I lived on a homestead in Alaska, but it doesn’t really count. It was the homestead of someone else who was not able to make a go of it and sold the 100 acres to my father, who built our house on it. We never had any little farm animals, although I dreamed of sheep and baby cows. But it would have been pretty cold for them in winter.
It was years later, when I moved to France, that I finally got the homestead experience. And the result was not what I expected.
Living on LaRhune
In France, my little house is up the slopes of a mighty mountain called LaRhune. Not all the way, but far enough up to require a four-by-four truck to get up. I have an old Toyota Landcruiser that carries everything from my dog, my daughter and me to firewood, the new refrigerator and – when the pipes freeze, containers of water. It’s a bumpy road up, especially after the rains, but we make it every time.
At the bottom of the mountain there is a farm. The farmer and his wife are lovely, friendly and generous people and I would often stop by there for a coffee before heading up to the house. When my daughter was small, she learned the joys of a homestead at that farm.
The Homestead Farm
The farmhouse was large. This is typical for a Basque home that often houses three generations of the family. In the case of the farm, the animals got the ground floor, mother pigs with squealing babies, cows to be milked and chickens for eggs. Then there were sheep, big white sheep who were milked – sheep cheese is very popular in the region – and had little lambs in spring.
My daughter loved it all, just like I would have at her age. She helped the farmer get corn cobs from the crib and feed them to the huge pig named Niko, who strolled around the property happily. She helped the farmer’s wife search the grass for chicken eggs and laughed with delight to see the cavorting of young spring lambs.
Discovering Homesteading Ways
Thanksgiving is not a French holiday, so nobody makes pumpkin pies or stuffing. But we did, as expatriate Americans. And my child had the great idea of taking a pumpkin pie down to the farm. I encouraged the idea and in time we bumped our way down the hill, pumpkin pie in hand.
The farm was bustling with activity as we pulled up. This was very unusual, but we quickly learned the reason: it was pig day. Every year most farms in the area kill their biggest pig to provide meat for the winter. When we walked in, a group of neighborhood women were gathered around a big pot of bubbling pig blood, making blood sausages. The smell was overpowering. The men were hacking up the body of the pig into bacon and ham and pig trotters, drinking and laughing around the carcass, laid out on the table.
My daughter took one look at the carcass and began to shriek. It was Niko, the pig she’d fed corn to and played with all summer long. She cried hysterically and I took her home. I explained to her that all of the animals on the farm were used for food. It’s just part of the homesteading ways of life. She wasn’t five years old yet, but she resolved at that moment that she would never again eat meat, and I made the same promise. Today, 20 years later, both of us have kept that promise.