Yesterday I counted 85 spears of asparagus nudging their way up through the soil (Asparagus may be finished in some parts of the country, but we’re zone 4 here in cold upstate New York). I crawled along the row on my hands and knees, pushing aside clumps of rotted manure to reveal each spear. I ran inside and proudly reported the figure to my husband Bob. Then I called my mom, and told her, too. It took me longer to get this asparagus growing than it did to earn a Ph.D. I consider the achievement just as significant.
Anyone who has perused my writings can probably discern that I am not the best gardener. I’ve been guilty of insufficient weeding, inadequately nourishing my soils, failing to properly prepare my planting sites. Mainstream culture has encouraged Americans to specialize in what we are good at. We’ve learned to limit our daily activities just to those things we do best, and to allow someone else to meet the rest of our needs, never mind the social costs.
Radical homemaking pushes in the opposite direction. To have a socially just world, each of us must bear more responsibility for our well-being. The lifestyle requires a broad range of skills that will be different for everyone, and not everything comes easily. We don’t have to tackle every aspect of self-reliance, but in order to make our homes truly a place of production, we must push ourselves to take on some skill sets that we don’t naturally grasp at the outset. Every homemaker I interviewed felt their greatest pride not in doing what came easily, but in mastering the things that baffled them most, even if the results were amateur.
I noticed a series of phases that the homemakers periodically cycled through on this path to new mastery. It would start with a renouncing phase, where they would suddenly question some “given” in our mainstream culture: perhaps the importance of holding a job, or of listening to everything the doctor told them, or of sending their children off to school, or the wisdom of high debt loads, or the assumption that all food comes from a grocery store. During this period, the radical homemakers would become deeply introspective, read volumes, and spend time determining how best to honor their own spirits when negotiating this period in their lives. They might quit the job, pull the kids out of school, disregard what the doctor tells them, pull their money out of the stock market and pay off their mortgages. They might decide to garden.
In the reclaiming phase, he or she would set about re-claiming the skills needed in order to negotiate this new change. The skills can range from learning to cook so that their family is properly nourished, learning how to garden or keep livestock, gaining proficiency with alternative medicine, learning how to be with a new baby, getting comfortable with homeschooling, learning more about socially responsible investing. The variety of options is endless (and, I might add, no one took on all of them). Quite often, in order to successfully take on the new skills, however, the homemakers would need to retreat from other pursuits for a period of time. Perhaps they would resign from volunteer service, maybe they would cut back on the work they were doing for income. The objective would be to buy themselves the time they needed to gain the proficiency they were seeking, or to adjust to whatever life change they faced.
Generally, after a period of time, once the new skills were somewhat mastered, the homemaker would enter into the rebuilding phase, where he or she would once again feel able to offer themselves to the broader world. But this time, it would be on the terms of what they believed most deeply, and the offering would be made richer from the learning experience they’d come through.
No sooner did Bob and I renounce our careers and set about gaining self-reliance skills, than we found ourselves drowning in a sea of cloth diapers and precocious infants with a fascination for sharp objects, biting, and high-up places. It was all we could do to fulfill our farm responsibilities, pay the bills, fix the house and keep the kids alive. Meanwhile, our front field became an over-grown jungle, and our skill-reclaiming period was, literally, in the weeds.
When Ula (my youngest) turned one, I called a green thumb friend of mine and asked her for some houseplant cuttings, preferably succulents, which could handle some neglect. I promised myself that if I could keep them alive for a year, I’d allow myself to start entertaining the idea of a garden once more. She brought me over ten cuttings.
One year later, nine of them were still alive, several of them needed re-potting because they’d grown so well, and Ula had only tried to eat one of them (burro’s tails really are hard to resist). We considered the experiment successful. That spring Bob and I tilled the ground for blueberries and raspberries, we set up a beehive, and we dug a deep trench for the asparagus.
I’ve learned more during this reclaiming period than I did in four years of college. I’ve gained some technical knowledge about soil nutrients, pH, microbial life, and the importance of organic matter. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my family. Bob and I learn best through making mistakes, and we are both dedicated enough to our vision of our home and our food security to walk out to that garden every year and keep trying, in spite of the failures.
We share enough optimism between us to replace the things that die, and to experiment with new projects. In addition to the blueberries, raspberries and asparagus, we’ve now planted a small vineyard, an infant orchard, and we’re up to five beehives. I’ve learned a lot about my parents, and their willingness to simultaneously make room for us down on the farm, but also to allow us the time and flexibility we’ve needed to tackle our own creative projects.
Eighty-five spears of asparagus doesn’t seem like a huge harvest to bring food security to West Fulton, but today there will be more, and tomorrow there will be more still, plenty for our household and for sharing with my parents. The rebuilding phase of radical homemaking may mean taking on a great civic project, writing a book, teaching one’s skills to others, or starting a viable business. But it can be something simpler, too. In this particular case, it means finally having enough to share, be it experience, stories, or just something good to eat.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.