We live in a time of grand and sweeping narratives, powerful narratives that tell us who to be, how to live, what to buy, and what to believe–and these shape our actions and identities. When I was a child in the 1980s, the narrative of the American Dream, complete with the white picket fence, was compelling. A beautiful suburban home, a middle-class lifestyle, a loving partner, 2.5 children, a large house, a beautiful lawn, a husband with a well-paying job, and a generally peaceful existence were the cornerstones of this dream. Of course, there’s a lot of critique of the white picket fence today, spanning from racial injustice and socioeconomic realities to sustainable living issues. In the sustainability community, in particular, the white picket fence has become a sense of what we are working against, as the white picket fence surrounds the chemically-treated and weed free grass…and certainly, that’s not what is going to help us transition to earth-centered living.
However, what I fear is that sustainable living communities have replaced this white picket fence narrative with our own grand narrative, as equally powerful and as equally limiting. I call this narrative the “Free Range Fantasy” and it goes something like this: you and your perfect partner decide to quit your day jobs, purchase 50 acres in some remote area (which you somehow manage debt-free), and build a fully off-grid homestead using an awesome ecological design method (cob, earth shelter, passive solar, etc). This homestead is complete with solar panels, acres of abundant gardens, fields of cute goats wearing daisy crowns, happy free-range chickens, and two cute children covered in strawberry juice from your own strawberry patch.
The Free Range Fantasy is strongly promoted by a number of sustainable living magazines, events, books, and other forms of media. As an example, Mother Earth News does a superb job. For the record, I love Mother Earth News and enjoy reading each issue; I also attended the Mother Earth news Fair in Seven Springs, PA last year and have every intention of going again. But I also recognize that Mother Earth News is promoting a specific kind of ecological living and that living is not a reality for many of us, and it is in this grand narrative that much of the danger lies. For example, each year, they select a handful of homesteaders to be their homesteaders of the year. You can see articles on the last few years’ picks (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Notice a pattern? I certainly did: every “homesteader of the year” is a couple or a family; nearly all are living on large tracts of land and remote locations–and nearly all fit into my Free Range Fantasy. Now, from a sustainable living perspective, these couples are superheroes. I respect them deeply for the work they are doing, and the way forward they are paving. But I also have to ask: Could a single person ever win this award? What about a non-traditional community? What about someone who is disabled? What about someone homesteading in a big city or in a 1/10th acre plot?
When I meet and talk to people who are practicing sustainable living and permaculture, 9 out of 10 times, they simply don’t fit the Free Range Fantasy. They may not be able to afford to purchase a remote 50 acres and live somewhere–perhaps they are already trying to make ends meet just paying their rent and working two or three part-time jobs. How would they ever save enough up for a down payment, much less live debt free? Or perhaps they are still recovering from years in higher education and have student loan debt and need to keep their job to avoid defaulting on their loans. Perhaps they have sick parents or a sick loved one and are geographically bound. Perhaps they have a bad back or a serious disability. Or perhaps, they are single homesteaders–trying their best to live sustainably while working a full-time job, and doing so without the strawberry-coated children and supportive partner. Maybe they have a partner, but that partner has a different worldview than them, and this kind of living is out of the question.
I really commend people whose life circumstances have allowed for them to make the Free Range Fantasy a reality, and for the daily work of making that happen. I am inspired by the work that they do. However, for most people, the Free Range Fantasy, unfortunately, sends the message that the only way to live sustainably is to live by this ideal.
I have spent a lot of time in sustainable living communities, and I can tell you that it has a powerful hold, being upheld as the “thing everyone should be doing.” It can get lodged deep within you, this dream, of a life you *should* be living, rather than one you are living. I hear a lot of people saying “I wish I was able to buy a place in the country….” or “In my dream world, I would…”; these are the narratives of the Free Range Fantasy. As the Archdruid of Water in AODA, I mentor people through our curriculum. Part of the curriculum asks them to make three changes to their living to be more earth-friendly. So many people feel guilty because they don’t feel they are doing enough when in reality they are doing very good work and pursuing a better path forward in their own lives. The Free Range Fantasy minimizes the important work that they are doing, in their community, and as individuals.
Truthfully, until very recently, I was trapped by this narrative. As a single homesteader in Michigan, isolated on my property, I fell into depression because my life looked different than the Free Range Fantasy. For me, most importantly, it was the family/partner issue–I didn’t have two cute strawberry-eating children, nor a stable partner and it was extremely hard on my own to achieve all I wanted to achieve. I also didn’t have the funds, with my mortgage, to really take my property to the next step in terms of solar power, etc. In truth, I was doing everything I could, and still, my life resembled nothing like what I believed it should, according to the narrative. As long as I bought into the narrative wholesale, and I bought into it for a long time, then what I was doing never seemed to be enough, or sufficient, and there were always pieces lacking. In other words, the narrative made me feel like a failure, rather than encouraging me to celebrate my success and continued growth on this path–and I had much to celebrate! The narrative also encouraged me to place unreasonable expectations on myself. For example, when I tried growing all of my own food by putting in a 2000+ square foot veggie garden, I burned myself out and couldn’t maintain it (and started switching it to perennials, a much smarter option!) I now realize that growing all of my own food was kind of ridiculous when I was also working at the university 50+ hours a week. That is not a sustainable approach–and distance and perspective have helped me understand this, and the larger detrimental effects, of the Free Range Fantasy on my own well-being.
As my own confessional here has demonstrated, the Free Range Fantasy can be as destructive as the white picket fence because it limits your vision to this one ideal. It stifles you, preventing you from doing something now that helps move towards sustainability, rather than dreaming of some far-off thing that may never be your reality due to factors, probably many beyond your immediate control. More, if every person wanted their 50 acres, we wouldn’t have enough land available! Part of the work of living in a sacred, sustainable manner is about living better in the circumstances that make up our present reality, not dreaming of a lifestyle that may not be tenable for that reality. It is a good goal to work toward if your life circumstances allow, certainly, but there are other ways and means of living.
All of this has really been brought to life, and has shifted for me, during my permaculture design certificate and really embracing the alternative perspective that permaculture provided. Visiting small front-yard farms and alternative spaces was highly inspiring! Embracing small, slow and sustaining solutions is the new motto that I strive for. Permaculture isn’t about a one-fits-all model of sustainable living, but rather about applying ethics and design principles that can work for any life situation. It is here, that the power of these principles, that I found my path forward for regenerative, sacred living. And there are lots of books and resources that share alternative paths for such living, for example, how to make a permaculture patio! Permaculture isn’t the only way into what I’m talking about here, but it is certainly a way that has helped me get beyond the Free Range Fantasy in positive and productive ways.
I’m now at the point where I’m starting to consider buying a new piece of property after my life transition to a new job in a new state. The urban homestead appeals to me at this point in my life, the idea of creating a site where people can walk to, that is easily accessible, that is very visible, and that can host permauclture meetups, herb classes, plant walks, and more. This site could provide sustainability and permauclture education right in the middle of my own community and town. That’s probably going to be the route I go for one simple fact–while I am blessed to physically be able to do this work, my call is to educate others. To me, this education must occur where people, here and now, where people are rooted, and where they live their everyday lives. And those people aren’t just those who are privileged with being able-bodied, have abundant finances, have a perfect partner with which to do the work, or have their 50 acres debt free and ready to go. Rather, they are poor people, middle-class people, disabled people, students, single parents, people of different walks of life–and I think its important to meet them where they are, in the places they inhabit, and show them options of sustainable living that they can do right here and right now. I now understand that the kind of off-grid living promoted by the Free Range Fantasy takes a community. If I have no family, partner, or community to bring to a homestead then it seems that I will bring the homestead to the community and create family right here where I am.
But another piece of this is that there are always trade-offs and decisions to make, and each kind of living has its benefits: fossil fuel use and finances being two of them. In my case, I can substantially reduce my fossil fuel dependence if I live in a place where I can walk or bike to work and eliminate most of my car use–and seeing the destruction that fossil fuels have brought firsthand on the land here in PA makes me even more eager to go that route. In MI, I used to commute 18 miles to work one way, and although the rest of my living was quite sustainable, nothing I did could really address 36 miles round trip 4 or so times a week. Further, acreage is expensive, and I can also stay out of debt if I live in town modestly; that’s another critical factor.
In sum, it’s important to realize that the Free Range Fantasy is an option for certain people who have the means, drive, family, and opportunity to do so. However, it is certainly not the only vision possible, nor reasonable, given the challenges we face. For many of us, it is only a fantasy, and keeping our heads in a fantasy doesn’t address the importance of living in the here and now. We need a patchwork of unique responses, as many responses and sustainable living practices as we have people. We need people to do everything they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen: abandoned lots in Detroit becoming gardens; apartment dwellers learning vermicomposting; a local school planting a garden; urban beekeeping; whatever it is. We are starting to see those visions emerge, and we need voices doing all of these things. And so, dear readers, I hope you will be inspired by the multitude of ways, the patchwork of options, before us for sustainable living and regenerative, healing lives!
PS: I just realized that this is my 250th post on the Druid’s Garden Blog! How fitting! 🙂