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McMansions and chicken coups

Interview with Urban Homesteader and somatic psychotherapist Rachel Kaplan by DailyActs.org Community Relations Consultant Willi Paul

…nurture all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. To accept these realities is to accept contentment as the maturation of happiness, and to acknowledge that clarity and grace can be found in genuine unvarnished existence. Filled with subtlety and depth, this way is a river flowing toward and away from you, and always within you.
-- Richard Powell (from RK’s email sig file)

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Rachal Kaplan, urban homesteader and therapistRachal Kaplan, urban homesteader and therapist

What are the common values and principles in the Petaluma community?

Petaluma's a pretty diverse place for Sonoma County (which is a not-so-diverse place in and of itself!)--a mix of old-time ranchers, new-time immigrants from the city, suburban families with no interest in sustainability, Latino families some of whom are progressive and others who aren't, a progressive community, some artists on the edges.

I think there are common values in respect for the land and for family, but our town is split by politics, class and race, just like most American cities. Our town is also split by Highway 101 and I don't know if it's just me, but it seems that the dividing line of geography has either created or been created by a dividing line of values. Of course this isn't totally uniform (there are progressives and eco-freaks living on the east side of the freeway and mainstream folks living in the west), but the east side is characterized by McMansions and a motor boat in every driveway and a lot of lawns and fertilizer and wasted energy, while the west side has more of a conservation ethic, lawns turning into gardens and bicyclists and more life on the street where people encounter one another.

There is a strong environmental ethic in Sonoma County in general, we're one of the most progressive counties in the country and breaking ground on sustainability initiatives like greywater reuse and backyard gardening, but there are people here who are spraying with round-up and watering their sidewalks in the middle of the day. This is a town that can't even come to a consensus about whether or not it's a good idea to put a hideous asphalt plant on the edge of a bird sanctuary. (You can see where I stand on the issue.)

I guess I'm stumped on this one: it seems like Petaluma isn't unified at all, but represents the polarity that characterizes present-day America--call it red/blue, haters/lovers, wasters/conservers--we're constantly riding an edge of difference between us.

Tell us about the geo-spirituality at your urban homestead!

I love this question. Part of my story is about a search for home and belonging, a long history of moving from place to place looking for something that felt right. We came to this particular place, which we call Tiny Town Farm, after being forced to move from a rental property. That karmic kick in the pants finally made it clear that the search for home was out of our hands, and pretty much an inside job. It wasn't about finding the perfect farm, our own little acre. It was about how we felt about where we lived, and our ability to really root in place. We felt pretty defeated when we landed here, but we also knew we weren't going to be moving any time soon. Our daughter said, "We're not moving again for like 15 years, right?"

Instead of living temporarily the way we had in other rentals, we just started digging in. My partner became a beekeeper, my daughter asked for a garden, and slowly, over a few years, we've put in vegetable beds, fruit trees, perennials and plant guilds, taken on bees and rabbits and cats and dogs, built a chicken coop around the corner with some friends, harvested grapes from the arbor, and made friends with the neighbors. We really live here now, it's our place. And there's something spiritual about feeling like we are in our place.

Do we own it? We do not. Does it matter? Yes, and no. Let's face it: we're all temporary tenants in the temple of the earth. We're just passing through. So that's the most geo-spiritual thing I have to say: we live where we live in love and whether we own it is irrelevant. We're taking care of our little piece of earth, and that's a deep and good thing. That's the thing I think we all need to learn: how to take care of the place where we live as if we belonged there. We're not waiting for the next best place, or the perfect place, or our acreage out in the country, our communal land base where everyone we've ever loved decides to live. That dream died when we moved here, and now we're living the living-in-place dream.

We're on a small city lot, surrounded by other people. It's not quite big enough for us--we can't get a goat or really plant an orchard. Our daughter longs for more animals. So it's not perfect, but it's good. We know and love our neighbors and we look out for them and they look out for us. It's that silly Dorothy thing: There's no place like home. And that sums up the spirit of place to me, which is what I interpret that funny word "geo-spiritual" to mean.

How do you preserve food? Do you use Bell jars?

I preserve food by canning, fermenting, drying, freezing and storing. I use mason jars -- with NEW LIDS every time. I can about 35 quarts of stone fruit sauce, 20 quarts of apple sauce, 15 quarts of pickles, some jam, some food inventions like peach and apricot yum, as well as other things like figs, when I can find them, or green sauce made out of tomatillos. I gather a lot of persimmons in the fall and dry them on the dehydrator, or freeze them in the freezer to make crumbles, cakes and soups. I also make things with tomatoes because I grow so many --tomato sauce, tomato juice, and dried tomatoes. I turned the grape harvest into grape juice last year and canned it up and we drink it every Friday night for our Shabbat meal. That saved us a lot of money--it costs about $4/bottle for grape juice. 52 weeks a year = about $200. I make a lot of soup in the summer which feeds us in the winter. This summer my onions all bolted because of the combination of too much water and heat, so I turned them into yummy onion soup. That'll be nice to eat in November and December.

What is the Homegrown Guild at Daily Acts? What have you accomplished?

The Homegrown Guild is Daily Acts' "permaculture in action" arm. Daily Acts does a lot of tours and workshops, exposing people to lots of different, beautiful strategies for sustainable living. The Homegrown Guild is an opportunity to apply this knowledge, with other people, in your daily life. We have a listserv to announce events, share resources and questions, and to organize. You can go to yahoo groups and sign on, if you're interested.) We've set up gardens with people and greywater projects and taught workshops in canning and chicken keeping and mushroom growing, sponsored potlucks and seed swaps and cider pressing parties. We've installed cob benches and cob ovens. We run a program called the Garden Wheel, where people help one another establish their gardens as a community effort. So we've accomplished some community building, some efficient use of labor and time, and some regenerative design of people's places. We've had fun.

Individual households have accomplished a lot in terms of resource conservation and the implementation of different permaculture projects like greywater systems, installation of food forests, and waste management strategies. Here's a note on this (from my book): "In 2009, Daily Acts’ Homegrown Guild produced over 3,000 pounds of food, foraged another ton of local fruit, harvested over 4,000 pounds of urban waste to be composted and mulched, planted over 185 fruit trees and hundreds of varieties of edible and habitat plants, installed five greywater and rainwater cachement systems which saved and recycled tens of thousands of gallons of water, tended to bees, chickens, quail, ducks, and rabbits, and worked toward reducing energy use and enhancing commuting and transportation goals. Six households. Imagine a city where a majority of people tended to many of their daily needs in this way--the amount of food and water and energy and waste that could be sustainably managed is incredible. Our small daily actions towards the things that sustain us have an enormous impact."

The Homegrown Guild is providing working models of urban permaculture--things people can do on small or medium-sized lots to make their lives more sustainable as part of Daily Acts' mission to educate and inspire people to new ways of living.

For a typical urban permaculture project, what is needed for success?

A can do attitude is essential. A willingness to experiment, make mistakes, and keep trying. Some information (which is easily accessible on line or in the library). It's good to ask questions of people who know -- there are a lot of great farmers and homesteaders around who can teach you lots of things. So I guess humility is a good thing to have, the ability to say: "I don't know. Teach me."

Taking a permaculture design course is a great thing if you have the time and resources. I especially like the 4-Seasons format where you can learn the material over time.

I think you also need to have a willingness to challenge yourself on some things which are just not accepted in our culture--composting your own poop, for example--and living in a way that others might find odd, challenging, disrespectful, messy or intimidating. You have to care more about the world you want to live in than the world we live in now in terms of directing your actions towards a generative future. You have to not care too much about new stuff, and employ a pretty solid reuse ethic. You have to have a little space to grow, and a lot of inspiration to think outside the box.

What's success? Does it mean trying, even if you fail? Does it mean doing it right the first time? Does it mean keeping on going, no matter what? Does it mean creating intelligent designs that use your energy and the energy of life around you to good uses? Some of these things matter in creating a permaculture project, others don't (like doing it right the first time, which isn't even a goal.) Aligning your energies with you own ideas of success seems like a good start.

What is preventing mass public acceptance and implementation of residential grey water systems?

Lack of information and skill which leads to a lack of willingness. I think it's mostly lack of information. People have been taught that greywater is pathogenic, and so they are afraid to use it. Being able to show working greywater systems that are simple to install, easy to use, and safe would be a really big step in getting them more mainstreamed. Greywateraction.org is a great resource for this, and also Oasis Designs.

Is raising chickens in the city a good idea?

You bet. Chickens work great in a small or large backyard. They give great eggs and will weed your garden for you and deposit nitrogen-rich fertilizer on the beds while they're doing it. They are more fun to watch than television.

The most important thing in keeping chickens in the city is to have a good, solid coop for them that is predator-proof and not located under your neighbor's window. They need an area where they can roll in the dust and walk around during the day. They need to be in a flock. A solitary chicken is a sad thing.

If you assess how much space you have to keep the chickens, and whether or not you have the time to take care of them (a few minutes in the morning, a few minutes in the evening) and find that you have both space and time, I highly recommend chickens for the backyard farm. Once you've tasted those eggs, you won't go back again.

If you don't eat eggs, or have a big enough yard, or the time in your life to tend them, I'd give the chicken a good miss. Maybe rabbits or bees would be better!

How does your work in somatic psychotherapy weld with your permaculture endeavors?

It is my sense that healing the personal body and healing the earth body is the same work, the micro and macro level of the same thing. The small dance makes the big dance possible. When we change ourselves, we change the world.

When I work as a psychotherapist, I am helping people understand what is happening in their whole being--their mind, their body, their spirits--and collaborating with them to realize their own personal renewal. When I work as a permaculturist, I am learning what is happening in the whole system, and working to make connections and alignments toward the value of renewing the earth. These seem like similar practices to me, though the materials are different.

Working through the body is an excellent way to resolve traumatic events from the past, just as working in a regenerative way with the earth is an excellent way to resolve traumatic ecological events from the past. Working through the body helps us become more present to what is actually happening around us. This has obvious value in this time of significant social change, and is a skill that can be applied in many different ways.

I work with people to apply permaculture principles to their lives--exploring how values of listening and observing, valuing the edges and the marginal, recycling and storing energy, or creatively responding to change matter to people's individual psychology and life designs. Permaculture for personal healing seems like an obvious connection when what we seek is intelligent design, right use of energy, and alignment with positive principles for living.

Deepening an awareness of personal change in the context of cultural transitions is another way permaculture and somatics overlap. I offer something I call Transition Time Coaching to help people move through changes in their lives. This process is for people who are going through personal transitions (divorce, loss of work or family member, child leaving home, etc..), but also for people who are tuned in to the larger cultural changes that are unfolding at this time. It's about finding embodied practices for riding the rapids of change.

If people are interested in this kind of work, I encourage them to call me at 415-269-2721. I am happy to meet with people for a free introductory session or to talk more about how somatic psychology can serve the same goals as permaculture.

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Rachel Kaplan’s Bio -

Rachel Kaplan is a committed urban homesteader, food preservation fanatic, forager, gleaner, chicken-lover and teacher of heirloom kitchen skills. She helps facilitate the Homegrown Guild for Daily Acts. She is a certified Permaculture Designer, as well as a licensed somatic psychotherapist with a private practice in Petaluma, CA. She is currently writing a book about urban homesteading which is currently titled Urban Earth: Homesteading the City, but could just as easily be called something else upon its publication date in Spring, 2011.

Editorial Notes: Re-posted with permission. Thank you Willi and Rachel. Also see On Survival, Survivalists and the New Community Cook-out. (Group Interview from the Sustainability Age with Rachel Kaplan, Jan Steinman, Catherine Walker, and Pride Wright) -BA

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