Published Jul 10 2009 by Casaubon's Book
Archived Jul 10 2009

Homestead Aesthetics

by Sharon Astyk

I know a lot of people who read “shelter magazines” - which is just a fancy way of saying magazines full of pretty homes. I admit to liking to look at them in checkout lines myself, since they do help me beautify my house - just not the way they are supposed to. I think: ”Wow, that’s a gorgeous sleigh bed - I’d love that…hmmm…8,000 dollars….yeah, my futon’s looking cozier and more elegant already!”

I admit, though, I’m not totally immune to the call of the pretty - I mean, who is - aesthetics are important. They are also not something I’m naturally good at. One of my sisters is - she’s one of those people who always looks cool and pressed, whose clothes are nicer than everyone else’s, even though she buys a lot of them used, and who just knows instinctively what looks good - she never has to make beauty a separate project, it just flows from her as part of her way of being.

Whatever portion of our genome that proceeded from, I don’t have it. I am casual and sloppy by nature, and while I appreciate beauty, it feels like it takes a lot of effort to create, an effort I don’t always have time or energy for. Instead of beauty flowing out of my actions, it is something that has to be added on top of “functional” for me most of the time. The only exception for me is with language - I don’t find it much harder to “write purty” than I do to write bluntly, or in any other mode. This gives me hope that maybe, someday, I’ll learn to make my home purty automatically.

Until then, I keep thinking that the best possible thing I might be able to do would be to start a shelter magazine for normal people trying to Adapt-In-Place. In my head I’ve been working on “Better Homesteads and Ratholes” (ok, that probably wouldn’t be the best sales inducement, but it is just a working title ;-)) for a long time - a magazine that would aestheticize function and sustainability - but not in the way that fake sustainability magazines like “Real Simple” and “Natural Home” do it, with 7,000 dollar eco mattresses and 4,000 square foot green built homes with a 30K solar array on it do.

Transforming our sense of what is beautiful, elegant, cozy, etc… is going to be such a big project. Some of it will come, as we are impoverished, by necessity. But some of it is still required. We have to learn to look at what we are creating as in itself lovely. And yet, that’s hard - really hard. I know intellectually all the arguments for the pointlessness of lawns, of course, and yet I still cannot help seeing my waist high grasses (which normally would have been cut by now, but haven’t been because of ceaseless rain) through the eyes of someone trained to see cut grass as tidy and neat, and my yard as a mess. And if I can’t always see the beauty of my meadow, how can someone who has had banged into them since infancy “this represents beauty, neatness, order, affluence”

The reality is that we’re going to have to offer other images of beauty, neatness, order and affluence to help people change what’s floating in their heads. And one of the things we may have to point out is this - a working homestead - whether rural, urban or suburban - does not look like a home that is mostly a showplace. It should not. It cannot. So creating images of homestead beauty - beauty that can exist within the realities of a home that is used is an important project.

How can you tell if you have a homestead, rather than a showplace home? Well, first of all, you are there a lot. Whether you own or rent, have a private place or a collective one, a homestead is a place where you really live.

At a minimum, this means that you invest your time and energy into the place, to adapting it to you and you to it. In aesthetic terms, that means there’s almost always a project getting done, and the accoutrements of that work-in-progres about. Your hoes and shovels don’t come out once in a while, there are tools and sawdust about, furniture being moved about, and most of your home tours include the sentences “eventually that will be…” or “that’s a work in progress.”

The other reality is that you probably use your home more than most people. Maybe you work full time, but you spend your evenings gardening and cooking and building things. Or maybe you have a cottage business, or work from home. Maybe you homeschool, or your kids spend more time at home and playing in the neighborhood than they spend at camp and more structured programs, because they are learning home-based skills.

That also, frankly, means that your home does not look like a magazine spread - remember, in those pictures, people are always lounging around or having a barbecue - I’m sure you do some of that too, but the reality is that you are going to have your office full of work, or your barn full of boards, homework spread all over the dining room table, tomatoes on the counter - not a bowlful, decoratively laid out, but buckets of them, waiting to be canned.

The major feature by which a homestead differs from a home is that more and more of one’s needs are met at home, rather than elsewhere. That does not mean we live in caves and never come out into the light - but it does mean we’re more likely to eat with our friends at our own table than at restaurants, or replace trips to the store with trips to the garden, the fabric stash or the accumulation of “potentially useful salvage.” Not only does this mean projects, but it also means storing stuff for some people (others like to come at this lightly).

All of which means there is exactly no chance that that your house will look like a magazine - some people’s do, of course, but except for those with that instinctive gift for beauty, most of the ones that do look like they do because no one is home - adults work, kids go to school and to activities if they are middle or upper class, or to jobs if they are older and not.

The other thing that makes it a homestead is attention to caring for one’s place, and for one’s larger community. Many of the things typically used to meet modern aesthetic standards are toxic, unsustainable and dangerous to the environment. Now in some cases it is possible to find a replacement - you can get rid of the bleach in your laundry and use the sun or natural whiteners, get rid of the power mower and switch to the push mower, and achieve much the same effect. On the other hand, without a dryer, your towels simply won’t be a soft, and without chemlawn and a sprinkler, your lawn won’t be as green. The brown lawn and the crunchy towels are the better choice by far - but it is hard to get people with strong aesthetic assumptions to grasp shift - to find the brown and weedier lawn more beautiful, or even better, the beds of vegetables or appropriate natural plantings.

Wealth itself is unsustainable. This is a hard message for people who have lived their whole lives being told that affluence is their goal. A practical and painful reality is that the world cannot afford rich people anymore. By rich, I do not mean the absurdly wealthy, although certainly those too - but I also mean people who are simply well-off by developed world standards. That does not mean we cannot afford ornamentation, beauty or elegance - after all art, ornament and beauty are a part of many societies that live far more sustainably than we do - but it does mean that each of us cannot have our own private palace, decorated with expensive (in both ecological and monetary terms).

The deep fear of “looking poor” that underlies so much of our actions is one we have to deal with - it is a tough thing to navigate, because it is much more complex than wanting to “keep up with the Joneses” - there’s that, of course, but there are other impulses - the desire not to have to apologize for not meeting the conventions of hospitality or neighborhood aesthetics, the fear of pity or contempt from others if they think you can’t afford “normal” things. There’s the fact that we too were taught to think of homely things, as well, homely.

I find myself apologizing to people, and warning them before they come to my house. I’m afraid they’ve read about what we do, and they hold in their head an image of what it should look like. A visiting friend of mine recently said to me, kindly, “Don’t worry, the real farms are never the pretty ones.” I know she’s right in some ways, and being kind in others, but what I wanted her to say is “your farm is beautiful.” And parts of it are - the woods are beautiful, the pasture dotted with sheep are beautiful (if you can see the sheep over the tall grass the sheep haven’t actually gotten to), the gardens are lush. But the kids bikes are scattered around the yard, we still haven’t stacked our wood and the broken window on the front porch is covered with a board. There is enough squalor here to read “squalor.”

And some of it truly could be a lot prettier than it is - we could stack the wood faster, we could cut the grass more often - it is just that doing that would come out of something else. Right now the wood is sitting where it is because, well, we haven’t gotten to it yet - I’ve been making the cherries into cherry jam instead. I can make beauty blossom on the shelves in my kitchen as red jars fill the shelves - but only at the price of the rathole look out on the driveway ;-).

Thus, I find myself dreaming of the day I can go up to the checkout stand and see “Glorious Homestead” Magazine, with pictures of real people in their gardens, the old wooden tools and the bursting eggplant alongside the real gardeners, who do not look like the people at the barbecues in the magazines ;-), showing what life looks like in a real homestead - the rich potential for beauty in made over and made do, in homegrown and home cooked, in mended and patchwork, in home built and fresh made, and the art of hybridity - the transformation of an ordinary suburban ranch or an apartment in the Bronx into a place that is full of art, and life.

Meanwhile, my personal project is to stop apologizing for my home being what it is, and try harder to make other people see it as I do on the good days. I like the exuberance of our lives, the piles of books and musical instruments, the sight of the bikes that says “my children are learning to make their way in the world.” I like the full pantry and the richly colored jars, but also the canning kettle out on the counter. I do need to work on the dirty dishes and the stacked wood, on prettying things up, simply because I like it that way. But I also want to stop letting myself see it through old eyes, and invite others to see it the new way.

Original article available here