The question is simple, but the answer is not. I would suggest that why you’re a homesteader is more important than what you’re doing or how you’re doing it.
One of the first complaints COUNTRYSIDE magazine received was about my philosophizing about matters like this. “I already know why I homestead,” one annoyed reader wrote; “I subscribed to your magazine to learn how.” I disagreed mildly then. Now it has become such a passion I wrote a book about it.
It was 1969, the year of Woodstock, the moon landing, the most famous of the dozen-plus times the polluted Cuyahoga River burned, and the inception of COUNTRYSIDE and Mother Earth News, followed a few months later by the first Earth Day and the birth of environmentalism. It was a great time for homestead philosophy, but nothing compared to today.
COUNTRYSIDE has always emphasized the “how:” learning from old-timers was my stated purpose in starting the magazine, and the reason for its reader-written format. But I remember my dad telling me, “The man who knows how will always have a job… working for the man who knows why.” The reason for the job determines not only the best way to tackle it, but also if it’s even worth doing. This has many implications for homesteading.
In the past 75 years America went from the Great Depression, to the American Dream, to the Crash of 2008 (a.k.a. the Great Recession), to the New Normal, a new reality that blindsided most people and which most of them still don’t fully comprehend. Those of us who have lived through these momentous changes often look at the past with nostalgia, at the present with dismay and at the future with great misgivings, but even then it’s often difficult to see a clear path from then to now: how did we get here, what went wrong, and how can we get back on track? Can we get back on track or is the New Normal… well, really a New Normal?
“These are treacherous times. The economy is in a shambles, government is a mess, society is adrift, and leadership is powerless to fix any of it. Civilization is at a crossroads; the planet itself is imperiled. Americans are discouraged and upset because they expected, and in many cases had already become accustomed to, something much better: the American Dream.”
These are the first words of my latest book, ENOUGH! A critique of capitalist democracy and a guide to understanding the New Normal, which examines the why of homesteading in ways that would surely send that 1969 reader into a tizzy although they were unthinkable back then. But 43 years later I’m much bolder in defending my position: knowing why is a prelude to and an important part of learning how.
Most of us start out with some pretty hazy ideas about the homestead life, most of them probably found in the “Our Philosophy” box that appears in every issue of COUNTRYSIDE: a preference for country life, a desire for maximum personal self-reliance and creative leisure, a belief that the primary reward of work should be well-being rather than money, and so on and so forth. If we updated that it would probably include growing our own food organically, reducing our ecological footprint, and other considerations that were fairly minor almost half a century ago.
But these ideas barely scratch the surface. The webs that bind everything to everything else are so all-encompassing that even a dedicated homesteader might have difficulty tracing any one of them to the reasons for choosing such a lifestyle… and in the process, choosing how to live that lifestyle. I used up most of 300 pages in ENOUGH! and didn’t begin to cover it all.
What is a homesteader?
It starts with the problem of defining a homesteader. We established long ago that you don’t need a rural acreage with goats and chickens to qualify: today there are probably more urban homesteaders than the country kind we used to think of as the norm.
Like capitalism and democracy, homesteading is on a sliding scale, with virtually no one at either extreme end of the continuum. No one can be totally self-sufficient, but self-sufficiency comes in many degrees: you might have one tomato plant in a pot on the patio, or five acres and independence.
The author’s granddaughter forages for blackberries.
What about people who are concerned or not about plastic shopping bags and their effects on the environment? What about those who strive to limit the ecological effects of transportation personal, and of goods they consume in contrast to those who will drive an SUV a block to the convenience store for a pack of cigarettes? Introduce the “always,” “sometimes,” and “never” factors and the possibilities become infinite. What is a homesteader?
Apply this to the literally hundreds of personal choices involved: the house you live in, and how it’s heated, cooled and furnished; educational choices; career choices; attitudes towards money and possessions; entertainment and leisure activities, water conservation, recycling they’re all inextricably connected, and all indicative of some degree of homesteading and the homestead philosophy. Homesteading is not a single or simple idea!
Looking at it like this, we might say that almost everyone is a homesteader, somewhere on that sliding scale. Again, the most important factor might not be what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, but why.
A world in tumult
Take it a step further, to the “treacherous times, economy in a shambles, government a mess and society adrift.” What do these have to do with homesteading?
Untangling the knots is no easy task without a great deal of simplification. The solution is to examine each tiny part individually, and then fitting them into a pattern.
For example, one part of the New Normal frequently in today’s news is the “New Frugality.” Even fairly well-off people are doing more shopping at discount and dollar stores, eating out less often, driving less and making their cars last longer. And they can do this without giving a thought to the rewards of doing more with less, on either a personal or planetary level: it’s simply a necessity, imposed by tough economic times.
On the other hand, a homesteader who understands why it makes perfect sense to be frugal will do a much better job of it, make wiser choices, and enjoy it much more in the process. In fact, the homesteader was probably practicing frugality long before it became a necessity!
Dedicated homesteaders those who know why can and do make decisions both great and small that, like the poetic flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Africa causes a hurricane in Texas, have tremendous effects all out of proportion to the input. Most importantly, they tend to be rational decisions, based on facts and principles, not merely convention and convenience.
And again, who is happier: those forced into austerity by circumstances beyond their control, or those who embrace frugality because they have given some thought to the insanity of a consumer society attempting to sustain infinite growth on a finite planet?
The three-legged stool
The same principle can be applied to bigger problems. The Crash of 2008 has been attributed to the housing bubble, usually with most of the blame going to lending practices fostered by democracy and implemented by capitalism, and less frequently, the greed of the home-buying producer/consumers. But capitalism, democracy and consumers form a system, a three-legged stool, with each one dependent on the other two. Not only have all three lacked the virtue of frugality, a sense of enough: they require unfilled needs (yes, greed) for their survival as a system, again posing the unsolvable problem of sustaining infinite growth on a finite planet.
Anthropogenic global warming cannot be pinned on a single industry, or country; it involves the masses, each one making small decisions, consciously or not: seven billion butterflies’ wings fluttering make a difference.
A drought forces farmers to irrigate corn to produce government-mandated ethanol, which causes residential wells to run dry, while livestock farmers struggle to feed their animals and food prices increase because of the high price of corn. What are the threads in a web like this? (And note how capitalism, government and consumers are again interrelated.)
The government messes, here and abroad, cannot be attributed to single events, decisions or people: they are a composite of attitudes and actions over long periods involving not only politicians but also capitalists and consumers and most of those actions are at odds with the homestead philosophy. Why?
Society is adrift: violence is rampant, crassness common, civility seemingly extinct. How would a homestead-based society differ from our consumer society?
Unemployment remains rampant, four years after the so-called recession supposedly ended. If you’re unemployed, under-employed, lost your home to foreclosure, have an underwater mortgage or saw 40 percent of your life’s savings melt away (the national average), the Crash of 2008 was no mere recession, and it’s not over yet.
And as we like to say, there’s much, much more and the explanations and analyses make it even worse. Few modern Americans would tolerate listening to it all. And of course, even those without an income or enough to eat would prefer to complain about their plight, and wait for the return of normalcy (which isn’t going to happen) while watching Dancing with the Stars and American Idol rather than learning to cook from scratch or plant a garden.
Or learning to forage wild foods, a former survival skill which interestingly enough, is becoming popular as the “Paleolithic Diet.” What you call it depends on why you’re doing it.
Maybe you know why you’re homesteading: I sincerely hope you do. Even so, chances are there’s much more to it than you imagined. It’s definitely worth thinking about.