Choosing land takes luck, luck, luck and foresight. Two people stake claims on two pieces of land along either side of a winding river in the Yukon. One homestead thrives, the soil remains rich, the crops grow, the water is potable year 'round and the climate, while extreme, seems bearable to the owner. Across the river and upstream the other homestead withers. The soil is thin, the crops won't grow and are stunted, the water is brackish and the land owner suffers greatly from the elements. The grace of God on one homestead? A desecrated burial ground underneath the other? The one difference between the two homesteads was location – and luck of the draw. The blessed homestead lay in the lee curve of the river. Protected by the heavily wooded river bend from the ripping winds that ran down the wind tunnel of the river, and lying in the weather shadow of a distant mountain that blocked heavy snows, the clearing worked with the land, the river, the mountainous terrain and the weather to maximized sunlight, minimize heavy weather and moderate river tides and rain to provide thick fertile soil. Upriver the other homestead remained completely exposed year around to the harshest elements and the soil was lifted off the land and deposited in the river almost daily so that both the land and the water were less than desirable. In a region like the Yukon, that sort of luck can mean the difference between life and death over the homesteader's first winter.
That is how easy it is to fail to pick the right piece of land to homestead. So, what to look for, no matter where you might be considering staking a claim...
Water. Is there a reliable source of water? Can you develop it enough to rely on it, meaning can you sink a well or are you too remote to get heavy equipment into the back country? Will the river or creek or stream freeze in the winter? Will the spring remain viable? If you are going to be reliant on animals will the water source provide enough water for daily household use and animal consumption? If the river freezes is it deep enough to provide bottom water during the winter months?
Elements. Is the land protected from weather extremes? Weather extremes are wind, rain, hail and snow. These kill crops and burn energy, both on the homestead in keeping warm and in the humans or animals with energy expenditure needed to maintain day-to-day operations. On the other hand, rain is needed for crops and sunlight must be maximized. The weather shadow of the mountain previously mentioned can work the opposite way – blocking vital rain, shading a home reliant on sunlight to power and heat it and casting a summer shadow over cropland or gardens. Throwing up a tent and living awhile before claiming is ideal, but it takes about a year to realize everything nature will throw onto your piece of property. Trying to notice the terrain and the give and take of the land, knowing the regional weather and the local lore all helps.
Seasons. Arid land claim in Nevada or Arizona? Will your water source outlast the mid-summer heat? Will the wind leave any soil behind? Will the once yearly rain hit the mountains before it reaches you and leave you parched or blow over you and fall ten miles further on? Wilderness claim in Alaska? Can you get your land parcel functional enough during a very short summer to survive the first very long winter? Can you anticipate the freezes – too early or too late? Research helps a little but trial and error ends up being the determining factor.
Trying to find a parcel of land that utilizes the whole region to its advantage before you develop it increases the likelihood of a successful developed homestead. Observation, research, interviews of locals (if there are any) and the aforementioned blind luck will help...
Hard to be positive about all the negativity (see discussion in permaculure forum) when legislation does not support the wisdom.
Interestingly, the legislative restrictions are driven by 1) diminishing resources measured against 2) exploding urban populations that force a) land development (which is what homesteading has been traditionally used for) and b) increased resource regulation for health and welfare.
Ironically, the very things that Eco-communities represent are the very reason they are being regulated out of it.
Even just thinking about homesteading is a good way to prepare for Eco-community (Intentional Community) and Permaculture concerns. Getting a small homestead to work for itself, by itself, on a shoestring budget without access to what was once common knowledge, is no easy feat. It gives one a really good idea of how hard a successful balance of factors is in the process - recognizing and planning for that difficulty helps get a successful urban (or rural) intentional community going.
The complexities involved with undertaking an intentional community are vast and nearly overwhelming with very little literature or reference to help out the beginner. Worse, the skills needed to be successful are dead or dying in the modern world and there is almost no way to resurrect them – they must be reinvented more often than not.
A good way to start thinking about intentional community or Eco-citizenship in a rural setting is to consider the art of homesteading. If one can get a home functioning off the grid the complexities of figuring out how to get an intentional community functioning on the grid becomes a little more possible.
Land. To homestead one needs land that is off the grid. Off the grid means no electricity and potable water that is not necessarily tapped yet. There are occasional land drives, also called land grabs, nowadays, but the BLM has control of much of the possible land to be offered. Going to the wilderness and staking a claim, already somewhat difficult in the 1800’s, is now nearly impossible. Alternative options are land claims based on mining. The idea of the land grab is to offer land at a much reduced price in exchange for the homesteader’s ability to develop it, either with a functioning homestead including developed farmland or a functioning mine with accompanying living conditions. This makes the land more valuable to the state or federal government and preconditions the region to developed expansion of non-homesteading variety. This is one of the things that makes homesteading a bit of a moral dilemma. To become a homesteader one must inevitably face the fact that the homestead will eventually – perhaps in the homesteader’s lifetime – be overrun by non-homesteading development. One of the main reasons to homestead is the self-respect that comes from self-reliance. When Fish and Game, logging industry, telephone and electrical companies and the BLM follow homesteaders into previously undeveloped regions self-reliance is reduced and holding out on principle just seems silly – even to the homesteader. So, most land being pretty well-developed now and undeveloped land being held in trust by the Federal government, land grabs nowadays are almost non-existent but if you have a little savings you can purchase land.
Homesteading is different than Intentional Community and remains the dream of many who, for lack of available homesteading opportunity, end up in Intentional Communities. Recognizing homesteading as an element of Intentional Community accounts for those eco-citizens who yearn for wilderness subsistence living and may reduce some of the interpersonal friction that inevitably arises between dyed-in-the-wool individualist homesteading types and vibing neo-retro-hippies. All have similar values but different ways of expressing them!