Author Gretchen Legler on “Crafting a Sustainable Rural Life” in Maine
Four questions for the author of Woodsqueer: Crafting a Sustainable Rural Life.
Illustration by Jada Fitch
Twenty years ago, Gretchen Legler moved with her partner, Ruth, into a post-and-beam Cape on 80 wooded acres in western Maine and started penning essays about the couple’s experiences carving a life out of what came to be their small farm: essays on building fences, tending goats, hunting deer, cutting wood, and much more. Over time, the essays coalesced into a book that reflects on not only the joys and challenges of homesteading in rural Maine, but also on human relationships — between romantic partners, among neighbors, and more — unfolding against an agrarian backdrop.
In the chapter that Down East excerpted, about heating with wood, you mention your suburban upbringing, being fascinated growing up with your family’s decorative fireplace and the prospect of having fire inside your home. Were you more of an urban person when you first settled in Maine?
I grew up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, and then I did gravitate toward the urban when I lived for years in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But then I went to Alaska for several years, and I’ve never considered myself an urban person. So I write in the book about what it’s like to learn to live on a farm and do all those wonderful things, and it was a learning curve — it’s not like I grew up with that. But for me, the sensibility was always there, to be close to the natural world. My father was a scientist, and we did a lot of fieldwork with him when I was young, so we were always out in the desert, mostly collecting turtle and lizards and snakes and things. So I had that sensibility, and I think I share that with a lot of people — you know, a real yearning to connect with the natural world. But when I came to Maine, I finally felt at home.
Why do you suppose that was?
How do you know that you found your home place? It’s such a combination of the landscape, the climate, the people, the vibe. I remember the moment when I said to my partner, “I could live here.” I had been teaching [at the University of Maine Farmington], and it was a hot fall day. We had gone over to Egypt Pond in Chesterville, near our house, and I had gone for a swim. I like to swim without any 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 an aha moment for me. This place is a place I could befriend and learn about, a place that could really hold me and nurture me.
You wouldn’t call this a book about survivalism, certainly, or radical, off-the-grid homesteading. It doesn’t read like a manifesto, but you’re clearly singing the praises of an agrarian life and the skills that make it possible. Would you say this a book about rejecting a certain kind of life? Or embracing 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, called Upstream, she has a beautiful essay that includes the line, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I think that’s what I’m endorsing more than anything — paying attention. Paying attention to knowing who you are, your identity. To understanding what a person can do to nurture themselves and be their fullest possible self. And then to 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 is figuring out how to connect. For me, that was with huge gardens, growing my own food; it was through connecting with animals; it was with planting fruit trees and heating with wood. Those were all my ways to connect.
I think there are a lot of books a bit like this one that might be considered pedantic, in a way, or judgy, and they might actually be trying to endorse or suggest to other people that they’re living the wrong way. But for me, this book is mostly about joy and connection, and I would hope that’s what people come away with.
And look, there are lots of people in Maine who live the kind of life my partner and I had on our farm. I certainly don’t want to set myself aside as someone who lives this life better or in a more elegant way or anything like that. I don’t have any desire to set myself up as an example. What I think is that I’m a writer and a storyteller, and the fact is, not everybody who lives these experiences has any desire to write about them. So I’m not out to celebrate myself and, you know, this accomplishment of having a farm. I would hope that even though this is a memoir, what I really want to do is celebrate the efforts by 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 could think about is that “sustainability” is about how we keep things balanced. How do you do that in your relation to place? How do you do that in relationship to your environment and in your relationships with the people and non-human others 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’re always asking, how can this be sustained? You know, how can we stay in love with one another? How can we support each other? How can we help each other grow, together and separately? I think one thing the book asks is for readers to ponder those same questions with their environment and neighbors and friends and their larger community. Which all seem like pretty important questions to be asking right now, with all the challenges facing us, including COVID and economics and politics and climate.