Small steps: exploring urban homesteading

A sacred way of life connects us to the people and places around us. That means that a sacred economy must be in large part a local economy, in which we have multidimensional, personal relationships with the land and people who meet our needs, and whose needs are met in turn.
– Juliana Birnbaum Fox, American environmental and social justice writer, educator and founder of the nonprofit Voices in Solidarity, from Sustainable Revolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide

Isabella at Annie's Annuals in Richmond, CA.

Isabella at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA.

Last year, my daughter, Isabella, wanted to hatch and raise chicks, so she watched YouTube videos and read blogs and articles on the Internet. She presented her case for investing in chicks, ticking off the benefits of raising chickens. When we said no, undeterred, she built a chicken coop out of a cardboard box and populated it with cotton-ball chickens and shredded-paper “hay.” After a few months of begging and being stonewalled, she gave up and shut down the coop, which had sat in the middle of her bedroom for weeks.

Her obsession with chickens was rekindled in May when we resumed our trips to East Bay Nursery (2332 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702, 510.845.6490) and Annie’s Annuals (740 Market Avenue, Richmond, CA 94801, 510.215.3301), which has a chicken coop. The love of plants and gardening sprang forth for the both of us as it always does in spring, as reliably as my dahlias and other perennials. In addition to her desire to plant a vegetable garden in the backyard, the argument for raising chickens also returned, but this time around, I admit that I was intrigued with the benefits. Home-raised chicken eggs are superior in taste than industrially raised eggs. Chickens eat snails and other pests. They till the soil with their pecking. Their manure is excellent fertilizer. But at what cost in terms of infrastructure and management, especially when Isabella has been known to be fickle with pet obsessions and neglectful of her pet gecko?

While David gave a flat-out no, I thought the situation begged for a teachable moment. I gave her a long-term assignment, which begins now that school is out. She is to research the cost of setting up, resources, and time, and what the daily management entailed – beyond watching videos of Becky the homesteader on YouTube. She is also to show us better pet ownership by taking better care of her gecko (read: remove piles of poop from Puntos’ tank). By late winter, she will present her findings and we will determine next steps based on the findings, her commitment to the project, and, most importantly, our inevitable responsibilities. The goal is not to ultimately thwart her desire but to gather facts. I understand the benefits, but I don’t have the time to end up doing the work. I can be convinced IF she will take control, the benefits truly outweigh the drawbacks, the costs zero out, and I don’t have to do much at all.

Rachel Kaplan gave an inspiring presentation under the tent at Annie's Annuals.

Rachel Kaplan gave an inspiring presentation under the tent at Annie’s Annuals.

Fortuitously for Isabella, Annie’s Annuals presented an Urban Homesteading Design Lab this past Saturday given by Rachel Kaplan, who co-wrote a book with K. Ruby Blume about their and others’ efforts toward urban homesteading. Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, is a tutorial for turning our urban environment into a diversified healthy ecosystem and embracing a regenerative culture. Rachel has moved away from using the term sustainability because she feels we ultimately cannot achieve sustainability. Rather, we need to adjust ourselves in the face of significant changes. We need to be resilient.

Rachel is an advocate of permaculture, which is based on three ethical principles: earth care (recognizing that the earth is the source of all life and that we are a part of it and not apart from it); people care (supporting and helping one another change our lifestyles to do no harm to us or the planet, including developing healthy societies that focus on earth care); and fair share (limiting our consumption of earth’s limited resources and using those resources in equitable and wise ways and working toward a just outcome for systems of our culture that have endured oppression and genocide).

Rachel emphasized that it doesn’t do any good if only one of us or a few of us live consciously. But if we are part of a growing movement, then what we do in our urban environment will make a difference. I didn’t have paper or pen on hand, and my memory is faulty, but I came away with a thing or two – including her book, which both Isabella and I look forward to reading and which Rachel happily signed at Isabella’s request. Rachel entreated urban homesteaders to create or grow more than they use. Fair share or sharecropping – if you can’t grow tomatoes but your neighborhood can and your neighbor would love the honey that your bees produce – encourages communication and connection with others and creates the proverbial village.

Following up on that concept of connectivity is achieving integration in all of our relationships – human, animal, and plant. Much to Isabella’s delight, Rachel introduced the concept of “stacking” functions by way of the chicken, which provides eggs, meat, feathers, and rich fertilizer. Chickens are many things at once, which is a good thing in a world of limited resources. That makes chickens valuable in this type of ecosystem. Rachel emphasized that stacking – benefits from just being  – is distinct from multi-tasking, which we all know is not a good thing on the body or brain.

Blueprint for an urban homesteading site.

Blueprint for an urban homesteading site.

Speaking of multi-tasking, Rachel also pointed out that homesteading shouldn’t be a burden. Don’t go big. Take small steps. Only do what you can. Only do what you have the resources and energy to do. Don’t kill yourself. She gave a great example. Rachel collects rain water, but it was a labor intensive and exhausting chore of hauling and distributing the water to her garden until she was able to get a system built to replace the manual steps. We need to be as efficient as we can with the least amount of resources, not unlike the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.

I came away interested in learning more about urban homesteading. Although it sounds hip and it’s certainly living a conscientious life, I can’t see myself becoming a beekeeper or installing a compostable toilet. I cringed just a little when she discouraged traveling by plane or long distances by car, which contributes to an expanded carbon footprint. But I do see ourselves setting up a small garden and being better about water conservation and conserving other resources. As for the chickens, I’ll wait for Isabella’s report when late winter is upon us. Stay tuned.