homesteading practices are not about austerity or apocalypse; they’re about living a simpler, more joyful, more effective life

“Much more of a how-to book is Rachel and Ruby’s “Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living”. It’s a big trade paperback, nearly a coffee table book in its elegant design and ample color photographs throughout.

As Peter Bane writing in the latest issue of Permaculture Activist (“Hidden Connections in the Garden” is the theme of issue 81, their latest, highly recommended) describes it in his review:

“Scattered among the eye candy of seed collections, farmers markets, and romanesco broccoli is a series of Get-Going sidebars, call them to-do lists for a new society: How to Start a Community Garden in 12 easy steps, How to Get to Zero Waste in 60 months… These contain many good ideas, as much advocacy as action… In fact, there are so many side-tracks in this book that it could be argued the main stream has disappeared into an estuary of rich detail.”

Bane also points out usefully that since they have grounded their book in the examples that abound here in the Bay Area, “the world portrayed here knows nothing of winter and little of North American summers. Talk of conserving 90% of electrical energy won’t go far with people living in less privileged regions.” I would prefer he use the term ‘lucky’ rather than ‘privileged’ since the latter implies someone has been given something that they shouldn’t have (or taken it at others’ expense perhaps). But his point is well-taken, that all too much of our experiments and postulations for a post-capitalist and post-fossil fuel life don’t face up to the gnarly industrial problems that complex societies will face. Sustaining anything close to the comfort and convenience of our current world is not going to be possible unless we apply the whole systems, regenerative thinking that is so well applied to urban homesteading in this volume, to larger industrial systems too. Not that Rachel and Ruby are at fault for not doing so, since that is clearly beyond the scope of their excellent book, which already DOES include an incredible range of practical information and intelligent politics.

From the beginning, they embrace the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture that George McKay wrote about in his book about 1990s Britain, and I integrated into all my case studies in Nowtopia too.

- 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 lies—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 and an expansion of creativity, and personal and community empowerment. (p. 14-15)

Mainstream culture in the U.S. has recently woken up to the demise of practical skills. The Soul of Shopcraft is a recent bestselling book about a hi-tech professional abandoning his career to rediscover the joys of working slowly and with his hands. Ruby is one of the most practical-skilled people I know, having built the huge puppets that came to decorate so many political demonstrations over the past 20 years, to more recently founding the Institute of Urban Homesteading out of her Oakland home. She renovated the place largely herself, doing everything from carpentry to plumbing. Now she has a thriving kitchen garden, keeps bees, makes cheese, jams, mead, and raises and slaughters rabbits, all while running her institute that provides over 60 classes per season in the same skills.

Here she and Rachel make their pitch for the new homesteading:

- It is 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… 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.”

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