THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can DIY Become Tradition or is Canning Just the New Sewing?

My mother-in-law stands a good chance of surviving a natural disaster. Be it nuclear war or a climate change catastrophe, she has the skills to survive: she plants her own food, bakes her own bread with homegrown yeast, forages for wild seasonal vegetables, has raised her own meat, helped build her childhood home, cultured her own yogurt, cured her own cheese, and I'm sure much more I don't know yet.

I, on the other hand, if faced with any type of isolation from modern conveniences, wouldn't know where to begin. Until recently, everything I ate, drank, cooked, lived in, rode in and wore was bought or made far from my consciousness. And I'm not sure I'm so different from most other Americans of my generation.

What can you make?

I spent most of my life blissfully unaware of just how disconnected I was from the things I used everyday. I suppose the first inkling of my ignorance hit me about a decade ago while reading Don Delillo's White Noise.

Here we are ... knowing all these great things after centuries of progress but what can we do...? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light?... Name one thing you could make.

Name one thing I could make... at that point I could operate a camera and editing software, but if my camera or computer broke down I was stuck. I could boil rice and fry a quesadilla, but forget about making food grow from the ground. In fact, ten years ago, I didn't know many people who even tried to grow their own.

When Victory Gardens are the rage in suburbia

Of course, much of that has changed. Last month I was walking through my parents' very suburban subdivision and saw two different neighbors digging up their lawns to plant food. And more telling than their efforts was the fact that one of them actually used the term Victory Garden to describe his work. (See Swapping lawn for fruit: "because you can't eat grass")

This self awareness seems to be the point. Most of us are not growing our own food, making- or remaking - our own clothing, taking our gas guzzlers electric and even building our own homes (I recently talked to a guy of my generation who built his own house and is designing plans for others to do the same. More on this in another post) simply to save money, or to save the world one tomato at a time, but because we want to actually do more on our own.

What iaia knows (* iaia is a Catalan nickname for grandma)

I first became aware that there was another way to live, not through a Michael Pollen tome or a Naked Chef episode, but through visits to my in-laws' suburban Spanish home. It was here I realized I didn't know how broccoli grew. It was here I discovered that chickens can be scary. It was here I watched my daughter harvest lettuce and carrots and realized she'd never know what it was like to think all food was always in season.

My father-in-law remakes old furniture new again and is about to build his own greenhouse, but it is my mother-in-law, Candela, whose knowledge continues to surprise me. This winter we experienced a wind storm in Northern Spain/Southern France that was killing people with falling debris so my in-laws bunkered down in their home. Afraid to leave for even the local bakery, Candela made her own bread with a homemade yeast she'd fermented herself.

The other day my husband showed his mother an article about a modern passive house and its advanced insulation. Candela wasn't impressed and explained that any home will be well-insulated if you build the walls the thickness they're supposed to be in her town, and she cited that number in centimeters (75 cm, or 2 and a half feet).

Every time I bring up some new discovery I've made about a greener way of doing something, she one-ups me. On a walk in her rural hometown last summer, I explained how most commercial air fresheners are bad for your health and how people are now switching to eco-friendly brands. She proceeded to yank leaves off a nearby bush and explain how the woman in town used to dry it to make their homes and closets smell great (see video Foraging for organic).

When I described to her the trend to ferment your own yogurt (see video Making your own yogurt and avoiding all those plastic containers), she explained how she used to do it for her kids. And that foraging trend? She has always collected her own snails (it's not only a culinary treat in France), mushrooms (video Hunting wild mushrooms in Western Spain) and wild asparagus (video Hunting wild asparagus outside Barcelona).

Canning is the new knitting

The other day a friend and I were talking about whether all the excitement for growing your own will be a passing phase.

"People always need something new," she argued. "I hear canning is the new knitting".

For Candela, there's nothing new about bottling up all her excess backyard crop. She's been collecting glass jars from us since I met her and in return every Sunday we go home with bottles of tomato sauce, red peppers, olives, jam, etc.

It may be habit for Candela, but will the rest of us really want to keep this up? I mean, what about all those people who sign up for a gym, but never go, will they really keep watering the carrots, or worse yet, bothering to replant? Aren't we a generation addicted to convenience?

The price of convenience

Lately, I've been thinking that we, those of us worried about the planet, need to refocus our reasoning for encouraging others to make changes in their lives. By telling people to do things for the good of the planet or their pocketbook, we're not telling the entire story. It seems there's another payoff we're ignoring.

Maybe re-learning to make things and grow things needs to be done for the acts themselves. Maybe we'd actually be happier being a bit more connected, even at the price of convenience.

This summer I was out walking in my parents' neighborhood with my cousin when we noticed a thirty-something man tearing up his lawn. Smelling a story, I had to ask what he was doing. "I'm putting in a Victory Garden," he replied, somehow sure I'd even know the term (although my parents' town is no Berkeley). "I'm using the leftover hops from the brewery where I work as fertilizer," he announced proudly.

Not just a Victory Gardener, but a composter. So people were doing some of these things I'd been writing and reading about, and even in towns without a big city or university within miles. But how long could this last?

I turned to my cousin, an avid gardener, and asked why she bothered to put so much time into growing fruits and veggies, wasn't it just cheaper to buy them? She laughed. "I enjoy it," adding "And I like to be able to give people something I've made."

Coming from someone addicted to giving, this was the highest compliment she could pay an activity. For her there was obviously value in the act of making something. And somewhere in the process of doing it herself, she found satisfaction.

Connected to what you sow

My mother-in-law doesn't tend to over-analyze her gardening, composting, canning ... It's her tradition. And until this summer, I would have said that was all it was. Then I had an antojo (Spanish for craving) for her baked artichokes (skins half cut off; covered with garlic, oil, pressed parsley and lemon) and I learned differently. I was 8 months pregnant, and in Spain, the antojos of pregnant women are obeyed or the kid might come out funny.

"This is a lot of waste," she said looking at all the leaves and stems she was removing from the artichokes. "It's a good thing we have chickens". This was the first time I realized that she was mindful of our impact on the planet.

The last time I'd broached the topic of one of her unconsciously-green activities she was showing me a rotten bag of composted yard waste. While filming her dump the gooey mess onto her tilled garden, I'd asked her why she did it. "My grandparents always did it like this. My parents as well," she had replied. But now I realize after years of living according to a tradition that respects the earth, her habits have made her somehow more connected to what we build, waste, reap, sow, sew, etc.

The psychology of DIY

A few weeks ago I was visiting an organic, off-the-grid, farm in North Carolina, talking to a twenty-something about Transition Towns (see video Living like it's 2050: Transition Farm in North Carolina) and I heard the same message from someone who had been raised without Candela's traditions. Margaret Krome-Lukens is the garden manager for the Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute who is still trying to overcome her modern upbringing.

"My grandmother knows how to can things. I haven't figured it out yet," she said sounding almost pissed off (at her parents? society? her grandma?). "It's on my to-do list."

For Margaret, trading a bit of convenience is a small price to pay for the psychological payoff of DIY. "There are ways that things used to be done that we don't even realize anymore because we were raised with all of this convenience, all this separation from where things come from. That's one of the big reasons I enjoy living here is because I have a very concrete understanding of where my food comes from, where my water comes from, where my electricity comes from. Even if it means having to take more of life or more of my mental energy to think about it, like, that's the way it should be."

The side effects of convenience

The way things should be. So it's a moral argument. Or a psychological one. However you phrase it, it's something bigger than just saving the planet.

Maybe it's time to take a second look at the side effects of all of our convenience. I was thinking about White Noise again and how DeLillo used a visit to the supermarket to evoke a feeling of disconnect.

Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright... And over it all... a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.'

I'm still confused by how most food arrives at the supermarket. And while I am still not canning and only growing parsley and spinach on my terrace, I understand the satisfaction involved in doing more on my own.

I suggested to Margaret that maybe working harder doesn't have to be such a bad thing. She responded like my old tennis coach would have. "Look how much more you enjoy it when you know what you've put into it."

Eco-DIYs from faircompanies

How to ferment your own bread
How to build a backyard greenhouse
How to carbonate your own water
Growing a veggie garden in a small space
Making a full-size truck as efficient as the average car