By Amanda Kavanagh
“And now for the good stuff. Kombucha!” Ron pops open a swing-top glass bottle of the homebrewed drink, made through a fermentation process involving symbiotic bacteria and yeast.
We drink the tea and talk around the kitchen table after our tour of the Little Cabin - their cottage and land in Ladysmith, Quebec. Like most things in Corrie Rabbe’s and Ron St. Louis’ life, kombucha serves multiple purposes. It’s thought to have health benefits, and it has a tingly, delicious taste.
The previous week, I’d made plans to visit their property. The purpose was to get a taste of what it’s like to live an “alternative” lifestyle, if only for a few hours. It was a crisp fall day when my husband and I made our way north. The sun shone for a while and then hid behind darker clouds, intermittently releasing rain and snow. An hour and a half drive from Ottawa took us through the back roads of Quebec to our destination, a wooded four-acre lot bought in 2009.
Their business is called the Radical Homestead, inspired by Shannon Hayes’ book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. The book explores the need for more of us to become producers instead of just consumers, to learn skills and to rely less on corporations and money for comfort and satisfaction in life—for our own sakes, and that of the planet.
I would like to be more self-reliant, and I wanted to see for myself just how much a person would have to change to live the “homesteader” lifestyle. The desire to “get back to the land” is not new. Many young people, back in the 60’s and 70’s, were also disillusioned by a world poisoned with chemicals and obsessed with consuming. But, the “hippie” lifestyle was all but forgotten by the 1980’s—until recently. These days, it’s not about going back to the land; it’s about re-skilling and consuming less, no matter where a person may live.
“It’s about being useful,” Ron told me at our initial meeting, his short black hair tousled from his bike helmet. He had just come from work at Transport Canada. Corrie had her blond hair tied back. She is suffering from allergies and had just come from her job at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Ron is 35 and Corrie is 34. They both bike to work when the weather permits, other times they bus. She added that becoming more self-reliant means that they save money in order to work less, which leads to less consuming; leaving a lighter footprint, in other words.
Ron and Corrie explain that they lost faith in housing markets, banks, and the just-in-time delivery, which only provides products for the now, not the long term. Their way of living has evolved over their 13-year relationship and was propelled into serious action after the 2008 economic downturn when Corrie lost her job. Now, they are completely debt free.
Unlike the hippies of earlier generations, they embrace technology and the benefits it provides them. They maintain a website, an educational blog, and Facebook pages. They are active in their local communities. Ron and Corrie are members of Transition Ottawa. Corrie is active with the Overbrook Community Association and built a community garden. They give workshops on aspects of permaculture design: an approach to agriculture that seeks balance and mutual benefits among all forms of life in the ecosystem. When they aren’t working, volunteering, or teaching a workshop, they are at the cottage.
The first thing I do after the drive to the homestead is visit the outhouse. It’s a typical port-a-potty that has a bucket under the seat and sawdust to help with the composting process. Everything has a purpose, including human waste (full disclosure—there was no smell, and I'm told at worst it smells like musty sawdust.)
We walk to the south side of the cottage to see permaculture in action. Ron, with the help of friends, has made ridges along the contour lines of the slope, and buried wood under the soil to hold water and sink nutrients. It is drought resistant and regenerative. Edible and medicinal plants are everywhere: rhubarb, anise, hyssop, hops, mallow, and comfrey to name a few.
“It kind of messes up our sledding,” Corrie remarks with a laugh as we walk among the ridges. “We’re going to rebuild the house later on. We have plans to rebuild the cottage itself; we want to build a semi-earth shelter or passive solar at least.” We turn to look at the cottage with its cord wood wall and blue-painted addition. Its foundation is built from tire rims. “It’s going to be a long project. First, we want to work on the land.”
Growing one’s own food is becoming more important to many, at a time when the world’s food supply is becoming increasingly less secure, and we have less knowledge of what GMOs and pesticides are in our foods. According to Food Banks Canada, 833,098 people used food banks last March. That’s a 23 percent increase from 2008.
Sharon Astyk’s book was an inspiration for Corrie. It asks: If you couldn’t access a bank or a grocery store, how long would you stay comfortable? Astyk suggests that people plan ahead and have at least a three-month supply of food. Not just dry or canned goods either, but fresh food made to last, through the use of canning, lacto-fermentation, dehydration and cold storage. This is what Ron and Corrie have steadily worked towards, and achieved. They have a pantry full of their own dried, canned and fermented food, such as jams and preserves, sauerkraut, relishes, vinegars, beans and fruit.
“We’re building the capacity to grow more food here all the time.” Ron adds, as he points to a tall pole sticking up in the middle of the slope. It has twine running from the top back down to the ground, and vines seem to be twisting along their lengths. “You know what hops are for?”
“Well, beer!” I jump at the chance to show off some knowledge. Ron informs me that it also has calming properties.
“It’s good for acid reflux, too,” adds Corrie. Good to know.
We walk down a wide path towards the back of their property. Along the way, we stop to look at felled trees that seem to be everywhere. This doesn’t bother Ron. “They’re going to build the soil, at the same time all these fallen trees are giving a lot more shelter for animals.”
Corrie pulls some lichen off a tree. Its proper name is Usnea barbata, but it’s commonly known as Old Man’s Beard. She holds it to her chin for emphasis. “It’s used traditionally for coughs and colds. But for really bad coughs and colds, this isn’t the first plant I would go to.”
“So why not go straight to the good stuff?” I have a feeling Ron already knows the answer, and he’s asking for my benefit.
“Because you always want to start with the gentlest plants and hit the hard stuff later,” says Corrie as she carefully tucks the lichen into the pocket of her coat. “This is great. I have a tincture of this on the go at home. I’m going to add this.”
The previous owner of the property raised wild boar, so now we’re heading down to the old boar pen which Ron and Corrie have converted into their main garden.
As we arrive at the fenced-in boar pen/garden, we are introduced to the bees.
“Sometimes they die in the hive and the worker bees will carry the dead ones out. They keep the hive very clean,” Corrie explains, as we watch three bees carry one out through a tiny opening at the bottom of the frame. The soft, constant hum of bees can be heard even through the winterized hives. Corrie explains that bees cluster up for warmth, like penguins in the Antarctic, with the queen always in the middle.
They haven’t experienced colony collapse either, unlike an alarming number of beekeepers throughout North America and Europe, who blame the use of pesticides on nearby crops. Corrie and Ron hypothesize that their bees are doing just fine, living in a wooded area with lots of wildflowers, far away from commercial agriculture and pesticides.
“We’ve only had a bear attack, a tornado and an earthquake.” Corrie says with a laugh, but she then turns serious, “the bear attack was the worst.” They are proud of their bees and have become emotionally attached to them which made the discovery that a bear had destroyed one of the four hives this past summer all the more difficult. Even with the loss of a hive, they got about 120 pounds of honey and sold it all within two days. They split the hives this year which results in less honey for the first year.
Once in the boar pen, we tour the vegetable garden: planted in hugel kultur beds—raised beds built over wood that’s buried underground and built up through repeated layers of compost, wood, bio-char, and soil. Bio-char is a special project of Ron’s. It consists of charred wood that he makes himself in a rocket-stove: an oven that concentrates heat in one direction. Bio-char is also carbon negative and acts as a carbon sink. Ron tells me that’s the whole point of permaculture. “It’s beyond sustainable. I want something better. I want regenerative. I want to take a piece of land that has poor soils and make it better.”
Corrie hands me a leaf of sorrel to eat—it tastes sour; sort of like a Sour Kid without the sugar. I try spinach while she pulls up some of the remaining harvest. The biggest surprise comes when we walk by some wintergreen growing along the forest floor—it’s better than a mint.
After finishing up in the garden, we make our way back up to the cottage for lunch.
“We were both advocates at first and going to protests,” Corrie tells me while we drink our Kombucha and eat our homemade vegan pizza. “But at some point you get tired of doing that. All you can really do is be part of the solution. We just do stuff. We’re like, ‘well that’s how it is, and we’re just going to do what we do, and if it doesn’t catch on, it doesn’t really matter because it makes us feel better.’”
Ron and Corrie have made a commitment to consume less, to produce more and to enjoy life as much as possible. Their lifestyle isn’t all or nothing—they realize that they will still have to own a car, buy certain products, and contribute to pollution. But they are doing what works for them, and they are succeeding.
It’s hard work setting up a homestead, preparing and putting food by and learning how to incorporate it into daily meals. Their homestead is a learning experience in northern permaculture; it’s full of trial and error, like learning how to groundhog-proof a garden (after a ground hog broke in and ate the vegetables), dealing with sensitive plants and unexpected changes in weather. But, it is work they feel good doing and teaching to others. They have plans to move out to the homestead permanently, but have no time constraints.
After spending time with them, I don’t feel it’s a stretch to live with less stuff, eat differently, and be sustainable. I know it would take getting used to with things that I’m not willing to do at first (like composting my own waste). But I know I could garden more, waste less, and shop less frequently.
“We used to be houses of production and now we are more like houses of consumption,” Corrie explains. We finish our meal and are slowly getting ready to leave. “Our house is producing stuff and hopefully enough to sustain us and then the broader community as well.”
Before we leave, we help out, adding a layer to the new hugel kultur pile near the cottage which is the site of their new garden. I shovel soil into a wheel barrow as the others gather branches and leaves. We discuss the day and their plans for the garden while we work. It feels good to contribute to their work. I mention this to Ron and Corrie, after which Ron tells me with a knowing smile, I already have - the empty bucket that used to hold the urine has been added to the pile. At the Little Cabin, everything really does serve multiple purposes.