Our first Woman of the Week of 2022 is Maria Koo Silva, nominated for her work as a children's author, homeschooling mother of four, and homesteader. She was one of the founders of Fili, a non-profit that supports the work of Orthodox orphanage in Kolkata, India. We asked her how she made the decision to move from a more conventional life in a California city to one closer to the earth and a monastery:
"Growing up, I had a lot of educational ambitions and lofty goals for myself. I placed the value of my self-worth in my potential accomplishments and that gave me a great deal of drive in school to perform well, to go to a good university, to take on many projects and responsibilities---everything was leading up to the fulfillment of these goals. It was a blessing in many ways because I acquired skills, met incredible people, and saw new places, but also it meant that so much of how I saw myself as a person was through this worldly lens of what my accomplishments and connections were. The concrete evidence of my triumphs was how other people could see the measure of what I had done and therefore the measure of me. And then literally my life completely changed course with the birth of my children, because suddenly I was not the center of my own life. I had a little bit of an existential crisis because, if I wasn’t producing/pursuing/fulfilling these ambitions, who was I as a person? What value was there in me? I had to find a new way, or rather, rediscover the way of seeing myself as a person in Christ rather than the world (This was easier to do when I was young. My parents were my example of steadfast faith, and I had taken it for granted that because my parents believed, so would I).
"My self-image changed because of my children and for my children. I want them to be certain and secure in their faith and that they are children of God and that that is the very center of who they are, always, no matter where they are or what they’ve done—God first. We were active members of our local church. We were homeschooling our young children. We were trying to raise our family in what on the surface felt 'Orthodox' and 'good.' But I needed to do more for my children. I knew my own weaknesses, and I felt a great divide between what I was 'performing' and what was the truth of our faith. I had to have a mental shift and a literal physical shift, and so my husband and I picked up our lives out of the heart of Silicon Valley, and we moved into the middle of the Sierra Nevada foothills.
"First and foremost, we moved to be close to the Life-Giving Spring Monastery. We can hear the bells announcing the service schedule during the day. We see the sisters walking along the road as we go to the grandparents’ house. We participate in the sacraments and are blessed by their prayers and are moved to live differently because of them. We live where peace and quiet and prayer is palpable despite the noise that we make. By no means am I saying that moving close to the monastery has suddenly made me into a much better Orthodox Christian. I still struggle with my weaknesses and passions, but just looking up the road to see the cross of the church is a strength and comfort. The greatest blessing of living here is to be so close to the monastery, but It was an added blessing to be close to family; we live on an old turkey farm with thirty acres of rolling hillside and trees and a sometimes creek that my children spend hours exploring; and we are surrounded by an Orthodox community, many with similar stories to ours, who have a fervor and love for their faith and actively sought out this life.
"It is my greatest hope that my children love and appreciate this life: the days connected to the land and all that live on it, being so close to family and creating friendships of shared faith, and to always have Christ in the center of their lives. If my daughters came to me with the same goals and dreams that I had as a student, I would be supportive and proud and do all that I could to help them. If they instead chose to live a more pastoral way with their animals and families, or if, God willing, it is their path to struggle in ascetism like our beloved sisters, I would also share in their joy and thank God they were worthy of such a life. Because of my own weaknesses, I have surrounded myself and my children with greater examples of faith. I hope that they grow up to take after their father, their grandparents, their godparents, their neighbors, and that perhaps I can learn from them as well."
Maria Koo Silva is our Woman of the Week, nominated for her work as a homesteader, a children's book author, and homeschooler. We asked her what the learning curve was like to move from the city to the farming life:
"Though we moved on to an old turkey farm, our property had not been used as a farm in any capacity for many years. There was little to no dependable fencing, no infrastructure aside from a tool shed, only a small herb garden and some fruit trees that didn’t bear fruit. I was a girl from the suburbs and had never raised animals other than my pet chihuahua in high school. When we first moved to our little farmhouse, I did not personally have any ambitions to be a farmer or homesteader or prepper or however people would label this life that we live. When we moved, I was heavily pregnant with our third child, and the year following her birth was one of trying to figure out how to balance a newborn, and homeschooling children, and just acclimating. There was no garden, no animals except for our dogs and the barn cat we inherited with the house. Two years later, I gave birth to our fourth child at the beginning of a pandemic. We had only just started homesteading. During my forty days at home, we heard about empty shelves at the store and uncertain supply lines and a simple message from our family’s spiritual father to start a garden, get a few animals, and be prepared.
"I am no gardener, but for the past three years, I have been expanding my vegetable garden. This means every spring I am killing more plants in a greater space and in higher quantities, but also, surprisingly, things are actually growing. I ordered every imaginable type of seed I could find. I planted wherever there was space. I made gopher cages to protect the roots of new fruit trees from insufferable rodents. Our dogs kept the deer and turkeys away, but I had to put up netting to save precious seedlings from the flocks of hungry birds that would appear out of nowhere. We needed more cats to combat the squirrels. Our soil needed to be enriched. We needed manure and to make our own compost. We needed wood chips for mulch. We needed to put in fencing and water lines. I needed to be stronger and have more stamina and be able to push our rusty wheelbarrow up those hills. I had to figure out when and how to prune the trees. Right as I was in the thick of weeding and harvesting the gifts of our spring garden, I had to start planning the winter garden, which I had never known was a thing. We were studying our growing zones and local flora and mapping out a permaculture food forest. I was studying how to forage and what can be used medicinally for us or for our farm animals. It was initially a panic for me, and I still have to stave off a lot of anxiety as I plan each season’s garden because I feel the weight of the responsibility of sustaining our family through this life. Whatever I couldn’t grow, I have the blessing to be able to trade with our neighbors or to purchase produce from local farms which has helped cover the gaps where my own gardening skills are lacking, and I have to put the rest into God’s hands. He sees what we are doing.
"Our next step was animals. We got guinea fowl to eat the swarms of bug that exist in the country. They can decimate ant hills and eat thousands of ticks a day. A flock of guineas can kill rattlesnakes and apparently they taste like pheasant if you can catch them. And they will sit outside your husband’s office when he’s on a conference call and screech for hours. We got laying hens—I cannot tell you the joy of discovering that first egg. (Most city ordinances allow you to raise a few chickens in your backyard. I highly recommend this). Once you start getting a few animals on your farm, they kind of multiply in an unpredictable way. We were gifted ducks and turkeys. We got two pigs and then four pigs, and now are venturing into breeding pigs. We got meat chickens and then we decided to do a crazy thing and get a milk cow. I don’t want to say that we were unprepared for any of the animals that we have on our farm, but I personally don’t recommend our method to most people. So many weekends were spent tying together recycled bunk bed frames and old fencing panels to keep animals contained. Electric fencing doesn’t work in the summertime here because California drought makes the ground hard as concrete, and it doesn’t conduct electricity, so we had to have a solution for that. I have looked out the window to see a cow gently chewing her cud on our door step, and pigs helping themselves to pumpkins out of my garden or taking a nap in the garage. Chickens and guineas and sometimes ducks have many parades around our house to the delight of my children. But my husband is patient and has an affinity for animals that comes with his gentle soul, and he just coaxes them back in to where they’re supposed to be. We strengthen fences again that weekend or sketch out plans to build a better animal space. Almost three years in now, I think we’re finally getting somewhere.
"Raising our own meat means we butcher our animals at home. It has become a way to get the neighbors together. We’ve learned together and shared in the bounty. My children are not squeamish, and they have a personal understanding of animal anatomy but also give high respect to an animal throughout its life and being grateful for the meat that it provides for us. We feed our family and our friends and still our chests are full food. Raising your own meat is the most productive part of our homestead. Our cups runneth over in more ways than I can say.
"The homesteading life is not convenient. Things are slower but not easier. My girls read about the pioneering days, and we put those skills to use, often because we had to. During wildfire season and just because rural communities are often marginalized, the power would shut off and then we had no electricity, but even more concerning, no water (because the pump wouldn’t work). We were learning to survive with or without our modern luxuries, and the first thing we learned was everything takes time. Sourdough takes a full day to make. Yogurt takes hours to culture. Butter needs to be churned, and you can’t take that first bite of hard cheese for months if not years after you make it. If we have an abundance in the garden, we can and dry and freeze and preserve what is extra for a time when we might go without. We save every bone and scrap of meat to make into stocks and broths that line our pantry. There are strange experiments of bubbling liquids on my kitchen counters and living growing cultures of things in my fridge. We are learning how to make soap and salves and medicines and teas and tinctures and the mysterious that might be useful to us. My daughters save seeds from the fruit they eat and line little pots of potential trees on our windowsill. They have learned about heirlooms and hybrids and grafting and root stocks. They collect herbs and forage and learn botany and mycology, geology and biology; they are learning weather patterns and animal husbandry, how to make ink from oak galls, and baskets from grasses, how to pitch a tent, how to start a fire, how to stay safe from animals and plants. They also never wear shoes and track dirt and ash who knows what else through the house. Their faces are always covered in dirt or sticky with something. My youngest loves to collect eggs. She is getting the hang of not cracking them before making it to the house. My girls share their apples with the cows and the pigs. They are right behind me in their muck boots as we give out the feed and fill troughs, brush down coats, and check fencelines. We have hatched out little chicks. We have farrowed piglets, and watched Cookie deliver her beautiful little bull calf. We have experienced unintended death, mourned at the loss and gotten up to try again. Every day is a learning experience, and I am always studying the next step in this farm life.
We are blessed to be able to figure this lifestyle out. If something fails in our garden, we can still go to the store. We plan better for the following year. It’s not easier or cheaper to raise your own food, but it is incredibly freeing to walk past that part of the store because we don’t need it and because what we have is better and healthier. There is a wealth of knowledge in hundreds of years of pioneers and different cultures that precede us. Those who have lived without water or electricity or without the luxuries of what we consider now to be basic necessities. This life gives us the opportunity to keep those memories alive, to share in that wisdom, to not be afraid to fail, and be grateful in every success."
We asked our Woman of the Week, Maria Koo Silva, about her family's routine:
"On our farm, if it doesn’t get started in the morning, it won’t be happening that day, so mornings tend to be a chaotic scramble to be productive.
"We pull on boots and grab buckets and rags and the rest of our milking gear as the sun is rising. I follow after the children and husband (who are morning people), rubbing the sleep from my eyes (not a morning person). We coax our milk cow, Cookie, into the milking stanchion, give her a nice flake of hay, brush her down, spray off flies, wipe down her udder and teats and settle in to our morning milking. I rest my head against her warm side and feel it rise and fall as she breathes and snorts and burps quietly eating her breakfast. She smells like toasted grass. Her calf waits (im)patiently next to us as he eyes the streams of milk frothing into our bucket. We feed the rest of our animals: slops to the pigs and a flake of hay; fill up water troughs, top up the bird grain feeders. We peruse the garden to see how things are growing and I make a mental list of how far behind in the gardening schedule I have fallen.
"Everyone kicks off their boots inconveniently in front of the doorway and we start lining up glass jars and get out the strainer to see how much Cookie has given us that day. Milk gets labeled and put away to cool. We crack fresh eggs and fry up homemade sausage for breakfast. I am loading the dishwasher and setting aside the milking gear to sanitize for the next milking. After the girls finish their breakfast, they haul out the school books and perch themselves at the counter to do their homeschooling lessons while I do the morning food prep and daily house task. Because our days start early and take off running, I try and take advantage of moments of stillness doing dishes or sorting laundry to say prayers. Many times they are interrupted. Many times I lose my place. Many times I don’t remember if I ever got to the end.
"Every other day I make cheese, yogurt, and if there is enough cream, some butter. On non-dairy days (because you don’t want your yeasts and cultures to mix), I make sour dough and syrups and prep produce for preserving. I finish up the dishes and processing, occasionally checking over the shoulders of my girls while they work. My little ones are coloring at the kitchen table, or finishing up leftovers, or playing with blocks in the living room. We run a load of laundry, prep for lunch and pull out what will become dinner, and then as the morning draws to a close I get a chance to sit down with a cup of coffee and pick at the leftovers of breakfast as my girls run outside to play.
"Our afternoons are quieter. After lunch, we try and do an extra school lesson but mostly we read, or work outside, weather permitting. When the baby goes down for a nap, the girls get a little screen time, and I get a chance to work on my books. I’ve done two about my children’s experience at the monastery, and one about the Narthex. My most recent project is about the Journey to Pascha. I had high hopes to make a lot of progress while everyone was staying at home, but farm life and homeschool take up a great portion of the day, and God knows when it will be completed.
"As the sun sets, we get a crackling fire started in our woodstove to heat the house. My husband does the evening animal chores, and the girls love to bump along with him in the cart to do the animal chores. My youngest helps me with dinner and samples everything on the cutting board. Then evening prayers and bed and the girls ask who is the saint for the next day, and I read the Synaxarion as their bedtime story."
Thank you, Maria!