This Life Is In Your Hands

One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone

by Melissa Coleman

This Life Is in Your Hands

Paperback, 326 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $15.99 | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • This Life Is In Your Hands
  • One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone
  • Melissa Coleman

Other editions available for purchase:

Book Summary

With urban farming and backyard chicken flocks becoming increasingly popular, Coleman has written this timely and honest portrait of her own childhood experience in Maine with her two homesteading parents during the turbulent 1970s. A luminous, evocative memoir that explores the hope and struggle behind one family's search for a self-sufficient life.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about This Life Is In Your Hands

New In Paperback

Innovation: 'Machu Picchu', Homesteading And 'Johnny Appleseed'

This memoir by Melissa Coleman recounts what it was like to grow up as the daughter of one of the stars of the "back to the earth" movement of the late '60s and early '70s — Eliot Coleman, who raised his family on the rural coast of Maine with his wife, Sue. They had no running water, no electricity, raised their own food, and made their vegetarian meals in a small one-room farmhouse. In This Life Is in Your Hands, says critic Rachel Syme, Coleman "chronicles the more luscious

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: This Life Is In Your Hands

This Life Is In Your Hands

This Life Is In Your Hands

One Dream, Sixty Acres, And A Family Undone


HarperCollins

Copyright © 2011 Melissa Coleman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-195832-8

Chapter One

FOR THE FIRST nine years of my life, Greenwood Farm was my
little house in the big woods, located as long ago and far away
up the coast of Maine as it was from mainstream America. Five
hours from Boston, three from Portland, along winding roads
that became successively narrower from Belfast to Bucksport to
Penobscot, until they finally turned to dirt. If you were a bird,
you could shorten the trip at Camden by cutting over the scatterings
of fir- pointed islands on Penobscot Bay— North Haven,
Butter Island, Great Spruce Head, Deer Isle. Viewed from above,
the islands formed bright constellations in the dark sky of water,
a mirror of the universe leading you back in time.
Just past Pond Island, you’d see the forested head of Cape
Rosier reaching into the sea from the mainland and a sandy line
of beach, beyond which a narrow road wound up through a
berry field and disappeared into a dappled stretch of forest. A
mile in, our land was surrounded by the cape’s uniform blanket of
fir, spruce, and the purple scrub of blueberry barrens.
On a morning in early April of 1969, as my future parents
were clearing brush under the bare crown of the ash tree next to
their new home, two sparrows circled once, twice, then alighted
on a branch to announce their arrival with a familiar melody of
clicks and tweets. Surprised by the song, Mama raised her head
to spot the diminutive brown birds with patches of white at the
throat. “The white-throat,” she exclaimed, an armload of brush
resting on the pronounced swell of her belly. She’d always loved
sparrows best—so joyous in their simplicity. “They mate for life
and come back every year to the same place to build a nest,” she
added, having checked it in her Peterson’s before.
“A sure sign of spring,” Papa replied, giving a low whistle
through his teeth before returning with renewed vigor to his
work. Easter would fall that Sunday, though they’d lost track of
such dates by then—spring was a resurrection with or without a
holiday.
It was not the spring of hyacinth, lily of the valley, and drunken
bumblebees, but the New England spring that comes just before
mud season. The last pockets of snow melted away as rain fell
from the sky in steady gray sheets, filling hollows and ruts with
dark puddles. Ice crystals released their hold on soil that sank
into a primordial muck.
“Son of a gun,” Papa said. “The ruts in the driveway are up
to my knee.” The white VW truck wallowed like a pig when he
revved up and tried to drive through. Sometimes he made it,
sometimes he didn’t.
“Looks like we’d be having the baby at home even if we didn’t
want to,” he said after one unsuccessful attempt.
Mama’s belly was the perfect half round of the wooden bread-
mixing bowl, a defined mound under her favorite anorak with
the fur- trimmed hood. It appeared before her when she exited
the outhouse and entered the door of the farmhouse. Her face
was round too, glowing like the moon. Standing at the kitchen
counter preparing lunch, she looked normal from behind, but
when Papa came and put his arms around her, they could rest
on the curve of her belly as his hands searched for the shape of
a foot or leg.
“There, Eliot, there again,” Mama said. “Movement.”
His larger hand pressed next to hers, waiting for another kick.
“Yes, I felt it,” he said. “I really did that time.”
“It could be any day now,” Mama said. She felt something
changing inside, a slowing down and getting ready.
Scientists say my waiting self could already hear the chirp
of Mama’s voice, the ha-has of Papa’s laughter, the thump of
feet and the click of Normie’s dog’s paws on the wooden floor
of the farmhouse. There would have been the shush of sweeping,
the crack- shatter of Papa chopping kindling, an explosion
of firewood dropped into the bin, the crunch of gravel outside,
goats bleating as they waited to be milked, water splashing at
the spring. Most of all, I would have felt the constant sound of
Mama’s heart beating, a steady drumbeat on a rawhide surface,
blood rushing through valves into arteries and capillaries, keeping
me alive. A new home awaited, one Mama and Papa had
worked hard to make safe from what they saw as the dangers of
the outside world.
SIX MONTHS EARLIER, on October 21, 1968, my parents had
moved from Franconia College in New Hampshire to a make-
shift camper on the sixty wooded acres Helen and Scott Nearing
sold them for $2,000. There was no mail service, no telephone
or electrical wires, no plumbing. All of that ended a mile down
the road at the Nearings’. Mail was picked up at the post office,
the one public building in Harborside, a tiny town located four
miles from the homestead along the western side of Cape Rosier’s
coast. Calls were made fifteen minutes away on a pay phone at
a store off the cape in Bucks Harbor, also home to the famous
Condon’s Garage, where Sal gets a spark plug as condolence for
her lost tooth in the children’s book One Morning in Maine.
“Cape Rosier looks like the profile of a moose’s head.” Mama
pointed out to Papa on the map. Holbrook Island and its neighbors
to the north made the distinctive shape of horns above the dot for
the town of Harborside, a round unnamed pond in the middle
was the eye, the head of the cape was the nose, and the Breeze-
mere Peninsula hung below like a chin under an open mouth. This
moose head appeared to be almost an island, with only a thin
neck holding it to the mainland. They laughed when they learned
that the Indian name for the cape was Mose- ka- chick, which
actually meant “moose’s rump.”
Their sixty- some acres made a nostril in the moose’s snout,
about a mile from the ocean and two hundred feet in elevation
above it. A dirt road wound up from Nearings’ Cove to curve along
the southern edge of the property before heading back out to the
sea on the other side. Across the way were the undulating rock
and scrub of a blueberry barren, and beyond that stretched the
uninhabited head of the cape at the tip of the moose’s nose.
The site of my future home was only a rise in the forest
surrounded by spruce and fir, a cluster of birch, and the large ash
with its healthy crown of branches. “This seems like a good place
to begin,” Papa had said, standing beside the tree. “We’ll have to
start building right away before winter.”
“A home of our own, at last.” Mama sighed, and that image
alone soothed her. She felt a twinge in her stomach, like a feather
stroking the inside, and hugged her expanding belly with her arms.
She hadn’t realized how homeless she’d been up until that point.
While Mama’s father was Harvard- educated and her mother
descended from a passenger on the Mayflower, they never aspired
to be part of wealthy Boston society or had the money to become
so. Papa’s parents, Skates and Skipper, though not rich, were in
the Social Register and part of the beach, tennis, and country club
circles of Rumson, New Jersey. “Fonsy people,” Mama liked to
joke with a blue- blood affectation. Young and in love, my parents
hoped to make their way without concern for the Social Register
and Harvard degrees and to leave behind their respective family
affairs— shuffling off the shell of the past to grow a future of their
own making.
During the last two weeks of October, Papa shoveled out a hole
eight feet deep, six feet wide, and ten feet long— where the root
cellar would sit beneath the house— and laid the foundation with
rot- resistant cedar posts. A self- taught carpenter and woodworker,
Papa learned from odd jobs and projects, including renovating
the interior of the hunting lodge where they lived in Franconia.
Though he’d never actually built a home before, he had a book,
Your Engineered House by Rex Roberts, that broke down the
process into an easy- to- follow plan.
He sketched a layout based on the blueprint in the book,
eighteen by twenty feet, slightly longer than wide, with south- facing
windows in the front. A shed roof rose from the back at an angle
and extended past the face to provide an overhang for the front
porch. Reverse board- and- batten construction would be used for
the exterior siding, as Roberts suggested— meaning the inner
wall studs made the seal beneath the exterior boards to save on
wood. After the $2,000 for the land and other expenses, their
$5,000 savings was dwindling quickly. Papa wished he could have
cut and used the trees from the property, but there wasn’t time to
let the wood cure, so the lumber came from the local sawmill—
cedar posts, planed pine boards, and two- by- fours. Regardless,
they were able to keep the cost down to $680 to build the house
we called home for the next ten years, at a time when the national
average for a home in town was closer to $20,000.
Papa’s tools consisted of a handsaw, hammer, level,
measuring tape and carpenter’s square. On top of the foundation he
laid the beams that supported the floor, then the corner and roof
supports and wall studs. He nailed on the floorboards, roof, and
walls, leaving breaks for windows. Rock wool insulation was un-
rolled between the studs, and black tar paper served for exterior
roofing. The easy part was that there were no electrical wires or
plumbing to worry about, no refrigerator, washer, dryer, toilet,
bath, or other appliances to buy. Food would be stored in the root
cellar, accessed by a trapdoor from the kitchen, and the bath-
room was an A- frame outhouse located in the woods at the edge
of the clearing.
As Papa worked on the house, Mama returned to Franconia
with a trailer attached to the VW truck for the rest of their things.
Noticeably pregnant, she managed to move the cast-iron cook-
stove onto the trailer with the help of friends. Next she herded
the goats and chickens into the back of the VW and drove the
seven hours to the farm. The chickens lived in a coop next to the
camper, and the goats ran free. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and
the Monkees drifted in from the outside world on the battery-
powered transistor radio as Mama and Papa cooked over a
portable Coleman stove and showered with a plastic bag of water
hung from a nail to warm in the sun. The camper was cramped
and cluttered, but they kept up the illusion that they were on an
expedition and it was base camp.
The first snow fell while Papa worked beneath the protection
of the new roof. “We can’t move in until it’s done, otherwise
we’ll get used to it like this and never finish,” he told Mama. The
interior walls took shape, with planed pine boards nailed
vertically from floor to ceiling over the insulation. To the front of the
side door sat the wood cook stove, surrounded by an L- shaped
counter with an embedded stainless steel sink, a ship’s nautical
water pump, and a water container below. A dining table made
of varnished pine boards and crossed- log legs, with tree stumps
for chairs, sat beneath the tall south- facing windows looking
out under the overhanging roof. The far back corner walls were
covered with bookshelves above built- in L- shaped benches that
Mama would cover with maroon padded mats for a “sofa.” In the
corner behind the kitchen, a raised sleeping loft over closet
storage formed the bedroom space. The only appliances were a
galvanized grain mill clamped to the kitchen counter, the radio, and
kerosene lanterns.
On a walk along the coast with the goats, Mama found a piece
of driftwood that she carved and painted with their names, “Eliot
and Sue Coleman,” and nailed to a post where the rutted path to
the house left the public dirt road. By December 1, a little over a
month after they started, Papa declared the house complete. As
anticipated, the four- hundred- square- foot space felt like a
mansion after the cramped camper, and the accumulating snow made
its comforts all the more welcome.

(Continues...)




Reviews From The NPR Community

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: