A Beautiful Life: Andrew and Noelle’s Story
…..100 yards on you’ll see a little turn off that leads directly to pigs. Call me at that point.
Those are the instructions I received when I called my brother asking for the specifics on how to get to his new place this past summer. I took the first right that appeared to be the little turn off he was talking about and found myself inching along a dirt “road” that was basically just two tire tracks worn into the grass leading into some woods. I arrived at a pig pen shortly and followed the rest of his instructions to “just stay on the tire tracks until you get to a pond.” So I aimed the car away from the pigs, deeper into the tree cover and drove slowly through the densely packed trees hoping the car wouldn’t get too scratched up from the low hanging branches. I took one final turn, to the left this time, and stopped abruptly at a pile of dirt in the middle of the track. I had arrived.
Andrew and his partner Noelle have spent the last six months living in a one room log cabin just outside a small town 25 miles west of Minneapolis, MN. The last two years they’ve been working on an organic farm, managing the CSA (community supported agriculture) after spending a season in Colorado running their own operation. Before embracing a lifestyle that centers on sustainable farming, Noelle spent her days on archeology digs in the middle-western states, and Andrew ran another CSA with his twin in South Dakota. Their lives have been varied and never dull – working outside isn’t for the faint of heart. And this past season added some extra elements.
That log cabin that I pulled up to just past the pigs? No electricity. No running water. Just a quaint cabin, a propane two burner camp stove on the screen porch, a solar shower, and a wood stove for the chilly nights. They get their water from the main farmstead a half mile down the road. Two big coolers keep their food from spoiling and they only eat ice cream when they go out for a treat. They read by headlamp or candlelight in the evenings when they aren’t too tired from a full day of planting, weeding, harvesting or delivering produce for the farm. They make calls and check their email when their mobile phones are fully charged and the signal is good. They have spent the last six months identifying what exactly is enough to live well in Minnesota.
They won’t be staying much longer this year- the cabin, though toasty when the little stove is going, isn’t insulated for winter. Not to mention they do their cooking outside and the only bathroom is an outhouse that’s a 50 yard walk away from warmth. They learned a lot from the farmer they worked for these last few years, but they are also ready to move into their next phase, whatever that ends up being.
I caught up with Andrew and Noelle this past weekend as they headed north to Grand Marais for a long weekend. After working their last chilly days of this year’s farming season the week before and with the temperature at night dipping into the 20s, it was time to leave for a while and figure out the next steps.
What is challenging about living like you have these past six months?
Andrew: It is easy to live without electricity. You can do most things by kerosene or candle light. Not having an easy access to drinking water is another matter. Everyday activities that we took for granted like washing dishes and taking hot showers became either extra challenging or non – existent. We have become more mindful of how much water we use and don’t use extra dishes unless it is essential.
Noelle: The “solar shower” that came with the cabin didn’t work very well…..not much sunlight gets to the tank, being in the woods and all. The cold cold showers before we purchased our own portable camp solar shower were not fun. I enjoy baking, so there have been times I’ve missed easy access to an oven. Keeping up with friends and family who are far away was also a bit more challenging – cell phones have limited battery power – when the phones go dead for the night, that is it…there’s no recharging until the next time we are near an outlet.
What is beautiful about living like you have these past six months?
Andrew: It’s peaceful out in the woods. After a long day working in the fields in the height of summer, there is no better place to come home to than a log cabin that’s shaded by trees and situated on the shores of a private pond just over a grassy berm from a river. We’ve had a chance to really live in tune with the elements. And any time we could take a hot shower or use an oven these last few months- especially as the weather’s gotten colder – has been a treat.
Noelle: It’s lovely to wake up to nature’s finest wonders – there’s nothing like an early morning sun beam splicing a fresh spider web. A few weeks ago, I couldn’t feel too sad about ruining an entire huge vat of applesauce that was meant for canning when we’ve got so many pigs and chickens around who I know will delightfully devour it all up – living simply and near a farm means things are less likely to go to waste. I have listened to the gradual transition from frogs to birds on the pond in the morning and then to the gradual transition of birds back to frogs at night. That day, and so many other days, made a full circle. And hey, as autumn progresses, we get to cook dinner by starlight.
Why sustainable farming?
Noelle: There’s a certain sense of pride one feels while eating food that she grew. Then there’s the sense of pride one gets while eating something that she grew from seed. Then there’s the feeling one gets while eating something that she grew from seed which she saved by painstaking hand-pollination the previous season…which is something else entirely. At the end of the day, farming is hard, dirty work. You bake in the summer heat and shiver in bone-chilling cold in the early spring and later fall. It doesn’t leave you rich. But it’s beautiful work.
Andrew: I like collecting things. I like to set my own schedule and work with the seasons and the weather. I like watching a winter squash plant take on a life of its own and produce fruits the size of wagons. I like seeing shelves and boxes fill up with trays of onions, garlic and potatoes. I like making things work and seeing the success of a season of labor. Growing food in a way that supports the health of the soil is elemental – you might say it’s in my DNA, coming from a line of farmers that goes back to the fjords of Norway.
Perhaps Wendell Berry says it well when he writes,
Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: “Love. They must do it for love.” Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide.
So though Andrew and Noelle’s days at the cabin are numbered, (after they return from their trip north, they’ll be moving into a heated/insulated/electrically wired portion of the farm until the end of the year and working at the local meat shop…..Even the hardiest of souls would cringe at the thought of taking an outdoor shower or trekking to an outhouse in December in Minnesota.) there is more farming in their future. Andrew may be back at the South Dakota farm, working the family land for a season while Noelle focuses on opening up her options in art – another passion that is essential to making her tick. But wherever life takes them next, their time at the log cabin on the shores of the Crow River will surely inform their choices as they figure out what balance of comfort, farming and sustainability is enough for a beautiful life.