I have studied cottage garden life since I was about twelve years old. I fell in love with an image of a cottage with a wildflower-filled garden on a box of chocolates my Grandmother Wilhemina gave to me. I learned much later that the image was “The Clothes Basket” by the British painter Helen Allingham.
I have always wanted to return to the small town life my parents and grandparents left when they journeyed to Philadelphia during and after World War II. I am well aware of the hard farm work and share-cropping my family did. But, I recall a conversation I had with my grandfather a few years before he died.
My Tiny Vegetable Patch
When I was in my twenties I started a tiny vegetable patch in my backyard. It was a four-foot by eight foot bed. I grew lettuces, carrots, beets, tomatoes, herbs, and other small foods in my little garden. I used Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening Method. When I showed my small raised bed to my grandfather, he smiled and laughed, and said it was too small to be a farm.
My grandfather had grown up on his grandfather’s one-hundred acre farm. The kind of farm I think of as an industrial model. During that time, many American Indians tried to continue to live pretty much as most humans had always lived. And my great-grandparents were no different.
As Americans Indians (Eastern Kituwah), my grandfather’s family relied on traditional herbal medicines, hunting, fishing, gardening, and harvesting indigenous foods from the surrounding woods. They didn’t want to destroy the abundance of the land because the land was all they had. Sustainability was important for our family’s survival.
After the arrival of the European colonists, communal land was actively discouraged or outright banned, which is why my grandfather grew up on a privately owned large farm. Indigenous men were told to cultivate field crops and raise livestock to sell. My great grandfathers did these things. My grandmothers continued to keep kitchen gardens, but not fields of staple corps. Women were confined to housekeeping.
My grandfather often told me that during the American Depression of the 1930s, “there wasn’t a penny on the farm, but they could eat”. He often said to me, “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.” The farm’s land took care of my family and gave them just about everything they needed.
An Superabundant Home Garden
Twenty years after I started my first raised vegetable bed, my grandfather gave up the fields and large market garden he and my grandmother Wilhemina had worked. They had rented land from a farm family in the Eagleville area just outside of Philadelphia. I grew up working on this rented land. My grandmother Wilhemina died, my grandfather moved around the corner from my house. With the move, he lived in the same area as his children and grandchildren.
My grandfather began to grow tomatoes, collard greens, peppers, squash, and other food stuffs in his new backyard which was even tinier than mine. His lifelong gardening skills produced an abundance of food which he shared, sold or gave away to people in need. He even grew peach trees from the seeds of two particularly sweet fruits he had eaten. He was shocked and overwhelmed just how much food he could grow in such a small space.
Toward the end of his life, my mother and I would drive my grandfather to his doctor’s appointments and errands. One day while my mother shopped for his groceries, my grandfather and I waited in the car. He said to me, “Just think Donna, if we had a small piece of land how, much we could have done”. I was thinking, “I figured that out when I was twelve”. But, out loud I said, “Yes, Granddad, I know”.
It took a lifetime for my grandfather to realized his desire for a big one hundred acre farm could have been satisfied with a small plot of land, in his case about two acres. He had turned down many offers of plots of a few acres because he believed he needed a big spread of at least one hundred. He believed the industrial philosophy that owning a lot of land was the only was to farm. He could have had his dream if he had just thought on a smaller scale.
Sustainability and Park-Like Forests
Gardening is an activity widespread across human cultures. In spite of industrialization, many people still live but the wisdom of ancient ways. The cultivation of plants is something humans continue to do to ensure their food supply. In traditional cultures, women tend to focus on food, herb, and medicinal plants. These are often grown very close to the house for quick and easy access. Women working in family groups, take care of fruit, nut and other trees and shrubs in the land surrounding their villages. The women also grow large fields of whatever staple grains and foods form the basis of their diets. The men often helped the women ready the fields for planting.
Men in traditional societies hunt and fish. In the hunting areas, men often cultivated and encourage plants which hunted animals depended on for food. The men take care of the waterways to encourage fish and other aquatic life to be in abundance. The men build buildings, trails, walls, etc.
When the Europeans came to North America, they often remarked on the ‘park-like’ look of the forests surrounding east coast indigenous villages. The areas had widely spaced trees and shrubs, sometimes pruned for increased productivity. The indigenous inhabitants actively took care of the land to benefit themselves, the animals they depended on, and all life in the region.
This model of caring for the land is repeated over and over around the world. In these societies, the purpose of a human being is in ensuring abundant life by being a caretaker not a steward of the land. Stewardship implies ownership, care-taking does not. Some peoples have environmentally sustainable ways of living in the land and some do not. Perhaps, these groups who don’t take care of the land lost their care-taking knowledge or they never had it at all.
Industrialization Hasn’t Proven Itself
Western culture assumes that humans can only destroy the land. This idea that destruction is the only way for a human to function, was used as the justification for removing indigenous peoples from their homelands. Once the indigenous peoples were removed, the land lost some of its’ abundance as a working ecosystem. For those who wonder what purpose humans serve in the ecosystem, this is part of the answer. To take care and promote abundance, you have to live in harmony and balance. You can’t take and never give in return.
Industrialization and the violent conquest of indigenous peoples has tried to wipe out the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of centuries of human experience all over the world. But, some knowledge seems to be encoded deep within us. What was lost can be regained.
Many humans behave as if the industrial revolution is a permanent change in how humans beings live and function in the world. For this industrialized and consumer based lifestyle to be permanent, it has to be sustained over a long period. Three hundred years does not make a permanent change. It a very small moment in the time humans have been on Earth. It is only a permanent change if in several thousand or million years we continue to live the industrialized lifestyle.
Smallness, Simplicity, Sustainability
And it is not as if there haven’t been other large complex “civilizations” before our current ones. The world has ruins of large cities and empires all over the planet. On a recent “Sixty Minutes” program in a segment called, “Space Archeology”, an archeologist who uses satellite imagery to spot sites of ruins from space, said less than ten percent of land has been explored for ancient ruins. She also said, there are ruins all over the planet. I think of the major landforms, Eurasia, South America, North America, and Africa, it is only on Antarctica and the Arctic, that humans haven’t located large ruins. With melting snow and ice we may find ruins in these places in the future.
Western scientists who find these collapsed civilizations have historically had a hard time reconciling that the indigenous people living near these ruins actually had a direct relationship to the people who lived in and built these large civilizations. In the past, historians have said that these civilizations was the work of foreigners, even space aliens, who moved into an area, subjugated the locals, built large civilizations and then vanished. What the archeologists and historians missed, is that the surrounding indigenous peoples are the descents of these collapsed complex civilizations.
There are lessons to be learned. Industrialized peoples have missed the lessons and wisdom and seem doomed to repeat the mistakes. Large civilizations succumb to political unrest, invasion, natural disasters, disease, economic failure and/or environmental ecosystem collapse. Or in truly scary cases, all the above at the same time.
Cottage Gardens and the Walking Dead
Currently humanity, particularly in the United States, have a fascination with dystopian novels, television shows, and films. I have watched every episode of the “Walking Dead“. It’s not a story about the zombies, but about human nature. After the zombie apocalypse, Rick’s group of survivors live in small settlements or villages, the latest is ‘Alexandria’. They garden, forage, hunt, and live autonomous lives until Negan and his band of thugs show up. The show, basically follows what we see throughout history as large, complex civilizations collapse, the humans return to living in the ways humans have always lived. Humans also learn to get rid of the thugs or life will be miserable.
Humans have always told ourselves stories which all boil down to guides about how to live life. Living wisely and sustainably in the land is a need for survival. With the taking of land away from small communities, and consolidating land holding in the hands of the few, a brainwashing campaign began to convince humans that we are better off in big, complex societies. Even with the ruins of collapse all over the planet.
As those who see this industrialized way of life a permanent change, we ask them what are they doing to sustain this way of life? Running away to another planet proves that this way of life is not sustainable. What it says is that this way of life will collapse. That we will need new planets to live off, because we have outstripped this world. Therefore, as it now stands, industrialization is not a permanent change to human life on this planet.
Finding another planet to live off of begs the question, “Who gets to go to this next planet?” This world has over seven billion humans on it, can we move all seven billion? How long will it take to move all seven billion humans? Thinking logically, there will be a lot of people left behind. What do those humans left behind do with polluted air, water, soil, waterways, and seas? Will the food networks still be up and running?
Cottage Gardens, Sustainability, and Sane Living
People all over the world have lived in small autonomous communities for a long as humans can remember. Whenever large cities or complex civilizations arose, they eventually collapsed and failed. Once these complex civilizations collapsed, the human beings, either died, scattered or stayed close by and formed what seems to be, natural states of living in small, autonomous communities that practice sustainable lifestyles or perish.
What is important to remember about cottage gardens is that they were a variation on how people have lived on Earth for a very long time. Cottage gardens represent a much more sane way of life, living in balance and harmony with an ecosystem. It is an example of working from the philosophy of, how little can we disrupt and how much can we save? Think not of how much harm can I get away with, but how little harm can I do?
I say all this to illustrate a point, that the cottage garden lifestyle of small gardens in small villages and managed common land is an excellent natural lifestyle. The life-way of managing the land for abundance for all life is how humans were made to live. This care-taking of the land is our function in the ecosystem. It is part of our purpose. It is part of our “original instructions” from our Creator on how we are to live.