Living On the Edge: Security Through Insecurity

By , September 18, 2009

When the news came last autumn that the government had taken over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, our decision to chuck the standard suburban lifestyle to head for the woods and off-grid—to live on the edge, in other words—made more sense than ever.

When we moved from Juneau, one of Alaska’s larger towns (a truly relative term) to come to live on our “homestead” just over three years ago, we had a notion that something like this might happen. With relatives in the computer industry, we’d heard long before the year 2000 about the potential problems of Y2K. We realized that we in the United States are totally unprepared for the unexpected, whether that be a technology malfunction, like the narrowly-avoided Y2K scenario, an unthinkable event such as the World Trade Center collapse, a severe economic downturn like the current one, or a natural catastrophe: a hurricane, fire, or earthquake. We all like to think that things will be okay, that whatever comes, our elected and appointed officials will handle it for us. And, when catastrophes like Y2K are averted through incredible effort and expense, the public dismisses it as a hyped event that never presented a true threat at all! Such “wisdom” allows us to go blindly back to our usual routines, confident that the next chicken-little scenario will be just as anticlimactic. Our family at least recognizes the potential such events have to disrupt society, and do not intend to trust that someone else will fix it for us.

Not that we made the move because of this . . . at least not entirely. The homestead fulfills our childhood dreams. As a bonus, it improves our family’s situation should problems arise. We had far less access to good gardening, firewood, hunting, or fishing in our little Juneau suburb than we do here.

We quit our jobs and moved here to try our hands at living on the edge. We wanted to live closer to the land, growing or gathering what produce we can, hunting and fishing for the majority of our meat, maybe raising a few chickens now and then. We are not completely independent by any means. Much of our food will always come from a store—after all, we can’t grow our own coffee or black tea. We still have to pay taxes; we can’t make most of our necessities as cheaply as they can be purchased elsewhere. We have a few monthly bills, insurance, Internet and the like. Even so, our need for cash has been greatly reduced by these new circumstances. We earn a little from various micro-incomes, and I design Web pages, using our satellite Internet connection.

There’s a fair amount of risk involved with this lifestyle. The local fire department can’t and won’t come to our rescue should the cabin burn. Catastrophic illness would be just that. If we get injured, it’s a long hike out for help.

On the other hand, stress is largely removed from our lives. As long as we focus on what we have rather than worrying about what we don’t have, we are healthier. When we eat natural, unprocessed, homegrown foods, we are healthier. When we work and play as a family, and when those two concepts are intermingled, we are healthier. As we spend our days in activity and physical exertion, we are healthier. Also, good-hearted, educated, knowledgeable people surround us. Our neighborhood is comprised of people we trust.

As for the life of the mind, this has been a self-educator’s dream! In the last three years we’ve learned more about electricity, fishing, hunting, gardening, water management, and myriad other topics than in the rest of our years combined. The learning curve is a steep one; class is always in session, and no one sleeps through the period or watches the clock! We are, in Thoreau’s words, living deliberately.

So, while wars rage and the economy tumbles, we are—all of us—living on the edge. Some of us, a little closer to it, may just have a better foothold.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

12 Responses to “Living On the Edge: Security Through Insecurity”

  1. robert & Carol Platt says:

    This sounds like what we are preparing for now. We just have a few more things to complete before the big move. We are up a mountain at 3500 feet in eastern Wash. right next to the Canadian border. I just started a little blog myself. It’s rather simple Hope to hear from you

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Robert, thanks for stopping by, and for your comments. I took a look at your blog. That’s lovely country where you are. These days, you’re lucky to find a good place to homestead. Best of luck to you and Carol!


  3. Hi Michelle, I am so glad that the show at the Museum moved you so much. I wrote a version of that saying after finding several other translations and wouldn’t mind you using it at all. I was moved by your blog and find a parallel devotion to the wilderness. It is what sustains me and underlies all my work. I rely on being places which speak to me through being on the edge so to speak. It is a necessary place to exist for the larger mind to take over. I appreciated Mark’s comments on security through insecurity. I grew up living on a boat and sailing the fjords from Puget Sound to the Queen Charlottes with my father year after year. It was a greatest gift we could have given me. Now I wouldn’t know how to truly live without those experiences. Be happy in the lightness underfoot with a clear awareness of the end.
    Cheers, Theo

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    “Be happy in the lightness underfoot with a clear awareness of the end.” That’s beautiful! Thank you for visiting our site and commenting here, Ms. Jonsson. I really wish Aly and I could have seen your exhibit with Michelle.



  5. Don says:

    >The local fire department can’t and won’t come to our rescue should the cabin burn.

    Mark, so what is y’all’s survival plan in the case of a fire? I mean, you don’t want to have to hike out to town in the middle of a blizzard if the house goes up. Do you keep a permanent backup shelter nearby?

    Living in Texas, this isn’t something that I’d ever have to deal with so I’m curious what you polar bears do ;^).

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Don, it starts with smoke detectors and lots of fire extinguishers. The previous owner set up a long hose under the sink as a “fire hose.” After that, it depends on the size of the fire! If the cabin goes, we can move into our guest house. If it’s involved, we’re much worse off. We’d need to hike to neighbors for shelter. None of it’s attractive, but every day it doesn’t happen, we feel like we’re ahead of the game!

  7. Hello from Pahrump, NV….enjoy your site and what it offers. My wife and I are living a “reduced lifestyle” in the Mojave Desert. We have dabbled with living off the grid off and on over the years…hope to get to 100%, but as you and your audience knows, it takes some resources to accomplish that. We have started a “reference web site” that is (will) focus on gardening – seeds, ground prep, irrigation, harvesting and storage of product….some other references will be offered as well as links to other sites that have a lot to say (like yours) and add to the community of folks that really want a different life and lifestyle…keep up the good works!

  8. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Brent,

    Ah, Pahrump–one of my all-time favorite place names! I see you’re just getting started with your Web site. It’ll be very interesting to me, as you’re basically on a different planet than I am. My grandparents live in Lovelock, and I have fond memories of day tripping into the high desert near there with my uncle. It’s so foreign to this child of the rainforest! Best of luck in your efforts. I don’t even know if 100% self reliance is possible in this country any more, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try for it!


  9. Mark says:

    We fell in love with Alaska on our 9 day RV trip. Now we search the Internet for blogs and personal life experiences like yourself. We ponder the idea of moving to Alaska everyday, but seem to have too tight of connections here in the sunny south. Could we give up everything we worked so hard for? Could we move away from the kids and soon to be grand kids, great friends and family? Could we give up the convinces of nearby towns and Walmart? Did you have to ask the same or similar questions? Thanks for sharing.

  10. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Mark,

    No, we really didn’t have to ask these questions, at least not to the extent that you need to. We already lived in Alaska, so we didn’t have to give up much to make the move here. We’ve been isolated from most of our family for years, but this is where I was born–it’s my home. If my family isn’t here, it’s because they moved away. Our daughter is just now old enough to consider raising a family, and her plan is to do that in a tree house on our property!

  11. May I marry your daughter, LOL?

    PS. The tree house is the attraction though I am quite certain your daughter is beautiful so are the women here in the Philippines.

    I am not even a little bit monogamous by nature so it helps for me to be doing a hunter/gather build your own homestead here in the part of the world where an old man like me is welcome.

    The fishing is great and the women beautiful.



  12. Mark Zeiger says:

    Funny, Robert! You don’t endear yourself much to a potential future father-in-law, but I’ll pass along your proposal to Aly.

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