- I was never a hippie, but I was educated by a few recovering ones. The Foxfire program, a phenomenon that began in the late 1960s and still survives (albeit in an altered form) today, was invented by an idealistic young teacher who took teenagers in a Rabun County, Georgia, high school into the local community to tape record interviews with old folks, document their Southern Appalachian wisdom and ways, and present it in a series of “oral history” books
published by Doubleday. Decades ago, I was a Foxfire student.
The Foxfire books, the first of which appeared in 1971 and presented a litany of skills for “plain living,” sold millions of copies. With the earnings, the teacher established a nonprofit organization called The Foxfire Fund and bought acreage on a secluded, pastoral mountainside that everyone still calls “The Land,” and there he moved and restored a collection of log structures from other locations. He also hired several more idealistic young teachers to expand the Foxfire experiential teaching approach into music, audio and video production, and cultural preservation. Together, they lived and worked in the cabins on the property.
The Foxfire books were so wildly successful in large part because of timing. The Whole Earth Catalog, published regularly between 1968 and 1972 and then sporadically until 1998, had been a major force in the “Back to the Land” movement embraced by many ecologically minded young people with a sudden hunger to live simple, self-sustaining lifestyles in the country—often communally. They wanted to raise their own food, build their own solar-paneled log homes, and make their own clothes, and the Whole Earth Catalog gave them the supplies they needed. The Foxfire books taught them how to do stuff, with extensive, detailed directions on gardening, canning and preserving, hunting, home remedies, sewing, building, even moonshining if one were so inclined.
The 1980s, when I was a Foxfire student, were kind of an awkward, transitional time for the program. “Back to the Land” had soured as simple living turned out to be rather complicated, the Foxfire books were no longer selling by the millions, and the idealistic young teachers had grown somewhat cynical. But I still benefited greatly. For one thing, it set me on my editorial career path. For another, I learned how to do a few useful things like make wine, de-scent a skunk, and ask good questions. And the recovering hippie teachers introduced me to important things like The Utne Reader and Joni Mitchell. Their mentoring inadvertently inspired me to leave “The Land” in search of more “sophisticated” things. I graduated from high school in 1985, and off to the big city I hied meself. But I can’t say that I never looked back. Every day I look back.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard an interview on the radio the other day with Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who has written a new book titled Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, arguing that “By and large, cities are probably the greenest things that humans do.”
This, from Mr. Back-to-the-Land himself.
On a macro level, it makes a kind of counterintuitive sense. Cities—or at least the ones that don’t sprawl on forever like metro Atlanta and Houston—concentrate people in smaller geographic areas, giving the open spaces a break. Brand also calls himself “a big fan” of slums. He says that people who live in gigantic squatter cities are “moving up what’s called the energy ladder, toward more and better, greater electricity.”
I’m not sure I fully understand that last argument, but it does raise an interesting question for me: Where does the urban homestead fit into this scenario?
While it is the most densely populated city in Georgia, Decatur is hardly a slum. It has lovely homes and a high average household income and great schools and beautiful greenspaces and a strong environmental ethic that plays out in built environments informed by “New Urbanism” principles. And I live comfortably on a nice piece of property with just enough space for gardens and critters. Can the principles of urban homesteading apply in places like Mumbai (think Slumdog Millionaire)? Are the ideals that Foxfire represented to me, those notions of “plain living,” not only possible but even environmentally preferable in an urban setting?
I haven’t read Brand’s book yet, and I wonder if he ventures into this question. Perhaps he considers community gardens. Or maybe he thinks about the kind of renewal taking place in cities like Youngstown, Ohio, which has been struggling economically for so long that shrinking is now part of its planning—that is, abandoned property is being returned to the earth, as gardens or protected greenspaces. Or about the “guerilla gardeners,” who enact a radical view of land rights by planting gardens on derelict properties they do not own.
Perhaps Brand looks at rooftop gardens, or at the way agriculture asserts itself in some of the world’s poorest cities: when I was in Havana, Cuba, staying in a Soviet era high-rise in 2002, I awakened every dawn to a rooster crowing 23 floors below. And last year, in Monrovia, Liberia, I took this photograph (from a speeding car—sorry it’s so blurry) of a patch of corn growing in the middle of this city that is struggling to recover from fourteen years of devastating civil war. We saw delicious-looking fresh roasted corn sold from outdoor stands all over the place. This is not idealism; it is not an ethical or environmental choice. In Havana and Monrovia, “plain living” is survival in the ruins.
Urban homesteading, or just signs of life? I welcome your thoughts.