It’s not always easy, but these Geneseo staff members and alumni have created lifestyles they love.
Story by Jim Memmott
One couple lives in a house that might make a room in a campus residence hall seem spacious.
Another has created a sanctuary in the woods, with a yurt and A-frame they built themselves, where they are at one with nature’s silence and sounds. Yet another couple lives on a farm with a herd of sheep — and ducks and goats and chickens and geese — plowing the land using a method most popular in the 1700s. It feels very far from his day job in computer technology.
All three of these couples with strong SUNY Geneseo connections have taken different routes to lead lives that are both simple and complex at the same time, and in line with their philosophies.
Taking the road less traveled carries its own rewards, but it can be bumpy. Still, they emphasize that their travels toward simpler lives have been worth the trip.
FARMING — FROM ANOTHER ERA: Anya and Nik Varrone
Nik Varrone’s day job is decidedly high tech. As the support services manager in the College’s computing and technology department, he supervises a staff that helps students, faculty and staff with computer issues.
At home, Nik and his family have chosen to be hands-on and very low tech.
Nik and his wife, Anya, and their two children, Toby, 11, and Lalla, 9, grow and raise their own food. They plow with horses. They raise a variety of animals. They heat with wood. They raise and shear sheep for wool. Their children are home-schooled. All of this takes work, but it fits with the Varrones’ desire to live a sustainable life in a country setting.
“The joys of living a rural life are many and simple,” Nik says. “It’s quiet and you’re surrounded by nature. I think of things like sunrises, birdsong, the sound of water rushing during a thaw, the chirping of the peepers in early spring, and the overall variety of flora and fauna that you encounter on a daily basis.”
Farming does present challenges. The weather turns lousy. Crops don’t grow. Animals get sick. It’s up to the Varrones to make things right. On top of all of this, keeping the farm afloat costs money.
“It’s definitely not a way to get rich,” Nik says. “And from the outside, it looks like madness. But if you live it, you wouldn’ttrade it for all the money in the world.”
In 2009, the Varrones moved from Rochester to the farm, about 15 miles from Geneseo.
“My wife found it,” Nik says of the 16-acre property. “We didn’t fall in love with the house, but we fell in love with the land.”
Once they arrived, they began fixing what needed to be fixed. Nik stresses that they didn’t — indeed, they couldn’t — do everything at once.
“Anya likes to say, ‘It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon,’” he says.
At this stage in the marathon, they have plenty of company of the animal sort. There are plenty of dogs, some of them used for sheep herding on the Varrones’ fields. On Saturdays, herders come from all over western New York to test their skills on the farm. Other dogs on the farm include a Great Pyrenees named Brigs, a gentle and very large soul who guards the livestock.
The animal inventory also includes chickens and geese, raised for eggs and eating. There are goats. There’s a cat. Skittles, a bottle-fed sheep, follows the Varrones around.
Nik prefers the family’s horses over a tractor for tilling, as no fossil fuels are spent. In addition, he likes the feel of the plow in his hands as it cleaves through the soil. And he likes the smell of the dirt and how plowing connects him to the farm as it once was.
“I think of all the people who have done it before me,” Nik says.
Plowing takes attention and concentration, too. “You have to watch what you’re doing. It’s simple and complex at the same time,” Nik says.
Simple and complex, he says, applies to most of the activities on the farm.
Nik and Anya both grew up in Philadelphia and had limited experience with rural life. He did do some camping as a Boy Scout, and she took horseback riding lessons as a girl, worked at a few boarding and breeding stables in Philadelphia, and spent a summer on a horsebreeding operation in western New York.
“We’ve learned how to farm from reading in books or online,” Nik says. “There’s more trial and error than I would like, but that’s a big percentage of how we do things. We also have more experienced farmers that we can consult from time to time.”
Nik came to Geneseo in 2008 to work in IT support services, the group he now leads. He doesn’t see his work life and home life as contradictory, just different.
“One supports the other,” he says. “When you stare at a computer screen all day for a living, you don’t want to go home and stare at a screen.”
And he doesn’t see himself leaving the College to work the farm full time. “I love the College, and I love its mission,” he says. On this day, he bundles up to go out in the winter cold and gather wood for the stove. Anya is feeding the sheep. Toby is checking on the chickens. Lalla is helping get supper ready. Heading back inside, wood in his arms, Nik pauses and looks to the east. The setting sun has lit up the hills. The leaves are down, but the trees glow red.
It’s a moment that illustrates why it was love at first sight when Nik saw the farm that would become his family’s home — a place where they could live life on their own terms, off the beaten trail but in connection with things they love.
LIFE IN A TINY HOUSE: Tim Soines and Shannon Breymeier Soine ’08
The first thing a visitor might notice about Shannon Breymeier Soine ’08 and Tim Soine’s tiny house is that it’s tiny — just 210 square feet.
To some, this might seem cozy. To others, it might seem impossible, like setting up house in a one-car garage. To Shannon and Tim it seems just right.
“One of the best joys we’ve experienced is living a slower, simpler life,” Shannon says. “We spend very little time cleaning and maintaining a home/property, and we have so much more time to relax, enjoy a cup of coffee together, or get outside and enjoy a hike or walk.”
Shannon, a teacher in the Fairport Central School District, and Tim, a senior manager in product management at L3Harris Technologies in Rochester, lived in a 1,600-square-foot home in Rochester’s Cobbs Hill neighborhood when they first explored the idea of downsizing.
“In our big house, we were always within arm’s length of each other,” Tim says. “We were wasting space.”
Shannon contemplated a yurt, but Tim wasn’t on board with that, and he wasn’t drawn to a tiny house at first because most of them feature sleeping areas in a loft. “You have to crawl into the loft, and you can’t stand up in there,” he says. “I just didn’t want to live like that.”
Then Shannon saw the Minim Micro Homes website and the layouts of its tiny home. Tim checked one out while on a business trip. “I loved it,” he says. “I thought it was awesome. I thought I could do this; I could actually do it.”
As they moved ahead with the project, Minim homes was contacted by the producers of the “Tiny House Nation” television reality show, which was looking for projects to feature. Shannon and Tim’s house building was highlighted in 2013 on Episode 3 of the inaugural season.
The episode shows the builders assembling the house: The materials come in a kit. The cameras then follow the movement of the house — it’s on wheels — to Rochester. Scenes show Shannon and Tim creating piles of clothes and other belongings to be given away.
“It made for an entire summer of trips to Salvation Army and Goodwill,” Tim says.
During all of this, the pair were under pressure to get the house off their lot — it violated zoning — and to find a place where it could rest. Ultimately, they settled in a relatively rural part of suburban Rochester.
The house is a mix of solutions in which the parts create a greater whole. Everything has a dual — and sometimes triple — purpose.
Instead of being in a loft, the bed is on a platform that slides out from under the slightly elevated floor, with the den/cupboard space at the back of the house. Fenced off with a gate, the den provides a sleeping spot for the couple’s pit bulls, Juno and Adam.
There’s a 100-inch, pull-down television screen on one side of the house, a projector on the other. Storage space? There’s some underneath the couch that seats five comfortably. The kitchen is alongside one wall. There’s a combination washer and dryer. An incinerating toilet and a shower are tucked in one corner. Water and electricity come from a nearby house with the Soines paying the homeowner.
Shannon and Tim estimate a house like theirs costs between $45,000 and $50,000. The low price of buying and maintaining the house and the reality that they can’t buy many material possessions because there’s no place to put them, has meant that the couple has paid off all of their debt.
“All the money we’ve saved has allowed us to travel the world and experience amazing things,” Tim says. “That’s the freedom. That’s our thing.”
Countries they’ve visited include Sweden, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Panama and Mexico. They’ve visited Boston, Denver, San Francisco, Hawaii and other places.
The downside of life in a tiny house? Tim wishes they had room for a stove with more than two burners, but he grills outside year round. They miss the wood fireplace they had in their previous home. And it would be nice to have a bathroom door, rather than a bathroom curtain.
Now, the Soines are testing if three’s a crowd. They welcomed a baby in January.
“We’re going to make this work as long as we can,” Shannon says. Eventually, they might upsize from a tiny house to a small house, one with all of 700 to 800 square feet.For sure, they’ll stay with the scaleddown life.
“Tim says that when you live in a small space, it forces you to confront your challenges and differences, and we’ve grown closer, happier and have a healthier relationship as a result,” Shannon says. “I completely agree with him.”
A SUSTAINABLE FOREST SANCTUARY: Dan DeZarn and Kimberly Keil-DeZarn ’06
For Dan DeZarn, Geneseo’s director of sustainability, it was a bicycle trip that transformed his life.
In the summer of 2007, he and Kimberly Keil ’06, the woman who would become his wife, rode their bikes from Livingston County to Nashville and back. They traveled light, slept in farmer’s fields, didn’t spend a lot of money and came back seeing the world in a different light.
“It was eye-opening and probably the single most life-changing experience I’ve had in terms of setting a new trajectory for how I wanted to live,” says Dan, who at the time was an assistant professor of art at the College. “We wanted to apply that same thinking about a simple life to our day-today existence.”
They made good on their goal and now find themselves living remotely in the woods on 11 acres of land in southern Livingston County. It’s a life they and their children, Nolan, 11, and Nettle, 8, have come to cherish.
It took several years for Dan and Kim to get where they are now.
“Our goal was to be as light on the land as possible,” Dan says of their starting point in 2008. “We wanted to create as little demand for things as possible.”
“We were young and idealistic,” Kim adds, saying that once they decided to simplify their lives, it was full speed ahead. “If you over-research, you’ll discourage yourselves before even trying.”
They decided to erect a yurt, the circular structure used for centuries by nomads in Mongolia. “It was a really efficient shape,” Dan says, “easy to heat and a beautiful circular space.”
After acquiring a wooded property that had a clear spring and other advantages, Dan and Kim built the yurt themselves with help from friends. They used upcycled materials, including wood from buildings that had been abandoned or torn down.
In 2010, Dan and Kim and their infant son moved into the 370-square-foot yurt. It had electricity, a bathroom with a compostable toilet, a washer and dryer, a kitchen and an area for their bed. It’s heated by burning wood. Nettle was born in the yurt in 2011, and fairly soon it became clear that more room was needed. “My wife said if you want to married to me, we have to expand our space,” Dan says. “That seemed like areasonable thing.”
In 2014, they finished making an A-frame that connects to the yurt. It gives them three more bedrooms (one is a loft), another bathroom and a living room. Their home is set 200 yards back from the road, where cars park, and can only be approached on foot via a path. Both Kim and Dan say that being set back from the road gives them a kind of buffer.
“Even if I have to run to the store or go anywhere, I’ll get some green time,” Kim says.
Dan agrees: “When I get frustrated about things in my day-to-day dealings, when I come home I have a walk to look at the hemlock trees and listen to the stream, and it all falls into perspective.”
Dan became the College’s director of sustainability in 2014, and he could point to his home as an emblem of that practice. They heat with wood. They eat vegetables grown in their garden. They drink and use water from their spring.
It can be work being on your own in the woods. “But you feel closer to the cycles of nature,” Kim says. “There’s a different rhythm to life, but it’s more peaceful.”
Peaceful, but not always quiet: “We go to sleep to the sound of the wind, owls and, in the summer, nighttime insects,” Dan says. “We wake up to the sound of the rooster and birds chirping.”
Dan stresses that they are leading the life they chose to live while on that long bicycle trip. They have become light on the land; they have fashioned a simple life.
“The central piece of it is freedom,” he concludes. “Living remotely, you don’t have to ask permission. You can just do things. It’s a field station for experimentation and sustainability. And it gives us the ability to communicate these ideas to our kids.”