“There’s no room!” cried the Hatter.
“There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.– “A Mad Tea Party,” Chapter 7 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
When we moved out here, someone told us we needed to buy three things: a chainsaw, a generator, and a gun.
We’d come from just over the city line in the Delaware County suburbs of Philadelphia, so we didn’t own any of them.
As it turned out, this was sound advice. The chainsaw kept you warm, the generator kept the lights on, and the gun was a tool to discourage varmints on four (and two) legs.
It’s been about ten years since we heard that advice. In that time, we’ve built a permaculture food forest, educated countless people online via our podcast (The Original Transplants) and locally with in-person workshops, and come to live a radically different life than we were used to.
Ten years gone, you do get a chance to sit back and reflect. In doing so, I’ve been bouncing around an idea about self-sufficiency, living at the fringe of civilized society, and what the next ten years of homesteading looks like with children in the house. It’s in part a political philosophy. I’ve come to call it anarcho-pastoralism.
Our home is in the boondocks. The road is tar and chip (a paving option I didn’t know existed until I got out here) and more or less one lane. Out the back door are Pennsylvania State Gamelands, and the longest edge of the property borders a farm that is preserved forever under a conservation easement. It’s an amazing spot. As another neighbor put it, there’s people who live where we live and people who want to live where we live.
We named our homestead “Satoyama”, a Japanese term for where arable land meets the mountains. Communities in satoyama zones specialize in a unique kind of agroforestry, harvesting both rice and timber. We were inspired by a David Attenborough documentary about small scale agriculture in this unique mix of lowland and highland, as well as the children’s movie My Neighbor Totoro (1988).
We made an immensely good decision moving out here, and doing it when we did. In 2013, the housing market was palsied and everyone was glum on real estate. We’d toyed with the idea of throwing a hand grenade at our stateside careers and capitalizing on a job offer I got for a high-salary job posting in the UAE. We also thought about investing in a rental property to create some passive income. Without kids and being financially secure, life at 28 holds all kinds of options.
What drove the decision to buy the property we did wasn’t just that we wanted to move out to a place where a chainsaw, a generator, and a gun were necessary—though we did, in a profound way. It was also the only place affordable if you wanted land. We dreamt of gardens, a few acres of them. Can’t get that in a rental. (Though, we did manage to create an out-of-control raspberry bed at our old place, which thankfully did not come out of the security deposit).
What also drove the decision was proximity to our white-collar jobs. Both of us worked in higher education, and while we wanted rural, we didn’t want it too rural. This was the only place that we could afford a rural life but also continue to commute. Some people thought we were crazy. A friend told us that we were in for a culture shock. It was far, far out of the way.
We also did not own a chainsaw, a generator, or a gun. (One thing to note about where we live: we have no police department. We rely wholly on state police. A PA state police officer once told me and my neighbors that we should always be armed.)
I’ve come to understand that where we’ve landed is called the exurbs by sociologists and anthropologists. The Brookings Institute typified the exurbs as areas connected to a major metropolis, with more than about two-and-a-half-acre lots on average, and rising population growth (our lot is 2.3 acres but who’s counting.) In other words, the exurb is the rural area past the suburbs. Where the possibility of a sidewalk ends, so to say.
We went exurban before it was cool, which it became when pandemic restrictions created a boom of work from home and an exodus from cities. Turns out we were that white-collar harbinger of the exurban real estate boom.
Living here feels like life out in the Pocono mountains, just far more convenient. You can flirt with self-sufficiency here, growing orchards, keeping animals, living without HOA codes. There’s fresh produce all summer, dirt cheap, and you get the fresh air and water of country life.
On the other hand, you can commute, in a pinch. You can also get to academic medical centers in the city, or find a movie theater.
One foot in, one foot out. That model has let us continue to build wealth through our white-collar jobs while also experiencing what typifies the rural life: an often adversarial relationship with nature, which I’ll get to later. We have 401ks, investments, and I own two suits. Our work is cerebral and involves discussions over what kind of email to send. But the other day I listened to the coyotes howling in the woods as I screened the blueberries from roving blue jays. On a good year we can produce a lot of our own fruit and meat supply—our hands often are covered in cuts from raspberry canes.
But even though we’re rural, we are indeed ex-urban. The landscape is classic southern-tier Pennsylvania—rolling hills, farmsteads, old churches and mills—but it is far from being “wilderness.” When you look under the hood, you find immense political forces at work. They happen to favor the life we’re living here, but they easily couldn’t.
For one, the preserved farmland next door is the result of immense political pressures. The land trusts in our area, foremost among them an outfit called Natural Lands Trust, work every day to preserve the exurbs (Full disclosure: I am writing a book that includes NLT’s origin story, among other things). Land trusts, where they can get the money and cooperating landowners, function to preserve farms, homesteads, and other natural areas in perpetuity. For some, land trusts are the ultimate form of NIMBY. They forestall any development, meaning many of the farms in our area won’t fall to Poulty or Toll Brothers construction. But it takes a tremendous amount of capital and political will, plus a conservative environmental and cultural outlook, to make that happen. The suburban ring of Philadelphia has little in the way of farming or naturalized areas. They’re mostly gone, plowed under by bulldozer. But further out, where we are, land preservation promises to prevent this homogenization.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission, our other neighbor, has its own long view. For the Game Commission, these are lands not to be managed over decades, but to be managed over centuries. There is zero pressure to fulfill a profit motive. It also means that changes don’t come easily. Once, I got into a discussion with a Commission arborist about whether a tree right over our property line was half dead or half alive. To me, it looked half dead and a threat to my deck and possibly my house. To them, it was a tree that might have decades of life left in it. I have the cell phone number of our Game Warden, one of the most overworked people on Commonwealth payroll: a single Warden has to cover immense acreage, preventing people from doing horrific things to wildlife (beyond just shooting them in-season).
Much of the exurban landscape, I came to learn through some land trust work, is owned by incredibly monied people who beat us out here. Lawyers, doctors, tech company founders, and so on. There are family farms, sure, but there are a ton of horse farms, and the fox hunts that occasionally come through our neighborhood in a clamor of clopping hooves, braying hounds, and terrified wildlife represent immense wealth.
What results is a patchy place that is on the cusp of change, but likely won’t. Because of that land trust activity, a lot of this area will remain as it is in perpetuity. The state lands will do the same, since the state thinks in centuries, not decades. These political forces have created a static landscape for us, in a lot of ways.
At the same time, our little corner of the world has blue-collar workers, fixed-income pensioners living on little, and other folks who might be casually pushed out as this place matures into the next century. It’s strange to be the one to gentrify a landscape that isn’t urban. On the other hand, not everyone can live out here at the edge of hunting grounds, where forest fires threaten, power outages are common, the cell phone signal is spotty or nonexistent, people race ATVs in the dead of night, and the world is generally a little rough around the edges.
We were, at first, trying to get away from it all. Our search for this place came after we soured on the idea of reform. Both my wife and I had marched in Occupy Wall Street, feeling ferociously angry that Wall Street was bailed out in 2009 while we faced awful job prospects. When the encampments at Dilworth Plaza were razed in what I heard was a coordinated, multi-city effort to shut down the protests permanently, we were fatalistic, to an extent. To make things better was harder than we thought. Much harder.
We wanted to find a place where we could feel less cramped and more self-sufficient. We wanted to do things our own way on the margins of a decaying society.
I’d spent a lot of graduate school studying Ibn Khaldun, the medieval North African philosopher/sociologist/ethnographer/explorer who’d written my favorite cyclical history model, a concept that in a lot of ways changed my life. The introduction to his world history, the Prolegomena, is a tome in itself, let alone the history of the world that follows. I’ve never actually read much of his world history, because a study of the introduction alone could constitute an entire academic career.
Central to his thesis is the idea of ‘asabiyyah, which can be translated from the Arabic as group cohesion, or social cohesion. Groups that have it overthrow groups that don’t. For Khaldun, civilization is a cyclical battle between groups that start with ‘asabiyyah, become corrupted, and are in turn overthrown by groups with a stronger sense of self.
Khaldun studied the rise and fall of medieval societies in Morocco and the Sahel of West Africa, an area that I became enamored with after my wife Sarah introduced me to it. My thesis is here on this blog, and while it reads like a 23 year old wrote it, I more or less sat down and recreated the circumstances he studied, a series of conquests that informed his thesis of a cyclical history.
Long story short, Khaldun studied how the native North African tribes, the Amazigh, overthrew the Arab conquerors of Morocco, and then were overthrown themselves by other, more motivated, tribes, each with more ‘asabiyyah. An Amazigh nomadic confederation, the Sanhaja, were the first to come screaming out of the Sahara desert. The Amazigh are also often called Berbers (Yes, like Berber rugs). They quickly toppled the Arab conquerors of Morocco, who had in turn emerged from the Middle East in the wake of Muhammad’s founding of Islam. The Sanhaja confederation had taken up Islam after the Arabs brought it their way, but as they took on Islam, they found not just religion, but fundamentalism: they were more pious, more God-fearing, and far more motivated. Arabic Morocco, Khaldun thought, had become decadent. The Sanhaja Amazigh moved with the force of those born again, carrying a purity of purpose out from the Sahara and into the fertile valleys of Morocco.
For Khaldun, ‘asabiyyah came from the edges, with the purest form coming from nomadism. It made perfect sense to him that the Sahara became a crucible for religious movements. And while the Sanhaja Amazigh confederation conquered the Arabs, successive Amazigh confederations, like the Almohads and the Marinids, each overthrew the other. The reason for the overthrow was the failing of ‘asabiyyah.
The urbane life, Khaldun thought, corrupted. Even though the Sanhaja Amazigh had started with ferocious religiosity, a few decades living in cities, eating grapes and wearing silks, had softened them. Khaldun identified the death of ‘asabiyyah with urban living. And you can’t blame him. They don’t call them “city folk” for nothing. You lose something living in the city all the time. It’s why horror movies always involve unworldly city dwellers forced to deal with fearsome country rednecks.
While I’m also a fan of other cyclical histories, Khaldun’s has always struck a chord for me. You can’t unsee it. As a historiography, it works to explain the downfall of empires. And it also captures a peculiar feeling I have about urban living. Urbanity has some lack of a core. We all know that something is missing and that humans somehow thrive in proximity to nature.
And it seemed to Sarah and I that America had perhaps started with ‘asabiyyah and had now began a downward spiral. The crackdown on protestors like us seemed like the death rattle of the republic. Of course, we weren’t the only ones to think so. We just wanted to figure out an exit ramp.
In the last section, I talked about living on the exurban fringe, one foot in, one foot out. Where we ended up seems like the best of both worlds. I like to think Khaldun would look at where we chose to live this way:
We get the best of both worlds, right? We can travel into the corrupted center, get what we need, then go back to the rural landscape, where corruption has less of a hold on the soul.
One of the first things we noticed on moving out this way was the immense generosity of the neighbors. Mark has towed our car out of a ditch more than once. Andy lent me all kinds of tools. Sue gave me my first real deer hunting spot, and I still have one of Charlie’s treestands on semi-permanent loan.
In the crowded suburbs we occupied, we barely knew the neighbors’ names. We’d live years in one place and never have more than a few words with anyone living on the other side of the wall. There wasn’t much lending, reciprocation, or interest in each other’s lives. We lived in fear of one set of neighbors in our first apartment, who reported us to the property management company for our party (it was raucous, to be fair).
Stacked on top of one another, the relations are of avoidance, not of cohesion.
Some of the cohesion seems to come from a shared sense of stress living so close to nature. Once, out here in the boonies, I helped my neighbors fight a small forest fire lit by morons in the Gamelands. Another time, a neighbor and I dug the rear wheels of a school bus out of a snowdrift while the kids on board put us on Snapchat (incidentally, that does mean I saved a schoolbus full of children once.)
We practice permaculture on the homestead, which is to say that we aim to do “agricultural judo,” using the energy of the landscape to produce the food we need instead of fighting nature. To the greatest extent, we have tried to create a closed loop system of food production here, with some great success stories, and a lot of sweat equity.
But there’s still that raw edge to interactions with nature. We’ll never forget the time that we moved a mouse nest out of our barn, only to have our little tomato seedlings under the grow lamp eaten by a mouse a week later. Or the groundhog family that looked so adorable, but seemed intent on sinking several structures on the property into the ground. I had Lyme disease in 2022, a really unpleasant experience involving weeks of hefty antibiotics. And while all this drama plays out, the forest is always intent on its slow march into the yard. Without a constant fight, we’d be overtaken.
Sharing the hardship of a life close to nature brings people together and hones an edge. And maybe that’s where the purity Khaldun loves to talk about comes from. Something like this:
In this little place we call paradise, we’re defined, in part, by that animosity toward nature. We fear what’s outside, the same way the increasingly corrupted center of civilization fears the barbarians at the gate. The closer to the center you live, the more fear, and the less freedom.
I’ve been reading Mother Earth News for years as well as a lot of other homesteading literature. What I have started to recognize is the sneering tone that’s infected some of us homesteaders. There’s a thread of superiority running through this kind of life, one that I indulged in throughout the first sections of this piece. After all, I just talked about purity at the edges of civilization. I have thought of myself as superior to the low-landers.
This is natural. After all, astronaut Chris Hadfield mentions how, in his time on the International Space Station, they quickly developed an Us/Them dynamic with the planet. One of the astronauts said, “Earth called, they want X, Y, and Z.” He said it was a jarring moment to think of many billions of people as an Other.
After some self-reflection, I’ve realized that the anarchy at the edges isn’t for everyone. I have to respect people who can live in cities for decades without losing their shit.
Perhaps those who gravitate to different ecological niches are made of different stuff. I’m seeking the edge habitat. I’m seeking that kind of freedom at the edge that is impossible living in the center of a highly regulated, and often highly corrupt, society. Freedom, it seems to me, is only possible at the edges.
But for those like us who need to move outward seeking freedom, the edge might need to be chased.
Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a great example of chasing the edge (it’s also an incredible guide to running a successful insurgency.) The book details how a Lunar society had become a libertarian paradise, full of advanced social mores (advanced, at least, for the 1960’s), immense freedom from coercion, and a governing catchphrase: TANSTAAFL, or, There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. When Earth begins to crack down on Lunar society, revolt breaks out and the book’s central conflict begins.
Loony revolutionaries on the moon do some horrific things: there’s bombings and low gravity gunfights, collaborators get shoved out of airlocks, and the Loonies threaten the Earth with asteroids. Earth, of course, acts harshly to subdue its rebellious colony and threatens blockade and starvation.
Spoiler alert for a sixty year old book: the Loonies gain their independence from Earth with the help of a sympathetic artificial intelligence. They get to keep their little libertarian paradise up in the sky.
After the main character, Manny, discusses the new political reality on the moon, he hints at his own restlessness. The last lines of the book are his rumination on moving further out: “Since Boom started quite a few young cobbers have gone out to Asteroids. Hear about some nice places out there, not too crowded.
“My word, I’m not even a hundred yet.”
In a similar vein, and back in the real world, an old graduate school professor of mine once said that the Americas were a pressure valve for a European continent ripped to pieces by conflicts like the Thirty Years War. The European colonists who headed to the New World were malcontents, political and religious losers, and others not fit for civilization.
And, in turn, when the New World began to gain political and economic structure itself, the malcontents, political and religious losers, and so on again fled to the edges. In Villains of All Nations, Marcus Rediker details pirate societies during the “golden age of piratism” in the early 18th century. While a lot of that period was filled with government-sponsored piracy, there were societies being founded out on open water that prized individual freedom and autonomy. Immensely diverse crews formed direct democracies and lived out their short (often brutal) lives as they pleased. Ex-slaves worked next to displaced Native Americans who rowed with women fleeing abuse, each escaping some injustice. But these free societies were crushed brutally, their “citizens” thrown back into the bonds of horrible circumstances.
You can always try to create an oasis of freedom in the middle of civilization. You might succeed. But I would bet on it being short-lived. In 1970, Nigerian musician Fela Kuti declared that his commune in Lagos, named Kalakuta, was an independent nation. The commune housed not only Fela, his friends and family, and his recording studio, but a free clinic. A thousand armed soldiers of the military junta of Nigeria stormed it and burned it to the ground some years later. Fela’s mother was thrown from a window and killed.
It took 2020 to realize the value of what I had living on the edge. It was a weird realization: I just did not feel the pressures of the pandemic. Part of that is because I was in the laptop class, able to work from home. But it was also the people around me. The lockdowns simply did not happen for us out here. My neighbors ignored it. The Amish enclaves to the west of us ignored it. In fact, I often forgot about the pandemic until I went into town and realized that people really were in a daily, mortal panic about their neighbors-as-vectors. We have fresh air out here and plenty of room.
After 2020 hit, America underwent a mass migration that will likely be studied by sociologists for decades. According to the Census Bureau:
In 2019, the year before the pandemic hit the United States, smaller counties with fewer than 30,000 people lost population through net domestic migration.
During the pandemic’s peak, between 2020 and 2021, this flipped, and these least populous counties gained people through domestic migration.
In 2022, they experienced smaller population bumps from domestic migration.
At the other end of the spectrum, the largest counties with populations of 1 million or more were losing people through domestic migration before the pandemic. But the pandemic exacerbated this outmigration substantially and in the last year, this domestic outmigration diminished somewhat in certain regions.
Why people did what they did is up for debate—work from home, escape from tax-heavy areas, escape from Covid restrictions, and so on. But I know edge-seeking when I see it. There was some freedom being sought, and what defined freedom after 2020 changed fundamentally.
What I’ve just attempted to describe are the joys of the edge. Freedom, I believe, has a limited half-life when it’s in the heart of civilization. Anarcho-pastoralism means that there’s the most freedom near the edges, but freedom-lovers are ever in a struggle to move outward.
There’s risk, too, that there won’t be freedom out here. Look no further than the Bergholz Barbers, the renegade Amish group that had to move out of their Lancaster County home here in Pennsylvania to find a new place in Ohio.
You get some yahoos at the edges. We call it “country charm.” You also get freedom you can’t get anywhere else, maintained with a chainsaw, a generator, and a gun.
I have a daughter, and as of the time of writing, another child on the way. My wife and I joke that they’ll probably end up urbane, disgusted by a life lived with so much unnecessary difficulty. No pesticides? Gardening becomes immensely harder. Hunting for your own meat? Tons of wasted time. Slaughtering your own chickens? You might almost take off your hand.
But, for the time being, there’s freedom, and there’s joy in it.
Image Credit: Vincent van Gogh, “Les Vessenots à Auvers” (1890).