The New Homespun Era

An economic and cultural transition is taking place in towns and farmlands throughout much of New York’s Hudson Valley, particularly where I live in Ulster County, in the Rondout Valley. We’re experiencing a sharp turn toward localism, epitomized by the Local Economies Project (LEP), which is funded by The New World Foundation. The LEP has helped to establish a Farm Hub in the vicinity, along with various Food Hubs (such as Farm-to-Table Co-Packers in Kingston), farm-to-school projects, and a host of other efforts designed to strengthen local farms and communities.

Also spurring the localism trend is the Rondout Valley Growers association, whose members, comprised of established and emerging farmers, are making great strides in restoring farming to its once dominant place in our regional economy.

In this neck of the woods we also have a strong Transition Town movement, the idea of which is to help communities become self-sustaining, freeing us as much as possible from our increasingly precarious dependence on long-distance trade and energy resources.

Of course, everything in nature and human culture is always transitioning. That’s a truth of ecology and society. But some transitions are noteworthy because people put much thought and effort into directing the course and character of the change, with the hope and expectation of particular outcomes.

I’m a newcomer to this region, and though I live on a small farm and tend goats and gardens just as a pioneer might have, on my own I wouldn’t recognize the latest trend hereabouts. But lots of old-timers and young folks have been sharing stories with me about how life used to be in these parts, and how change is happening rapidly, so I can comment with at least a modicum of authority on the current local transition.

Some folks say that, in fact, we’re in a Transition Era, characterized by a passion for “permaculture.” That currently popular term signifies, in some ways, a return to the self-sufficiency and simplicity of yore, when tribal cultures were still intact, and when pioneers carved out homesteads from “the wilderness”.

In those times, people farmed and made their tools and clothes using all available resources, leaving nothing to waste. They sustained what they hoped was a permanent way of life. Of course, as we all know, little about those times was in fact permanent.

In the early 1950s, a fellow by the name of Jared van Wagenen, Jr., from an old Colonial farming family in Ulster County, identified his family’s era as The Golden Age of Homespun.

“The most firmly held canon of the pioneer was this,” he wrote: “that the farm must be self-sufficient and self-contained, and, to the last degree possible, the family must live within the farm fence lines.”

This is not so different in basic principle from the ethos of permaculture, in which a great virtue is made of doing things by hand, using as much as possible local resources to grow food, gather and process herbs, erect dwellings and greenhouses, cook and heat with solar energy, raise and slaughter livestock, and craft clothes and tools, and recycle waste.

Then as now efforts were made to regenerate nutrients, vegetation and other resources extracted from the land. Then as now, such efforts weren’t always successful — widespread forest clearcutting proved unwise, for instance — and ways of life proved unsustainable.

And then as now, neighbors helped neighbors.

The chief difference between then and now is the radical transformation of society effected by science, technology, and energy — especially oil and gas. The dependence of almost all human endeavors on oil and gas these days is the chief culprit behind the current precariousness of society.

Our recognition that oil and gas dependence imperils both local economies and habitats substantially accounts for our current passion for permaculture — driven in large part by the urgent need we feel to free ourselves from fossil-fuel addiction, lest all systems collapse.

Not that collapse is anything new.

The lead-up to the American Revolution wrought enormous destruction in the New Netherlands and New York as warfare, environmental destruction, and diseases — brought mainly by Dutch, English and French immigrants and their descendents — displaced and killed some 90 percent of the indigenous Algonquin population. The newcomers leveled almost all of the existing forest — collapsing wildlife populations in the process — to establish farms and towns. And, of course, prior to the Revolution, many farm owners of European descent relied on the African slave trade for laborers to work their fields.

And yet, as will all stories of great strife, the so-called Colonial Era served up important lessons for all who followed.

Without dismissing the horrors of war, slavery, pestilence and habitat destruction, it is possible to admire and even emulate much of what the people in that time and place accomplished in living off the land, using only the limited resources at hand.

In those long-ago days, life was hardscrabble. Luxuries were scarce. Danger abounded and people of all ethnicities had no choice but to fend for themselves as best they could, relying on family, friends, neighbors and their own wits and skills to tough it out. For the most part the tools people used, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, and the homes they lived in and the barns that sheltered their livestock were hand-made or home-grown, derived from local resources. They wasted nothing.

The economy was local. Not yet had the vast, interconnected regional, national, and international trade and manufacturing economy engulfed homesteaders far from the capitols of Europe.

The permaculture movement is very modern in the sense that it utilizes modern tools and science to design integrated, closed-loop systems. Far from being Luddite, the movement embraces technologies that capture and recycle what used to be waste products. The best example of this hereabouts can be seen at Omega Institute, across the Hudson River from us in Dutchess County. There the Omega Center for Sustainable Living operates an Eco Machine that treats wastewater without chemicals, utilizes solar and geothermal systems for heating and cooling, and offers a sterling LEED® Platinum design for net-zero energy use by an industrial facility.

Though high-tech in function, in spirit it’s homespun.

We have yet to install such facilities in Ulster County. If we’re to succeed in sustaining ourselves locally, in fully transitioning to a New Homespun Era, treating our waste this wisely will be an important next step.

About the author: Mark Mardon is an Arizona native newly transplanted to the Hudson Valley by way of San Francisco, California. He is a co-organizer of Rondout Valley Permaculture in Stone Ridge, where the emphasis on localism and the homespun arts has captivated his imagination. He is a former Associate Editor of Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, with a passion for nature and the great outdoors.

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