Monday, August 22, 2011

Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Laura Ingalls

...a suburban greenmom defends the Do It Yourself movement...

Miss Hildebrand was my third grade teacher. That year we spent a pretty big chunk of time on Little House in the Big Woods. We read it, we studied, we wrote book reports and made the obligatory dioramas...and we made butter. And we made cheese. Seriously. A bunch of third graders. The butter was delicious; the cheese tasted kind of gross. But we did it.

Miss Hildebrand was one of the best teachers ever.

I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of my fascination with DIY projects, aided and abetted by my chemistry professor parents who were determined that their kids would know how things worked, and why. The fascination would go dormant for even years at a time, but it never entirely went away. And once I became a mom, for some reason, it hit with full force and has become one of the driving forces in my life.

I learned to cook--from scratch, avoiding mixes or processed "convenience" foods wherever possible. I learned why different ingredients did different things, until I could mess around with recipes and give them my own twist based on what I had in the house. I taught myself to sew. I began learning about different herbs and did a fairly extensive study of essential oils and aromatherapy. From there it didn't take long for me to graduate to my first diaper balms and baby oil...and from there, thanks to Rosemary Gladstar, to making lotion. Lotion was a hugebridge to have crossed for me, because until then it was one of those mystery products I had no idea how to make, figuring it was just one of those Only They Can Do This things. And then suddenly, there it was. Lovely and thick and nourishing. And then I started wondering how many other mysterious strange things I could make myself. Yogurt? Easy. Lip balm? No problem. Sweetened condensed milk? Why would I want that it's so unhealthy HELLS YEAH. Suddenly nothing was out of reach...I could make anything. (Except for instant pudding; that one eludes me. I'm not losing sleep over it.) It was heady and addictive. Not everything was a success, like the rather tasteless mozzarella cheese. Sometimes once I learned to make something I discovered that it was much more difficult than I'd realized, and I was happy to leave the making to someone else in the future--but man oh man, do I appreciate artisan cheese all the more now that I know what goes into it!

It wasn't just a hobby, either--right about at that time, our family was in a financially tight place--not crisis level, just two people with not enough work and a couple of really small children to raise, clothe, and feed. So knowing how to cook and clean on a shoestring made a pretty significant difference in our financial existence. And that was right about the time I started paying attention to the wider world, and reading Michael Pollan, and reading green blogs, and trying to figure out ways to just plain Use Less. And to do it on my own crazy schedule. And blogging about it. Because I was so excited to realize that all this mystery stuff actually wasn't all that mysterious at all, and I talked to friends about it, and I just wanted to put it...out there. (And, to be completely honest, I just have fun writing, and on a blog I can yak on and on about the stuff that excites me without having to care if anyone was paying attention or not. God knows my kids don't. And I wonder about my husband too sometimes...)

Recently, a post was put out there that was highly critical of my, (and by extension I suppose all of us who do this) desire to learn how to make some of these things on our own, gain better control over the various things that go into our bodies, reduce our consumerism, and show others how to do the same. I've blogged before about the ethical dilemma that comes in for me when there's a small local business I respect and like, but whose product I know I don't really need because I know how to make something that fills that spot in my life. Usually what happens is that I recommend them to others, and more often than not at some point I find myself in a time pinch and shopping from them anyway at some point along the way. Or realizing that what I make on my own may be good but that it's worth the little dent in my budget to purchase the superior product someone else is creating. That's what I do. Other people may have their own approaches to the question.

So this blogger/business owner called me on the carpet, alleging all kinds of things that seem to have come from some other post than the one I wrote, but winding up with, as far as I can tell, an assertion that in this rough economy it is unethical, irresponsible, and anti-woman to try to teach other people how to make on their own, out of simple ingredients they likely have in their home, most of the necessary potions and supplies they would otherwise have to go out and buy--that instead, I should be steering them to the local small woman-owned businesses who have cultivated the "green, safe, and natural" production of these things to an art. (Maybe that's not what she was saying, but that's what it sounded like to me.) (Man, this woman would hate my hero Crunchy Betty!) She says the economy "trumps" all these "Little House Initiatives."

I honestly think this is...just plain wrong. (I had some other words in mind, like what healthy grass-fed cattle produce to fertilize the fields, but I'll stay marginally polite for now.)

Because ultimately, the whole process--I think it's getting to the point where we could even call it a "movement"--of men and women learning how to make, save, gather, build, and preserve what they need to live their lives, is about nothing less than control, choice, and knowledge. Three things we as a cultural place-in-time have lost somewhere between Laura Ingalls and now. We are surrounded by voices that tell us, "no need to do that yourself, we'll make it for you. Food? No, really, we've got it covered, no need to worry about it, open this easy packet and just boil and stir, or better yet, just head out to the drive-through. And seriously, we have to spray poison on the fruits and veggies or they'll be attacked, and of course it's safe, would we lie to you? Electric power? Of course; just pay your bills, however high they get, and you'll have power. Where does it come from? From the power lines, of course, nothing before that need concern you, and what's fracking anyway? Clothes? You can get them really cheap here at Wal-Mart/Old Navy/Insert Name Here...who makes them? Really, why should you care if the people manufacturing them get paid a living wage to do it, you get a great price..." (I'll stop there, because I realize this little paragraph is turning into a full-fledged sarcastic rant, you see where I'm going with it.)

Control, choice, and knowledge. Or, maybe more to the point, knowledge and choice as crucial elements for gaining control--over others' lives, or over our own.

Because here and now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we have access to the knowledge. It's mixed in with a lot of misinformation and weirdness, but the information is there, if we go out and look for it. And we are just beginning to wake up and realize we have a choice. Because with every little thing we learn to Do For Ourselves, the great Corporate Machine (good Lord, I'm starting to sound like some conspiracy theorist now) loses a bit of its hold over us. And as the network grows, as we read and write and share ideas, and as we empower each other to likewise not be afraid to get out there and give whatever new thing a try, we gain a little more power and control over our lives. Yes, we also need to cultivate an attitude of common-sense discrimination in what "information" we accept (obvious stuff like, when people offer wholesale medical advice without documentation or verifiable credentials, we run the other way, and anything that sounds suspicious should be verified by at least a few other reputable sites)--but that's part of the process too, and as we build a network of trust with like-minded DIY pioneers, among whom the information get shared in posts and comments.

Is everything we try awesome and perfect? Not really. The failed experiments are just part of the learning experience, and teach us what not to try next time. But to try to tell us the only people who should be doing this are the ones with Appropriate Levels of Learning and Artistry To Be Fabulous--that's as disempowering as the corporations who tell us we need to smear toxic chemicals on our face to be attractive, or that canning our own tomatoes is too much work and too dangerous so we should just buy the stuff in the BPA-lined cans.

Near the end of her post, this blogger says, "What is a loaf of bread Jenn but the three simple ingredients of flour, salt and yeast? In the hands of an artist it is phenomenal. In the hands of a non-artist it is something banal and tasteless." I would be the last one to profess that I am an artisan bread baker. But I make bread for my family all through the winter. And it's delicious.

Art can be found in all kinds of places. Not all of it is museum quality. Not all of it is something one could sell to people everywhere and make a living. But my humble DIY art feeds my family. The veggies I grow and preserve, the two-or-three-ingredient cleaning supplies I make, the all-natural body care products I care for my and my family's skin and hair with, the simple clothes and toys I make for my kids out of repurposed and rebuilt older textiles...okay, so it's not high art. But it's mine. And I am proud of it, and I am proud that I know how to do it.

Again, I absolutely in no way mean for this post to belittle or discourage the work of the small businesses whose liveliehood is to make these awesome products and/or skills available to those who might not have time, inclination, or skill to make them on their own. These are awesome, as we talked about here last January, and pretty much all of the DIY people I know (myself included) patronize them on a regular basis and would be lost without them. But in this world of fading discretionary income and emerging awareness of the health dangers all around us, aren't both initiatives equally important to helping us all get a grip on our lives and worlds? Ability to make what we can, and access to purchase what we can't? Between the two approaches, I am convinced that we are quite literally changing the world.

I don't think Laura Ingalls Wilder was trying to change the world with her books; she was just telling her story. But there's no doubt that she has.

So--to the comments. What do you guys think? Any other DIY-lovers who get regular flak from people thinking you have no business doing what your doing, or who just find you bewildering? What are your thoughts on this?

(And while we're at it--and I'll do the same!--I also want to put out the invite to every single reader to post links in the comments to your favorite natural small businesses, the ones you patronize over and over again, whom you trust and whose products you find to be a valuable part of your lives. I'll put the list into a new post next Monday, a "Link Love" post of the businesses we Boothers trust and admire. Have at it!)

--Jenn the Greenmom

15 comments:

Bobbi Jo said...

Love this post and I am right there with you on it. I loved Laura Ingalls and all the wonderful books. I learned so much from her. I think we were born at the wrong time. Hugs, Bobbi Jo

Leslie @ Crunchy Betty said...

I've read through all three of the posts on this (the two of yours and the one of theirs), and I'm left with this impression.

First of all, while I don't find it the best option, EVEN ARM & HAMMER baking soda is aluminum free. While the rumors are still out there, I (and even Dr. Mercola http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/12/15/baking-soda-used-to-treat-swine-flu-85-years-ago.aspx) have found no evidence that Arm & Hammer includes aluminum. In fact, historically baking soda hasn't ever had aluminum in it - only baking powder.

Nonetheless, I only use Bob's Red Mill baking soda (although sometimes I'll buy some Arm & Hammer for cleaning).

Okay, all of that notwithstanding. Here's my whole take on the thing.

We SHOULD support small businesses, but only when it makes sense in our lives and budget. Period.

But BEFORE we do that, we should all understand our own abilities and personal power - by knowing we can choose to CREATE these things if we want to.

It is my continued experience that - while we WANT to learn how to do all of these things ourselves - we will not always choose to do so, because of pinches and time constraints, etc.

So any amount of fear of the DIY movement that's held by companies is moot (but only if they're pricing their products properly and engaging in HEALTHY, kind, and thoughtful discourse with consumers).

I'll tell you what, I have NEVER - in my 36 years - seen the support us DIYers give to conscious, caring companies in the "mainstream marketplace" of old.

It's because we know. We value. We engage. And our relationships with these companies are healthier because of that.

I say all that for two reasons: Hopefully to help "lifestinks" understand that the DIYers could be their very best friends, if they choose to engage us. And to help YOU know that you're on the absolute right track and moving forward in a thoughtful and conscious way.

This is long. Probably a blog post of its own. (Good grief.)

But in closing, I do have to say I found your original post to be thoughtful, not at all damaging, and a measured look at endorsing a company that's making a product you can do at home (like many companies do now, but just LOOK at the response the CrunchyBetty Bubble & Bee review got ... I mean, case in point right there.)

The marketplace has changed drastically, and the consumers have more say in what is accepted.

It's up to the companies to take that information in stride, respond if necessary, and change if they want to appeal to the consumer they're targeting.

If they don't do that, they don't swim.

(And that's the way it should be.)

Amanda said...

AMEN!! I'm right there with you! The beautiful thing about living where we do is that we all have the right to do whatever the h-e-double-hockey-sticks we please (I'm keeping my comments marginally polite, too) when it comes to our purchasing power.

I completely agree that it's great to support local businesses, and I think most of us who are reading your blog are probably doing that, but a little self-sufficiency and sustainability are what we all should be going for.

Keep up the great work!

Deanna said...

I just went back and read your original post and, based on that, was quite interested in the lifestinks product. Until I went and read the post in response on the Duggan's site.

Jesus, what a screed! And a total turn-off. I don't care how good her lifestinks is. Her response stinks and I won't be buying anything of hers.

AzSummer said...

I'm all about "pro-choice"... If I have the time and can make a product I need I will do so, if not, then I will buy it. It's not entirely up to me whether or not a small business succeeds or fails (that'd be just a leetle bit arrogant). I'm full grown! Wow... I can think for myself and make my own healthy, educated choices and will continue to do so, small business bullies be damned.

Terra@TheSimplePoppy said...

Huh. I hate the economy argument - I think it's made to guilt the frugals, savers, and DIY-ers into feeling un-patriotic and crummy. All I can say is that I'm not about to pay off my mortgage TWENTY years early because I went out and "supported" a lot of people who are making things I can easily make myself.

That being said, I do really love small businesses. I don't always want or have the time to make things myself. I'm all about supporting artisans, but not because I've been bullied or guilted into it, and certainly not because they think I'm not learned and artisan enough to make my own things. What a turn off. I remember your original post and thought it was a very balanced view of a common dilemma. Their response was . . . over the top, and totally off-putting.

Brenda said...

What a great post from a kindred spirit! I make just about everything for our household myself. I love doing it and I love finding out how things work, too.

I willingly gave up a full-time job so that I can do what it is that I do (I guess it's homemaking, although it's more of the radical type of homemaking).

We try to save money by doing it ourselves because we chose to check out of the corporate rat-race, where people chase the "American Dream", which is really just "buy more crap you don't need on credit so you can impress your friends and neighbors."

Am I anti-small business? No. But if I (me, little old me) can make my own laundry soap, shampoo, lotion, deodorant, bread, canned foods, jam, and whatever else I can figure out, then I'm sure as hell gonna do it!

I hope more people start doing for themselves because if the time ever comes when the power goes out and the stores close, knowing how to make things (and grow things) will mean much more than how much money you have in the bank or what model of car you drive.

Sorry for the rant, but I think anyone who criticizes "DIY" is just ridiculous.

Keep up the good work!

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

Good grief. Am I depriving a child care worker of a job by staying at home to raise my own children (even though in some eyes a professional worker might be more competent at the task than I often am)? Am I putting restaurants out of business by rarely eating out and making my own food from scratch? Am I putting family farmers out of business by having a garden? I find the whole argument baffling.

A few more thoughts. As Crunchy Betty says, even if everyone knows HOW to do something doesn't mean they will choose to do it. My friend grew up helping out in her parents' very substantial garden. What does she do now? Almost no gardening, despite substantial know-how. She told me she became a lawyer so she'd never have to weed a row of vegetables again. But she does care a lot about where her food comes from. My mom grew up with a mother who was an amazing seamstress. She recognizes great workmanship when she sees it, but chooses to almost never sew herself, despite learning at the feet of a master seamstress.

Even if you CAN afford to pay someone to make/do what you could do yourself, you may someday find yourself not in a position to do so. For the sake of self-sufficiency, I think it would behoove most of us to learn a few more skills, even if we don't plan to practice them on a regular basis if we can help it.

Personally, I see the DIY movement as a healthy step away from the dominant consumerism in our culture.

I LOVE the examples of bloggers/ businesses freely sharing information despite having a "competing" business that you mention in your first post. That's the kind of business I would be VERY likely to patronize.

Asking customers to patronize you even if they can/ prefer to DIY is asking for charity, not business.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Thanks for the awesome comments, folks--Bobbi Jo is right, I think in many ways we were born at the wrong time. Can't you just see all of us having a sewing bee and chatting about our jams and gardens and household doings?

Or maybe we were all born at exactly the right time--maybe right now is when what we are doing is so desperately needed.

Keep the conversations coming!

Brandislee said...

"Or maybe we were all born at exactly the right time--maybe right now is when what we are doing is so desperately needed"

Great way to put it- I, too, was OBSESSED with Laura Ingalls when I was younger. I read the entire series at least seven times, and we read "The Long Winter" in third grade and did many of the things that you did (we had AWESOME teachers... in second grade we built a mini town and wrote a play...). I LONGED for a time machine so I could go back and live that life. But you make a good point- perhaps this generation, living in recession and many of whom read those books, is just where we need to be.

There will always be people who don't "get it," though. Small businesses (and large ones, for that matter) resent us for not throwing our money at them. Our friends and family think we're a little crazy. I've even seen people berate bloggers who "leaked" the "secret" of baking soda and vinegar as cleaner because it would drive up the price of those products!

Amen sister! As a society we need to move away from the

Dea-chan said...

Wow, im sorry that they felt threatened by your DIY. I mean, defensive much?

I use LUSH for my body care products because a. I am focusing on other areas to learn and b. I trust their product and it gives consistent, good results. (I'm aware of the hubbub for their using small amounts of metylparaben, propylparaben and SLS... I can defend my decision, and it is an informed decision)

I feel that there is often too much factionalism among greenies, DIY vs. Local business, city vs. Country, kids vs. Overpopulation, etc. Honestly, we are all trying to make our lives (and those around us) safer, less toxic and happy while attempting to leave a clean planet behind. Infighting has no place in that.

I personally would recommend ignoring their hurt words (the whole post sung of stung pride) and be comfortable in your decisions.

Leslie said...

So, not to be one of those nanny-boo-boos, but Lush is pretty awful in terms of safety.

I loved 'em, too, before I started looking into their ingredients.

They use phenoxyethanol, tons of parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, and synthetic fragrance.

:(

If you're looking for all natural stuff, I do recommend Bubble & Bee and MadeOn (at the moment).

Personal care products can be such a minefield - especially when companies try to market their "all naturalness" when they're ... not. At all.

Sigh.

Michelle said...

There is one aspect to this conversation that seems to be missing so far. The economics of DIY are one reason I make some of my own home use products, but another important reason, for me, is taking personal responsibility for the the items that go on, in, and are around myself and my family.

I, too, pick and choose what I spend my time making vs. what I buy. I know I could make my deodorant, but I know that Soapwalla's deodorant works well for me and if I buy from her, I can make other things. Same with other things, I make my household cleaners and use baking soda and honey for facial cleanser. These are personal and economic choices for me.
I understood your posts to be well presented and detrimental to no one. I appreciate the information you and others provide so I can make better and more informed decisions. It would seem that shopkeepers would be pleased as well, since it is likely that a reason they chose to hang out their shingle in the first place was that they were taking responsibility for the products in their own lives and wanted to share (and make profit from) items that they believe in.
Let's face it, when we are defensive, we give off an unpleasant vibe, no matter what the topic. If you are running a business and are defensive, it is not a good thing. Seems to me that the saying of 'the best defense is a good offense' would have been a better tact for the shopkeeper to have followed in this instance.
Thank you for sharing, please continue to do so!

Scarlet said...

"A natural deodorant that is now on the shelves at the 5 Diamond Kohler Spas, Merz Apothecary, the Palmer House Hilton, for God’s sake, Northwestern University’s Raby Clinic for Integrative Medicine, 17 Whole Foods Markets in Illinois and numerous independent stores. Consider the fact that we never contacted Kohler or Northwestern or Whole Foods." How can they say this and also assert their products are not designed for wealthy people? I think a good bit of the point of using baking soda for most things is that it's absurdly inexpensive. But they just fluff it up with a whole bunch of garbage about "dying mommies" and stainless steel decanters and pure air in their production cottage so that bougie "green" women will believe it's worth coughing up $30 for. This is clearly NOT the deodorant of the Resistance.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

"This is clearly NOT the deodorant of the Resistance."

Okay, you officially get the BEST COMMENT QUOTE EVER award for the month. :-)

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