Homes on the Range:
9 Steps on Beginning a Communal Homestead
Text by Jay Babcock & Stephanie Smith
In 2010, loaded down by debt and tired of the urban experience, the two of us (separately) decided to live full-time in a beautiful place we loved: the high-altitude, low-cost Mojave Desert, just miles from the national park in JoshuaTree, California. Luckily, it didn’t take us long to find each other. Stephanie had bought property earlier in the decade, intending to conduct architectural design experiments, so we used that land as our starting point and, after just a few years, we now own a house, two vacation-rental homesteader cabins and a 20-acre derelict fruit orchard. While we’ve certainly enjoyed some good fortune, it’s been quite a challenge, and we’ve had to evolve our long-term strategy on the fly. So, based on our experience, here are some ideas on how to make a communal homestead work.
1. GO RURAL
Really rural. We live on the grid but off the pavement, in unincorporated county land, with dirt/sand roads, piped-in local aquifer water and power, high-speed relay internet, a propane tank for gas and no sewer lines. No streetlights or helicopters, no car alarms or lawnmowers, no mail service, no curbside recycling...no curb. We’re embedded in a quiet, slightly settled, mostly unfenced wilderness, with long, smog-free horizons and theatrical stars in the night sky. It’s a long way from the urban apartments where we spent most of our adult lives, or the suburbs we grew up in. Sometimes I think Joshua Tree was just waiting for us to come camping...and stay. We’ve retired early, so to speak, decades ahead of schedule.
2. FIND THE OTHERS
We kept asking until we found the kind of locals who could answer our endless list of questions. Like how to identify plants and protect them from critter predation. Why—and what—should we feed a roadrunner? Where do we buy firewood? How do we wrap our swamp cooler water line? What should we do when a tortoise comes on the porch? Can we have the phone number for a guy who will capture a rattlesnake under our truck using a golf club and a pillowcase? And what about the hippie realtor with the best enclosed vegetable gardens, and the lady with goats who makes yogurt and cheese, and the old organic rancher/butcher who will let us meet and help slaughter the cow we want to eat, and the 90-year-old Buddhist teacher, and the permaculture dude in 29 Palms who has a functional greywater pond with fish…?
3. DON’T BUILD FROM SCRATCH
Land can be cheap, but building from scratch usually isn’t. Luckily for us, we didn’t need to, what with all the abandoned and unoccupied homesteader cabins from the ’40s and ’50s. When possible, we’ve rehabilitated existing structures through adaptive reuse of on-site or locally sourced waste materials. And we’ve also tried to reduce our structural footprint. For example, we converted an RV pad into enclosed, raised vegetable/herb garden beds. As a practice, we buy land with pre-existing, disused built structures—this permanently ends the risk of irreversible damage from “scraping” (the practice of removing all plants on a site via a single bulldozer swipe) as well as fencing and other destructive/counter-wild “development” by unenlightened owners.
4. PRACTICE MUTUAL AID
Telecommuting provides some income, and the cost of living here is lower than anywhere else we’ve lived. Still, getting out of debt and putting aside money to buy property as it becomes available has been challenging. With local work to be done, and no money or time to do it, we decided to start a group with other folks to barter and share expertise, labor and tools. Now we use this group to collaborate on each other’s home projects, erect outhouses and growshacks, build swales to catch rainwater and so on. The group encourages neighborliness, conviviality, bioregional solidarity and community resiliency. Only recently have we found out from old-timer neighbors and old Desert magazine articles that this is the way people have been building stuff out here since the ’40s. For big projects, DIY is wasteful; mutual aid is where it’s at.
5. EDENIZE: PLANT SOMETHING We turned a corner after adding a line item to our monthly budget for new tree purchases. To accommodate the trees, we generate new soil and mulch by composting free horse manure (from a local stable), free woodchips (from a local woodworker) and kitchen waste (from our house—and from our neighbor, who is a raw food enthusiast), and combine it with mineral-rich desert sand. Native and climate/terrain-appropriate trees are strategically sited to provide shade, cooling, aroma, oxygen, habitat for animals and beauty—and to suck up carbon dioxide. We bucket greywater or use a long hose; water comes from an ancient local aquifer. Eventually the trees will send roots deep enough to find rainwater stored in the sub-surface sand. Next up: fruit orchards, blue agave cacti, medicinal plants from neighboring bioregions—we gotta re-forest this planet before it’s too late.
6. STEWARDSHIP: PUT EYES ON THE LAND
We leave a significant amount (more than three-quarters) of each property as it is, providing corridor, sanctuary and native habitat for wild animals that travel through or live in the area, including a number of desert tortoises that are older than we are. That means the land remains close to wilderness—no machines, no fences, no lights and as little artificial sound as possible. Our stewardship of this precious space extends to constant, persistent monitoring for illegal and inappropriate human use and damage, with special attention paid to illegal off-road vehicle use, dumping of waste and (this is new) bobcat poachers. Same goes for the Bureau of Land Management land, interwoven across the square miles with private property; the area’s many absent-owner properties; and the Mojave Desert Land Trust’s Wildlife Linkage collection. Only the presence of watchful folks, willing to report illegal activity to the police, can impact bad behavior. We need more eyes on the land.
7. INVITE OTHERS INTO WILD NATURE
We rent out our modest cabins using Airbnb at first world-affordable rates. Guests receive primary encounters with bright starlight, open land, silence, wildlife and organized participation in each site’s permaculture cycles. Their urine and feces, collected in dry toilets that Stephanie designed, is safely composted over a year, eventually becoming rich soil for new trees. The outdoor showers and indoor kitchen are part of a greywater system; guests’ linens are washed in the main house’s system, also outputting greywater. Meanwhile, guests provide more eyes on the land. We’re enabling meaningful, net-positive impact on the land by non-residents, building a political constituency for land-use practices that will bring about a far healthier balance between civilization and what’s left of the wild. And we roll that Airbnb income into acquiring more land.
8. CREATE A COLONY
We’re growing a network of non-adjacent stewarded properties across a single square mile: a distributed colony. Over time, we hope each property will function as a “node” that triggers affiliated reinhabitation around it—more trees, more bushes, more animals, more insects. More complexity. Less destruction. More life.
9. BEHOLD THE POWER OF A STARRY SKY
Joshua Tree isn’t the only place in North America where you can still be overwhelmed by the stars in the night sky. We can’t help but be wowed by them—maybe it’s in our DNA. So look for the stars and buy property where you find them. Then, steward that land. Share it with nature-deprived urban folks via vacation rentals so that everyone wins.