Reclaim the Domestic Arts: Creating Harmony Through Homekeeping

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I was not raised to be a homemaker. Like many other women of my generation, I was convinced by the women’s movement that there were more important things to do than make a home for myself, a husband, and a family. My own mother, a piano teacher, helped support our family financially, but she didn’t make a home for us.

My early years were not completely without role models, however. I had two grandmothers who were wonderful homemakers. My mother’s mother knew about thrift. My grandfather was a truck driver, and on that meager income my grandparents owned a tiny Arts and Crafts house and had money in the bank. My grandmother prepared all their food from scratch. She tended a backyard vegetable garden where they grew much of their produce. Her home was always clean and tidy. And she still had time to volunteer at her church and become an accomplished painter.

My father’s mother was also highly skilled at homemaking, as were her sisters. From them I learned to bring beauty into the home. In their homes, the table was always set with fine china and silver and crystal. They taught me table manners and how to arrange food beautifully on the plate.

After many years of focusing almost exclusively on my career–and with all options open to me as a contemporary woman–I have chosen to be primarily a homemaker. As I began to be more aware of myself as a being of Nature, the deep natural instinct to make a home emerged within me. Although I also produce income, it is the by-product of creative work I love to do, and my life no longer revolves around my work.

Home is the foundation that supports everything we do. It is where we rest and renew ourselves and receive nourishment. It is the starting point of every new day. Although other activities are more glorified in our culture, I cannot imagine anything more important than making a good home for oneself and loved ones.

Everyone’s work

Until the industrial/consumer age, women and men worked together to make their homes. Traditionally the man built and repaired the house and did the heavy outdoors work. The woman maintained the interior of the house, decorated, cooked, and gardened.

In our home, my husband, Larry, and I continue this traditional division of labor. We don’t do something because it is “woman’s work” or “man’s work,” but because we fall to it naturally. I prepare the meals because I am a fabulous cook. But Larry nourishes us in other ways. In our backyard we have abundant citrus trees, which Larry surveys every morning. He examines all the fruit and picks only the perfectly ripe ones to put in his basket. Then he brings them into the kitchen and hand-squeezes the juice.

We work to improve our house together. We love to hunt for beautiful old windows and doors in salvage yards. While it is up to me to choose the décor, Larry often has his tools out to put up shelves or paint walls. As I drink the juice he has prepared for me or hang my broom back up on the pegs he installed, I feel his love for me and for our home.

Creative homekeeping

In our home, there is no such thing as menial housework. Preparing food is creating loving nourishment for the health of our bodies and the joy of our senses. Making the bed is creating a lovely place for us to be together in our deepest intimacy. Cleaning and tidying up the house brings the ease of life that comes when everything is in order. Making our home puts my hands to work after the intellectual work of writing.

Homemaking is a creative act, a work of art in progress. In fact, it used to be known as “domestic arts”–cooking, cleaning, sewing, money management, raising children, first aid and basic health care, home décor, and home maintenance. We buy our food, clothing, shelter, and health care rather than viewing what sustains our lives as integral creative acts. We are consumers instead of creators; we buy instead of do.

Before the Industrial Revolution, everything that we now purchase was produced in the home, or by local artisans. We think that we have been relieved from tremendous drudgery, but we have also been torn from our connections with the earth and the materials from which our household goods are made. When you shear a sheep, spin the wool, and knit the yarn, you know where your sweater came from. You know you need to care for the animals and their habitat if you want another sweater.

It would be impractical to suggest that we return to a preindustrial way of life, yet we can restore many homemaking skills that bring personal joy and satisfaction as well as save money. I enjoy cooking, growing food and flowers, sewing clothes, cutting my husband’s hair, making music, and remodeling.

For me, homemaking goes beyond the four walls of our house. Included in my loving care are animals and plants that live in the garden. And the community is included, for I have an affect on the community–and, by extension of this logic, the entire earth is subject to my care and love, just as it offers me habitation.

An ancient Chinese proverb says, “If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” As we make our homes, so do we also make the world.

Debray Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).

Simple Ways to Create a Natural Neighborhood

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It is great to live in a natural home, and it is wonderful to see more and more of them. But what about the context of these natural homes? Are they also located in natural communities or natural neighborhoods? Very few are, I expect. Many of us have a dream of living in a sustainable, healthy community–a “natural community.” What can we do to make the dream a reality?

This desire is not new. Witness the many American utopian communities that have flowered at one time or another. Remember also the new towns of the 1920s. Modeled on the English “garden city” concept, many were actually built–including Radburn, New Jersey, which is famed for its early segregation of cars and pedestrians. New communities in Reston, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., followed similar ideas in the 1970s. Alongside these are “green” planned communities, notably Village Homes in Davis, California.

Often called the “granddaddy of green developments,” Village Homes was completed in 1981. Consisting of single-family homes and apartments (240 units) and 4,000 square feet of commercial space set on 70 acres, the concept and designs of Michael and Judy Corbett have proven a remarkable success story. Using “urban permaculture” principles, they naturally integrated closely clustered solar and energy-saving houses with orchards and vegetable gardens. A network of paths and cycleways reduce reliance on cars and encourage walking and biking. They also facilitate close neighbor contact, as do generous community provisions including meeting rooms, swimming pools, and playing fields. Twenty thousand trees shade houses and roads from the hot sun, making for a pleasant environment and less air-conditioning. These benefits, plus advanced recycling systems, make Village Homes a model sustainable community, where living a little bit lighter on the land and consuming a little bit less make all the difference.

The urban approach

Planned communities–whether green or not–are few and far between, and they evoke mixed resident reactions. Some say they are excellent and the way forward, and some say they are too large, too low in density, and take up too much virgin land. Now, with mounting pressure on open space, it is vital that we concentrate on revitalizing our existing neighborhoods and reusing already developed land to reduce urban sprawl and create compact towns and cities. The answer may be to take a smaller scale, more urban, grassroots approach.

In an attempt to steer Berkeley, California, on an ecological course, Richard Register wrote Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future (North Atlantic Books, 1987). He proposed “integral neigborhoods” that would be like an eco-village within the city. These would allow for close proximity of home, work and leisure facilities. He saw these being created via gradual addition of small projects–tree planting here, creek restoration there, a “slow street” for bicycles elsewhere–all coalescing to transform the neighborhood. But later he admitted, “The pieces never coalesced in the minds of the public. Nowhere do enough ecocity features come together at a single glance.” However, his vision is still very much alive, and Urban Ecology, the education/action organization he started in 1975, continues to inspire Berkeley’s future.

Across the United States, visioning the restoration of existing urban areas is very much in vogue. The recent ten-day Natural Building Convergence in Portland, Oregon, was a case in point. Small demonstration projects built by participants were likened by Joseph Kennedy of Builders Without Borders to “green vines spreading out through the city.” These ranged from cob (a mix of earth, sand, and straw) and stone information kiosks and gateways to a cob memorial with recycled bike parts erected at an intersection where a cyclist was killed by a car. Another interesting group, the Sustainable Communities Network, links citizens to resources to help create sustainable communities. It offers practical advice on creating community and smart growth (development serving the economy, community, and the environment). Sustainable Seattle, with its “what-you-can-do” approach, has served as a model for similar initiatives in more than ninety cities across the United States, as has Environment Canada with its Millennium Eco-Communities program.

Considering cohousing

Cohousing is a further user-friendly route. Based on the successful Danish model, an established participatory process helps would-be cohousers and guides them through all the stages from concept to completion, including finance and approvals. Well-designed private individual homes supported by communal facilities make these extremely attractive projects.

If you want to go the whole hog and live in an ecovillage, contact the Ecovillage Network of the Americas. With strong links to ecovillages in North and South America and Europe, the network promotes sustainable living via workshops, conferences and educational programs. It also offers support for those wanting to start an ecovillage. Of the host of ongoing projects, a pioneering example is The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, which is now home to 163 people who share a commitment to simple living and self-reliance. The Los Angeles Eco-Village, another notable example, demonstrates the ecovillage approach within a city. Its innovative community projects include affordable ecohousing, an electric car co-op, an organic market garden and a water reclamation system.

Permaculture and community

Coined in 1978 by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture (permanent agriculture) integrates human habitats with sustainable food production. It has grown enormously in popularity and is now a worldwide phenomenon. Broadening out from its food and agricultural focus, permaculture has become an overall lifestyle for many who like its practical hands-on approach. Permaculture projects have blossomed into ecovillages, and ecovillages have become surrounded (and covered) by beautiful and productive vines, orchards and vegetables!

So, wherever you are, there are lots of ways and means to find a natural sustainable community for your natural home. Dreams can come true!

David Pearson is an architect and author of The New Natural House Book: Creating a Healthy, Harmonious, and Ecologically Sound Home (Fireside, 1998) and other books. After receiving a master’s degree in city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley, he worked on the new English city of Milton Keynes, a “third-generation new town” planned to house 250,000 people. He has since worked as a community architect in London and Los Angeles.

Certified Lumber: A Better Way to Build

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Certified lumber is still more of a fantasy than a reality in the homebuilding world. It’s true that Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified lumber exists and is identified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program as a point toward getting a commercial building accredited. But out of some 70 trillion board feet of softwood lumber used by the homebuilding industry each year, FSC-certified lumber is not even a blip on the radar screen.

Why is that? Because nobody is asking for it. Lumberyard owners and retailers alike say they would carry it if there were a demand. Wood mills say they have plenty in stock but that no one is buying it. It is time for us to make our values known through how we spend our money. If we don’t demand wood from FSC-certified sources, we will continue to support an industry that has little concern for the future, much less the natural cycles of the planet today.

I was at a Rainforest Action Network (RAN) awards dinner a few months ago. RAN’s “markets campaign” has been pressuring customers to stop buying products from some of the worst offenders in the logging and forest products industry until they change their logging practices. I was seated next to a remodeler who had just finished an addition for one of the loudest protesters in the organization. The remodeler told me he had tried to get this person to use sustainably harvested lumber but that the client complained it was too expensive and used conventional lumber! It is this kind of behavior that perpetuates the clear-cutting of what is left of North America’s old growth forests. This is where we, the ultimate consumers of millions of unnecessarily cut trees, can make a huge difference.

We have a problem

Ninety-five percent of the forests that were here when our forefathers landed on this continent have been logged and turned into compost. Much of the 5 percent that is left is in “tree museums”–state or federal parks. A tree plantation is not a forest. A tree plantation is like corn; it is agriculture. A forest is a naturally balanced ecosystem starting with the soil and working its way up to the canopy where the butterflies live. It’s the berries and the bears in between that are left homeless after a clear-cut.

I live in Boulder, Colorado, one of the most progressive cities in the country, where building green is code. The city council passed a resolution in 1996 to use only FSC-certified lumber for all municipal projects. I tried for four years to get FSC lumber to Boulder, but no lumberyard would carry it. At the same time, Collins Pine, the largest FSC softwood producer in the United States, was selling only 15 percent of its certified lumber as actual FSC certified lumber. The rest was being sold on the “commodity” market, mixed in with all the rest of the two-by-tens from who knows where.

What’s missing from this picture? The consumer. From two-by-fours for the backyard playhouse to the tropical wood handles on the barbecue grill, if we don’t demand wood from FSC-certified sources, we will continue to support an industry that has little concern for the future, much less the natural cycles of the planet today. If we continue to allow the status quo to prevail by our lack of interest or demand for wood that has been carefully harvested, milled, and brought to our hometowns, then we have no right to complain, fuss, get angry, frustrated, or incensed by the perception that the world is falling apart before our very eyes.

What you can do

All too often I hear, “But what can I do as just one person?” It takes very few people to get the attention of industry giants. RAN helped bring Home Depot to the table with a corporate commitment to give preferential treatment in buying FSC-certified lumber for its stores. Now it is time for each of us to do our part. Certified wood needs to fly out of the bins while the “regular” wood sits there untouched. Every wood product we buy needs to be identified as sustainably harvested, or we will tell the store manager we’re taking our business elsewhere. You would be surprised how few inquiries it takes before a lumberyard or a hardware store starts buying certified products. Always ask. Always bring the issue to the manager. Write letters to the company buyers or, even better, to the CEO.

Change, in my estimation, does not take place in Washington, D.C. Change takes place every day in how we vote with our pocketbooks. If we support the companies that are working hard to make a difference, we support the kind of change that many of us are fundamentally committed to: leaving behind a planet that is fit for our children to grow up in.

Speak up and buy up. Only we can prevent forests from disappearing.

David Johnston is president of What’s Working, an international environmental design and consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado, that specializes in environmental construction technology and helped develop a marketing strategy for the U.S. Green Building Council to introduce the nation’s first commercial building environmental rating system: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). He is the author of Building Green in a Black and White World (Home Builder Press, 2000).

Pigs With Wings: Creating Positive Change

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David Eisenberg

Last spring Students at Evergreen for Ecological Design (SEED) invited me to give a lecture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The next morning the event organizers took me out for breakfast at the local farmer’s market, where I noticed a winged pig weathervane atop the building. The students told me that a city councilperson had long tried to get the city to create a farmer’s market, only to see his proposals defeated year after year. After one such defeat, he reportedly said that Olympia would have a farmer’s market “when pigs fly!” So, a few years later, when the council finally approved the market, the fly­ing pig became its symbol.

As we discussed the difficulty of creating positive change through partisan politics, I found myself looking at the flying pig and had one of those “aha!” moments. I said that what we needed was a new political party–the Flying Pigs–the party that does what every-one agrees needs to be done but will only happen when pigs fly! We had a lively conversation, envisioning a party of ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things, a party free to choose the best ideas from across the political spectrum; free to choose the best people; free to believe in, exercise, and demonstrate the kind of deep values and principles upon which this country was founded.

We discussed what the cabinet of a Flying Pigs administration might look like: Amory Lovins as secretary of energy, Wes Jackson or Wendell Berry leading the Department of Agriculture, Winona LaDuke as secretary of the interior (isn’t it way past time that we had a Native American in that position?). Ralph Nader was the obvious choice for attorney general, perhaps Hazel Henderson at commerce, and David Orr would be secretary of education. We imagined a government that remembered the importance of the commons–the land, air, water, ecosystems, and the people–the natural sources of our true wealth and health.

Pigs anonymous

Last year I also saw a presentation by Randy Udall, who runs the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), an Aspen, Colorado, nonprofit that focuses on energy issues and policies. He showed a pie chart of U.S. petroleum reserves, which had a powerful effect on me. The chart showed that up to 1950, Americans consumed roughly one-sixth of the total estimated amount of oil that we have ever had in this country. About two-thirds of the pie represented the estimated percentage that we will have consumed between 1950 and 2025. What remained was about one-sixth of the total–for every American citizen who will live in this country from 2025 on.

In 2025 my grandson Joe will be twenty-seven years old, the same age his father is today. If I’m still around, I’ll be seventy-six. That oil-guzzling generation is my generation, the baby boomers. My name is David Eisenberg, and I’m addicted to fossil fuels…

We are the problem: our lives, our cars, our homes, our businesses, our habits, our ways of thinking. But we have the capacity to be the solution, and that is the path many of us have been seeking–the first step is waking up and admitting we have a problem. Our culture has become extremely commercialized, and our economy is heavily invested in keeping us asleep. Waking up is a political act.

There are a few more items of significance in Randy’s pie chart. A considerable percentage of the remaining sixth of our oil reserves in 2025 will be the lowest-quality, least accessible reserves, requiring more than a barrel’s worth of energy to extract, transport, process, and distribute. So from an energy standpoint, there is no reason to ever pump that oil out of the ground.

More important, that petroleum has greater value than just fueling our vehicles or heating our homes. We’ve also developed an industrial agriculture sys-tem that is awesomely dependent on petroleum for its existence (as are we). As a direct result of industrial approa-ches to farming, massive quantities of petrochemical fertilizer and pesticides are used to maintain crop production. Virtually all of the farm machinery and transportation and some of the food processing depends on petroleum. And then there are the plastics industry, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and much more.

Before you cry out in despair, understand that Randy’s statistics were about U.S. reserves, not world reserves. Americans are theoretically in somewhat better shape in terms of global reserves, assuming we can continue to claim 25 percent of the world’s energy, even though we’re less than 5 percent of its population. Energy efficiency, renewable energy, alternative fuels, and lower-energy organic agriculture should all be national security matters of the highest order.

Wake up and smell the bacon

I didn’t share this information to frighten or depress you but rather to help us all focus on what we are all called to do today–to wake up and become citizen leaders, advocates for our children’s grandchildren and ourselves. Ah, but this is impossible, you’re thinking–far too big a set of problems for ordinary individuals to overcome …

Which brings us back to the Flying Pigs Party. Perhaps, if we can believe for just a moment that we can do the impossible, in that moment we’ll see that the only reason we can’t change the world is that we think we can’t. I can see a path toward the world I want to help create for Joe when he’s twenty-seven. And I’m not alone. Below the surface–under the radar of the mainstream, market-driven myopia of the media–is a huge wave of growing awareness of these issues. We all share that gnawing feeling that something is deeply wrong with what we’re doing, and we all have the desire to do something about it. There is something in the air (and it isn’t just climate change or small particulates) that leads me to think that the Flying Pigs Party is an idea whose time has come.

David Eisenberg is the founder and director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, Arizona, an organization that supports the development and use of sustainable approaches to meeting human and ecological needs through appropriate use of technology. He is co-author of The Straw Bale House (Chelsea Green, 1994) and has led straw bale workshops throughout the world. David consults on design and construction details and code issues, as well as research and testing projects for straw bale construction.

Published on Sep 1, 2002

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