Repair the Future

Remarks from Sustainability Fair, Fort Collins, CO September 17, 2012

Repair the Future
I am an urban homesteader and I am here to testify for the urban homesteading movement that is growing and spreading so beautifully throughout our country. We are everywhere! I speak as a homesteader, but also a therapist, a teacher, and a mother about a way of life my family has adopted that works for us on so many levels. And today, because it is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy days, and the New Year, I am also, remarkably, here to speak to you as a Jew about what it means to begin again, and to recommit to the work of repairing the world.

Sustainability Fair

Sustainability Fair (Photo credit: ckphotography)

So it may be 2012 with all that portends—which I think by the way, is a massive shift in consciousness towards a reconnected future and not “the end of the world”–but it’s also the year 5773 in the Jewish calendar. This gives me a bit of perspective. Life goes on and on. The Jewish people have constantly searched for home, place and belonging, lived through diaspora, and been the victors and victims in war and trauma for millennia. Yet, there is a beautiful concept embedded in the center of our culture–Tikkun Olam which means quite literally “world repair”, and in a modern sense has become aligned with the work of social action and the pursuit of social justice.

Tikkun Olam tells us that the world is broken, and it is our responsibility and joy and deepest spiritual commitment to be part of the repair work that needs to be done. As Leonard Cohen said, ‘There’s a crack in the world. That’s where the light gets in.” I love this because for me this is what urban homesteading has come to be about. And it couldn’t be clearer this year that we have a great deal of incredible repair work to do.

On Rosh Hashanah we get to look back at the works we’ve done over the past year, and make any amends we have to make with the people around us, and get into right alignment with our actions and our being in the world. Ten days from now on Yom Kippur, the highest of all the holy days in the Jewish calendar, we’re supposed to get right in our relationship with God. I find all of that in the work of tending to the life of the home, the soil, the plants, the animals, and the people around me, which is what homesteading is all about. Making life sacred through our simple daily acts. In the midst of breakdowns of all kinds, I’m here to remind you that the force of necessity motivating all these practices is beautiful, raw and vivid and that god is in the broccoli.

But enough theology – let me tell you about homesteading.

There are homesteaders in every major American city (not to mention most international cities). There are homesteaders in smaller cities and suburbs all around our country. My family homesteads on a 6500 square foot rented suburban lot in Petaluma, California (a town once famous for its massive chicken egg production and the invention of the incubator). We call our home Tiny Town Farm, and we run many experiments there in how to live in relationship to our place, and the plants and the animals and the people around us; how to use less and produce more; how to realign our needs, behaviors, and our home and work lives so that we are not separate from what we do, but live in a well woven, deeply connected relationship to it.

The three humans in my family live with our chickens, our bees, our rabbit, the gophers, the deer, and our pets. I keep three gardens throughout town—one at home, one at a community garden, and one in the backyard of a friend. My partner, the resident beekeeper, keeps his hives in different places around town. We have trees we love throughout our neighborhood where we glean, in season, for our fruit – plums, peaches, apples, and persimmon. We’re homesteading the hood, which is the answer we’ve found to the question, Who’s Got Land? and a good working model for finding enough space, no matter where you live.

I like to let people know that we are renters just to remind you that you don’t have to wait to buy into the collective hallucination called “private property” to live in alignment with your values. When we moved to our current home we thought we could die before we ever got to own a piece of property in California, and this true thought impelled us to just get on it already. I want to encourage you to get started now doing what you can to take care of the piece of earth you’ve got. Don’t worry if you own it or not. Don’t let your ownership status stand in your way.

Everywhere you go in this country, people are doing this—reclaiming the means of production for the essentials of life—like food and water and clothing and shelter; learning to do things ourselves rather than relying on the corporate supply chain; trying to overcome some of the onerous problems of our decaying industrial culture: the broken or dying food, transport, building, waste, water, energy, medical, and educational systems are all addressed in different ways at a small and local scale through urban homesteading.

This DIY movement is rising up through the cracks created by the huge and interconnected problems we face: Climate change, peak oil, economic free-fall, ecological devastation, and corporate predation… The good news is that even though the problems we face are global in scale, small home-scale solutions like growing your food, or taking care of chickens, or saving water—some of the standards of urban homesteading—have a measurable impact on changing these systems, repairing them, and restoring life for everyone.

Here’s a good example: In 2009, in my little town, six homesteading families tracked their input and output on their small suburban lots. We grew 3,000 pounds of food, foraged another ton of local fruit, harvested more than 4000 pounds of urban waste to be composted and mulched, planted more than 185 trees and hundreds of varieties of edible and habitat plants, installed five greywater and rainwater catchment systems (the other house already had one), tended to bees, chickens, quail and rabbits, and worked towards reducing energy use and enhancing transportation and commuting goals. Six households. Imagine what this kind of change would look like at scale. That’s the challenge before us. The good news is that you can easily learn these abundance practices and every day start making a difference in the world around you.

This isn’t the only change that needs to happen of course—like hey swing state voters! Get out and vote. But it’s surely part of the change that needs to happen.

Urban homesteading means a lot of things to me, on both the inner and outer levels. It’s a culture repair practice, but it’s also part of a personal repair practice. Becoming an urban homesteader has made me feel better in lots of ways, made my life richer, deepened my relationships to people and place, and in general given me a sense of purpose and empowerment. It tastes delicious and feels so good. It’s a path of healing that heals you as you walk it.

Let me tell you how I got here. I became a parent in 2001, about three weeks before 9/11. This consequential event had a huge impact on our country, no matter how you think about it politically, and it was an interesting time to become a mother. A pessimist at heart, I sat and nursed my daughter and watched those towers fall over and over again and I thought: things are about to go from bad to worse. Becoming a parent projects so much of your love and your longing and your concern into a future that you will never visit but which your beloved children will inhabit. I started really wondering how to live a better life with her, while she was still young.

Always a gardener, I started growing more food and spontaneously reskilling in the kitchen, relearning the arts of canning and drying and fermenting and deep storage. I studied land use and looked at the land and the water issues where I lived. And then I discovered permaculture, a solution-focused human settlement redesign system that isn’t afraid to look the beast in the eye and come up with ways to deal with it. Permaculture is so practical and philosophical and accessible and fun, and the problem-saturated story I had been telling myself for so long started composting under the weight of all of those solutions. I felt so much better.

We started growing food and keeping bees and building chicken coops and learning about wild foods, weaving a life that was whole wholesome healthy and holy. Did you know that the root of all these words is the same: whole, wholesome, heal, health, hallow, holy…

Here’s the elements of the urban homestead as we see it: permaculture style: all of them reflect our commitment to the ethics of permaculture – earth care, fair share, people care.

Food growing everywhere. Food is, in fact, the gateway drug to the sustainable lifestyle. In small spaces. In abandoned lots. On rooftops. In buckets and barrels. Up the walls. In the sidewalk medians, in bales of hay. We’re learning about the work of pulling food from the soil, the back-bending erratic uninsured work of the farmer.

We’re rebuilding soil, reclaiming it from the toxic neglect of urban sprawl, and making friends with worms and mycelium and the primary decomposers that make food happen.

We love our pollinators and welcome them into the garden– bees butterflies bats and birds. We protect the pollinators to protect the food chain.

We’re saving seeds to say: take this Monsanto! The gene pool belongs to everyone. This sweet simple task connects us to the ancient co-creative practice that evolved the enormous variety of food we enjoy today.

We’re starting seeds, to save money and enhance diversity and because once you save the seeds, you’ve got to use them.

Gleaning, because there’s food everywhere, and foraging, the same.

Wild-crafting and eating the weeds, because the abundance of nature is all around us, and this way of living helps us SEE that.

Dumpster diving because the things people in this country think are garbage could house and feed a small third world village. I do it mostly to feed my chickens, but occasionally the dumpster yields up a pretty good dinner.

We’re harvesting and storing the abundant bounty.

We’re growing our own herbal medicines and gaining practice in their use.

We’re learning the heirloom kitchen skills – canning and drying and root cellaring and fermenting.

We’re making friends with the micro-organisms that live all around us, in our guts and in the air and in the food that keeps us healthy.

We’re growing mushrooms in closets and oak logs and bales of hay.

We’re tending to animals — chickens goats rabbits bees and quail, mostly, and the occasional pig, if you’re feeling really crazy.

We’re natural building, radically reusing, recycling and keeping things from the landfill, making houses out of dirt and mud and straw, natural pigments and paints out of the dirt in the backyard.

We’re managing water, saving every drop, catching and storing and sinking the precious water that is so scarce and so important and so endangered.

We’re making energy and saving energy and harvesting energy and biking here and walking there and in general trying to lower the carbon footprint of living.

We’re way into zero waste – using less, repurposing and recycling more.

We’re composting our own shit. And simply done, and safely too.

We like to include self-care in all of this, remembering that we are each one of us precious non-renewable resources and that we can’t save the world or even ourselves but we can take care of ourselves and make sure there is someone home when we serve that incredible bounty we’ve brought from the ground, make sure that we renew ourselves for the work ahead.

One of the most amazing outcomes of the homesteading lifestyle, at least as I’ve lived it, is the uprising of community relationships it creates. Where I live, we’ve started a program through a Petaluma based group called Daily Acts, we call the Homegrown Guild, a group of loosely affiliated neighbors and allies who are helping one another raise the bar on living sustainably. We share bounty and information and extra seeds and starts and freecycle materials and sometimes labor and sometimes a good meal.

There are granges all over the country being revitalized by urban homesteaders – gathering places for people who care about food and good living. The laws are changing in cities across the country because people are growing more food, and keeping chickens and bees and other livestock, and trying to figure out how to make the abundance they’ve created available to their neighbors.

In other places, people are creating a neighborhood food shed, where folks are figuring out really how much food they need to feed everyone in the neighborhood, and then sharing the work and the available growing space, the information and resources, to create this kind of food security on a neighborhood scale. So many lawns turned into gardens! There are some hundreds of thousands of acres of land in our country now planted out in grass and fossil-fuel based fertilizer. Transforming them into food growing zones literally has the capacity to transform our agricultural system. Throw a sheet-mulching party and bury the lawn with your neighbor’s help. Next week, do it at their house. Plant your gardens. Insta-neighborhood farm.

There’s food security projects, like Petaluma Bounty in my town, which grows food for the most food insecure members of our community, and community gardens where people come together to grow food. This is happening all over the country, often in “food desert” neighborhoods, where it’s extremely difficult to get healthy food.

I want to say a quick word here against self-sufficiency. I know homesteading is often seen as a way to be self-sufficient but I’ve seen that this is a myth, part of our twisted idea that we are separate from nature, or in control of it, when actually of course we are just part of what’s going on. Self-sufficiency, like independence, is an idea from the American zeitgeist that needs to be composted. We work for interdependence, not rugged individualism. You can never be self-sufficient on a small urban or suburban lot—you simply cannot do it all yourself, or grow it all yourself. And that’s a good thing. Take it as an opportunity to befriend someone who has some of the resources and access you don’t have, and start building a relationship of reciprocity.

It’s my sense from living this way and talking to other people who do and just from looking around, that we currently possess all the technology we need to make important changes happen in our culture and our world, changes that would tip the scale from destruction to restoration, from lack to abundance. What we don’t always have is the human technology to work together

In the midst of writing this book, I had a run-in with my neighbor’s chickens. I noticed that something had been digging and pecking in my front garden. I couldn’t tell what it was from the markings, but it was making a serious mess. A few days later, my partner told me he’d seen the neighbor’s chickens strutting down the driveway. I went to ask them to pen the chickens in and offered to help if they needed. They promised they’d do it, but a few days later, a chicken was back in the yard, pulling up the tender vegetable shoots. Did I go to my neighbor and ask her to get the chicken? I did not. I cornered the chicken in an alleyway alongside the house and flung her in an empty cage on the back patio. She sat squawking for many hours before I removed her and placed her with my own flock around the corner. Did I go tell my neighbor I had stolen her chicken? I did not. Here I was, Little Miss Community Homesteader, stealing chickens from my perfectly nice neighbors who were just too busy to pen in their birds.

I knew I’d done something wrong when I wouldn’t tell my daughter about the chicken, and I left the marauder with my flock for almost a full week before my chicken coop partner called and told me my neighbor had come to collect the chicken. How did she know where it was? What would she say now? I had to suck it up and apologize. I told myself I had been intending to return the chicken anyway, but I wasn’t sure if that was really true. Did I want to apologize to her? I did not. Was it the right thing to do? You bet. Did she give me hell? She sure did. Has it affected our relations? It certainly has. Are they repairable? Maybe, over time, but I truly wish I had taken a breath before I acted, rather than stealing that chicken.

I tell you this embarrassing tale to underscore the simple fact that it’s easier to get mad than it is to be good. It’s simpler to seek vengeance than justice. Protecting ourselves when we feel threatened is an automatic response, but this kind of reaction is the enemy of change. I can laugh about it now, but looking at this minor skirmish as just one small bit of the conflict between humans gives insight into how wars start and never end. Magnified one thousand times over hundreds of years, the weight of human conflict is almost too heavy to bear. We have to do better than this. Community change ultimately begins inside, with each one of us. Every day is an opportunity to confront our prejudices, our desire to control, and our fear of the other. A big challenge in front of us is the inside work we need to do, so that we can start looking at other people as assets, rather than liabilities.

Any of you who are inspired towards non-violent communication, group facilitation, co-counseling, somatic interventions that help people generate sustainable inner change–you are needed! You are part of this movement of repairing the world, our human culture, and our planetary ecology. Homesteading is a proactive way of living this truth: We can do better than we’re doing. We have the tools and the resources and the knowledge to heal the world and our relationship to it. We can feed and house everyone, well. This idea that our country is “broke” is a lie—we have remarkable abundance – both material and personal – that we keep squandering. We can do better. We have the information we need to create a workable energy grid. We have the skills we need to rebuild our cities. We have innovative, brilliant citizens like you ready to apply their smarts to a better future. If it’s communication that gets in the way, let’s learn to talk and listen to each other.

In the absence of being able to transform things from the top down, especially in this time of overwhelming corporate control, there is something deeply satisfying about living a perfectly ordinary life and transforming culture from the grassroots up just by doing it. I’m not a specialist, not a farmer or an ecologist or a biologist, just an ordinary mom whose garden exploded into a way of life.

For those of you who join me in a rather bleak and pessimistic outlook, this is also one of the best ways I’ve found to become an optimist-in-training. Just the sheer delight you feel when you connect with the process of growing your own food, or the metaphoric actions of homesteading – gleaning, recycling, zero wasting, dumpster diving, composting your own poop — are enough to make your heart sing with joy. And as the great author Grace Paley once said, “The only recognizable feature of Hope is Action.”

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy talks about different kinds of actions people can take at this time of what she terms “The Great Turning”, this moment where industrial culture is on the decline and we have the opportunity to build another future. There are holding actions—like Julia Butterfly in her tree, trying to stop the devastation of the redwood forest, and there are life-sustaining practices, like micro-financing, and the CSA movement; and then there is a third kind of action—that of shifting consciousness. Urban homesteading interestingly has aspects of all three – as a holding action, it works to repair desecrated land; as a life-sustaining practice, it creates local economy and abundance; and as a consciousness shifter, it helps us move from our full implication in industrial death culture to a way of living that remakes the world.

In the way that we work our practices and our practices work on us, homesteading is not only eminently practical, but it also has a spiritual and philosophical yield. In permaculture we talk about “stacking functions” which means that every element in our design can do more than one thing. This is an important idea in an urgent time, and when we don’t have a lot of space.

Catnip has stacking functions – medicine for humans, pleasure for cats, pollination for bees, mulch for compost, and beauty for the spirit – 5 functions.

The ubiquitous chicken has multiple stacking functions – eggs, meat, feathers, and excellent fertilizer, turning over the garden, more fun to watch than TV – 6 functions.

Homesteading has stacking functions, not only in giving us good food, and good soil, and good friends and good work, but also helping us compost within ourselves this dissociated from the world, post-industrial mindset that keeps us living as consumers and destroyers rather than as sustainers and stewards.

You know there are so many places to begin in this new year. We have an industrial fossil-fuel dependent food system that’s making the earth and human beings ill. We have an industrial fossil-fuel dependent energy and waste management systems that pollute the world. We have an industrial fossil-fuel dependent medical system no one can afford and no one who knows much about medicine really wants anyway. We have a bought and sold fossil-fuel dependent government that’s selling the planet to the highest bidder. We have human relationships polarized almost to the breaking point – everyone forgetting that if you go far enough to the left you end up right, and visa versa, and that we are all human beings who need the same things to live well—a safe home, healthy food and air and water, good education for our children, righteous and meaningful work, self-determination where we live, spiritual and personal experiences that help us prosper and feel connected to our place and our people.

In the language of permaculture, “in the problem lies the solution.” We live in an amazing time where this is totally true. If there’s too much fossil fuel and bad food coming out of the industrial system—grow some yourself. Decaying infrastructure for water and waste? Save, compost, recycle, repurpose. Running out of oil? Find an alternative energy source, like the sun. Can’t get along with your neighbors? Figure out what you have in common and work from there…

Right now, we live in a culture designed for children where we’ve come to expect whatever we want whenever we want it. This is reality for a few lucky (or spoiled) three year olds, but no way to be an adult. Urban homesteading is a delicious way to grow up, to come into relationship to the joys and challenges of nature’s rules, to find pleasure and abundance in the reality of limits.

The joy of repairing the world happens not only in our own backyards, but also in our hearts and minds, when we really give ourselves to this path. And when that happens, our ability to participate in the ongoing destruction of the world diminishes, and our ability to rise up to the opportunity to be part of culture repair becomes almost instinctive. This eco-body and eco-mind is how we live, and generative solutions to what seem like intractable problems are easy to source and manifest.

I want to encourage all of us to envision something beyond sustainability—which is, let’s face it, a pretty low-level uninspiring goal. Sustainability is about maintaining – it’s not about excelling or expanding or growing in any kind of magnificent way. I don’t know about you, but I like to be around things that grow. This is why I became a gardener. Being aware of all the death and destruction all the time bummed me out, and beginning to be part of the life cycle cheered me up. Let’s reframe the whole sustainability conversation into something more fantastic, something that allows us to grow and change and deepen our relationship to our world and our place in it through learning how to take part in this culture of repair and restoration.

The only place where there is truly endless growth is on the inside. And changing consciousness is really the thing, as much or more so than turning your lawn into a garden. So if you find yourself hesitating to change a habit or behavior, maybe it’s an inside job, and not a greywater system or a recyclable object you need. Culture repair is really about restoring our relationship to our place and our understanding of ourselves as creatures in the natural order of things.

Restoration is an interesting word – re – store. re – story. We need a new story to tell our children and ourselves. Our culture circles forever around tales of death and apocalypse. Why do we do this? What is it about the human animal that is always looking over its shoulder for the next emergency? Maybe we cannot totally move away from this DNA-programmed Paleolithic reaction to the dangers of the world, but I believe we can harness our powerful imaginative minds towards another story – to begin to re-pattern ourselves from the inside out towards a life of abundance, of enough for everyone, of food available on every street corner, of work that lives in place and has purpose and passion. Of children learning what it means to be human by working the soil, and tending the sick, and finding their place among the creatures that live around them.

Homesteading puts us in touch with what it means to live in a certain place with certain people, eat certain foods at certain times, take care of our impacts, our wastes, our need for energy and water and shelter, healthy medicine, education for our children, entertainment for our hearts, ceremony for our spirits. When you get connected like this to what it means to be human, it makes it harder to just sit by and be part of the destruction of the world

You wouldn’t think you could learn this by growing carrots, but you can.

We are up against a manufactured mindset of cynicism and despair and a sense that the problems are so big and we are so small. That corporations are devouring the earth, and what can we do? And while this might be true, no change has ever happened in this country except from the grassroots and community level. We think of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King as heroes, and they were, but the story that isn’t told is that they were deeply embedded in communities that supported them and trained them to take non-violent direct action to change their circumstances. None of this happens in a vacuum. Every action has its effect. Our individual actions, taken within the crucible of community, begin the work of repair.

Whenever any one of us takes on these practices, however small they might be, like flushing the toilet with bath water, which seems so small, but adds up so big, it has a ripple effect (and no pun intended.) Not just in your own life, but in the lives of the people around you. It’s through direct behavioral change, and community-embedded actions that we can participate in the restoration of the world.

Here’s the truth: we are more interconnected than we think. Here’s another truth: we are who we are because we BELONG to the community of life. So the food is good, yes it is, but what’s better is feeling part of a place and a people. Living this every day by taking small home scale actions moves a strong spiritual lever and connects us to something bigger than ourselves, bigger even than our desire to “be the change”, and what arises spontaneously is a gift economy and a personal ecology of connection, a sense of generosity and love for the world and your soul’s desire to protect it and repair the damage that’s been done.

I invite you to start with something you love. Start small so you can succeed and inspire yourself to do more. Practice anything. Find your place, bring your pitchfork, love your chicken, teach your children. Join the motion of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. One thing leads to another and before you know it, you’ll have more food and bounty and friends and bees than you know what to do with.

It’s 2012: it’s 5773. It’s the New Year. We get to forgive one another and ourselves and begin again. There are incredible opportunities right now to shed some of the old and useless parts of our cultural heritage as we reclaim some of the old and righteous parts of our cultural inheritance. There is a place for everyone at the table, and there’s a fantastic amount of great work that needs to be done.

Urban homesteading is one way to restore the piece of earth you are given to tend, no matter how small or large it is, One way to revitalize and grow and restore our home and community economies and the human story of life on earth.

There’s no more time for waiting. The repair work has begun… Happy New Year!

Rachel Kaplan September, 2012


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