During my recent visit to Philo, California, my friends Bill and Mary Pat invited me to their home for dinner. At the table, Mary Pat introduced each dish with a story of its origins: a salad created from just-picked greens from their garden, including “weeds” such as round-leafed miner’s lettuce; roasted goat meat raised at a local biodynamic farm; thick slices of garlic bread made from a hearty wheat loaf baked that day in town with locally grown garlic and butter from a regional dairy. We drank wine from a nearby organic vineyard and glasses of filtered rainwater. Eating felt like taking part in the abundance of a community and its ecosystem.
Weeks later, back in my kitchen in Concord, Massachusetts, I realized that nearly all of the ingredients for the meal I was preparing were from California. I started then to seek out what was unique to my community and my bioregion—and how to really live where I am.
As we begin to realize some of the detrimental effects of globalization and an economy based on distant goods, localism, or “bioregionalism,” is becoming a more appealing alternative. Wes Jackson, noted sustainable agriculture advocate, calls it “becoming native to one’s place.” Poet Gary Snyder refers to “reinhabitation.” Poet and farmer Wendell Berry says if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.
Live here now
For Joanne Willis of Richmond, Vermont, the Y2K scare prompted a change in thinking. “We researched our power sources, where we’d get food locally, where our water comes from, how the sun hits our house at different times of day,” she says. “Ultimately, it was a great learning experience that made our lives feel richer—like we were part of something larger. Now we’re more appreciative of our local growers and all they offer. We’re also relieved to know that we’re not entirely dependent on imported stuff. We don’t feel like we live in a bedroom community any more.”
Becky and C.J. May of New Haven, Connecticut, decided to eat only food grown in their home state for one year. Their experiment proved a creative quest as they found sources of starch in squash and potatoes, convinced farmers to grow some grains, used local sweeteners (honey and maple syrup), and foraged for wild edibles in backyards, even in the city. “Local agriculture helps preserve and promote open space, the land-to-person balance, and smaller scale farming,” Becky explains. “That means less soil and water depleted in any one area, fewer pesticides needed to protect huge mono-crops or preserve food in transit, and less fuel used to transport food.” She now offers local lifestyle consulting through her business, YIMBY (“Yes, In My Backyard”). “Some of my friends complain that eating locally takes so much time,” she says. “Then I hear how they spend a couple of hours every Sunday at the supermarket. I’m never at the supermarket, and I don’t have to plan menus anymore because we’re going to eat whatever’s come from the farm that day.”
Living local also helps preserve what you like about your region: the plants, trees, waters, and wild areas as well as the small stores, food producers, craftspeople, growers, and service providers who know you. It can strengthen and diversify local economies, bolstering them against changes.
Picture yourself weaving a complex multicolored tapestry every day through your exchanges and interactions with your community, locale, and ecosystem. The more mindfully, complexly, and tightly woven, the stronger and finer it is. Here are some fun steps to get you started.
Know where you are
• Make up a name for your home. Base it on a notable geographic feature, your longitude and latitude, the local trees, a Native American name for the area, or the way the area has been used.
• Tell kids to pretend that your neighborhood is a new park that they will guide visitors through. They should know what trees grow there. Who lived there before you? Before the year 1600? What did they eat? What are the homes made of? Where do the streams and swamps get their water? Get a sense of what’s above it (stars, solar position throughout the day, winds) and below it (soils, geology, groundwater flows).
• Draw a map of your yard or neighborhood. Note the trees’ ages and types, streams, microclimates, structures, and so forth.
• Make a showbox highlighting your locale. Get a topographic map of your area from the U.S. Geological Survey office (USGS.gov or your town offices). Frame it with cut branches from trees in your neighborhood, and include pressed leaves, seedpods, and other finds. Include photos of buildings, people, and natural features. Draw a solar map over your home site.
• Know your energy sources. If you had no supplied power, how else could you stay warm or cook food? What is the warmest spot around your home? Where does your tap water come from? Where does both wastewater and rainwater go when it leaves your home’s site?
• Join the local historical society and watershed association.
Eat where you are—and when you are
• As fuel prices rise and air quality standards tighten, trucking food long distances will become less feasible.
• Find your local growers and visit them regularly. Small farms help save open space and reduce global warming by keeping trucks off the road. Join a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) program whereby you pay a flat fee for a share of one year of a farm’s produce. It provides money up front for the farmer and in-season produce for you.
• Eat foods in season. Think of some foods, such as berries and melons, as seasonal treats only. Buy grass-fed meat and eggs from free-range hens. Eating local food in season can provide nutrients better suited to the body’s needs at that time of year, claims Louise Frazier, author of Louise’s Leaves: A Cook’s Journal around the Calendar with Local Garden Vegetable Produce (Biodynamic Literature, 1995).
• Make a whole meal out of local foods. Once a week, trace the origins of the food on your plate. Read Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, by John C. Ryan and Alan Durning (Northwest Environment Watch, 1997) for some surprising insight. For a more positive angle, read about Gary Paul Nabhan’s experiments in growing foods traditional to his desert home in his book, Coming Home To Eat (Norton, 2001).
Commune where you are
• Foster society. Sit on your porch and wave at passersby. Put some chairs and a table or a bench near your road where people walk by. Invite anyone to sit there. Know your neighbors’ names.
• Stay out of your car for one weekend.
• Trade one hour of electronic pastimes (email, TV) for a local non-electronic activity. Take a walk with a friend, go to a Little League game, go to a town committee meeting.
• Do at least one helpful deed for a neighbor. Shovel the snow around your neighbor’s mailbox. Don’t wait around for thanks.
• Choose a service project in your neighborhood. Adopt a restoration project such as protecting an old tree or cleaning a river. Teach your neighbors about composting. Fill potholes. Trim trees. Start a local tradition such as making a scarecrow at Halloween or organizing a block party with different potluck courses—each served at a different home along your street.
• Attend local arts events. Go to plays and church basement coffeehouses. If they don’t exist, start them.
• Create a neighborhood telephone tree network in case of emergencies.
Consume where you are
• Keep your money circulating locally. Learn about local industries. Seek out and support local artisans. Sometimes local products cost more than goods from large chain stores or imports; think of it as a tariff for maintaining a healthy local economy that supports you. Think also about how much your vehicle costs to maintain and fuel. Over time, buying local can save transportation costs.
• When building, first look for a local sawmill or reuse local materials.
• Make it visible. Carry a basket, not a plastic bag, to showcase your local purchases when shopping and doing local errands. You’ll reduce plastic use and have a container that won’t crush your goods.