Volume 5 Issue 2
What is Living Simply?
by Cheryl Seelhoff
(Cheryl Seelhoff, philosopher, writer, publisher of Gentle Spirit, and veteran homeschooling mom will be a featured speaker at both remaining Link Conferences - L.A. in May and Chicago in July. If you can attend, don't miss her presentations. See the Gentle Spirit ad at the end of this article for information on ordering this excellent publication.)
When I really think about it, I have always loved the idea of living more simply. My Norwegian and German Swiss parents and grandparents passed down to me a deep appreciation for the loves and crafts of my ancestors: fishing, hunting, berry-picking, hiking and backpacking, as well as their appreciation of wildlife, nature, and gardening. From the time I was little I heard stories about how my great grandparents - who had come from far away, across the oceans, from a beautiful land I had never seen - would take the hottest steam baths they could take, then go out and roll in the snow and beat themselves with willow branches for invigoration's sake. Now that was rugged. In my family, to be described as "rugged" was a high compliment. My ancestors had been rugged. My grandparents and parents were rugged. And I did grow up loving what was rugged, natural, rough-hewn and wild: rushing water, high mountain passes, huckleberry-covered cliffs, wood stacked for the fireplace, steep trails that led to pristine, hidden mountain lakes, sweet berries fresh from the bush, rough, unfinished wood cabins with all of their accoutrements - blue-and-white speckled Dutch ovens, white metal coffee pots with red trim, sturdy, green mugs, European featherbeds, one underneath to sleep on, one over you to keep you warm.
My paternal grandparents' families had pioneered my home town, and as we drove in the city and the country, my parents would point out the houses my grandfather had built, the stone wall my great uncle built, the store, gas station, brick tavern. There was the water tower and water company building; my grandfather had been on the board for years. Down the road was the brick house built by my grandfather, where he and my grandmother lived out the last years of their lives. A few miles away was the house I grew up in, which my grandfather also built, where my brother now lives. Up near Mt. Rainier was the "Ranch", built by my great uncle, where the men would stay when they went hunting for deer or ducks. Not far from the mountain was the lake cabin, which again, my grandfather built. Everywhere, near every house, there were gardens - vegetable gardens, fruit trees, raspberries, strawberries.
So I grew up with a sense of rootedness. My family possessed what is known as a "sense of place," meaning this place on earth was where they felt they belonged. These were communities which they had built for themselves, for their families, and for other people, too. There was a tremendous sense of pride in this achievement and how well the hard work they had done had stood the test of time.
I grew up with friends whose families also had or were cultivating this sense of place. When I would spend the night with my friend at her grandmother's lake cabin, we would cozy down beneath the aforementioned featherbeds on the front porch, and regardless how bitterly cold the night air, we stayed toasty and warm. My friend's grandfather was in the merchant marines, so he was gone a lot, but when he returned he was laden with gifts: linens, dolls, exotic spices, blankets, artwork, baskets from all of the mysterious and exotic places I knew were there, beyond the horizon, on the other side of the ocean. Many of these treasures were kept in a big trunk inside the humble, unheated wood cabin, and my friend's grandmother would carefully take out each one and tell its story. I was always amazed by this mysterious grampa who came and went and was not afraid to spend most of his life at sea, who did not mind sojourning in so many strange and unfamiliar places, far away from family and friends, with people who did not speak his language or know his customs or his name. I admired him, because, among other things, he was rugged. He had courage. He was not afraid of what he didn't know, of the strange or unfamiliar. He had worked very hard so his family could build a life in the "New Country." My friend's grandmother always handled the treasures in the trunk with careful reverence and respect. These were the artifacts of a man's life's work after all, the history and legacy he was leaving for his descendants which would remind them of his labors for them and which would create for them, in the loss of the Old Country, a sense of continuity as they put down roots in the New Country.
It seems somehow significant and fitting to mention that I also grew up in the not-so-distant shadow of Mt. Rainier, the sleeping giant, noticing from time to time the steam that curled from the crater at the top, knowing one day the giant might awaken and blow. I remember calculating from articles I read how long it might take for the lava flow to reach our house and how fast we might be able to get away.
When I was 11 years old, we had an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale. We had had many earthquake drills at school and we knew we were supposed to get under our desks or underneath a door way, but when the rumbling started and the floor began to heave and roll, never mind the drills, we all bolted, screaming wildly, for outdoors, where the brick courtyard beneath our feet continued to quake and roar in the terrifying, uncontrollable way of natural things.
Though we lived closer to the mountains, we weren't far from the Pacific Ocean, which ebbed and flowed in its own peaceably fierce, expansive way. I remember jumping the waves in icy, salty exhilaration, toes and feet purple-red, stepping further and further into the ocean, being warned over and over again not to go out too far. There are undertows, my mom and dad told me. They are too strong for the strongest swimmers. They can pull you away and out to sea.
That it was impossible to see to the other side of the ocean amazed me every time. Knowing that on the other side, which I could not see, thousands and thousands of miles away, were people who spoke another language, who did not look like me, intrigued me. Here was a body of water that the strongest swimmer could not begin to conquer, teeming with life, crashing and rolling in dogged grace. Here was friend and foe alike, bearer of ships, a source of food, gems, fuel, a magical, mysterious place, yet dangerous, unpredictable, from time to time a killer. And this giant watery enigma lay between me and thousands of dark-skinned children who also jumped the waves, who also beachcombed, whose mothers and fathers warned them about the undertow, who belonged to their earthly homes as I belonged to mine, and who looked at this same ocean and wondered about me, the blonde-haired child on the other side.
In the early morning I would walk the beach and gather sand dollars, driftwood, and shells, and if I was lucky, a starfish. I would marvel over the long, thick ribbons of rust-colored kelp, some with fat, translucent bulbs on one end. If I was really lucky, I might stumble across the green glass balls in all shapes and sizes which were used on Japanese fishing nets as floats. There were always lots and lots of dead crabs and pieces of crabs, mussels and mollusks on the beach. There were little tiny holes in the sand, too, and inside the holes were creatures small and large, oysters and geoducks. Sometimes I would come across a dead gull or even a seal pup. I remember wondering at the brutality of nature and marveling that these fragile-looking glass balls and so many creatures, small and large, survived at all in the chaos of the sea, where all things small and fragile were fair game for all things fierce and powerful.
Growing up on this fault line between the ocean and the mountains on the vestiges of the last American frontier, I learned early on to respect the earth and nature and all living things. The wild places, I came to understand, can be as fierce as they are fragile, as formidable as they are vulnerable, as heartless and cruel as they are inspiring. The peace and serenity is illusory. The quiet is always a temporary quiet. We can always and only be sure that change will come, that the unpredictable will occur, that, as my grandmother said so often, we can "never know what's going to happen."
Maybe forgiving and accepting the wild unpredictability of my own Old Country led me to assume that if I grew up and moved away, I could always come back and find my "place" again, that out of loyalty, the Old Country would be obliged to likewise forgive my adventuring and absence. Maybe I assumed that my sense of rootedness might be transferable, kind of like equity I had accumulated which I could use either here or there, wherever it was that I put down roots. Maybe I just plain took my sense of place for granted. I don't know when my sense of belonging to a place slipped away exactly. Maybe when I decided once and for all that I would make my home in a new and different city. Maybe when I lost touch with old friends. Maybe when the new, the different, the novel, seemed exciting enough or full enough of promise to compensate for losing touch with the old places, ways, and people. Maybe in the heady optimism of the 60s, when it felt for a very brief moment like the sky might really be the limit and the whole world our personal oyster. Maybe it happened when hard times came, when I got too tired, and simply let it go, like pushing away from the dock for a boatride, getting lost in the scenery, thinking you can go back any time, then realizing at once that you have no oars, no paddles, no way to get back. You can see the shore, it appears to be the same as it ever was, but you can't return to it.
However it happened, at some point, I lost my sense of connection to, or rootedness in, my own Old Country. Try as I might, I could not seem to find my way into any New Country. I had children, my work, my home, responsibilities, obligations, but these did not add up to a sense of place or belonging or connectedness. My adult life mirrored my high school or college days, chopped up as it was into a disconnected "subjects" and "activities" and "hobbies" and "work," with friends appearing, then disappearing, passing through. Occasionally I visited the Old Country and felt at once at home and nostalgic, estranged and lonely. Since I could as easily have lived out my life here as there as anywhere really, so in fact, there was nowhere to truly belong . I imagined other people were probably creating their own New Countries or living happily without them, that something must be amiss with me, because I wasn't and couldn't.
Over the years I did what I knew to do, sparing nothing, to find or create a sense of "place" for myself and for my family. I did a lot of reading and thinking and talking with likeminded people. I attempted, from time to time, to attach myself to, or find my identity in, communities of various kinds. Each effort met similarly, if uniquely, with a greater or lesser degree of failure. I now believe that this had nothing to do with me, that my story is everyone's story. It has just so happened that I-we, all of us-have been born into a time when we must all walk a fault line, carefully bearing our cedar chests of artifacts over apparently solid ground which conceals shiftings and rumblings no less than cataclysmic in their implications. It is a time for creating our own often transitory and impermanent and multiple "New Countries." The Old Countries passed away gently and silently in the night when we weren't paying attention, when we were sleeping, when we thought all was well and didn't understand that the shadows we saw were more than an interplay of light; they signalled the presence of something real standing between the light and the darkness. We are all finding that we must be content with such as we have been able to salvage in our failed attempts to commune and connect with one another and with the earth which supports us all. It is a time for courage, a time when it is good to be "rugged."
Wendell Berry describes how I remember feeling years ago, before I embarked on my own search to regain my sense of rootedness and place.
"This supposedly fortunate citizen ... has not the power to provide for himself anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons…He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say…He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if the children ran away… " (1)
Strangely exiled from the Old Country, we find ourselves lost and adrift, as in rowboats with no oars, surrounded by lovely water which bears us up but which we have no way to traverse, which is both beautiful and unnavigable, short of a risky plunge in and a long, cold swim. But in what direction? Where will we go? What will we do once, cold and wet and needy, we arrive on shore? Who will meet us? Who will know we are coming or care or take us in?
Berry goes on to describe this odd estrangement we feel even in the midst of our giving and working and loving and caring:
"Once we see our place, our part of the world, as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves. We have given up the understanding … that we and our country create one another, depend on one another, are literally part of one another; that our land passes in and out of our bodies, just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another and so cannot possibly flourish alone; that…our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other." (1)
And there it is. Our culture as we are experiencing it today is a mirror image of our corporate rootlessness. Out of our alienation we have created for ourselves, instead of community, instead of meaningful connection, a virtual sea of oarless boats in which we all are drifting aimlessly, boat by solitary boat, silently scanning the shore, wondering how we drifted so far, suspecting there is nowhere to go, but wondering deep down if anyone might have tried and and actually made it, and if they did, how would we ever know?
In pursuit of a simpler life, the so-called "Good Life," which some call homesteading, connectedness or rootedness, I have walked so many blind alleys. Organized religion (as opposed to faith) for a while seemed to "work". In church I heard that since we could do everything "heartily as unto the Lord," simply by virtue of our faith, our disconnected daily tasks and responsibilities could take on new meaning, our alienation would come to an end, and we would find community and connectedness at last. While this sounded hopeful, I found that the theory was better than the reality. Sure, I could pray as I went about my daily tasks, and I did (and still do). I could look for opportunities to behave Christianly, and I did (and still do), but by and large my faith did not help me to reconcile the many disjointed bits and oddments of my life, and in some ways the dissonance was amplified as I added church meetings and superficial participation in a new and unknown community to a life already unreasonably full of disparate obligations and duties in other relatively unknown communities. I felt guilty realizing my faith was insufficient to enable me to to make sense of these competing obligations. My sense was that I belonged everywhere and nowhere.
Looking back I see that the moment at which the tide began to turn was the moment I decided to leave the work place and to homeschool my children. I didn't initially understand how homeschooling would open so many doors to wholeness for my family, and that wasn't why I started homeschooling; nevertheless, once I began, so began the healing. Returning to an honoring of natural times and seasons, freed from the demands of external schedules and structure, I reinvented my life in ways which celebrated the simple and the connected. There was now time to plant, harvest, and use the harvest, to glean, forage and cook what was found, to learn simple tasks which led to increased self-sufficiency and hence, self-confidence and a sense of connection: composting, recycling, making soap, making goods to sell.
That there were few homeschooling when I began meant that those who were homeschooling formed a cohesive community, and in some ways in this community, I found the connection which had eluded me. I was active in the local homeschooling support group, where we had many friends and met frequently for potlucks and activities with the children. I worked for the passage of our law favorable to homeschooling in Washington. I helped to start an organic foods co-op with people who lived nearby and became part of that community as we gathered to order foods and later to sort, weigh and bag the foods when they were delivered. I met together with other women for various reasons, for field trips with the kids, to take our daughters to ethnic cooking classes at the local Extension Service, to take our kids to 4-H. We met to quilt together, pick berries or go gleaning together, to make small gifts or plan small productions for the local nursing home.
For a while I gardened with another family whose garden space was larger than mine, and for some time, I met with another woman once a month to make a month's worth of healthy homemade whole wheat bread for the freezer in a homemade breadmaking gizmo fashioned from a pneumatic drill fitted with a dough hook and inserted into a large metal bucket. (It did work well!) I learned once-a-month cooking and cooked 30-45 meals for my family in one day, then froze them for the coming month, freeing so much time to do other things.
In 1991 I was able to move from my suburban lot to my first home in the country, an 1,800 square foot mobile home on five overgrown acres, where I entered the rough and tumble of life on the land as it really is, instead of as it looks in magazines, or especially, as I imagined it in my mind. Here we served as our own contractors, hiring folks to excavate and construct a foundation for our house, negotiating with the county building department and the health department and endless inspectors, wrestling with septic design plans, septic system installers, and the engineer who designed the system. We supervised the building of a barn, fencing, a greenhouse. We found and moved to our property a modular unit used on the old Alaska Pipeline and scheduled to be shredded, placed it on blocks, painted it, and used it first as a dark room for shooting negatives and making plates for Gentle Spirit, and later as a storage unit for back issues of the magazine and other things. We dug trenches hundreds of feet from the well to the house, laid cable to bring in electricity from the transformer, sweated it out waiting for various inspections. In the absolute sweat of my brow I fought the wild earth, day in, day out, and it fought me. It did not want to be tamed.
Nevertheless, I built raised beds, brought in truckloads of topsoil and compost, planted an herbal lawn, a small apple orchard, roses, wisteria, perennials. We raised chickens and harvested their eggs, raised sheep and goats, ducks, geese, turkeys.
We were introduced to the nuances and intrigues and dynamics of social life in our sparsely populated rural area where people knew who belonged and who was a stranger, where interesting news traveled fast, where folks you had never met somehow knew who you were, who your children were, and what some of your problems were, where addresses were optional; businesses were simply located in the "blue building", or "the old video store." I suppose I was as much a homesteader during this season of my life as I will ever be. And I learned that "homesteading" in this traditional sense, still did not provide me with the rootedness I was seeking. Again I was a pilgrim and a stranger. In moving to the land, I lost what I had of connectedness and rootedness in the community I had built in the suburbs. Now I lived too far away. I would need to begin again to put down new roots. And I wondered how I might do that, with such a busy life, or if it was possible at all.
Recently we moved again to a larger home just minutes away from our five-acre property, this time to a 6.5 acre place. It is quieter, more isolated, surrounded by farmland, and this time, it is a regular house made of wood and stone. In this home there is a possibility that if we worked at it, we could eventually become self-sufficient or at least we could come close. We have a woodstove here and our own well. A year-'round stream flows through the property. There are many fruit and nut trees, edible plants, and berries, both domesticated and wild. The house has a central sunroom which serves to hold warmth by allowing the sun in (when it shines!), then radiating the warmth via tile floors and a honeycombed subfloor which also holds heat. The woodstove can heat the water in the hot water heater. The property has good pasture land, a barn and chicken house, and good, fertile soil. We have placed two tipis on the property for extra housing and inspiration.
At 47 now, with four grandkids, I am still pretty rugged. I can still put in many days of long, hard work. I can still reach the end of my strength and endurance and say to myself, "Just one more hour, just one more day." But I can't do that for weeks on end anymore. I can't go day after day with three or four hours of sleep as I once could. Fighting with raw land, starting from scratch, building from the ground up is for younger folks with fewer children and fewer responsibilities than I now have. I look back over my life and realize that the time for experiments is passed, that whatever rootedness and sense of connection I manage to find here, together with my cedar chest of artifacts, will have to be enough. The senses of place I have built for myself will have to be sufficient. The good life, the simple life, homesteading as I once envisioned it, have eluded me in their classic definitions.
Hoping to repair our weary old home over time, we held onto it. It is ours less because our names are on the deed and more by virtue of loving and working it. When I go to the old place, I am still more home there than I am home at my new place, and I reckon this will only change slowly as I give myself to my new home and it gives itself to me. At my humble old house, I see what we built, what we planted. I see hope and dedication, victories and failures, sources of grief and sources of joy, bad memories and good. I see the ruts where the semi truck drove in too far to deliver a load of wood. I see the patch of ground that I struggled for years to turn into a perennial bed (and failed). I see the apple orchard that gave us apples last summer. I see the trees I planted when I had miscarriages. I see a life we created day by day. I still feel the sense of ease one always feels pulling into her own driveway. It would seem wrong to sell it. But strangely enough, I still feel this way when I pass our old house in the suburbs, though it's been nearly 10 years since we sold it. And I still feel these tuggings when I return to the house in which I grew up or the lake cabin where I spent so many summer days. Investing in a place, giving it all you have, knowing its weaknesses and strengths, where every plant is, where every wet spot is, how it looks in every season, giving birth to your children there, homeschooling them there, celebrating there, makes a place yours in some essential way, even after you have moved on.
I have encouraged many thousands of people to take the risks involved in simplifying their lives and becoming homeschoolers and homesteaders - rural, suburban, or urban. I have believed this could be as satisfying a life as can be built and might be a solution to the anxiety, helplessness and powerlessness that is part of our 20th century life. But I've become aware of the dark side to homesteading, both by way of my own personal experience and by way of the many people with whom I have spoken and whose letters I have read through the years. And I suspect the definitions we have established over the years need some retooling. As hard as I tried to make a simple life for myself, I have ended up, still, with bits and pieces. I am connected to several communities, not one. I am connected to several "places"-homes, parcels of land-not one. Continuity and deep roots continue to elude me. If it could have been done, I would have done it. If determination and self-discipline and desire were the keys that would have opened the doors, then the doors would have opened for me, because no one pursued the New Country with more zeal than I did.
I have learned by my own and others' experiences the difficulties of entering into this kind of life. I have done some thinking and reading, some studying and praying, and I have a few ideas. I think a simple life, homesteading, community, rootedness, are still possible for people who want these things, but I think we are going to have to envision these in new shapes and forms. Things have simply changed too much and too quickly. We have all been caught by surprise, wondering what hit us.
Even for people who are highly motivated to live simply, on one income, it can be formidably difficult to make ends meet. Most of the help available amounts to advice about finding ways to spend less money, do without, stretch the paycheck a little further, cinch the belt another notch. While a few seem to thrive on this and almost make it a hobby, the more likely response, sooner or later, is frustration and exhaustion as people attempt to resolve the increasing complexity of their "simple" lives. To make ends meet they must spend exorbitant amounts of time shopping for bargains, canning or otherwise putting up produce, bulk cooking, or cooking from scratch. Clothes must be handmade or purchased from thrift stores, gifts must usually likewise be handmade. When these things are not negotiable - they are necessary or the family cannot maintain a "simple life" - and when they are added to a lifestyle which includes children at home full-time, a garden to maintain, and the regular demands of homeschooling and running a household, together with normal errands and family activities, the life the family hoped would be simpler can instead become disastrously and wearyingly complex. Most of us do not live in small, self-sufficient communities. We must travel long distances to shop or to attend to the necessities of life. Most of us do not have community-oriented lives. We travel half an hour to church, an hour to the gym, another hour to music lessons. The choice for most of us becomes isolation as we work towards simplicity and self-sufficiency, or community without self-sufficiency or simplicity, at least as long as we think according to the traditional definitions and forms.
I believe it's time to rethink what we mean when we say we want to "live simply," to redefine it for ourselves, to explore new options, that will help us to achieve some of the joys or benefits of simplicity and homesteading in ways we might not have considered before. When things don't work, it is time to move on and try something different. Spending so much time cooking and cleaning and gardening and searching for bargains that there is little or no time for anything else is not the simple life most folks are seeking. Being so strapped for cash that there is no money for seeds or shovels, warm clothing or chicken feed, will wear on even the most committed, dedicated person. Working all day outside in the garden and all evening inside doing chores and into the wee hours doing laundry while attending to small children, day in and day out, is too much for one woman or one man to bear for very long. Working hours from home in the big city so one's family can "live simply" in the country is going to prove too great a sacrifice, not just for the person working but for his entire family. The simple life, the good life, celebrates rootedness, connection, relationship and place, and all of these require time, and plenty of it, together. Hours of commuting, shopping for bargains, tightwadding activities, doing everything oneself, the hard way, preclude the possibility that we will ever have the time we need to enjoy the benefits we are seeking.
More importantly, forgetting how we need and are needed by the earth and by one another, forgetting how our fates are inextricably bound together, feeling powerless to change the quality of our lives and driven by the emergencies and exigencies of the moment are what cause us to feel "surrounded" by our environment, rather than enveloped by and integrally a part of it. It is possible to feel "surrounded" in the country. It is possible to feel "surrounded" wherever one is homesteading or attempting to live a simple life. And it is possible to feel connected in situations which do not look like a "simple life" but which really and truly are.
As I look back, it isn't having arrived at the level of self-sufficiency I enjoy today that helped me to move away from the alienation I felt years ago. Things began to change for me the moment I made the decision to live differently and began to live differently. It isn't having planted a productive garden or working from home or homeschooling my children that grounded me, it was working in those directions, taking the first steps. Our hope doesn't really lie in changing the shape of our culture or even in making dramatic changes in our own living situation. I think it lies instead in realism and then a willingness to take small steps, foregoing the temptation to see country life or homesteading or simple living as some kind of panacea or ultimate solution.
The fact is, that not even a small percentage of people living today is going to be able to move to the land, and not primarily because they can't afford it or can't make the necessary changes in job or lifestyle. The main reason everyone cannot move to the land today is that rural communities cannot support that much growth without being damaged or destroyed or their character forever changed. At the present time in the United States, approximately 25 percent of the population lives on rural land. It is believed that only another 10 percent of the population could move to rural areas before the impact of the new residents began to damage and destroy rural communities. (2)
Beyond this practical reality, if the truth were known, then faced squarely, many people would not want to move to rural areas. All is not idyllic in the country. Rural areas have their share of problems, just as the suburbs and cities do. In this day and age people move to the country quite for all kinds of reasons, good and bad; sometimes because they are running from something or someone, because they run drug operations and participate in other kinds of illegal activities. There are strange political and philosophical ideologies in rural areas which keep folks from coming together, working together. There are few jobs in the country, and rural dwellers are often commuters with little time to enjoy their lives. And rural communities are not usually eager to embrace newcomers, especially newcomers from the city. It can be a lonely and difficult thing to move to the land, far from one's family and friends, and lonelier and more difficult still to forge new relationships in rural communties, where those who moved in 10 years ago are still viewed as newcomers by those who have lived there much longer.
The good news is that this doesn't mean that most of the population of this country cannot begin homesteading by a broadening and reworking of the definition we have established- of course, everyone can! We have come to a very exciting time in history when homesteaders and those committed to simplicity have, through decades of often solitary experimentation, hard work, perseverance, and trial and error, developed real tools for real, dramatic and lasting change. Some of the possibilities are truly exciting and incredible. There is no reason not to make use of these tools along with as many tools as you can imagine and pioneer - for your own family, in your church, relationships, community, neighborhood. It is possible to do almost everything on a small homestead, even in an apartment, that it is possible to do on the land, by exercising creativity, taking risks, and by becoming part of a community of people who are interested in taking small steps in the direction of self-sufficiency. In many ways, pioneering simplicity right where you are has many advantages. You do not need to leave established relationships. You do not take the risks inherent in moving to the country. You must not turn your life upside down in the interest of finding the good life.
Although you may not have land on which to garden, it is usually possible, with the help of others, to develop community garden plots and even to include bees, chickens and other farm animals on those plots. There is no reason anyone cannot make any homestead craft whatever - soap, paper, clothing, knitted goods - from even a small city apartment, and there is no reason why city dwellers who make their own goods cannot exchange them and create small, more self-sufficient communities in the context of larger communities. It is very true that complete self-sufficiency is possible only on acreage, but small communities of people are achieving this goal by working together to establish community self-sufficiency, even when the individuals in the community do not own land, with the added bonus that they are not isolated and alone, they are working together.
It is going to be increasingly essential that that people find new ways to make a living. According to Frithjof Bergmann, an expert on the future of work, if current trends continue, significantly fewer people will be required to provide for the standard of living we have today. The decline in jobs will take place over the next 30-60 years, and finally, only one-third of the population will be needed to do the work that is presently done today. (2) This means that it is not only desirable, it is imperative that we begin envisioning a new kind of world where many more of us work from home or working together with our neighbors to supply our own needs as a community, no matter where we live.
I would like to offer you some of my thoughts about moving towards a more simple life whatever your circumstances. I believe that most of these options are within the realm of possibility for anyone with courage and determination, regardless his or her living circumstances, regardless her place. Even in worst-case scenarios, should the Y2K prophets of doom be more correct than we believe them to be, the following solutions are viable for all of us. I find that my own search for answers has caused me to be as excited about these new possibilities as I recall being in many years. It is true that there is dislocation, and the possibility of upheaval and danger when you live on a fault line, but as the poet Holderlin wrote, "...where the danger is, grows the saving power also." In the presence of uncertainty and danger, our creativity, our realism, our willingness to discard what doesn't work for what does, however strange it might look, however it might not fit our former picture, will be our salvation.
So what can we do, practically speaking? We can stop placing all of our confidence in remote specialists and experts.
We have been trusting in experts and specialists of all kinds for several generations now, and while this has been a good deal for the experts and specialists, who have risen to positions of prominence and achieved wealth, our problems as a society have only become worse and worse. Translated into practical terms, we can begin to assume control over the education of our children, whether by homeschooling or by developing community or cooperative schools, by a return to mentoring and internships, by valuing skill in trades and workmanship as much as academic performance in schools of all types. We can assume control over our own birthing and child rearing practices. We can decide work at home or near home, to swear off of cars and ride bicycles or horses or ride public transportation. We can grow our own food, trade with our neighbors, establish farmer's markets, build our own homes, explore nontraditional housing. We can make our decisions based on where we live and with whom we live, based on the realities of our own lives, rather than on the advice of far away experts whose advice may or may not be helpful to us.
We can view it as the main job of local government and national government to protect the powerless and weak from the powerful and great. To this end we can view the earth as Thomas Jefferson did, as "common stock" for man to live and labor on.
The small can only thrive and prosper to the degree that the great are restrained. Ordinary citizens cannot compete with megacorporations, and as Wendell Berry says, to assume that they can "is to abandon ordinary citizens." (3)
As Jefferson, writing to James Madison, said:
"Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometric progression as they rise. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed…it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state…"(4)
We can begin to operate on the principle that small is better and place our emphasis on making the best possible use of what we have in our hands.
In our own businesses and in our own local communities, we can reject growth which is more than what we can imagine or comprehend or get our arms around. When something gets too big, then it becomes abstract and distant and impossible to manage. The quality of goods and services suffers, and more and more we tend to rely on experts and specialists removed from the people we are intending to serve. We can be vigilantly alert to this and consciously decide we will not allow growth beyond a certain point. This is the genius of the Amish communities. They have created communities which they have a realistic possibility of managing and maintaining long term without high technology solutions and without outside help. Says Wendell Berry, "…we cannot live except within limits, and these limits are of many kinds: spatial, material, moral, spiritual. The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or Gods." (5)
We can understand that greater production of mass produced goods is not necessarily better and may be wasteful.
In the interests of mass production, large corporations have established facilities worldwide, ultimately destroying the economies of thousands upon thousands of local communities. A multinational company builds a plant in a community which, while humble, was essentially self-sufficient before the plant was built. There were small farms, small businesses, and people worked together, traded, and found creative ways to meet one another's needs. Enticed by the modern facility, the jobs, the hope of a "higher standard of living", people in the community leave their small farms and businesses and take jobs in the plant at minimum wage, or usually less, hoping to sell in the world market. But before they know it, they are on the treadmill. Now the community must begin importing its needs from elsewhere, prices go up, and the entire community, once self-sufficient, is essentially destroyed. It has lost its autonomy and self-sufficiency. It has become a community of specialists with all of the accompanying estrangement and loss. Now it must rely on imports which it could, and once did, supply for itself. Now it is dependent on the whims of huge corporations whose goals and agenda are to make a profit, not to ensure quality of life for local communities.
We can resist the inroads large corporations attempt to make into our own local communities. We can make our thoughts known to local and national government officials and to entities like the World Trade Organization. Most of all, in our own communities we can move toward self-sufficiency. If people began to reject mass-produced items and instead sought out items made specifically for them, to suit their particular needs, there is not a store in the world big enough to hold all of these items. They would have to be individually made, usually by someone near to the consumer. Many, many individuals would be needed to provide these unique, quality products to those who wanted them. And might that not be a wonderful thing? Wouldn't it be great to have a pair of shoes or a sweater or a coat made precisely to fit with high quality materials in the colors we wanted by someone who lived around the corner? To exchange what we made for them for what they are making for us?
Author Scott Burns and others are predicting that over time, this is precisely what will happen, that there will be a shift toward home production of everything it is possible to produce at home, for both economic and lifestyle reasons. This is not an unrealistic goal or ideal but a most realistic and positive one. (7)
Some of us can still become self-sufficient, producing most of our needs at home as well as extra goods and services for trade, to barter or to sell.
Some of us will still be homesteaders in the traditional sense, pioneering the most efficient ways to produce many of our own and community needs from modest-sized farms. Those who want to move to the country should make it their business first and foremost to acquaint themselves with the communities they are considering. Homeschoolers can contact other homeschoolers in the area or the local homeschooling support group and ask questions, others can visit the local banker, if there is one, or the feed store operator or the bartender or the person who owns the local grocery store. Go to the library, if there is one, and check out the public bulletin board to learn what kind of groups meet regularly in the library. This can give you a feel for the kind of people who live in a community. One's neighbors make all the difference in quality of life. It might be better to live in the city near community-oriented, likeminded people than to live in the country, however beautiful the location, near people around whom it is difficult to live, for whatever reason.
Living more simply, more self-sufficiently, and according to our working definition of homesteading is still possible in the city, and in a way, that is where the most exciting potential is. One author suggests that one approach to finding new kinds of work for one's self or other people is to go to the the worst parts of the cities, where unemployment is already at 40 or 50 percent, and then attempt to establish local businesses which will enhance the community and which will provide meaningful employment in traditional or nontraditional forms. It is usually possible for people to get grants or other funding for projects in these places where nobody wants to be. If we are able to successfully pioneer or even establish businesses which actually work to improve the community and enhance people's lives, we will already have piloted the programs, and we will know what we need to know to establish additional similar businesses as the need arises. In other words, we will have created today the institutions which will become the institutions of the future in places where the future is in the present already. (And what an awesome homeschooling project for young adults to assist with!) Why not establish community and simplicity in the cities? Why not organize people locally towards self-sufficiency and a better quality of life?
No one should underestimate the potential of just one individual or family with a vision to create new businesses and new forms for businesses even in inner city areas.
One example would be SLUG, or the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, a project which was begun to provide support to community gardens by giving away seeds, loaning tools and offering help in finding garden plots. Now SLUG maintains the gardens at low income housing projects and creates large community gardens with animals and fruit trees as well as vegetables. Teenaged kids in trouble, in jail, thrown out of school are paid to work in the garden. SLUG has also established an herbal products business, has a chipping and shredding operation which takes brush people drop off from their yards, then sells the chips in hardware stores. SLUG maintains a demonstration garden and is under contract from the city's lead abatement program to test soil samples from the homes of children suspected to be suffering from lead poisoning. This organization has developed from humble beginnings to the degree that it can provide a model for other interested communities where people are interested in local work which is meaningful and over which they have control.
Exploring creative alternatives like these is always the way of progress and of innovation. When people were organizing food co-ops and cooperative gardens and having their babies at home with midwives in the 60s and 70s, when they were eating organically and using alternative medicines, people shook their heads and wondered why they would spend their time and energy on such things. No one is shaking their head today. Local food co-ops are a way of life for many people. There are cooperative gardens in every city. Major hospitals compete for patients by offering home-like environments for birthing complete with midwives. There are organic produce sections in most supermarkets. The time to explore new ways of living and working is not when the earthquake is in progress, the crisis has arrived, not after the old forms have failed, but when the crisis begins to be visible, way off in the distance, when, as is happening now, the old ways just don't seem to be working anymore.
We can work to return, wherever possible, the control of resources, land and finances to local communities.
Few of us realize how highly centralized the world's economy is and how deeply all of are being effected by this centralization. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization essentially dictate economic policy to every government in the world, with the result that these organizations are shaping every nation's technological choices, and in turn producing significant cultural change, with countries across the world experiencing social breakdowns and the same kinds of economic problems across the board. The good news is that tools have been developed in recent years to return control of local economies to local communities in the form of community land trusts, worker-owned businesses, nonprofit local banks and regional currencies.
Land Trusts and Alternative Currencies
Land trusts are formed by people donating land or when people buy land which is then owned and controlled by a nonprofit corporation, and leased back to community members for, say, 99 years with generational land use rights so that family members can continue to lease the land.
Regional currencies are just what the name suggests, community alternatives to the money we all normally use. This currency, often called "scrip," is created and used just like regular money by community members and for goods and services within the community - food, construction work, professional services, health care, crafts, eggs, chickens, wool. The organization which issues the scrip is nonprofit and membership is open to all members of the community, with a board elected by community members. There are already a number of community groups in Kansas, Oregon, Colorado, New York and other cities all over the United States and Canada which have issued and are using their own alternative currencies. These currencies are completely legal because they are not counterfeit, they are currencies in their own right. (8) Alternative currencies reflect the values of the communities which establish them. For instance, in some communities an hour's service purchased with scrip might be an hour of ironing, an hour of gardening, or an hour of legal work because people have agreed that everyone's time is equally valuable, rejecting traditional notions that some people's time is worth more than others with the heirarchy inherent in this value system.
A simpler life style which embraces sustainability and simplicity as core values is simply a lifestyle which values, instead of accumulation of money, goods and services, the satisfaction of human needs and the preservation of the earth. It may not be the simple life we have always envisioned, it may look as different person to person and family to family as can be conceived, but its underlying values will be the same: that a good life, living well, has much more to do with choices, relationships, responsible stewardship, and personal satisfaction than the accumulation of material wealth or professional status.
While these new options and ideas may sound daunting and overwhelming at first, understand that communities all over the world are already pioneering these new ways of living. There are better ways to live simply than what most of us know or have considered. We can make progress in the direction of the New Country, reverently bearing our artifacts in our cedar trunks for continuity's sake. We can pray the earthquakes will be minor ones. We are all of us on a journey. As we enter the New Millenium, may the Lord make us rugged every one.
A handbook of legal documents for starting a local currency program and a handbook for establishing community land trusts, as well as a number of other superb publications can be ordered from the E.F. Schumacher Society, 140 Jug End Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230, e-mail email@example.com
An "Ithaca Hours" Starter Kit, which helps folks get started with alternative currencies, currency, may be ordered from Paul Glover, Ithaca Money, Box 6578, Ithaca, NY 14851
For a book discussing the legal aspects of local currencies, obtain Rethinking Our Centralized Monetary System: The Case for a System of Local Currencies, by Prof. Lewis D. Solomon, Wesport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996.
For homesteading information, resources, and preparedness materials order GS, Vol. 6, No. 6 and other back issues on the Order Form in this issue.Copyright © 2006 Modern Media