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In whose hands?

I am not by nature a joiner. I became a member of the Green Party in the UK mainly to spite Phil Woolas after he made some more than usually daft comments about non-EU immigrants. That the Green Party did exceptionally well in the last general election and seems, to me, to offer the only credible way out of the global recession were pleasing perks of membership, but otherwise I didn’t appreciate being told to toe the party line on a few issues, sugar pill-based quackery homeopathy being one of them. I suppose that I don’t particularly enjoy being told what to think. This is why I’m in academia which is, as a friend put it, the last refuge of the sociopathic.

It’s partly for this reason that I’m fascinated by groups of people who set out, purposefully, to create alternative communities away from mainstream society: people who base these experiments in new living on complex rules for behaviour and thought. It’s something I would never do, and I am curious as to why others find it so attractive. I wrote my MA thesis about the first boarding school for the daughters of the Cape Colony’s Dutch-Afrikaner middle classes in the nineteenth century. This institution was a secluded, strictly evangelical retreat from colonial society for the pupils who lived there, many of whom complained that they found it difficult to return to the habits and routines of normal family life. Mission stations run by societies like the Moravian Brotherhood were similar. There, at places like Genadendal and Elim, residents were required to adhere to strict rules regarding work, dress, and speech.

The best known of these retreats were Robert Owen’s utopian socialist communities in the United States during the 1820s. The first of these, New Harmony, lasted only a few years. But there have been hundreds of similar examples, most of them unsuccessful. It seems that nearly every generation of reformers has a fringe which believes that the best way to reform society is to leave it, and construct a new way of living on its fringes. There are elements of this in the recent Dark Mountain Project founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. They argue that the best way to prepare for a post-peak oil world and catastrophic climate change is to retreat, and to learn how to live sustainably and self-sufficiently away from society.

One of the most striking features of these experiments is the primacy they give to food. The cultivation of crops and, less frequently, the care of animals (and it’s interesting, although not surprising, how many alternative communities were vegetarian) were central to life in these societies. Not only was this importance due to practical reasons – before the beginning of the twentieth century, at least, it would have been too expensive to buy in adequate food supplies in rural areas – but for symbolic ones: ‘pure’ food produced by hardworking and hardthinking workers was bound to be better than that grown by exploited wage labourers.

I’ve recently finished reading This Life is in Your Hands, Melissa Coleman’s gripping memoir of her early childhood on the homestead established by her father, Eliot Coleman, a man believed by many to be the father of the modern organic movement in the United States. In 1968, Eliot and is wife Sue packed their belongings into a VW van and travelled to rural Maine – five hours from Boston, and three from Portland – to a plot of land on which they intended to build a homestead and grow enough vegetables and fruit for their own consumption. They had been inspired by the experiences of an older generation of ‘homesteaders’, Helen and Scott Nearing. Indeed, the idea of modern homesteading – living entirely self-sufficiently – was popularised by the Nearings’ book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954) in which they described a lifestyle in which was independent from the economy; healthy; and completely ethical. It was a life sustained by work done by their own hands.

The Colemans bought their land from the Nearings, and, using Living the Good Life as their Bible, set about living in accordance to the rules established by the Nearings. Eliot built their wooden cabin himself; they lived without electricity and running water; they cultivated most of their food themselves; and they bought as little as possible from the local shopkeepers. However idyllic this life may have appeared, it was precarious and dependent on backbreaking labour:

That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn’t matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town – not to mention that Jeep’s registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on.

They soon realised that complete self-sufficiency was impossible. The Nearings, for all their status as homesteading gurus, bought in a range of luxuries, and the Colemans had to purchase oats and other grains, yeast, seeds, bacteria for making yogurt, and vitamin B supplements for their diet. And the absolute seclusion they enjoyed during their first year or two of homesteading – when Melissa was born – came to an abrupt end as a result of an article in the Washington Post by a sympathetic journalist, and Eliot’s ambitions to spread the gospel about organic gardening. He was already selling the surplus from their garden, and believed that organic methods offered an alternative to the new farming orthodoxy espoused by Nixon’s Secretary for Agriculture, Earl Butz, who advised farmers to plant maize ‘from fence row to fence row’.

Eliot’s increasing renown, his ever longer absences to study and lecture, as well as the numbers of enthusiastic students who came to work on the garden in the summer – often in the nude – put strain on the Colemans’ marriage. And it’s here that one of the main problems of these alternative communities becomes especially apparent. For all their desire not to replicate the power structures of mainstream society, they invariably do. Women continue to undertake the burden of domestic labour. Eliot Coleman worked unbelievably hard – to the extent that he developed hyperthyroidism as a result of stress and exhaustion – but, as a contemporary article on homesteading makes the point, he did the ‘fun’ bit: the growing. When he finished his work in the garden at night, he could rest. Sue, though, was responsible for keeping house and doing laundry without soap, detergent, or appliances. She ground their own flour, made yogurt, sewed and mended their clothes, and bottled, canned, and preserved food to see them through the winter. She had three daughters under the age of seven to care for. Oh, and she ran their vegetable stall too. Her work – invisible and largely unappreciated – was unremitting.

Michelle Nijhuis suggests that one of the reasons why women find homesteading so difficult is because of the absence of labour saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners: without them, otherwise easy chores become difficult, time consuming, and very, very boring. But I’m not so sure about this argument. (Although who am I to disagree? I wouldn’t touch homesteading with a bargepole and she’s a paid-up member of the movement.)

Much of This Life is in Your Hands reminds me of John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning double biography of Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts (2007). Louisa May is now best remembered as the author of Little Women (1868), but during the mid-nineteenth century her father, Bronson, was a well-known and controversial educationalist and philosopher with strong links to the Transcendentalists. He also experimented with living away from society and, like the Colemans, his and his family’s time at Fruitlands, a commune in Massachusetts, ended in disaster. Established in 1843, Fruitlands lasted slightly more than a year, and Bronson was largely responsible for this: he and his small group acolytes planted the fields too late, ran out of money, and constructed a set of rules which actively hindered work on the farm. All animal products and labour were banned, and the members spent as much time raising funds and discussing whether or not they should drink coffee, as they did actually working the land.

Indeed, most of the work was done by Abba Alcott, Bronson’s long-suffering wife. She cared for their four young daughters, cooked, sewed, cleaned, chopped wood, and washed laundry. This was not an unusual lot for a women in nineteenth-century America, but it was made worse by their poverty, and wilful refusal to use ‘luxuries’ – warm clothes, hot water, a greater range of foodstuffs – which would have made the work any easier or, at least, more interesting. And, of course, the point of the commune was that it was meant to be wholly egalitarian. In the end, Abba did the same work – in possibly worse conditions – as women living in nearby Concord.

Towards the end of her memoir, Melissa Coleman describes her mother’s mental breakdown after the drowning of Melissa’s little sister, Heidi. But she makes it clear that this was the trigger for something which had long been developing:

Just that morning the gardens were bustling as usual with apprentices and customers and vegetables needing to be picked. It was a humid-hot day, a Saturday near the end of July. Baby Clara was strapped to Mama’s back in Heidi’s old sling, sleeping mouth-open as Mama cooked lunch, skin glowing and tan from summer. Skates was coming to visit, and Mama needed time to clean the house, to hide from her mother-in-law the chaos her life had become: Bess and Papa having breakfast together that morning, mud tracked in from the gardens, piles of laundry to be washed by hand, Heidi and I running around the small kitchen pulling each other’s hair and screaming.

In a recent post for Grist, Tom Laskawy makes the point that the longer hours worked by Americans – and I think that this is true elsewhere as well – have been sustained by the greater availability of cheap food – food which is not necessarily nutritionally sound, nor ethically produced.         On the other hand, appliances and a greater variety of food available at affordable prices in supermarkets have facilitated women’s greater entry to the workplace in greater numbers. We know, nonetheless, that this is part of a food system which is entirely unsustainable.

So what do we do? I certainly don’t want a retreat into homesteading. I suggest that we take another look at the ways in which we work: both at home and outside it. There is a significant body of work which suggests that a reduction in the numbers of hours we work would not only be good for our and the planet’s wellbeing, but also for the economy. If we had more time to cook and to grow our own food – although within reason – we would have the beginnings of a more stable food system. Importantly, most of the labour performed in the home is still by women and, clearly, men need to share more of it. The burden of ensuring a shift to more sustainable lifestyles cannot be women’s responsibility alone.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cap and Gown #

    Loved this post. Real resonances with Edward carpenter – fabulously described by Sheila rowbotham in her recent biography.

    July 18, 2011
    • Thank you! You understand exactly: I love that biography and was thinking about it as I wrote the post.

      July 19, 2011

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