gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

I sometimes hear homesteading being described as a “new trend” — whether enthusiastically or dismissively. I’ve certainly encountered some who talk about canning and beer-making, for example, as something they want to learn because it is simply de rigueur here in Portland. And I have entered stores and received catalogs that make me feel like marketers have identified me as a subscriber to yet another fad that will soon pass, but in the meantime they will try to persuade me to purchase as many apple peelers and fermenting crocks as possible. I have no illusions that I am somehow incredibly original with the things I’m into. Quite the opposite: I fully confess to being a very impressionable person. Like a sponge almost. So it is very possible that I started my experiments with making from scratch a couple of years ago because it was simply in the air, so to speak.

But while homesteading may be a trend, I don’t think it’s either a new one, or a passing one. When I think of the kinds of things it means to me, I realize that for people like my grandparents, or even my parents, they are simply common sense. The same goes for many of the principles and methods that are now called permaculture. Avoiding waste; reusing and re-purposing; self-sufficiency; foraging for wild edibles; commitment to building soil; starting from observation before acting; enhancing productivity using primarily organic materials and natural cycles rather than relying on fossil fuels… If my grandfather had not passed away before I encountered permaculture, I could imagine him listening to me excitedly describe this “new” knowledge I have acquired, with his eyes twinkling, and smiling as if to ask: “And…?”

My grandparents had a small farm in Central Finland, and always supplemented their income from dairy cows and lumber with fishing and hunting, picking berries and mushrooms in the wild, raising chicken and sheep. My grandmother used to spin wool and make clothing and crafts and churn butter. They grew all their own potatoes, the daily staple, and some vegetables and berries as well. They had a root cellar and a beautiful, massive Finnish masonry oven because that is what made sense in that climate. They preserved food and cooked from scratch most of the time. They made bread from grains they grew themselves. They made compost and used composting toilets. Both of my grandmothers are experts at frugality. Yesterday’s leftover oatmeal turned into today’s savory rolls; any leftover meat got used in a soup or broth later; socks were darned until they were no longer recognizable as socks; and so on. They grew into adulthood during World War II, and could never fully leave behind the frugality and simplicity ethos of that time.

Photo by my dad, with my brother making hay with my grandfather, taken the year I was born.

Photo by my dad, with my brother making hay with my grandfather, taken the year I was born.

My parents, although more urban and engaged in professions other than farming, continued to uphold many of the same ideals. When I was growing up, we grew most of our own potatoes, as well as currants and some vegetables, in the garden, as the short growing season allowed. My dad hunted game. Every year, we would go as a family to pick blueberries and lingonberries and cloudberries when they were ripe in the forest, and my mother preserved some of the berries and made juice with the rest. The centerpiece of our home was a masonry oven, which kept the house warm through the near-Arctic winters and also yielded the most amazing cinnamon rolls.

So, while I have undoubtedly picked up influences from the modern self-sufficient homesteader movement, I dare say that some of them I simply grew up with. And I consider myself very fortunate to have done so. I only wish I had been more active about asking my grandparents to pass on their knowledge and skills to me while they were still more able in body and mind. But in the very least, with my hands deep in the dirt or in a bread dough or in bundles of wool, I feel connected to them. I feel that with the work of my hands I can honor theirs.

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