Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills For Sustainable Living

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Reclaiming heirloom agrarian practices for responsible living is the wave of the future.
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Homesteading in the city gives people the possibility of remaking culture with the planet in mind.

Reclaim your role as an instrumental agent of positive social change and human evolution with advice from Urban Homesteading (Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2011) by Rachel Kaplan. Find concise how-to information that can immediately be set into practice, from making solar cookers to growing tomatoes in a bucket to raising chickens on a tiny plot. Urban Homesteading is the go-to source for sustainable solutions to the seemingly unsolvable problems of city dwellers who want to embrace a regenerative living culture across nations. Learn how urban homesteading can radically reduce consumption, maximize community self-reliance and boost overall happiness in this excerpt taken from the selection entitled “Knit it Up” and “The Empire Has No Clothes.” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Urban Homesteading.

Knit It Up 

The weed growing up through the cracks in a city sidewalk — that sharp green shard of life persisting against all odds — reflects nature’s resilience. It’s also a metaphor for the uprising earth consciousness growing in our cities — small, surprising, commonplace. Spreading. Across the country, citizens are looking for solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of our time, and evolving new ways to live. Picking up the shovel and the hoe, turning their closets and roofs and backyard decks into places to grow food and their yards into chicken coops, urban farmers are reclaiming heirloom agrarian practices as strategies for artful living. This book tells the story of this grassroots do-it-yourself cultural explosion rooted in the urban earth, a homegrown guild of people generating resilient, local culture in response to the urgency of the moment and a collective awareness of our need to be the change we want to see.

The more I know, the less I sleep. There is something decidedly brinkish about our era. We are bombarded by desperate stories — collapse of the Arctic ice, clear-cutting of the forests, massive oil spills, catastrophic droughts and floods, volatile nation states, dangerous levels of CO2 in the air, the depletion of oil, and the overwhelming power of corporations to devour the world at will — all conspiring to create fear and dread. We are told we are powerless until we begin to believe it. The convergence of the seemingly unstoppable forces of climate change, the savagery of global corporate capitalism, and the downward spiral of our predatory economy all lead to an inevitable conclusion: We are coming undone. We are unraveling.

Knitters know all about unraveling. You knit along for a while, until you drop a stitch or add a stitch or do something else peculiar that just doesn’t work. If you want it right, you have to unravel, and knit it up again. Or sometimes you unravel by choice because it’s just not coming out quite the way you planned. Re-knitting always takes less time than you think, and there you are again at the place you left off, with a piece of fabric that looks and feels right.

This homegrown metaphor takes us only so far; we can’t unravel back to the beginning of our disastrous misalignments with people and place that, in our country, permitted the genocide of the first peoples; the dispossession, oppression, and slavery of others; and the short-sighted desecration of natural resources leading up to our current environmental and economic predicaments. Unlike strands of wool on our needles, we are people who have to work from where we are. But there are lessons about process and outcome in the knitting metaphor and operating instructions for how to proceed — when we make mistakes, it’s best to go back, sort out what’s worth saving from what needs to be let go, and get back to the work of stitching together again. The urban earth has been shattered by hundreds of years of neglect and abuse; our relationships are fractured and deformed by long stories of hate and race and class. We’ve made something lopsided and misshapen, and it is time to weave another tapestry, tell another story about how we can live together with this planet.

Urban homesteading is happening in small and large cities across the country, a homegrown response to this potent need for a new, life-giving story. Urban homesteaders are relearning heirloom skills that have been abandoned in the relentless march toward convenience; valuing thrift and community self-reliance; and tending to our home places in an intentional repudiation of the cultural forces of speed, need, and greed. Urban home­steading is also part of a global movement for change rooted in respect for indigenous peoples and values, a cadre of environmental first responders and a network of progressive social change organizations seeking peace and reconciliation at every level. All of these together forge an opportunity to rewrite the story of our relationship to the earth and the possibility of remaking culture around an ethic of care and stewardship for this place that is our shared home.

This is a David and Goliath story — backyard gardens competing with Monsanto’s patents on the gene pool, rain barrels and greywater versus the worldwide privatization of natural resources, bicycles against the power of Big Oil. Garden by garden, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, each partial effort is a step in the right direction, our participation in the human immunological response to our diseased world. Will it work? The outcome is uncertain. Is it worth trying? Without a doubt. The tragedy of living in a “Christian” country that repeatedly rapes God’s creation can be combated only by learning to cherish and tend the kingdom of God, which is among us, now.

Battles like this have been won before–the tobacco industry once ruled the roost, and now it’s the chicken no one wants in their backyard coop. Despite what politicians and commercials teach us at every turn, our daily actions can remake the world. Urban homesteading is a story of the power of community and the joy in following an artful course of living in a time of contraction and fear. This is a book about action, about things we can do to reweave the web by living in place, but it’s also a book about how we think about our actions during this time of unraveling. It’s a hopeful vision in a hopeless time. Urban homesteading is a proactive response, a series of earth-based actions that make an immediate difference in the places we call home.

When we speak of a system being unsustainable, what we’re really saying is: This cannot last. Sustainability is the ability to exist over time. We have to get real about our current lack of sustainability as we face the end of many systems in the twenty-first century, and take up the good work of re-imagining ones that can endure. The urban earth practices in this book show how we can radically reduce consumption and maximally increase community self-reliance and joy in living, both of which are necessary for positive social change and progressive human evolution. They will help ground you in the reality and freedom of limits. Some say this is an “old” way, and it is. But it’s also a new way of relating based on reciprocity and cooperation, of living in partnership with the earth rather than treating it like our personal garbage can.

Now is the time to answer the call. You’ve probably picked up this book because you hear it, and because you want to answer in your own way and bring your best offering forward at this time of unraveling. Ultimately, this is a book about reverence and our love for our beautiful world, about our grief in seeing her die and our complicity in her dying.

This book weaves in the voices of many people who live an urban homesteading lifestyle. While there are differences between us all, everyone feels creatively motivated and spiritually connected on our urban farms, and in the midst of breakdowns of all kinds we write to remind you that the force of necessity motivating these practices is beautiful, raw, and vivid, and that god is in the broccoli. Our work reflects a commitment toward a regenerative, living culture, rather than the consumptive consumerism our country has refined to a sick art. We opt out by digging in.

And so we find ourselves in our backyards fighting gophers, pulling carrots, harvesting rabbits and eggs, tending bees, and gathering raspberries, grapes, broccoli, and kale. We save our seeds. We pee in a bucket and dump it on the compost bin. We harvest our rainwater and drain our bathtubs into the garden. On hot summer afternoons you’ll find us preserving jars of peaches, plums, and nectarines that have fallen from the trees. We bring people together to learn how to can, make yogurt, hold a meeting, or turn a lawn into a garden. We experi­ence our practices in the urban earth with the bees and the animals and the things we make with our hands as spiritual, a prayer to the life force and a vehicle for our own connectivity and sense of purpose.

We are here to say: there is a life in the earth for you. There is birth and abundance and death and regeneration and joy. We are on the side of the seed, growing through the cracks of our profound and tragic mistakes, the particulate scaffolding of the natural world still calling to us, teaching us the true order of things. We are sitting. We are listening. Knitting, unraveling, and knitting again.

The Empire Has No Clothes 

The Homegrown Guild 

One of the great losses to culture in the last sixty years has been the ability of people to be even modestly self-sufficient at home. Homesteading in the city is a land-based, action-oriented YES! to the possibility of remaking culture with people and planet in mind, bringing back some of this lost power of doing it ourselves. We make no claims toward self-sufficiency: we can bake our own bread, but we cannot grow the wheat. But self-sufficiency, like independence, isn’t a true goal. Our greatest need at this time is to learn to work together, to form guilds of differently abled farmers, blacksmiths, renegade plumbers, solar installers, beekeepers, mycolo­gists, fermenting fetishists, somatic healers, technology wizards, performance artists, alternative educators, and herbal potion-brewers to remake our cities.

A guild is an alliance of craftspeople or artisans from a more traditional time. An early form of the union, its primary benefit was camaraderie and support for best practices, as well as a source for learning more skills and expanding support for the profession. Guilds also had the conservative function of slowing down the processes of innovation generated by industrialization that often resulted in a loss of quality and right livelihood. We need homegrown guilds today, as we relearn skills we have forgotten and redesign our cities toward sustainability.

Here’s an example of what that can look like. In 2009, six households in Daily Acts’ Homegrown Guild produced more than 3,000 pounds of food; foraged another ton of local fruit; harvested more than 4,000 pounds of urban waste to be composted and mulched; planted more than 185 fruit trees and hundreds of varieties of edible and habitat plants; installed five greywater and rainwater catchment systems that saved and recycled tens of thousands of gallons of water; tended to bees, chickens, quail, ducks, and rabbits; and worked toward reducing energy use and enhancing commuting and transportation goals. All this from six households! Imagine a city where a majority of people tended to many of their daily needs in this way — the amount of food and water and energy and waste that could be managed sustainably is incredible.

Our small daily actions toward the things that nourish us have an enormous impact. We have to shake off the trance that tells us this is not so. Now is the time to experiment, maybe fail, but always learn some more. We cannot remake the world in whole, only in part. We have at hand old and new technologies we can harness in remaking the world. Resourceful participation in the big work of repositioning ourselves in a swiftly changing world, learning skills we can use at home, is the way of the future. We offer these technologies as spiritual prac­tices in an incredibly challenging time and are here to report that in many ways that are good for planet and people, they work.

Urban farming is nothing new; in many parts of the world, it’s a way of life. Cuba has an active urban farming movement, initiated when the USSR collapsed and precipitously stopped oil exports to the country. In Shanghai, residents produce 85 percent of their vegetables within city limits. The government of Tanzania encourages the cultivation of every piece of land in Dar es Salaam. Homesteaders around this country are engaged with the differing realities that their watersheds, climates, and history demand. Austin, Philadelphia, Newark, Brooklyn, Oakland, Portland, Los Angeles, and Detroit are all centers of rapid agricultural growth and production, each with their own place-based expression and local, evolving economies.

Some of the central urban homesteading practices are the same as homesteading practices everywhere — growing and preserving food, caring for and harvesting animals, foraging, making medicine, tending to the resources of water and waste and energy. But a city’s unique and abundant resource is human energy — the intelligence, creativity, needs, hurts, history, and future of a city’s people converging in exciting and sometimes destructive ways. Learning to harvest this energy and direct it toward community projects is a central survival strategy of the twenty-first century. The land frontiers have been conquered. The final frontier is learning how to live in harmony with one another and the world around us. Rebuilding a network of relationships between the earth and its inhabitants will be key to human evolution and survival.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Culture 

DIY is an alternative culture strategy that helps us thrive outside the confines of the capitalist machine. It is an ethic of curiosity, exploration, and empowerment that can be applied to many aspects of our lives — growing food, sewing clothes, creating homegrown entertainment, writing books, fermenting vegetables, educating children. It feels good to do it yourself. This is a sane way to reorient our living toward a more just and equitable distribution of limited natural resources, and it supports the goal of sustainability through a maximum reduction in consumption, an expansion of creativity, and personal and community empowerment.

It’s important for each of us to have a physical skill that is satisfying as well as sustaining — knitting or sewing or blacksmithing or canning or gardening. A “can do” attitude about all the activities people mastered as a matter of course in the past is required. It’s important to remember how to be resourceful and figure out how to do something yourself. Collapsing at the mere thought of failure is no longer an option. Standing up and doing it yourself is a core homesteading way, something to relearn in our buy-it-yourself culture.

Many of the solutions in this book are simple, affordable, transportable, and good to do with others. Homesteading practices are not about austerity or apocalypse; they’re about living a simpler, more joyful, more effective life. Homesteading is not a replay of a Depression-era mentality. It is a series of skills and practices that lift us out of a culture of inaction and cynicism and into a culture of abundance, care, and possibility. So this isn’t a book about canning or making a nice pie out of foraged apples, at least not directly. It’s about shifting consciousness toward a conservation and care-based ethic, which will undoubtedly manifest in many creative ways in your own life. In the name of limiting consumption and finding ways to break our addiction to needing and buying, many of the how-tos are a bit more intangible (like finding a Sit Spot in nature, or creating a commu­nity tool shed, or planning a potluck). When we do share a how-to of a more material nature, it will almost always include instructions on how to do it yourself on the cheap.

The Territory Ahead

This book is a map to the territory of urban homesteading. There are many awesome, time-honored prac­tices in the art of living, which we have mostly forgotten and collectively need to remember: organic gardening, tending an orchard, beekeeping, fermenting, jamming, herbalism, self-care, community relations, and land, energy, and water stewardship. These all deserve (and have) many specific volumes dedicated to the intricacies of their art and this one book cannot do each of them justice. We can be definitive perhaps in only one sense — the necessity of reclaiming these heirloom skills for living in the twenty-first century. The resource list in the back of the book will point you toward other excellent books specific to the different practices highlighted here, so as you read and track your own interests, you can find your path through the woods. We also recommend, whenever possible, the practice of finding an experienced teacher to take you on the journey.

As you read, remember that one practice leads to another, and that having one skill will always lead you to someone with another. Perhaps you choose to become a beekeeper. Soon you have more honey and beeswax than you need, and something to trade with your neighbor, that fantastic tomato grower. Your fantastic tomato-growing friend trades with her greywater plumber, who trades her time for fresh goat milk. Perhaps your small beekeeping experiment grows into a cottage industry, further evolving your community network and economic center. These are all strands in a growing web of local culture happening all around the country, an alterna­tive, restorative economy existing beyond and separate from the economic mudslide of dominant culture. It is this cultural growth — from the one to the many, from our homes to our communities — that this book and this movement is really all about.

When visiting and speaking with people about their choices for living, we noticed a few themes that may be some evolving principles of urban homesteading. Embodying these principles will take time and commitment and, for some of us, represents a big change in lifestyle. For others, they are already second nature. If they are new to you, remember that lifestyle changes can be challenging but are reinforced over time through practice and support from others.

Simplify. Our lives are complex, over-consumptive, harried. Choosing a path of voluntary simplicity is possible, and feels good.

Use Less. We consume more than we need. Curb the habit. Break the addiction.

Share More. Many of us have more than we need, and some not enough. Give it away. Share it with friends, neighbors, and strangers.

Localize. Commit your time and energy to businesses, gardens, organizations, and people in your community to strengthen the financial, biological, and social economy of your place.

Diversify. Ecologically diverse systems that include multiple plants, solutions, and people create more secu­rity for all. Apply the metaphor to the ecology of the city where you live.

Do It Yourself. If you want it, make it happen. If you can do it yourself, do it.

Indigenate. Belong to your place.

Embody. Let your body’s wisdom motivate and inform your actions.

Relate. Making connections between people and things in our environments makes us stronger and more effective.

Forgive. Clear your body of old anger and hurt so you can do your best work today. Forgiveness is an indi­vidual and communal act.

Listen and Observe. We are in constant conversation with life. Slow down and pay attention.

Create and Renew. Our planetary culture is calling for renewal. Use your creativity to find a way to partici­pate in answering the call.

Begin. Start where you are. Make mistakes. Begin again.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Urban Homesteadingby Rachel Kaplan, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.

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