[This article appeared first on May 18 in the Herald-Times "Homes" section, in Bloomington, Indiana, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/stories/2013/05/18/homes.localism-extends-to-the-wardrobe.sto]
The local food movement spawned countless new farmers’ markets across the nation and led to concepts such as The 100-Mile Diet. But localism includes clothing as well.
In 2010, fifth-generation California native Rebecca Burgess announced that for the coming year she would wear only handmade clothing made from fibers originating near her Bay Area home. Her goal – The 150-Mile Wardrobe – was featured in the New York Times and Huffington Post and has kept her busy ever since. Author, consultant, educator, weaver and dyer, Rebecca took time to tell me about her mission.
“I was writing my book on natural dyestuffs (Harvesting Color: How To Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes),” she explained, “and I had to research how industrial dyeing was done.” She was horrified to learn that the commercial dyeing industry, which is largely based in Asia, commits polluting using chemicals that seriously harm human health. After agriculture, the textile industry is the #2 polluter of fresh water on the planet. And as the recent tragedy in Bangladesh shows, many textile workers work in horrible conditions.
Rebecca began considering the fact that although clothes are cheaper than they have ever been, their cost does not reflect the textile industry’s human and environmental harm.
There’s also economic harm. In 1965, 95% of the clothing in a typical American’s closet was made in the US. Today, less than 5% of our clothes are made here. Thousands of jobs have disappeared.
“My reaction was to use my skills and try to better the world through textiles,” Rebecca said. “While I was traveling around the country researching my book, I found that there were not only incredible sources of natural color but also incredible sources of fiber. There seemed to be people popping up everywhere raising sheep and goats, and I thought, isn’t it interesting that there is so much raw material, but we don’t see it manifested on the backs of any Americans.”
Fibers such as wool, angora and alpaca come in a wide range of beautiful colors. Certain cotton varieties offer a range of soft natural colors in addition to white. Flax has been used for millennia to make linen. Many common plants including Queen Anne’s lace, pokeberry and goldenrod can yield brilliant dyes. The continent abounds with fiber and color, if only we avail ourselves of it.
Clothing shares a similarity to food. There’s the junk-food option – conventional clothing made in Asia – and then there’s the healthy option of handmade clothes from locally grown fiber.
As a result of networking around the Bay Area for her 150 Mile Wardrobe, Rebecca and her friends organized the Fibershed. Like a watershed, the word covers everything from the raw fiber in the fields to the finished garment. It includes farmers, shearers, weavers and dyers, also tailors, seamstresses, knitters, crocheters and felters. Not everyone has a loom, but many people know how to sew, knit and crochet. The Bay Area Fibershed enabled interested people to come together and find others who could help them make their own clothing using local fibers.
Affiliate fibersheds soon appeared elsewhere on the West Coast and in Utah, Tennessee, Vermont and Massachusetts. The idea of local clothing using local fiber has spread steadily. Members of one Bloomington fiber group, the Rebel Weavers and Spinners, have taken on the challenge of weaving several garments each by spring of next year, at which time they hope to hold a public fashion show to draw attention to the idea of handmade clothing.
“In the 1800s, jeans and pants cost a week’s salary,” Rebecca reminded us. “In England, a nice dress before the Industrial Revolution cost a workingman’s annual salary. The numbers have gotten really skewed downward and are out of touch with reality. Technology has allowed us to bring the cost of clothes down, but I don’t know if that’s good.”
Her vision of a better garment industry is less technological, more human in scale, with sustainable processing and workers who receive decent wages. Artisans hold the key, she believes; we can offset industrial pollution and slavery by learning the skills to make our own clothes.
“Re-skilling is the way we gain appreciation for the true value of things,” she said. “Even if you only do it once, you gain an appreciation for the process itself. If you do use that process in your life – sewing, dyeing, spinning, weaving – you make a BIG statement to your friends, neighbors and family. If everyone begins doing basic mending and repairing, basic construction, basic knitting and weaving, it begins to get very inspiring. You saw it with local food and restaurants: one restaurant offers local food, then another, and it spreads. Clothes are contagious as well; you can really set a standard. Making beautiful things for yourself can really make a change.”
She summed up: “Plants keep growing, sheep keep breeding, the world doesn’t stop just because Wall Street lost a few points. We’ve turned the corner on food awareness, and I hope we can turn the corner on garment awareness as well.”
Learn more at http://www.fibershed.com/. Perhaps it’s time for an Indiana Fibershed!
[See previous blogs on this subject: http://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/forming-a-fibershed/ and http://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/a-slave-made-your-clothing-for-you/]
Bloomington, Indiana, currently has hundreds of homeless men. Ragged panhandlers sit on corners begging change; others walk monotonous routes from the Community Kitchen to the Courthouse Square and the Public Library and back again, toting dirty backpacks. Some are drunk or high; others are obviously crazy. The city is in a tizzy; mothers are afraid to take their children to the library; and the Mayor has recently stopped two different attempts by the public to provide temporary shelter to those with substance problems.
To live without a home is to suffer a genuine disability. It’s no longer acceptable to mock those who have Down’s, or autism, but it’s still commonplace to despise the homeless, presumably because unlike those with autism, they are viewed as having somehow chosen this path of misery, or in some way deserving it.
I do not pretend to be better equipped to handle this problem than city experts, but I do not blame the victim, and I do have some suggestions. First, the word “homeless” is being used recklessly to lump together very dissimilar people with a wide range of needs. Some have lost their jobs and cannot afford housing; others are sociopathic vagrants; some are war veterans with an array of battle-related psychic injuries; others are mentally ill. All of them need completely different kinds of assistance, but we give them only the bare minimum: a meal and a place to sleep. (This often comes at the cost of being forced to listen to religious speeches by the sponsoring churches.) Food and a bed merely maintain life; they do not improve it.
When it comes to the homeless, many of us have attitudes not far removed from wanting to run them out of town with a whip. But we need a completely different response. For a model, think about our educational system, an institution that travels with children from kindergarten through twelfth grade, with accommodations for special-needs children, remedial tutoring, therapists and social workers. Although it certainly is not perfect, it nevertheless provides our children with far more than just the minimum of rudimentary reading and ciphering. We need something similar for our homeless populations: an institution that can mentor and protect the people who are experiencing homelessness, for a period of several years if necessary, until its clients no longer require its help.
Imagine it: clients who are seeking work could have job counselors, the opportunity to print out a resume, access to a decent set of interview clothes, and even the opportunity to find employment at a WPA-type public works job that will help establish their job credentials. Those who are mentally damaged or addicted need therapists, physicians who can diagnose free medications to treat their illnesses, and helpers to oversee their wellbeing. And all these people need a place to live, a real and permanent address to call home, not simply a place to flop each night. They need room with a closet or a storage locker to call their own, because nothing so deprives a person of a sense of identity as not having the option to have and keep a few personal possessions in a space of their own. And don’t call this new-hope transition academy a ”homeless center,” because that just reinforces the old stereotypes. Clients should not have to hang their heads with embarrassment when they enter the front door.
The ethical responsibility of caring for and assisting our brothers and sisters in time of need is part of the social contract. Little as we might want to deal with the homeless population, to do so is a sign of a compassionate and civilized society. A transition academy requires money to run, but it costs less in the long run than shooing vagrants away, to hunt down their tents along the fringe of the city and repeatedly evict them, to arrest them, to pay for their emergency room hospital visits, and to maintain and oversee all the multiple homeless shelters that currently operate in our city. To improve these people’s chances of re-entering society and functioning again as citizens is a cost well worth investing in.
Many vacant buildings within the city limits could contain such a permanent transition academy. This is not an unattainable goal and many cities are doing just this. In Portland, Oregon, Transition Projects assists more than 9000 homeless persons each year and has grown and strengthened its services since 1969. Minneapolis has Higher Ground. Many similar services are discoverable online. Bloomington is a progressive and good place to live—if you own a house. It should aspire to being a progressive place as well for those who are experiencing homelessness.
People laugh at chickens, make jokes about them, and sing comic songs about them. But there’s a great deal of innate dignity in a hen, although those who have never watched them might not believe this.
They don’t need a weatherman. My flock consists of several large and heavy birds who fly with difficulty, as well as several slim small birds who fly readily. The flyers prefer to roost outside their coop on fine nights. When rain is pending but has not yet arrived, the fliers choose to go inside with their heavier sisters for the night because they can feel the approach of a midnight storm hours before it arrives.
They have jungle-vision. Descended from wild jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, chickens have eyesight that penetrates the deepest shadow. They can see me inside the house moving around even when they’re outside in the blazing sunlight. When I stand in their enclosure and look back at the house, the windows appear to me to be nothing but flat black rectangles. But the hen’s vision pierces right through that blackness to perceive me inside the kitchen or walking around in the other rooms. I know they can see me because they rush to the fence and run back and forth, looking at me. If I wave at them from deep inside the house—even ten feet away from the nearest window—they can see it, and they begin calling to me and working themselves up into a tizzy.
They have distinct personalities. Yes, all chickens scratch in the dirt, and run excitedly when food is brought, but all of them do it in their own individual ways. Della is greedy and pushy, and obviously has the most velociraptor DNA of any of the birds in the flock. Queenie was never handled as a chick and is aloof and suspicious. But Pernelle and Brunhilde derive obvious pleasure by gazing closely into my eyes (practically nose to beak) and letting me stroke and handle them. Brunhilde likes to fly up to my outstretched arm where she proudly sits and bobs her head up and down, gazing at me. She is so proud of her one trick that she will do it four or five times in a row. Pernelle then gets jealous of this showing-off and pecks her peevishly.
It’s hard work laying an egg. Hens labor when they lay. Like women giving birth, some have an easy time and lay swiftly, while others toil in pain. Pernelle needs at least two hours of hard labor to push out each small white egg. During labor the hens hunker down, they pant, they endure obvious discomfort stoically. Near the end of the process they stand erect and push downward, gasping (I have heard them do this several times) in a series of three to five contractions, until the egg finally pops out. The first eggs of young pullets who have just begun to lay are often tinged on the outsides by a drop of two of blood. Think of giving birth to a baby every day; this is what hens have to endure for our eating convenience. In a state of nature they’d lay only 10 or so eggs and then stop and brood their eggs for 21 days to hatch their young; then after rearing their chicks they’d have a second or maybe a third batch later in the year. Humans have bred hens to continue ovulating over and over, their maternal broodiness suppressed. It’s not really fair on the birds, nor is it easy for them. I understand and appreciate the objections of vegans to eating eggs.
They view their eggs as their property. I always bring treats like fresh kale or clover or sunflower seeds to divert them while I’m emptying the nesting boxes. I try to hide the eggs in a pocket when I turn to leave, because whenever they see me with an egg in my hand, they look sharply at me, stop their feeding and run to look in the coop to see if their egg is still there. Then they turn and stare at me as I make my retreat. Occasionally they have come after me and tried to peck the hand that holds the egg.As I said, I now try to hide the eggs so the hens won’t notice when I remove them, because it makes me feel guilty every time they glare accusingly at me. They’re not stupid, they KNOW I’ve just robbed them.
They like collecting golf balls. Their adjacent nesting boxes are made from plastic milk-crates turned on their sides. I placed two golf balls in two of the crates, as a deterrent to their brief foray into eating their own eggs. The idea was that they’d peck the golf balls and get the idea that they were inedible and that therefore eggs were similarly inedible. One of the hens, I don’t know which, decided that it was messy to have two golf balls in each crate. So she used her bill to nudge two golf balls out of one crate and into the other one, thus creating a nice little clutch of four balls in one place. To do this she had to maneuver the balls down off the lip of one plastic crate and up over another lip into the adjoining crate. This cannot have been easy using only her bill to push with. Since the hens chose to rearrange their own space in this way I have respected their choice and left it like that.
Chickens are small warm-blooded dinosaurs. They possess much more intelligence than the average person thinks they possess. These quasi-reptilian creatures are a never-ending source of interest and entertainment. They have made me think serious thoughts about vegetarianism although I have not yet done anything about it. We meat-eaters cannot deny the fact that we snuff out the lives of sentient creatures with recognizable personalities in order to deck our dinner tables. That’s why I do the best I can to respect my birds and give them a good life.
I was surprised while doing microfilm research in the oldest newspaper records of the 1820s of Bloomington, Indiana, to find three different classified notices placed by aggrieved husbands regarding wives who had run off. Then I remembered that this was the era in which men owned their wives as surely as they might own a slave or a piece of land.
In the early 1800s wives were property and had no legal existence of their own. They could not enter into contracts nor write wills, and they had no legal recourse against cruel or violent husbands. The men who placed these advertisements were undoubtedly bad men, because a woman in those days would only leave her home if she feared for her life. Without her spouse’s protection she faced a penniless life in hiding, begging her food, clothing and shelter from others. Yet under his roof, she faced brutality and the risk of serious injury or death.
Each of the three notices in the Indiana Gazette followed the same format, which was probably necessary in order to meet the legalities on the husband’s side at that time. They all announced that [wife's name] had left the bed and board of [complainant's name] and that he would not pay any debts she might contract afterward. One of the three notices granted an exception for any expenses incurred by his young children, who had been taken by the wife when she escaped.
One wonders what ever happened to Betty Johnson and the other women who also chose to escape intolerable conditions at home. They were desperate, but they were also brave. They wanted to live; they did not want to submit to being killed or maimed. They wanted a better life for their children. Without legal protection, they were as vulnerable and as powerless as escaped slaves making their way North. There was no Underground Railroad for runaway wives; their only hope was that their friends and family might be able to give them a little bit of money and food, and help them to get far away.
Events like this were obviously common. One wonders if they left any trace in the historic records upon which modern people base their genealogies and their family trees. Did these women immigrate on foot to the next state and then portray themselves as widows, and marry again? We’ll never know, just like we’ll never know the fate of those who were recaptured by their angry husbands.
For more information about women’s rights in the early 1800s, see a fascinating essay by the good folks at Conner Prairie, http://www.connerprairie.org/Learn-And-Do/Indiana-History/America-1800-1860/Women-And-The-Law-In-Early-19th-Century.aspx
Several road trips through southern Indiana have persuaded me that all is not well in small-town America. Our towns are dying. Except for the larger county seats, most of the little towns in each county are withering fast, as though someone had tied them off with a tourniquet.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, in every small town across America, you’d find at least one doctor, probably two pharmacists, several lawyers, several schoolteachers, plenty of small business owners, a local newspaper office, and at least one rich man. Each small town had a brick and cast-iron downtown district with buildings pressed side by side, placing all the urban necessities into one convenient area. Small towns were good places to be from, and quite a few American presidents were born in small towns. Such places supposedly harbored all the classic American virtues of hard work, self-reliance and community — think of Bedford Falls in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
But today in these same small towns one will find boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots where structures have been demolished or burned, an abundance of bars, maybe a forlorn-looking beauty salon, maybe a thrift store, and several liquor stores. At a recent stop in a small town to buy gas, the only other patron of the gas station was driving a battered 1980s model with a large pit bull pacing back and forth in the back seat; the driver was so emaciated that her clothes hung as if draped over a pile of sticks. Methamphetamine production is enormously prevalent in rural America today because it’s the only profitable sector of the remaining economy, and the sight of addicts who look like walking skeletons is commonplace.
How did our small towns come to such a pass? It’s as if Bedford Falls in the movie had indeed been taken over and destroyed by the evil Mr. Potter. Here is a short list of some of the reasons.
1.Agriculture declined in earning power. Farms got big, and small farmers got out.
2. Small towns lost their pool of talent. The smart kids who left town to go off and get college educations never came back to teach or to practice law or to take over their parents’ businesses.
3. The rise of corporate big-box stores like Wal-Mart destroyed Mom-and-Pop stores, gutting the local economy.
4. The construction of interstate highways pulled commerce toward them, sucking it away from the more isolated communities.
5. Housing values declined in semi-rural areas. As people grew poorer, they were unable to take care of their buildings. Thus old business districts have become unsustainable. Accidental fires (and arson) have become common.
6. The national downturn in the economy since 2008 hit our smaller communities with the force of the Great Depression. They look very different today than they did just a few years ago.
For years antique stores flourished in these small communities, but today even antique stores are in decline as buyers turn to eBay. With no local commerce left except for gas stations, bars and meth, why would anyone want to stay on in in the towns where four or five generations of their ancestors have lived and died? It makes much more sense to get out as soon as possible, and relocate to a larger city. And that’s why the small towns now appear as skeletal as their remaining inhabitants.
If there’s a solution, I’m not wise enough to be able to see it. The only way to make small towns sustainable again is to strengthen the local economy, but the states and the federal government don’t really have any good way to set about doing this. Their concerns are with the larger cities where the bulk of the population live. The small towns are left to their own resources, and they will swim on until they sink.
R.I.P., Bedford Falls; and R.I.P., Anytown, USA. You were great places to live until Mr. Potter got his hooks into you. It’s been good to know you, and I’ll miss you very much when you’re gone.
The double pen is a common house form in Southern Indiana, and is also found throughout the Midwest and the American South. The form was apparently brought over from the British Isles, and Professor Henry Glassie of Indiana University reports seeing many stone versions of the same house layout, with thatched roofs, in the West Country of England. The word “pen” refers to the framing of a room, which in the old days would have been a timber-framed enclosure. A single pen house would have been one room wide; and a double pen was of course two rooms wide. Most of the Indiana versions are also two rooms deep, so a single roof would therefore cover four rooms. In this part of Indiana the double pen is considered a “folk house,” a vernacular cottage that would have been easily assembled by any carpenter. Most Midwestern double pens were built during the middle decades of the 1800s and the style lost popularity (in Bloomington, at least) by the 1890s.
Anita Bracalente and Jerry Sinks were kind enough to let me photograph their double pen, which is a variant called a “saddlebag” due to the presence of a central chimney, which both of the two front room flues were originally tied into. Their house has some fascinating features. It rests upon massive tulip poplar logs (believed to repel termites) which rest in turn upon at least six stacked limestone piers that extend about eight feet below the surface of the ground. There is no basement and no crawlspace, so getting beneath the house to address plumbing is a cramped job that involves wriggling on one’s belly. Each room is approximately 15′ x 15′ and the floorboards span that width continuously from wall to wall without any cuts or joins, as in modern wood floors. Each of the four rooms originally had its own door to the outside, and all of the windows and the doors—front, back and interior—were placed in perfect alignment. Accordingly, if you stand in either of the front doorways and look toward the back of the house, the effect is like sighting along the inside of a shotgun house. The nails used were all square, hand-forged.
Anita and Jerry’s house was built in the 1850s by a lawyer who lived in one room and had an office on the other side. Housing in Bloomington was in such short demand all through the 1800s that it is quite likely that one or both of the two rooms at the back of the house might have been rented out. There was no indoor plumbing at that time and there would have been a privy in the back yard. A cistern would have captured valuable rainwater. The house was later owned by a greengrocer around 1900 who added two rear additions: a kitchen and a rear parlor.
The rear rooms of Anita and Jerry’s cottage are smaller than the front rooms, about 12′ x 15′, with lower ceilings. A look at the side of their double pen will explain why. The roof ridge sits forward of the center point, and as the roof descends toward the back it flares out and flattens. Most double pens in Bloomington have this roof peculiarity, which required special attic trusses on that one side.
The couple bought the cottage in 1983 from their landlord. The house had been a rental for many years and had been divided down the center into two apartments, with two bathrooms that adjoined in the center of the house. Anita and Jerry removed the obstructions and opened up the house, added a wood stove in the center of the two front spaces, knocked the two bathrooms into a single large one, and added a greenhouse for their collection of orchids. (See http://www. heraldtimesonline .com/stories/ 2013/04/20/ homes.a-bigger-better-greenhouse .sto for a recent article on their unusual greenhouse.) The pair are gardeners and their yard has been featured on the annual Summer Garden Walk.
They have decorated the house beautifully with Victorian furniture, and of course the rooms are filled with flowering orchids. They are extremely proud of what they have achieved both inside and outside their house over the past thirty years. “There’s so much space packed into this little unit, which is a real credit to the skills of the old carpenters,” Jerry summed up. “It’s very efficient in many respects.”
For more information about old houses, see my earlier blogs about vernacular architecture of southern Indiana, see http://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/vernacular-architecture-of-southern-indiana-part-1/ and http://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/vernacular-architecture-of-southern-indiana-part-2/. I also have a blog on the gable-ell form, which is another vernacular house common in this area, http://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/architecture-of-southern-indiana-the-gable-ell/.
In my community of Bloomington, Indiana, I was enormously touched and moved by the recent turnout of supporters of Peter Bane and Keith Johnson, whose Renaissance Farm had been cited for county zoning rules. Some eighty people turned out to watch the proceedings and most of them stepped up to the lectern to speak in defense of the mini-farm on the edge of the city. There were so many speakers that it took nearly three hours for the Board of Zoning Appeals to hear all of them, even with speaking time limited to three minutes each. One of the zoning commissioners spent much of that time with his face buried in his hands, listening wearily. The meeting ran to four hours. Not a single person spoke in opposition to Renaissance Farm.
I haven’t seen anything like this kind of support in my experience, and the BZA had never seen anything like it either. Instead of showing anger or contentiousness, the speakers were extremely respectful and courteous, which lent weight to their arguments. Each one sat down to a burst of applause from the waiting audience. There were many excellent observations made during the course of the three hours. Some pointed out that permaculture is what everyone ought to be doing in their own yards; others cited Peter and Keith’s status as educators, and as publishers of Permaculture Activist magazine, the world’s oldest continuously published publication on that topic. One man noted that he went to an academic conference in China during which he conversed with a man from South Africa who asked him whether he knew Peter and Keith. “Who would have thought that on a trip to China I’d meet someone from Africa who knew what was going on at Renaissance Farm in my own city,” he said. During my own opportunity to speak I pointed out that all progressive movements of the past, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, got their start by butting up against established rule of law. “You have the power to grant these variances tonight,” I said, looking at the commissioners; “you don’t need to deny them simply for the sake of being rigid and inflexible.” The best comment of the night came from a woman who waited until almost the end to come forward and speak. “Everyone here tonight has used the word ‘sustainability’ over and over,” she said; “but what Peter and Keith are doing is not sustainable. What they’re doing is REGENERATIVE.”
She was right on target. In this sad, strife-torn, polluted world, what we need are policies that will help regenerate our society and our globe. Peter and Keith are living examples of what can be accomplished if one simply has the vision and the energy: they transformed a ragged and run-down .6-acre lot with two decrepit buildings, and created a thriving and fertile mini-farm. Their neighbors love the transformation and many of them turned out in person to speak on their behalf. People in their vicinity are now gardening and raising chickens as the influence spreads beyond the boundaries of Renaissance Farm.
And yet the BZA did not opt to take a progressive stance, despite the fact that the county is right now considering altering its rules to encourage exactly the sort of thing that Peter and Keith have been doing. The two men had been cited for a number of violations (seven or eight at least). They were granted their request for variances for all of their smaller infractions, which included placing small structures too close to the property lines, but ultimately they were denied a variance for their largest violation: their hand-built concrete two-story barn, which they had constructed too close to the property line on account of having to skirt a septic field in the center of the property. There was literally nowhere else it could have been built except right where it is.
The BZA members stated that they supported in theory what the two men have accomplished at Renaissance Farm, but felt they had to make an example of the largest infraction of the rules–the barn–because of what they felt was bad faith on the part of Peter and Keith for building without a permit and violating setback rules. This is a debatable point since the two men had approached the county before they developed their property and had been given incomplete and conflicting advice. Many of their supporters feel a great sense of disappointment that this largest variance was denied by the BZA, and the two men of course are emotionally exhausted and very bruised by the entire process.
But the great thing about the four-hour meeting at the BZA was the show of united support. It was a truly captivating sight. As long as permaculture has friends like the ones I listened to last week, the cause will not falter or be set back. Hopefully a way will be found to enable Peter and Keith to continue operations at Renaissance Farm. The obvious value of permaculture has taken root and is spreading.