I confess that I have several fantasy lives ranging from NASA astronomer to globetrotting photojournalist, the former being quite a challenge for someone whose mind can be boggled by scientific complexities and the latter being particularly amusing for a person who doesn't like to travel. One fantasy life I've harbored since back in the day when I had a subscription to Mother Earth News: urban farmer. Again, this is rather laughable because while I have the "urban" thing down, it's questionable that I'd be able to farm anything more demanding than a potted philodendron.
But what could be a greater commitment to minimizing participation in our consumer culture than becoming self-sufficient? An article in the January 25 LA Times entitled "O, pioneers in Pasadena," details the efforts of another fan of Mother Earth News, Jules Dervaes. He and his family decided to get "off the grid" by turning their urban front and back yards into an agricultural mini-miracle that's adjacent to a very busy, major metropolitan freeway. As if that were not sufficient, the family also converts discarded vegetable oil from local restaurants into cheap biodiesel fuel for their truck and they have created a selection of useful contraptions such as a blender powered by pedaling a bicycle. You can get more information about this astonishing accomplishment by visiting their website -- they're still "on the grid" enough to understand the importance of an online presence. Then, if you're feeling extremely motivated, you can get tips for starting your own urban homestead by reading the "Novice's Guide" prepared by the article's writer, Joe Robinson. Of course, there are also other websites and books offering city dwellers information about learning to live off the land.
I applaud the incredibly hard work and noble intentions of these urban farmers, but it's unlikely that most of us would be willing to devote the time and energy necessary to follow their example. I won't even attempt to get a tomato plant to grow on our patio because of the wasps that enjoy hanging around the general area; urban farmers can't get traumatized by bugs, so that takes me right out of the running. It is a fantasy life, remember?
But what are a few ideas that the urban non-farmer can implement that would help us live a little more lightly on the land? A simple beginning would be to support those intrepid souls like Mr. Dervaes by buying their produce at local farmers' markets. We could consider adding solar panels when the old roof needs to be replaced, and meanwhile, adjust the thermostat a couple of degrees to use less energy. I may not be too eager to wash my clothes in a tub with a hand-cranked agitator, but if my washer breaks (Heaven forbid!), I'd look for an energy-efficient model to replace it.
But perhaps more importantly, we could take a cue from the Dervaes family by giving some thought to their lifestyle: what they own does not need to be new and fancy; they reuse and recycle items in novel ways but the results are functional -- at least they work just fine for them. It's unlikely that we'd find any of the family members hitting the local mall to shop 'til they drop, just for recreation. I doubt that they worry much about the latest decorating or fashion trends.
Of course, most of us can't get by with a wardrobe of overalls and work boots, and there's really nothing wrong with wanting a fresh coat of paint on the walls or new carpet when the old one wears out. But how often do we turn to shopping as therapy? How often do we feel that we "need" something new when what we really want is attention from our mates, or more respect on our jobs, or a little time to ourselves?
What if we decided to tend our houses with the same kind of focus and determination that these farmers use to care for the crops on their land? If we clear away what we no longer need and use, then resist the urge to fill up that space with new but equally unnecessary stuff, we could nurture an urban household garden that would flourish right inside our own homes.
© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob