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Growing Wild: Living and Learning Far from the Mainstream

Growing Wild
Living and Learning Far from the Mainstream
By Kerry Estey Keith

My family and I live far from the busy, rushing river some call “mainstream.” We live, in fact, along a lazy, trickling creek folded into a valley in the mountains of North-Central Arizona. This place we call home is bursting with wild and wonderful life year-round. To our south lie the Santa Maria Mountains, “Apache Creek Wilderness,” Ponderosas, and deep rugged canyons. The Juniper Mountains, “Juniper Mesa Wilderness,” pinions and steep limestone cliffs are what we find to the north. To our west is one of the largest, wildest and traditionally run ranches in the United States. Our neighbors to the east are two miles away; after that, it’s an hour drive to town with only trees, grasses, and mountain views in all directions. The land we occupy is roughly three hundred acres, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of square miles of National Forest Land. Some people say they could never live in the middle of nowhere; to me, it’s the middle of everywhere.

This is a place that left electricity and phone lines behind twenty miles ago. There is no pavement, no traffic or honking horns, and no impatient commuters. This is the land of sun, mountain lion, and elk; walnut trees, wild mulberries, and monsoon storms. This is a place where we can hear ourselves think; it’s the place where we live and grow as a family. To me, it’s one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been. Luckily (for us) it would not suit everyone. We have a thirty-eight mile drive to town (of which seventeen are washboard dirt that may or may not be there after a big rain.) Our 1930’s bungalow-style forest-ranger cabin has many less than desirable residents. There are more mice living here than people. We have the lesser-known Cone-nosed Beetle (also known as the Assassin Bug and that should tell you all you need to know.)

Our cabin is powered by a small solar system that isn’t large enough to supply many appliances. We happily do without. We do not have (and never have had) a television. On our town days (twice weekly) we pick up a movie to watch on the laptop and run various errands; we attend music lessons, sports practices, visit friends, farmers market, and library. Generally, we are eager to return home.

Techqua Ikachi is a Hopi phrase that means, “blending with nature and celebrating life.” Although it is a very simple way of being in the world, it is not easy, given the present drive of our culture to achieve, have, and excel. Choosing the trickling creek over the hectic rushing river is one way our family can slow down and celebrate life. We grow food, store food, and gather wild food. We walk, write, play, and read; we work on projects (sometimes together, sometimes alone.) We paint, email friends, repair fences, and collect eggs. We study Botany and Zoology not because we have to, but because we want to. We read history textbooks for fun. We play games, rock climb, and paint. We gather creek-clay, make pots, and fire them in the woodstove. Some of us make cookies, preserve pears, and dry wild mint, while others stand by and make us laugh. Some of us run through the rugged mountain; others prefer motorcycles. Some of us play music and sing, while others listen. Some cook; others clean. We all love archery, taking long walks into the mountains, and sharing the hammock.

Before I had children, I had an idea of how I wanted to live with my future family. The idea grew and solidified over time. I had very few mentors and role models for healthy families growing up, so I found strength in books and families whose ideas inspired my own. About three years before I started on my own parenting path, I was lucky enough to meet a family who lived a very family-centered life. All the children were unschooled though none of us knew the term at the time. I saw, in their family, a group of individuals allowing life to unfold naturally. I had never seen anything like it. Each day, there were things to do, interests to be explored, projects to be finished, farm chores to help with (or not) and things to learn – both together and separately. The children from that family are grown now, having gone from the farm on various adventures and educational pursuits. However, all three children (not having families of their own yet) still call the farm home. It is the solid, nurturing place to which they return to refresh themselves, and reconnect with one- another before moving on to the next adventure.

It has taken some time for my dream to unfold into the precious gift it is now. One of the facets of what I wanted to give my family was a deep sense of place and connection to the land. I wanted my children to have the opportunity to know their home and all its inhabitants in a way that few children are able. I wanted for us all to be connected to cycles and seasons and growth patterns (in our surroundings and within ourselves.) I wanted a slow, relaxed understanding of what it means to be a creature in this particular place on the planet. I didn’t want to teach my children about the earth; I wanted them to learn from it. I knew that to accomplish this goal I would have to set it up early in their lives. I would find a quiet place to live where we could be with each other and ourselves in the presence of things untamed. I did find that quiet place here on this land; and everyday we are in the presence of the untamed.

Together, with my partner, we have created the space so that within the family structure each individual has complete freedom to explore at his or her own pace. We tend to keep it simple. It means giving one another space if requested. It means supplying good creative materials, quality literature, musical instruments, fun games and activities, and plenty of time to explore.

Within every family, if autonomy is trusted, each child and adult can have very different interests. Diversity is what keeps things juicy and lively. How self-important of us to try to shape our children into little versions of ourselves! Our three children choose very different things. Our oldest son, now sixteen, is very peer-, musically-, and academically-oriented. He is interested in acting and music in a social setting. He is an accomplished drummer, a highly creative individual, a gifted athlete and one of the funniest people I have ever known. He has made the choice to attend school and live, during the school year, with his mother in Maine.

Our middle son, fifteen, taught himself to read at three. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, with a grasp of history that I will never comprehend. He loves soccer, kayaking, Shakespeare, and guitar. He chose a school environment on a couple of occasions: kindergarten, first grade, and for five weeks during his fifth grade year. He has, after short times in school, always returned home and to the freedom it offers. When all family members are free to choose, they may even choose to go to school! Interestingly enough, both our boys love technology. We don’t have the electrical capacity for much “plug-in” time but they like to play computer games a few times a week and mess around with a pretty complex music program.

Our daughter, nine, is a child of this land. She is being shaped by the wind and water that molded this mountain valley. She knows the intricacies of her homeland in a way that can only happen by being there. It takes “dirt-time” to know a place as she does. Together, we sit with the land and listen. We share what we hear (in our ears and in our hearts.) She understands things about this place that I’m just beginning to; she hears things faster than I do. Having never known a different life, she can see the big picture in Nature. She is comfortable with dirt, insects and silence. She knows more about the plant use on this piece of land than most college biology students. She also taught herself to read at three and plays a mean polka on the violin. If you ask her, she will undoubtedly tell you, there is no place like home.

A Day in the Life of Our Family

This morning, the Beatles sang out in the kitchen while the three children made an amazing batch of gluten-free pancakes. I sat outside the kitchen door roasting coffee beans on an open fire. The children laughed, disagreed about ingredients, and made quick and easy resolutions. I finished roasting, made some fresh coffee, and drank it while I watered the garden. The music in the kitchen changed from Beatles to Nirvana then to a strange Appalachian folk fiddle tune. After breakfast, Kiva (youngest daughter) and I weeded the corn while the boys (sort of) cleaned up. Kiva read aloud to me while I continued weeding, then joined the big boys on the trampoline.

Kevin (husband) came home with wood to build bookshelves. We paid the boys for their help and the shelves were artistically and beautifully crafted. Kiva and I fed, watered, and brushed the horses, then walked to the creek to inspect the cattail’s growth. We worked awhile on willow shades for the windows of the cabin. After lunch, we went to the north fork of the creek in search of a swimming hole. Water is low this time of year but we found one, cleared a path through the water vegetation and cooled off. We picked wild mint to dry for tea and on the way home found some ripe mulberries.

Later, Israel (middle son) read while Summer (oldest son) helped Kiva do an Internet search for deerskin to make moccasins for her doll. A little later, Summer read while Israel and Kiva played a game. I weeded some more, and planted a second round of beets and carrots while Kevin played a new song for me on the guitar. Tonight, everyone helped with dinner and as we sat down to eat, two elk casually walked into the meadow. I am always in awe of these large, handsome creatures.

After dinner, I read Robin Hood (in a challenging Old English version) to Kiva while the boys washed and dried dishes. The boys read inside for a while then grabbed their sleeping bags and headed outside to sleep. They have been sleeping outside under the stars nearly every night (during the summer) for several years now. After Kiva fell asleep, I had some time with Kevin, then worked on an article about primitive living skills for children.

So, another day has passed – a day lived fully and deliberately along our gentle creek. As parents, we have all been given the privilege of raising children in a world so full of opportunities and challenges. Every day I feel tremendous gratitude for this wild and abundant opportunity given me.

Kerry Estey Keith lives in the mountains of Arizona with her family. She believes every day is a blessing and tries to express that in her writing and art.

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