To say Shawn James is well-suited to the outdoors is like saying water is suited to a lake. In a country known for its unforgiving wilderness, he has managed to make an empire out of taming it. James, who lives in the woods outside Huntsville, Ontario, can fashion a log cabin out of 100 trees, casually whip up a turf-and-turf meal of quail and beaver tail and build an entire copper sink under the watchful eye of his golden retriever, Cali. He’s got the video evidence to prove it.
With just over two million subscribers to his YouTube channel, “My Self Reliance,” James, who is 52 and originally from Barrie, Ontario, is the rugged face of Canadian homesteading. There are plenty of other wilderness enthusiasts broadcasting their resourceful returns to nature in a steady stream of videos with titles like “BEST AND WORST livestock for beginners” and “DIY tallow magnesium lotion.” For a populace plagued by criminally high urban real estate prices, supply chain disruption, viral content of the COVID variety and the small matter of climate change, watching people happily grow produce, corral piglets and abscond to the wilderness is a voyeuristic dream. After all, riding out the end times in your own personal Walden doesn’t seem too bad.
The phenomenon of people diving headlong into homesteading in the face of societal uncertainty isn’t a modern idea at all, says Toni Smith, a homesteader and English professor at Vancouver Island University. “If people get disillusioned by capitalism or international politics, the simpler life comes to mind,” Smith says, citing similar back-to-the-land movements that sprang up after the Great Depression and the Vietnam War. “We’ve got the post-apocalyptic fantasy that’s playing out in movies and TV and conversations right now. If we don’t like that kind of fantasy, we’ve got this escapist one, too.”
James started his channel after losing his contracting business during the 2008 financial crisis. Smith similarly embraced homesteading—and blogging about it—in the wake of the downturn. She and her husband sold their condo in downtown Victoria, headed for rural Vancouver Island and invested in a few chickens. These days, Smith’s husband is a full-time garlic farmer, their modest flock has grown to 60 heritage hens, and they’ve upgraded to a two-acre property with an apple orchard. Smith continues to work remotely as a professor full time.
For Dave Barrett and Amanda Caskenette—whose 40,000-subscriber channel, Wilderstead, is named after their forested 16-acre plot in Ontario’s Algoma region—self-sufficiency is paramount. “What led us to this lifestyle was the ability to have influence over some of the most important aspects of your life,” says Caskenette, whose current food-security strategy involves fishing, smoking pork and a whack of DIY canned goods. “It’s about not being shocked when system failures happen, like power outages and supply chain issues. We enjoy having control and building a community around it.”
There’s a certain irony to the fact that the same channels espousing isolationist lifestyles are amassing huge subscriberships. Radical self-reliance is a nakedly libertarian idea, yes, but it also reflects a tension felt by many of today’s urban dwellers: the desire to flee society while still needing it, deep down. “There’s something so Western about the feeling that self-sufficiency is an appropriate way to gain security,” Smith says. “The Indigenous perspective is totally the opposite: that there is only fragility when we don’t have interconnectedness.”
For Jeff and Rose Burkinshaw, creators of Gridlessness (subscriber count: 146,000), documenting their off-grid lifestyle became a way to keep in touch with family and friends who asked, “What are you doing out there?” The answer, as their viewers will attest, is: tooling around their massive 40-acre property outside of Prince George, B.C.; tending to the living roof atop their 900-square-foot cabin; raising dairy goats; making kombucha; and doing metal- and woodworking alongside their five daughters.
In addition to monetizing their channel, Jeff says the family plans to “put on a big show” with their first Off Grid Campouts, a $650 real-life retreat that involves building a communal firepit and kitchen, butchering a pig and participating in a leather workshop. Jeff expects that at least some of those in attendance will be subscribers.
YouTube now occupies a vacuum left by post-recession homesteading blogs, which built community around the transfer of bygone, almost primal skills. “A lot of people are like, ‘I listened to you and I planted a garden that was enough to make one salad,’ ” says Caskenette. “The pride they feel when they’re able to do that for themselves is evident in a lot of the comments we get.” Even if viewers can’t mount their own greenhouse and propagate bountiful heirloom vegetables, perhaps they can grow a single tomato on a windowsill.
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“I believe that the deep desire behind homesteading is not really self-reliance, as in ‘I don’t need other people,’ ” Jeff says. According to him, it’s about re-examining your priorities. “How much time do you spend sitting alone commuting in a car? How much time do you spend with your kids? How many new skills have you developed? A lot of people say, ‘I want to learn to weld or ride a horse or smoke a brisket. I want peace and I want time.’ I think almost everyone has had that moment; it’s just that some people actually do it.”
Smith says that for viewers who aren’t keen to go whole hog into homesteading, brief YouTube sprees—or tangential activities, like baking sourdough—can be a way of participating in the romanticism of the movement without committing to the lifestyle. According to Barrett, the same goes for YouTubers, just in reverse. “We were visiting Amanda’s parents over the winter holidays, and I had to order pizza and have it show up at the door,” he says. “It felt really good.”