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.

Harriet’s garden

Spring cleaning, inside and out

By
March 24, 2008

Hello, friends. I am back for a moment from all the early plantings and planning of the season. The path, “gazebo,” and garden plan are in place, and I am just waiting for a few clear skies before direct-seeding a few other crops.

In the space between, I’m taking advantage of inclement weather by staying indoors and embracing the ritual of spring cleaning — everything from the floors to freezers, from basement to bookshelves, from windows to winter clothes. This is a thorough cleaning and what’s most remarkable about the task is that I don’t resent it.

garden path
A garden path.

Making the shift of consciousness from housewife to home steward is more than a turning of a phrase. What my return to home has given me is a new understanding of, and respect for, the skill sets and spirit required to tending one’s home and land. It is the ultimate format for the renaissance man or woman to flourish in, since all tasks — no matter how routine — can bear the stamp of one’s particular genius.

Genius, you say? Perhaps that notion seems ridiculous to you. I understand. Given the myriad silly jingles, products, and images today’s house “wives” are presented, it is hard to imagine any genius to be found in the world of Mr. Clean. But that, in good measure, is the fault of advertising and industry, who have turned the endeavor into a marketers’ paradise. You cannot sell a product for sqeaky clean or whiter white or antibacterial obsession until you create an ethic for it. You cannot sell “labor-saving” devices until you suggest your time is misspent in working in the home.

To be fair, I have no great love for toilet cleaning, nor for the notion of washing a household of laundry by hand. But there is a middle ground, one that I feel we have gone beyond in our desire to free ourselves from the seemingly limiting lifestyle of homemaking. In that way advertising efforts have not operated in a vacuum, and it may well be time to see our part in the turning.

For good and bad, folks have abandoned their homes, convinced that there is more for them in the world of industry and academia than in the home and land of their keeping. And while I do not want to turn the clock back to a time when there were no other options to consider, I do want to take the firm ground that not everything that glitters is gold.

What we took for the panacea of education and career is only that for those who would not be gratified in the field of home and land stewardship. Clearly not everyone is. But for those of you who are called and nourished in such an environment, I think it is sad to assume it is a lesser calling and craft. Indeed, for those of you having been given the good blessings of choice, I encourage you consider the option particularly, since few folks still have them.

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Though there is so much more to say on this point, I feel obligated to acknowledge the seemingly elitist position I am taking in advocating for a lifestyle few have the choice of choosing. The truth is, many (and their numbers are growing) find their place in industry both burdensome and obligatory. There is no choice to be made for them and that, in the larger perspective, is part of my problem with this economy and why, along with its effects on our environment, I have struggled with it.

To know how many people (both currently and historically) have been disenfranchised from the rising-tide promise of this global economy is unsettling. It has played a huge role in my attempt to redefine my role in it and, too, to offer solutions and alternatives beside the prevailing chorus calling for more education and specialized skills. If I see industry and its relentless forward march as part of the problem (which I do), then slowing down and staying home and consuming less and tending our largely abandoned good earth seems like another reasoned alternative.

I know it is dangerous to wax poetic about the past or to look at history with rose-colored glasses, yet it is only fair to acknowledge the economic and social distancing we have taken from the tradition of homemaking. Who knows? Perhaps time will change some of these dismissive perspectives. Still, I am heartened by the changes I am seeing and proud if I am in any way involved in its turning.

Garden plan.

Today I see the beginning of this return. In fits and starts, folks are looking around at the world we have created and wondering how it might be undone. In fits and starts, they are returning to the practices and principles of a D.I.Y. ethic and urban homesteading in recognition that not everyone is suited to or interested in working 40-plus hours outside the home. More importantly, many are finding innovative and self-reflective ways to budget themselves so they do not have to. They are throwing off the images and products of industry (mainstream or otherwise) and choosing a gentler, less costly way of living in the world.

It is my deep hope that we return these traditions to the lexicon of chosen futures for both ourselves and our children. It has been too long since we have taught the skills of home and land stewardship in our schools, and longer still since any of our children understood the importance and true meaning of saving seeds for the future. Industry has usurped a quieter way of life, and we have gone along willingly. But how, in reality, do we teach our children the notions of environmentalism, stewardship, and simple lives of moderate means (which we all better get on with) if we refuse those lives ourselves?

So let it rain, let it pour. I’ve got some tomato seeds to start, bread to bake, and some cupboards to clean. And if I have some time I’m going to read last Sunday’s featured article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Supreme Court Inc.: How the nation’s highest court became increasingly receptive to the arguments of American business.” Hmmmmmm.

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