When James and I moved from Los Angeles to the Twin Cities back in 1994 we were astonished at how inexpensive houses and land were out here. We ourselves still couldn’t afford it, but we thought in time we might be able to buy a 10-acre hobby farm just outside the city for the low, low price of $150,000.
Then the housing boom came and by 1999 when we could afford to buy a house, there were no hobby farms left just outside the city; the expanding suburbs ate them all up and buried them beneath developments of small mansions on streets named after the farms and wetlands and trees that used to be there. The hobby farms were now on the outskirts of the suburbs, far from the city where we worked and going for a lot more than $150,000. We were only two people with a modest income, so we bought a little house in the city a couple blocks from a lake and a creek, about a mile from the Mississippi River, and so close to the airport that the airport commission had made noise reduction improvements to the house.
We love our house and our neighborhood even though the airport has expanded and become noisier than it used to be (climate change will eventually fix that is my guess). We love that we can walk five blocks to the lake; very much a local neighborhood vibe at this lake rather than the bustle of the larger, popular city lakes like Harriet and Bde Maka Ska. My neighborhood also has a pleasant business area that is within walking distance that includes the public library, a bakery, my dentist, and a small independent grocery. And there is a little cafe only four blocks away we walk to occasionally. In pre-COVID times there would sometimes be tiny concerts there by neighborhood musicians. We had a little vegetable plot in the backyard and we liked the neighbors on both sides of us.
We had a dog when we moved into the house and he eventually died, as our animals do. We decided to not get another dog, which then made it a lot easier to start digging up the grass in the backyard, little by little, expanding the garden. Eventually we knocked down our rickety 1 1/2 car garage and tore up most of the concrete it sat on, put up a chainlink fence around part of the area, built a small shed from a kit, built a chicken coop from our own imaginations, and now find ourselves living on a tiny urban farm. Not the 10 acres I dreamed of, but the smallness encourages creativity, and we are happy.
In spite of all this, I still get a longing sometimes to leave the big city. Several years ago we caught wind of a group of people who were working on finding land to create an intentional community built around permaculture principles. We went to one of their potluck meetings to check them out and see what they were about. Nice folks, a little weird, well intentioned but kind of intense in a driven and on a mission sort of way. It would cost a lot to buy-in to the community. Also, everyone was white and middle-class and middle aged. They talked about the need for diversity but they had no plan on how to achieve it. I have kept an eye on them since then. They still don’t have land, they are still all middle-class and white.
Then in November 2021, James and I heard a story on Minnesota Public Radio that Bemidji is paying people to move there. Bemidji is a town of a little over 15,000 in north-central Minnesota, 3 hours northwest of Minneapolis. It is at the headwaters of the Mississippi, very close to a national forest and several state parks. There is also a small state university there. Hmmm, we thought.
Now Bemidji isn’t paying just anyone to move there. They were paying people who had remote jobs; privileged people with money who would add their money from their remote work to the local economy without needing a local job or being a drain on city services. They wouldn’t pay me to move there, but I started doing research on the city.
James and I would very likely both be able to find good jobs without a problem. There is a hospital and medical center with a couple neurologists who have experience with MS patients. Not exactly a vegan-friendly town, there are a couple places with options, and a natural food co-op. There is a small public transportation system with limited hours of operation mostly intended to get people to and from work. The weather is more like Minneapolis was back in 1994—colder winters, cooler summers. As the climate continues to heat up, this seems ideal. And the houses. We could get ourselves a 2-bedroom house on half an acre to an acre for $130,000 or less. Or, we could buy 10 wooded acres for around $30,000 and build a tiny house. Wow! We should totally do this!
We got really excited about it. I started dreaming about having an enormous garden and taking bike excursions through a national forest. I imagined bike camping with James and forest foraging. I imagined fruit trees and nut trees, a root cellar and a pantry lined with shelves and shelves of preserves and ferments. I imagined friendly neighbors doing the same sorts of things.
The more research I did, the more seriously I thought about moving, the more James and I talked about it, the more I realized it was not going to happen.
My little urban farm developed over the course of years, the hardest earliest years happened when James did not have MS and so had a lot more energy to help do the heavy work. These days, in the heat of summer, his fatigue is sometimes so bad that an hour of early morning weeding is the most he can do. And while I have the energy and strength, I also still have to work a full time job. If all I had to worry about was the garden, I could do it, but not a big garden and a job. Also, the thought of leaving my little arugula meadow made me terribly sad. There are some things I could dig up and move, but so much that I couldn’t. And I know that if we moved, the next people would rip everything out and put in a lawn. I couldn’t bear that, even if I had a bigger garden to tend elsewhere.
And the chickens. I’m pretty sure we can’t move the coop. We’d have to build an entirely new one. It was hard enough the first time, I really don’t want to do that again. And I cringe at the trauma moving the chickens would cause them. This is their home too.
But even beyond the chickens and garden, we realized we saw the prospect of moving to Bemidiji as an attempt to escape climate change and all the attendant ills that ecological, social, economic, and political collapse might bring. We’d have a small town rural community where we could be away from all the bad things, where we could have a greater self-sufficiency, where life would be hard, but it wouldn’t be in a dying city.
That, of course, is a fantasy. Because there is no escape from climate change and the potential collapse of anything. And just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean there is a supportive community or there won’t be civil unrest. Plus, the more I thought about it, the more bothered I am that Bemidji is paying people who have remote jobs to move there. White, middle-class people with lots of privilege are not the sorts of people who will be useful to have around as things go downhill. And the more I looked at lots for sale, the more I found lots that were in new developments so that it started to seem like the town is trying to become a remote suburb.
Minneapolis is not the most diverse of cities, but there is more diversity than Bemidji. There are also friends here. And the work I have been doing over this last year to get involved in my neighborhood and community is important. Eventually a big city might be a very bad place to be, but we’ve decided to take our chances because it might also turn out to be full of positive possibilities. When the airplanes stop flying, it’s a five minute bike ride to the outskirts of the airport. There is lots of open land there for growing things, even more without the runways. I don’t want to imagine a world where my neighborhood needs to rip up tarmac in order to grow food to survive, but it’s good to have options.
I was reading the April/May 2020 issue of Mother Earth News yesterday because someone told me about an article in it about how to start a homesteading club. It’s a good article and it gave me ideas. Also in the issue is a reprint of an interview with Wendell Berry from 1973 and he said a few things that resonated:
If the ideals and aims of … people have lost energy, it’s because they don’t have the stability of a commitment to one place and one community. I think they’re disposed to drift around until they find a suitable community. But no community is suitable. There’s plenty wrong with them all. I could construct an airtight argument for not settling in my own community. The fact is that I’m spending my life constructing an argument for being here.Wendell Berry, interview Mother Earth News originally published March/April 1973
A farmer who’s a neighbor of mine and probably the oldest friend I’ve got in the world told me, “They’ll never do worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.” That’s the most important thing that’s been said to me in the last couple of years. It illuminates the meaning of marriage. When you believe in a thing enough so that you eliminate the second choice, forsake all others, then you’re married to it. So, we decided that this place would have to be our fate and that we’d stay here no matter what happened, as long as life was possible.Wendell Berry, Mother Earth News, 1973
My window for a 10-acre farm is gone. I have a tiny farm instead, but I have a farm. It’s time to let go of that hobby farm dream. It’s also time to let go of the idea of escaping the uncertainty of the future. I have one choice, to stay here. It makes things simpler in many ways and more complex in others. But here we are, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Since I only get a 30-minute lunch break, I only read a little five days a week. Carson is an amazing storyteller and writer.
- Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders. A good little book about writing and storytelling. I believe you can read most of it as essays on tor.com
- How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates. I am very much hate-reading this. Know the enemy and all. And I am certain when I am done that I will have things to say.
- Team Human: Jamie Cohen talks about our fascist media environment; this includes the right and the left. Part of the conversation is about how media make us seem more divided than we are, which goes along nicely with Eliza Daley’s essay House Divided. During the conversation David Rushkoff and Cohen talk about storytelling and how language makes and casts spells, which dovetailed with a podcast I had listened to right before this one…
- Emergence Magazine: The Ecology of Perception, a conversation with David Abram. Abram in his youth traveled the world by working as a slight-of-hand magician, and here he talks about language as magic.
- Craftsmanship Quarterly podcast: Historical Clothing’s Comeback. Slow fashion and lost techniques are making a resurgence. These women, however, are next level. If you would prefer to read the article from the magazine, and/or see the photos of the dresses and clothes discussed, you can do so here. One of the sewists interviewed had been working on a replica of the “Peacock Dress” worn by Lady Curzon to Britain’s King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra’s coronation ball in India. Remaking this dress raised questions and controversy about the colonization of India and the still existing trauma surrounding it. You can read a follow-up article about that here. Ultimately, the dress project was abandoned, though the white woman remaking the dress seems to have been more or less excused for her colonial privilege because, while she didn’t actually apologize, she did say that “it appears” people are upset, and she didn’t intend to cause any harm. Sigh.
- Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson (audiobook). A climate change story in classic Stephenson style featuring the Queen of the Netherlands, meth gators, and gigantic feral pigs that eat pets and small children. It’s an enormous book and James and I are listening to it together while crafting, which means it’s a once or twice a week thing, so this one will take awhile.
- The Eternals. Some good humor but overall pretty meh.