Author Gretchen Legler talks about “Creating Sustainable Rural Living” in Maine
Twenty years ago, Gretchen Legler moved with his partner, Ruth, to a post-and-beam cape on 80 wooded acres in western Maine and began writing essays about the couple’s experiences that shaped a life on what became their small farm : Essays on building fences, herding goats, hunting deer, chopping wood and much more. Over time, the essays have coalesced into a book that not only reflects the joys and challenges of farming in rural Maine, but also human relationships – between romantic partners, between neighbors, and so on. – taking place in an agrarian context.
In the February 2022 issue of Lower Eastwe have extracted a chapter from Legler’s new book Woodsqueer: Creating Sustainable Rural Livingand we asked him what there was to learn from a rustic life in the Maine woods.
In the chapter which Lower East excerpt, about wood burning, you mention your upbringing in the suburbs, the fascination of growing up with your family’s decorative fireplace, and the prospect of having a fire inside your home. Were you more of a city dweller when you first moved to Maine?
I grew up in suburban Salt Lake City, then turned urban when I lived for years in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But then I went to Alaska for several years, and I never considered myself a city dweller. So I write in the book what it’s like to learn to live on a farm and do all these wonderful things, and that’s has been a learning curve – it’s not like I grew up with it. But for me, the sensitivity has always been there, to be close to the natural world. My dad was a scientist, and we did a lot of field work with him when I was young, so we were always out in the desert, mostly collecting turtles, lizards, snakes and everything. So I had that sensitivity, and I think I share that with a lot of people – you know, a real desire to connect with the natural world. But when I arrived in Maine, I finally felt at home.
Why do you think that was?
How do you know you have found your home? It’s such a combination of the landscape, the climate, the people, the vibe. I remember when I said to my partner, “I could live here. I would teach [at the University of Maine Farmington], and it was a warm fall day. We had been to Egypt Pond in Chesterville, near our home, and I had gone swimming. I like to swim with no clothes on, and so there I was, swimming, and there were loons floating around, there were the trees and the cool water, and the combination of all those things was just one haha time for me. This place is a place I could befriend and learn about, a place that could really hold me and nurture me.
You certainly wouldn’t call this a book about survivalism, or radical, off-the-grid ownership. It doesn’t read like a manifesto, but you clearly sing the praises of an agrarian life and the skills that make it possible. Would you say it’s a book about the rejection of a certain type of life? Or kiss one? Something in between?
You know, one of my favorite poets, thinkers, and essayists is Mary Oliver. And in one of the last collections she wrote before she died, entitled Upstream, she has a beautiful essay that includes the line, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I think that’s what I approve of more than anything – being careful. Pay attention to who you are, your identity. To understand what a person can do to nourish themselves and be as complete as possible. And then how they can use those skills to make the world a better place. So one of the things I was trying to do with this farm was figure out how to connect. For me, it was with huge gardens, growing my own food; it was by connecting with animals; it was with the planting of fruit trees and wood heating. These were all my ways of connecting.
I think there are a lot of books a bit like this that could be considered pedantic, in a way, or judged, and they could actually be trying to endorse or suggest to other people that they live the wrong way. But for me, this book is mostly about joy and connection, and I hope that’s what people take away.
And look, there are a lot of people in Maine living the kind of life that my partner and I had on our farm. I certainly don’t want to cast myself off as someone who lives this life better or in a more elegant way or anything like that. I have no desire to set myself up as an example. What I think is that I am a writer and a storyteller, and the fact is that not everyone who has these experiences wants to write about them. So I’m not here to celebrate myself and, you know, this accomplishment of having a farm. I hope that even though these are memoirs, what I really want to do is celebrate the efforts of everyone in this community to live a sustainable rural life.
And what does “sustainable” mean in the context of the book?
What I hope a reader can think of is that “sustainability” is about how we keep things in balance. How do you do that in your report instead? How do you do this in relation to your environment and in your relationships with people and other non-humans who are part of that environment? Part of this book is the story of my long-term relationship with my partner, and when you’re in a long-term relationship, you always ask, how can it be maintained? You know how can we stay in love with each other? How can we support each other? How can we help each other grow, together and apart? I think one thing the book asks is for readers to think about these same questions with their surroundings, their neighbors, their friends, and their wider community. All of which seem like pretty important questions to ask right now, with all the challenges we’re facing, including COVID, the economy, politics and climate.
Woodsqueer: Creating Sustainable Rural Living ($18.95, paperback) releases February 15 from Trinity University Press.