By John Guy Laplante With 9 photos.
Liberty, Maine–Is it possible for two people in middle-age–late middle age –to change just about every aspect of their lives and find fulfillment in a new life style?
I said just about every aspect. Here is what I mean. To change the person they would live with. Where they would live. What they would do for a living. How they would spend their money. And so many other aspects that spin off from these.
Well, I know a couple who have done exactly that. And I have just seen them up close in this new life of theirs. Nothing on this earth is perfect, and that’s certainly true of human relationships. But from what I have witnessed of these two, I would say they are happy. In fact, surprisingly happy.
I am speaking of Richard and Maria King. Richard is from Deep River, Connecticut, which is my town. Maria is from Poland. They met online and then in Warsaw and quickly became convinced that they shared many aspirations.
By the way, he knew hardly any Polish. She knew some basic English–she studied it in school, but only because she had to. She also speaks German.
Richard has been an architect for over 30 years, with a varied and interesting practice. Maria was, as she puts it, a “paper pusher” for 25 years. I think she was being modest. I have met her. I believe that her “paper pushing” was sophisticated and complex. They both had a yearning to simplify their lives and to become self-sufficient as much as possible.
They were married in Massachusetts in May 2010. Now, for a farm! On their honeymoon, they went to central Maine, really rural central Maine between Augusta, which is the state’s capital, and Belfast on the Atlantic. It’s a land of tiny villages, old farms, and beautiful lakes. There is also a strong culture of supporting local food production—“localvoring.”
They had joined the Maine Farmland Trust, an organization that specializes in connecting farmers looking for farms with farms that are for sale. Following up on a lead, they turned onto a thinly populated road in the back country here. They came upon a long-unused farm. Not exactly a farm. The place had only an old cabin–a hunting cabin. An open floor plan finished in knotty pine. A kitchen and bathroom (including a septic system), but no running water. Only a wood stove for heating and a small gas stove for cooking. It did have electricity.
There wasn’t even a real driveway. Just a field road winding six hundred feet up to the cabin.
But rising high behind the cabin was a hill that was a big field. On that day, windy and overcast, they saw the whole field covered with native blueberry plants. They got excited by the wild character of the land and its rough rock outcroppings.
They strolled to the top of that hill. Down on one side, less than a mile away, they could see the clear blue water of Lake St. George. It’s a big lake, and is the home of a state park. Beautiful. And off to another side they saw several nearby mountains and a very large one in the distance. It’s only later that they found out it was the famous Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, up by Bar Harbor–fifty- four miles away.
They were thrilled. This was the place!
They bought the place, and, as Richard puts it, it didn’t cost them an arm and a leg. “I saw we could do it,” he says. “It wasn’t just a crazy pie in the sky dream.”
“It was so, so beautiful!” says Maria. “Perfect!”
That was three years ago and they became permanent Mainers one year later. Well, I just visited
them. Their homesteading is far from over. They plan to do much more. But what an impressive start!
The first months were not easy.
Said Maria, “Being here in winter without water. Can you imagine?
But we did enjoy aspects of it. A lot! And had fun sliding down the hill on a sled.”
They work seven days a week, 8-9 hours a day, with hammer and saw, pick and shovel, scythe, and backhoe, or whatever. They are true partners. Maria works as hard as he does, and at the real physical jobs, too.
Here are some down-to-earth details.
The blueberries. It is not their cash crop (yet, there is a local blueberry cooperative interested in next year’s harvest), but they pick enough to freeze them for use through the winter. The remaining berries stay in the field feeding the coyotes, Canada geese, turkeys, maybe also moose (they have seen one recently in the field), and, oh yes, their goats!
The goats. Visiting their new property in the fall of 2010, they attended the regionally famous Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. Lots of livestock to look at. They became interested in the goats.
Said Maria, “Goats are so intelligent! And social and emotional!” Richard chimed right in. “They are. We have a very close relationship with them. She’s right. Goats and pigs are the most intelligent of all domesticated animals.”
They decided to get dairy goats to have their own milk and to make raw-milk cheese.
They heard of a goat farmer in Connecticut who taught goat husbandry. They signed up. Worked with him for ten weeks, five mornings a week.
Learned as much as they could about goats. When and how to feed them and water them. How to milk them. How to de-horn them when necessary. What diseases they’re prone to. On and on.
Upon “graduation,” the farmer gave them $400 apiece for their labor, four baby goats and two bales of hay. It was June 2011. The moment of the new start. They put the goats and the hay in the back of their Honda Fit and took them up to Maine.
That was the beginning of their herd. They now have eight, one buck, two wethers (castrated bucks) and five does.
Said Maria, “We are so happy to have them. In a way they are like people. Each one has its own personality. We’ve been very lucky. We have nice goats.”
“Except for one,” added Richard. “Nasty. Very hard to put up with him. We had to put him down.” He smiled wryly. “He’s in our freezer now.”
One goat really caught their heartstrings. Asher. In one word, a darling. But only nine months old, he became gravely ill. They took him to a veterinarian. He said it was hopeless and they watched as the doctor gave him a fatal injection. As they told me about it, I could tell what a traumatic experience that was for them.
As they spoke, I got the feeling the goats were part of their family. That’s really how they felt about them.
In the yard, we watched as the goats munched grass and moved around freely. They never go far off. Richard said that soon they will breed two of the gals. Caleb, the buck, will be the sire.
“Then in five months we’ll have four new babies,” Maria said. “Maybe six.” She was so pleased about it. “Next fall we will breed all five of our does. Where should it lead? We will figure out when it comes so far.”
It was milking time. “Come and watch,” Richard told me. I followed the two of them into the attached barn. Richard had designed and built a milking stand. He placed some goodies into a pan at the front and brought in a goat, which hopped onto the stand. Her name was Lilith. She was so happy. Maria tenderly Lilith’s teats and began milking her. It took only five or six minutes.
Smilingly she showed me the milk. Very white, a bit bubbly. About a liter and a half. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. I just nodded. I’ve never had goat milk, in fact, goat anything in my life. She added, “We drink it just as it is. No pasteurization.”
Now about their construction and fix-up projects.
They’ve made big improvements to the cabin. They’ve done a lot of finish work. Drilled a deep well, which was all-important. They now have a bathroom with even a big, big tub (a cattle watering tank actually). They heat with their woodstove but have constant gas hot water. And a small kitchen. Comfortable furniture.
In one corner is Richard’s office complete with computer and Wi-Fi. Maria has her own computer. Many bookshelves loaded with books, and what a variety.
They had me sit down with them for dinner. I’m a vegetarian, so they made it vegetarian. Nice people. I suspect they may becoming vegetarians too. A very tasty dish – pasta with stinging nettle. Maria separated the leaves from the stems with bare hands! She did not mind the stinging, after boiling the plant looses the sting. Fresh-from- the-garden tomatoes with basil and Maria’s goat cheese, which I found tasty and surprisingly chewy. Red wine. Plus lots of good talk.
The taste and the texture of that cheese Maria brought from Poland in her memory. Similar cheeses are made in the Polish Tatra (part of the Carpathian mountain range). Astonishingly enough the cheese is formed by hand and molded in Maria’s own crocheting!
They’ve also done a lot of building. Added a long, enclosed porch along one side of the house. Added an attached barn for the female goats. It’s accessed through the porch, which makes it easy when it rains and in the winter. Built a separate and bigger barn with a hayloft a few feet away. They keep the goat guys there—important to keep them apart from the does. And a couple of small outbuildings.
And three beehives! They have thousands of bees buzzing around (each hive has between 40 and 60 thousand occupants) and making honey back there. “Bees are essential to mankind,” says Richard. “They pollinate everything. So of course they are essential to us here.”
They look forward to harvesting some honey and some comb wax next year. By the way, Maria makes a special herb tea for the bees, which is fed to them by feeders in the hives. “It strengthens their immune systems,” she says. Richard added, “There is a worldwide problem with bees being killed by pesticides. We want to help them survive.”
They have a big garden near the house. Maria has made it her very own. Vegetables. Herbs. Flowers. So many kinds of all of those. She knows even the Latin names of many of them. She uses the herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes. She’s making the garden bigger, turning over the earth with a spade. No rototiller here. “I like doing it the old-fashioned way.”
As the three of us walked through it, Maria spotted a big fat caterpillar crawling through the grass. Pointed it out for me. “Don’t step on it, John!” I didn’t intend to.
Richard scooped it up with his hand. The little thing curled up into a tight ball. Traumatized with fear, I suppose…if a caterpillar can sense such emotions. Gently he put it back into the grass. We watched it move along. “A butterfly before long!” he said. “If it doesn’t become food for something.”
I noticed a big, shiny blue tractor parked off to one side. With a front loader and a backhoe. Obviously a major purchase. Maria nodded and chuckled. “That was Richard’s dream! And his dream has come true here!” But it also was needed for digging holes in the ground and long tranches for pipes and foundation, for moving stones and small buildings, for establishing the driveway!
That long, curving driveway from the road seemed a problem, well, to me. Especially in the winter. “We shovel the snow,” said Richard. “Sounds
strange, I know, but we even enjoy it.”
“How about that big tractor? Can’t you use that?”
“No, it doesn’t work out because the loader is rigidly fixed to the tractor and cannot ‘ride’ on the driveway surface like a regular plow. It has a tendency to dig into the surface.”
What do they do for recreation? “We read a lot. Sometimes I read to Maria and she reads to me. We use our computers a lot, but we enjoy them, too. In the summer we occasionally go swimming in Lake St. George. We enjoy films and use Netflix extensively. We also view films at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, which has ‘art-house’ aspirations and was one of the venues for the Maine International Film Festival last July. But know what? Our daily work is really wonderful recreation.”
Richard does all the errands in one or two trips a week. Maria stays at home. She smiles. “I like it here!” She goes days without leaving the place.
It turns out Richard is still an architect. On a small scale. Projects keep coming to him, even from Connecticut. It’s a 5 1/2 hour car ride on the Interstates each way. “The telephone and the Internet make it a lot easier than it seems.”
In the morning, after I interviewed them a little, Richard said to me, “Let’s take a walk to the top of the hill.” Off we went.
Up at the top, we had a clear view all around. The sun was high and it was all very beautiful. I could see Lake St. George. A very nice sight. Maria pointed East toward Cadillac Mountain, but it was too hazy to see it.
Turning around, we looked down on their homestead. Their house–well, it’s no longer just a rude hunting cabin. It’s a real home. Saw the two barns. Even the big blue tractor. And so many other things they have done. Very impressive for just two years. All the result of very hard work and real determination and passion.
One huge achievement, to me for sure, is how well Maria speaks English. Amazing. And the variety of her interests. I see this quite often. She emails me a comment about one or another of my blogs. She’s a lady of few words, but her comments are always interesting.
Walking back down, we passed close to a big boulder. Maria led us right up to it. Attached to one side of it was a small sign with one word. “Asher.” I knew that was the name of their first goat. And what happened to him.
They had chosen the boulder and Richard had used his tractor to place it on Asher’s grave.
“Who made that nice little sign?” I asked. Maria said, “I did. Do you like it? It’s a crocheting covered with fiberglass. It should last a long time.”
Back down, I said goodbye, hopped into my van, and started slowly down the rough driveway. In my mirror I could see they were watching me go. I stuck my hand out the window and gave them a little wave, and they waved back.
On my way through tiny and quiet Liberty and onto the highway, I was very deep in thought. I had been in on Richard’s bold dream from the very start. I watched it unfold one bit at a time, but then, far from where it was taking place up north.
And I wondered time and again, is this just another mid-life crisis, one that may have an unhappy ending? Now, from what I had just seen, I didn’t think that.
So again, dear friends, I ask you, is it possible for two people of strikingly different backgrounds and in late middle age to begin a challenging new life in a new part of the country and find fulfillment? What do you think?
Well, up here in rural back-road Maine, it certainly seems so for Richard and Maria.
They have their own website (www.goatspiritfarm.com), which Maria maintains.
I just looked at it. They had not mentioned it. I found out when I got home and received an email from them. It’s amazing, like so many of the things they’ve been doing. Wonderful text, photos, and design. Its name…goatspirit farm! I suggest you take a look.