Monday, February 21, 2011

What Urban Homesteading means to me

The events of the past week have caused me to reflect on my life-path, how I got to here, and why. And of course, I have been thinking about all the folks who have helped me along the way, and those people who were the most influential.
I have written here about my food heritage, and have a topic category for it, and you can read about some of it here. But today I feel I need to explain it a bit more deeply, and more personally, than before.
I had mentioned that my parents and other ancestors had a huge impact on my life as a homesteader, but my parents also scraped together enough money to send me to a private Christian school. It was there I met several teachers who made quite an impact on my life, both spiritually and vocationally.
I first met Jim Schrader in 1971, my freshman year. His English class sat next to my band class in morning chapel, and we became friends. I was in his English class during my sophomore year, and in two of his classes my Junior year, advanced comp and creative writing.
Jim (he insisted we call him by his first name) had an interesting life. He was a pre-med student at Valparaiso University, but one day, while he was swimming, he felt exhausted and almost drowned. They discovered that he had cancer. So, instead of going to med school, he decided to use the short life that was allotted to him as a high school teacher.
He was the first Urban Homesteader that I knew. He and a group of friends and family had moved into an old and derelict part of downtown St. Louis. Many of the hippies of the time ended up at Lafayette Square, buying and refurbishing fine old abandoned homes and building a community. It was full of children, gardens, walking streets, and lots of wheat germ brownies. Jim talked often of his commitment to community, non-violence and vegetarianism. He was building a very good life from a bombed-out mess that the inner-city had become.
For Jim, urban homesteading wasn't about rejecting, resisting or revolting. It was about restoring, renewing and respecting. And of course, re-planting and a bit of rewiring!
I'll never forget the last day I saw him. We had heard that he had entered the hospital again. I remembered the Bible verse about visiting people in the hospital when they were sick, so I convinced a friend to drive into the inner city hospital with me. When we got there, he was all ready for us, and asked us how the summer was going. I mentioned that I had applied to several engineering colleges. Jim had such a crestfallen look on his face, as if his star pupil had just purchased a one-way ticket to the military-industrial complex. I assured him that I wouldn't let engineering corrupt me.
A few weeks later, school started, and Jim wasn't there. He died a couple of weeks later. I wrote the eulogy for the school newspaper. I continued to be mad at God for a long time over this, refusing to write or create or allow myself to be involved in any type of religion.
Eventually I finished school and got a job in industry, but I could never forget Jim's words about how we should live. I kept finding myself pulled towards the homesteading community. I joined a local food co-op for vegetarian staples and started a little garden in my backyard. Throughout this process, the WWJD question was never "what would Jules do?", it was always about what I thought Jim would do.
And, I asked myself that often. Is what I'm doing what I should be doing? Shouldn't I not worry so much about how many clothes I have? What would Jim think about that? What would Jim think about Whole foods, Real Goods, solar panels? Would he be surprised and pleased at all the changes in the homesteading movement since the 70's?
A few years ago, as I was re-evaluating where I wanted to take my life, I had a dream about Jim. In the dream, he had died, and had continued to live his life in an other-universe, working as a physician. I had an opportunity to visit his new homestead. He lived in a larger, more modern home, and it had solar panels and a rain barrel. There was a small greenhouse in the back yard, with lush greenery, all in pots. I was surprised to see that he had chosen to purchase a home with a patio for the backyard. He told me that we do good things with what we have, even if it is just with one small pot. I realized that one could do good work in the outside world, and still be doing good work on the urban homestead. I woke up refreshed, and certain that Jim would probably approve of my urban homestead, even with its never-ending patio and livestock ordinances.
Last week I also sported that crest-fallen look, as the promise of the homesteading movement seemed to crumble before me. I have recovered since then, and I am confident in our ability to move forward towards the dreams that Jim had pioneered, and to create a more just, secure, refreshed, renewed and peaceful world.
Here's an old photo of Jim here.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this. Most people are inspired by others, and it is so cathartic to be able to talk about others' influence on your life.

  2. Beautiful. I think I would have liked Jim. His philosophy is also mine - bloom where you're planted ... do what you can with what you have where you are.

    And I think you are correct - it's the intent that's important.

  3. Carol,
    Thank you so much!!!
    What beautiful writing!
    What a blessing to meet Jim!
    What a blessing to know you better!
    I am with you in your efforts and interests in peace and renewal!
    In friendship,

  4. Just found your blog; this is such a beautiful story! We are attempting to grow a lot of our own food in the city of Pittsburgh and we are a bit dumbfounded by the trademark news, too.