The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

White Picket Fences, Free Range Fantasies, and the Many Paths of Sustainable Living June 26, 2016

We live in a time of grand and sweeping narratives, powerful narratives that tell us who to be, how to live, what to buy, and what to believe–and these shape our actions and identities. When I was a child in the 1980’s, the narrative of the American Dream, complete with the white picket fence, was compelling. A beautiful suburban home, a middle class lifestyle, a loving partner, 2.5 children, a large house, a beautiful lawn, the husband with a well paying job, and generally peaceful existence were the cornerstones of this dream. Of course, there’s a lot of critique of the white picket fence today, spanning from racial injustice and socioeconomic realities to sustainable living issues. In the sustainability community, in particular, the white picket fence has become a sense of what we are working against, as the white picket fence surrounds the chemically-treated and weed free grass…and certainly, that’s not what is going to help us transition to earth-centered living.

 

Loving the Land

Loving the Land- in many different ways!

However, what I fear is that sustainable living communities have replaced this white picket fence narrative with our own grand narrative, as equally powerful and as equally limiting. I call this narrative the “Free Range Fantasy” and it goes something like this: you and your perfect partner decide to quit your day jobs, purchase 50 acres in some remote area (which you somehow manage debt free), and build a fully off-grid homestead using an awesome ecological design method (cob, earth shelter, passive solar, etc). This homestead is complete with solar panels, acres of abundant gardens, fields of cute goats wearing daisy crowns, happy free range chickens, and two cute children covered in strawberry juice from your own strawberry patch.

 

The Free Range Fantasy is strongly promoted by a number of sustainable living magazines, events, books and other forms of media. As an example, Mother Earth News does a superb job. For the record, I love Mother Earth News and enjoy reading each issue; I also attended the Mother Earth news Fair in Seven Springs, PA last year and have every intention of going again. But I also recognize that Mother Earth News is promoting a specific kind of ecological living, and that living is not a reality for many of us, and it is in this grand narrative that much of the danger lies. For example, each year, they select a handful of homesteaders to be their homesteaders of the year. You can see articles on the last few years’ picks (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).  Notice a pattern? I certainly did: every “homesteader of the year” is a couple or a family; nearly all are living on large tracts of land and remote locations–and nearly all fit into my Free Range Fantasy. Now, from a sustainable living perspective, these couples  are superheroes. I respect them deeply for the work they are doing, and the way forward they are paving. But I also have to ask: Could a single person ever win this award? What about a non-traditional community? What about someone who is disabled? What about someone homesteading in a big city or in a 1/10th acre plot?

 

When I meet and talk to people who are practicing sustainable living and permaculture, 9 out of 10 times, they simply don’t fit the Free Range Fantasy. They may not be able to afford to purchase a remote 50 acres and live somewhere–perhaps they are already trying to make ends meet just paying their rent and working two or three part time jobs. How would they ever save enough up for a down payment, much less live debt free? Or perhaps they are still recovering from years in higher education and have student loan debt and need to keep their job to avoid defaulting on their loans. Perhaps they have sick parents or a sick loved one and are geographically bound. Perhaps they have a bad back or a serious disability. Or perhaps, they are single homesteaders–trying their best to live sustainably while working a full time job, and doing so without the strawberry-coated children and supportive partner. Maybe they have a partner, but that partner has a different worldview than them, and this kind of living is out of the question.

 

I really commend people whose life circumstances have allowed for them to make the Free Range Fantasy a realtiy, and for the daily work of making that happen. I am inspired by the work that they do. However, for most people, the Free Range Fantasy unfortunately sends the message that the only way to live sustainably is to live by this ideal.

 

Urban Garden early in Season!

Urban Garden early in Season!

I have spent a lot of time in sustainable living communities, and I can tell you that it has a powerful hold, being upheld as the “thing everyone should be doing.” It can get lodged deeply within you, this dream, of a life you *should* be living, rather than one you are living. I hear a lot of people saying “I wish I was able to buy a place in the country….”  or “In my dream world, I would…”; these are the narratives of the Free Range Fantasy. As the Archdruid of Water in AODA, I mentor people through our curriculum.  Part of the curriculum asks them to make three changes to their living to be more earth-friendly.  So many people feel guilty because they don’t feel they are doing enough, when in reality they are doing very good work, and pursuing a better path forward in their own lives. The Free Range Fantasy minimizes the important work that they are doing, in their community, and as individuals.

 

Truthfully, until very recently, I was trapped by this narrative. As a single homesteader in Michigan, isolated on my property, I fell into depression because my life looked different than the Free Range Fantasy. For me, most importantly, it was the family/partner issue–I didn’t have two cute strawberry eating children, nor a stable partner and it was extremely hard on my own to achieve all I wanted to achieve. I also didn’t have the funds, with my mortgage, to really take my property to the next step in terms of solar power, etc. In truth, I was doing everything I could, and still, my life resembled nothing like what I believed it should, according to the narrative. As long as I bought into the narrative wholesale, and I bought into it for a long time, then what I was doing never seemed to be enough, or sufficient, and there were always pieces lacking. In other words, the narrative made me feel like a failure, rather than encouraging me to celebrate my success and continued growth on this path–and I had much to celebrate! The narrative also encouraged me to place unreasonable expectations on myself. For example, when I tried growing all of my own food by putting in a 2000+ square foot veggie garden, I burned myself out and couldn’t maintain it (and started switching it to perennials, a much smarter option!) I now realize that growing all of my own food was kind of ridiculous when I was also working at the university 50+ hours a week. That is not a sustainable approach–and distance and perspective have helped me understand this, and the larger detrimental effects, of the Free Range Fantasy on my own well being.

 

Permaculture!

Permaculture – An Adaptable Philosophy, Ethical System, and Design System

As my own confessional here has demonstrated, the Free Range Fantasy can be as destructive as the white picket fence because it limits your vision to this one ideal. It stifles you, preventing you from doing something now that helps move towards sustainability, rather than dreaming of some far off thing that may never be your reality due to factors, probably many beyond your immediate control. More, if every person wanted their 50 acres, we wouldn’t have enough lands available! Part of the work of living in a sacred, sustainable manner is about living better in the circumstances that make up our present reality, not dreaming of a lifestyle that may not be tenable for that reality.  It is a good goal to work toward if your life circumstances allow, certainly, but there are other ways and means of living.

 

All of this has really been brought to life, and has shifted for me, during my permaculture design certificate and really embracing the alternative perspective that permaculture provided. Visiting small front-yard farms and alternative spaces was highly inspiring! Embracing small, slow and sustaining solutions is the new motto that I strive for. Permaculture isn’t about a one-fits-all model of sustainable living, but rather about applying ethics and design principles that can work for any life situation. It is here, that the power of these principles, that I found my path forward for regenerative, sacred living. And there are lots of books and resources that share alternative paths for such living, for example, how to make a permaculture patio! Permaculture isn’t the only way into what I’m talking about here, but it is certainly a way that has helped me get beyond the Free Range Fantasy in positive and productive ways.

 

I’m now at the point where I’m starting to consider buying a new piece of property after my life transition to a new job in a new state. The urban homestead appeals to me at this point my life, the idea of creating a site where people can walk to, that is easily accessible, that is very visible, and that can host permauclture meetups, herb classes, plant walks, and more. This site could provide sustainability and permauclture education right in the middle of my own community and town. That’s probably going to be the route I go for one simple fact–while I am blessed to physically be able to do this work, my call is to educating others. To me, this education must occur where people, here and now, where people are rooted and where they live their everyday lives. And those people aren’t just those who are privileged with being able bodied, have abundant finances, have perfect partner with which to do the work, or have their 50 acres debt free and ready to go. Rather, they are poor people, middle class people, disabled people, students, single parents, people of different walks of life–and I think its important to meet them where they are, in the places they inhabit, and show them options of sustainable living that they can do right here and right now. I now understand that that the kind of off grid living promoted by the Free Range Fantasy takes a community. If I have no family, partner, or community to bring to a homestead, than it seems that I will bring the homestead to the community and create family right here where I am.

 

But another piece of this is that there are always trade-offs and decisions to make, and each kind of living has its benefits: fossil fuel use and finances being two of them. In my case, I can substantially reduce my fossil fuel dependence if I live in a place where I can walk or bike to work and eliminate most of my car use–and seeing the destruction that fossil fuels have brought firsthand on the land here in PA make me even more eager to go that route. In MI, I used to commute 18 miles to work one way, and although the rest of my living was quite sustainable, nothing I did could really address 36 miles round trip 4 or so times a week. Further, acreage is expensive, and I can also stay out of debt if I live in town modestly; that’s another critical factor.

 

In sum, it’s important to realize that the Free Range Fantasy is an option for certain people who have the means, drive, family, and opportunity to do so.  However, it is certainly not the only vision possible, nor reasonable, given the challenges we face. For many of us, it is only a fantasy, and keeping our heads in a fantasy doesn’t address the importance of living in the here and now. We need a patchwork of unique responses, as many responses and sustainable living practices as we have people. We need people to do everything they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen: abandoned lots in Detroit becoming gardens; apartment dwellers learning vermicomposting; a local school planting a garden; urban beekeeping; whatever it is. We are starting to see those visions emerge, and we need voices doing all of these things. And so, dear readers, I hope you will be inspired by the multitude of ways, the patchwork of options, before us for sustainable living and regenerative, healing lives!

 

PS: I just realized that this is my 250th post on the Druid’s Garden Blog!  How fitting! 🙂

 

Alternative Housing: Tiny Houses, Campers, and the Road Less Traveled January 9, 2015

For an increasing number of Americans, especially those under 30, the “American Dream” is an absolute joke. For those of us in our 30’s, like me, its still a joke, but a harsh one because lot of us got sucked into believing in this dream and buying houses and such just before things crashed down in 2008. Of course, the joke’s on us, I suppose. Even for college graduates (or those with graduate degrees) finding a way to make a decent living and support a family, much less buy a house or anything else, is a fantasy. Those in the trades that I talk to often also don’t have any work. Many friends of mine in their 20’s are still living at home because its too expensive to be on their own, the job opportunities aren’t there, or the bills are too much to consider moving out. Or, they are like Sage, who I described in a post about meaningful work last year–they work several jobs to pay the bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, having no free time or energy to do anything else. Two days ago a new article described most Americans as being one paycheck away from the street.  And some are already halfway there–I have numerous friends living in homes in Detroit without heating for the winter, running water, and more–because they can’t afford it. So…this begs the question–what can be done and who is doing it? This blog post explores just that.

Freedom!

Freedom!

 

From a sustainable perspective, American Dream, with its white picket fences and perfect sprawling lawns, is one of the most destructive ways of living that there is. Especially when that American dream resides in large, suburban homes far away from workplaces. Now, I got sucked into this too before I had my great sustainable/permie awakening and bought a much larger house than I needed (about 2600 square feet). I’ve since been working with what I have to make my impact as little as possible (the subject of many posts in this blog), given the present circumstances in which I find myself. I’ve made several serious attempts in the last two years to turn my large rural home on 3 acres into a kind of hippy commune/small sustainable community, with the idea that more people in a smaller space = less waste, more opportunity, lots of fun experiences, lots of veggies from the garden, but thus far, its not really been successful–hardworking hippies are surprisingly hard to find, especially long-term, and I’m rethinking the whole plan at present.  I even had a few friends living in a trailer behind my house for a while last summer. And I do think that model can work–provided you find the right people.

 

But today I’d like to explore another solution, one that a dear friend of mine has been working towards for the last six or so months. In less than a year, my friend went from renting, working two jobs and barely making ends meet to downsizing her life, owning her own residence, and supporting herself with what she loves the most–her art.  She has no mortgage, no property or school taxes, no nagging boss, no rigid schedule, and few of the other problems that life presents most of us, even those of us like myself trying to live as sustainably as possible. And yet, despite her current status (homeowner, debt-free, mobile, self-supporting, with savings) nearly everyone that she knows thinks she’s crazy and have been trying to talk her out of her “insanity.”

 

What has my friend and her husband done? They have sold 90% of their possessions, purchased a van and a camper, quit their jobs, and have decided to live in in their camper. Why do people think she’s crazy? Because her and her husband have decided, frankly, that they aren’t drinking the Koolaid anymore. They aren’t playing the game. The idea that you could just quit the rat race, that you could find more happiness and fulfillment by not working full time, by not taking on a big mortgage, and so on, isn’t an idea that can even be conceived of by most Americans.

 

My friend’s husband is keeping a vlog (check it out here) where he’s showing off their setup, describing sustainable projects (like the composting toilet) and documenting their journey. In a recent update, her husband (the Earth Bison on Youtube) describes working the insanity of retail over the holiday season and finally getting ready to head out on their adventure. Today marks my friends’ journey from Michigan (where it has gotten quite cold and their little camper has had some winterizing challenges) to warm and sunny Arizona for the remainder of the winter.  I am so proud of them for making such a choice.

 

I want to step back a bit and investigate some of the negative reactions to my friend and her husband’s choice:

If you want to be free...you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

If you want to be free…you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

 

1. It comes down to stuff. A big part of it, I think, is that you can’t take all that stuff with you. But really how much stuff does one person need? I’ve given away about 25% of my stuff in 2014, and I intend on downsizing another 25% in 2015. Things can be hard to part with at first (and at first, I literally had to take the boxes into a room, mourn the loss of it, and then eventually after a few weeks, let it go). The more that I gave away, the better and lighter I felt. I found places to give my stuff away that mattered–expensive musical instruments I haven’t played in 10 years to an after school program (a community partner for a course I teach), clothing and household goods to a place that gives them away for free to those in need, books to friends who are interested in them, art supplies to fellow artists, and so on.  I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but each time I do, I feel better, lighter. The stuff weighs on us, it really does, and we don’t realize it until we start giving it away. Its so easy in our culture to accumulate it–even if we don’t buy stuff, people buy and bring stuff for us, often without our consent.

 

2. Space. Another issue–and a valid one–is space.  We are used to living big and luxurious…but again, if one doesn’t have all the stuff, does one need all the space? The space requires heating (usually inefficiently via fossil fuel), money and time to upkeep, time to clean, and so on.  I’ve been really challenged in this regard with my current living situation.  I do host big events (like our monthly permaculture meetings) in my huge greatroom, and do a lot of other good with the land, but I still feel like I’m taking up way to much space.  I do think, given my introverted ways, I might have difficulty living with a person in such a living situation–but I’ve done it before (dorms in my undergrad years) and seemed to be fine.

 

3. Convenience. I think convenience is another huge issue. Many of us are used to so many modern conveniences and living in a small space sustainably forces you to give up some of those (think about the work involved in a composing toilet, or in hauling your water each day).  To give some perspective, last weekend, I had some unexpected guests, including a number of small children, and they kept asking me why I did things “the old way.”  I didn’t really consciously think about what I did, but they were really intrigued by me and my old ways.  I made them popcorn on the stove with popcorn from my garden in olive oil.  I built them a fire to keep them warm (they all slept next to it).  They made art and watched the fire since I don’t have a TV (give away during last year’s great giveaway).  We played games on the floor (pick up sticks, which they loved). We cooked on the stove since I don’t have a microwave (again, by choice, also given away in last year’s great giveaway). Since I’ve made shifts slowly away from modern conveniences slowly and integrated them into my life fully, I guess didn’t realize how different I now live than others.  But children have a way of pointing out things in ways adults won’t.  I think about my friends–they have made many more shifts than I have–living on solar power and limiting energy use, composting toilets, greywater systems….these are shifts that I’m also planning, but I haven’t yet gotten there!

 

4. Fear. Ultimately, a lot of resistance to my friend’s plan came down to one thing–fear.  Fear of the unknown. And its a big risk, quitting one’s job, leaving a roof over your head, and going off into the great beyond. Others have done it, and many others plan to do it–and as they become the trailblazers for their generation and document their experiences, still others will muster up the courage.

 

But given the economic circumstances that so many of my generation and those younger than me face, I do think this path–tiny houses, campers, and other smaller spaces–is a really viable one. The choice and what it offer can be summed up in one word: freedom. I think many more of us, myself included, are thinking about how to escape at least some of this rat race, how to live sustainably and meaningfully, how do meaningful work in the world. The yurt living movement and tiny house movement is gaining steam rapidly–more and more people are seeking alternative living that is debt-free, sustainable, and fulfilling.  I’d love to hear from others who are considering the same choice or who are enacting it. I have some big life changes ahead for me as well–I might join them one day.  It certainly is a tempting proposition.