This is an essay by Victoria Strauser.
When I was in grade school our class read the book Heidi by Johanna Spyri. This book, written over 100 years ago, is the story of a young orphan girl sent to live with her ornery old grandfather who lives on a mountainside in the Swiss Alps.
Her first summer on the mountain offers Heidi many pleasures never before experienced in her short life – fields of mountain wildflowers, indescribable sunsets, learning how to tend goats with the town goatherd, drinking fresh goats’ milk and eating fresh goat cheese, sleeping on a bed of hay in the loft of her grandfather’s cabin with a view of the stars. A simple, Swiss peasant life.
Life is not all fun and games for Heidi however – losing both her parents as a baby then being dragged up the mountainside by her aunt and left with her grandfather whom most of the town is afraid of; then after falling in love with the mountains and mountain life and her grandfather, being torn away from them to tend an ailing friend in the big city where she is constantly being misunderstood and scolded for not being a “proper” girl. Her heart aches for the mountain so severely she nearly dies of homesickness.
Although the larger lessons from the book involve philosophical ideas like exploring the relationships (sometimes tenuous) that we have with our extended families, duty versus freedom, and always seeing the best in people even when they don’t seem to deserve it, it was Johanna’s descriptions of Heidi’s simple, peasant mountain lifestyle that captivated me. It was these images that stayed with me long after the days of childhood books and dreams had left me.
As a young girl, I couldn’t imagine a more ideal life than Heidi’s. Mountain meadows filled with flowers, a flock of friendly goats and a good friend to talk to, simple wholesome food, a tiny cabin home with a fresh straw bed and a view of the stars.
Far from any mountain, my actual childhood home was nestled in the woods on the shore of a very big lake, but my imaginiation made up for the differences in scenery. Paths through the edge of the woods near our home became our make-believe village. A large rock was utilized as bed-chair-table in our tiny “home.” Bread and cheese were my favorite food staples, and the family dogs became my “goats.” The steep path up and down to the beach was our mountain trail.
After 18 years of nearly idyllic life in the woods, I moved to a large city to attend college. Much like Heidi not having a choice over being rudely dumped off at her grandfather’s cabin, I didn’t feel like I had much choice over the decision to attend school in the big city. Once there, like Heidi trapped in the city tending her ailing friend, I felt “stuck” and couldn’t figure a way back to a country life again.
My job was in the city. I couldn’t afford my own home in the country. And I had a family to think of and plan for and take care of. My debts were high, with school loans and childcare and later a mortgage. The 100-year-old, three-story brick house had an incredible view of the Duluth harbor, but it was no mountain. My heart longed for fresh country air and the sounds of bird songs and wind in the pines rather than traffic and sirens.
For a long, long time it seemed my childhood dreams of a country life would be beyond my reach. 18 years of office jobs and big-city living were followed by another 6 years of even bigger city living, as my husband transferred for better work opportunities. We worked tirelessly to live below our means and pay off our collective debts so we could make some radical changes to our lives.
But despite our efforts, our debts increased. Multiple health crises hit us. A child with special needs and a lot of professional care increased the financial burden. It seemed our debts had no end.
Wearily we plugged along, managing to stay on course, slowly paying off one debt after another, surviving one health crisis after another, dabbling in country experiences like canoe camping and backpacking as we waited patiently to make a permanent move out of the city. These excursions were but band-aids on my heart’s longing for a country life, and at times I wasn’t sure I could stand the city for one more minute.
In 2008 my country longings started to get the best of me and I discovered alpacas and started my own herd, buying a female named Brigid and boarding her with her home farm 75 miles away since we had no farm of our own.
In 2009 we moved to the country outside of our big, big city to be closer to our alpaca. We still didn’t own a farm, and my husband now had a 54-mile-a-day commute, but at least I could now see Brigid and her new baby Grace every day as they were just five miles down the road. And my house was once more surrounded by trees and fresh air and bird song.
In 2010 we rented a 2-acre farm on the western side of the big, big city and brought 3 alpacas to our farm and started our first flock of chickens, a little experimental farm of our own. It was clear right from the start on this tiny little farm that I was hooked on the farm life for good and there was no going back.
It’s now 2012, perhaps 35 years or longer after first reading about a young girl on a Swiss mountainside. We have moved to rural western WI and are about to put an offer on a 40-acre farm and buy our first flock of sheep, who will cavort happily with our small herd of alpacas and flocks of chickens and whatever else tickles our farm-fancy.
I am not a young girl on a Swiss mountainside, but I am a farmgirl shepherd living out my own personal version of Heidi’s story.
A story that all started a very long time ago with a children’s book about an adventurous girl and a dream of a simple life. A dream that I never forgot.
Victoria Strauser is a farmer, writer and software tester. She has been published in MaryJanes Farm Magazine and authors a blog, www.gypsyfarmgirl.com. She lives with her husband in western Wisconsin on a farm with their alpacas, sheep, chickens and a few spoiled house cats.