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Historians are like deaf
people who go on
answering questions that
no one has asked them.
– Leo Tolstoy
by Stephen Morris
Author Grabbe shows that "urban homesteading" and "radical frugality" are not about suffering and deprivation, but rather about developing an enjoyable, pleasurable, even sensuous lifestyle that pays dividends each time you turn the compost or sit down at the table.This is "green living" in practice, and it sets a model for life in the future. Amherst family reaps benefits of urban-homesteading lifestyle
On a sunny spring weekend, you can find me splitting and stacking the wood that will keep my family warm next winter.
Or I might be loading the compost I made a year ago into a wheelbarrow and spreading it into the garden beds before the vegetables go in.
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None of these tasks is necessary to my family's survival. If I bothered to count up the money I save and compared it to the hours I toil, it wouldn't seem "worth it" financially. But over the years this lifestyle of urban homesteading and what we call radical frugality have become like a hobby for me and my wife, Betsy Krogh. It's worth it because we enjoy it.
For me, it all began 30 years ago, when I read a book called "Living the Good Life," by Scott Nearing. Nearing and his wife, Helen, spent decades in Vermont, building their own houses and growing their own food, before attracting widespread attention in the late 1960s. I wrote a story about Nearing when he came to Amherst to speak in 1976.
Like many young adults of that era, I thought I wanted to "go back to the land" like the Nearings, but there were several problems. I am not handy, and couldn't build a shed, much less construct a house or tinker with a tractor. Betsy and I have two children who have needed attention and community _ and money _ for the past 20 years. And I have no desire to retreat from society; I like being involved in my town and cherish the friendships I have developed.
So we've come to a compromise that suits us well. We live in a farmhouse-style home on a half-acre lot a mile from downtown Amherst. I work four days a week and enjoy writing the newspaper articles that provide us with a modest income and health insurance. Betsy has not worked for pay but has supervised the children and had time to contribute her talents to our home economy and the local community.
It isn't exactly living off the land, but it's a balanced life. Our beliefs are interwoven with our tasks, and as we go about our household chores, we have that good feeling you get when work and play become one.
Every April, I make a large compost pile and marvel at the magic I'm able to conjure up.
On Sundays throughout the year, I pick up peelings and spoiled fruits and vegetables at Not Bread Alone, the free-meal program at First Congregational Church. I layer them with ground-up leaves and our own kitchen scraps in a 4-foot-square enclosure made of cement blocks. Then in April, I relayer them with grass clippings or manure, plus dirt, lime and water. This concoction heats up, sometimes registering 160 degrees on my trusty compost thermometer, killing weed seeds and disease pathogens and producing a sweet-smelling natural fertilizer.
I spread it on the 11 raised beds in our backyard garden, providing all the fertilizer we need, and in April and May the seeds go in. We grow lettuce, beans, squash, peppers, tomatoes, raspberries, peas, kale, chard and rhubarb. We can the surplus of tomatoes, apples (made into sauce) and raspberries (made into jam) for winter use. We freeze beans and peppers. The kale usually lasts until January under a hoop greenhouse.
We do not use chemicals to deter pests, but do employ a variety of techniques, including hand-picking, wood ashes and compact discs hung from strings. We even use beer, which attracts slugs that enjoy it so much they drown in it. Once, when I went to a package store to buy a single bottle of cheap beer, I told the clerk sheepishly, "It's not for me, it's for my slugs!" I think I saw him raise his eyebrows.
Not all our efforts to go organic have been successful. Apples are the most difficult crop to grow organically. Several years ago, I stopped using chemical insecticides and fungicides, and also stopped getting apples on our two trees. One year we tried a new product that coats the trees with a clay-like substance that supposedly causes insects to look elsewhere. That didn't work either, and our trees eventually became firewood. I get more sheer enjoyment out of processing firewood than from any other outdoor task.
Several wooded lots in our neighborhood have been cleared for houses in the past two years, and I asked the contractors if we could have the trees. In one case, a contractor delivered them to me; in another, I cut them into logs and brought them to our yard in a wheelbarrow.
Using a chain saw to cut up trees is dangerous, and I'm careful to do it only when I'm feeling alert and to quit before I get tired. But using an ax and a maul to create stove-size logs is satisfying work.
The woodpiles seem so beautiful that sometimes I just stare at them and feel a deep sense of contentment. In the winter, warmed by the stove, I feel that all my work has been worthwhile. My heating fuel has not been transported thousands of miles from unstable countries, but has come from my own neighborhood.
Some aspects of our urban homesteading life are much easier because of our in-town location.
Living near town, schools and work, we usually own only one car. We use bicycles, the bus, carpooling and walking for much of our transportation with hardly any inconvenience. And living in a college town, we anticipate the annual late-May departure of the students, not only for the quiet it brings but because they leave behind all sorts of furniture, clothing and household goods that we are delighted to harvest from the roadsides. We also love finding books and other useful items at the "take-it-or-leave-it" exchange at the town's recycling center.
Other household practices are designed to save energy or avoid spending money. We hang our laundry on a clothesline outside to dry in the wind and sun, a practice that's actually restricted in some parts of Amherst. Last year, we invested in a solar hot-water system that adds a new dimension to taking a shower.
We belong to a natural-food-buying club in our neighborhood, and I regularly bake bread and cookies and make soup from scratch. In the summer, Betsy often cooks rice in our homemade solar oven. We get books at the Jones Library and share newspapers with nearby family members. We even pick up bottles and cans on the street; our redemption income is about $50 a year. At our little urban homestead, my family and I enjoy a high level of domestic security. We produce some of our food and energy and avail ourselves of what is freely given by nature or cast off by other people in our land of plenty. We relish the challenge of creative solutions to overcoming life's obstacles and acquiring life's necessities. We incorporate frugal and earth-friendly practices into our everyday routines. We seek satisfaction in relationships, work and the nonmaterial delights of expanding our minds and spirits.
In spring, as in the other seasons, we aim to enjoy it all.
Reprinted with permission of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. All rights reserved. Nick Grabbe is a freelance writer who lives in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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