As we’ve rolled through June with increasing daylight, warming nights and the calls of Barred Owls echoing through the woods, more and more people have called us to make their reservations for the summer.
The greatest reward we can think of is to see our hard work pay off in appreciation from our hostel guests for providing this place. Still, for the first few years of running the hostel I often turned around after waving goodbye to our guests feeling that there ought to be more we could have given them.
Learning experiences can happen in many ways. For most, adults as well as kids, just staying as a guest at the hostel is an eye opener: to hand pump water, having to be mindful about electricity, seeing the garden produce their dinner and to meet our pigs and our chickens.
Many want more than just a brief encounter with this kind of living. It’s clear to me that many people have begun to recognize the vulnerability of modern society and are now seeking to learn the skills needed to live a positive-impact, self-reliant life on whatever level they are ready to do so.
We often have people — many from our own community — stopping by or giving us a call wanting to know how to prune their apple trees, what to do with their leaning barn or how to best grow their tomatoes. Young people come to us with their dreams of one day having a homestead of their own.
These encounters inspired us to start an educational program. Formal workshops, lectures and tours have their merits: We can invite others to teach, it’s focused and easy to let people know it’s happening. For a few years now we have offered classes focusing on the practices we use in our everyday life — long known but mostly forgotten techniques for resourcefulness and self-reliance: organic gardening, how to keep your food in a root cellar, fermentation, natural medicine, cider making and granite splitting. There’s no end to the learning opportunities around our homestead.
Classes are one way to learn, but actually doing it is the only way to really learn.
That’s how I got started. I came upon places similar to ours where I could stay and help out, and in that way I was introduced to an alternative way of living where hands-on labor gave the rewards of food and beauty and a connection to the land.
Throughout the years a number of friends have stayed with us for longer or shorter periods of time, working alongside us in the gardens and the forest. They have experienced building the granite foundation for the Hostel house, cutting the timber frame for our new guest hut, milling lumber and harvesting produce.
Three years ago took on our first formal apprentice, Megan. She sent us a letter saying she would like to learn this stuff: preserving food, gardening, working with wood. Megan turned out to be a superstar and came back in May the following year to stay with us through September. She’s now living and working independently on the island through the summer.
We get the help we need for the season and Megan gains something she could never have gotten in a workshop: the long view. To plant and weed the garden and eventually harvest, eat and preserve the produce. She gets to experience the rewards but also the inevitable routine: carrying water, picking potato bugs, emptying the composting toilet and feeding the animals.
This real life experience might be the greatest asset we have to share, and it’s our responsibility to do so. We live a life we believe in, in a place we will leave better than when we came. We’re a viable example that it’s not only possible to pursue this alternative lifestyle, but that it’s easy, dignifying and highly rewarding.
To not share this with travelers would be greedy; to not share it with those devoted to carry this philosophy onward would be a great mistake and a huge loss.
Anneli Carter-Sundqvist is owner of Deer Isle Hostel. A version of this piece first appeared in Mother Earth News. It is also available in her book, “A Homesteader’s Year on Deer Isle.”