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.

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19 thoughts on “No Escape

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the process of your shifting resolve and questions and the dance between them. So much to consider in uprooting oneself and trying to live in the present while keeping the future in mind.
    I didn’t think that Kingsolver was being irresponsible with that memoir; I think she actually writes about her awareness of her privilege in the earlier part of the book (I read it years ago for a review) and it sounded like a lot of hours and attention in her daily life to me (at the time, anyway, when I was not quite so whole-foods-y myself, just partway on that road). But I passed along my copy because she was pretty dairy and meat focussed from my perspective (but to others that might have been more interesting/relevant reading).

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading my thought process!

      Since I haven’t read Kingsolver’s book, i was speaking out of turn and should not have. I hope she says something about her privilege. Because I can imagine many of her fans reading the book and thinking they could do something like that and having no real idea about what it all means. And then end up not having an income to fall back on if/when the farming/homesteading doesn’t work. It’s so easy to romanticize that life and so much of the daily grunge and dirt and exhaustion gets left out so people get a completely wrong idea.

  2. We feel lucky to have our little 1.25 acre just outside of town and are never moving again! But it is a LOT of work, even without a self-sustaining-sized garden. We are trying to repopulate it with drought-resistant plants and natives, and it is a wonderworld of birds. Trying to do our part right where we’re at. Side note: I know Charlie Jane, we were in a social group with her many years ago and have delighted in her literary success! Amazing writer, and incredibly kind and smart person.

    1. You have settled yourself into a wonderful spot Daphne! You are doing good work there. I imagine the dawn chorus must be pretty amazing! That is so cool you know Charlie Jane! From her book she seems very kind with a quirky sense of humor. Also, from all the literary references she so casually drops, super smart. She seems like a fun person to be around.

  3. I think you’ve made the right decision, although we did move when Jack retired it was to a modern house which is far easier to heat and doesn’t cost a fortune to maintain. The cost of gas and electricity in the UK has just increased hugely this winter. I hated leaving my old garden which I had worked in for 26 years but I don’t miss the Victorian house which was impossible to heat. I’m over 60 now and I don’t have the strength and energy that I did have five years ago, as plants grow stronger we get weaker! I did think about taking on a plot in a nearby allotment but decided against it which is just as well as I couldn’t cope with one now. We’re more remote from shops than we were, but all the shops where we used to live closed down anyway. Life is all compromise. That Bemidji place sounds like a nightmare to me.

    1. Thanks Katrina! I remember when you were faced with the task of creating a new garden, a huge undertaking! I am glad you are happy where you are. I am happy where I am too, but there has always been that dream of some acres. The time for it has passed, and that’s ok. Your “as plants grow stronger we get weaker” comment made me laugh. So true! 🙂

  4. Thank you for posting this! And thank you for linking to Craftmanship, it is beautiful! A lot of food for thoughts in your post and your decisions. Of course, choosing a place to stay and to remain depends on cost and the relative difficult to move your things that are important for you (and plants and animals if it is even possible), but also it is where you want to feel at home and where you have a community, where you can have a contribution but also live alongside people whom you understand (even if they might be different from you). Do you consider yourself as a Minneapolis citizen? From what I read in your post, this would not be the case in Bemidji, so you have nothing to regret.

    1. Isn’t Craftsmanship a beautiful magazine? It is a recent discovery for me and I am really enjoy it.

      I do consider myself a Minneapolis citizen. I feel a real sense of belonging and care for what happens in the city. And you are right, I don’t have that feeling for Bemidji. No regrets! 🙂

  5. I made a very similar calculation when ex had his meltdown and thereby forced me to consider (again) where I wanted to be an old person. Wanted and could afford being very different things, there were many things just not on the table (like going home to NM). But as I was putting my old garden to bed for the last time, my body complaining loudly, I realized that my dreams of modest self-sufficiency were sort of delusions. Even if I could afford them. Which, let’s be honest, nobody but the privileged folks can afford to start a farm these days, and because of reduced capacity for revenue, hobby farms (all I’ve ever been able to manage on my own) are the most expensive.

    But more importantly, we need community. Out there on my farm, I can’t help anyone else out. Just as importantly, nobody can help me either. So I opted for small city / large town. Someplace that needs me. Lo & behold that place turned out to be Vermont. Who knew…

    I’m glad you chose to keep your current garden going. I want to know what happens to your juneberries. And you are definitely right about not wanting to start that process again. I’m not old yet, and I love making gardens, but it is getting harder and harder. I could not manage a farm on my own now. Even if someone had put it all together the way I like it already…

    Stay warm, my friend!

    1. You make some good points here, which reminds me of my experience reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. In her memoir, she argues that her family would just buy a farm and only eat what they could get within 100 miles of the farm. She makes homesteading sound so easy. Meanwhile, they’re living on her income as a famous writer and whatever her husband did (it was remote work, even more than a decade before the pandemic). I read Kingsolver’s book with a book club of older ladies, mainly in their 70s and 80s, and all of them felt Kingsolver was quite irresponsible. They recalled days of farming to live (I understand that this is not what Stefanie is doing with her home!), and hated how hard and miserable it was.

      This post also reminded me of a book I read about buying a house in Detroit. The houses are only about $30,000 because the city is largely a wasteland in some areas, mansions that were abandoned in the white flight. However, it can cost about $300,000 to fix these houses up to make them habitable. So, the author argues that these cheap homes are a great opportunity for people with no money, turns around and borrows hundreds of thousands of dollars from her parents, then lives in an entirely white, liberal neighborhood — in the middle of Detroit.

      1. GTL, funny your should mention Detroit because I keep thinking about that city and all it has been through and I imagine that when things go south, many people will be leaving the city for places they think will be safer. There are questionable opportunities for the privileged like the woman in the book you read, but I have read about many things people who live there have done in terms of social groups, food growing, and community building that gives me hope.

        Heh, yeah I have avoided reading that Kingsolver book for the reasons you mention. I understand what she was/is trying to do but she is, like those older ladies in your book group said, irresponsible. She’s kind of like the “gentlemen farmers” of old where they had farms but didn’t actually do a lot of the really hard work themselves.

        1. I took a grad class called “Black Detroit” that I really enjoyed. We learned about how white flight decimated the city as black citizens gained better employment and started buying houses in nicer neighborhoods, which typically were owned by white people. Then, as a city designed to hold millions of people lost residents, it became too big to care for. Basically, the city is so huge in square miles, and there are so few people living there, that the taxes fail to cover things like snow removal, trash pick up, police and ambulance services, etc. I did hear about inner-city beekeeping in Detroit, though, which I love. People are possessive of the hives and keep the area nice for the bees, which prevents vacant lots from getting trashed.

    2. Ah Elizabeth, you speak truth. As we get older things get harder and if we lived in an old farming community where people took care of each other we’d be able to manage it because we’d have neighbors to help us and who we’d help in return. Sadly, that is so rare these days unless you are part of an Amish or similar group. I am glad you found someplace that needs you and you can belong to!

      Ah the Juneberries! I am hoping they make it through the winter as I seem to have a rabbit eating the ends off my shrubs. My bush cherries are chewed off in a bad way and I haven’t had the nerve to tramp through the snow to investigate the Juneberries. If they are being nibbled, at least everything below the snowline should make it. I hope!

      You keep warm too!

  6. What a wonderful post, Stefanie. Thank you for sharing. I agree, there is no true escape from climate change so we might as well do things to help the communities we’re already in be more resilient and caring.

  7. This all makes so much sense. Plant your garden where you wash up in the world, like Candide.
    Also what you say about “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” is the plot of Devolution, by Max Brooks.

    1. You know, I’ve never gotten around to reading Candide, but yes, that’s exactly it. Oh, Devolution, forgot about that. James read that one and told e about it as he went so it feels like a vicarious read. But yeah, I want to be around people wit skills, or at least ones who aren’t afraid to get dirty 🙂

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