On and off the grid

The utility of Ms. Potato Head

By
November 13, 2007

So I was soaking in the tub talking on the phone with Marge the other day when I realized how, in that single moment, I was the recipient of at least a million services of the modern world. There was the phone, electricity, indoor plumbing, and the leisure of free time, to name just a few. I have to admit to feeling a little ridiculous complaining about the very culture of convenience I was enjoying. But I suppose irony is not necessarily a bad thing if it makes you dig deeper for solutions.

Ms. Potato Head.

Defining and living as an urban homesteader brings me face to face with many questions. Does the effort require total self-reliance, or is this simply a matter of degrees? Which conveniences can I keep and which ones must I walk away from? Is it possible to embrace a notion of homesteading within the city limits? Must I tuck myself into a piece of land off the grid? What does it really mean to be an urban homesteader?

I realize the answers to these questions are mostly personal, but there’s a way of thinking about this that can be helpful. For me, it came in the realization that the concept of homesteading is not so much about where we live, but how. It is not about living on or off the grid, but rather living with a better understanding of the limitations each of us possess.

But what, exactly, is a grid? Where is it and who drew up the lines? What are its natural borders? What does it offer us and who is managing it? As it stands now, we have come to see the grid as the way in which we live. Living off it suggests a wilderness of place, a homesteading life. Living on the grid suggests a citified existence. But that is not exactly true, as the grid is not a place but a system. To say we live on it or off of it does not really tell us much. To suggest we live in respect, with stewardship, says more.

A grid is simply the mapping of resources and a vehicle for their distribution. And while knowing your grid, or map of resources, is important no matter where or how you live, it is key to any notion of urban homesteading. Not only does urban homesteading suggest an interest and concern for these resources, but a commitment to limiting their usage through a lifetime of stewardship and self-reliance. More than that, urban homesteading suggests a deepened understanding and relationship with the place and region you call home.

If homesteading used to mean anything, it meant a deep association with the land you laid claim to; you understood its peaks and valleys, its soil and rivers. You knew where the water came from, where the best site would be for a home and garden. It was the land you would live on for generations and depend on for your survival. And if the effort was well-managed, the land would be cared for and would care for you. That understanding of place amazes me, humbles me, and in many ways offers me another way to consider what urban homesteading might mean.

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It can be difficult to imagine our apartments or rented homes as anything to take ownership of, but always they, and we, are part of a greater parcel of place. Always there is a history of the natural world for us to connect to, if only in between the cracks of the pavement. It only takes a moment to notice where the sun rises in the morning or how the wind blows through our curtains. Our capacity to reconnect might only be the bird feeder set out on the terrace, or the lone tomato plant set out on the patio, but it is the effort and remembrance that is vital.

We must start to consider the grid as more than just a vehicle for service delivery but rather as the minerals, soil, sun, wind, water, animals, and mysteries of the natural world. The grid is our peaks and valleys, our watershed. This is an important step in urban homesteading: know your place, your land, your grid. This can happen no matter where you live in the city.

For those who have access to backyards or community gardens, there’s the opportunity to try your hand at farming on a very small scale. Growing food has certainly made me distinctly aware how sick the soil has become. Trying to grow carrots in anything less then happy soil will set you straight about who the boss is. If my backyard soil is sick, then it is sick almost everywhere else (at least everywhere else in the city). Sure, I know I can get great carrots at the farmers’ market, but I want to turn my little backyard into happy land. I want to invite back the teeming microbes and critters of the underworld. I long for the type of soil that smells and feels fertile to the touch. That might well be the greatest thing I leave to my children: a healthy soil that can support life.

So that’s another concept of urban homesteading: reclaim the land and bring it back to health. This can take years, but that’s OK. It helps with our rootedness. It will challenge our transience and our priorities. I do not go on vacation during the growing season, which also happens to be when the kids are out of school. Even that is a clue to how the world of modernity has allowed a life of form without function. Children used to have summers off to help on the farm. Now almost every parent I know dreads finding ways to keep our increasingly bored kids busy during the summer. And what sort of brilliance is it to suggest more school as the answer? I’m no longer a kid in school, but what a drag that would be. Rather, I suggest we turn our kids loose on the farm. Teach them about the sowing, growing, and stowing of food, so that they too can consider this land as more then a video arcade — and perhaps take ownership in it as well.

What all this is about is getting real with our bad selves. We humans are no different then every other species except for the fact we have become both grander and smaller then we ought to be. Grander in the way we imagine ourselves masters of the universe, and smaller in the way we have imagined the same. And that is another way to measure our efforts towards urban homesteading. How in scale am I with the natural world? Does my home and life dwarf the natural systems of the natural grid? Am I more powerful then a locomotive, faster then a moving train, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Or, am I, as I like to say, “more like a potato then a skyscraper?”

Of course, finding your own mantra is part of the process. And just in case I begin to take my humanness all too seriously, I keep a Ms. Potato Head by my bathroom mirror. She is big and bulbous and of the dirt. I love that she is there and that she was born in my own backyard. Hail to Ms. Potato Head, the placemaker of my remembrance.

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