Suburban Homesteading

The new blog Suburban Resistance points to this promising beginning of a new series on suburban homesteading–the idea of becoming more self-sufficient in some ways but (I’d suggest) ultimately makes us more aware of our interdependencies on nature and God for what sustains us. I’ve always been into this concept but have never had the time or resources to follow through.

As a youngster in suburbia, our family had a huge garden where we grew all sorts of veggies: swiss chard, broccoli, cucumbers, squash, green beans, etc. Being from rural stock my folks were into organic gardening back in the 70’s and 80’s despite having the opposite political views one normally associates with such things. I spent a lot of time with the venerable Back to Basics (ours was the first edition) which left home when I did… Back then I decided that when I grew up I’d have chickens, goats (for milk, cheese, wool, and meat), bees, and a fishpond along with my garden and greenhouse. I was also a wanna-be herbalist. The closest I’ve come so far is a clutch of container gardens where M and I have farmed
tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in our various rented apartments and homes.

Part of this tendency in me comes from nurture—I was raised with it; it’s just what you do. Another part comes from American individualism—a desire to be entirely self-sufficient. As I’ve grown up and have acquired a more grounded sense of things, I’ve realized that the desire for self-sufficiency is an illusion and may even approach the level of delusion. I’ve now come to the place where I see this activities as moving back into a place where we begin to recognize and integrate ourselves with the mysteries of incarnate reality: the cycles of the sunrise and set, the cycles of the seasons, the cycles of wet and drought. If anything, return to a more intimate connection with our food sources helps us realize how utterly dependent we are on others for our survival. Other people, communities, creation and its Creator.

In the Rule, Benedict points towards sufficiency almost as a by-product of the redeeming value of manual labor.  He prefers when the monastics grow their own food, noting that labor of the hands joins them with the apostles and the fathers, making them “truly monks” (RB 48.8). It’s interesting to read ch. 41 from the perspective of one used to electric lights: the focus on the rhythms of the sun reminds us of how alienated we are from the natural cycles by our technology. Too, it’s worth noting the kinds of food Benedict assumes to be available in ch. 39: bread, fruit and vegetables when in season, and not four-footed animals.

My wandering mind reminds me of just how much space John Cassian allots to discussions of gluttony. Certainly he considers it a problem for monks as a full stomach leads to an increase of libido, but issues of food, food cultivation, and consumption were necessary parts of considering the spiritual life for these authors. And, for him, these topics are also linked to issues of possessions, envy, and theft. (Stories of biscuit-stealing seem to abound in certain chapters…) But when was the last time you heard anything on gluttony recently? And yet that is, as I see it, part of what the suburban homesteading movement is about: curtailing consumption, of processed and factory-farmed food, yes, but also of the cycles of gluttonous consumption which our society glorifies.

So–I’m interested in a variant of this movement that does not seek to cut itself off from others in a drive for sufficiency, but to recognize the cycles within which we exist–the healthy, the unhealthy, and those good cycles that have been altered or perverted from what they ought to be. Peak oil may be a reality in our lifetime—or not. I clearly lack the scientific chops to weigh the various arguments about human-driven climate change especially as they are repeated and distorted y various outlets. But what I can do is recognize sound theological calls for prudence, temperance, moderation, and respect for the creation within which we exist and concerning which we are stewards.

7 thoughts on “Suburban Homesteading

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  2. David Bennett

    I am interested in homesteading as well. I too am of the opposite political party typically associated with these sorts of things, but old fashioned, classical conservatives seem to support the idea of not relying too much on government or big business.

    My new house is in town, but we are a fairly rural area, and the town has about 30,000, so there are a lot of farms nearby. We are hoping to get a garden set up, and maybe invest in some sort of local food cooperative to get fresh fruits and vegetables. I am interested in seeing what LP comes up with.

  3. lutherpunk

    Interesting, especially the way you tie it in with monasticism. I think there is a real link to the spiritual when it comes to cultivation of the earth, something that Barbara Brown Taylor hit on when she talked about harvesting vegetables on her North Georgia homestead. She went so far as to describe the digging of potatoes as having a eucharistic quality.

    Like the article points out, I don’t think most folks interested in being self-sufficient think of it in terms of hunkering down in a unabomber style shack, but rather as a way to provide a more connected, more centered, more conscious way of life. There was a time when we all were more connected to the earth, not in a tree-hugging-Birkenstock-hippy sort of a way, but in a way that let us see the interdependence all beings share. As you say, it is not REALLY about food, though that is the presenting issue.

    If we think back to our grandparents’ generation, we see that when things got tough, even those in urban areas grew Victory Gardens as a way of at least supplementing during a time of strain on resources. I think we find ourselves in a similar time and place, when even middle class families are feeling a real pinch when it comes to things like food and gas. Couple this with the real issues we see in agribusiness and some of its potentially harmful side effects, and the very act of growing some of our own food is revolutionary.

  4. Christopher

    I am reminded as I water my tomatoes and peppers that self-sufficiency is a delusion. The water comes from a spigot. Even were I on a farm near a river or stream, if the snowpack fails, so does the water. It’s one thing to encourage virtues that are sustainable and recognize interdependence, and another to think we can cut ourselves off from the main. This atomistic way isn’t the sort of sufficiency found in the Rule, as you note. Rather, sufficiency in the Rule is in contrast to Roman ways of owning slaves to till one’s soil or in being dependent to the point that a community cannot exist. Interestingly, our present Agribusiness makes most of us both. We are utterly dependent on what are essentially wage slaves to get our food to us. Matters of how we treat one another economically, and how we reflect upon this in light of God’s Economy, are a vital part of the Rule.

  5. Marshall Scott

    As I know some of you know, the garden is active at my house. We think about self-sufficiency, but also about connection with our neighbors. We share; and now my Best Beloved is considering operating next year our own small CSA.

    There is clearly an opportunity here, consistent with the Rule, to consider our gardens in light of commonwealth. This could be considered in a number of ways; but the sense is certainly there.

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