head-tracks

A New Regionalism
Engagement or Withdrawal?

I moved to rural Shasta County from Sacramento about a year ago, brought here by a sudden confluence of events and desires. My grandmother passed away, leaving behind a small ranch where she used to breed horses and raise a few cattle. My wife and I had been considering a more rural lifestyle for some time, and the opportunity to rent the place from my family for a short period of time and give the country a try appealed to us.

Like many youngish, college-educated Californians, I wanted to take a stab at growing our family’s own food. I looked around and saw a public infrastructure crumbling around us, becoming more volatile and less trustworthy; our state government was perpetually broke, our colleges were becoming sad shadows of their former selves, our collective response to looming climate change was slow and insufficient, and so on. Most of these trends seemed beyond my control, but the one thing besides water that we absolutely needed to survive, my wife and I could grow ourselves. We could plant our own garden and raise our own animals, which seemed important first steps towards an unassailable goal in such trying times: self-sufficiency.

The first six months involved a flurry of activity: converting an old shed into a chicken coop, fencing in multiple areas to accommodate a few sheep, planting a garden, laying irrigation pipe. I consistently made an ass of myself as a clumsy urbanite with limited hammer skills, but the work felt good–it was out in the open, physical, and involved concrete tasks, the completion of which could be easily defined. It represented the polar opposite of the rest of my adult career, which primarily involved sitting in front of a computer screen and manipulating information in some fashion or another. I also believed strongly in what I was doing, at least at first. As time passed, however, a nagging problem grew more pronounced–the road to self-sufficiency was becoming increasingly murky.

I fed my chickens corn grown in the Midwest, a fact underscored by the rising price of feed as the severity of the summer drought mounted. I built portions of the chicken coop with wood harvested by massive machines in forests somewhere, then milled by massive machines in warehouses somewhere else, then shipped to a home-supply store by trucks along unknown roads built by even more massive machines. While our sheep grazed on grass growing on our property for much of the winter, this grass needed to be watered, and my ability to do so depended on a water district and its elaborate system of reservoirs and pipes. And my garden, before it even began growing, received a menu of fertilizers like gypsum and sulfur mined from places unknown to me, but surely outside California.

Today you could walk into a bookstore, throw a rock, and have a reasonably good chance of hitting a book with “self-sufficiency” in the title. In the past few years alone we’ve seen the arrival of the stolidly middle-class DIY Projects for the Self-Sufficient Homeowner, the grandiose Self Sufficiency for the 21st Century, the cutely scary Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient when the Unexpected Happens, and the bizarrely specific The Forgotten Skills of Self-Sufficiency Used by the Mormon Pioneers. Magazine racks once crowded with Newsweek and Time are slowly being overtaken by former fringe publications like Grit and Backwoods Home, the latter of which provides “practical ideas for self-reliant living”–even Sunset recently featured an article on the “self-sufficient home.” This home, of course, relies on solar panels made in China.

It would be inaccurate to say that those proselytizing the most recent incarnation of Thoreau’s vision for a personal kingdom by a New England pond are arguing for true and complete self-sufficiency, or that I was really expecting to move out to a ranch and rely solely on the acreage I was renting, somehow fashioning necessities like nails out of rocks. More self-sufficiency, if not total self-sufficiency, can certainly bring about positive changes in our lives: more knowledge about the products and food we consume, more intimacy with the everyday tasks of survival, a closer connection to the planet we live on. In fact, much of this publication’s existence is due to a belief by its founders in a sort of cultural self-sufficiency, that we can rely on local writers instead of those in New York to speak about our lives here in Northern California. This sort of self-sufficiency, both cultural and otherwise, offers a meaningful alternative to an impersonal globalism, a belief in the local that enriches our lives and is becoming a full-blown movement in our part of the state.

But my time up north has made me realize that this blossoming dream of local self-sufficiency can have dangerous consequences if it’s relied on too heavily to guide our actions. In some ways, self-sufficiency is an attempt to withdraw, to construct new systems for living your life that don’t require dependency on others. This withdrawal is an understandable reaction to a modern situation: living in a society that seems confusing, complex, and unchangeable by the average citizen. Self-sufficiency appears to offer safety and control to those who feel awash in a sea of connections to far-off forces they never signed up for, and who wish to terminate or at least dictate the terms of these connections. It also allows you the apparent freedom of not having to worry about the messy headlines, the grotesque politics, the debates and foreign wars of public life.

Yet even if the hordes of agrarian idealists and I were to achieve our dreams of becoming family farmers, we’d be a long, long ways from self-sufficiency. For starters, we’d likely be dependent on our neighbors for help, and our customers for their business and trust. But we’d also rely on factories in far-off places to build our tools and infrastructure, large-scale government subsidies to keep the price of corn and thereby animal feed low, public schools funded in part by federal tax dollars to teach our children, and hospitals filled with medicines and equipment from across the globe to heal us should we fall ill. And decisions that dramatically impact each of these facets of life would be made not by us, not self-sufficiently in our own backyard, but by those who have remained involved in public life.

Therein lies a grave concern of mine: should all of us idealists leave the public sphere, who’s left? Rebecca Solnit, in a remarkable piece recently published in Orion about the tension between agrarianism and political involvement, argues that only “opportunists and the uncritical” would be left, and I agree. “The biggest problem of our time,” she continues, “requires big cooperative international transformations that cannot be reached one rutabaga patch at a time.” In reading these words, I realized that in many ways, I had become so frustrated by the public sphere and utterly flummoxed as to how to engage with it that I’d given up on it completely. I’d placed all my eggs in one basket, to use a farming metaphor, and put my faith in homegrown rutabagas instead of more widespread, collective social change.

I still have faith that the world can be changed one garden at a time, that some of our biggest problems, particularly climate change, might be helped a great deal by a dramatic restructuring of our economies and societies towards the local. I plan on continuing to farm in whatever capacity I’m able, and to believe that giving my neighbor a dozen home-grown eggs can be a far more powerful act than signing a national online petition from the Sierra Club.

But I have two young daughters now, the younger born just this October. Even if I can feed them myself, I will be sending them to public schools. I will be sending them to hospitals if they get sick, and I will be relying on health insurance to pay for it. I will be depending on tax dollars to pay someone somewhere to make sure the water they drink isn’t riddled with disease. And perhaps most terrifyingly, I will be relying on the global community to help slow and mitigate the coming shifts of climate change, which are sure to affect my daughters’ lives more than mine. No amount of self-sufficiency will save me from any of this, or will absolve my responsibility to try and foster the best possible world for my children.

So I feel that at this point I am at a crossroads, one that mirrors the localism movement’s own crossroads. In many ways I’m back where I started–unsure how to engage in the public sphere, but aware that I need to, lest I leave crucial decisions to opportunists and the uncritical. But this time I’m more committed to finding some way to engage. There are countless opportunities for me, as well as my fellow agrarian idealists to do so: organizing neighbors to change a wrong-headed law, raising money for a local school, library, or food bank, sitting on the local planning commission, volunteering for a grassroots organization promoting social justice. It may take a while to find our specific niches, but we can involve ourselves in how our public decisions are made if we keep trying to find holes in the edifice, even when it’s fantastically frustrating; if we refuse to get down on ourselves for not doing enough, and simply do something. At the very least we can ensure ourselves spot at the table as our collective future is decided.