Saturday, October 2, 2010

Homesteading: Evoking History & Building the Future

Homesteading. Even for me, the word evokes images of another time.

The two-room cabin where my grandfather grew up in southern Idaho is still in my father's family. My grandfather lived there, as did his nine (yes, nine) brothers and sisters, his father, and his father's wives. The inside of the house was smaller than the footprint of my two-story house, but even in the early 80s the land outside stretched out in all directions. I delighted in walking the two miles to the one-room schoolhouse, trying to imagine my grandfather taking the same walk as a young boy.

When I was a child, my grandfather still held to some of the things I now realize he'd learned as a boy. He grew rows of vegetables in the backyard. He picked fruit in season to make jams and jellies. When I was a teenager, he taught me how to make my first pickles. I loved to play in his massive garage and shop, marveling at the antiques. A few years ago, when I was on a kick of writing lots of micro-fiction and depressed about the state of the country, I wrote a small piece called "Butter":
When I was young, Grandfather's lessons seemed anachronistic. Planting chard, saving scraps for quilting, making jams, churning butter. As a child, I loved playing in the garage with its wood-burning stoves and manual eggbeaters. I never thought those would be useful again, but somehow I couldn't get rid of them after he died. 
My house is popular now. Many people didn't know how to survive, after the War. Thanks to Grandfather, I do. Neighbors trade wood and goat's milk for asparagus with real butter. 
We drink herb tea, but I miss coffee. I ration that for Samhain, to thank Grandfather.
These memories are palpable. Go back a few generations and most of us have stories of a simpler time, agrarian or not. But what does all this have to do with my small, suburban house with its standard corner lot? What does homesteading mean here on the outskirts of the city, where so many of us are starting to call ourselves homesteaders again?

Backyard garden, filled with mints, fruit trees, herbs, and onions. 

For starters, I think it means a completely different approach to thinking about our homes. For too many people, a home is now a closet in which people are parked for the night -- a place to bide time not spent at the office by watching TV or other diversions and eat food grown elsewhere, when we eat there at all.

For the homesteader, the home is a resource, providing soil to grow edible plants, workspaces for repairs and worthwhile hobbies, perhaps a space to raise poultry or small livestock. The home is not only a space to sleep in but a resource with which we interact, providing its own resources in the form of home-grown herbs and vegetables, fruit, biomass and compost, flowers for the table, teaching spaces, enjoyable gardens, fresh eggs, and the like.

Beyond this, it's about mindfulness. To use a business metaphor, the homestead requires heads of planning, finance, and operations, a cook, a tailor, an accountant, a landscaper, a baker, and so on (most often in the form of one person, who may if lucky have a small junior staff of children to help out!). Homesteading is about getting beyond living paycheck to paycheck, and shifting to long term goals. What do I need to plant this spring, to can and pickle in the summer so that I have home-grown produce in the winter? What do I need to save to become more financially independent? What should I stockpile in the event of an emergency, and what should I eat fresh from the garden? How can I create greater abundance on a larger scale by sharing lawnmowers or compost worms with my friends and neighbors? How do I use less water by being more mindful about how I use it? And so on.

Yes, those images of my grandfather's garden help. Knowing how little he and his brothers and sisters lived on growing up makes me even more grateful for the abundance of my life, and knowing the specifics of how he grew gardens and put away the produce gives me a greater sense of meaning and joy when I do the same.

History helps. But past is not prologue. Most of us will never have that endless land all around us. And, we don't need to. Homesteading is not necessarily about getting back to the land "out there". It's about getting back to the land right here, right under our feet: mindfully, joyously, simply. It's about remembering that everything our ancestors could do can still be done, even now. And that perhaps those things remain worth doing.

As a quick post-script, I want to suggest that homesteading is a radical retort to some very strong cultural and financial interests working hard to persuade us that the endless treadmill of work-and-consume is the easiest, if not only, way. There's a great article making the rounds from Orion Magazine on the very deliberate reasons that big business engineered this treadmill by manufacturing desire and building in planned obsolescence. As hard as it is to do sometimes, it is possible to get off that treadmill, once you see it for what it is. A self-reliant, community-reliant, interdependent way of life is possible, and the homesteading mindset provides one approach to getting there.


Gardenatrix said...

As an interesting coincidence, Hexamaus Farms posted a blog today about farmsteading in the historical context. I didn't end up going into too much depth on that in this post, so you might want to head over there for a different angle.


Sandi said...

Thanks for the mention!

I just read your post, and it highlights all the things I want my grandkids to have...all the memories I want for them. Your memories of your Grandfather are the kinds of memories I want my grandkids to have about our farm here.

We are fortunate in that we have that "land as far as you can see" kind of place, although in farm terms we're still small (180 acres.) So we're planning to go "all out" in terms of homesteading. My sons are looking forward to getting our barn built so we can buy a team of small drafts.

The scale doesn't really matter though. It's the simplistic lifestyle, the mindful lifestyle, and feeling good about what you leave behind that's important.

Great to meet you, by the way. :) I'll be coming back to read more.

Gardenatrix said...

Great to meet you too, Sandi!

I'm definitely interested to hear more about your adventures in large-scale homesteading, so will do the same.

yellowdoorbarn said...

Lovely post. Helps me to remember that, whatever the neighbors may think, homesteading is more than a dream, a hobby, or a fantasy (though it has elements of all of those). Homesteading really is a valid way of life. And while I can go buy my spinach at the grocery store rather than growing it, I can't buy what gardening grows in me.

Gardenatrix said...

Thanks, Heidi. That's such a gorgeous and evocative way of putting it!

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