A SUSTAINABLE NARRATIVE

WORDS & IMAGES: ERICA NEAL

Starting today, Erica Neal of Yellow Swing Garden will be sharing a four-part series on suburban homesteading, cultivating community, and nourishing sustainability. Erica's compassionate and experimental approach to living lightly on this earth—by caring for herself, her family, and her home—has truly inspired me. Herewith, Erica's first column. 

Life is wrapped in story—history, fiction, social media—it’s all a form of narrative. From cave paintings to films, humanity has used words and images to capture, communicate, and inspire life for millennia. On a personal scale, we aim to live lives that offer good stories in our golden years.  Whether grand or modest, we are creatures that crave a plotline.  
 
You might be wondering what this has to do with homesteading or environmental stewardship.  When you or I think about our passions and the good work we hope to accomplish, even that is a form of storymaking. Romance, resistance, reconciliation; regardless of the motivation, something sparks a desire within. However we set out to pursue that goal is the story. Yet we don’t typically think of our desires and decisions from the perspective of being a personal narrative. In the moment, we don’t always consider that our choices are writing our stories every day. And we should; because a powerful thing happens when we do.
 
When we set out to accomplish a goal with story in mind, we set intentions. We envision progress and challenges along the way to a stunning destination. We generate or gather imagery and language that invokes passion.  And most importantly, we create a space in our memory that can recall these vivid dreams when our hope needs help. Even a dream as simple as sustainable living deserves the support of a vibrant, intentional story.  
 
This is where our family started—looking forward, and imagining a story about our future. Before we had any idea of what reality would actually look like, we painted the broad strokes of the life we hoped for.  It was the talk that bubbled up over coffee on a Sunday afternoon, or drifted across the table during a casual evening out. In those loose, non-plans, there were seeds of conviction, beauty, and bigger-than-us ideas. I’m sure you know these types of conversations. Listen to yourself. Hear your friends. The things we discuss in those moments—be they joyful or conflicted—deserve our attention. That’s our heart speaking. That’s our protagonist quest.  
 
Our story was inspired by a passion for food quality and equity, green space, creativity, and family. Those were the adventures that called us; and we nearly had to draw our own map.  In 2007—2008, one in our immediate circle was talking about homesteading, sustainable food culture or pursuing a slower pace of life. We were all in our mid-twenties, battling burnout and working to establish ourselves in one field or another. So we had to find other sources of information, support, and ways to do fulfilling work. I left a toxic career for creative nonprofit work, moved into an even smaller studio apartment, and started scouring the internet for blogs or articles about sustainable living. We stepped outside of our immediate circle to find volunteer opportunities and reconsidered our buying and eating habits.  Each of those choices—the life changing and the lunch changing—were the growth of earlier ideas, the product of our personal narrative.
 
Even today, with the widespread knowledge of threats to our environment and communities, organizations dedicated to each of them, and the connective power of social media, it’s possible to find yourself without an immediate support system. Your family and friends might think of building sufficiency, or living lighter as completely backwards, or just a passing trend. You too may need to draw your own map and step outside of familiar environments to find the way forward. In 2017 that first step might be curating your social media feed(s), and being more mindful of the content you consume on a daily basis. Make new connections within and beyond our physical communities. Whatever the means, establish influences and outlets that feed your goals.  
 

The next elements are patience and adaptability. Living is a creative process, not a “To Do” list.  Therefore, we’re not likely to move along a path, reaching each checkpoint free of obstruction.  So brace for interruptions and breathe in patience. Patience makes it possible to persist when life demands immediate responses in place of our story-driven choices. And while that waiting time may feel like a pause or lack of progress, it’s actually a point in the journey that creates space for reflection or new ideas. Allow yourself to be frustrated. Then adapt, edit, edit and get moving again. We can repeat this process as many times as necessary, as long as we don’t give up.
 
Finally, we set intentions, craft visions of beautiful futures, and keep moving forward. Take full advantage of the present.  It can be tempting to go from story as inspiration to story as trap.  “When I get to X place, I’ll do Y.  When we have Y, we can do Z.” There are too many pathways on the way to sufficiency to ever truly be stuck. If you don’t have space to grow your own food, learn to preserve, ferment, or bake from scratch. If you can’t build a tiny house just yet, cultivate skill through volunteer construction opportunities. Support an organization you believe in until you can start your own.
 
One of the most revolutionary components of building sufficiency and living sustainably is that no one can actually stop us. No regulation, setback, HOA, or government administration can completely stop us from making choices that will create positive impact in our lives and the world.  The only thing that can stop us, is us. And risk of quitting increases without an established mission and motivation… without a powerful story.