Winter Life on a Homestead (Photo Essay)

SONY DSCLife at the Wolfestead has brought me back to a time when people didn’t exert energy for the sake of exercise. They moved their bodies to play or to work, and often because they needed to survive. The winter has introduced a dimension of discomfort but also a satisfying sense of reward when work is finished.

I came to the Wolfestead with a long distance trail running background and found farm chores more difficult than training for a 100-mile race. Also, farm chores offer no rest days. I have found this exertion to be functional, simple, and in many ways more rewarding than an endurance event.

I am still challenging my body, except now I have something to show for it: logs for the winter and fresh eggs for breakfast. These things I can savor more than a medal. The end result is more modest than crossing a finish line, but it feels pure.

I grew up with the myth that manual labor is something people do when they can’t go to college to escape the rigors of a menial, repetitive life. In reality, working with my hands has been one of the most mentally stimulating and creative things I have ever done–more so than higher-paying office work complete with brainstorming innovation meetings. These photos are a product of that inspiration.

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The chore of felling trees, cutting up logs, hauling them down off the mountain, and chopping them into firewood is never-ending. We use the wood to burn a fire and heat the house. In exceptionally cold weather, the fire burns all night.

“An authentic life will be built, at least in part, of ordinary verbs: wake, plant, dig, mend, walk, lift, listen, season, note, bake, chop, store, stack, harvest, give, stretch, measure, wash, help, haul, sleep. And verbs bring nouns, what doing requires: shovel, needle, basket, axe, seed, pencil, boots, match, handle, bucket, knife, ear, saw, tape, bowl, barrow, boat, level, soil, wedge, hand.” – Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods


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Each bale of hay weights around 50 lbs. A few days after we arrived, we restocked five bales and 300 lbs of chicken feed. It would have taken me all day just to move this stuff, but with Nate’s help it only took a few minutes. The hay is fed to the goats and the leftovers are raked into the chicken coops. Once the chickens have soiled it, it goes into the compost to feed the garden.

“I was headed away from physical work, toward the education meant to save me from it… Boys took shop. Smart kids went to college… Sports after homework is done… Exercise must fit into the workday. Nature is where we go to escape our ordinary lives… until we start to wonder, Who would I be if I chose the opposite?… Can’t our work bring us pleasure?… What if manual tasks are mentally rewarding?” – Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

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Chicken feed bags weight 50 lbs each. Every night we scoop out a daily ration of food and the chickens come charging. Evening feeds ensure that the chickens come back to the coops for the night, since they forage all day. As the temperatures drop, a roaming chicken might not survive the night.

“I’ve been working at farms the last two years and everyday at the end of the day I felt like I’d run a 50-mile race. I thought it was just me being weak. There’s no way farm work could be that hard, right? Well… farm work is hardcore. I verify it and have been verified by this. I also have always prescribed to the Teddy Roosevelt philosophy of leading a strenuous life.” – Sarah Willis, farm crew at Trogg’s Hollow

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There are four female goats on The Wolfestead: Lola, Dora, Hilda, and Tasha. Their offspring will be used for food, but these four will live out their lives on the farm. The goats do an amazing job of keeping the property clear through foraging. Sometimes goat owners hire out their animals to walk trails like the Appalachian and eat down the overgrowth to keep the paths clear. If there is a better job than taking a goat on a long trail hike with unlimited snack breaks, I don’t know what it is. Their favorite food? Poison ivy.

“Most of us are raised with preconceived notions of the choices we’re supposed to make. We waste so much time making decisions based on someone else’s idea of our happiness–what will make you a good citizen or a good wife or daughter or actress. Nobody says, ‘Just be happy. Go be a cobbler or go live with goats.'” – Sandra Bullock, actress

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Pip is the resident poodle puppy. He is the most thorough face-licker I have ever met, even taking his time to stick his tongue up each nostril (it’s the details). Pip is full of life and enthusiastically horny. He always wears a bow tie because bow ties are cool. Here he is after a romp in the snow.

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” – Bernard Williams, philosopher

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Eido is the old resident husky full of wisdom and patience. If an animal is dying anywhere on the property, Eido finds it and drags it over to us. He is a fan of playing in the snow and howling with his daddy Nate. Most mornings he sighs patiently while Pip humps his leg.

“Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love. They depart to teach us about loss. A new dog never replaces an old dog; it merely expands the heart. If you have loved many dogs, your heart is very big.” – Erica Jong, author

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One of our daily chores is to start a fire. I was surprised at how fast the wood stove heats up the house. On cold days, we run in here between chores to warm up before heading out again.

“From my first day on the job, tools have met me as a student and made me into a learner. Axes, saws, rock bars, and sledges taught my body how to swing and sharpen and carry and stow, and they taught my mind that over time, in a place you open yourself to, competence will come” – Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

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Average temperatures have been hovering just above the freezing mark, but we did have a cold spell and a power outage. Colder weather means going out more often to break up the water for the animals to prevent it from freezing solid.

There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you…. In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.” – Ruth Stout, author

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This young hen didn’t survive an opossum attack. We arrived (at Eido’s prompts) to see it still kicking and struggling for breath. “Quick, message Nate!” I yelled to Shacky, half expecting to receive some elaborate chicken surgery instructions for a last-minute, life-saving procedure. Of course, that’s not the way things work on the farm. Although I had braced myself for killing hens for food, I hadn’t considered accidental loss of life. My past winters have been filled with flurries and snowballs and hot chocolate, but I am slowly adjusting to a new winter experience: Death.

“Death is a fact of life; it is a necessary fact of life. Death is not evil. Death is unavoidable. Death is actually quite fantastic when you think about it: it is the mechanism for new life. It is simply the cessation of a life for the continuation of life.  Every time you wash your hands, take a shower, or brush your teeth, you are massacring millions of micro organisms. If you drive a car, you are killing insects every day, squirrels and birds likely often, and if you live where I do, probably a few opossums… Of course I feel bad when I kill things accidentally. I would much rather my killing be fully intentional.” – Nathaniel Wolfe, homesteader

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As common as death is on the farm, the miracle of life is also everywhere. This is a litter of newborn bunnies born during our stay. While not all are likely to survive, the awesomeness of watching their tiny lives unfold is an experience I will not soon forget. PS – The bunnies are named after Dr. Who characters.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost, poet

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From my viewpoint last winter as a vegan jogging on the beaches of California, I imagined that those who killed livestock and hunted game probably had less of a love for animals. After all, how could you kill something that you love?

Now that I have spent time on this farm, I have come to understand how much these homesteaders not only depend on animals, but deeply love them. Chuck the Duck is a waddling example.

Chuck is tenderly cared for. He is fussed over and sleeps with his owners even though ducks will be eaten here (don’t worry, NOT Chuck). Similarly, Gnome the Chicken wanders indoors and nuzzles into the sofa where he is affectionately received, even though chickens are killed here. Abandoned cats and bunnies find their homes. Some animals live out their lives while others become food.

“Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” – Michael Caine, actor

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Barefoot living is a huge part of the Wolfestead lifestyle. Even through winter, Nate does his chores barefoot–adapting and building a resistance to the cold weather over time. For his day job of teaching yoga and kung-fu, he is always barefoot.

“The truth is, no one can live on the land without touching the land. And touching land requires old, unglamorous, sometimes artful, sometimes boring, dirty work.” – Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

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Homesteaders not only work hard, but they also rest hard. Hours off are spent drinking, talking, laughing, and playing all night long.

“I think most people are willing to and want to work hard. But when you work on a farm you are very connected to the fruits of your labor and see a direct correlation between effort and reward, therefore it is motivating and feels good to accomplish something. Too many people in too many jobs are completely disconnected from the effort/reward equation. They get paid no matter what. Even if they work super hard it is rarely appreciated or rewarded, thus they tend to act in ways that are perceived as lazy. It is straight behavioral ecology from a biologist’s view. Effort is expensive and if there is no reward there will be no effort.” – Mike Miller, ultrarunner and traveler

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Thanksgiving dinner was prepared by hand and from scratch. We cooked two of the chickens that were born here, and the vegetables were canned in advance.

“Our culture is at once almost totally disconnected from the rhythms and limits of nature, yet obsessed with what is ‘natural.’ Some of the thinking about this is deep and critical: what should we eat? Where should it come from? What are things made of ? Who makes them? How do our actions affect this planet? How should the planet affect our actions? Other riffs on the nature theme are purely commercial: lanky magazine models loll in grassy fields with wicker picnic baskets. Log homes are status symbols, the ‘rustic look’ perfectly orchestrated by an interior designer. ‘Mama grizzlies’ are leashed for political fund-raising.” – Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

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Gnome the Chicken is the only hen allowed indoors. She is genetically inferior to the others, so she gets perks and is kept more as a pet. Every morning when I open the front door, she is waiting to dash inside and peck at the cat food.

“This experience is what we’re attempting to get with our gym workouts and organized races… a real struggle to acquire resources. The more primal the activity, the more fulfilling.” – Jason Robillard, ultrarunner and author

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R2 and his brother D2 are the kittens of the house. They are curious and playful, sometimes to their own detriment. A few days ago R2 jumped on to the wood stove and immediately realized his mistake.

“The kittens will make your sad go away.” – David Wong, John Dies at the End

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Cinder is one of the oldest family cats. She hangs out on the kitchen counter and sleeps in an egg carton box. The family has a total of six cats.

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” – Albert Schweitzer, philosopher

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The living room is my favorite spot. It’s a cozy, communal place kept warm by a raging fire. Animals are scattered all over the floor and furniture while goats and chickens gather at the door.

“Farm work beats all. It creates a strong mind, strong body, and happens for the greater purpose of survival.” – Margaret Schlachter, professional athlete and obstacle racer


This is a small family homestead in Landisburg, Pennsylvania (The Wolfestead). The land is owned and run by Nathaniel and Melanie Wolfe. Nate also works as a yoga and martial arts instructor. Melanie is a full-time nurse. They own and manage 8 acres of land and 100+ animals. Our chores for the winter include felling trees and gathering wood, setting up a hydroponics system, starting a greenhouse, and feeding/raising/processing the animals. Follow Nate’s blog at Shifting Strands.


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