Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living. Interview with author Rachel Kaplan

by Willi Paul. Co-Presented by PlanetShifter.com Magazine & openmythsource.com

“Food has always been at the center of cultural experience, the way we express our connection to the land and to one another. Food nourishes us and gives us life. Local foods express an intimacy with and the “taste” of place. You can’t fake this sense of place—it is an expression of the land that gives rise to the food we eat. Human cultures and the processes of preserving and culturing food are inextricably linked. When we engage in creating, preserving, and fermenting our food in these time-honored ways, we participate in growing a place-based culture that connects us to the living world around us, as well as participating in the evolving history of human habits, traditions, and ceremonies that give life meaning.”

— Section 3: Eating Close to the Ground

* * * * * * *

It is my pleasure to interview Ms. Kaplan for a second time, this one in support of her forthcoming book: Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living

Novella Carpenter is a leader in this field. Why buy your book?

Novella Carpenter is a writer in this field. Just like my collaborator and I, she lives an urban homesteading lifestyle that she finds exciting and important enough to write a book about. Like her teacher, Michael Pollan, Novella is great at giving her life to the shape of her narrative, even to the point where some of her choices seem almost like they were made to enhance her narrative (like trying to live out of the garden in June, when everyone knows that June is pretty early for a satisfying harvest. This made for a great story though, especially when she brazenly killed her rabbit to satisfy her hunger.)

I thought her book was great, and I feel totally akin to her. She lives and works in the same community as my collaborator, K. Ruby Blume, and their paths frequently cross. Novella’s book is different than ours though because it is a memoir, a story of how she is living. It’s not about how to do it yourself, or how other people are doing it but about her own personal adventures in farming in the city.

Our book is more of a how-to and why-to for urban homesteading, and it’s the first book about urban homesteading to really speak about this not just as a set of individual choices, but as a movement of people making this choice. The book includes lots of voices of people who are already living the dream. So in addition to how-tos for urban gardening, animal raising, food preservation, water, waste and energy management, personal care and community building, you hear from lots of people who have chosen this as their lifestyle.

This is the first book to really explore urban homesteading as not just something you do at home with your family, but as something you do in your community, that can affect and influence the way a lot of people live, use energy, and manage their resources. Also, different from other books on homesteading in the city, we have an artist’s perspective that comes from our decades of work as community- and life-artists. So the book is beautiful–lots of instructive photos and illustrations, and some original art from Ruby as well. We also include a focus on self-care and community building that no other book on the topic addresses–we feel that it’s as important to tend to our bodies and our relations as it is to feed our rabbits and water our gardens and recycle our wastes.

Your book covers a ton of stuff! How do you help folks find what they need?

This book does cover a lot of topics. It is not intended to be a definitive source of information for all the topics we cover–organic gardening for example has a whole library of great books already dedicated to the topic. As does composting, and seed saving, and medicine making, and community building. What our book does do though is lay out the different aspects of homegrown sustainability you will want to learn about in your own place, and gives basic and specific how-tos for projects that we considered essential–how to set up a garden bed, how to grow good soil, how to compost human and kitchen wastes, how to manage water and energy and waste onsite, how to grow your own herbal medicine chest… In the back of the book is a good resource list divided by themes: water, energy, food preservation, organic gardening, permaculture, etc…, so people are given a direction if they want more in-depth information on any subject.

Also this is a book about the bigger picture of homesteading –how this citizens movement fits into a global response to the changes we are currently undergoing as a result of climate change, dwindling non-renewable resources (peak oil), and an unstable economy. This bigger picture is about how we manage all of our inputs and outputs–what we need and what we can produce ourselves–at home, and in our communities.

Tell us about soft tech vs. eTech in the urban homesteading. Can ordinary folks figure out grey water and solar systems?

Ordinary folks can definitely figure out grey water systems, and solar systems. There are instructions in the book on how to set up basic greywater and rainwater systems. They are simple and affordable and don’t take much time to build or manage. Solar energy takes a bit more know-how, but one of the homesteaders we interviewed created his own off-grid solar system for a reasonable amount of money and it powers his whole house. We did not include plans for solar systems installation as their technicality goes a bit beyond the scope of the book. We have provided other solar energy projects which are simple, fun and easy to do, like building a solar oven, or a solar food dryer.

One of the things we address throughout the book has to do with process over product: so when we think about water, in general, we need to come into a relationship to the watershed where we live, understand where our water comes from and goes, and how to access the sources of water we have on hand–i.e., greywater and rainwater. With solar energy it’s the same–solar energy is accessible to us all the time. There are some high tech ways to harness it, and some low tech ways. Life for most humans over time was solar based–some of what we advocate is a different way of thinking about how we use energy that is based on a more solar-centric mindset. So that means forgetting the electric dryer and hanging up the clothes on the line. Or only using electricity when it’s absolutely needed. Or making our houses better insulated to save the energy we do use. Or cooking with solar energy. It’s a mindset action-oriented thing, not just a set of instructions for something you need to buy and install in your house.

One of the things about homesteading is that while these skills may be unknown to lots of people, they really are not rocket science. They are the skills our grandparents and their parents took for granted. We can learn them again and use them now. They are the skills of tending to the daily essentials of life–moving away from the likes of convenience culture and back into the security of knowing where your food, water and energy comes from.

Why not join up with others in the community and take over an unused plot of land?

This is a great idea, and a wonderful solution for city gardeners who may not have the space they need where they live to grow the food they want to grow. In many cities in this country, people squat unused pieces of land and turn them into vibrant community gardens–this is a long-time trend in New York City (though the movement has been negatively impacted by land value and the predation of developers). Currently, Detroit is rising out of the ashes of corporate collapse as one of the great homesteading cities of the 21st century.

Abandoned lots are being turned into urban farms and shared among neighbors. Austin, TX has a history of this practice as well; Oakland as well.

The biggest issue with this strategy is, of course, the power of private property–if you squat a spot that an owner eventually plans to reclaim, you are investing a lot of time, energy and love into a temporary garden. Gardens are best when they evolve over time. So it’s a real choice to invest in something you could potentially lose because you don’t own it. I think it’s best to live and work somewhere with a sense of true ownership, which is stewardship and love for the place where you live and work. On the spiritual level, this trumps private property every time. But on the material level where so many things take place, private ownership prevails.

Are not 12 small family gardens less sustainable?

In my experience, sharing resources is always more affordable and can be a better way to go for many people. So the community garden is a way to share resources, and sometimes labor. You can share tools, and seeds, and starts, and the harvest. Of course, when we share with people we also have to get along with them, and I have found that this is really the crux of the issue in community anything–our low capacity to share, communicate, and bend to one another’s needs. In a lot of ways, this is our cultural growing edge–how to get along with our neighbors. This is the real work in a community garden–or at least an equal work to learning how to grow a good tomato.

Backyard gardens are an efficient way to bring the means of production closer to home, and are often easier for people to manage because they are right outside the back door. Since conserving our own human energy needs to be part of the sustainability conversation, if it is easier for you to get to the garden in your backyard than the one a few blocks away and you have the space that might be a more sustainable option for you. Factoring in these various human resources, as well as the material resources, is part of how we figure out if something is “sustainable.”

One other thought: If by “sustainable” you actually mean “self-sufficient”, I think it’s important to remember that self-sufficiency is a myth, like independence, and it isn’t a goal to strive for. If by sustainable you mean “can exist over time”, small family gardens and community gardens both have aspects of sustainability which are connected to the commitments and ongoing participation by the gardeners and farmers themselves and will probably be different for different people.

What are your spiritual beliefs in the soil?

Life and death are one continuous stream of energy. The earthworm knows it. The pill bug knows it. We need to learn it.

What is the difference between the permaculture movement, the Slow Food movement and the urban homesteading movement?

Permaculture is a design system that is useful for creating vibrant gardens, landscapes, and communities. The Slow Food Movement is interested in reinvesting time in local foods, made by local artisans and enjoyed by local citizens. The Urban Homesteading movement is a homegrown response to the degeneration of corporate culture and the need for people to reclaim the means of production in the places where they live. All of these movements are connected. Some urban homesteaders are permaculture designers; others are members of the Slow Food movement. Some Slow Foodies are permaculturists and homesteaders. The urban homesteading movement cares about localism and about better design of homes and gardens. In this way, urban homesteading can bring together different aspects of the other two.

What are some of the City codes surrounding gardening in the US?

There are different codes in different places and gardeners are advised to learn about any restrictions in the place where they live. Some places don’t like bees; most don’t allow roosters; some wouldn’t put up with Novella Carpenter’s pigs in the backyard. If you are going to start gardening in the city, ask your neighbors what they know, or check out your questions with your local municipality.

How do you address the price vs. quality debate in the food community?

Organic food in general is extremely expensive. Corporate food is extremely inexpensive, but also toxic to the body and the earth. As long as agribusiness is subsidized by the federal government, this imbalance is going to prevail. I think the best possible solution is to generate as many food security projects as possible in our cities–like the Spiral Gardens in Berkeley, or the People’s Grocery or Mo Betta Foods in Oakland, or Petaluma Bounty [read about them in the book]–which have as their mission to grow healthy food for food insecure people and distribute it at a reasonable price.

Our food-focused communities have to do the work of creating healthy food for people who are food insecure and who cannot afford organic food. These kinds of projects are where the social justice aspect of the homesteading movement is made the most clear–this is not a movement to fight for if it only provides food to the people who can already afford to buy organic. It has to do the work of becoming truly egalitarian in order to redress the profound imbalances in the food system. And that means working to creating local projects that enhance the food system and make healthy food available to everyone.

WholeFoods will now sell Monsanto GMO products. Angry? Apathetic?

You bet — Angry. Disgusted. Monsanto poses a true danger to the fabric of the food chain and life as we know it. Introducing GMO into food, and GMO grains onto the fields is going to negatively impact organics, soil fertility, food nutrition, human health, soil health… It is criminal that these corporations are being allowed to introduce their franken-foods and GMO seed to all of us without our consent. Obama has shown his true colors by recently approving GMO Round-up Ready Alfalfa for use in the fields –this will absolutely negatively and permanently affect the food chain. The fact that Whole Foods is selling GMO foods is surely disappointing, but not out of keeping with their “by any means necessary” bottom-line business practices. Anyone who thinks of Whole Foods as a company committed to sustainability hasn’t been reading the labels very clearly.

Cob or brick? Straw or mud?

Depends on what you are building, where, and for what. Cob is very do-it-yourself, affordable and durable. It can be extremely versatile and beautiful. Brick is not a natural building material, and generally needs more of an expert’s touch to really be a good building choice. There is straw and mud in cob–so perhaps I would say cob is great whenever you can, but don’t forget the bamboo, the recycled building materials headed for the landfill, old windows and doors, and scraps of wood. I am fond of the combination of wood and cob, something which is easy to do with found and recycled materials, dirt and straw. Cord wood structures–the combination of wood rounds and cob and wooden post and beams–is also a beautiful and affordable natural building option.

About how much time do you spend out of every 24 hours tending to urban farm chores?

Depending on the season, I would say less than 2 hours/day. This includes managing the greywater systems, the gardens, the animals and the kitchen. Summer is of course most intense in the garden and the kitchen; winter is the slowest. Daily chores like cooking, caring for animals, and managing water systems take no more than an hour a day throughout the year.

Did you write a coffee table book or a hand book that gets dirty in the tool shed out back?
This is a hand book that gets dirty in the tool shed out back BUT it has a lot of really beautiful images so you might want to keep a copy on the coffee table too–or maybe behind the composting toilet.

Do you live by candle light Ms. Kaplan?!

Absolutely not! Though our bees give us enough wax to make a mighty fine beeswax candle, and we love to burn them in the winter. I even turn on the heat. And drive a car. Way too much. And eat hamburgers. And Oreos. And etc… I don’t think we should confuse urban homesteading with putting on a hairshirt for the earth, or living a totally abstemious lifestyle. When you hook into the homesteading ethic, conservation becomes as natural as breathing, but so does an experience of simple abundance and bounty which every garden brings to anyone who has ever tended it. This movement is actually about having a richer life by paradoxically using and consuming less resources, and by becoming part of the cycle of life, rather than just a consumer of it.

* * * * * * *

Author Bios –

Rachel Kaplan has been gardening in and around urban environments for over 15 years and belongs to a bi-coastal family of farmers and lovers of the land. She works alternately as a somatic psychotherapist, writer, educator, permaculture designer, activist and mother. She consults with organizations and groups about sustainable development. Rachel is a passionate advocate for the simple life, and the deep work of transition our culture currently faces. She has volunteered with Daily Acts for a number of years, helping facilitate the Homegrown Guild, a group of backyard farmers and gardeners. She holds two Masters degrees, one in Multidisciplinary Art and the other in Counseling Psychology. Her theater work has toured internationally, and she is the author and editor of numerous books, including The Probable Site of the Garden of Eden, and Diaspora: Stories from the Cities. She lives and works in Petaluma, California with her partner and their daughter on a little homestead called Tiny Town Farm.

K. Ruby Blume is an educator, gardener, beekeeper, artist and activist, with 20+ years experience gardening in an urban setting. A life-long learner, she has studied everything from permaculture to pollination ecology, and has taught herself cooking, canning and fermentation techniques, as well as how to set tile, install a sink, do electrical wiring, tend a beehive and repair a motorcycle. Ruby has worked extensively in the arts and is the co-founder and artistic director of Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, a community theatre project for environmental social change. In 2008 she founded the Institute of Urban Homesteading, a project dedicated to promoting localism, self- reliance and urban sustainability through low-cost adult education. Ruby lives and works in Oakland, California.

Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living
by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume
300 pages, complete with illustrations, photos and original art
Release date: April 1, 2011, Skyhorse Publishing

Connections –

Rachel Kaplan
rachelkap @ fullcup.info

* * * * * * *

Wanna chat about this book? Then join us in the openmythsource – reservoir for feathers and rice!

This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s