Farmgirl Wabi-Sabi

Farmgirl WHAT? I don’t mean the little green gob of spicy horseradish root that accompanies your sushi and cleans out your sinuses when you have a head cold. I’m talking about a concept and a style so essentially ‘farmgirl’ and so anciently Japanese at the same time that it’s radically hip on the homestead! Join the Mountain Farmgirl as she obsessively, compulsively goes Wabi Sabi, Farmgirl-Style!


I love to get into things … cubic yards of compost, for example. Mulch. Piles of autumn leaves. My daily plunge in the river behind my inn, until I can no longer stand the shock of the liquid snow or feel my feet. According to my husband, I’m plenty good at ‘getting into’ trouble, too, but none of that is what I’m referring to here. I’m talking about getting into something with such an unabandoned passion that it temporarily consumes me and it’s all I can think of. I love to leap whole frog into the thick of an idea and try it on for size. I eat it, drink it and sleep it until I understand what it’s all about, and then I take away the parts I find personally useful and meaningful, and incorporate them into my everyday life. Wabi-sabi pearls … that’s what I’m after today!

Wabi Sabi is that “I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it but-I know-it-when-I-see-and- feel-it” sort of thing. As a concept and a style it is a lot like some of those other obsessions I’ve had in the past that have me  head-over-heels lovin’ it. Of course true wabi-sabi is all about balance, so maybe I’m missing the point … but in my defense, I’m still in the honeymoon phase with it. I think that somehow makes it okay!


Let me start by telling you that my Wabi-sabi obsession started this summer when I was away for the week taking a bookbinding class on the coast of Maine. While I was gone, a woman named Joan Belcher checked in as a guest at our inn, and since her last name is the same as ours, my husband immediately started talking genealogy with her.  It turns out they are distantly related, as most New England Belchers are. As they were talking, it also came out that she is the owner of a Bed and Breakfast in Wiscasset, Maine called Wabi Sabi Cottage. My husband emailed me the link to her website and I was intrigued by the pages which talked about the concept of Wabi Sabi. Needless to say, I’ve been hooked on the concept ever since, although it turns out that I’ve been drawn to wabi-sabiness practically forever, and just didn’t know it!


From my love of tiny, handmade things (as opposed to store-bought), to the desire to ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify’ as Thoreau suggests; and my love for eclectic, re-purposed items whose long use has rendered them unique and full of character, (not to mention my passion for tea) … Lo and behold, it turns out that I have been a member of the wabi-sabi-appreciation-club since I was a teenager.
I’d heard the term before, but I would have been hard pressed to define it for you. And this is par for the course with ‘Wabi Sabi’ because it’s a pretty elusive and abstruse thing to pin down. But that’s okay because even most Japanese feel that it can’t be defined, many also saying  that those who CAN define it really don’t know what it’s all about and are missing the point!


But what the heck … I’ll take a stab at it based on some of the books I have been collecting, because if we’re going to be talking wabi-sabi here, we might as well all be on the same page.  Here are some hints to head you in the right direction: it has to do with the impermanence, imperfection, simplicity and humility of things, and with the appreciation of age, character and patina.  A little vague? How about this from “Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life”:
        “Wabi is a state of mind, like the feeling of the evening sky in autumn. Sabi    is when the mood is quiet and solitary”.  If that didn’t exactly turn on any light bulbs or ring any bells for you, it’s okay … just let it sink in as a foundation, and we’ll understand more as we go along.

Wabi sabi is actually an ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism, particularly in the tea ceremony, which is a ritual of purity and simplicity. The prized bowls in which tea was ritualistically served were handmade and irregularly shaped intentionally, with uneven glazes, cracks, and a strange beauty in their deliberate imperfection. The Japanese philosophy celebrates the beauty in what's natural, flaws and all, and the antique tea bowls, for example, are prized because of (not in spite of) them.


As a style in our modern farmgirl world, it comes off a little like shabby chic, but it isn’t a “look” (like French Country or flea market style) so much as it is ‘a way, or a path toward home’.  A love of the wabi-sabi in life would cast an eye toward old, worn pieces with lots of patina and character, whose flaws can be attributed to age, use and the passage of time. These things add a lot of charm and most farmgirls can relate to decorating in a similar vein; I know I can! I see a lot of wabi-sabi in the stunning photos of the Ranch Farmgirl Shery Jespersen, where rusty pieces of barbed wire or a well-worn washtub snuggle up with some fine antique lace and weathered barn-board in a still life that feels and looks ‘so right’! Deb, our Beach Farmgirl sister ‘gets it’, too, as you probably noticed in her last post of the Vintage Bazaar. All the farmgirls do! But as I said, although there is a look to things that can be considered wabi-sabi, there is more of a subtle spiritual philosophy pointing to a place devoid of clutter, ostentation, or the attainment of perfection. In fact, it celebrates quite the opposite of ‘perfect’… wabi-sabi perfection being the absence of perfection!


Here’s something that helped me; it’s a partial list of what wabi-sabi is and isn’t, from “Simply Imperfect: Re-Visiting the Wabi Sabi House” by Robyn Griggs Lawrence:

Wabi Sabi IS …..                                Wabi Sabi ISN’T …
Dry leaves                                         Cherry blossoms
Bare branches                                    Floral arrangements
Wildflowers                                        Roses
Hand-made items                               machine-made things
Weathered wood                                Plastic laminate
Vintage finds                                      Designer products
Natural light                                       Flourescents

In wabi-sabi conversations, the word ‘authentic’ pops up a lot. It’s all about ‘real’ as opposed to synthetic; things that feel right without pretense or compromise, as you can deduce from the list above. This is the Farmgirl Way! The ‘Wabi’ part is so very subtle that if you’re not careful you almost miss it. It has been described as “the helpless feeling you have when waiting for your lover.” Think of it as a state of mind rather than a physical object. It’s a serene, transcendent state of being when things are in their simplest, most austere and natural, raw state.
“Sabi” on the other hand is the beauty that treasures the passage of time, and the lonely sense of impermanence it evokes in physical things.  It has been defined as the patina that age bestows, and points to the inevitable natural cycle of birth and death.


Put the two concepts and terms together, shake ‘em up, and you have a clean, clear state of mind combined with physical primitive style (in its best sense). Wabi-sabi is a feeling inside of us, as well as a look we prize in our living spaces. But while I can appreciate the cracks and patina on my weathered barn door and the ancient piece of blacksmithing that makes up the well-worn latch, (and it feels oh, SO right!) … why is it so hard to be wabi-sabi in our own vessels --within ourselves?

What if we learned to prize the drippy, cracked   imperfections in our own lives? If we could see the wrinkles around our eyes not as something to’ fix’ with creams and potions to reverse the effects of time, but as the beauty of ‘so many smiles and kindnesses through the years”?  I think of the photo of MaryJane’s mother’s folded hands … SO utterly beautiful and so full of a lifetime of love and work and service, all communicated with a single image. Will I prize my own hands when they have such a rich patina? Or will I do what I (and many other women) tend to do, and see just the flaws and feel badly about them? There’s an elusive secret here in wabi-sabi-land, not just in “feelings” like feng shui, or the “looks” we bring as interior decorators into our homes. If we really ‘get it’, it can be the type of “interior decorating” we come to appreciate deep within ourselves, warts, cobwebs and all. Let’s face it, we’ll never be perfect, though we all spend a lot of time and money trying for the effect. What if for just a moment we accepted ourselves for who we are, and knew that it was enough? That WE were enough?! That flaws and all, we were beautiful; we were okay?  No, it goes beyond that, waaay past  just ‘okay’ to ‘absolutely right’. What a joy and a relief it would be to accept ourselves like that! 

Don’t misunderstand … wabi-sabi isn’t an excuse for laziness or for settling for something less than what we are capable of.  Life still requires us to be the best we can be, but we need to know when to strive for our personal best and when enough is enough. More than that, it is the innate appreciation of who we are and who we are becoming, and a total acceptance of both in the here and now.  If we could bottle such a wabi-sabi potion, it would be more valuable than the Fountain of Youth … because it would be from the wellsprings of the Fountain of YOU…  The irony is that money can’t buy it, and we already have it.  It’s all in how we look at things! I hope this has given you a little glimpse into a fascinating concept and state of being. 


Here are a few books I have found personally useful in coming to understand what wabi-sabi is all about: "Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life” by Diane Durston; “Simply Imperfect” by Robyn Griggs Lawrence; “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” by Leonard Koren; “Living Wabi-Sabi: The True Beauty of Your Life” by Taro Gold; “Wabi-sabi Art Workshop” by Serena Barton, and “Wabi Sabi Simple: Create Beauty, Value Imperfection, Live Deeply”  by Richard R. Powell. So Farmgirl friends, today just dig around in the dearth of information out there and look for and enjoy the wabi-sabi of life … it is everywhere (especially inside you!).



As my old mentor John Muir (and I) like to say, “The mountains are calling and I must go!”

(Don’t forget, I can’t get messages below because of a mega-spam problem, but you can email me personally at  I love to hear from you!)
Until next time,
Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings from Cathi,
The Mountain Farmgirl



By: julie
On: 09/30/2013 12:59:36
I am wabi sabi style too! Was thrilled to learn who I am and how I decorate had a name. Thank you for your wonderful blog entry... Maybe others will be exposed to these ideas as a result.
By: Beemergranny
On: 09/30/2013 17:18:09
Oh my gosh! Wabi Sabi is me and I didn't even know it. :) Love it. Simplifying my life and home the older I get is just what I have been doing for the last year and I love everything "authentic", rustic, and natural. :)
By: Serena Barton
On: 10/11/2013 22:07:38
What a beautiful and on target explanation of Wabi-Sabi! Cathi, may I share your post with my blog readers, students, and colleagues?

Warm Wishes,

Serena Barton

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir

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