IMAGES: ERICA NEAL
I've found tremendous grace in the musings of Erica Neal of Yellow Swing Garden. Her dynamic online journal is a gorgeous exploration of homesteading. I especially love her belief that one doesn't have to be an expert—in gardening, in cooking, in environmentalism—to have treasured insight.
Over the course of the next few months, Erica will be sharing her stories with us at Loam. I'm so excited to welcome her into our community—I hope her journey will inspire you to truly grow where you are planted. Herewith, an introductory interview with Erica.
Through Yellow Swing, you tell the story of your growth as a gardener. What experiences inspired you to dig deeper into homesteading?
It’s been a broad combination of things that drew [my family] to living in a more connected, conscientious way, but the simplest answer is probably valuing quality over acquisition and a family history of resourcefulness. We didn’t set out with the idea of “homesteading” because we were city people and that label or description wasn’t as mainstream nine years ago.
It started more with early conversations about our future family. We knew that we wanted to give whatever children we had “the best” and our version of the best was green space, beautiful food, peace, creativity and a foundation of faith. For us, faith is what inspires a stewardship mentality and community focus. Trying to live out these ideas and pursuing these desires is ultimately what translated into modern homesteading (and an interest in permaculture).
I think those elements translated into more “old fashioned” practices because I’ve been very inspired by my grandparents and great-grandparents. They were city people who never let go of their country roots. So as a kid I went fishing, learned how to build little houses out of scrap wood, wire lamps, tend a garden, cook, sew, etc. We’d volunteer at church or community organizations. We’d also take trips to a little house they built in the country (southern IL) just to be out of the city. All of that was the best. It just also happened to be a lot of what’s associated with homesteading.
What are a few of your favorite ways to cultivate self-sufficiency skills at home and in the garden?
Well, I think there’s this idea that self-sufficient living is building a personal compound that can sustain itself miles away from any urban core or town. It really isn’t limited to that situation. We’ve cultivated self-sufficiency skills by not outsourcing certain tasks that we can do ourselves if we just have the patience and are willing to learn new things. So before we had the space to start a garden, we’d shop as mindfully as possible from co-ops, small grocers or a farmer’s market and I learned how to make things from scratch that we’d typically buy processed – like sauces, snacks or simple baked goods. Recently, I’ve been wading into fermentation, canning and preserving; and honestly, it’s little intimidating.
When we lived in an apartment, we didn’t call maintenance for every issue. We practiced fixing leaks, insulated around drafty windows, and repaired our thrifted furniture. Then we bought our first house. It was a lovingly maintained (very original) 60’s ranch. So we got comfortable with power tools, learned how to care for the trees and hedges, do some light electrical, plumbing, and tile work. It was a … comedic education. We had plans for a garden in that house; but were relocated after about 18 months.
And finally, after a very difficult pregnancy with our first son, my midwives told me that the severe hyperemesis I experienced would likely be worse with subsequent pregnancies, requiring daily medication with a home IV pack. I trusted them; but didn’t believe that was the only possible solution. So I started studying holistic nutrition and herbal medicine that could prevent or lessen the severity of being sick, and it was successful. We had two more boys and I never had to be hospitalized or on a prescription medicine regimen again. That was a huge motivation to rethink wellness for our family and seek genuine, healing remedies.
So before we ever had the space and time to start a garden, we’ve been building sufficiency skills across the spectrum; in apartments, in a house, in big and small ways. The first season we did start a garden, it was so basic and the most valuable skill I learned was how to replant after things died… repeatedly. In other words, I learned how to persist past the frustration of being a novice. We started very small – with a few containers – and it’s given me the ability to learn, experiment and fail on a small scale, with little risk. And just like everything else we’ve set out to do, we know there will be a time to scale up and expand. We’re just being patient and enjoying the process right where we are.
How has raising a family shaped your relationship to permaculture?
Our move towards more sustainable living started nine years ago. Then, we realized that what we were doing fit under the umbrella of modern homesteading about two years ago. And when we initially thought “homestead”, we thought we’d need acreage, livestock, equipment, a high efficiency off-grid house...After we overwhelmed ourselves, we decided to write down why we wanted to pursue all of this, what we hoped it would accomplish, and how on earth we might manage it between work, children, and time for each other.
Then, a few weeks later, while browsing the Mother Earth News bookstore, I saw this book with a striking rooster on the cover called The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country by Peter Bane, and ordered it. On pg. 56 there’s this diagram outlining his vision for a permaculture farm and it was almost a 1:1 match with our own list. The biggest difference, is that we were thinking in terms of conventional land use and Permaculture is indigenous land use. It’s smarter, works in partnership with nature, and doesn’t depend so heavily on the micromanaging hands of man.
We realized that by planting in an ecosystem model, we could easily use less land, money, time labor, and still enjoy plenty of food for ourselves and our community. It’s liberating to know we can offer our boys an amazing landscape to learn and play in at home, without cutting them (and us) off from the urban cultural amenities we enjoy. For us, permaculture allows us to strike a balance. It was the “how” we were looking for.
What kind of change do you hope to inspire in your community?
I hope to take the practice of permaculture and homesteading from niche to a very normal way of living. By that I mean, there’s this beautiful movement of people engaging with earthcare, food justice, and climate action. The coverage of that engagement has the ability to freeze these powerful moments into imagery that recalls the Civil Rights and Back-To-The-Land movements. The flip side, is that if you don’t see yourself as powerful or revolutionary, this work may seem too big. But the truth is, these revolutionary moments are full of regular people; introverts, suburbanites, gen x-ers, baby-boomers etc. It’d be like Clark Kent reading a story about Superman and feeling inadequate. We all have the power to create positive change. Sometimes we just need to see a familiar face in the crowd before we feel comfortable joining in.
I’ve been that person who felt too regular or quiet to create impact. I’ve been the the black woman scanning the homesteading and permaculture landscape for other brown faces. And I’m still the person who prefers to be supportive behinds the scenes vs. on the frontlines. It’s because I am that person, that I decided to show up and be a familiar point of connection for others.
As our larger vision manifests more and I learn more, I would love to facilitate workshops, volunteer garden design services and find ways to encourage anyone who thinks they don’t have the time, space, or resources to practice sufficiency, because we all can. Again, right now I’m just getting a handle on occupying space as a writer and blogger. I’m practicing patience and feeding bigger dreams.
How do you embody hope—for a healthier planet, for a promising future—in your everyday life?
Wow. This is like the biggest question that might draw out the shortest answer. We remember that every act of kindness and mindfulness counts, and that progress can happen in small increments. Anger isn’t a sustainable motivator, so we create moments of joy. We share our dreams with friends, family, and our boys, because even if they don’t get it, conversations can spark new ways of thinking. Lastly, it sounds cliche; but the future is being made by simple choices everyday. So we set our intentions and do our best to make good choices.