went into the land. When WWOOFing, the general deal is: work four-five hours a day for housing and food. By only working up to five hours, which is often full of conversation, education, and friendship-building, there is a ton of time to learn, and time to create, relax, cook good food, and create community.
During this time, I lived in a wooden hut, somewhat like a glorified bed frame with a roof above my head and wooden pillars elevating the mattress off the ground, which opened its door to Sauk Mountain. Every day, I watched the raspberry sky fade behind the mountain’s face. Admittedly, the living situation was rustic, but the lack of space pushed me outside and gave me a greater appreciation for what I did have. This hut became somewhat sacred to me: the beginning and ending of my days all coiled under one roof.
Although each day began and ended the same way, with a reflection period, everything in-between wildly ranged from canning parties, where four pots of boiling water were going and hundreds of cans of food were preserved, to harvesting medicinal herbs and making tinctures, to visiting nearby farms and assisting in their harvest. Every day was full of diversity. Every day was full of intention. I think that may be one of my favorite parts of my WWOOFing experience: without the distractions, or the business, of everyday life, time blossoms and becomes plentiful. Instead of rushing from once place to another through a general medium of anxious thought, I was present in every task. And, at the end of the day, everyone living on the homestead would gather around a communal meal and give thanks. Despite having the least amount of material goods, I have never heard so many people sing praise to the ongoing abundance festooned around our little community.
I continued to WWOOF down the west coast and ended up working on an organic winery where I’d wake up in the morning and squish grapes under my feet. Then, I found myself in Big Sur living on the top of a mountain in a small artists’ homestead. Now I’m in Arizona, sitting in a sun-dried chair thinking about earth ships and what kind of kingdom I’d like to build from clay, sand, and straw. Along the way, I have met characters and some of the most inspirational people I’ve ever known.
Whenever people call and ask what I’ve learned, I feel this sense of fear: How could I ever encapsulate all of the lessons I’ve learned, all of the stories, people I’ve met? While that may be a futile effort, I do believe that one of my biggest revelations from this ongoing journey is that there is a myriad of beautiful ways to live life outside of the heteronormative, capitalistic, consumeristic society that seems to be hanging over the United States like a cold, wet blanket. Likewise, some of our greatest solutions are working in hidden corners, and although it may be hard to see, gears are turning. Lastly, the health of our soil really does correlate to the health of our nation — not to mention ourselves.