My wife and I are “urban homesteaders” — that is to say, low-tech, low-rent Martha Stewarts. Urban homesteading is a DIY, self-reliance movement consisting of a wide constellation of activities, from edible gardening to home brewing, from keeping chickens to bread baking, from frugal living to community building. It’s an eminently practical lifestyle.
That practicality is why stoicism works so well as the philosophical operating system of urban homesteading. While Foucault and Hegel might help me navigate the epistemological frontier, when I’m staring at a carefully tended vegetable bed that just got destroyed by a skunk, you can bet I’ll reach for the Seneca.
Peaches in Erik’s and Kelly’s Garden
When you spend much of your time, as we do, rummaging around on the Island of Forgotten Skills, trying to teach yourself crafts long forgotten by your grandparents, you’re certain to run into setbacks, frustrations, and plenty of outright failure. The skunks, so to speak, are everywhere.
These challenges, however, are more valuable than the activities themselves. Take Seneca’s horticulturally sound and psychologically wise advice:
“No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.”
How do you learn to “live constantly amidst alarms?” For practice, try commuting by bicycle in Los Angeles. It took years of riding for me to become accustomed to riding alongside impatient, often distracted motorists. Seneca says, “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” Odds are that if I turn to give a finger to one misbehaving motorist behind me, I’ll only run smack into the one drifting into my lane ahead of me.
Do I still occasionally get angry while riding? Of course. Stoicism is a path, not a destination. Achieving the tranquility of mind of a great stoic master takes a lifetime. But at least I’m trying. More important, perhaps, than getting some exercise and avoiding fossil fuels, riding a bike in traffic is an exercise in the acquisition of tranquility of mind.
What matters and what doesn’t
To step out into the garden, to forage edible weeds in the woods, to cook from scratch or ride your bike means closing your Facebook timeline and the endless text messages on your phone. It means saying goodbye to the news of crack smoking mayors and twerking celebrities. To inhabit the contemporary mediasphere is to live a life, as Cleanthes says, “like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.When we let the cart pull us we lose our free will. We lose the very thing that can really change the world: the small, sincere efforts of hand and heart.
Instead of running behind the cart, we can gather the ones we love, our friends neighbors and community to work on the things we can change and not worry about that which we cannot. Urban homesteading gives us all a chance to make a difference, to transform the world one bike trip, one lush garden, one homegrown apple, one crock of sauerkraut at a time.
Erik Knutzen blogs at www.rootsimple.com and is the co-author with his wife Kelly Coyne of The Urban Homestead and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post Consumer World.