Why Gardening & DIY Are Subversive Acts

Four months into her exploration of organic farms and homesteads around the country, Associate Editor Leah Pellegrini urges us to consider taking a more hands-on, self-reliant approach to our day-to-day routines in 2017, starting with growing some of our own food.
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Image Credit: Leah Pellegrini

Image Credit: Leah Pellegrini

Before it became rebellion, it began as basic curiosity. I’d eaten beans and broccoli for years without knowing how they grew – on bushes? On vines? How much better might a handpicked blueberry taste than one picked up in a plastic carton at the store? What exactly are the differences between organic and conventional crops, and do those differences matter?

After too much time spent hunched over my laptop as a creative freelancer in New York, I was antsy. Though my shiny screen was a powerful modern gateway to boundless information and opportunity, it had started to feel more like a partition between the real world and me. I wanted to engage in the real world. I wanted to go deeper than the web (though world-wide) seemed to allow. I wanted to smell dirt, to dig and to see how it felt. I wanted to learn to grow my own food — just because, basically, I was curious.

I surrendered my beloved Brooklyn apartment in September to explore these simple inquiries via WWOOF, an organization that connects volunteers with organic farmers for cultural and educational exchanges. In the ensuing months, I’ve traveled from Virginia to Vermont, roamed from Kentucky to Tennessee and back, while lodging and working on a vast variety of organic farms and gardens: a community farm, a family homestead, a healing arts center, a ranch and more. In the process, I’ve accumulated bucketfuls of agricultural skills and learnings, like the proper way to raise sheep on fenced pasture and the pros and cons of tilling.

But the growth patterns of beans and broccoli have turned out to be the mere beginnings of what I didn’t know — what most of us don’t know — about sustenance and survival. As a nomadic farm apprentice, I’ve crossed paths with people who are living off of their land in ways I hadn’t realized were practical or even possible.

I’ve met a man who is currently building his own home – as in, by himself, with his bare hands. I’ve met a couple that bakes their bread and churns their butter from scratch; a man who bottles his own wine, fermented from his own fruit; a woman who makes her own yogurt, granola, cheese and kombucha, and another who concocts her tea blends from wild medicinal plants and fertilizes her garden with manure from a compost toilet. I’ve met people collecting rain for water, people living off-grid without access to municipally-provided gas or electric utilities, and people knitting their own sweaters with hand-spun wool from sheep they’ve raised from birth.

I can now chop wood for fire, grow greens from seed and preserve salsas and jams — things I never knew I never knew. These practices were once considered common human knowledge, but today, they feel revolutionary.

And in a sense, they are.

It’s astounding how much personal power we complacently surrender to big businesses without human faces. We wear clothes made by machines as we eat plastic-packaged chemical compounds we call food, while sitting at factory-assembled tables in houses designed and constructed by strangers. Our dish soap, our slippers, our bed sheets, our coffee – all of the stuff of intimate daily ritual comes from somewhere else. We surround ourselves with products that are commercialized, sterilized and split from their roots in the real world.

We’ve sacrificed authentic effort for convenience, and then embraced that convenience as necessity. But, as it turns out, humans once survived — and still can — without Ziploc bags or Swiffer mops. We made things ourselves, and we made do.

It’s no wonder that mindfulness often feels like an ambitious pursuit in today’s cultural climate. It’s difficult to be here now when we’re not quite here, not quite rooted to the earth and connected to our biologically-ingrained capabilities as makers, fixers, crafters and cooks. Store-bought (and doorstep-delivered) modern convenience saves time and energy, but oftentimes at the cost of deeper grounding. And besides, where we don’t spend our hours, we spend our money instead, whether to buy groceries or shoes; and that money comes from…well, time and energy spent over-stretched and stressed at work, hunched at our computer screens. (Or was that just me?) In the end, in pursuit of speed and ease, we can still wind up feeling harried.

To grow your own food is a subversive act. So is any DIY project, however minimal. It’s not that our contemporary ways of living are all bad – our technological advances have enabled meaningful improvements in health and wellbeing while affording us the freedom to invest our off-hours in whatever ways we choose. Not all of us want to wake at sunrise to feed chickens for self-produced scrambled eggs or occupy our precious hours spinning wool for the sake of one sweater – a total lifestyle reversal might not be particularly desirable, let alone feasible without difficult drawbacks.

But a new year is an ideal occasion to experiment with small and attainable gestures of self-sufficiency: tending to a tiny herb garden in a window box, or concocting a natural shampoo, or sewing a quilt from recycled fabrics. These simple projects can be surprisingly rewarding. They can bring awareness to our self-reliance that’s otherwise left untapped, and they can coax us to reconsider how we want to shape our at-home rituals and routines in the coming months. 

To create something concrete from rudimentary ingredients, and to get your hands dirty, just feels good. It’s grounding. It’s empowering. It’s a bold assertion that extra hours dedicated to designing and constructing your own nourishing livelihood are hours well used. 

And, yes, a handpicked blueberry does, in fact, taste ten times better than one picked up in a plastic carton at the store. 

p.s. Are you resolving to do more DIY in 2017? How about making an herby facial steam or a kokedama hanging plant