Another Way to Live

steve maxwell house 1986Mortgages have always scared me, but that’s not the main reason I made a decision that changed the trajectory of my life while riding on the fender of a farm tractor at the end of a sunny August day in 1981.

I was 18 years old at the time, and a friend and I worked for a wonderful man who farmed several thousand acres where the northern edge of suburban Toronto abruptly changed to the century-old rural landscape. Tired and tanned, suburban development whizzed past us on the left side of the road as we rode in the open air with fields of wheat and corn and hay on the right, I decided in a moment that I would leave my city upbringing and live rurally. Or at least try to. Fast-forward 31 years, and I’m still happily following that decision. In the process I’ve also discovered an overlooked lifestyle that some people were made for, yet too few ever find.

Think of the way people produce a living for themselves as one point on a number line. Imagine the right-hand extreme of this line is a lifestyle where you produce every last thing you need directly, with your own hands. At the left end of the spectrum is a lifestyle where you produce nothing directly for yourself. Instead, you earn money that you use to buy everything you want and need. Most of the western world functions at the extreme left side of this spectrum, and for good reason. If all that matters is getting the most amount of stuff for the least amount of time and effort, then specialization in the money economy is the way to go. But for some of us, a lifestyle pursuing money as the only means of material gain has hidden costs that never show up in any strict economic analysis. I’m convinced that a great deal of what surfaces as depression and anxiety finds its roots in lives that are too specialized. It’s like the difference between free-range chickens and factory chickens. Free birds scratch the earth and feast on bugs and grass and wild seeds in addition to feed supplied by the farmer. Factory chickens, on the other hand, focus on laying eggs 24/7, never enjoying the challenges, risks and rewards of life in the open. The factory situation is certainly more productive as measured by numbers, but what kind of chicken would you rather be?

steve maxwell house 1989It took four years after my “tractor moment” to find a piece of land where I could put my ideas into practice. The 25+ years that my wife and I have been living this way hold many lessons for anyone seeking to break free of the chicken factory lifestyle, but one of the most important has to do with houses.

Of all the features of a life aimed more towards the direct production side of the spectrum, houses hold the most practical promise. Mortgage phobia is one reason why. If you sit down and figure out how much after-tax money it takes to buy a ready-made house via a mortgage, you’ll find that you’ll easily pay twice as much as the purchase price you settled on when your name is the only one on the deed 30 years later, even with today’s low interest rates. That’s a lot of eggs laid in the chicken factory. Then there’s the issue of creativity. Building a house yourself, slowly, as you can afford to, is a potent adventure that has as much to do with building your inner self as it does with putting a decent roof over your head.

steve maxwell house today 2012When we began our free-range lifestyle, I’d never even put up a garden shed before. We started by building a 10×20 foot building at a cost of $550 as our first home. The skills I learned over the years creating the stone-and-timber home my family of seven lives in now was the beginning of a process that’s left me with the know-how I need to raise any kind of structure, install plumbing, wiring and fill the place with furniture. The main thing to realize is that I’m not special. If there’s just one thing you take away from this article, consider the possibility that you’re much more capable than you believe. This is especially true if your self image has been conditioned by a lifetime spent as a specialist. You’d be surprised at the variety of skills you can develop when you intentionally create a need for them.

It’s not like my wife started out as any sort of outdoors, hands-on person, either. She grew up in Central and South American countries, in cultures where camping, the great outdoors or building anything yourself is a completely foreign idea. While I found the transition from life in the GTA to be an instant and joyful relief, Mary took some time. She’s completely on-board now, but it didn’t happen without selfless adjustments on her part. You definitely need to go into this sort of thing with the right kind of person.

If you’re able-bodied, willing to step beyond the ordinary, happy to roll up your sleeves and okay with a little dirt on your face, then you might consider a life beyond complete specialization. Canada is certainly a wonderful place to make this happen. In fact, it’s one of the few countries in the world where good rural land is still affordable, and we still enjoy the freedoms to make good things happen directly for ourselves. While it’s more work being a free-range chicken, the view is a lot better out here.