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The Best With What You've Got

“Urban homesteader” Erik Knutzen on sustainability for city dwellers

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Monday, May 18, was a big day for Chicagoans who care about where their food comes from. More than 600 people descended on the Harold Washington Library to hear Michael Pollan preach the gospel of local, seasonal, sustainable eating. Hundreds more flocked to the grand-opening party for the new 75,000-square-foot Whole Foods at Sheffield and Kingsbury. And about 20 gardeners, foragers, artists, and activists congregated at a Little Village cottage to meet a man from LA.

Sustainability geeks get a bad rap as being doctrinaire and out of touch—an image problem not helped by incidents like Alice Waters's recent appearance on 60 Minutes, in which she roasted an egg over an open fire and swooned over organic grapes that cost more per pound than most meat.

But the guests at the Little Village gathering, at least, were pretty down-to-earth. Sure, for dinner they tucked into fresh-picked greens and eggplant-fava spread, but some green cookie sprinkles made an appearance at dessert. And amidst the bottles of homebrew and mead and New Glarus Belgian Red Cherry there lurked at least one bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. As Erik Knutzen, the guest of honor, would tell various groups of Chicagoans throughout the week, "It's all about doing the best you can with what you've got."

Knutzen is the author, with his wife, Kelly Coyne, of The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, a primer for urbanites who want to take a step or two off the grid. The book came out last year and covers strategies that range from the unremarkable (gardening, bread baking) to the old-school (canning and fermenting) to the fringe (gray-water plumbing). At their bungalow in LA's Echo Park, Coyne and Knutzen do all of the above—and keep chickens too. It's a labor-intensive lifestyle that Knutzen, an avid cyclist whose morning routine includes a daily dip into Seneca's Letters From a Stoic, believes yields great rewards. But as they point out in the book, "Sometimes, when life gets too crazy, we don't do anything beyond the barest maintenance, and eat a lot of pizza. Nothing wrong with that."

Knutzen describes himself as a lifelong tinkerer. He has degree in experimental music, worked for a time as a video editor, and is currently a program coordinator for LA's Center for Land Use Interpretation, a sort of brilliantly uncategorizable collective practicing a pokerfaced hybrid of urban planning and art making. But lately homesteading has become a full-time job. About two years ago he started a blog, homegrownevolution.com, to document his and Coyne's experiments, and it wasn't long before an editor from Process Media came calling. The Urban Homestead came out last year, the third in a survivalist-oriented series that also includes a guide to making it through a natural or man-made disaster and another titled Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America. Thanks to the recession, though, the market for Knutzen and Coyne's volume has grown outside the apocalyptic counterculture. It's currently in its third printing, and the couple is now working on a new book, targeted explicitly toward city dwellers with little access to land, for the health- and gardening-focused Rodale Press.

Knutzen took the train to Chicago at the invitation of radical ecologist Nance Klehm (subject of a Reader profile in April), whom he befriended last year when she was in LA for the winter teaching at UCLA. Her housing had fallen through and she was couch surfing and sleeping in her pickup. Knutzen and Coyne let her crash with them once a week and use their shower. In Chicago, Klehm hooked up Knutzen with a borrowed bike and with the Green Roof Growers, a group of Wicker Parkers who've been planting heirloom vegetables in containers on their rooftops for the last year or so.

A few days after the party, Knutzen, the Green Roof crew, and five students convened at a former Puerto Rican disco on Division Street for a practicum in sub-irrigated, or self-watering, planters made from two five-gallon buckets and a length of plastic tubing. (For detailed instructions on how to build your own SIPs see their blog at greenroofgrowers.blogspot.com; they're offering another hands-on class on May 30.)

As the students got to work drilling holes in the bottom of pickle buckets and discussing the merits of peat moss versus coconut fiber as a potting medium, they fell into an odd sort of ritual, deprecating their gardening abilities in turn. "I'm not really a gardener," said Bruce Fields, one of the Green Roof Growers, who started 334 vegetable seedlings earlier this winter and is currently cultivating a diverse crop in 30 homemade SIPs on his garage roof.

"I'm not a gardener either," said Russ Cheatham, whose condo roof full of EarthBoxes, a commercially available type of SIP, was recently featured in Chicago magazine. "I just grow food so I can eat it."

"I'm kind of flaky," said Knutzen, by way of endorsing the method. "And, you know, you forget to water a tomato plant a couple of times and you're done for. [SIPs] get rid of that dilemma." Plus, he pointed out, pot growers swear by them.

On Thursday All Things Considered aired a segment on the booming popularity of urban chicken-keeping. Outside the Experimental Station in Woodlawn, where Knutzen was giving a talk, a quartet of six-week-old hens scratched happily in the yard. Inside, I asked Knutzen what the collective attack of modesty had been all about.

"I'm not an expert," he said. "I'm a practitioner. I'm just someone who does something." He attributes this sentiment to Nassim Taleb, the derivatives trader-turned-philosopher whose bestselling 2007 book, The Black Swan, insists on the essential uncertainty of knowledge (and predicted the credit crisis). Even so-called experts can never know exactly what's going to happen, said Knutzen. "You just jump up and do it and figure it out as it goes."

He doesn't even know exactly how to categorize what it is he does—the canning and composting and gray-water management. The term "urban homestead," he says with a wry smile, "sounds too Little House on the Prairie. Or too Unabomberish."

It's just common sense, he argues—and hopefully even after "this economic kerfuffle," some of it will stick. Total self-sufficiency is never going to be a realistic goal, he says, but homesteading can give you the freedom to tinker, and create, and fail. "Let's make moonshine!" he cheered. "Let's make some beer! Let's have some fun!"

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