Little House in the City

The topic of the presentation was billed as “urban homesteading,” but speaker Erik Knutzen is dissatisfied with that label: “It’s a little too ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” he told the thirty or so listeners gathered at Woodlawn’s Experimental Station last Thursday evening. Though the book he recently co-wrote with his wife Kelly Coyne is titled “The Urban Homestead,” he’s not sure the term captures the diversity of what he described as “the growing movement” of sustainably-minded people who do things like ride bikes, grow vegetables, and keep animals in the city. Knutzen seemed keen to be as inclusive as possible, insisting that he is “not a Puritan” when it comes to using technology like Facebook and Twitter or a Kitchen-Aid mixer for breadmaking, nor is he a radical who would rather practice guerilla gardening than work with his community to utilize unused growing space. Along with these common pitfalls, he also tried to avoid the tendency of green types to take themselves too seriously: “I got into this because it’s fun,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve got our compact fluorescent light bulbs–but let’s make some moonshine.”

According to Knutzen, much of what’s driving the homestead movement is “an underlying sense of transformation,” akin to the “symbolic language” of alchemy. His presentation proceeded to cover ten specific transformations, from fermentation (breadmaking, beer brewing, pickling), to reusing wastewater (i.e. greywater), to building community. “I consider myself a practitioner, not an expert,” he emphasized, aware that many audience members were probably already well-versed in the ways of urban gardening and bicycling. Thus, like his book–“a very practical, hands-on, how-to guide about practitioning”–Knutzen’s talk included a lot of concrete suggestions for symbolic transformation, including things like self-irrigating planters and solar-powered stoves, all the way down to details like which brand of greywater-safe laundry detergent to use. For the beginning homesteader, Knutzen’s take on sustainability is accessible and encouraging; for the self-taught expert with a Puritanical streak, it may seem frustratingly lightweight. Nonetheless, Knutzen offers a friendly reminder of the importance of compromise, Kitchen-Aid mixers aside.