Monday, February 21, 2011

The Magic of Urban Homesteading

I lived with a food forest for a while, in LA. It was my first foray into urban homesteading, an attempt to become food self-sufficient in my front yard. But it evolved into something far more interesting, just as urban homesteading, which was revitalized via the 60's civil rights and 70's "back to the land" movements (but has certainly been in existence as long as there have been cities) has now evolved into yet a new, passionate expression of nature appreciation and community.

Our food forest was magical and beautiful, a place I could get lost in, right in my front yard. It had a Bodhi tree, the tree that Buddha sat under to become enlightened, that I, too, would go and sit under to be quiet within myself and listen for wisdom, midst the sound of the dozens of birds which showed up after we planted the forest to explore its branches. In it, there were tangles of wild berries mixed with passion vine, fig trees, tropical flowers and strawberry guava. It had logs to sit on under big-leafed mulberry trees where you could watch painted china lizard bowls piled with rocks and filled with water, a cool home for lizards who darted in and out and ate insects who got too greedy for our fruit and veggies.

As the forest became more established, mushrooms began popping up at odd and unpredictable times and places. Black and white striped, or moon shaped, or blue, or beanie caps, they told us that the forest was happy and whole.

Every week, people came over on Sunday to hang out in the forest. We would meander through and taste bits of chocolate mint, allspice, bergamot, borage, sacred basil, and Indian curry. Nobody could guess what the allspice was on the first guess! Not one person! Hardly anybody knew that allspice was a plant - they thought it was a mixture of spices (wherever those came from :-) that went in Christmas cake. I loved seeing the wonder on their faces as they smelled things they never smelled before or had forgotten, somehow.

We marveled at our seemingly inexhaustible heirloom tomato crop - purple, green striped, yellow, and multi-colored varieties, each bite a unique burst of flavor, a pleasing surprise. We searched for tender baby snow peas in the wild snow pea bushes, fronds intricately and delicately spiraled around each other - a perfect home for fairies. We chomped the volunteer lettuce leaves hiding under the snow peas, somehow tastier and healthier than the lettuce planted in our beds. The magic snow pea search is what hooked my kids on the food forest. After that, my daughter couldn't wait to pick the juicy peaches for peach cobbler, peach smoothies, peach everything.

Whoever showed up on Sunday (and we never knew who would, but they were always "good peoples") shared fresh veggies and fruit, shared seeds and plants, shared stories and a budding sense of community. We offered our compost to guerilla gardeners for seed balls and plants, that were used to beautify random secret places around Los Angeles. We co-existed with raccoons by discovering their favorite food was grubs in the bottom of the pots with veggie plants in them, and we offered them a gourmet meal at the edge of our yard - of soil and grub-filled pots sans veggies, where they remained content. In an abundant ecosystem, there is enough for all living things. It is a matter of balance.

Our potted trees and seedlings became foundations for budding food forests in places like Pacific Palisades, South Central, Santa Monica, Sierra Madre and Arcadia. Seeds were spreading from the forest, both in thought and action.

Sometimes people would come to tour our garden, sometimes they came for the community, and sometimes they just had too much city and wanted to get their hands in the dirt. So we would give them a shovel and a wheelbarrow and they would disappear into the forest, lost in themselves and the leaves, reveling in the groundedness of worms and composted manure and wood chips that fed the forest.

We started this food forest because we were worried about the state of the planet and the future for our children, which seemed bleak, and scary. Because of the pressing urgency we felt about it, we reached out into the community to spread the word - the necessity of urban homesteading. At first, we spoke a dark tale of destruction which depressed both us and our friends, but spending time in the food forest midst the tangles and spotted shadows, the wild fruit and secret spaces and colors and spicey odors mandated a different story, a story of life, hope, renewal, growth, learning, community, and love.

Along with the forest, we planned ponds, rainwater catchment, rocket stoves, arbor loos, and adobe huts, but alas, we had to leave that place and move on to other adventures before fruition of those visions. Those visions remain dancing in our heads, though, and in the heads of others who shared them, and the story grows, and the forests grow - in many places - multiplying exponentially as each new forest shares its seeds and stories and spiraling tendrils.


Homesteading can mean going out onto a piece of land alone, or with your immediate family, and working the land to provide for yourself - to be self-sufficient. The word can evoke hardship, sacrifice, isolation and loneliness. But this is not how nature produces abundance! Go into any forest, and try to count the number of interactive elements in it - there are millions!

Urban homesteading has evolved into something much more interesting - an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. None of us need be alone or isolated - we all are part of a greater whole, an intricate dance. The richness of interaction, the abundance of shared energies allowing the whole to grow much faster than any of us could do alone, is a lesson the food forest gave me which I will never lose or forget.

This culture encourages "rugged individualism" in all sorts of settings where it is inappropriate - in the midst of a valley inhabited by millions of people, like Los Angeles, pretending that you are alone in the woods is adventurous at best, delusional at worst.

In an urban setting, homesteading cannot and should not be done alone - it is simply not sustainable to do it in that way. If you are the only one in your neighborhood growing food, what will happen if a serious food shortage occurs?

Skill and resource sharing are essential if we want to transition to a more sustainable way of life any time soon. Sharing the expense, care and use of things such as a kiln or high end tools with trusted neighbors, for instance, allows one to expand one's activities and reach. This approach may entail a learning curve for those of us who have forgotten how to work within a community context, but it is well worth it - and quite rewarding! Aside from the obvious security issues, it is simply more fun and enriching to homestead in the context of a larger community. Way more fun, actually.

The food forest's alchemal magic and the community that grew and flowered alongside the shoots and blossoms of the plants have together taken root in my being, lessons learned through birdsong and laughter.


1 comment:

Sonya said...

that food forest sounds like heaven