Living Simply On The Land | JMB Podcast Episode 34

This podcast is a production of Jack Mountain Bushcraft Media. The Working Class Woodsman may or may not be a guest in this particular podcast episode and is not responsible for the content (especially for anything he might say when he's a guest).

How much land does a man need, and what should he do with that land when he gets it? In episode 34 of the JMB Podcast Ed Butler, Christopher Russell and I discuss a simple, low-tech life on the land. I recount a story by Leo Tolstoy titled “How Much Land Does A Man Need” and we discuss some the needs of humans and how they can be obtained relatively cheaply from the land. These needs include food, water, shelter, warmth, and recycling your refuse.


PHOTO: Shower enclosure at the field school.

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“Carving a home in the North Woods” chapter 1

The Burgess brothers were typical boys growing up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, active in sports and always helping out with local activities. Their mother was very active in the church and volunteered Steve and John for any service needed including food drives, thrift sales, and spring cleanings. They would spend most Saturdays lugging boxes or setting up tables in the heat rather than participating in usual adolescent activities their friends were involved in. It was probably a better choice of time spent in retrospect, many of John’s friends got in trouble with the law and spent some time in youth programs and doing community service. Steve Burgess was the more popular of the two brothers, he excelled in sports as well as the study courses in which he was involved. John was much more laid back, he spent a great deal of time reading old novels by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. The book “to build a fire” was one of his favorites and he read that several times, as well as many short stories by various authors who wrote anything to do with wilderness living.

John acquired most of his reading material from the church thrift shops he helped out with. As soon as they arrived in the morning to set up, john would go see what books were on the table and grabbed anything with snow on the ground or had tall evergreen trees on the front of the jacket. It always interested him that people could live off the land, unencumbered by material wealth. It seemed to him that all the modern conveniences were more bothersome than helpful. He saw how hard people worked in order to have the amenities they considered necessary to live. He was more intrigued with the lone woodsman that could carve a life for himself with a double-bit ax, a wool shirt, and a good pair of boots.

Steve and John Burgess both graduated high school in the same class, this was due to the fact Steve had earned so many credits with his summer courses he was permitted to graduate one year early to start college. As teenagers, Steve was studying Calculus. John spent his free time reading books that explained how to can food and grow vegetables. When the two brothers started college, Steve went on to advance in mathematics, and chemistry while John majored in agriculture. The idea of working in the agricultural field didn’t sell to Johns parents who thought he should be seeking a higher paying career. This seemed a bit hypocritical to him, coming from parents that made him volunteer his summers helping out local causes. John didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a lesson in politics, most people take everything for face value and never look deeper. When things appear smooth on the outside no one probes any deeper. His family lived in a nice home, his father had a good job, and his mother helped in the community. Everything seemed perfect…..

What the rest of the world didn’t see, was the late night arguing and empty liquor boxes in the garage. John’s father had a drinking problem and blamed it on his high-stress occupation. He worked for an accounting firm and had to deal with rising and falling markets. When times were good they drank to celebrate. When times were bad they drank to forget. It seemed like a waste of life.. John saw a different world out there, full of wilderness to be explored. Tying yourself down to a concrete jungle was a concept he could never fully get his head around. Why would anyone work so hard their whole life at a job they don’t like for this facade of a home, a couple of vacations a year, and if you were lucky enough to reach retirement age, you could enjoy yourself. Even that seemed contradictory based on the elderly folks in town he met through the church yard sales. All these people do is complain, he thought. Why would he want to end up like that..

As it turned out, the two brothers graduated college on the same weekend. This was an issue because Steve was in New York and John was in Iowa. The decision was made that the their parents would go to New York because Steve was graduating “magna cum laude” and it seemed appropriate for his parents to be present. John was actually relieved that he could get his degree and be on a bus heading home that afternoon with no commitments to anyone. At the bus station in Des Moines John found a magazine and it featured an article about “living off grid”. It seemed there was a trend of people who were pulling out of the chaos and retreating to the woods to live a simpler life. John found this very interesting after four years of studying agriculture, learning about the dangers future generations would face if the food companies continued using their petroleum based, hybrid seeds and fertilizers. The soil in many parts of the world has eroded from the mass production of food crops. It was a serious problem that no one seemed concerned about.

After the long ride home John was glad to be back on the east coast. He enjoyed his time In Iowa but he was happier close to the ocean and loved the tall pine trees he grew up with. His parents threw a small party to acknowledge the completion of his four years of college. Another great surprise to both Steve and John was that there was a fund set up for them by their grandfather that yielded one-hundred-thousand-dollars that was to be presented to them at the completion of college. This was a shock. Their grandfather was very conservative in the respect that he invested money in the “brick and mortar” stocks as well as municipal bonds. He would say things like “invest in the pipe lines! Fuel prices go up and down all the time but it has to flow through the pipeline”. He got this way of thinking from his career with the railroad. His company moved tons of products and the value of the product always fluctuated depending on market pricing, however, the price of freight only went up, never down… Standing in his parents kitchen, looking down at a six-figure check, John saw the wisdom with this philosophy.

That night at the dinner table there was mixed conversation about jobs and opportunities. Steve had started a software manufacturing project with two of his college friends. It ended up being successful enough that a major multi-media network company wanted to purchase it. John was still in disbelief over his sudden windfall, and had no idea what to do with it. After dinner he walked out to the back yard to see the silhouettes of the giant pine trees against the night sky. He could overhear the conversation about life in New York, yet couldn’t understand why his family wasn’t out here with him to enjoy this warm summer night, the smell of the woods creeping in, with the night time creatures singing their songs. He was thinking about the living-off-grid article he read, and remembering land for sale in ads in the back of the magazine. These were big parcels broken up somewhere in northern Maine. John had read in great detail about the highly respected Maine Guides who took people on canoe trips and fly-fishing expeditions.

It was at that point it occurred to him, he just inherited $100,00.00, and had zero debt from college because of his scholarships and programs. The Federal Government had started offering huge subsidies to students who were interested in agriculture, and John participated in every one for which he found the time. He realized he could buy land, build a small cabin, and have plenty of money left over. The only issue was explaining it to his parents. He thought for a bit and ran some figures through his head. The land, cabin materials, well, and tools could be purchased for less than half of his inheritance. The other half he would immediately invest in a conservative portfolio, that way if his plan didn’t work out, he would still have something set aside for later. The air smelled better already and he was trying to remember the name of that magazine with the land for sale.

The following morning John woke up and left the house at daybreak. He went to a local bookstore and found magazines containing ads that were offering large parcels of land for sale in northern Maine. The prices were very attractive compared to the cost of house lots in his home town. After thinking about it, he decided to tell his family that he was going on a fishing vacation in Maine, hoping to avoid any conversation about his future. He got a ride to the bus station and bought a ticket to Bangor Maine. Once there he figured he would find a hotel and visit some real estate offices to get a better idea of what the land actually looked like. John had been to the ocean in Maine years ago on a family vacation, but that was it. The bus ride took a over twenty four hours. He read most of the way and it seemed to go quickly compared to his ride home from Iowa. When he got off the bus in Bangor it was hotter than he expected. He had imagined having to wear a jacket, based on the classic pictures of woodsman in the magazines that lured him this far north.

John always traveled light, with only a change of clothes, a light rain coat, and his Swiss army knife. He had stopped at his family’s accounting firm investing fifty thousand dollars in the stock market and municipal bonds. The remaining money went into his checking account, with the exception of $3,000.00 cash that he brought along for meals and hotel rooms. John never had a credit card. When he needed one for college, he borrowed his mothers. He decided to use cash when he could, or write a check, but knowing an out-of-state check would be an issue in most places, he linked a debit card to his account. The idea of paying interest on a credit card was mind boggling to him, and could never understand why people used them.

Standing on the sidewalk in Bangor, he saw a savings bank across the street. Right beside it was a real estate office that he recognized from the brochures. When John walked in the front door of the office he was surprised how relaxed everyone was. Back home he would have been approached by three people as soon as the door shut behind him. There was a rack on the wall containing land maps and prices. He noticed one parcel was in Aroostook County, this was home to some of the legendary Maine Guides John had read about. There were some 40 acre lots listed for $10,000.00 with river frontage. John couldn’t believe how inexpensive the land was, and grabbed several of the flyers. A lady walked up behind him and introduced herself as Tammy. “looking at land in the County are you? John thought it was funny they addressed it as “the County”. “As a matter of fact, yes” he said. “I’m just surprised how inexpensive it is”. She laughed and said “well there ain’t much goin’ on up there now, is there?” Again, John was surprised how casual and friendly she was. ” I’m just looking for some land to build a cabin, and maybe do some fishing”. John had already planned and drawn out a complete homestead. “let’s have a seat and look at some lots, we have an agent going up that way tomorrow, so if you want to see something it shouldn’t be a problem”.

John spent the rest of the day and that evening walking around Bangor, taking in the sights. It was nothing like he expected, but was pleasantly surprised with the people and attitudes. He checked into a hotel and made arrangements to rent a car for the drive up the next day. He left before daylight and headed north on interstate 95. It wasn’t long before the city was behind him and the great north woods were looming on all sides. He noticed the trees were shorter and closer together the further north he drove. John knew that much of these woods were mismanaged by the logging companies in the early part of the century, land was basically stripped in most of the northeast. Most of the bigger dairy farms were out of business and the apple farmers were suffering from low profits. The potato fields still held a good bounty, but that too had shifted from what it was fifty years earlier. It seemed like recreation was the business of the future, with bigger and better ski mountains popping up all over the state. People were coming here to go camping and canoeing. Also, recreational vehicles were a cash cow for some guiding companies.

After a three hour ride John could see the top of Mount Katahdin off to his right, and stopped to take a picture. The air was cooler than the day before but still comfortable on this June morning. He took the exit for route 11 and headed towards the County, and when he arrived at the first small town he stopped for gas and a coffee. The store had everything from groceries to roofing nails. Upstairs was a home goods section and the back of the store was a trading post that sold hunting and fishing supplies as well as pack baskets and axes. This was the most interesting place he had ever seen. Behind the counter was an older gentleman mounting a scope on a rifle. “Mornin'” “Good morning” John replied, trying to hide his New Jersey accent. “What brings you up here, fishin’?” “Oh just looking at some property for sale; maybe do some fishing if I find a place to go”. The man looked up and said “You won’t have any problem with that buddy, there is some of the best fishin’ in the country right here”. “Well that’s good to know, thank you.”

John decided to grab some supplies since he was going to be here a few days. He bought a new wool shirt, a spin-cast rod and reel, a pair of leather work boots, and a hatchet. He also bought some cans of food and a couple loaves of bread along with a jar of peanut butter. The man at the trading post reminded him to get a nonresident fishing license and recommended he buy a creel for his fish and a cast iron fry pan. John was already feeling like he knew somebody and felt welcome. He left the store with his new acquisitions and a full tank of fuel. He also bought a map at the last minute so he could find the land he was going to look at. After another 10 miles he took a right onto North road and followed that for a while until he found a bridge that crossed the same river the land for sale abutted. John stopped to look at the running rapids. When he got out of the car he was swarmed by black flies. He had never seen such a thing in his life… They attacked so furiously he couldn’t open his eyes and was barely able to breath. When he got back in the car it seemed like a hundred of them were on the inside of his windshield and they were still biting. What in God’s name had he gotten into? He wished he had picked up that mosquito head net he saw at the trading post, He drove on to find the real estate companies sign that marked the property for sale.

Sitting in the car John was dreading the walk through those thick trees, imagining being drained of blood before he could possibly make it back from the river. He took out his new wool shirt and buttoned it tight at the neck and sleeves. Then he took a t-shirt and wrapped his head as best he could while still being able to see. Then he put his new boots on, tying his pant legs with the old shoe laces. He felt foolish, but there was no way he would last five minutes out there without some kind of protection against the black flies. As soon as the door opened he heard the river, but that was drowned out by the two dozen buzz bombs that were trying to eat whatever protein John had to offer. The shirt seemed to keep them out, and he managed to see well enough not to walk into a tree, but he had to keep his hands in his pockets and make fists but his wrists still got eaten. The walk to the river took around twenty minutes, but when John emerged out of the trees and stood on the bank of the Aroostook River, he knew right then, this was his home.

“The things you can do with a .twenty two”

A recent phone conversation with a kindred spirit from Alaska got my nostalgia pumping for the .22 rimfire. We talked for an hour or so and the conversation ended only because of a dying cell phone battery. The topic was guns of course, but what I found interesting was that we both loved our .22 rimfires. He had a Colt Woodsman that his father had passed down to him, used it daily as a kid and still carries it today. I have a Ruger Bearcat that I’m very fond of but, embarrassingly, it hasn’t seen one tenth the service his Colt has.

We talked about squirrel hunting and shooting cans off saw horses, back when the police weren’t summoned at the first report of a rifle. In the old days you could go out after school and target practice in hopes of bringing home the occasional tree rat or, if you got lucky, a ruffed grouse. My Grandmother used to cook the grouse with strips of bacon and root vegetables in the pan. That is still probably one of my favorite meals of all time. The squirrels she roasted whole, then separated the meat and deep fried it battered in egg, milk and cornmeal mixture. Those bushy tails tasted pretty good to a kid who had never been spoiled by major fast food restaurant chains offering free toys with their meals.

We discussed many popular cartridge choices and firearm designs, but it kept coming back to the good old “double deuce”. I guess for a few reasons, but if you think about it, the .22 is still very affordable to shoot. You can get 500 rounds for around $40.00, and even less if you shop for it online. The 40 grain bullet packs enough wallop to bring down a coyote with careful shot placement. Granted you are better off with a 22-250 or .223 for “yotes” but the little .22 will work in a pinch. The lack of recoil also enables you to shoot hundreds of rounds improving your marksmanship. Some of the best shooters I know insist on target practicing with a .22 because they feel you develop skill without being punished with the recoil of a heavier rifle. A good marksman will tell you that you want to see your bullet hit the intended target; what happens after the shot is as important as taking the shot.

I grew up like most kids, starting by shooting a Daisy BB gun, but soon graduating into a Ruger 10/22 that belonged to my Stepfather. We would spend hours at the sand pit shooting. I carried that gun on many after school and weekend small game hunting trips. He bought it brand new in 1968, and that gun is still in his cabinet today. I have had many guns over the years, but that 10/22 is one of my favorites. I also have a 1984 Ruger 77/22 with a detachable box magazine that I mounted a Burris 4X20 scope onto. It may sound like overkill, but when your shooting grey squirrels at 50 plus yards its a nice feature to have, especially with aging eyes.

One other thing we talked about was how easily you can carry 500 .22 rounds with you and not even break a sweat. If you where living off the land and needed to keep moving its hard to imagine carrying that many shotgun shells, or .308 for that matter. Not to say that if you where living in the interior of Alaska you wouldn’t want a 338 Winchester or one of it’s contemporaries to fend of grizzlies, but that’s not what we were talking about. If you were just living a life of overland travel, out of Kodiak territory, and you needed to dispatch small game as a source of protein then the .22 would be a great choice. Think about it, if you shot a moose for instance, how much work it would be to properly prepare and store 100% of that animal. If you were living in a cabin with a smoke house then no problem! But, if your just passing through, you need to select smaller game, and keep moving, and hopefully not perish from the elements…or an abscessed tooth.

He talked about his father mounting some PVC pipe on the front of his snow-machine and using it as a cradle to carry a .22 rifle. When he was out on the trap line he would use it to dispatch birds and other small game to be served at the dinner table that night. I always find it very interesting when I learn about the actual equipment used by the people so many of us try and emulate. These folks make do with what they have and are very “skilled” at it. Without that “skill” they wouldn’t last long out there. If you have ever tried to set a 330 conibear trap at below zero temps, in the dark, standing on thin ice, you know what I’m talking about.

As I said, we had a great conversation about the good old days and where the world is headed, but sometimes we need to get back to the things we enjoyed at a young age. There was a time when you could walk into a local hardware store, buy a rifle or a shotgun, and go put food on the table. The world is changing and it doesn’t seem like things are going to slow down anytime soon. It’s hard to find the time to get out and enjoy the things we used to, but if you get a chance, grab a box of rimfire and go shoot some cans. It won’t solve the worlds problems, but it does bring us back to a simpler time when the only thing that mattered was firing ten shots and counting ten holes in a soda can.