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The Power of Mentors for the Rural Living Newbie

A photo of Victoria GazeleyAs an urbanite, I had this long-held dream of homesteading, of living off our own rural property, collecting eggs from our free ranging chickens, picking and putting up our own organic vegetables and fruit, and working from home. I think I even romanticized it a bit (ahem...). The reality of rural living, of course, was a little different.

I'll start by telling you that I’m an individualist at heart. Only recently have I learned to ask for help when I can’t figure something out. My usual modus operandi is to just hunker down in front of the computer (I design websites for a living, so there’s LOTS of 'hunkering' going on) and sift through blog posts and tutorials til I figure it out. Now, that works for website building, but for homesteading and rural living skills? Not so much.

Back in early 2009 when we moved into our little homestead (and for years before), I spent a LOT of time studying, reading, and taking courses and workshops on a zillion different topics related to modern homesteading, rural living, and self-sufficiency. Books, blogs, website forums, you name it… I visited and studied so many I lost track of who said what.

Wood Stove 

Then one day after we moved into our little cabin, I realized something: I didn’t even know how to start a fire. You know, so it would stay lit.

Sure, I’d read about it, watched some online tutorials (if you can believe it), but I’d never actually started one myself. It was a complete mystery to me, and to be honest, freaked me out a little bit. And because I was so afraid of looking stupid, I remember distinctly being a bit offended when my dad came down and showed me how to build a fire like I was a little kid who’d never lit one before. But truth was I hadn’t, and of course, didn’t want to admit it. I told him I ‘got it’ and then tried to start a fire after he left. It petered out so fast you’d have hardly known there was a match near the thing. Needless to say I had to go back and ask him for another lesson - clearly all that book/web learning I’d done didn’t apply to our particular geography, climate and firewood. So after feeling like a schmuck for not knowing how to do something simple like start a fire, I’m here to tell you that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that will get your skills upgraded fast than working with a mentor.

I’ve been incredibly lucky when it comes to mentors. Not only did I find one, but in our little corner of the world, I managed to connect with many. My dad turned out to be a HUGE source of skill-building information and lessons: basic carpentry, wood heating systems operation and maintenance, how to look after a shake roof, basic plumbing, water well maintenance, back-up power systems… it’s crazy how much that man knows! I never really appreciated it before, but I sure do now.

And then there is Robin Wheeler, who I’m very much blessed to know. She’s the author of Food Security for the Faint of Heart and Gardening for the Faint of Heart, and she has been an absolute godsend when it comes to connecting with the people who have the skills I need to know. Through Robin’s Sustainable Living Arts School, I’ve learned how to make saurkraut, prepare herbal wound ointment, grow perennial food plants, and store up vegetables and fruit for winter.  And a whole bunch of other skills (like how to build an outhouse – important when the pipes freeze).  Her knowledge is both vast and deep, and without her I wouldn’t have developed the confidence to go down this road.  Actually, I think I’d probably be living in an apartment instead of in our cozy cabin in the woods.  My friend Liz has also turned out to be a fabulous resource, with all her wisdom on growing food and making things look stylish while staying low on the consumption scale. And then there’s our former raw dairy agister, Alice, who showed me that women can run one heck of a business, homeschool their children and maintain a relationship and social network.  Valuable lessons, all.

These are my most prolific mentors, and the ones I have seen and talked to often, but there are so many more – on blogs and websites across the internet, the modern homesteading heroes are there, sharing their knowledge and clearing the way for others like us. So if you’re thinking of moving to the country, or you’ve already moved and are wondering ‘what next’, I can highly recommend finding yourself a mentor. Look in your local community guides for workshops, or ask at the farmer’s market for those who have the skills you’re looking to gain. Weirdly, I’ve also found the local coffee shop where all the ‘elders’ hang out in the morning is a brilliant place to connect. If you start talking to people, generally someone will know someone who can show you exactly what it is you want to learn.

So here I am, two years into my homesteading journey. I’ve learned so much and feel infinitely more confident about my abilities than I did. But there’s so much more to learn, and I’m sure I’ll be learning during this entire journey, maybe getting proficient at a few things, maybe even to the point where I could say I know what I’m doing! But there’s one thing I know for sure – that my mentors will always be a huge part of my journey, and that without them, I’d be floundering around, making more mistakes than necessary and probably getting frustrated and possibly even giving up. But that’s not going to happen. I’ve got too many amazing people around me.

And my fire building skills since I swallowed my pride and asked for a repeat lesson? We haven’t had a chilly night since.

Who are your mentors?  I’d love to hear your stories …

nebraska dave
3/18/2011 8:33:38 PM

Victoria, I would say that my Dad is the first and has been the most influential mentor of my life. Just as with you I didn't know or care about all the stuff he knew in my younger years. However, in later years I actually remembered many of the things that he tried to instill in my skill set. I guess I actually was listening and didn't know it. Now that he can't do that any more I have teamed up with a group of like minded folks that know how to fix or build anything. We volunteer our skills to be used in close disaster situations or in new church sanctuary builds. We have spent many days in Louisiana, Texas, Kansas, and Missouri. Mentors are a must in life whether you are home steading or just living life. Don't forget that someday you too will be a mentor for that homestead green horn from the city. Have a great home steading day.