To paraphrase one blogger: This is my urban homestead, but you can have your own.
When I was fourteen or fifteen and growing up in the Long Island suburbs of Manhattan, we were barely thirty miles from the great city, yet it felt eons away. When the Sex Pistols came to New York in the late seventies, there was barely a countercultural ripple amongst my peers; we just kept our enormous vinyl headphones glued on our still-soft heads and pounded Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd at peak volume. I may have been the only person in my high school class who read the Village Voice with any regularity, so I at least knew about the Sex Pistols, though as a nice Jewish girl I was unsure what to make of their violent yet inane profanity. And I was also – I am sure of this – the only person in my six-hundred member high school class who had a subscription to Mother Earth News.
“Mother” – as the hoary (founded, 1970) magazine was and is still known – was the primary organ for motivating strong, young, and usually poor counter-culturalists to fan across rural America and make a go of it, like the pioneers of yore. It gave advice on herbal medicines, organic gardening, livestock farming, raising a post-and-beam barn with your neighbors, making your clothes by hand, and otherwise turning American consumerist culture on its head. But it had plenty of room for those readers who were unable or unwilling to consider radical lifestyle changes. Not everyone could sell all they had and follow this Jesus; not everyone could tie on a flowing flannel skirt, go off-grid, grind her own baby food next to the fond, lambent light of a kerosene lamp in a woodstove-heated cabin, while her man, stroking his newly sprouted beard, puzzled out how to repair the primitive solar system out by the woodshed and tried to befriend the elderly, fifth generation farmer on the land next door without getting his hippie ass shot off.
Now, everyone in my family line – well, everyone that I know of, anyway – is from the wildlands of Brooklyn, New York City. And if my Russian Jewish grandmothers ever canned anything in their lifetimes, they damn sure didn’t brag about it. Yet even in concrete dominated Brooklyn, my father was taught to Victory garden by his father during World War II, when – like coming out to cheer the Dodgers – it was what loyal community patriots did. My father in turn taught me: I gardened with him from age eight or nine, and was always intimate with our lush neighborhood plants and trees in the eye-level, sensuous way children are close with nature. When I became a teenager, I extended the project by pressing old fish tanks into service to plant lettuce and radishes in my bedroom during the winter.
It wasn’t enough for me, though. Minus the hippie boyfriend, I really, really wanted to live like Homestead Woman; and in my fantasy, when I had done with college, somehow I would find my way out west to grow and can all my food, have a herd of chickens and goats, and — I don’t know — something. But it turned out differently and I became an urban babe, who, in part because I never really got enthusiastic about driving cars, had to do my homesteading in the city. I started college in Manhattan, and when I left New York, never made it to Alaska or rural New Mexico. Yet I did over the years travel west, living in urbanized parts of Colorado and then California, where I have lived nearly twenty-three years, still in a city, and one of the most beautiful in the world, San Francisco.
And in all those intervening years, even during a short stint in a tenement walk-up on the Lower East Side, I heeded hippie mama cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen as if it were religious script, read early permaculture texts like Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution”, made my own yogurt and granola, herbal shampoo and conditioner, grew a double-dug French biodynamic intensive method organic garden whenever I had space to plant one, baked bread, learned how to cook and can my own conserves and pickles, treated myself and my family with medicinal herbs, sawed down a chokecherry sapling to make a bow and made the arrows from cattail stalks, gathered my own fiber from pounded yucca leaves, experimented with soap plant lathers, learned how to rebuild a carburetor and rewired the top half of my girlfriend’s 1970 VW microbus, brewed a variety of fruit wines in my bedroom, and set up a hydroponic system in my apartment kitchen to grow fresh salads year round. In short, I became an abbreviated, perhaps primitive version of what today we’d recognize as an urban homesteader.
So no one can tell me in 2011 that the term ‘urban homesteading’ somehow has been newly coined (1). Many urbanites – like me – have been practicing some form of it for years, from a little here and there to an utterly comprehensive lifestyle. A recent tempest on a farm-lot has erupted, however, in reference to the seemingly unlikely event that someone would try to own and trademark what most understand to be a general term, and the resulting compost-slinging is an interesting study in what can happen when an American culture movement hits a critical mass of adherents. The controversy originates with the Dervaes family, a dad and his three grown kids (the mother has vanished: divorce), who have lived together in a suburban Pasadena house since the early 1990s and there have microfarmed the tenth-acre of their front and backyards so intensively that they produce at least three tons of produce annually, feeding themselves and earning their living by selling excess vegetables and edible flowers to Los Angeles area restaurants. Father Jules Dervaes, a conservative evangelical Protestant associated with Herbert Armstrong’s charismatic but controversial Seventh-Day Adventist spin-off, the Worldwide Church of God, home schooled his kids and sees his homestead, like many Mother Earth News adherents over the years, as a facet of ‘creation care,’ an environmental ethic with its roots in the Christian idea of a loving human dominion over Nature. From dad Dervaes’ early years using tips from that selfsame Mother Earth News, among other places, to practice country-style self-sufficiency skills wherever he was living, the family has expanded into chicken farming, greywater recycling, biofuel brewing, and all manner of home-based sustainability projects that they hope will lead them as close to ‘net-zero’ living as possible. In 2001, they set up a website and non-profit venture called “Path to Freedom,” its function to spread the good news and how-tos of living simply, abundantly and sustainably on small, urban and suburban lots. They use the term “urban homestead” liberally on their website to describe their micro-farm, and indeed, that’s what it is.
The urban sustainability community is large, various and decentralized. Some folks no doubt visit the Dervaes website frequently; some, like myself, have come across it here or there but have little interest in or need for it, and some are simply unaware of its existence. Intensive gardeners old and new have applauded the Dervaes’ radical self-sufficiency, but few imagined that they would get it in their heads to apply to the US Patent Office to trademark the terms “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading,” (among others), as if they’d invented them. But not only were they – astonishingly – granted said trademarks three years after initial federal refusal, they then proceeded to send legal notices to a number of bloggers, organizations, non-profits and small business people – even a public library – for using these terms without “crediting” them (here’s one blogger’s good rundown on the legal history).
Naturally, those letter recipients who did not fall off their chairs laughing, or perhaps after they had fallen off their chairs, were rightly bruised and outraged and began to take the news – like torch to newspaper – abroad the net. The backlash is such that social media groups were puffed into existence overnight to oppose the action and a petition is now being circulated to withdraw the trademark. I won’t go into detail about the entire history of the story as it’s been repeated skillfully and often enough; (here’s a good place to get the core details); but I want to address some of the issues we might see at work here.
Imagine for a moment Neil Young singing “old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you werrrrrrrrrrrrre” to some quiet, wise old guy down the road in his childhood Ontario town. Now imagine him dressing up like the old guy – (this may be the true origin of Young’s distinctive proto-grunge couture) – and then suing the geezer for stealing young Neil’s likeness. This may give you an idea of how the urban homesteading community sees the self-aggrandizing posture of Dervaes, Inc. In fact, we know the term ‘urban homesteading’ along with terms like it have been used since at least the mid-1970s, and we also know that the ideas and practices embodied in the broad term are becoming widely accepted by middle-class Americans far outside the original rim of first adopters. Spurred by a dispiriting and stubborn quasi-depression, backyard chicken farming, dooryard gardens and home canning seem to be spreading wildly; if not actually practiced, they are being discussed nearly everywhere. It’s suddenly become de rigueur even for the rich to make strawberry jam, or if not make it (it’s messy work), then at least to leave breathtaking jam-porn out on the artisan, reclaimed oak coffee table.
When a cultural meme reaches this critical mass point, when the disinterested majority becomes dimly aware that a once-marginal phenomenon has acquired a sheen of respect or a meaning that newly resonates with their lives, the inevitable happens: it’s bought – or stolen – by the big guys; it’s commercialized; it’s co-opted. It’s on the brink of wide social adoption, thus within seconds you should hear the competitive clatter of professional ad men sharpening their steak knives. Think for a moment about Madonna’s song, “Vogue.” It was huge; it went multiplatinum upon its 1990 release, and its video and imagery were ubiquitous, inspiring pre-teens to freeze their bodies into Yves St. Laurent runway contortions in suburban basements everywhere. It happens that what inspired Madonna was a dance, the vogue, that was invented and practiced at drag balls by groups of deeply marginalized Black and Latina drag queens, who gathered themselves into family-like ‘fashion-houses’ in New York’s Harlem. There were certainly “mainstream” people that saw Paris is Burning, the independent film about these brave girls, many of whom – despite an overflow of star-quality talent and fabulousness – were desperately poor, otherwise unskilled in the labor force, and too often rejected by their families. The film was ten years in the making and, unfortunately, released after the famous Madonna single; but no matter what the release date, the inventors of the vogue earned no money from it. Co-optation is well illustrated in the music world because therein it has been widely and creatively practiced, often ruining lives. Black rhythm and blues musicians from the 1940s-60s were routinely exploited, paid a flat fee to record, then swindled out of royalties for their compositions, many of them dying penniless well into our era while the record companies kept their masters (2). Disco, rap, punk rock – all began as bright rebellious arts fashioned in the underground by urban gay men, black, and white working class youth respectively, and all ended up as sanitized, plastic versions of their former selves. Countercultural movements are likewise co-opted at such moments. Remember the grassroots womens’ consciousness-raising movement of the 1970s? Hundreds of thousands of American women came together in living rooms and coffeehouses and gave voice to elements of their lives they had never before shared because they had either been kept from talking to each other by the isolating structure of the nuclear family or because of unspoken taboos on women who dared complain about “their lot.” When the cat was out of the proverbial bag, the entire culture moved a resounding step forward (in most people’s opinions, anyway), but forty years later, it’s more likely you’ll have to pay for an expensive self-empowerment seminar sponsored by one of many expressive arts or therapy groups than actually to meet with a surprised, terrified or emboldened group of regular folks who found each other to speak their truths over mugs of herbal tea. Parasitism by the economically powerful can be beneficial in that it moves the overall culture forward: The edges define a center, after all, and as the edges move, the center must creep in the same direction. Assimilation is the bitter price minority movements pay for larger acceptance. What’s interesting is that Dervaes and company have charitably offered that they trademarked these terms in order to prevent them being co-opted or ‘greenwashed’ by someone far worse, say, Whole Foods or Monsanto (3). Inexplicably, the urban homesteading community has not responded with gushing gratitude.
In fact, were the Dervaes’ truly trademarking “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading” for the reasons they present, I – and thousands of others – could understand it. It would be a guerilla move to shortcut the big corporations. However poorly executed the move, it would have been a use of the system ostensibly to protect a movement by and for the people. Such anxiety about hostile takeover is not too farfetched in this day and age when we have to worry about the possibility of “CORN®, by Monsanto.”
But that is not what they did. After having trademarked the terms, they launched what is in effect a legal ‘cease and desist’ instrument stating that any use of these terms for any for-profit purpose, including an amateur blog with a merchandise section, even, apparently, a lecture offered for a entrance fee, would violate their trademark and could incite legal action. In fact, even when used by a not for profit or personal venture, they instruct that the term be capitalized, have the Trademark ‘®’ following and that the individual “note in close proximity that the term is a protected trademark of Dervaes Institute”. This means that up to this point in the article you are reading, I have not yet been using the term
URBAN HOMESTEADING® (as owned by the Dervaes family) correctly.
In the early 1940s, J.I. Rodale founded Rodale Press in order to spread information about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating at a time when industrial-chemical farming practices were on a stratospheric rise. In 1947, he began to publish Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, now Organic Gardening, which has become one of the most circulated and influential gardening magazines in the world. The history of Rodale’s thought and press operations is fascinating and tied up with the promulgation of organic farming practices in the 1930s and 40s in Europe. I won’t go into more detail here, but it’s hard to deny the incalculable positive effect that Organic Gardening and Rodale Press had on American sustainable farms and citizen gardens alike. If there is one organization that could plausibly have done what the Dervaes’ are trying to do, my money would be on Rodale and “ORGANIC GARDENING.” Thousands of people practice organic gardening; two-hundred and fifty thousand subscribe to the Rodale magazine. But Rodale never did try to trademark what was and is incontestably a general term. “Organic farming” – meaning farming without chemical fertilizers and pesticides – had been in rare use as early as the late 19th century and by 1940, popularized by Rodale and his authors, (some of whom were important but obscure innovators from the twenties and thirties), the term, although it was neither well-known nor widespread, got purchase in the counterculture.
One could argue that had Rodale lived in a more bloodthirsty time, had he experienced the Orwellian chills of our era, he might have done the same thing as the Dervaeses and under a similar rubric. But there have always been ‘evil businessmen’ who would happily do wheelies on the heads of little guys, whether in their horse-drawn carriages or their brand new Range Rovers. The Gilded Age, (which I discussed briefly in an earlier article), still may dwarf our own age for sheer, uncontrolled corporate exploitation. There have been and will be these dangers through time; Americans have lived through worse. Though one must refer to Organic Gardening, the magazine, in italics, or cite it as published source, that’s only common sense. It’s also only common sense to refer to URBAN HOMESTEAD ® website or the “PATH TO FREEDOM ®” businesses owned by the Dervaeses when one is quoting their work or materials. But it’s just as nonsensical to have to cite the Dervaes clan when referring to urban homesteading as it would be to mention J.I. Rodale every time one discussed organic gardening, perhaps more so. In light of this premise, which ought to seem completely logical to anyone who has not yet been kidnapped by a cult, it seems reasonable for the urban homesteading community to assume – as they are in fact assuming – that the Dervaes clan are taking these actions primarily to force anyone using these terms to drive business to the URBAN HOMESTEAD ® website. This would have the desired effect of setting them up as the figureheads of urban homesteading in the same way that most see Rodale as the founding daddy of organic gardening. I think the Dervaeses have big plans, and this is the first move in trying to do what they say they fear a larger company would do if they did not do it first. It’s a volley over the bow of a ship they hope they will pilot to bring everyone into utopian waters.
Capitalism is hard; the competition, you know? Whether you are a Christian conservative primitivist, like the Dervaeses; a middle of the roader into truly simple living, or a radical faerie pagan living on a communal farm, you will receive no compassion or support from the beautiful people in the global elite unless you are making money for them and furthering their high-stakes ways of life and simply brilliant ideas (like credit default swaps!). In place of the modest, individualist system described by Adam Smith, we’ve evolved a global, corporatist, allegiance and ethics-free, government-purchasing, unsustainable behemoth. It is not interested in saving or even improving a single life, much less the planet, unless there is money to be made doing so. The method by which it values goods and services is anachronistic and unsynchronized with how things truly work on the ground. It routinely externalizes the costs of destroying the limited natural capital of our earth – fouled air, water, food and soil; species extinction and ruined human health – to governments and charitable entities while it mouths platitudes of progress to the self-same governments and demands subsidies and tax breaks for its devastation. The global elite has no interest in or compassion for individuals and families that choose to live a different way. You’re either on the bus, or off the bus. Choosing to live a different way simply means any way unattuned to the de-ethicized, depersonalized, techno-consumerist directive of contemporary life in developed, or soon-to-be-developed, economies.
So if one is trying to make a decent living, having chosen to live in a way that – let’s face it – makes it difficult to make a decent living, one might feel short-shrifted for one’s trouble. Though I very much doubt the Dervaeses are consciously trying to make the big bucks and ‘get over’ on the community that has given them their primary support, I do think they are trying to find a way to aggrandize their personal and economic power in that community. Dad might feel that the lifelong, passionate project in urban sustainability to and for which he has sacrificed much, deserves more recognition than it is getting. Using the system, even in a way widely perceived to be unethical and exploitative by his fellows, might give him an opportunity to squeak by in the capitalist game just enough to take his project further. It’s not so much about the money as it is about the influence (which might also lead to some needed cash).
Dervaes may also be intellectually isolated enough in a heartfelt religious ideology to have developed a savior complex. In certain circles, the idea of “Father” runs a system of living harmonic hierarchies – (God > Jesus > Church > Male Heads of Household > Other Adult Males > Child-bearing Females > Other Females > Children > Animals > And So On) – that have deep emotional resonance with believers. If one thinks one has a natural warrant, or the moral authority to, like Noah or Moses, lead a remnant to a new paradise on a new land that will be shown to us, it might conveniently make one the Father of the First Family of URBAN HOMESTEADING. This would not be the first time someone had such inklings: American soil is littered with the magnificent bodies of utopian experiments in natural and “right” living, most of which were buckled directly to religious ideologies. Some survived for a time but eventually died out (the Shakers), some survived for a time and then turned into companies (The Oneida Community), some integrated into larger denominations (the MIllerites), some nosedived near as soon as they got off the ground (Brook Farm, Fruitlands), and some survived (the Mormons). Some, such as the Fundamentalist Mormon Churches that practice plural marriage, the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate, exploded based on internal and external pressures stemming from, well, their insanity. The entire English Puritan excursion in the American colonies was itself a macro-experiment in religious utopia of right living.
I think it’s germane that Dervaes has incorporated his business as a church, for the family certainly understands its work as a ministry. And I mean no disrespect; ministry can be canted toward the simply helpful and only tangentially religious, such as the ‘ministry’ of a food bank volunteer or of one who lends an ear to distressed friends or strangers. Ministry can also be a complete, profession-al way of life, paid or unpaid. The Dervaes web ministry, despite its tiresome self-congratulatory presentation, is on balance a beneficial one practiced with much less prejudice than if it were run by less self-aware zealots, and with a cautious open hand to the public. The homesteading and back-to-the-land movements, after all, have been great examples of gentle anarchism in the broadest sense: I may not agree with your personal beliefs, but we’ll hold a space open to discuss recipes and seedlings, composting and goats and solar power; we’ll cooperate, teach and learn as neighbors, survivors, allies. From the beginning of this movement, there has been plenty of room for tyros, freaks and motley fanatics, so other urban farmers not so inclined probably can forgive the Dervaeses for unspoken assumptions or quirky dreams of sanctification. What they will not forgive is the use of those assumptions, or the desire for gain or special recognition, to beat up on other urban homesteaders who have been pioneering these practices and ideas for decades. Dervaes may feel he deserves this perk: He’s the ark-steering patriarch, and we’ll eventually ‘get it’ and thank him later. I think – in the immortal words of George W. Bush, that he’s misunderestimated his fellows. Please, don’t do us any favors.
If such hubris – whatever its genesis (no pun intended, really) – has kicked up a bustle in your hedgegrow, it’s probably occurred to you that there is at least one old-school ignoramus with poor research skills working at the US Patent and Trademark Office. The blogosphere concurs this request never should have been approved. ‘Urban homesteading’ as used by the Dervaeses plainly does not constitute a distinctive nor a first use of the term. We understand that it’s critical to maintain our integrity through this process; the Dervaeses have the right to practice their business appropriately. We must not morph into a movement that eats the young it spawned, but it’s also unacceptable to for the children to eat the old. With my allies and fellow urban sustainability advocates, I suggest you go on with your bad self, keep urban (and suburban) homesteading, keep the grassroots alive, use the term when it suits, resist co-optation by big players and upstarts alike. In other words, never mind the bollocks, be an urban homesteader.
Please sign the petition to revoke the trademark on these two terms.
NOTE: The following blog post is interesting and draws attention to the word ‘homestead’ as a carrier of a racist history in the U.S., linked to the destruction of indigenous peoples and minorities. It is an interesting angle and worth reading, though I would argue that nineteenth century historical associations and terms have been largely recycled and re-meaninged with conscious and wildly different usage in our own era. I have no trouble using the term itself in this day and age. It is, however, worth looking at the pervasive whiteness of some of the movement and its whiteness in the media. It’s also a wake up call for bloggers and journalists to heed and include contributions of people and communities of color to the vital urban homesteading developments going on in many cities.
(1) Here are three early articles using the terms in Mother Earth News: