It Takes (At Least) Two

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

-Wendell Berry

My current job puts me at the margin of a household unit. The parents, both working, do not have enough time to accomplish all the mundane yet vital tasks of the household, so I’m one of several people hired to accomplish those tasks.

For the past few months, we’ve also had a carpenter and his assistant working on the garage to convert it to a guest house. Recently a team of workers came in and built a deck outside the kitchen. Every Tuesday a woman named Ruth comes and cleans the house. The toddler goes to a nanny four days per week.

Living like this is, in some ways, a real contrast from how I lived two summers ago, by myself on a mountain with chickens and rabbits and a garden. I did a lot of things for myself, from growing and preparing food to hauling water from my grandparents’ house since the water on the farm wasn’t safe to drink.

While I learned other things that summer–like how to drive a cranky stick-shift truck and how to butcher rabbits–the lesson that really has stuck with me is the certain knowledge that I do not want to live alone again. That said, I would take that kind of loneliness over my au pair life any day.

Late-night canning selfie with Dad.

Late-night canning selfie with Dad. Always good to have a canning buddy, especially at 3 AM!

As an environmentalist (disregard the blog’s title for a moment, please), it galls me to accept waste of any kind. I’ve never lived a “zero waste” lifestyle and in modern society that is really, really hard. Waste comes in many forms, from the trash that goes into landfills, to wasted energy heating empty homes when people are away at work, to the emotional energy wasted in toxic relationships. This is not all equally measurable, but it all contributes negatively to our lives.

As miserable as I was that summer on the mountain, something I really did enjoy was figuring out ways to amplify the farm using the materials at hand. I didn’t really have money, but I did have a lot of “junk.” Pallets my grandfather brought over from his hardware store made excellent compost bins, moldy old straw my uncle didn’t need anymore was perfect to mulch the garden, and the free range chickens did an excellent job keeping grass and weeds down where they hung out.

The big downside was that it all felt pointless. As much as I wanted to improve the condition of the farm, a lot of investment didn’t make sense since I was never coming back after August. There’s a saying about the best time to plant trees: 20 years ago.

Strawberry plants take two years to produce fruit. Berry bushes usually take longer, orchard trees still longer. Just to grow your own fresh fruit requires years of investment in plants. We live in a society where it is considered easier to come up with $3 for strawberries doused in chemicals and flown thousands of miles to our “local” supermarket than to spend two years protecting plants so they will bear fruit.

While it is easier, it’s not sustainable. Many sustainable choices seem to present this dilemma: the easy, unsustainable option requires money; better options require more time and effort or knowledge. The problem is that money, unlike apples, does not grow on trees, so how do we get it? In the U.S. especially, our work culture dictates all-out effort in our careers.

We are left with little time or effort to do things for ourselves. We are left to choose between options available in the commercial market, many of which are not ideal–or are downright toxic.

However, two people working together stand a better chance of being able to make more sustainable choices. We are social creatures and much of what we need to survive is meant to be shared: food and housing being two hugely important examples.

After my summer on the mountain, I had a freezer full of meat and a bookshelf full of canned vegetables and jams. Between this bounty and selective shopping at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets, I ate what felt like a pretty good diet, low in sugar (no high fructose corn syrup except for the occasional Oreo) and high in whole foods.

Cooking for one with this kind of diet was really a challenge, though. Since I had flatmates, I usually ended up sharing a lot of what I made–fresh loaves of bread, an entire roast chicken, a stockpot of soup. Over the year, I learned a lot of strategies (especially with strategic freezing), but it still felt ridiculous–and I ate a lot of leftovers.

It also doesn’t make sense for people to live alone. Why build, maintain, and heat an entire structure just so that one person is reasonably comfortable? Most of our available housing stock is ill-suited to a single person anyway, and it usually makes more sense to renovate than to rebuild.

Other tasks are also easier shared: child-rearing, laundry, cleaning, property maintenance. These tasks do not need to be divided by typical gender roles, but they DO need to happen. The more skills and personal energy we can bring to our lives, the better. Teaming up with a compatible person to accomplish these tasks can make it more possible to choose a sustainable path.

When we talk about environmental efforts, we talk a lot about what an individual can do or what can be done in society. We also talk about communities. Yet we rarely talk about a really fundamental unit of society: the household unit. Although a household unit doesn’t necessarily need to be composed of a married couple, a solid marriage can help solidify the ability of a household to make sustainable choices because, in essence, marriage is about commitment.

Sustainability is also, fundamentally, about commitment. If we live unsustainably, we are essentially admitting that we are willing to see this whole thing–human life–go up in smoke. We don’t care if it lasts. Committing to the planet, to our communities, to our families, and to ourselves, by contrast, requires us to make sustainable choices. Those are often, unfortunately, not the easiest.

While it is increasingly possible to go it alone and make some ecological choices, and it’s also quite possible (easy, really) to be part of a household that doesn’t work sustainably (I’m in one now), pooling resources with a partner in an explicit bid to live lightly on the earth can be a way of multiplying the power of both individuals.

There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, ‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours.’

This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction.

– Wendell Berry (continued from quote at beginning of this post)

Simpler than a commune, more effective than an individual: this is the beauty of the household unit.

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1 comment
  1. “…this is the beauty of the household unit.”

    Yes…but finding just the right partner is the real challenge. In my case it regrettably took the better part of 50 years to achieve that end…which included several (mostly hormone-driven) missteps along the way. Most important, I think, is to search for a unique quality of attraction that also includes a very strong sense of ‘familial’ resonance…because it is that quality which will most likely provide the fertile soil in which your ‘family garden’ will most luxuriantly grow.

    Also want to say that the photo with your father is very heart-warming! It immediately made me think of this:

    “It is often said that when a man pursues romantic impulses he is subconsciously driven by a desire to replace his mother; and a woman, her father. Perhaps it is a kind of familial yearning for those qualities absorbed from a parent during early childhood. Qualities that eventually become valued in a way that is difficult to understand, and even more difficult to replicate. In part because such qualities invariably change from generation to generation, and are sometimes lost altogether through a process of cultural attrition…” – From <a href="http://www.russlawson.com/about-2/songs-of-heritage/"Songs of Heritage

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