Paying Attention: The Most Important Skill on Your Homestead

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In the grand scheme of acquiring, establishing, and running your homestead, you will be paying A LOT of people. You’ll be paying the sellers of the land, the bank you get your loan from, the county for various (and seemingly endless) permits, contractors, insurance people, moving people, utility people, livestock sellers, your friends and family (although you can usually get by with paying these in either food or beer…), and there will be many many days when you will feel like having a good shrink on retainer would be money well spent. But all the above will be wasted effort and cash if you don’t follow the most important rule: Pay Attention.

We now live in a society where anyone living in even remotely “modern” digs is literally overloaded with mental, visual and audio stimuli.  If you are like most people, take this little test.


Close your eyes.


What do you hear?

Computer running, of course.  TV on somewhere?  MORE than one TV on somewhere?  Radio or CD player?  Refrigerator?  Furnace or air conditioning?  Kids playing (fighting)?  Dogs barking?  Traffic outside?

What’s the first thing you notice if the power goes out?  (After the DARK…)




Take driving.  Think of everything you must keep track of, visually and audibly.  Now add the stuff we do on TOP of that: talk to passengers, referee the kids in the back seat, answer the phone, eat, drink, and sing along with the radio… It’s amazing anyone gets anywhere alive.

Personally, I can’t stand noise.  At work, it’s quiet.  No radio, no music.  Just quiet.  Same at home if I’m here by myself.  I use the vacuum cleaner under the greatest of duress cuz it’s just too dang LOUD.  I’ve made a rule to my video-lovin’ boys that they can have ONE thing on at a time—no playing a computer game while watching something on the tube.   Makes me insane.  Our new place has no cable TV connections, and I refuse to get satellite.  We will have one local station, and PBS.  Ahhhhh……better.

Kids born anytime after about 1970 or so grew up in front of the color TV.  From an early age they have had images and sounds paraded in front of them without having to do anything more strenuous than blinking.  Once these kids got to school, school was boring.  So schools had to keep up.  Short, fast lessons that jump from one thing to another is the norm, because these little people just don’t have an attention span any longer than it takes to get from one commercial break to the next.  THEN they go to Chuck E Cheese for relaxing entertainment.  I hate Chuck E Cheese.  The place makes me all twitchy and I have to take a migraine pill 20 minutes before entering…

What does ANY of this have to do with farming???

Just this.  Somewhere in the last 30 years or so, we lost our ability to Pay Attention.  Too often, we rely on someone else to tell us how or what to think or how to do things, and exchange “virtual life” for real life.   A good example of this was my (ex) husband watching the Sunday morning fishing shows religiously.  On beautiful Sunday mornings, I’d see him in front of the TV, taking NOTES on the type of line/bait/lure to use and when/how to fish.  I’d look out the window at the lovely day and think how pretty the sunshine was sparkling off of the LAKE that was less than 300 feet from our door, where his tackle box quietly collected dust.  Insanity.

Going out for the day?  Better check the weather channel to see what it’s gonna do.  Of course you could also LOOK OUT THE WINDOW.


Once you get onto the farm, it’s a different story.  There are no indicator lights on livestock, or little printed directions on each sprout in the garden.

You will have to Pay Attention.

Having every piece of equipment or tool you could ever use will not help you if you don’t keep it clean, dry, maintained and somewhere you can find it when you need it.

Every time you feed your livestock, pay attention to the feed.  Does it smell fresh?  Do the animals have access to plenty of good clean water?  How does each and every one of your critters look?  Are they standing funny?  Moving slower than usual?  Coughing, sniffling, panting, having normal stools?  Are they too fat, or too skinny?  All of the animals we use as livestock are pretty far down on the food chain, and if you remember your National Geographic specials, they will APPEAR healthy till they are pretty much dead.  This keeps them from being singled out of the herd and into the predator buffet until it’s a certainty that they are not going to get well.  Therefore, once your animal looks obviously ailing, it’s gonna be a long row to hoe to get it healthy, if it can be done at all.

Now, the above is not nearly as time-consuming as you’d think, even if you have livestock numbering in the hundreds.  Remember the first few times you drove a car (or the last time you tried it impaired in some way).  Staring at the steering wheel, belted in, mentally checking off every little step to turning on the vehicle and getting onto the road.  Of course, now you do it without thinking (starting the car, that is, not driving impaired—that’s BAD, don’t do it), and the same will be true about checking your stock.  After just a short while, your head and eyes will be checking stock while the rest of you is engaged otherwise.  Any little variation from “normal” will stop you in your tracks.

The same holds true for your garden.  Check every little plantlet every day.  Are they green and happy looking?  Are they wilted?  Turning brown?  Fuzzy looking?  Do you see bugs on them (even a few since there is truly no such thing as “a few bugs”)?  Catching a problem early is vital to gardening success since you can lose an entire crop literally overnight if defensive measures are not taken immediately (I prove this to myself year after year after year…)

Being in tune with the weather when you have a homestead is much more than tucking an umbrelly into your car on your way to work.  Most of the work to be done on a farm is outside.  Your individual climate will teach you when you need to do things.  Learning to work when it’s the cool part of the day in the summer and the warm part of the day in the winter will save your patience, your sanity and your health, and again, once you’ve done it awhile deliberately, you will naturally adjust your schedule.  As if by magic, your day will flow from inside to out with the temperature (without one look at the Weather Channel), and one day you will wake up JUST BECAUSE IT’S MORNING, and not when the alarm clock sounds.

Congratulations.  You are a homesteader.

I think our society has it backward.  The assumption is that because our brains are so big, and capable of processing and storing so much information, that we need to throw huge amounts of data at it at all times to keep us “sharp”.

Bigger, brighter, louder, is better in such an ever-growing cacophony of sense-numbing images and sounds that it’s a wonder we aren’t all on the ground having sensory overload seizures.

Maybe, just maybe

Our brains are large to be able to soak up details.  Tiny little things that make a huge difference to our lives and our souls.

I have a seven-year-old son.  This boy is a whirling dervish of constant motion and noise.  During the day I see him mostly just out of my line of vision, speeding from one activity to the next.  The world is a gigantic treasure chest crying out for discovery, and a mere mother cannot get in the way.

Ah, but at night, when the day has taken it’s toll on the boy, when he’s fought sleep as long as possible and finally fallen in a heap to dream of dragons and pirates, he’s there for me to see.  Not just to check if he’s covered, or taken some sort of amphibian to bed with him, but to see.   Every parent knows what I mean.  You sit on the edge of the bed, in the quiet murk of night and you etch every line of that face into your memory—the freckles, the terminal bed-head, the chin, and eyebrows so like his father’s, every detail.  And I defy any parent to deny bending forward in the dark and inhaling the scent of their offspring’s head, clean from the bath, or still filled with sunshine and sand from the day’s adventures, that too is driven into your memory base.  Because the details are what you hold onto not only during his waking hours when he’s traveling so fast all you catch is a blur, but forever.

Life is in the details.

Too much of life denies the details.  We’re too busy, we’re late, and we can’t waste TIME.

My daughter lives and works in Washington, D.C. and recently sent me an article.  The Post did a little experiment to find out just how imprisoned within our own busy-ness we all are.  They got a world-class violinist to set up wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt in the Metro, his open violin case for tips normally holds his Stradivarius violin.  He did not play popular tunes that may have niggled someone’s brain enough for them to pause; he played classical pieces.  Beautiful classical pieces by a world-class violinist playing a priceless instrument.

A few paused.  A few tossed some coins into his case without even slowing down.  Most didn’t even look.  An artist whose concerts sell out at over $100 per seat collected $37 plus change during rush hour in our nation’s capitol.

This is part of the wonderment of living a rural lifestyle.

While a lot of the world is planning for the future, today slips away, never to return.  A homesteader must be intimately familiar with the present, or lose everything and be left with no future.  And once your brain is trained to look for details instead of the grand expanses, your horizons are limitless.

You can’t check your goats without smiling at the kids frolicking.  You can’t eye your chickens without studying their social order.  Try to examine your garden without smelling the earth.  Mentally noting the position of the sun leaves you looking directly at the clouds (and yes, that one DOES look like a bunny).

Paying attention to the details does not exclude planning for the future; it encompasses our plans for the future.  For we are planning not only for ourselves and our families, but also for everything in our care—up to and including the very land we are living on.  Every decision is weighed and thought through with attention to the details of the co-operation of everything and everyone that decision will affect.

Because that’s what we do: we co-habit, co-mingle, and co-operate our homesteads with literally millions of other living things, most of them not just benign, but absolutely integral to the fate of our endeavors.

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for the want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for the want of care about a horseshoe nail.”  —  Benjamin Franklin

On your homestead, paying attention to details will decrease what you will have to pay to the Veterinarian, the hardware store, and people to come in to fix something that got mucked up due to negligence.  The physical safety and well being of your place is reason enough to train yourself to hone in on the details.

Learning to absorb the peripheral images, sounds, textures, and aromas is gravy.

And everyone loves gravy.


View Comments

  • That article was absolutely excellent. We . Are in the process of figuring out what we are going to do on our newly purchased 9 acres in brown county indiana. And paying attention was t even something that I had considered, until now and it suddenly rose to the top of the list.

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