Welcome to A Householder’s Guide to the Universe. This is a how-to book, a cookbook, a getting-back-to-basics-in-the-city book. It is a book on home economics and systems analysis, physics, linguistics, and housekeeping. It is part gardening journal and part food-preservation guide. It is part protest and part celebration. It is domestic in its expression and global in its reach. It follows the seasons. It follows the soul. It follows the unfolding of a life.
If today I call myself a householder it is with the hope that you might do the same. With all the obstacles currently facing our planet, householding has given me a way to understand, and challenge, the quagmire of contemporary society. It has turned frustration into action. Problems into solutions. Perhaps it will offer you the same.
The notion of householding emerged over time and through a number of significant events in my life. To know what came first and why is difficult to assess but these events rocked the foundation of a life that had previously been aligned with business as usual. It is remarkable to consider how these things happen but at its root I believe all change starts with discomfort. That was certainly true for me. After many years as a small-business owner on main street I had grown increasingly dismayed with the conditions and logic of “market forces.” Small businesses, once friendly and cooperative, began approaching their efforts with a new ethic—a business ethic of branding, logos, market shares, identity, and roll-out plans. I started my first business in the early 1980s and this shift in tone annoyed me. Not that us old-timers did not care for success, but we were less savvy or self-assured about it. Interested more in a lifestyle than a business model, we went about our efforts with a certain degree of innocence. Were we naive or just stuck in a time that had allowed for such freedom? My sense is that it was an easier, less competitive time, but it was not simply the tone of these new business models that confused me but the change occurring on main street itself.
During the years I was in business I noticed a shift in our “colonization,” if you will, of local neighborhoods. By 2000, communities were gentrified, local cultures upended, and reasonable rents dismantled. Though I understood there was nothing remarkable to that story of displacement, it seemed to be happening in overdrive. My first café existed in a semi-industrial area for years without the invasion of “place makers.” If I was lucky enough that folks came to my shop, it was due to my efforts, not the result of colorful shopping maps distributed to tourists. In the span of two decades, life on main street was transformed from the simple domain of shopkeepers offering goods and services to the surrounding community to the hoo-ha of street fairs and destination shopping if only as a way to stand up to the unrelenting competition that grew in leaps and bounds. Right on the heels of this evolving culture came the ousting of mom and pop shops in lieu of chains and the transformation of an affordable housing stock into fancy high design living at fancy high design prices. And as main street changed its pace of development, there were similar changes occurring in the pulse and tenor of the world.
In 1999, I went to a symposium sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization. Held during the larger World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, this symposium and its speakers opened my mind to an unfamiliar world. It was a revelation of sorts. Learning about U.S. global-development policies caused a fissure in the way I saw the world. Honestly, much of that information was new to me. I take no pride in saying so, but back then you could not take me for a radical girl—odd and alternative certainly, but radical, not so much. Fact is, as the daughter of a sample tailor in a high fashion designer salon in New York City, I had a clear moment of grief when the fantasy of sitting in a Paris salon to buy my spring, fall, or winter wardrobe faded from view. Silly, perhaps, but honest. Even today, my efforts translate more into a simple logic than anything else, though I cannot overstate the importance of that moment. It offered me an entirely new lens to consider my world. If, over the years that followed, I watched the world of main street unfold in a most unsettling way, it was due in large part to the things I was learning. I did not know exactly how they were connected but by 2004 my participation with the ongoing displacements made me ever more uncomfortable, so I left the business world to start hacking up the yard.
It was while working in my garden that I received my second revelation of sorts (though revelation is a strong word) in the form of a huge, old pear tree that for years had simply been a nuisance—too many dropped pears, too many fruit flies. It was as if a pear had fallen on my head to wake me up. I call it “my Newton moment.” If food in the form of the pears was a resource, an original “asset” so to speak, how had I come to taking them for granted, leaving them to rot? What had turned them into valueless objects? What had happened to my understanding of supply and demand, surplus, resources, stewardship, labor, value, time, and equity? I wondered how the rotting pears in my backyard were connected to the dead-earth systems of mountain-top removal or the disheartening consequences of global trade or the workings of agribusiness because somewhere, somehow, each, in its own way, is connected to an economic literacy favoring industry’s far-flung economic systems of resource management. Each, in its own way, suggests someone else should supply for our needs, design our systems, steward the earth, and define the systems of efficiency that rule our economy. Though yet unsure of the deeper connection, that unsettling moment (not some country comfort ethic) encouraged me to take my pears to heart.
Over the next few years I became a backyard food grower, gleaner, forager, and preserver. I began to teach others. Slowly, I traded in the store-bought for the homegrown and in the process found myself living more in the natural world than the industrial one. As it turned out, the more I sidestepped industry the happier I became; not only by my changed shopping habits (though staying out of grocery stores made me very happy) but also by my baptism into the illuminating, complex, and humbling systems of the natural world. What my hands-in-the-soil adventure provided was the no-kidding truth that it is the natural world, not market forces, that really calls the shots. Ask anyone who grows food, farms the land, watches the sky, listens to the wind, and feels the soil and he or she will tell you what we city slickers refuse to understand: if the earth is sick we all will be sick and no amount of market manipulation will change that. If this new foray into backyard gardening was inciting a revolution in my mind and soul it was more a mark of how far I had strayed. Born and raised in the Bronx, I was a city girl to be sure. What did I really know of natural cycles? Not much, I can assure you. So, while I am not saying we all need to get our hands in the soil, it sure helps. It helps shift our understanding of our place and purpose in the world, which, given the circumstances, can be a big deal right about now.
According to those who research such matters, we are at a wholly new place in time. We are at an environmental and social endgame of sorts with yet a few hopeful scenarios for change should we act quickly. This makes the matter of getting your hands dirty in a garden a little more relevant. Still, I am not sure which came first for me, the call to action I was feeling from the world around me or the epiphanies of the soil. But taken together they called for a shift in my life from the merely intellectual to the pragmatic. It was in that swirling miasma of discovery that I received my final revelation from the guy most of us city slickers get it from—good old Mr. Wendell.
I first encountered the term householding in a book of essays by Wendell Berry entitled A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. I was no newcomer to Wendell (and forgive the first-name usage but we are old bedside-manner friends). In fact, I think most of us have been looking to him for answers for some time. But at that moment the word householding resonated in a particular way. It brought together my wild and divergent thoughts, thoughts that had been percolating during my time on main street, in the symposiums, in my garden, under the pear tree, in my classes, and in my home. Slowly, I began to understand not only what I was reaching for but also how I might get there, not as a singular act but as a lifestyle, not just as it related to me but as a way of challenging the system at large.
As I would learn, the concept of householding is hardly new. Though modern society has translated it to little more than property ownership, there are references to householding in the Anguttara Nikaya, a text consisting of several thousand discourses ascribed to the Buddha and his chief disciples describing an ethic of responsibility in one’s household. Early Greeks defined householding as the original meaning behind the concept of an economy. The word economy, or oikonomos in Greek, literally translates into “one who manages a household,” and is derived from oikos, “household,” and nemein, “to manage.” That was a remarkable thing to discover. Do true economies, first economies, exist most honestly within our land, homes, and households? Are we all members of an “Earth Household” and a “web of life,” as suggested by Fritof Capra, the author of The Tao of Physics? Is our participation in the earth household vital for any meaningful approach to ecological sustainability? It is Capra’s clear position that “[w]hat needs to be sustained is not competitive advantage, corporate profits, or economic growth. What needs to be sustained are the patterns of relationships in the web of life.” So how have we strayed so far from that fundamental truth? What has hijacked our imagination?
I began to wonder if we had all been fooled, if we had all embraced, by choice or circumstance, some upper-case notion of an economy rooted more in large-scale global systems than the ones in our soil and homes. Had we all been born into some wildly mismanaged system whose rooted history had captured our minds? Sounds dramatic, I know, but not wholly unlikely. At times it feels as if there can be no other explanation for what we are witnessing in the world at large. Would a healthy and truly functional economic system really look like the one we have? Had we all engaged in some collective abdication of personal responsibility and would a return to these early scaled-down definitions of householding and resource management offer an opportunity for change? Could I, in the everyday efforts of household management—in my home, garden, and community—help shift the logic of modern-day global economic systems? But how, exactly? Looking deeper into the most basic premise behind economic systems offered me a clue.
Despite the complexity we imagine, economic systems are designed to manage the production, distribution, and consumption of resources. That’s it. Regardless of political motives, theories, and application, economics is a system of resource management. When designed to embrace the noblest of intentions, economic systems concern themselves with the equitable distribution of limited resources among unlimited wants—each want being considered, each resource being respected. At the other end of the spectrum is a system designed to manage/control/hoarde and profit on limited resources for the few over the many. So where are we on that continuum? Well, through my eyes, exactly where the system has designed us to be. Today’s expanding income stratification (the gap between the haves and the have-nots) and dire environmental conditions are not so much an aberration of an otherwise well-designed system but the goal of a selectively designed system. There is a huge difference between the two. Believing our economy is a well-designed system generously allows you to hope that while mistakes are made, a well-intentioned tweak here or there will set things straight. It allows for the ridiculous debates in Washington and across the United States as we try to confront global warming through market forces alone (nothing else is seen as practical). It fans the faux distinctions between the states as if God and libertarians would prefer the continual plundering of the world’s assets for the privileged few. It takes away our capacity to envision the type of solutions we must all embrace less they be seen as “socialist.” It causes me no end of grief when I think how willing politicians are (as representatives of the fat cats) to sell their constituency downriver, if only because they know voters do not understand what is really being said or done in their name. I’m sorry, but I am more inclined to think our system as having been selectively designed to be exactly what it is—an economic system designed to give the most to a chosen few; perhaps not entirely in its founding or in the way everyday citizens have sought to live their lives but as an overriding system that has met its final hour. At least, that is the starting point of this conversation.
Remember, I did not come to this position overnight or by some desire to run willy-nilly into the nostalgic world of urban gardens, backyard chickens, and stocked pantries. (Which is not to say that the householding life has no beauty and enchantment, for surely it does. Lots of it.) I simply wanted to ground my commitment to householding within the context of a global economic system run afoul because, if nothing else, householding defies the logic, premise, and status quo of that system. Householding promotes the revival of a personal system of resource management with the founding edict of equity, thrift, and stewardship at the helm. Householding attacks and reenvisions systems that have betrayed us and replaces them with something reasoned and in scale with the world. Householding is in form and function the foundation for a home-based economy because it is in our homes, gardens, and communities that the work needs to be done. It is a move away from the marketplace and industry and back to our homes and neighborhoods. It is a move away from a consumer culture and into a producer one. It is a reclaiming of skills once common to the people who lived on the land and in their homes. It is a way to reenvision our lives in the city, to take much of what we love in our urban lives and scale it to rural wisdom. It is a way to recapture the production, distribution, and consumption of goods from their economic system to our own. It is a system that seeks to close the gap between the producer and the consumer, between the land, the farmer, and our table. In all, it is an effort to regain our labor, skills, trades, dignity, time, resources, home, community, culture, and reverence for the natural world.
But it goes beyond that. For a truly effective system, householding requires the reevaluation of needs and wants, of stuff and lifestyles, because enmeshed in our current economic model are the complicated commitments, obligations, and expectations that keep us tethered to it. Certainly we can all start in small ways and I advocate for just that, but at its heart, householding suggests a stepping away from a modern American lifestyle that has all but defined us. And that might well be the most difficult task before us. But in its furthest expression, householding becomes a model for the world at large. It shows that we care, that we are willing, that we know better, that solutions are to be found not only in the marketplace but also in our own hands, hearts, homes, gardens, communities, and beyond. And just when I am wondering if I am nothing more than a cockeyed optimist, Wendell’s words return to me:
“You are tilting at windmills,” I will be told. “It is a hard world, hostile to the values that you stand for. You will never enlist enough people to bring about such a change” People who talk that way are eager to despair, knowing how easy despair is. They want to give up all proper disciples and all effort, and stand like cattle in a slaughterhouse, waiting their turn. The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon “other people.” Anybody who wants to can begin it in himself and in his household as soon as he is ready—by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by acquiring skills and tools, by learning what his real needs are, by refusing the merely glamorous and frivolous. When a person learns to act on his best hopes he enfranchises and validates them as no government or public policy ever will. And by his action the possibility that other people will do the same is made a likelihood.
So in our own homes and then beyond, let us begin.