The conventional interpretation of this fable is premised on the basic assumption that we can either be city mice or we can be country mice, but we can’t be both. Even the great agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that we can either live an industrial lifestyle in the city or an agrarian lifestyle in the country and writes at great length about why we should choose the latter. I love Berry, but taken at face value, even I must admit that the moral of his story, though inspirational and compelling is, like Aesop’s fable, a little too either/or, not quite both/and enough to revolutionize (or devolutionize) the industrial lifestyles of most modern city dwellers. If forced to choose, the majority would probably continue being city mice.
Urban homesteading, however, offers a dynamic counterpoint to this basic assumption by demonstrating that city life in the 21st century can be essentially agrarian in character, while country life has, in many cases, become increasingly industrialized. I was recently invited to visit the city home of two quiet country mice, Robin and Tom Day. When I arrive, Robin pours me a little glass of golden homemade ginger beer––packed full of good microbes, she explains. Tom slides several old black-and-white photographs of the house (standing alone on a chamisa-and-cactus-speckled plain) across the kitchen table, and they begin telling a story about passion, bliss and geeking out.
During the 20-odd years they’ve lived in their Nob Hill-area home, these local urban homesteaders have slowly transformed their backyard into a highly productive piece of land. “The people before us lived here 26 years, and their sense of space was really crowded. There was a lot of stuff that was not indigenous.” says Tom. “So the first thing we did was start removing things and looking for a small garden plot. I figured out the other day, there’s only like three plants on this property that were here when we moved in.” Through this process of subtraction, they gradually transitioned the property away from its old personality, and through an equally thoughtful process of addition, they gave it a new one.
“Over time, we just kept adding,” Robin says, “adding more herbs, fruit trees, garden space.” Today, Tom and Robin grow 14 different kinds of fruit on their property, including goji berries, currants, three kinds of seedless grapes (their home-dried raisins are totally delish—lucky me, I get a taste!), nectarines, apples, blackberries, golden raspberries, jujubes, hawthorne berries and figs. “There’s a nectarine we have back there that I have this really cosmic relationship with!” Robin laughs. They also grow a good selection of vegetables and a wide variety of herbs for the tinctures that Robin makes. “All the medicine that we use we grow here, except for a couple of things that you have to go in the mountains to get,” she says.
Neither Tom nor Robin, both in their 60s, take any pharmaceuticals—very unusual for people their age. “There’s a lot of tincturing going on here with the different herbs for medicinal reasons and preventative health reasons, too,” says Robin. “Hawthorne berries are very restorative for the heart. It helps with cholesterol, but it’s also very strength-building for the heart. So I tincture the berries, and we take some of that.” They also make all of their personal-hygiene products, like soap, deodorant, tooth powder and bar shampoo, as well as all of their cleaning products and about a third of their food. “Really, we don’t buy anything that’s commercially produced,” Robin says. “Cleaning products are a snap to make, and they work great!”
This extreme do-for-yourself mentality is perhaps where we begin to see the dividing line between avid gardeners and bona fide homesteaders. According to Wendell Berry, such a longing for self-sufficiency characterizes the agrarian mind. “If I don’t have to go to the store to eat, if I can be entertained by my garden, if I can be socialized by interacting with my neighbor, or if I can do things more independent of somebody’s marketing scheme,” says Tom (who self-identifies as an agrarian), “then I’ve freed myself from a certain illusion, I think.” The result, he says, is a greater sense of freedom, a greater sense of enjoyment.
As we talk about the many benefits of homestead-style self-sufficiency, Robin darts into the kitchen and returns with a box full of home-canned preserves that she places jar by jar on the table. Apple-pie filling, green-tomato salsa, pears, pickled beets, bread-and-butter pickles, tomatoes, pear-ginger chutney, jam. The eclectic assortment of colors and textures and flavors visible through glass jars of various shapes and sizes makes a beautiful statement about how much pleasure and quirky individuality there is to be found in this kind of independence. “It’s so nice,” Robin says, smiling, “because you always have a nice gift when you go over to someone’s house.”
Giving, trading, bartering—one of the loveliest (and perhaps one of the most important) aspects of urban homesteading is how it provides a profound degree of independence, yet remains centered in connection. Not isolation. “I’ve traded my soap with one of the farms in the south valley. They love my soap, and I love their blackberries,” says Robin. “It injects heart into things, I think, because when I thaw out some blackberries and put them on my granola, every single time, I appreciate Dora and Lorenzo and their little farm. They’re very dear people, and I know they feel that way when they use the soap. It personalizes and humanizes things in a really lovely way.”
A local economy based on personal connections is about as different from an industrial economy as it’s possible to be, and not just in the obvious ways of maintaining a smaller carbon footprint, using more ethical and sustainable production methods, and so forth. “There is more of a self-responsibility,” Robin explains. “If somebody’s buying the tooth powder I make, and they’re brushing their teeth with it, I want to put good energy into that, and I want to make it with good products, good ingredients.” When the people we exchange with are our friends and neighbors, our community, we can’t help caring about how the exchange impacts their well-being. “Really increasing the sense of trust in your community is huge,” she says.
Can this agrarian mentality change the world, one urban homestead at a time? “We’re philosophers,” says Robin. “We talk about that a lot, and our feeling is that you cannot legislate change effectively. Change happens person by person by person by person.” Robin isn’t suggesting that inside every city mouse is an unrealized country mouse eagerly awaiting the opportunity to start keeping bees and raising chickens. The Days realize their lifestyle isn’t for everyone. “You don’t have to do all this stuff,” Tom says. “Find something that you really like to do, and do it. If there’s a passion that involves a sense of community, no matter what it is, then it’s gonna have a positive effect.”
Learn more about Tom and Robin’s adventures in urban homesteading by subscribing to Robin’s blog, At the Urban Homestead, on dukecityfix.com. Try Robin’s wholesome body care products for yourself by visiting her online shop at etsy.com/shop/RobinsNaturals. Taste Dora and Lorenzo’s amazing blackberries by ordering a food share from Cornelio Candelaria Organics at candelariaorganics.com.
Story by Emily Ruch