In December 2019, before the world fell into viral chaos, my family of four embarked on a homesteading project.
For a decade prior to the release of my novel — about a post-apocalyptic mutual aid society — I’d spent countless hours researching doomsday prepping and communal living. After the book was published, I realized I didn’t actually know how to do any of the practical things I’d so painstakingly described. Far from self-sufficient, I watched my 5-year-old son’s tinkering skills surpass my own.
Determined to overreact, I decided to transform my family’s 3.5-acre woodland plot outside of Charlottesville, Virginia into a sustainable homestead. We had enough space and privacy to think big, so we started saving and set aside a little budget for improvements.
My wife named our homestead Thunderbird Disco. It meant something.
We got to work. We installed a ground-mounted array of solar panels and made plans for a vegetable garden, a woodshop, a rainwater collection system, and chicken coops. We got into the principles of permaculture—creating self-reliant and intentional ecosystems—and quickly came to think of our project as a way to teach our kids about where power and water and food and Amazon packages come from.
Like most families, we felt an immediate sense of chaos and isolation but enjoyed having a bit of extra time to enjoy our space. We dealt with the frustration of furloughs and maintaining our remote day jobs while homeschooling a 2-year-old and a 5-year old; and with the heartbreak of watching the world screech to a halt with the most vulnerable under the tires.
We were lucky. We had it good compared to most. And we had more work to do on Thunderbird Disco.
I felt confident the pandemic would pass without civilization crumbling (more confident than I feel now), but wondered if this ellipsis could be a useful dry run—an opportunity to prepare my family for the potentially much larger toll of climate change. We’ve decided it’s real and imminent, and we are totally unprepared.
Covid-19 has presented us with a chance to change that, and to take charge of our family, our property, and our consumption — our exclusive ecosystem for the next who knows how long.
So that’s what we’ve started doing. And we’re happier for it. I’ve recommended our brand of proactive and collaborative doomsday prepping to friends and parents because it creates a sense of agency (for both kids and adults) while providing real value (shifting from consumption to production, replacing homeschool screens with hands-on activities, etc.). I know it sounds like a pain in the ass — and it is to a degree — but it’s entirely doable and wildly fascinating if you have a plan.
After 10 weeks of quarantine, I’m ready to share our 10 Principles of Stay-at-Homesteading, loosely based on the 12 principles of permaculture—a series of steps that, if followed, are guaranteed to break the inertia and create a little order from chaos.
From The Phantom Tollbooth to Game of Thrones, the reason many books start with a map is to orient readers in an unknown landscape. Permaculture design is about creating a sustainable, low-maintenance homestead by maximizing the features of your unique property, but this means starting with a roadmap or puzzle box. Whether it’s a precise diagram of a dozen acres or a sketchy floorplan of an apartment or city rooftop, it’s helpful to understand what area you can inhabit, to situate yourself in space, to know your North. A birds-eye view is a good way to get out of the house and view it from a place of greater perspective.
When I started doing research, I found many seasoned permaculture homesteaders (like this one) recommending that we create the following maps (Google them): Base Map, Sun Map, Water Map, Sector Map, Zone Map. These then inform your Master Plan, which is a fluid document.
It’s easier to experiment on paper before making lasting changes in real life.
You may be walking more than usual these days. Depending on what kind of space you have on-site or can easily reach, carving out a path—in a park, in the woods—makes it feel more accessible and more “ours.” For me, the woods are always magical, and as my family and I began removing fallen branches and clearing some pathways, we stumbled onto natural spaces that felt like—or could easily be elevated into—sanctuaries.
Permaculture teaches us to “use edges and value the marginal.” We’ve found many ignored wonders in the woods.
Learn the Flora and Fauna
Whether big game, birds, or bugs, the recent decrease in human and machine activity means you may be seeing more animals. Learn their names! Download the PictureThis app, which lets you snap photos of any leaf and learn whether it’s poison ivy, or an edible plant to forage, or a tree that makes for good firewood.
It’s empowering to know the native vs. invasive species of plants and animals on your land. Which ones contribute to a healthy ecosystem and which stifle it?
Meet the Neighbors
Borrow tools and books. Seek advice. Ask for help. Return favors.
The concept of “doomsday prepping” rests on a profound distrust of humanity—assuming the worst of each other if shit hits the fan. Developing a strong nearby network, knowing who can do what, and establishing a local supply chain can mitigate some of our darker instincts and existential fears, ultimately moving toward mutual aid.
Any project will do. We built four raised garden beds (read: glorified boxes) and allowed that short-term construction project to seamlessly segue into a long-term gardening hobby. You have to start somewhere.
Also, you probably need more and better tools. Buy those early if you can.
Whether herbs on a windowsill or a full vegetable patch, there are few purer joys than watching a plant grow from seed. The process alone is both thrilling and relaxing, and if it also yields food you can eat, it’s an encouraging boost to feelings of self-sufficiency.
A garden can be the best of rabbit holes, branching into related projects like composting, irrigation, construction, hardscaping, and all things agriculture. It’s a great way to slow down and watch your ecosystem shift—what beneficial visitors or pests are drawn to it?—and watch yourself and your family shift in turn.
Our tendency is to break things and buy new things to replace them. Quarantine is a perfect time to repair or reuse one man’s trash. The permaculture principle of “Produce No Waste” feels like an impossible stretch for most of us, but with manufacturing and supply chains already strained, anything we can do to reduce our consumption is a welcome change.
Our vacuum busted a couple days into quarantine, and we were on the verge of buying a new one for like $300, but instead I learned to replace and repair the electrical plug for $1.59, thanks to YouTube. That small taste of success? Reader, I did the fucking moonwalk.
Fail at Something
They won’t all be wins. That’s just fine. I’ve made many miscalculations, stripped screws, killed our bean plants, damn near beheaded myself with a chainsaw, and once got so frustrated that I murdered a salad (don’t ask).
Most of us have been comfortably inhabiting well-worn territory—our jobs, our daily/weekly routines. Our kids are accustomed to seeing us in these practiced roles, to the extent they may fear being bad at something, which is a prerequisite for learning.
Stay-at-Homesteading is a chance to try new things and do them poorly, without much risk and with the added reward of modeling vulnerable curiosity for your kids.
“Change” doesn’t have to mean spending heaps of money or embarking on a massive undertaking. The best form of change may in fact be the easiest: do much much less than you did before.
That’s a privileged perspective, to be sure, but there’s an opportunity within this crisis to do more with less and to do less with more (more or less).
This was our North Star, but it’s easier said than done. Your spouse may be disinterested, your kids may be too young for power tools or too teenaged for family bonding. But if you can develop a project and help them carve out roles for themselves this can be the most educational and cathartic way to not only survive quarantine but to adapt and progress as a family long after this phase is over.
The chaos can be crushing. But beneath that mess may be a new form of order. It takes patience and constant improvisation to stay connected. But this is our challenge, as families and as a civilization. If someone in your sphere is not into composting or construction, maybe they enjoy drawing. Maybe they can help you make a map.