Radical Homemaking: It’s Not a Competition

When it comes to ecological living, there’s always someone who’s doing it better. So what?
Cucumbers, photo by woodleywonderworks

Photo by woodleywonderworks.

Shannon Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York and is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

Click here to read more of her blogs on life as a radical homemaker.

As publishers of a book about ecological, values-centered living, my husband Bob and I have experienced many moments of guilty squeamishness. Because I spent so much time studying the subject, and because we believed in the ideas strongly enough to pony up the cash and take Radical Homemakers to the printer, we feel we’re supposed to be some kind of paragon of the lifestyle. That is an ideal that is impossible to attain. I write and research to learn more about something I feel is important, not because Bob and I are experts at implementing all the concepts. We published Radical Homemakers as a result of being on that path, not because we have mastered the lifestyle.

We put our notions of failure and insecurity aside, and focus instead on where we want to go, what we want to do next, inspired by the fact that there are others who have succeeded.

Looking around our home, there are plenty of signs that we haven’t. Most of the blueberry bushes limped through the winter, but I lost two of them owing to my imperfect stewardship from prior years. One of Bob’s beehives died out because we divided the colony at the wrong time last year. This year’s mistakes are already forthcoming: Sitting cozy by the fire in February, we decided to plant a small orchard and mail ordered eleven trees. That’s a stupid thing to do. It is fine to decide to plant an orchard, but that decision means the next growing season should be devoted to preparing the soil for the following year, not to planting and watering baby trees. In our zeal, we skipped an all-important step, and now those poor trees must struggle to survive in soil that is nutrient-poor and nearly devoid of microbial life.

This is not to say we are complete failures as Radical Homemakers. There are some things we’re pretty good at. One hive died out, but the others have survived, with no chemical inputs. Later today, I’ll be down at the farm making some of the best tasting sausage to be found in the region. We’re great at getting along with our extended family, turning out home-cooked, locally-sourced and healthy meals, sharing resources, and managing our finances to guarantee there is cash for the things that matter. But the truth is, there is always someone who can do it better.

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We had lunch with such a family a few weeks ago. They were amazing. The parents met while she was in the Peace Corps in Africa, and set their sights on organic farming. With relatively few resources at their disposal, they found a farmer interested in seeing his unused land transitioned to a new generation that would farm sustainably. They worked out a flexible and affordable land transfer. By reading books and talking to friends, the husband figured out how to build a timber-framed Dutch barn. When they realized their finances were not going to allow for the construction of a house, they made the loft into a beautiful, small, energy-efficient family home that can keep them cozy through Northeastern winters on a single cord of wood. Their electric needs are supplied off-grid by a small windmill and a tiny solar array that they installed themselves. The soil on the land they work is positively alive with microbial activity, their crops are bountiful and nutrient-rich. Their homeschooled daughter is lovely, their hands skilled and powerful, their souls beautiful.

By the end of our visit, we’d worked out some arrangements to help take care of each other’s children; smiling warmly, we loaded up our girls and drove away enthused that such wonderful people were living nearby.

Then it happened, on the drive home. We both tried to suppress it, but we couldn’t stop it. We didn’t mean for it to boil up inside us, but there it was: A wicked case of envy.

They must have money from somewhere. They must have some advantage that we didn’t have. They must have some wretched, horrible secret we don’t know about. There must be something imperfect about these people….some reason that they were able to do everything so much better and smarter than we could.

These thoughts were horrible. I liked these people!

I reflected on the phenomenon of envy. What is it, actually? In truth, it is nothing more than admiration with a splash of poison thrown in. But where was the poison coming from?

Ourselves, of course. Our own insecurities and imperfections. We didn’t try to hand-hew our own house. We didn’t feel skilled enough to tackle off-grid technology. If we tried to subsist entirely on my gardening efforts, we’d starve.

I wondered what would happen if we could separate the poison of our insecurities from the admiration we felt, and which these folks justly deserved. We needed to explore our self-doubts with self-love.

When we did, we saw something totally different. These insecurities were actually tied to our ambitions and dreams—things that Bob and I think are important, things that we would still like to learn. If we had it to do all over again, we might have done things differently. As it is, we don’t need to build another house, and going off-grid with our solar array is not the most important move for us to make right now. Those things, however, are tied to deeper aspirations. We want to learn to do more with our hands. We want to tackle challenging self-reliance projects without fear. We want to learn more about how to live harmoniously with our land, how to become more beneficent creatures to the Earth.

Man, sheep, girl, dog - photo by Shannon HayesThe Work Ahead 
Growing renewed relationships with our food, homes, and communities requires getting our hands dirty.

Understanding this, we looked back over our visit. What was there for us after we put aside our envy? Inspiration—a deeper understanding of what’s possible, of how wonderful it would be for this planet if more people were able to make better decisions than we have. The envy melted away, and was replaced by a renewed energy for what we can learn, what we can improve today, what we can work toward in the coming growing season, in the coming years.

With a lighter step, I make my way out to the blueberry bushes to test the soil and see how I can nurse them through my past mistakes. Bob cleans out the dead hive and readies for his new colony. He preps the ground for a new top-bar hive, this year’s experiment in more humane bee-keeping. We bring manure up from the farm to build up organic matter; we mix compost, dried blood, rock phosphate, and green sand into the soil where we planted the baby trees, and hope for the best. For good measure, we till up a new plot of ground that will be planted with cover crops for the time being, in hopes of maybe doing things right for the things we plant next year. We put our notions of failure and insecurity aside, and focus instead on where we want to go, what we want to do next, inspired by the fact that there are others who have succeeded.


  • Shannon Hayes’ newest book is , Left to Write Press, 2010. Support YES! when you .

  • to read more of Shannon's blogs about life as a radical homemaker.
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