Whether you live on 100 acres or in a suburban neighborhood, there are many things that can be done to achieve a level of homesteading. From food to crafts to making things that you can use around the house, it’s a great way to be more self sufficient and spend less money at the store.
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The American myth (or dream, your choice) has always been about “lighting out for the territory,” and in almost every family there are stories about how ancestors ended up in, say, Casper, Wyoming, or Vallejo, California. I can relate, because my great-grandfather took my great-grandmother (an immigrant from Norway) to Idaho, where he started newspapers in small towns that advocated for what we would now call “liberal” principles. Once my grandmother Ethel had graduated from an Idaho teachers’ college, she met my grandfather David, who had been sent to oversee a ranch that his mother had bought as a way of getting his badly behaved older brother out of Missouri. The ranch had its ups and downs, but Ethel loved it and David made something of a success of it. And then the older brother lost it in a poker game, and that was that. Two years later, they were back in the St. Louis area, and David was working in a tanning factory.
Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land explores the period, about 110 years ago, when all kinds of people from the East—city dwellers, immigrants, younger brothers, newly married couples—ended up in eastern Montana, convinced that their pastoral idyll was about to come true thanks to the Milwaukee Railroad, whose president, Alfred J. Earling, wanted to gain access to the Northwest by expanding the railroad (one of the towns Raban explores, Ismay, is named after the daughters, Isabel and May, of the railroad’s general counsel, George R. Peck).
Many of the “homesteaders” Raban talks about in Bad Land can tell stories similar to that of my grandparents, but what is interesting about Raban’s exploration of the small towns of Ismay, Plevna, Baker, and others is how advertising by the railroads put them there. If you look at images of eastern Montana on Google Maps, it is evident that the landscape is sparse and rough, and the new settlers quickly discovered that the topsoil was only one inch thick in the best places, but Earling didn’t pay much attention to the actual landscape or ecosystem of the route he was building—toward the end of Bad Land, Raban writes of a particularly rough spot that the train line ran through, not far from Yellowstone: “But Earling sowed towns along this exposed and desolate reach of land at the same regular intervals as the towns he planted along O’Fallon Creek.” A friend of mine from Wyoming, who very much enjoyed Raban’s book, said, “My sense is that the Milwaukee Road was late to the game.” Perhaps Raban, who was born in Norfolk, England (maybe the most different imaginable landscape from eastern Montana) wrote this book because he was amazed that anyone could believe what the railroad was asserting in its advertising pamphlets that eastern Montana was a form of paradise, and that anyone who bought “a section” (a square mile, 640 acres) would live long and prosper.
According to his obituary in The Guardian (Jan. 18, 2023), Raban didn’t want to be called “a travel writer.” Judging from Bad Land, his pleasure is not in looking around but in experiencing what he finds as he explores, moment by moment, and understanding his experiences. Several of his books are more like memoirs—in Old Glory: An American Voyage, he sets out in a small boat and heads down the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans, or, in Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America, he goes from Liverpool to New York on a 900-foot cargo ship. What interests him on his trip down the Mississippi is how what he sees in his thirties compares to what he had imagined as a ten-year-old. What interests him in Bad Land is what caused the new settlers to fall for the idea that eastern Montana was a kind of paradise, then what drove them away, and after that, what those who remained had gained from their persistence.
All travel writers are explorers, but Raban stands out because he used his travel and his writing to explore himself as well as the world. In 2011, he wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about driving his daughter from Seattle to Menlo Park in order to deliver her to Stanford. He and his daughter had already gone there by plane, a ninety-minute flight, but he wanted her to see what it meant for them to be so far apart: “I wanted to make palpable the mileage that will stretch between us come September and feel on my own pulse the physical geography of our separation.”
Raban was prolific—in addition to his nine travel books, he wrote nine plays, three novels, an analysis of his own career as a writer, and many essays (including a critique of a speech Margaret Thatcher gave in Scotland in 1988 that promoted a relationship between religion and politics). His last book, Father and Son, explores his experiences of recovering (as best he can) from a stroke he suffered in 2011 and how they compare and contrast with his father’s experiences in the trenches in World War II.
Another friend of mine who has taught Bad Land in his undergraduate history classes told me, “In the textbooks, homesteading always comes across as dry and academic. A few of my students who were having trouble grasping the concept read Bad Land and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The narrative and details really helped them to understand the topic and its continued relevance in today’s world.”
Jonathan Raban’s works are thoughtful and observant. The fact that he was a restless, curious writer with plenty of opinions and a strong willingness to learn is a benefit to his readers, because he simultaneously was able to capture what a place and a time period felt like (or would have felt like, when he was writing history) and to fit those feelings and observations into narratives that become histories, but contain more emotional material than most histories do (and I speak as someone who loves reading history). Bad Land opens up a little-known epoch in American history and reveals a lot about who we are and what issues our ancestors had to deal with, as well as ones that we still have to face. My friend from Wyoming did say, “One Western mortal sin—he referred to a sheepherder as a ‘shepherd.’ ” But I would say that that mortal sin is an explorer revealing who he is, as well as what he sees, and that is what Raban excelled at. My grandparents often told stories about their time on the ranch, as if they couldn’t forget what had happened and how it affected our family. For all of us who have those experiences and feelings, Raban is a fascinating example of how to explore.•
This is drawn from a new edition of Bad Land: An American Romance.