Fear And Sowing In Suburbia

I had a long conversation with my mother-in-law yesterday. She lives in California, and she told me that word on the Cali street is, if your home is burgled you don’t call the cops, because they won’t come. Because of budget cuts, there aren’t enough police officers to take a report at the scene of the crime.

No, you don’t call in the robbery; you dust yourself off and you drive your ass to the nearest police station to file a report. Then, presumably, nothing happens, unless the criminal who robbed you feels some sort of deep remorse and turns themselves in, because there aren’t enough police officers to investigate crimes either. Now, I don’t know how accurate this depiction of California law enforcement is, or what exactly is going on deep inside California politics and budget wrangling, but it doesn’t sound good.

Fear. There is fear in suburbia, can you feel it?

Most of the time, I live in my happy suburban stay-at-home mom/gardener world and I take great joy at living in place. I grow my food and tend to my children and walk to the market. In my youth I traveled a reasonable amount, visiting places as diverse as Tokyo and Reykjavik (that’s the capital of Iceland, and it’s lovely – you should go), but these days I leave my hometown – the town where I grew up and willingly returned as an adult – only reluctantly.

Periodically I pop my head up into the big world and get positively bitch slapped by bad news. Apparently Detroit is permanently on fire, the official welcome in Baltimore is a mugging and a Sweet Sixteen party in Chicago is a flash mob robbery. I didn’t even know Connecticut had a bad part of town, but I guess the New Haven kids who aren’t excelling in Comparative Literature or History at Yale are excelling in assault.

In this atmosphere of ratings-driven media shock-hype, nice law-abiding suburbanites all over the country are watching news scenes of domestic destruction and are bringing their hands up to cover their slack jaws. “That’s just terrible,” they say. “Look at that looting! Look what those people are doing.” That the shocked suburbanites are often pinkish and the inner urbanites on TV are often brownish is worth noting, because it serves to increase the feeling of separation between those watching and those being filmed.

Is this really our world? Is this really our country? Are we falling apart at the seams, communities devolving into looting and murder from the pressure of the recession? I don’t think so. The actual numbers show that in the past two decades crime, nationwide and across the board, is down – less murder, less rape, less burglary. But what is real in the aggregate, and what we feel to be true is not necessarily related. And so it is easy to ignore statistics that New Haven is much safer than it used to be when we feel threats all around us.

The economic downturn has left even the reasonably fortunate among us feeling financially uncertain. Shocking reports of tremendous inhumanity leave the most jaded among us shaking our heads and wondring what the fuck is the matter with some people. How do we respond to this perception of threat – a vague threat from everywhere at once – when we are completely helpless to larger financial forces and wholly unable to stop crimes 2400 miles away?

Many of us have responded by taking up gardening. Does that sound flippant, or stupid, or callus? I don’t mean it to. I mean that in a time when the world feels out of control, and when the issues of the day seem too big for any woman, many us are finding relief from our smallness and our powerlessness in our own good earth.

We are controlling what we can – how we spend and do not spend our dollars, how we feed our families, how we relate to our neighbors – by focusing our attention on a kind of hyper-localism. We hope and work to the idea that our tiny plot of goodness, buzzing with bees and fragrant with herbs and producing of good nutritive stuff, will be a tiny shield around us, an Urban Homestead Light of Elendil to cling to when all sanity seems lost and the ork zombies come marching through.

I look around my fair nation (and perhaps beyond – I have readers in Europe and Asia and Australia on the same journey, though I cannot say if their underlying motivations are similar) and I see many people pulling the same protective coat of gardening around them.

We insulate ourselves from financial bumps by growing shock absorbing beets and cabbages and beans in our backyard. We rebuff the feeling that community has gone all to hell by reforming inner cities around community agriculture and inner-city youth work programs. We smile at the brownish male teens who sell us the heirloom tomato starts at the community agriculture fair because they are on our side. Fellow gardeners cannot be intimidating, cannot be the other, because the quest for a short season Brandywine is more unifying than the ability to hold a tan.

There is fear all around: the economy, the environment, the moral fiber of our country all seem to be at stake. The fear can be paralyzing, and it certainly sells advertising. In between the latest scenes of urban self-destruction, political scandals, financial ruin in Small Town America and anthropogenically-enhanced natural disasters, we are reminded that hot chicks still like guys who drink Bud Light, iPhones still make you cool, and the people behind Axe Body Spray have branched out to scrotal cleansing.

Is it any wonder that the whiplash insanity of images we see sends us running to the soil, to feel something inarguably real between our fingers, to grow something of demonstrative value for our dinner table?

I believe there is light in the darkness, and I believe proverbial fruit can grow in the most unlikely spots. We urban homesteaders claim our patch of soil for many reasons, but one is surely to shake off the fear that is thrust upon us by those who would profit from our anxious paralysis.

Many new gardeners have picked up the spade for the first time this year because of fear. Keep hold of it in the years to come because of hope.


  1. says

    Funny I am working on a post like this one now!! About how this 'lifestyle' many of us are choosing seems hard & challenging at times. When the world seems to be going to shit, I am left wondering why I should bother trying to 'save' anything, if most people don't know or don't care… but I remind myself that I am a pioneer of the new future (yep, that's in my post!) and what I do may seem 'alternative' now, but if I keep soldiering on, it will become (will be forced on many) as the 'normal' way in the future… hopefully. That's my positive 'survironmentalist' spin on it (there's plenty of doom & gloom moments too!)

  2. says

    just reread Jesse Stuart's autobiographical "The Thread That Runs So True: A Mountain School Teacher Tells His Story." Published in 1949, this book relates some life-threatening, lawless incidents that made me think maybe things aren't so different these days. Maybe we just hear more about the horrendous things that go on? Regardless, home gardens and deadbolts make a lot of sense!

  3. says

    Burglaries are our main risk here in 78745, although there has recently been some vandalism of cars parked on the street overnight. By personal experience, I can tell you that the Austin Police Department dispatcher attempts to discourage you from having officers respond to a burglary. That was some years ago, so the current situation may be like what you describe. There is also anecdotal evidence that you can call a cop and order a pizza and the pizza will arrive first. Anyway, on to gardening. My wife and a couple of apartment-dwelling friends got us started last year, but the friends split the blanket and my wife went all entrepreneurial on me, so I have largely taken over and been happy to do so. I was laid off in February 2010, and the national statistical probability for my regaining full-time employment in my profession is 18% for my age group. To paraphrase the Bard, get thee to thy garden is good advice.

  4. says

    Yes, there is much fear in suburbia! Maybe it's from watching too much tv, or a too insular lifestyle, or from not integrating oneself and family into the community. I am guilty of all those things. But other than a general misanthropy, I'm not afraid. :)

  5. Dreaming of Jeanie says

    I can completely relate to this. At the urging of family and friends I had to stop watching the news. My blood pressure and my relationships just couldn't take it. What's a girl to do? I am only one woman desperately trying to pay off her large debt on a small income. I was definitely feeling the anxious paralysis. Then, I realized I can only change how I live and lead by example. Angry about the economy? Go weed a veggie bed. Fretting about wage garnishments and taxes? Go bake a loaf or two of bread. It's really helped me feel like I have control over at least a few things in my life and helped me keep a grasp on my sanity.

  6. says

    "…an Urban Homestead Light of Elendil…" :)
    This may well be the best thing I hear all day – maybe all week.

    For me, when my job was at it's worst point ever – I was truly trapped, as I was pregnant and needed to stay for insurance, I found solace in my garden. Everyday at lunch, I'd come home to graze on beans and tomatoes, straight from the plant. Then I'd cry and weed, and go back to the office.

    I do think there is a lot of fear. My BFF is in a suburb of Tuscon… south of Tuscon actually. You can bet they see a lot of the brown people on the news, and their news is scarier than ours, as it involves drug lords from a lawless country, just steps from their HOA controlled subdivision.

    The HOA plays a part in this because they cannot keep chickens (surprise) and even how and what they garden is regulated. Last year they joined a CSA, and this year, they've been biking and carpooling (3 or 4 moms at a time grocery shopping and going to nursing school together) more than ever. I think they are making these decisions based partly on fear, and partly on hope. The hope is that we can all make small changes that will affect/effect our future and culture and children and communities for the better.

  7. says

    I have to back off the news pretty regularly these days, since the news (or the news that sticks, anyway) almost always seems to be bad. But this is also, as you suggest, why I try to control the things that I can and make a different in my own life. It's not perfect, and it's certainly not a guarantee of anything, but it helps me not only to feel better, but to feel as though I'm actually doing something worthwhile. The one thing I'd like to do more of, though, is work on developing community. I suspect it's one of the greatest ways to help undermine many of these issues.

  8. says

    In this day and age of media bombardment mostly for the shock value of ratings, and really who controls the media in the U.S. anyway because if you see what the news is from other countries (i.e. Canada as it is closest) you can see the same story covered but from a much different perspective/angle. Crime may be up or down from before, there were still the same natural disasters as before, people are still gonna be nice or not as before, the only real difference is that the technology is available as it wasn't before to cover these stories, so it may seem like there is more, but perhaps it is just the fact that we can hear/see about it now from more places than we ever could before. I certainly don't feel that I can save the world, but if I can make by personal space and my family's space more safe/wholesome/healthy/happy/secure/self-sufficient then I am certainly going to give it my all. Happy gardening to all!

  9. says

    Just wanted to say that thankfully reports for Baltimore are exaggerated! We do have crime problem, and the class and race issues here are deep and troublesome. On the other hand, there are people who love the city and its communities, who are working to unite individuals and the land. Whether producing or consuming, Baltimore is definitely focusing on what is happening locally. Visit Baltimore and you'll find things like:

    * Hamilton Crop Circle http://hamiltoncropcircle.blogspot.com/
    * Real Food Farm http://www.realfoodfarm.org/
    * More markets then you can shake a stick at http://www.mda.state.md.us/md_products/farmers_market_dir.php#baltcity
    * A new co-op http://baltimorefoodcoop.com/
    * Nationally recognized locavore restaurants http://www.woodberrykitchen.com/
    * And lots of people carving out their own green niche in city neighborhoods http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/baltimore/by-their-compost-heaps-ye-shall-know-them/Content?oid=1390843

    I see the return to gardening as stemming from the same feelings of uncertainty that surrounded 9/11, when there was a surge in the crafts world, particularly knitting. When the world is out of control there are things you can directly influence and that provide stability and comfort. We have to be wary, though, of pining to much for "the good ole' days". Beyond being a fictional idea, too much nostalgia leads to attempts to reinstate morals and laws that are now outdated for a good reason.

    I love reading your blog to see what is going on in a different part of the country, so while I am focusing on my own plot of land I can keep a wider view of what is going on nationally.

  10. says

    Amen sista! Could not have said it better myself. The whatever you want to call it that is happening in our society is definitely one of the many reasons I have turned to my garden and my chickens. Its moments with them that I feel truly alive and connected and it's people like you doing it 350 miles away from me (hi, I am just next door in Idaho) that give me a sense of community (there's also the great farming community right here in Boise too!). Here's to the tomato that brings us all together!

  11. says

    Does your MIL happen to live in Vallejo, California? We are the first and largest city in California to declare bankruptcy and with that went most of our emergency services. We don't have more than 4 patrol cars at a time on the streets (city of 120K) and the county sheriff has taken up some of the slack, at least in our neighborhood (we're on the edge of town). Our police chief has actually said on TV not to bother calling to report a burglary because they won't show up. We take certain precautions to make sure we aren't victims, such as leaving our two large not-friendly-to-strangers dogs in the house when we're not home and having an alarm system. But in the end, I think our city gets a bad rap. It's not nearly as scary as so many of my friends seem to think it is. The media has played a huge role in that. I know quite a few people who actually REFUSE to come to our house because we live here. Sure we hear gunshots on a regular basis and the ghetto bird flies over nearly every day, but all the crime is usually occuring on the other side of the freeway, not in our neighborhood.

  12. says

    I understand your thought process regarding suburban unease, privilege, media hype, etc.

    I would like to suggest that people recognize at least one thing – there can be real, bad news thats not even on the menu of media hyperbole – a menu that has inured Americans to bad news, stopped them (us) from delving into the real, serious issues.

    Your sense of unease is likely pervasive, free-form and ambient – the obvious (tho not 100%) reason for it would be “bad news” – perplexing wars, our profoundly broken politics, brown people (I happen to be one of the brown people) looting peoples stuff either in a far off land or here locally, (insert your favorite fear here), etc.

    Our culture / society is in full-on apocalypse mode – movies, TV, rapture churches, books, our buffoons of republican politicians, etc. It went sub-mainstream with Y2K, was massively encouraged by 9/11 and now is being reinforced by the phenomena that are symptoms of the real problems I hint at.

    Its an at least tripartite menace (all of our own making): Climate Collapse, Peak Oil, Global Economic / Societal Collapse predicated on peak everything.

    Watch this video about why suburbs in particular should make one feel fearful and uneasy – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3uvzcY2Xug

    You say you garden because of fear – and suggest that the fear may not be fully founded on reality (thanks to that profit driven thing we call MSM and USA politics).

    I think most people know – deep down – that there is something very much amiss with our culture and country. Wages stopped growing in the 1970s – all middle class advance since then as been via debt. The rich have become inconceivably richer while the middle class is broken.

    There are so many very real reasons to fear the future. Recognizing this is the first step in preparing for it – its very easy though to want to deny any of it.

    As a mom with young kids I am responsible for bringing into this world, I see it as a challenge.

    I do not homestead out of fear so much as a means to skill-up my kids – teach them ways to survive in a post-consumer post-empire world.

    For me – I am tremendously hopeful when I do these things – I am not running from fear – I am facing it and our problematic predicaments head on, identifying the causes, following the roots, formulating my response – a response that has to be generational, not just this summer or this year or this decade.

  13. says

    I live in CA, and the reports are not exaggerated. I live in "the county" (which means I'm considered rural and have to rely on the Sheriff for law enforcement), and with all the budget cuts, I think there's 6 deputies for the whole county. When there was an attempted break-in at my home while I was on an errand, my 17 yr old son called dispatch, and it took the poor deputy 15 minutes to get there. He only responded b/c he was 15 minutes away, and it was a kid who called. If he had been at the other end of the county, we'd probably not have gotten a response. My friend's house was broken into (again, rural), and she was told to file a report online. No one came out to investigate or take a report. Sad state of affairs.

  14. Rosa says

    The good thing about living in an "inner city" neighborhood is things already bottomed out – in my neighborhood, way back in the '70s. We've got a lot of foreclosures right now, and too many empty storefronts, and lots of out-of-work teens out and about causing trouble, but at least the pond in the park isn't full of raw sewage and there's not more shooting than usual.

    We do have lots of gardens, new and old – and they do help. The gardeners, the kids snagging cherry tomatos and mulberries, and the neighbors who just walk by on their own business.

  15. says

    Fear is a great way to control and isolate people, so if you were the conspiracy theorist type you might be thinking along those lines… but back to the soil.

    Never underestimate the power of growing your own food. As Bill Mollison (permaculture co-founder) says; its one of the most subversive things you can do. When people start feeding themselves, talking to others about how they do it, sharing food with other people, saving money, and building community through food networks, great things happen. Viva la beet!

  16. says

    Wow, I found you through Dixiebelle, and I love your words. I DO feel like my garden is a tiny sheild, a light of Elendil. I am growing a garden for the first time this year. I did do it partly out of fear, as I want to learn skills of the future, to teach my small children the same, and to lower our footprint.

    Right now I am watching coverage of Vancouver hockey fans destroying their downtown (burning cars, garbage fires, looting) because their team lost. I just don't get it.

  17. says

    Beautifully said! Any post in which those of us who are trying to cultivate our own plot of sanity in the world equate to hobbits in the Shire is a winner! :-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>