Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.
My days are geared by the seasons. In spring and summer, growing food captures my time, since to grow well you must grow true. There is also the call of the wild and stunning beauty that will not let me go indoors. In those ways I’m not apt to care about what’s going on in the house. There is just too much to do outside.
Autumn is a time of in-between. I’m called to the final harvests, the colors, the walks through autumn leaves and putting down the tired beds to rest. But I am also called inside to start the ovens roaring and to bake and cook all that was put on hold during the long days outside. Autumn is the time of soups and stews and those things that a fresh berry would never want to be.
But what to make of winter? After going through the effort of growing and preserving food, I wonder how, in concrete terms, to apply that same focus and purpose inside the home throughout winter. Gardening is clear. You grow food. You preserve food. Both take a fair amount of your time and both are part of the big picture of self-reliance. But once the growing season is over, your relationship with time and work gets more confusing. Particularly if you are staying home.
If I lived in the country or was inclined to live off the grid, I’d have plenty to do. But being an urban homesteader in the winter can be somewhat surreal. So many of my needs for survival are taken care of. At best, what I am doing in the wintertime is maintenance. And even there, it could take a couple of years before anything really needs fixing.
I got no repairs on the farm to take care of. I don’t have a herd to tend or flock to care for. There’s no fences to mend or roof to repair. I don’t have to manage my well or chop my wood or store my grain in the silo. I suppose I can start mending stuff once it needs it, but I would have to go through 30 years of fashion before I had nothing left to wear. I did plug up the space between the floor boards in my living room with wood putty, but I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do or if it counts as a big thing. I don’t think so. I was definitely proud of myself, though.
Slim, the husband, handles the leaves and gutters, makes coffee in the morning, and does the dinner dishes. I make everyone do their own laundry so there are some efficiencies of systems. But all this does not sound like homesteading. Evidently, the problem with being so modern is being so modern. We have most of our needs covered.
To the extent few of us are cold and hungry, that is a good thing. To the extent we have been rendered poodles is not.
Being stripped of the skills of self-reliance and the conditions to use those skills is a compelling thought if you are interested, as I am, in capturing a way of living that is closer to the source. It has taken centuries for the experiment to be complete, but today, not only don’t we want to make or fix much of anything ourselves, we can’t really do it. I’m not talking home repairs as much as I am home building: felling and seasoning wood, not fixing the thermostat; tanning the hides, not shopping Coach. I am not suggesting going all the way backwards — that’s extreme — but I am suggesting that in the great advance of modernization, we have traded away our time and skills for theirs or, rather, traded our time working inside our homes for the needs of the homestead for working outside the home for the needs of industry.
I know this is a simplistic way of looking at it, but it is true in large part. We work for others so we can buy what we need for ourselves. And this model is so complete that imagining a life of self-sufficiency in the winter can get pretty sissified. It can look and act a lot like filling the cracks in the floor boards and shopping for biodegradable dish soap with the pleasing aroma of lavender.
So while I’m not exactly sure how to engage in a system of urban homesteading, it won’t stop me from trying. I pick up some clues here and there and try what I can to make sense of the things and time I have given away to industry. I do this mostly because I believe there is a better balance to be struck and also because industrialists have been poor stewards.
But it can be awfully awkward in winter when napping is the only thing reliably on my “to do” list. Still, I am not totally stymied by the questions. There is always one dependable way I can bring the revolution home. I can cook, or as it came to pass last week, cook a gunny sack or two of apples.
First there were the 80 pounds of King apples that Marge (you’ll love her) brought over from Aunt Barb’s house. We peeled, cut, cooked, and canned 24 quarts of applesauce and 5 pints of apple butter. Then there are the 80 pounds sitting on my porch. I drove out to Old World Apples — “apples of legend and distinction” — to get my booty of Colville Blancs, Brown russets, and Stayman’s winesaps. These varieties are good keepers, which means we might be able to eat them before they rot. The Colville Blancs are an apple of some pedigree and revered for making great French apple tarts and “true Dutch apple pie” (yes, I read about it in the Oregonian.)
Right now I have a German apple cake my mother used to make cooling on the counter. It looks fabulous, but it took some doing. The dough recipe, as shared in the oral tradition (over the phone from Miami), may have had an extra egg slipped into the translation — I’m not sure. Either way, I recouped the dough and the darn thing looks goooooood. If it is as good as I remember, I’ve hit pay dirt. Tune in soon, and I’ll let you know.
The apples are not the only thing I’m storing for a future appearance at the victory table. I grew lots of winter squashes (butternut, delicata, and sugar pie pumpkins) and potatoes, and they sit outside in my “storage shed” basking in this 70-degree weather (note to self: root cellaring during global warming?).
I have enough frozen meals, canned foods, dried fruit, grains, and beans to play Little House on the Prairie for a while. I go to the farmers’ market to buy my chickens and make a big batch of stock and stripped chicken meat for the week. I’ve taken up bread baking and yogurt fermenting, and if I get serious, I’ll try a little cheese.
I like the challenge of meal planning with an eye toward resource management, but then I’m functionally insane. Who thinks about all this? Actually I know there are a few of you out there.
The other day, as I mended the shirt of my 14-year-old son with an old sock (as if he will EVER wear that), I listened to a taped interview with Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop and an advocate of corporate responsibility. She would have been 65 on October 23, but died recently. I listened to her on “Democracy Now!” as she talked about the heart of business and how it could do so much more. Her insight, actions, and life inspired me. I thought she was right to say business could do so much if they put just a fraction of their profit to good works.
And I thought it was silly that I was so attached to the notion of small and self-reliant when she offered a good example of how good Big could behave.
But not all Big is good. In fact, fewer and fewer are. It appears they are on a collision course with our planet. I have thought long and hard about why and how our economic systems have gotten so out of sorts, and it is the main reason I am trying to go backwards in time. The way I figure it, ever since they got us off the farm they’ve been tinkering with the notions of good and sustainable systems at every turn. Again, that’s a huge simplification, but not too far off the truth. And if we don’t start thinking about it then, well — it’s awful dry in Southern California.
So if I gotta learn how to shoe my cat, so be it (for the record, I’m not talking Guccis). It’s all about the trades, baby. Let’s get out of the power suits and take up something valuable. I keep asking someone in my family to learn how to turn a lawnmower motor into a generator. Somehow that seems vital. When I see those signs on country roads that read “small-motor repairs,” I get all wistful. Now that’s someone I want on the block. Give me a blacksmith over a broker any day. And who won’t want a plumber in their crew? Yeah, that’s right, they’ll finally get respect for the crack.
The point is, we need to rethink what we’ve traded away. I’m not sure we really need to work 40 to 60 (and then some) hours away from the home. It just doesn’t seem right. But don’t listen to me. I might well be the first one on the block to get a couple of oxen.
Still, no matter where you engage in this conversation, it seems there is room for both sustainable businesses and a world of self-reliance. I suppose the more we demand of ourselves, the more we can demand of others, or at least of the businesses that are hoping to get our business. And if the industrialists think they’ve turned me into a tenderfoot, then I suggest they taste my apple cake. For the record, someone does it better then Sara Lee.
But more on that later.
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