Archive for the 'home' Category


Sharon June 22nd, 2010

There are some chores on a farm that can only be described as meditative - they involve lots of not-too-strenuous but deeply repetetive labor.  These are the kind of chores that I sometimes have trouble getting started on because they look both boring and endless.

Facing a bazillion chamomile blossoms, half a bushel of shelling peas or 1000 onion transplants can look like a long slog.  And yet once you get into the rhythym of it, somehow the endless work seems more manageable than one expected - it can even be enlightening.

I’ve done a lot of this work recently - first was the weeding of the long beds, then the filling of the holes in the cinder blocks with compost and soil mix, then the shelling of shell peas, followed by the removal of stems and strings from an awful lot of  snap peas, both to go into the freezer for winter.  And this morning we finally started on the chamomile blossoms that started calling me (and which I totally ignored) last week.

Picking chamomile blossoms by hand is tedious - the stems have no real medicinal value, so all you want is the flower heads.  It cannot be done rapidly and it requires a precision totally unlike many of the plants that I harvest with pruning shears.  And chamomile blossoms are tiny - an hour’s work in the sun will get you a bowl full, if  your bowl is small.

And yet there’s no substitute for doing this right - the taste of chamomile tea, dried fresh minutes after picking is so different than anything that comes in a bag.  Their value for calming, settling, easing and getting ready for bed is vastly greater when correctly harvested and handled as well.

This morning I found myself filling our drying area with hanging herbs, putting off the chore of facing the flower heads.  I clipped extra lemon verbena, fiddled with the catnip, went back to the yarrow again to cut some more, mostly to avoid the chamomile.  I picked the calendula blossoms, even though there weren’t many and it could have waited.  I looked over at the clover, but decided that was worse than the chamomile and I was starting too late in the morning.

Finally, I got to it.  And I found I didn’t mind at all, actually - the sweet applish smell of chamomile on my fingers, the smooth motions as I go through the feathery greens, the chance to just listen to bird song and to just watch the goats nibbling goldenrod shoots, the chance to think, it was a good thing.

Isaiah and Asher came out and joined me for a while, chattering away about their ambitions and projects, asking questions about the plants and coming back to tell me what the thermometer in the drying area read.  They picked and I picked and we talked, and suddenly, half the patch was harvested.

After they left I did some more, leaving about a third of it for tomorrow or the next day.  The funny thing is that it didn’t seem like a big deal anymore - the work had passed almost without noticing.  There were so many things to think about, or even not think about, to just immerse myself in the sounds and smells and feel of my world.  For moments, even long moments, I achieve that much desired state of mindfulness, the sense that one is doing the the thing wholly.

And then the kids are back, and we’re talking about summer projects and guests and building birdhouses and finding salamanders and when the pumpkins and watermelons will be right, and the bowl is filled again, and so are the drying racks, and what seemed endless and impossible was just a bit of work sandwiched in with a lot of good watching and listening and thinking about things and nothings, and talking. 


Rowan Williams on the Purpose of the Economy

Sharon November 19th, 2009

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has given a lovely speech on the central question of our times - what is our economy for?  Thanks to Rod Dreher for pointing it out:

“‘Economy’ is simply the Greek word for ‘housekeeping’. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. We are still haunted by the dogma that the economic world, ‘economic realities’, economic motivations and so on belong in a completely different frame of reference from the sort of human decisions we usually make and from considerations of how we build a place to live. And to speak about building a place to live, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, ‘sustainable’ in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation.

Economics understood in abstraction from all this is not just an academic error: it actually dismantles the walls of the home. Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about ‘housekeeping’, has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making – until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home – a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings – people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.”


“Earlier I mentioned the work of Kenny Tang. At the end of his wide-ranging recent book (pp.137-60), he sketches four scenarios for the second half of the twenty first century, varying from a ‘golden age’ picture in which economic stability offers a secure background for sustaining the planet’s assets, through a model in which good intentions for sustainable and ethical behaviour in respect of the environment are undermined by boom and bust cycles in the economy, a more serious model in which patterns of consumption do not basically change, so that we face ‘resource wars’ over our finite supplies, and finally a nightmare scenario of a planet that has become a jigsaw of ‘protectionist nation-states’, where each state both refuses to challenge its aspirations for material growth and helps to inflate commodity prices worldwide by protectionist strategies.

What is most sobering about Tang’s fourth model is that so much of it reads like a description of what is already happening in many quarters and what some of the rhetoric of the wealthy world seems to take for granted. And what his analysis points up is a message that can be derived from any of the economic forecasters I have quoted: without a stable economy, the rest is idle dreaming. And a stable economy depends on our willingness to question the imperatives of unchecked growth – which in turn is a moral and cultural matter. The energy for resistance has to come from the sort of stubborn moral and cultural commitment to humane virtue that I have been speaking about.

I realise that the word ‘virtue’ is hard for many to take seriously. But it’s high time we reclaimed it. We have no other way of talking about the solid qualities of human behaviour that make us more than reactive and self-protective – the qualities of courage, intelligent and generous foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare which, under other names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for two and half thousand years: fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. In the Christian world, of course, they have been supplemented by, and grounded in, the virtues of faith, hope and love that, in their full meaning, are bound up with relation to God. But there has always been a recognition that the four pillars of ordinary human virtue were not a matter of special revelation but the raw materials for any kind of co-operative and just society. Without courage and careful good sense, the capacity to put your own desires into perspective and the concern that all should share in what is recognised as good and lifegiving, there is no stable world, no home to live in – no house to keep.”

The combination of graceful prose and intellectual clarity is just lovely.


A Day in My Life…Again

Sharon October 2nd, 2009

Someone asked me to do a “Day in the Life” post - I did one back in 2007 (it is reproduced in _Depletion and Abundance_), but figured it had been two years, and so I picked this past Tuesday and kept track of what actually happened.  I’m not sure it was a typical day - it was, among other things, the day after Yom Kippur, Eric was home from work for four days because of the holiday, but nothing was obviously abnormal, so what the heck - we’ll call it as typical as we ever get.   I always think these things are kind of boring, but I guess that’s part of the point - I wouldn’t want you folks to think my life was exciting ;-) .

6:26 am: We’ve been ignoring the kids for half an hour or so, and they’ve been playing fairly quietly in their room as we doze a bit, but now the volume is rising, and the children are coming out more often to peek and see if we’re up, so we figure we might as well get up.  Eric gets up, announcing that it is “time to go to work in the smurf mines” and gets the boys out of bed and downstairs.  I follow a minute or so behind.  We get busy getting breakfast (choice of oatmeal or toast), tea and juice (we have apple cider lying around), and checking the barn in case Maia actually decided to have her babies.  She didn’t. 

In the first DITL, the kids were littler (they are now 9 1/2, almost 8, almost 6 and almost 4), so subtract two years, and it was November.  There was more diaper changing involved and more help dressing.  The kids needed more attention in the mornings, and we had to start the cookstove - it was cool on Tuesday, but not cold enough to need a fire yet, so we didn’t light one. 

7am - Kids are mostly fed.  We make Eli’s lunch - leftover bagels with peanut butter (yom kippur break-fast is the one meal of the year we rely entirely on purchased food - bagels, lox, cream cheese, etc… there’s just no facing cooking a meal at the end of 24 hours with no food or water, so we have leftovers and the kids think they are a huge treat), an apple, carrot sticks and a piece of chocolate cake made by my sister, leftover from our weekend family gathering.  I pack Eli’s bag - he’s toilet training at school and so he needs a couple of spare outfits every day, and we do dishes and sterilize the milking equipment.

7:30 - We say Modeh Ani, the Jewish morning prayer, and the kids go outside with Eric to milk the goats.  That’s a new one - in 2007 there were no goats, and daily chores took 10 minutes, not 40.  But we love milking, and we love the goats, and the kids love to be part of it.  Simon gets hay and fills their water trough, Asher collects goldenrod for the goats, Isaiah feeds the chickens, duck and turkeys.  Everyone pets baby Tekiah (the little goat, now almost two weeks old) and makes much of her.  Then Eric digs around in the garage for the sukkah poles and tarps - why can’t we ever find anything?

Meanwhile, I go up to the computer - I find I write best early in the day.  Besides, we’ve got stuff to do today, since Eric is home and we have a brief pause between the arrival of the next guests (my Mom and Step-Mom, yay!) and the holidays.  On the way up, I change the sheets on the guest bed (time for flannel, it will be cold) and throw on a load of laundry.  Am trying to come up with a funny post - decide I’m not funny today.

8:30 - Eli’s bus comes, and he heads off to school, happily - he loves school, and wasn’t that excited about the many hours of yom kippur services the day before, so he’s glad to get on the bus.  Chores are done and the boys troop in for some math time with Daddy. I’m still working, managing to get a post up and about 1/20th of the email replies I should have done.

9:30 - Tomorrow we’re expecting frost, so we’ve got to bring in a lot of the crops - and I’m also going to pick up some supplemental stuff at a couple of local farms, along with decorations for our sukkah.  So we make the rounds - first to the Carrot Barn, our favorite, where I meet a reader (Hi Bob!) and buy a ridiculous amount of tomatoes and eggplant to make sure that I don’t actually spend any time slacking off ;-) .  Oh, and it happens they have one last box of canning peaches - do I want them?  Uh huh - and sure, I’m sure I’ll find time sometimes in the next packed days to can up a bushel of peaches.    We also get gourds and colored corn for sukkah decorating - sukkot starts Friday and we’ll need to have the sukkah up on Thursday.

Next, we go on to the fruit farm, and pick fall raspberries (I have a bunch, but the children regard them as their private snack garden and don’t like me picking them ;-) ) - I’ve done enough jam making, but I want to make raspberry vodka to be given as gifts at the holidays.  With three enthusiastic berry pickers, it doesn’t take long to pick a couple of quarts for vodka making.  Then we go to another farmstand, and pick up Mums for decorating the sukkah, a couple of pumpkins (for pies, my pumpkin crop wasn’t great this year) and more sweet corn to be cut from the cob and frozen.  And then back we go, crammed in our little clown car, each of us with a mum on our lap.

12:00 - On the ride back the kids had “Modeh Ani” competitions - coming up with the most creative tunes to a traditional Jewish prayer.  Asher does it to the Munchkin song from “The Wizard of Oz,” Simon has a Beatles medly, and Isaiah discovers that it can be sung to ”Great Balls of Fire.” We’re back, and it is time for lunch - grilled eggplant and pepper sandwiches with goat cheese, sliced peaches, broccoli. 

1pm: Eric starts at the corn - I do the vast majority of the food preservation, but this job he’s taken over from me, because it isn’t one I enjoy, and he doesn’t mind.  The corn husks go to the goats, the chickens love the earworms, and he husks, cooks and cuts.  The kids alternate between helping and playing with the animals.  Meanwhile, I pick all the basil and make two kinds of pesto - the traditional kind with the regular basil, and a “thai style” one with coconut oil, ginger and lemongrass along with our copious quantities of Thai and Holy Basil.  I’m not really clear on how well this will freeze, but I’m trying it, since I want to preserve that summery flavor.  I also mix up the raspberry vodka.

2pm: The kids have been good sports with helping with the corn and nabbing berries, but are getting bored, so we have a little school time. I haven’t really prepped anything, so we read a holiday story _When Zayde Danced on Eldridge Street_ and then continue our study of ancient societies, talking about how hunter-gatherer societies were different than ours and how agriculture began.  Then the kids do a little writing practice - Asher copies letters, Isaiah copies words (he’s learning to read and write) and Simon practices cursive.  The boys have been extremely accomodating - Yom Kippur isn’t a great kid holiday, since the parents are grumpy and distracted and it involves spending a lot of time sitting quietly.  After school, I let them watch part of the movie _Matilda_ and eat their share of the remaining chocolate cake.

3:15 pm: I’m doing dishes (this is an ongoing project in our house - it is a rule, the dishes are never done, the sink is never empty and the laundry is never finished) and watching for Eli’s bus - there it is.  I go out and chat with the drivers while Eli revels in being free and able to run around a bit more.   I locate Eli’s shoes, which he has abandoned, and narrowly avert an abandonment of his pants.  The kids have a snack - it is getting chilly and rainy so we make popcorn and cocoa.  Eli goes out to swing in the rain, Simon and Isaiah go to the hay barn to read together, and Asher sort of follows us around being silly, throwing toys in the air and singing things to them.  I ignore the peaches.

4:30 pm: No particular plan for dinner, other than giving the children some corn ;-) .  How is it that we manage to forget that meals are going to be needed, even though they come every single day, three times a day? Ah, I have plenty of milk, so corn chowder.  And time to make a quick pan of cornbread - we’ll have a corny meal.  And broccoli, and slice tomatoes with basil, as long as we’ve got them.

5:45: Dinner, yum.  We’re all hungry and tired, but happy - it has been a busy, but mellow and productive day, although the house is still messy, we’re not ready for guests, I have no plan for the peaches, we didn’t get enough school done and I’m still behind on my email - but hey, this is good for us.  The food is delicious, and we all eat a lot, except Eli, who doesn’t like milky soups, but who devours his tomatoes and all the rest of them, along with the bread.  We’ve been eating a *lot* of broccoli because we have a lot of broccoli, and you know you are overdoing it when your son asks you, “But Mommy, aren’t there any mustard greens or anything?”  When the kids are desperate enough to beg for mustard greens, you’ve pushed them too far ;-) .

6:30: Out to milk - it is raining, but the kids don’t care.  I gather some comfrey and burdock leaves for a last treat, and raspberry leaves for expectant Maia - Eric milks again and I herd the chickens back into their pen and haul water.  We feed dog, bunny, cats.  All creatures must be fed and attended to.  It all goes a lot faster these days, and the rhythym of chores, morning and evening, seems to bracket the day. 

7pm: The boys are back in and getting into fuzzy pajamas.  They are exhausted - Asher is whining, Eli has taken a blanket from the guest bed and has wrapped himself in it and found a corner to snuggle in, and Simon and Isaiah are acting up the way they do when they are overtired.  We brush teeth and head to bed.  Both of us go up to read stories - Eric is reading _A Wrinkle in Time_ to Simon and Isaiah, Asher wants his 97th repetition of _Owl Babies_ this week, plus a read-through of _The Camel’s Lament_, I’m nearly finished with _My Side of the Mountain_ with Isaiah and Simon, and we decide we’ll move on to the sequel (which isn’t nearly as good).  Eli opts for _Two Cool Cows_ and some of _A Child’s Garden of Verses_. 

The kids are excited about a spate of upcoming birthdays.  Isaiah wants his own birdwatching binoculars, some legos and “one of those barns with a big hayloft that’s attached to the house.”  I showed him a picture of a New Englander house with attached barn, and he’s wanted a hayloft for years (our barn is a single story with an attached haybarn next to it) to play in.  I want one too.

8pm: Kids are in bed - Simon is still reading, Isaiah and Asher are asleep, Eli is playing and Eric and I are pooped.  He’s got a class tomorrow in environmental physics, so he and I talk about I=PAT equations and possible math problems for his students, bouncing ideas back and forth.  We eat chocolate cake too ;-) .  I read a few pages of a Georgette Heyer novel, Eric reads a little of Richard Heinberg’s new book on coal, in preparation for his coming class on that subject.  The official rule is that it is embarassing to go to bed before 9pm, but let’s just say that by 9:08, we’re down and out. 

Some Place Where I Can Lay My Head: Seeking Farmmate(s)

Sharon June 23rd, 2009

For the last year or so, I’ve made a couple of mild stabs at finding someone to share our property with.  We’ve had inquiries, even taken some basic steps, but I’ve not pushed the situation hard, on the assumption that sooner or later the right arrangement might fall into my lap like a ripe fruit.  No such thing has happened, to it is time to get out the apple picker and try harder ;-) .

My family is seeking other people to share our home and land with.  We always have potential takers “if things get terrible” - but that’s not really what we’re looking for - we’re looking live with people who simply want community, family, friendship, company, shared work, and who want it whether the zombies come or not.  For us, this place has always been about community - from the first it was to be shared with Eric’s grandparents, and we feel their loss more acutely, not less, as time passes on - both the loss of them as beloved family members, but also the loss of companionship and the sense that our home was richer with more people in it. 

Our very large house has plenty of room for more people. Eric’s grandparents built a 1000 square foot, well insulated apartment that consists of one large bedroom, a bizarrely enormous bathroom, a large open living room/dining room and a small galley kitchen.  There are several very large closets and a porch, as well as shared laundry facilities.  The area has radiant floor heating, and is completely separate from the rest of the house, for privacy.

Down the hall, there are two medium-sized bedrooms, with a full bath in between them that could go along with the arrangement, or not.  We can comfortably move entirely upstairs for sleeping quarters, since there are three bedrooms there at present.  This part of the house is technically in what would be “our” section, so there would be less personal privacy, but the rooms can be shut off, and you don’t have to come out to pee ;-) .

Besides the in-house space, the property includes a fenced front yard (8 foot board fencing) with an enormous playset, plenty of garden space, a woodlot to cut heating wood from (and I have an older Baker’s choice wood cookstove that could be installed in the apartment), and about 6 acres of pasture and hayfield for livestock.  We are most interested in people interested in sharing the farm and making it more productive and sustainable, and are happy to enable your projects.

The housemates include me (I’m 36, mouthy and occasionally short tempered, but mostly good natured), Eric (39, incredibly easy to get along with and very funny), and four boys Eli, 9, Simon 7, Isaiah, 5 and Asher 3.  Eli is autistic, and all the kids are loud, so any serious candidates should be tolerant of young kids and noise, and also some tolerance for kids who aren’t developmentally typical (we have those things, if you have loudness, kids or special needs issues ;-) ).  We are early risers, just fyi, so expect the noise to begin early ;-) .  We are homeschoolers, so the younger three kids (Eli goes to school) are around most of the time, and we’re Jewish, so any shared meals must be kosher or vegetarian. 

We are slobs, so don’t expect a super-tidy house, although we try to keep it minimally under control.  If we add more people to the house, the chaos level will probably rise, so we’d probably try harder on that front, and it wouldn’t hurt for you to be tidier than me (which isn’t that hard ;-) ).

We live in the town of Knox, NY, on a rural street with 8 houses.  The local school district is pretty good, the culture is rural/exurban, with lots of small farms and lots of people who commute to Albany or Schenectady for employment. Both towns are between 1/2 hour and 45 minutes drive away, depending on which end of them you need to go to.  The economy here is better than many places, but still not perfect.  You do need a car to get most places, there is very minimal public transportation, although some carpooling and ride sharing. My husband commutes 3 days a week  There are lots of great local food options around here, but nothing walkable.  However, if you were somewhat flexible on diet, you could definitely eat really well entirely locally here - it is a great area, IMHO.  Winters, btw, just in case the words “upstate NY” don’t mean anything to you, are cold and snowy, and wintery ;-) .

We are seeking housemates who are truly interested in community - we don’t demand that you swear to move in forever, but we’re not really interested in people just passing through.  We would welcome people with kids - the place is pretty much a child’s paradise, with lots of animals, a creek, woods to roam in and the aforementioned giant playset.  We also welcome people without kids, but be sure you are accustomed to the sound of childish voices - and the pitter-patter (er…thunderous boom) of little feet. 

Pluses include people who are handy (we’re not, especially), friendly, easy going, Jewish (this is absolutely not at all necessary - and just fyi, you cannot walk to any shul from here, unfortunately- just pleasant, who play mah-jongg or scrabble, talk politics or like to make music, like dirt and like to share meals, gossip and time in the garden.  Must have some measure of commitment to keeping your ecological footprint low and to preparing for tougher times - you don’t have to share all our priorities, but some would be nice.  We are NOT interested in freeloaders - you know what I mean, the kind of people who don’t participate and are just looking for cheap accomodations or someone to do the preparing for them.  That does not mean that you have to be young, strong and able to pull the plow when the mule falls down - remember, our last housemates were 80 and 94, and we felt they were excellent contributors.  Sure, strong young farmers are great, but so are other folks - it is the compatibility and friendship that matters most.

Eric and I both have experience living in housemate situations and enjoy it - we would love people interested in sharing the work and pleasures of this piece of land and this place.  In the longer term, it may be possible to either renovate the house to create more privacy or to optimize space, or even to have some kind of shared ownership, but that would be after considerable time together.  Ideally, we’d have some communal meals and some private time for each family, as well as share some responsibilities, to be negotiated individually.

Rental cost - for the apartment alone $400 monthly, plus a share of the utilities and any shared food.  For the apartment plus two extra bedrooms and extra bath - $650 plus a fair share of utilities.  We could also negotiate for one bedroom.  We would be open to barter for some percentage (or possibly all, depending on what was offered and the quality of the match) of the rent in labor doing childcare, farmwork, home repairs or building or whatever else needs doing.  If we hit TEOTWAWKI, all bets are off, and we’ll probably happily take the rent in barter ;-) .

If you are interested, please send an inquiry, with details about yourself and your family (if any) to [email protected].  All inquiries will be answered, although bear with me.  If they are successful, a period of “dating” involving correspondence and phone discussions with all involved parties and at least one visit will be required.   Rather like dating, if it doesn’t work out, it probably isn’t you, so please don’t be offended ;-) .



My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live

Sharon June 22nd, 2009

My friend, Permaculturist Keith Johnson’s site pointed me to this excellent article
(there’s a direct link to the whole original there), in which ecologist and ecological footprint inventor William Rees makes the case that cities (and really, not just cities, all people in the developed world) are rather like human feedlots, disconnected from the acreage on which they really “live” - ie, the acreage that supplies their food, energy and other needs.

Rees writes,

 “What eco-footprinting shows is that, in ecological terms, the Dutch don’t live in
Holland. Similarly, urban dwellers don’t “live” in their cities; urbanization simply
separates us from the productive ecosystems that sustain us but lie far beyond
the urban boundary. An apt analogy is “the city as human feedlot.” Like the city,
a livestock feedlot is an area with an extraordinarily high density of consumer
animals and a corresponding major waste management problem. Cities and
feedlots are incomplete ecosystems - the productive land component is some
distance away.”

Now I think this is an acute assessment - but I hope it will not be taken simply as the sort of indictment of city life that many rural dwellers, who do not like city life, are inclined to make.  Before I was a rural dweller, I lived in a number of cities, and I do like them.  I do not think that cities will disappear, or that living in one is inevitably disastrous.  Nor do I think that the above statement is inaccurate if you substitute the terms “suburban” or “rural” in most of the developed world - even in places where one potentially can meet most of one’s needs from the agricultural and natural resources readily available, few people do.  But I think this is a tremendously useful way of thinking about this issue - to say that we truly live where our needs are met forces us to ask the question - if our lives are not in the places we reside, where are they?  Where should they be?

Now to some degree, as long as there has been human trade, there have been “shadow acres” - that land that supplied needs that could not be locally met.  It is a very ancient reality - there has been trade almost as long as there have been humans.   And yet, there is a real and qualitative difference between societies that provide much of their own needs, and those that do not.  Among other things, distance makes us willing to be exploitative - that is, we do not feel we have an incentive to preserve the acres of other people, far away, even if that land feeds or clothes us. 

For cities, historically the surrounding outlands provided their food - often in literally reciprocal relationship.  Rees mentions the enormous waste-management problem caused by urban population density - in much of the world, the reciprocity of that relationship was direct, food was brought in to the cities from the outlying countryside, while human wastes were brought out, to be applied back to the fields.  While the direct application of human manures to the fields is not desirable, this relationship is almost certainly one that will have to be re-established - but one made difficult by the fact that our growing land is quite distant from most of our largest cities - the transmission of municipal manures would be enormously energy intensive, and the surrounding suburbs, densely populated themselves, cannot absorb them.  That is, without large quantities of fossil fuels, there’s really no way to set up a truly sustainable system, in which waste becomes not a problem, but a benefit.

All cities, indeed, all non-indigenous societies involve some deferral in where we live, with some resources coming from elsewhere, but we have taken this to new and problematic heights.  For example, the Indian historian Dharampal has demonstrated that before British colonialism, 80-90 percent of India’s resources were utilized at the local level for the local economy, resources and well being.  Less than 20% - often much less, depending on the region, went to serve leaders or central authority.  Colonialism completely reversed this economy - taking 90% of produced resources for export or to serve the empire and its landlords and central authorities, leaving only 10% for general populace - with a corresponding destruction in wellbeing and personal economies. 

Ecological footprinting shows that the results of globalization, which is colonialism’s ugly step-sister, are similar - where local resources once were “wasted” on the populace, now they concentrate wealth and serve mostly people who are already affluent.  For example, research demonstrates that the vast majority of green revolution grain increases went not into the mouths of the poor and hungry who they supposedly were meant to serve, but into livestock and processed foods that fed people who were never hungry and were already affluent.  At the same time, places that once fed themselves shifted to export crops, and were made vulnerable to fluctuating markets, dumping and ecological destruction. 

Do we live where our food is grown?  After all, most of us eat 3 times a day.  So look around you and ask this question - where does our food come from?  If our relationship with that place means that part of us “lives” there, how is our citizenship within that place?  That is, do we treat it as a place to extract resources from, at minimal return, as a colony to provide for our needs, or as a place we are citizens of, with an investment in its well-being and future?  For most of us, it is the former - and from this, I would argue, stems much of the deep hostility of rural places to those who consume their food, and much of the deep political divide in this country.

Do we live where our water comes from?  We know that similar hostilities exist in places where the water comes from far away - my own region supplies part of the watershed for New York City, and at times, conflicts.  But this is nothing compared to water-poor areas of the country - the conflicts between Northern and Southern California, say or Georgia and northern Florida, much less across the US/Mexican border.  If we cannot grow food, or even live without water from somewhere else, what is our relationship to that place?  What happens when both parties need the water?

Do we live where our goods come from?  We are finally beginning to ask this question - Sir Nicholas Stern has opened the door to considering whether China’s emissions, for example, belong only to it, if it provides goods that are mostly used in the rich world?  Can we blame China for its coal use entirely if we absorb the products of that use, if Chinese factories replace our own, and allow us to claim a reduction in emissions? 

Do we live where our energy comes from?  To this question, we might answer a resounding yes - we know for a fact that the Iraq war was about oil, that it followed in the footsteps of the Carter doctrine, which observes that since inconveniently, “our” oil is under their sand, our military and political agendas must always center on the Middle East.  But we live their not as citizens, but as a military presence, building more and more resentment and anger.

Do we live where our waste goes?  Do we float in the Dead Zone off the gulf of Mexico?  Do we live where our old computers contaminate the soil and poison children in Africa? Most of us do live where our own feces contaminates our water, those things we imagine being whisked magically “away” that inevitably, somehow, come back, floating on the water at the beach, until we pour chlorine in and try hard to pretend it never happened.

Do we live where the primary work, once done mostly by us, is now done by others?  If we eat meat, do we live where the great slaughterhouses are, where migrant laborers are hurt and killed to provide us with our clean, packaged foods?  If we wear t-shirts with clever sayings on them, do we live where Vietnamese teenagers sew 12 hours a day in unventilated rooms?  If we use toilets, do we live where they are cleaned by poorer people than we?

We are not good global citizens - we know that.  We are devourers of the world.  But is it even possible to be a decent and honorable global citizen?  Certainly, in some measure.  Certainly, it is possible to be better global citizens of the places that we live than we are now, and if we are to draw resources from somewhere, we are going to have to work on this.   We will need to work on building those connections, on finding those means of honest internationalism.   The world is not going to go away, we will not be instantly reduced to a kind of isolated localism that needs have no truck with other nations - truck with other nations long preceeded fossil fuels and modernity, and will be even more essential in warming world, full of migrants and refugees escaping rapidly changing economies, ecologies and war.

But there’s a measure in which being a true citizen of a far distant place is not fully feasible.  I cannot honestly know whether my rice, grown on the Indian coast, was grown by someone who loves to grow rice, who does it well, or who is coerced by the large corporation that uses them as slave labor.  I cannot know how they use their land.  I can learn a little about their place and time, their needs and wants and hopes for the future, particularly if their rice is my primary indulgence.  But I cannot be a part-time citizen of India for rice, Bolivia for flowers, China for electronics, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for oil, etc….ad infinitum.  I cannot.  All I can be in that case is a consumer.

And not only is a consumer an ugly, faint thing to be, a pale imitation of an engaged and fully human citizen-participant, but because a consumer only eats and by necessity, excretes their waste where they are, the relationship is destructive in two ways - not only do I take away soil nutrients or oil or wood or water and participate in the exploitation of distant places in my country and others when I consume their resources, but because all of us make our waste where we live, I then foul my own nest.

I do this because it is not possible, in such an expansive world, to transform the outputs of our consumption into anything but waste.  Consider the difficulty of human excrement now - even sterilized and dehydrated, it is tremendously energy intensive to even consider returning human manures from, say, Boston to the places where most of its food comes from in Iowa or Nebraska.  And human outputs are not the only kind of waste that could managed on a smaller scale - historically the end points of human cloth making became paper, animals were fed on scraps and bones that are now transported into landfills.  The problem of scale, the problem of taking and excreting always seem to defeat us.  We can do much to ameliorate them, but the first and most important amelioration would be to live where we live.

Of course, that’s a difficult proposition.  The suburbs of even midwestern cities like Chicago are often filled, not with farmland, but with suburban landscapes of the densities of small cities of the past.  Even if they can harness their land base to grow food, they are unlikely to have much to export, and they have plenty of their own manures and wastes.   One must go much further afield, and expend more energy to get food, and to find a sustainable way of turning wastes into valuable inputs.  To some degree, dependence for water, goods and food is written into every large city - and indeed, has been overinscribed by our investment in fossil fueled agriculture into the developed world as a whole.  Our project now is to uninscribe it as best we can.

Obviously, the proportion to which we are able to actually live where we live is going to vary by where we are.  For urban dwellers, there is absolutely no doubt that the proportion is vastly higher than is conventional in developed world cities, and a small number of urban community gardens is merely scratching the surface.  We know that this is true - we know from the examples of Havana, the Jewish ghetto gardens during WWII, from Harare and Kampala how urgently necessary urban food production is - that it can sustain far larger populations than anyone would expect in a crisis, whether a war or simply poverty.

But cities are not going to feed themselves, and they are not going to provide their own water in the whole - many cities could probably produce 25-50% of their meat and produce, but they will never provide most of their own staple crops.  Which means that urban-rural ties must be strengthened - that those who are citizens of a city must also be partly citizens of the rural towns that supply their dinners, the rural areas that collect their water.  But this is not a one way transaction - cities as centers of trade, and renewed (we hope) centers of manufacture will have their own rural and suburban citizens - the customers who rely on urban areas to meet their need for goods will have to end their contempt for city life and city dwellers, since their hammers and clothing come from those cities.

If we cannot eliminate shadow acres, we must find ways to narrow them, to mostly get our goods and services from our bioregion, or as near to it as we possibly can.  Aaron and I have called this “the bullseye diet” - but it doesn’t apply just to food.  And in order to do this, we are going to have to build reciprocal economies, and reciprocal senses of citizenship.  Some of this is in its nascent stages, as city dwellers come out to “their” farm to pick up their CSA share, or to pick the cherry tomatoes or strawberries, or volunteer, or as rural and suburban dwellers come into “their” cities, to enjoy art and music, culture and diversity not available to them, and then bring those things in small measure back to their own places.  But we are still at a beginning point.

I often speak of these issues in terms of the practical imperatives for doing so - we must, for example, reduce fossil fuel usage because of climate change and peak energy, or we must build local food systems because we may not fully be able to access distant ones.  But I like very much the idea of asking ourselves the moral and aesthetic question “where do I want to live?”  I think for most of us, this is not a complex question.  If we have a choice, most of us want to live where we chose to live - we would like, in the abstract, to live there as fully and wholly, as well and honestly as we can.  We would like to be good citizens, in a place with a lively and vital civic life.  If we live in other places, we would like to live there kindly and lightly, as participants and welcome members, even part-time, rather than hated colonizers or bad neighbors.  We would like, in short, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We simply do not know how.

Viewed through this question of how and where we wish to live, the choices we make in localization, conservation and consumption, in our acts of citizenship and participation take on a new weight.  We are not merely eating, we are travelling to a distant land, or a neighboring state, taking part in their bounty, and incurring some obligation to reciprocation.  How shall we reciprocate?  What can we offer them in return?  We are not merely excreting, and flushing our wastes away - there is no place called “away.”  Instead, we are contaminating those downstream - or we are returning our outputs to the place that fed us, or to some neighboring place that can be enriched.

Most of us give considerable thought to this question of where to reside - we consider schools and neighborhoods, climates and soils, family and friends. Our new project is to give as much attention to the question of where we live - where our needs are met.  None of us will ever live without some shadow acreage, without some resources from far away, but the quantities can be great or small, the relationship civic and civic or colonial and hostile, the result contamination and waste or reciprocity and fertility.  It all depends on where we choose to live.


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