Today I pulled out my great-great grandmother’s journals to help me with this writing. I come from generations of women who pushed their hands into the earth and grew food for their families. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes just because they liked to, but either way, in my family, I can trace what we now call Urban Homesteading back to before 1900.
My great-great-great grandparents came here from Norway with 8 kids. There they grew their own food and here they became part of an immigrant community in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota where that was the only thing to do if you wanted food. As those kids grew up they knew homesteading as a way of life. In 1918 my Grandpa’s mother, MiMi, writes, ”I have planted some nasturtiums in cans on the window sill, hoping to brighten up the place.” She had just moved into an apartment Page St in San Francisco. There was no dirt, but she needed to maintain her roots. I can still, vividly, remember the recycled coffee cans that MiMi’s sisters, Eva and Hazel, painted with big, bright sprawling flowers. There they would plant seeds for herbs and flowers that sat in their window sills or balconies until they were well into their 80’s. They lived in a 3 story walk up on Page St in San Francisco. It doesn’t get more urban than that.
I was born in San Diego, where my mother carried on the tradition of Urban Homesteading. We always had a compost heap (more than a pile, only slightly less than a mountain), and a vegetable garden. She hatched chickens in the oven, baked our bread and sewed most of our clothes. We bought our milk, in glass bottles, from the dairy at the end of our street. We didn’t go to the doctor. We used herbs and supplements and Adelle Davis books. When the power went out, we were the only ones for blocks with lights, because my mom always had kerosene lamps at the ready. We had no phone or tv and mom didn’t drive, so we walked everywhere we went. We were all very healthy and happy.
When I was very small my grandparents bought an acre of land with 3 houses on it. This was surrounded by neighbors (in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose), had sidewalks and a McDonalds within walking distance. This was our Urban Homestead. My grandparents, parents, brother, aunt, uncles and cousins all lived on the property throughout the years. (MiMi got a mobile home and joined us). My grandmother was a prolific gardener. I remember walking through her flower bed beneath a canopy of Mums and Snap Dragons. She always did that thing where you pinch the snapdragon to make it bite tiny fingers. It was 1968 or so. She composted everything. She smoked and buried the butts all over the grounds so that my Grandpa wouldn’t know. She collected all sorts of twigs and bones and interesting things, everywhere she went, and turned them into art. She raked up the pine needles to use for mulch. Once, my grandfather told the trash company that they wanted to cancel service, because they just recycled everything. He was informed that this wasn’t possible because everyone has trash so everyone has to pay for service. They were wrong. He won. In the summer my brothers and their friends would catch fish and crawdads in Guadalupe Creek and cook them up. My Grandma and I waded waist deep to collect blackberries along the creek, which we made into jam. She would let me collect scraps from her sewing projects, which she turned into the most awesome patchwork halter tops and skirts a girl could ever want.
With my kids I have raised chickens and geese, we’ve grown vegetables and gathered eggs. I have an apple tree that lives in an oversized laundry tub. I have been dragging it around, from urban rental to urban rental for the past 5 years. Yesterday John dug a huge hole and we planted it. I don’t live in the city anymore (it’s just 10 minutes away) but I will always consider myself an Urban Homesteader.
In light of recent news in the Urban Homesteading community, I have been thinking a lot about how I was raised and what we called it. We called it living. Being a family. Taking care of ourselves. I knew what a homestead was from reading the Little House on The Prairie books, and I definitely saw the similarities between their lives and ours. The simplest definition of a homestead (according to Merriam-Webster) is a home and adjoining land occupied by a family. The Urban Homesteading movement of today has grown that definition to include all of the things that my family has been doing since the 1800’s.
You can’t trademark the words Urban Homesteader anymore than you could trademark the words woman or family, and tell me I’m not one anymore. I am and always will be.