The Allure of Do-It-Yourself

A Response to Jennifer Bernstein's Essay in Breakthrough Journal

Before Michael Pollan, there was Deadwood, Oregon. Located in a dense green valley in Oregon’s Coast Range, the small pioneer community became a magnet for the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. After a decade of chaotic uproar, young hippies were looking for a novel way to protest consumerism and conformity. Many self-styled rebels moved to the country to create alternative communities based on a commitment to “Mother Nature,” organic gardening, and a do-it-yourself ethos. Deadwood’s remote location and seemingly fertile soil made it appealing. My parents set up camp in 1976, and I grew up with a shovel in hand. We grew a rambling garden; we canned fruit, vegetables, and fish; we sat down together every evening to eat an elaborate home-cooked meal.

In her new essay “On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers: Why Environmentalism Has a Gender Problem,” Jennifer Bernstein criticizes the very foundation of my family’s lifestyle: the notion that time-consuming methods of growing and cooking food are somehow environmentally, culturally, and ethically superior. “The glorification of nature and farming and the romanticizing of the home, domestic life, and the woman at the center of it are ultimately nostalgias that cover up the brutality of rural life and drudgery of domestic labor in a perfume of freshly cut hay and caramelizing onions,” she writes, skewering Pollan and other environmentalists for championing unrealistic expectations and stigmatizing labor-saving inventions such as microwave ovens and frozen foods.

As I read Bernstein’s essay, I thought back on my hippie childhood. Many of our neighbors kept livestock; they made cheese and yogurt and were able to raise the bulk of the meat and vegetables they needed for a year. In my family, food was everything. Dinner was typically five or six courses, lovingly prepared with garden and wild ingredients or food we’d preserved for winter. Although we lived well below the poverty line, we ate like Michael Pollan.

Bernstein would likely not be impressed. “Like the household,” she writes, “the smallholder farm idealized as pastoral fantasy disconnected from the capitalist system is contingent upon free labor. In most parts of the world, smallholder farms are economically viable only because women (and often children) provide their labor at no cost.”

As a child, I was certainly no stranger to free labor. I weeded the garden, hauled firewood, worked for our small business, and helped with household chores. Although my dad was the cook in our house, my mother spent much of her time engaged in traditionally female labor. She spun wool, wove blankets and coats, sewed clothing, gardened, and canned tomatoes, peaches, and pickles. Many of the women we knew did all this in addition to cooking, cleaning, washing cloth diapers, and taking care of the kids.

Bernstein is correct in pointing out that this homegrown, DIY lifestyle is not tenable for the average working mother. Our hippie neighbors had time to raise animals and make food from scratch because most didn’t have full-time jobs. They had small businesses (making candles, growing blueberries, construction, carpentry) or they worked seasonally (tree planting, trimming weed). Many people supplemented their incomes with cannabis, though Deadwood was never home to the big plantations that would later dominate southern Oregon and Humboldt County. Deadwoodians were limited by a rainier climate and a certain culture of restraint. They grew discretely and barely eked out a living.

There is some irony to the trajectory of the back-to-the-land movement. Originally inspired by an idealistic vision of a natural rural utopia, these urban and suburban kids became entrenched in the practical details of living in the middle of nowhere. Rickety houses and water systems, mountains of wood to be hauled and split, gardens to be hoed, and the eternal beating back of the underbrush—thimbleberry, salmonberry, and blackberry—that could stifle a house within weeks if left unattended.

But I don’t think my mother and her friends felt particularly oppressed by the required labor. To them it was a form of independence from a “mainstream” culture they viewed as fatally flawed. Living a life that wasn’t reliant on processed foods or pesticides was a rejection of destructive values and hollow cultural norms. Although my mother was prone to complaining about needing to pull weeds or kill chickens, she ultimately found it empowering. When she taught me how to sew a hemline and can peaches, she didn’t believe she was yoking me to the patriarchy—she was empowering me with fundamental skills that I’d need to live what she considered a meaningful and fulfilling life.

My mother didn’t come from a wealthy background, but she had the privilege of being educated, beautiful, talented, and white. She could have had a career or married a man with money. But, like many women of her generation, she didn’t want to work for “the man,” or marry him either. She chose a life of poverty not because she wanted to be poor (she didn’t) but because she wanted to live in the woods and have a certain freedom of movement. Despite her interest in spinning and weaving, she considered herself a strong feminist and certainly “wore the pants” in our family.

Bernstein might disagree. “At bottom, feminist thought and action are incompatible with poverty, agrarianism, and neoprimitivism,” she writes. Although she does not address the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s and instead focuses on the present trend toward the DIY ethos, she is critical of DIY as a creed. “A growing chorus of voices argues that to be proper environmentalists and nurturing parents, each night should involve a home-cooked meal of fresh, organic, unprocessed ingredients,” Bernstein states, later adding, “At a moment in our history when increasing numbers of women have liberated themselves from many of the demands of unpaid domestic labor, prominent environmental thinkers are advocating a return to the very domestic labor that stubbornly remains the domain of women.”

We didn’t really need to sew our own clothing. We didn’t need to can peaches. We didn’t need to make six-course meals from scratch. My parents didn’t need to go to quite so much trouble to follow the two guiding hippie mantras of their time: “tune in, turn on, and drop out” and “reduce, reuse, recycle.” If their real goal was a more environmentally conscientious lifestyle, we could have subsided on brown rice and kale. We could have gotten all of our clothing from the free box. But their point wasn’t entirely ethical. It was really the point that Pollan would later make. Slow down, skip the shortcuts, enjoy the process, and savor superior results. And they did. We all did. It was lovely to sit down around our big round table and commune with friends and family over giant garden salads, elk stroganoff, plum wine, and home-baked bread. It was glorious to have a pantry full of shining mason jars of peaches and cherries.

In the end, the allure would lead me back home. After spending my 20s in Seattle, I eventually returned to rural Oregon to live in the house where I grew up. My reasons were twofold: part a sincere affection for the homegrown lifestyle, and part economic necessity. Bernstein points out that neoprimitivism is not economically feasible without free labor, but in my case it made sense.

My husband and I were both laid off during the economic depression of 2008. After six months of vainly applying for jobs, we left the city and drove south. In rural Oregon, the rent was cheaper and we could supplement our diet by gardening, allowing us to subsist on odd jobs and my nascent career as a freelance writer. It worked for us: our rural lifestyle gave us flexibility, creative fulfillment (in my case, anyway), and the satisfaction of growing and cooking good food. That said, it was difficult. Sometimes we ran out of cooking oil. Sometimes we didn’t have money for beer. Sometimes it was indescribably dreary to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest source of Chinese takeout.

As a child, I had been humiliated by our poverty, and as an adult I went to ridiculous lengths to avoid going on food stamps. We arrived in Oregon in November and didn’t yet have a garden, so I taught myself to forage for mushrooms and wild plants. I spent hours scouring the hillsides and researching to correctly identify edible plants. And that was before I even got down to cooking from scratch. It was not an efficient way to put food on the table, but I chose it, and I enjoyed it. The experience certainly didn’t make me feel any less a feminist.

But is our rural lifestyle really low-impact? We eat more locally grown food than many city dwellers. We don’t have a flush toilet. But that’s likely negated by our commuting. Due to economic necessity, my husband is currently working a seasonal job maintaining county parks. We live an hour from his job site, so he now drives 80 miles a day.

When all is said and done, I agree with Bernstein that a DIY lifestyle is not a practical solution to environmental problems, nor should it be viewed as a moral high ground, nor is it feasible for the bulk of society. My parents relied on food stamps to make ends meet, and the back-to-the-land movement would likely have foundered if hippies hadn’t figured out the ultimate cash crop: cannabis. Obviously, government assistance and the black market drug trade should not be viewed as a sustainable way to fund a better diet, nor as a realistic solution for the bulk of the population.

Sure we lived without indoor plumbing. Sure we worked legitimately hard to make ends meet. But in the end, my parents had the privilege of education and ancestry. They chose a difficult row to hoe. And, ultimately, that’s what we should strive for. A world in which more people have the power to choose the way of life that works for them, the lifestyle that brings them joy. I think Bernstein’s right in saying that we won’t get there by committing ourselves to making our own kombucha.