Growing up in a fairly small town and spending most of my summers alone in the woods, I oscillated between intense introspection to being thrown into the middle of everyone knows everything about everyone during the school year. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to live more quietly and more detached from the "petty"gossips and scrutiny of community. I think this "self-reliant" bent of urban homesteading (along with the environmental benefits) has been a real draw to me. One of the catchphrases of the homesteading movement is "living off the grid." This has meant, unplugging (literally and figuratively) from the electric grid by producing some or all of one's own electricity. It may also mean naturally capturing water for washing clothes or watering the garden through rain barrels or catchments - reducing one's need to be on the "water grid" so to speak. For the urban homesteader it's also about disconnecting from downspouts and reducing our input to the "water grid" in this way. People do this for environmental reasons (reduce our reliance on fossil fuels etc.), but also for economical reasons - sun power is free, water from a rain barrel is free... etc. So a lot of focus and attention can be on independence and disconnect. After a few years of trying to turn our little mid-century bungalow into an urban homestead, I would now argue that community is a homesteader's number one ally.
I came to this conclusion through trial and error and it's taken almost 20 years. Several key experiences have drawn me into the understanding of what connections to my neighbors - and I mean my actual next door neighbors, not my global neighbors- means. First, I can honestly say I did not realize how much my family gained from community while I was growing up. I spent just about every free moment as a child in the woods daydreaming about being Laura Ingalls Wilder or, as I became a teen, Thoreau. I felt most at home "walking the creek" alone or reading next to one of the three ponds in our back ninety acres. When the school year approached I frequently dreamt I'd forgotten an important article of clothing, such as pants, and, in my dreams, I wouldn't realize it until boarding the school bus. To me, school meant cacophony. It meant feeling alone in a crowd. I skipped pep rallies to read in the library because I liked the quiet (I still hate crowds). I blamed my discomfort on the typical complaints about life in a small town - everyone knows everyone, there's nothing to do, I never felt like I fit in etc. So I took off across the country for college and landed in a mid-sized city.
Strangly enough, I found that in a sea of people it was actually easier to disappear. I also realized I had to buy produce. You see, in the summer and fall, my dad would bring home bags of fresh tomatoes, gigantic squash and such. People would give him produce, he would give them corn or melons. We never had a garden and there was harldly ever fresh produce in the grocery stores, but we always had loads of homegrown veggies. I'd never realized this until I had to buy them. Of course, I was also enamored of the giant West Coast grocery stores, stocked with items from all up and down the I-5 corridor. Things like gorgeous red peppers even in the middle of winter! Oh, but my awareness of the fossil fuel cost of this food came much latter and is a different story. I missed all those free veggies from home!
After college and grad school, I moved to an even larger city where I "settled down" in a typical suburban neighborhood. We bought the house because it needed fixing up and was on a large plot. I had visions of secluding myself in a lush garden and growing plants that would insulate me from the sounds of next door neighbors. This worked for the first few years - before we started really undertaking the remodel projects. Then our current neighbors moved in and that led me to my second understanding of the importance of community. Our new neighbors did crazy things like invite us over to BBQ dinners that were delicious. Their cousins and parents would come to these dinners and at first we didn't realize they were inviting us to dine with other folks. We were a little surprised they would invite these two girls into their family like this. (OK so part of it is that is we're lesbians and they're a straight, catholic couple. We thought that maybe at first they thought we were just roommates. They shattered that delusion after asking if we thought we'd ever have kids.)
After about a year of living next to each other, our shared fence blew over in a storm. When we went to replace the fence, our neighbors (who are renters by the way) helped us build the fence. George, a burly ex-navy recruiter, dug up the most stubborn of the old concrete post-holes and Cheryl made dinner for all of us. At the same time, we invited a friend over to help with this project. When we replaced our floors, George helped us move our largest piece of furniture. We also had help from another friend who came in at just the right time to save our marriage. (I'm sure you understand that if you have done any remodel project with your spouse....)When we were sick with strep throat last month, George and Cheryl's nephew brought over a plate of food. Tonight, we are babysitting their 2 year old little girl.
And so, through obvious and many more subtle events, I have come to realize that good neighbors, a community of support and resources, are necessary for every true homestead. We learn things from each other that make independent living easier and richer. It's about swapping from one grid to another, more delicate, web of relationships. It's the cardinal rule of homesteading - know thy neighbors.