Back in midwinter sometime I was asked to do a presentation about modern homesteading for an evening series offered by the Swarthmore Public Library. Someone who had read my 1995 nonfiction book Homestead Year: Back to the Land in Suburbia,
and also Barbara Kingsolver's 2007 nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
, thought that suburban homesteading would be a topic of interest to people who (unlike Kingsolver) don't have a farm and a lot of draftable family labor at their disposal, but would like to move as far as their circumstances might allow in the direction of self-sufficiency.
The backstory: in 1992 I took a year off from teaching at Penn to turn our one-acre suburban lot in Rose Valley PA into a little farm. By then the yard already featured a big organic garden, five apple trees, a hedge made of blueberry bushes, and two beehives. To these we added a liner pond stocked with catfish and bluegills, and seven noisy, smelly Cayuga ducks. Homestead Year
describes the experiment. The main thing I brought away from it, aside from a ton of produce, was a deeply intensified appreciation for how everything in the biosphere connects to everything else, even on a scale as small as ours.
By making 1992 the homestead year, I missed the back-to-the-land movement of the Seventies by a mile; and the book, published by Lyons and Burford, didn't sell very well, though a feature article in the Philadelphia Inquirer,
about the ducks, was a big hit. But times change. People in New York City are raising chickens now. People are blogging about their own attempts to grow food in small spaces. It seemed that the idea of homesteading was cycling round again.
I've done my homesteading slide show and lecture half a dozen times over the years, usually in college settings. (Usually for money, too; but hey, it's a library.) We set a date (February 3), I retooled my presentation for a Pennsylvania instead of a Kentucky or Indiana audience, went through my slides again, and looked forward to a pleasantly intimate evening, perhaps with some of our old duck-tolerant neighbors in the audience.
Snow was in the forecast on 2/3, and all over the streets and sidewalks by evening. Lots of snow. Okay, there wouldn't be much of a turnout; but when I showed up half an hour early, to organize the slide projector and the podium, a flustered librarian told me that the phone hadn't stopped ringing. Nineteen people had called in to ask whether the talk had been canceled. Nineteen sounded pretty good. Encouraged, I went off to the room where the talk was to be held, and people started to come in. And come in, and come in. The crowd overwhelmed the chairs and then the room. People were standing out in the hall. Fifty-one people
came out in a bad snowstorm to hear a talk about suburban homesteading! The librarians were ecstatic; I was astounded. A few friends showed up, but most of the audience had never heard of me. They were there, simply, because they wanted to learn something about my subject. They asked good questions, and afterwards stayed and talked to me and to one another for half an hour, exchanging information. And that's when I knew for sure that the topic had become hot again.
And that's also when I decided to make a serious try at getting Homestead Year
(If you're wondering what all this has to do with science fiction, it has a lot to do with mine.)