If you came here hoping I'd write about Christina Rossetti (today is her birthday), head to this post of mine from two years ago. Today I'm interested in Rose Wilder Lane, who also has a birthday today. For those of us who grew up reading and loving the Little House on the Prairie books, we owe Rose Wilder Lane a debt of gratitude.
It fascinates me that she hated her pioneer background, and yet she's the woman who did so much to make sure that those books that glorify the pioneer experience came into existence. It's staggering to realize how much hardship Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder suffered after they went off to live happily ever after at the end of the series: "the family struggled with crop failure, terrible debt, diphtheria (which caused Almanzo to have a stroke), and a fire that burned down their house" (from The Writer's Almanac entry for today).
The Little House books made me want to head west in a covered wagon of my own. My yearnings amused my father, who was quick to point out my fastidiousness when it came to public restrooms would make it difficult for me to be a pioneer. My mother suggested that I talk to my grandmother, who might tell me what life on a farm was really like.
My grandmother has always scoffed at my desire to have a homestead of my own. For a long time, she would just dismiss me by snorting, "You have no idea what it was like." But years of gentle questioning have given me an idea of what it takes to grow one's own food, to create all the clothes and blankets, to preserve food for winter, and to keep up the house. And yet that knowledge doesn't deter my deep yearning.
I remember almost 10 years ago, when the PBS series Frontier House aired. It took 3 families and put them on homesteads in Montana and they tried to live the way that pioneers in 1883 would have lived. That show didn't quite cure me of my Little House yearnings, but it was a good counterpoint. Just the act of getting water to the house took Herculean effort. You wouldn't want to situate your house too close to the river or creek, because of spring flooding. But put it too far away, and your daily life became much harder.
At the end of the show, the experts determined only one family had prepared enough for the winter to survive it. They probably wouldn't have. Most of them hadn't stored enough firewood or food. The only couple that might have survived was the newlywed couple, and that was because their house was so small (thus needing less firewood) and they had chosen smaller animals (goats instead of cows) that would have needed less of the precious family food.
We also found out that of all the people who headed west, only 30% of them survived. The rest headed back east--or died. Very sobering, and not at all my vision of the homesteading time period. The Little House books don't allude to this reality at all.
Or do they? I confess that I haven't gone back to read them as an adult. It might be interesting to read them with my adult knowledge. And yet, I want to leave them as beloved childhood books. Why deconstruct everything we loved?
I am not the only one yearning for my own homestead. We're seeing an upsurge in people who are returning to old practices: canning, knitting, cooking, raising chickens and bees. What does it mean?
Well, it might mean that modern life seems that much more precarious, and it might make sense that we want to be able to provide for ourselves. It might mean that more of us are working less, and thus we need to return to some of the thrifty practices of our Depression era ancestors to survive. Some people look at the fact that it's women returning to these practices and wonder if we're giving up the gains of the feminist revolutions of the 20th century too quickly. For more on this idea, go to this great article in The Washington Post, which concludes: "Women like me are enjoying domestic projects again in large part because they’re no longer a duty but a choice. But how many moral and environmental claims can we assign to domestic work before it starts to feel, once more, like an obligation? If history is any lesson, my just-for-fun jar of jam could turn into my daughter’s chore, and eventually into my granddaughter’s 'liberating' lobster strudel. And as . . . delicious as that sounds, it’s not really what I want on my holiday table in 2050."
I suspect that homestead life appeals to so many of us because so many of us are working for and within institutions that don't care about us at all. If we lived on a homestead of our own, all of our efforts would be coming back to benefit us, instead of a huge corporation or stockholders. Of course, even the Little House books show that nature can be much harsher than corporate business cycles or market fluctuations. The Long Winter was my favorite of the The Little House books, and to this day, I'm amazed that the family survived. Many families didn't.
One of my favorite poems that I've written recently came out of these kinds of thoughts. In fact, I wrote it after writing this blog post--so if you've ever wondered if blogging can lead to a poem, in my case, it often does. I won't put the whole poem here, because I'd like to see it published in a more traditional format. But it seems a good way to conclude. Here's the first half of the poem:
I stare at the dead lizard stuck
in the printer, and I think
of little houses on vast prairies.
What would Pa Ingalls do?
That man could build a cabin
in one week-end with just a hand saw.
I was raised to be similarly self-reliant.
I could weave threads into cloth and die
that cloth in baths made of vegetable skins.
My mother taught us to darn and mend.
My grandmother taught me to preserve
food and to transform scraps
of cloth into sturdy quilts.
These skills do not help
me in my modern life.
. . .