Urban Homesteading

Concerns for our unsustainable, fossil-fuelled lifestyle underlie Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume’s book, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living. The book provides a colourful overview of what each of us can do to build a more self-sufficient future. It explains the principles of homesteading and permaculture, and provides a wide range of ideas and how-to projects for the urban dweller. Presented in a straightforward and accessible manner, skills depicted range from growing and preserving your own food – both plant and animal – to natural building and grey water recycling. The authors explain how even small changes we make will benefit our communities, our environment and ourselves.

This book’s greatest strength may be its ability to encourage readers to scrutinize the economic, environmental and social impact of their own lifestyles, and empower them to effect change. The authors make clear that absolutely anyone can (and should!) begin homesteading, and can do so without drastically changing their lifestyle or draining their wallet. While the ideas presented are usually geared toward homeowners, the authors also consider those with little space or property. Community-based projects are often highlighted, and demonstrate that living in an apartment or condominium does not limit your homesteading possibilities.

Given the broad scope of this book, the reader will not become an expert on any given subject. Although this breadth allows one to maintain perspective of the future homestead when planning individual projects, a varying amount of detail is allotted to the different subject areas and some are considerably over-simplified. While many of the gardening and preserving how-to projects are simple enough to do right out of the book, the sections on animal husbandry and the house itself are brief, and tend to be more theoretical than practical.

Unfortunately for the Canadian reader, this book was written and researched in California. Those in four-season climates will be disappointed to find that many of the featured plants and animals are more difficult, if not impossible, to grow or raise, and that several of the building and home improvement projects are unsuitable for hard winters. Further diminishing the book’s utility is the cryptic table of contents and lack of an index, which makes referencing specific topics and projects difficult. Its biggest shortcoming, however, is a lack of editorial attention. The numerous typographical and grammatical errors throughout the text, figures and captions were distracting; the text was often repetitive and verbose; and certain off-handed remarks seemed inappropriate. It was also disappointing to note that, while preaching sustainability and local economy, the book was printed on new materials in China.

These complaints aside, this book will interest just about anyone, from a complete novice to a moderately-experienced homesteader. All will be motivated by the creative projects, thoughtful interviews and beautiful photos, and will eagerly identify a new project to undertake. However, given its general lack of detail and regional specificity, this book may not be the most practical choice. The bottom line: If you are an urbanite looking for a fun and inspirational introduction to the art of homesteading, this book is a good option. If you are looking for a thorough, how-to, reference manual appropriate for the Canadian climate, you should look elsewhere.

(Book published by Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2011. 292 pages.)

Andrea Maxie is an organic vegetable farmer and holds a master’s degree in Environmental and Life Sciences.

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