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