To K. Ruby, the fact that Americans have sleek iPods and flat-screen TVs but don't know how to can their own food is a tragedy. In the last twenty years or so, the 46-year-old North Oakland resident has taught herself how to grow organic vegetables and fruit; preserve them as jellies, jams, and sauces; make wine; keep honeybees; and use leftover dairy to make cheese.
It's a way of life that's not only personally fulfilling and sustainable, says Ruby, but might one day be essential to her very survival. "I'm connected to a way of living that I think has gotten lost in the last hundred years that's really natural for human beings, which is growing and preserving our own food," she said one recent morning, sitting at her '50s-style kitchen table adorned with house plants. "You know, if there was an energy crisis and all electricity stopped tomorrow, and you couldn't just go to a grocery store or a restaurant or a McDonald's and buy some food, I would live, I would survive, I would know how to do it."
For everyone else, there's the Institute of Urban Homesteading, the school Ruby founded to teach disconnected city folk the ways of a more agrarian, self-sufficient, less-frantic lifestyle. Started in March with a small faculty, the institute offers classes in gardening, canning, and making wine, chocolate, cheese, yogurt, lotions, and salves — plus arts and crafts, massage and bodywork, and herbalism. She also plans to add home-improvement skills, such as installing a sink, changing a light fixture, and setting tile.
So far, it has been a hit. Several of the classes — which cost between $25 and $50 depending on one's income — filled up, and twice she had to add extra sessions to meet demand. "It's not the next big technology," she said, pondering the success of the school, which she publicized through fliers, e-mail blasts, and posts on community sites like Tribe.net. "In its simplicity, I think it gives a lot of joy. ... There's not a lot in our culture that supports us actually slowing down and enjoying those little things, but I think that's changing. This little school project I've started is really a testament to that."
Nationally, the urban homesteading movement has been gaining traction. The subject of several blogs and books, it refers to a self-sufficient lifestyle that believes dense city living is more conducive to sustainability than living in the suburbs or a rural area, since everything's closer together and communities can share resources.
Eschewing the '60s mentality of rural commune life, Ruby truly values urbanity: being able to ride her bike to see a play or go to the farmers' markets and talk plants with the vendors. Her philosophy combines the spirit of urban gardening, the slow-food movement, and "localization" — which advocates that all a person's needs come from their local economy. She envisions an East Bay where roads are blocked off to allow gardens to grow in the median, and neighborhoods designated for chicken coops where you could ride your bike to drop off zucchini scraps for feed.
Toward that vision, much of Ruby's needs comes from her sprawling, 2,500-square-feet backyard, which grows a veritable grocery-store selection of fruits and vegetables: corn, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, broccoli, carrots, heirloom garlic, asparagus, beans, artichokes, basil, raspberries, strawberries, and apples. Two honey-producing beehives abut her fence, and another one sits on the roof of her lime-green house. She says her garden produces far more than she can consume. Her kitchen holds a five-gallon jug of honey wine, and a shelf in her cabinet is replete with Mason jars of preserved apple and tomato sauces, and fruit jellies.
Ruby first learned gardening in 1989 from one of her roommates, while they were living in a flat in San Francisco's Mission District. After making friends with their neighbors, they tore down dividing fences in the backyard to make a "pretty significant" garden.
In a way, gardening was an extension of her childhood inclinations. As a youngster growing up in Berkeley, Ruby would uproot weeds and plant them in pots to grow in her room. "I think it's just who I am," she offered. Coming from an educated family, she was encouraged to follow her interests, which led her to become an artist, teacher, earn degrees in massage and "somatic sexology," and start a nonprofit that combined puppet theater and political activism.
About eight years ago, she burned out on the nonprofit work. While figuring out how to redefine herself, she continued gardening and learning "homestead-y things."
But she had some hesitations about her newfound passion, since she wasn't convinced that turning soil had the capacity for social change, which had been an important theme in her life. Eventually, she concluded, "It was at least doing no harm, if not actively helping make change."
Then, a year ago, her friends who had children suggested she start a camp so that their kids could learn all of the useful things she had taught herself. The idea clicked. "The name just came to me in a flash," she recalled, "and it just felt like the right thing to do at the right time and that people were really wanting that information."
What she teaches is pretty basic stuff, she says. She won't reveal the exact processes, but canning, traditionally done to preserve the summer's fruits for winter, involves heating the food to a certain temperature in order to kill bacteria, and then creating a vacuum seal. Technically, canned food can survive eons — she says unearthed canned food buried by the 1906 earthquake is still edible — but for flavor, it is best consumed after one season.
Wine, on the other hand, involves sugar and yeast. The yeast eats the sugar and gives off carbon dioxide and alcohol. Ruby says any fruit will suffice, but since she doesn't grow grapes, she makes hers out of honey.
She learned canning from friends while attending college in Europe, and was dismayed that such a simple art of survival had largely been lost in the US. "It used to be as little as one to two generations ago that everybody knew how to make cheese, canned food, dry food, slaughter food," she said, "and now it's some crazy 5 percent of the whole population in the United States that knows anything about that.
"It's kinda sad that we don't learn that stuff in school," she continued. "I thought that in high school they needed to teach yoga, conflict resolution, basic massage, how to fix a car, how to balance your checkbook, how to clean your house properly — 'cause parents aren't teaching it, they're too busy."
Ruby may come off like a hippie with her head in the clouds, but she's well aware what her idealism may sound like to others — and the excuses that follow. Too busy? Try a night away from the boob tube or the computer. No backyard? Balconies, window sills, or roofs will suffice. Short on cash? Get free seeds from the Ecology Center, cheap pots from Urban Ore, and complimentary compost at the end of the month at the Berkeley Marina.
Not that urban homesteading isn't without its pitfalls. Ruby says not all her neighbors have been thrilled with her garden. One man complained that her bees were entering his apartment and buzzing around his barbecue. (Ruby believes they were wasps; nevertheless, she moved her hive away from his side.) An elderly man grumbled when she put a lock on her gate (due to vandalism) because he liked to pick apples from the tree. Yet others admire her flowers, and some neighborhood kids have expressed curiosity (and slight bewilderment) about her cheery and industrious demeanor.
Ruby may not be taking to the streets, but her efforts do appear to be having some impact. She teaches gardening to kids at Peralta Elementary School and gets them to think about how they'd survive without electricity. She believes in global warming and peak oil, and that, eventually, oil will run out.
In which case, Ruby's utopian vision of the East Bay may come true after all.
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