By James Vlahos
The phone rang when I was shoeless and only a couple of sips into my morning coffee. “Hi, it’s Novella Carpenter,” the caller said. “My goat is giving birth.”
Twenty minutes later I was crouched in the hay at Ghost Town Farm, pushing away chickens and peering into the pen that housed the expectant mother, Bébé. Her udder was so swollen she couldn’t get her hindquarters down. Bleating, she clawed at the dirt with her right front hoof as if searching for a stash of Vicodin. “Pass me the iodine,” Carpenter said. “We better wash up.”
Similar birthing scenes have unfolded countless times in America’s agrarian past, but none, I suspected, had the soundtrack of the Ghost Town neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. As Bébé’s cries reached an apex they were matched by the caterwauling of a police car siren on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Then came the intestine-undulating bass of hip-hop from a passing car. Residents disagree on how Ghost Town got its name—for the isolation created when freeways cleft the neighborhood from the rest of the city in the 1950s? For the appallingly high murder rate? For the casket companies that used to be located here? More unanimously accepted is that Ghost Town is a singularly odd location for a homestead that hosts pigs, goats, geese, peaches, potatoes, spinach and bees. Carpenter is living a version of the Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasy all right, but hers is Little House in the ‘Hood.
Carpenter, the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, is, by her own admission, “a bit nuts.” If so, she has company—similar farms have sprung up on city blocks in Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh and Detroit. And food is hardly the only commodity that people are producing for themselves these days. A small but growing number of American households generate all of their electricity using wind, solar or micro-hydro. But off-the-grid living has come to mean something more nuanced than cutting all ties with utilities and society; for many, it’s about finding creative ways to produce and conserve resources at home. Hundreds of thousands of Americans capture rainwater in barrels, can food from their gardens, heat water with solar collectors and commute by bicycle. We may be nearly a decade into the 21st century, but the self-reliant spirit of an earlier era—that of homesteading pioneers—has returned with gusto.
At Ghost Town Farm, Carpenter cleared the head-high weeds from a 4500-square-foot lot and started planting. She didn’t ask permission. When the lot’s owner discovered the squat garden he warned that he would soon develop the real estate–that was five years ago. Now the lot is verdant with lavender, sage and thyme; lime, rhubarb and raspberries; artichoke, collard greens and avocado.
Strolling through the garden, I became overwhelmed by a feeling that could only be described as vegetable lust. But something deeper than my appetite had been stimulated, too. My grandfather once worked a small mountain farm in Greece. He immigrated to California’s Central Valley in his 20s, opening a produce stand and then a grocery store, but he never totally severed his connection to the land. I remember strolling through fruit-laden trees in his backyard as a boy. Now, I was gearing up for major changes myself—the arrival of my first child, the purchase of my own home—and I had been thinking about what sort of sanctuary I could create for my own family. The house I envisioned was solar-powered and garden-ringed, a little safer, smarter and more productive than the wasteful world around it. I was deeply curious about the experiments of modern homesteaders because I wondered just how self-sufficient I could be, too.
In the pen Bébé continued to push and, with a little gentle guidance from Carpenter, the newborn’s head crowned. Then the front legs were out. Bébé gave a final, anguished cry and the kid was born, a female, soon to be named Hedwig. Twenty minutes later, she had a brother, Eeyore. The two Nigerian dwarf goats wobbled about on untested legs and, undistracted by a car alarm that had started to blare, tried to find their mother’s teats.
America is dotted with remote, off-the-grid homesteads. Certain regions—including western Texas around Big Bend National Park; the mesas outside of Taos, N.M.; and pockets of the Sierra Nevada northeast of Lake Tahoe—host whole mini communities. The Surprise Valley of northeasternmost California supports another. There, where skyscrapers of light slant from the heavens to the mirror-flat floor of the desert, I was crouched on a mattress attached to a rope.
The other end of the rope was hitched to a Ford F-350. The tires spun and soon I was hooky bobbing—surfing at 30 mph, a roostertail of dust in my wake. I felt as gleeful as the Road Runner with Wile E. Coyote giving futile chase. The truck stopped after a few minutes and, as I spat dirt clods from my mouth, a pretty young woman in a red plaid shirt and a white cowboy hat emerged from the cab. “You’re lucky you’re just visiting,” Tierra Hodge said. “If you lived here we would have set the mattress on fire.”
I’d been introduced to Tierra through a tortured chain of connections—my wife’s cousin’s father’s friend’s daughter, or something like that. She grew up off the grid on land near here, and had agreed to guide me around a place I never knew existed and introduce me to people who didn’t necessarily want to be found.
The first stop was welcoming enough: a mountain homestead replete with mud, solar panels, semi-clothed children, and chickens. Then we had lunch in the town of Eagleville with Ed and Wendi Lutz, trompe l’oeil painters who’d retired to build an off-the-grid retreat. Tierra said the place was beautiful—circular, with deep wooden sills and colorful bottles embedded in the walls—but the Lutzes refused to disclose its exact location. I’d told them I was a journalist and might as well have said One World Government Spy. “We have come to value our privacy,” Wendi said, eyeing me warily. That afternoon we drove past a doomsday retreat, complete with its own private airstrip, belonging to a wealthy Bay Area businessman. “He’s preparing for the end of the world as we know it,” Tierra said with an enigmatic smile. I couldn’t tell if she was mocking him or applauding his foresight.
The specters of financial crisis, climate change, uncertain energy reserves and a fragile food supply loom large for the new generation of survivalists—and though I don’t share their apocalyptic mind-set, I find myself relating to the urge to run for cover. In April, the top-selling action and adventure book on Amazon.com was Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse, a work described to me by its author, James Wesley Rawles, as a “survival manual dressed as fiction.” Its plot appeals to those on the political right, who fear a too-powerful government—and the anarchy to come in the wake of its inevitable collapse. Leftie off-the-gridders gravitate more to the “grow-local” approach championed by author Michael Pollan. “We’re using up the world’s resources more quickly than you could imagine,” says Ruby Blume of the Institute of Urban Homesteading. “I think we need to be prepared.”
Lately, homesteaders of all political stripes have settled upon a common concern: globalization. The shock waves of any crisis—for instance, the subprime meltdown—now spread far, fast and wide. Many doubt that major institutions can be counted upon to save the day. “You’re on your own, your job is at risk, and a lot of the commodities you rely upon are vulnerable to disruption,” says John Robb, author of Brave New War, which describes how terrorists could exploit global systems. To my ear, such statements straddle the line between reasonable advice and hyperventilated threat. One day you’re sipping a frappuccino. The next you’re using a pitchfork to fend off rioting mobs. But even if I don’t fully agree with the dystopian diagnosis, I like Robb’s proposed cure: “You’re going to have to start doing more for yourself.” The beauty of the DIY solution is that the exact problem doesn’t matter; greater self-sufficiency makes sense to survivalists and eco-utopians alike.
In the early 1970s, Tierra’s parents established their own fully off-the-grid homestead in Mendocino, and later in Surprise Valley, with the thought that “when society crumbles, we’ll be able to raise our children in a safe environment,” Tierra says. She and her sister, Celesta, grew up in a tepee; her mom, Tina, and dad, Bill, supported the family by breeding llamas and selling medicinal herbs. Instead of sitting in a classroom the Hodge girls were home-schooled, usually outdoors. Instead of playing video games, they explored the mountains on horseback.
Growing up in the wild was idyllic but not always easy. When Tierra was 15 a boy braved the long dirt road to the homestead to pick her up for a date to the county fair. He emerged from the car looking spiffy in an all-white outfit only to have the Hodges’ pet raccoon pounce with muddy paws. Then one of the llamas pegged him with a wad of saliva. Tina, always on the lookout for free meals for wildlife she rehabilitates, shouted after the couple, “Goodbye, honey, have fun, and don’t forget to look for roadkill!” “I just about died,” Tierra recalls. But in spite of their upbringing—or because of it—the girls turned out fine. Tierra went to college. And Celesta moved almost directly from the tepee to a penthouse in New York, gracing the cover of Cosmopolitan as a fashion model.
The day after hooky bobbing, I found myself standing ankle deep in llama poop with a shovel. My job was to ferry wheelbarrows of the stuff up a hill to a garden, dump the smelly payload and then do it again. And again, ad infinitum, until it got dark or my blisters burst. It was raining, so I was damp, and the sodden manure was getting heavy. Then the clouds broke, and the sun beamed down on the Hodges’ secluded mountain—160 acres surrounded by protected wildlands. The air was pine-scented and pulsing with the sound of a creek.