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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dandelion seeds

Risa looks outside to see how her day is going to go. Good thing the kiwi vines were planted yesterday! There's little today in the way of sunshine, but if you like fog, wind, rain, and rattling windowpanes, well, she's right where you want to be.

So it must be, among other things, bake day. The fire is going to be kept going anyway, which means there will be a warming shelf for the yeast liquids and then the dough, and tea water for breaks. She can do dishes and sweep and pick up stuff during the breaks, with enough time in the interstices to run back and forth to the record player, which has no changer, and manually flip to Side Three, Side Four, and so on.

This week, the music is provided by Tom Glazer and friends, a collection of songs on twelve or so sides of wax, with a spoken introduction to each song: America's Musical Heritage. True love dies during the Tennessee Waltz, and the miners and the Union Maid fight on while the last dregs of winter drip from Stony Run's eaves and the yeast rises.

The entire collection cost fifty cents at a library sale, and there's not a scratch on it.

Poor reader! Risa's retired, she can live like this, whereas you must slog to the office, day in and day out, and ... but wait! there are some interesting economic aspects to this housewifing thing -- for househusbands, too, for that matter.

John Michael Greer, a respected futurist blogger, has posted on the resurgence of the informal economy in the "developed" world.
What would you say, dear reader, if I told you that I’ve come up with a way to eliminate unemployment in the United States – yes, even in the face of the current economic mess? What if I explained that it would also improve the effective standard of living of many American families and decrease their income tax burdens? And that it would also increase our economic resilience and sustainability, and simultaneously cause a significant decrease in the amount of automobile traffic on America’s streets and highways? Would you be all for it?

No, dear reader, you wouldn’t. Permit me to explain why.
He's talking, of course, about a return to -- oh, noes! -- the single income family.
I personally know quite a few families for whom the cost of paid child care and one partner’s costs for commuting, business clothes, and all the other expenses of employment, approaches or even exceeds the take-home pay of one partner.
He goes on to discuss: 1. The disdain of economists for the household economy; 2. The carefully constructed displacement of the household economy by corporatist-sponsored consumerism, from gadgets to adult-targeted toys to pre-packaged foods; 3. The ability of grandparents and other relatives to fit into a household economy instead of "being paid to go away and die"; 4. The rise in gender politics of the co-optation of the women's movement by corporatist-sponsored standards of self-worth, exemplified by the "career"; 5. Benefits to children restored to a family setting, to say nothing of reduced costs in child care, clothing, transportation, lower taxes...; and 6. Benefits to society from reduced competition for jobs and improved wages, reduced traffic congestion, and lower per capita production of trash, pollutants, and greenhouse gases.

He also notes the considerable resistance we are all apt to offer to a return to single-outside-income culture; aside from our suspicion that simplifying leads to a loss of "status," we've, many of us, forgotten how to do it!

During the previous great depression, the cities failed millions of workers, as they have this time round, but a very high proportion of them were only one generation away from the farm -- there was still a "home place" to go to, and work available to do when they got there, because small farms were yet numerous and on a small farm a family or community can concentrate, when and if necessary, on subsistence. Most also still knew how to do such work upon arrival.

The household economy of which we are here speaking is not the balancing of the checkbook after buying a Wii or iPad or motorboat, but the production of dinner from scratch, or even from the garden, small orchard, flock, or herd; the assembling of an apron from fabric and thread; "do-it-yourself" construction and maintenance of home and outbuildings; production of tools or other items for home use or as gifts, barter or trade; home nursing, home child-rearing, home education, home entertainment -- meaning taking up a musical instrument, perhaps, or jumping rope with friends and siblings.

Greer's essay has been widely noticed, and responses are coming in. Sharon Astyk, a feminist microfarmer, observes:
...the women's movement has yet to fully come to terms with the degree to which modern feminism's view of the world, goals and objectives has been shaped by a cheap energy, deeply corporatized society.
Thus locking ourselves into a project that cannot be sustained:
...the very fact that in order to use more energy we have to have more industrial consumers is significant - because we are running bang against the material limits worldwide of more than just oil and gas and coal - we're hitting the end of vast new worker populations to feed that growth.
Homemakers, of the world, unite! Perhaps we have nothing to lose but our corporatism. For it is from there that we will be told that our shift to an informal economy is backward-looking, anti-progress and anti-feminist to boot. An objection frequently raised is that a subsistence/artisanal world will create more suffering: think of modern medicine, which requires a vast industrial apparatus.

Risa knows that; she's only here because of a series of hospitalizations and surgeries totaling more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in costs to insurers, bringing science and techniques to bear that cost perhaps millions to develop. But, see, no one lives forever, and some live but a little or not at all, in spite of all our efforts. And searing pain is a given for some, if not most. That's not tragic, that's the course of nature. She knows well enough the world could have got on without her.

Over against this there is the much larger-scale suffering and death made possible and perhaps unavoidable by modernity. In the matter of warfare alone, we have machine guns, land mines, cruise missiles, cluster bombs, phosphorus, napalm, anthrax, mustard gas, killer drones and robot tanks -- not for defense, which is every creature's prerogative, but for the enforcement of the interests of elites, whether ostensibly socialist/communist, or capitalist/oligarchist.

Modernity's unkindly legacy concentrates wealth into the hands of three percent of the population not merely by force, but also by smarmy cajolery and smirking chicanery, with hundreds of thousands of industry lobbyists, lawyers, advertising executives and even "journalists" solicitously watching over the movement of oils, metals, factory-farmed flesh, patented seeds, the very water we drink, into and through the lives of "consumers" and on to what is called the "waste stream," diverting every household's productivity into the already gorged pockets of Wall Street's financial-instrument barons -- where it has been known to vanish in an instant, while the poisonous by-products, unleashed upon the air, waters, soils and living things, remain.

Our compensation for this abdication from producing, say, applesauce for ourselves and our neighbors, rather than dollars for the distant rich, is to get to run out and buy the latest T.V. and watch "American Idol" in pixels by the millions.

The good things are not the industrially conceived, created, advertised and distantly shipped goods from whence our great oceanic clouds of plastic particles originate.

The good things are: our short time here spent upon care for our families and friends, kindliness toward neighbors and strangers, enough to eat and drink, sufficient clothing and shelter, and a chance to appreciate beauty in our surroundings.

These are things we can do and make, or learn to make and do, ourselves. If that's "turning the clock back," then let us set about it.

Risa is, as she cheerfully admits, a fan of the "Little House" series of books by Laura Wilder, no romantic but a veteran pioneer woman and practical farmer who learned to write well but also carried a revolver in her apron pocket. She knew the risks and heartbreak of a life beyond the comfortable reach of the great cities; had seen an entire town nearly starve to death, had watched a sibling die and another go blind, lost a child of her own and watched her house burn down. Yet she thought a land rich in proportion to the number of five-acre farms it could support, for on five acres a family could be independent and self-respecting and not go hungry, yet know and rely upon neighbors and have a social life.

Yes, her books chronicle what was, for her, a vanishing way of life -- but she shows the good vanishing with the bad, when we might have done better to retain what of it was the good. And she knew which was which.


Enough for now. The dough's risen and the tea is ready. Sit with Risa at the table awhile; she'll be up and kneading soon and she wants to sip by the window; there are goldfinches out there in the rain and they are eating dandelion seeds.

Almanzo asked Father why he did not hire the machine that did the threshing. Three men had brought it into the country last fall, and Father had gone to see it. It would thresh a man's whole grain crop in a few days.

"That's a lazy man's way to thresh," Father said. "Haste makes waste, but a lazy man'd rather get his work done fast than do it himself. That machine chews up the straw till it's not fit to feed stock, and it scatters grain around and wastes it.

"All it saves is time, son. And what good is time, with nothing to do? You want to sit and twiddle with your thumbs, all these stormy winter days?"

"No!" said Almanzo. He had had enough of that, on Sundays.

They spread the wheat two or three inches thick on the floor. Then they faced each other, and they took the handles of their flails in both hands; they swung the flails above their heads and brought them down on the wheat.

-- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy


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