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Mending: A Simple yet Radical Slow Fashion Skillset

In Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ma Ingalls has a weekly rhythm of work: “Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday.”

How many of us still have a mending day? How many of us are still in the habit of mending clothes?

It’s the very antithesis of the 21st-century consumerist mindset, isn’t it? We’ve normalized thinking about clothes as a disposable. We’ve normalized updating our wardrobes once a year, if not once a season. If a garment has one defect on it, we tend to give up on it and toss it — something our grandparents and the people before them would have considered obscenely wasteful.


Making Slow Fashion Affordable, Even Thrifty

It’s easy to equate “slow fashion” with buying expensive designer clothing labeled as “sustainable” or “organic.” But at the core of a slow fashion wardrobe is something much less glamorous: the habits and skills of taking good care of your clothes, and fixing what we already have so we can use it again and again. In other words, mending our clothes.

It starts with investing in the best quality you can afford. It starts with choosing natural fibers: cotton, linen, wool, silk, hemp. It starts with properly caring for your clothing: wash cold, line dry, and air out woolens in sunlight instead of washing. (Download Fibershed’s free Clothing Guide for more info.)

But when the inevitable happens and your garment has some wear or tear…  that’s where mending comes in. Think about it: if you have these 4 skills in your toolkit, you can extend the usefulness of your favorite pieces of clothing for a long, long time:

  • Replace a button
  • Darn a sock
  • Patch a tear
  • Fix a running stitch in a knitted garment


A Mending Mindset

If you need some inspiration to get you started on your mending journey, check out Katrina Rodabaugh’s Mending Matters. Not only is it full of easy-to-follow tutorials for visible patches and other cool ways to mend clothing; it’s also an insightful reflection on the mindset of mending what we own and taking responsibility for what we use — what Rodabaugh calls “mendfulness.”

When we mend, we’re not only mending clothing, Rodabaugh says. We’re mending our personal relationship to fashion.

Mending helps us to understand better how clothing is constructed. It makes us think more about where our fiber and our clothes come from.

Mending is a form of activism. It’s a choice that allows us to step off the fast fashion treadmill of buy, buy, buy and slow down our consumption. But mending is also inherently satisfying. Anyone can learn to do these basic repairs.

As Rodabaugh writes,

Fixing the clothes I already own empowers me in self-reliance, helps me understand the value of the garment and its construction, and pushes me to commit to keeping my clothing in wearable condition for as long as possible. I think this might be the opportunity for the most radical act: honoring what we already own… We need to accept mending as a natural aspect of owning clothing. Fibers fray, fabrics break down, knees tear, and cuffs wear thin. If we can start to shift our view of this from imperfect to inevitable, we might start to see the value in quality fibers, French seams, and well-fitted garments.


It can be that simple. Clothes break down. We mend them. Here are four basic mending skills we should have all empower ourselves with:


Sew a button

sewing a button

I confess that replacing buttons is one of those tasks I tend to put off indefinitely. But once I actually pick up the garment with the missing button and do it, I feel pretty silly, because it takes all of 5 minutes to sew a button. What took me so long?

If you’re new to sewing a button, see tutorial here.


Darn a sock

darning a sock

In her knitting basket next to her rocking chair, my grandmother always kept an old wooden cooking spoon, perfect size for holding a sock while darning it. Just like Ma Ingalls, my grandmother simply took it as a given that as clothes wear and tear, you fix them. Now, when I need to darn a sock, I first go to get a large wooden spoon. Any other implement that gives you a comfortable, wide platform to sew your stitches over works too.

If you’re new to darning a sock, see tutorial here.


Patch a tearmending

There are so many patching techniques, each one more beautiful and inventive than the other. Lately, I’ve been partial to the visible patches that I learned from Mending Matters, especially the hand-stitched patch technique called sashiko (right). How clever: you don’t have to try to hide a patch, instead you can use it to embellish your garment and make it more unique.

I move fast and am clumsy, so I break and tear things more often than I’d like to admit. I tore my favorite jeans on some wire fencing while chasing after a runaway chicken. The initial patch I attempted didn’t work. The jeans got pushed in the back of my closet for months until I finally tried the sashiko mend — and now they’re my favorite jeans again!

If you’re new to patching or darning tears on fabric, see tutorial here.


Catch a dropped stitch in a knitted garment

If a single yarn wears or breaks in a knitted item of clothing, the entire thing will start coming apart. The sooner you can catch it, the better.

I couldn’t really find a suitable tutorial for this one. If you can find the two ends of a broken yarn, try to go in there and tie them back together, then add enough stitches with similar-colored yarn to patch whatever hole has already formed. Understanding knitting, and how to catch a dropped stitch while knitting, definitely helps.


* * *

When we mend, a piece of clothing may get fixed. But the most important work is the work we do on ourselves: patching our urge for easy consumption and disposable, learning to honor what we already have, reminding ourselves that we have the skills to fix things that are broken.

sheep at a farm

Sheep to Sweater, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts about the entire process making a knitted garment out of a raw sheep’s fleece. In this first part, we’ll focus on processing raw wool: skirting, scouring, sorting, and carding to get the fiber ready for spinning. If it sounds like a lengthy process, that’s because it is. But it’s not undoable. This is slow fashion in action: exploring alternatives to unsustainable fast fashion, one item of clothing at a time.

sheep at a farm

The best of sweaters begin this way — with a visit to a sheep farmer and her sheep.

I met farmer Sebette and her flock of Cormo sheep earlier this year through my carbon farm planning work and our regional Fibershed affiliate, Local Cloth. As the temperatures began to drop and we were looking at a winter of mostly staying at home, I decided it was time for another sheep-to-sweater project. So my daughter and I headed over to Wooly Ridge Farm to visit Sebette and her sheep, and came back with a fluffy 5.4 lb bag of white wool from a small Cormo sheep named Snow Flurry.

raw unwashed wool

The name tag on the wool is a reminder that this wool comes from a living, breathing, warm animal whose heartbeat, along with the grasses on the pasture, made this wool grow. Here and there among these finely crimped, soft fibers are little bits of grass, seeds, and burrs that tell the story of this sheep’s wanderings in the pasture.  And this entire billowing mass of wool still carries the smell of the animal and the barnyard. There’s nothing like working with raw wool to fully feel our fibers’ and clothing’s connection to land.


First step in Processing Raw Wool: Skirting the Fleece

The first step is called skirting the fleece: going through the entire fleece and cutting off the dirtiest bits. As you see in the picture above, the raw fleece has a fair amount of dirt on it. Take the entire raw fleece and lay it on the floor or a table, and cut out all the very dirty wool on the edges of the fleece. The underside of the sheep is obviously going to have the most dirt and crud. This is where you should also remove as much plant matter — seeds, bits of grass, burrs — as you can. Use the sharpest scissors you have!


Washing/Scouring the Wool

The goal of scouring the wool is to remove both the remaining dirt and the lanolin, the natural wax that’s on the wool. You could of course opt for spinning in the grease, which is much less work and results in a very natural-looking and semi-waterproof garment. But most people prefer to spin scoured wool.

To wash the wool, you first have to separate the fleece into smaller bits and bag them in mesh bags to contain the wool. I’ve used small squares of tulle, made into little bundles closed with rubber bands, as well as larger mesh bags with zippers that I also use for dyeing. The smaller bags are more tedious and time-consuming to prepare, but result in cleaner wool.

Now, for the washing part. This guide to washing the wool is among the most thorough and at the same time easiest to follow, in my opinion.

Here are the key points to keep in mind:

  • To remove the lanolin, the water must be hot hot hot — 140 to 160 F — for the entire soaking time
  • You must not agitate the wool at all while it’s in hot water, otherwise it gets felted. Drastically changing the water temperature will also cause felting.
  • Optional: you can pre-soak the wool before washing to remove more of the dirt. Soak for up to 24 hours in cold water, then drain.
  • Soap: There are special scouring soaps; otherwise you can use regular dishwash detergent, provided that it cuts grease. How much to use? The internet gives maddeningly varying answers. I did a few squirts of dishwashing detergent following the Woolery’s guideline, “enough to make the water feel slippery.”
  • Scouring time: 30 minutes. If the wool is very dirty, do two rounds of washing.

One option is to use a washing machine to soak and spin the wool. Note: you absolutely can’t let the washing machine wash, i.e. agitate, the wool, otherwise it will felt. You fill the tub first with hot water, then add detergent, and then carefully lower down the wool to soak for 30 minutes. Then spin.

Your second option is soaking the wool in a bathtub or a sink (scrubbed clean, of course). This makes it much easier to manage the temperature of the water. Keep big pots of extra hot water simmering on the stove in case your water heater doesn’t make it hot enough. Again, the washing water has to be minimum 140 F to remove the lanolin, and must stay that hot until the end of the 30 minutes soaking period — otherwise the lanolin might get re-absorbed into the wool.

Let the wool sit in the hot, soapy water for 30 minutes. Then gently squeeze out the hot water out.

Rinse: fill the tub again with hot water — this time the water doesn’t have to be quite as hot. Gently lower the wool in again and let sit for 30 minutes, then drain. If the water is very soapy,  do a second rinse.

Gently squeeze the water out of the wool bundles again and lay them out to drain and dry. An old door or window screen, or hardware cloth laid on top of a drying rack works well.

washing raw wool

When most of the water has drained, I move the wool bundles onto a towel, and when they’ve dried some more, take them out of the mesh bags.


Carding the Woolcarding wool

One of the most labor-intensive parts of processing raw wool is now done!

When the wool is completely dry, you can begin carding or combing the wool. This is where you achieve those fluffy, light rolls of wool that are easy to spin because the fibers are all aligned.

I use hand carders. A carding machine is amazing if you’re more of a pro — but if that’s the case, you probably already have one.

The key to carding, in my experience, is to do small amounts at a time. It’s tempting to stuff the hand carder with all the wool you can fit… but the result won’t be as smooth. Slow and steady — remember, this is slow fashion! You might as well brew a cup and light a fire and take your time. Carding is one of those activities that involve repetitive movements, just like knitting, and can feel incredibly relaxing and soothing because you’re fully absorbed in slowly and methodically doing just one thing, over and over again.

carding wool

Because you really need to see it in action, here’s a video tutorial of carding with hand carders.

Now you’re ready to start spinning! To be continued, in Sheep to Sweater Part II!





simple Christmas tree, slow simple winter holidays

Winter Holidays: The Slow and Simple Edition

Welcome the winter holidays: a season of togetherness, festivity, and warmth — right in the middle of the gloomiest, darkest, coldest time of the year, when we most need a pause and a good dose of cheer. We need all of that. But with every passing year, I hear more and more people expressing what they also need: ways to keep it simple. Slow, simple winter holidays.

What would a “less is more” version of the winter holidays look like? The slow and simple edition? I see this as a great opportunity to practice being really intentional and ask ourselves: What do I really value? What is it that makes this season magical for me, and can I experience it without buying into all that other people tell me I need to buy into? Can I tweak or change traditions if they no longer serve me? Here’s what I’ve found useful in trying to create a clutter-free, slow, simple holiday time.


Simple Decorations

holiday wreath and winter greens on the porchReal winter evergreens are the loveliest thing on earth: they fill your home with their fragrance, last for a long time, and are fully biodegradeable.

I grew up in Nordic evergreen forests, so the deep forest smell of spruce and pine greens inside the house signals to my brain that I am home.

There are lots of ways to harvest them sustainably: go to places where Christmas trees are sold to collect the trimmings or fallen branches, or look by the curbside. Last year, a neighbor had trimmed a large cedar and left the cut branches on the curb, so we picked them up, carried them home, and “decked the halls:” wreaths and garlands for the porch and arrangements for the inside along with candles and pine cones. (I also think that collecting a branch or two on land that’s not yours is not a huge deal, but obviously you have to make the call yourself.)

For a wreath, I wove this hoop out of vines that I can now re-use and dress differently each year. I love to use the deep greens of cedar and pine as a base, then add the grayish hues of sage, rosemary, or silver-dollar Eucalyptus, and finish with cones, winter berries, and ribbons.

handmade holiday wreath

The same theme repeats itself in our Christmas Eve dinner table setting: winter greens, pine cones, and candles.

Christmas Eve table setting with evergreens

For the Christmas tree, apart from the tiny LEED lights and some baubles, everything else is natural materials: burlap ribbons, pine cones, dried orange slices with cinnamon sticks, and these wooden ornaments from my native Finland that I love.

decorating Christmas tree


Simple gift-giving

When it comes to gift-giving, I stand by this piece by Becoming Minimalist: let’s keep it sane.

  • For kids, I like the four-gift rule: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”
  • Handmade gifts
  • Gifting experiences
  • Gifting consumables: chocolate, nuts, fruit, wine, local specialty treats.
  • Gift donations

brown paper wrapped holiday gifts

Here are some hand-made gifts I like to make and give:

  • beeswax candles (making them is now a November tradition for my friend Annina and I)
  • a jar of our homemade granola (recipe in this book)
  • lavender sachets (from this book) or eye pillows
  • jars of apple butter or blueberry jam
  • a photo book (a favorite of grandparents)
  • DIY bird nest necklace
  • woolens: last year I knitted these socks for just about everyone in my family:

hand-knitted socks

Also check out this post all about handmade holiday gifts.

Slow, simple winter holiday traditions

When I was growing up, my family had a lot of Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve always followed the same formula, and that’s what made it feel unlike any other day of the year.

Now that my partner and I get to figure out our own traditions, we’re leaning towards a slightly more flexible approach.

I’ve been asking the question: what are those moments when we’re fully in the “flow” mode, that feel special and invite us to pause? I’ve come to realize that the cue for that feeling is often something really simple. It may be just lighting a pillar candle and turning on some Christmas music when the late afternoon starts to darken outside. It may be cozying up inside with woolen socks, candles, and hot cocoa when it’s snowing outside. It may be baking gingerbread cookies with my daughter when we both may just end up eating more dough than actual cookies. It’s the smell of evergreens inside the house, beeswax candles burning, winter oranges in a bowl, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom in gingerbread cookies baking in the oven or in the traditional Finnish blackcurrant juice glögi simmering on the stove. It’s sitting down for my annual Solstice reflection ritual on Winter Solstice.

None of that is complicated or costly, nor does it need to be.

I’d love to hear from you: what ways have you discovered to make the most out of the season without adding more unnecessary stress, waste, or consumption?


citrus and citrus essential oil

Energize Your Winter Days with Citrus

Food is medicine. Whether it’s winter blues or the common cold, you can find potent remedies among edible plants that really, really help. You don’t need an advanced degree in herbal medicine; some of the most powerful healing foods are available at the grocery stores and markets. And as the days get shorter and colder, the zesty, bright-colored citrus is your #1 energizer and immunity booster.

Somehow, citrus and winter go together. As early as the 18th century, people in North America and Europe would get to relish the once-a-year Christmas orange. I grew up near the Arctic Circle, so the oranges I knew in my childhood were sad and shriveled Navel oranges that had clearly been harvested too early and sat in shipping containers for too long. We didn’t know any better, of course.

Since then, thankfully, I’ve come to know what it’s like to bite into juicy, sweet, aromatic citrus fruit. (And now I can get them from Florida, which is not too terribly far.)

Here are five ways to tap into the energizing properties of citrus fruits to brighten up your winter days.


Energizing citrus essential oils

Citrus fruits and aromas are known to uplift the mood, ease anxiety, and enhance focus. I love using a citrus essential oil to energize me on winter mornings when I sit down to work. “Lemon is cool and joyful while orange is warm and pampers. And grapefruit boosts energy in an entirely different way,” says aromatherapist Caroline Schroeder. Any blend with bergamot is nice. Or just inhale the smell of an orange — that works too!


Citrus cleaning products

If you make your own cleaning spray, you can add any of the above essential oils for a clean and bright feel to make clean-up time a treat.


Citrus-scented body care

I use minimal body care products, but I do use a moisturizer with citrus scent, and I notice I feel strangely happy when I apply it. Why not make those most ordinary moments of the day ones that you look forward to?

Fresh eating

Eat them fresh! The vitamin C in citrus supports immunity through the cold season. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron, which also fortifies you against fatigue. Whenever I research mood-boosting food groups, citrus fruits keep coming up… and is it any wonder: just look at those colors!


Citrus desserts

Last but not least: chocolate and orange. Need I say more? Dark chocolate with orange peel has become my favorite of late — it’s right up there with chocolate and peppermint as a winning wintertime combo. Last year, I became obsessed with the idea of a chocolate and orange flavored dessert for Christmas. After a long search, I found this recipe and it’s what’s on the menu for Christmas Eve at our house this year: The Jaffa Cake Cake from Primrose Bakery.

orange chocolate cake
Image: thehappyfoodie.co.uk


Postscript: Citrus Fruit and the Local Diet

I’m a local food advocate. But I don’t only eat local food (at least, not at the moment). As Helena Norberg-Hodge writes, localization “does not mean that people in cold climates are denied oranges or avocados, but that their wheat, rice or milk — in short, their basic food needs — do not travel thousands of miles when they can be produced within a fifty-mile radius.”

Fanatical, all-or-nothing attitudes tend to backfire more than do good. Perfectionism in the local food movement — or in the sustainability movement at large — only discourages people from trying to do anything at all. I say this as a recovering perfectionist. So yes, I’m a local food advocate. And yes, I sometimes eat imported oranges.

Having said that: this fall, I decided to try to grow some citrus myself. So I added a lemon, a Satsuma mandarin, and a limequat — all dwarf-size fruit trees — to our homestead. They grow in containers and can be brought into the sunroom for the winter. We just harvested our first and only Satsuma a couple of weeks ago, and I gave it to my husband who was trying to get over a head cold. So right there, the immune-boosting power of citrus in action — and this time as a homegrown version!

dwarf mandarin orange tree

gardener's hands

Play in the Dirt: The Potent Antidepressant Called Gardening


Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

           – John Muir


Could gardening act as a a kind of anti-depressant? I’m thinking of a dear friend who’s going through a divorce and a lot of exhausting relationship drama. She has a place where it all dissolves and falls away. Her apartment building has a few raised bed boxes for the residents, and this year she got one of them to grow some vegetables. There, sitting on the edge of her garden box and trellising the tender peas, pulling the weeds around the carrots and checking on the broccoli florets, she says, her mind is at ease, no matter what is going on.

Ask any gardener, and they will tell you something similar. The garden is their happy place — the place that de-stresses and relaxes them, chases away the blues, and puts them in the “flow” mode of just enjoying the present moment.

In a lovely essay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks writes:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.


One explanation for the happy gardener

Now scientific studies are starting to bring to light a fascinating explanation for the healing, even euphoric effect of gardening. The secret, it seems, lies in the soil itself. Gardening increases our exposure to beneficial micro-organisms that live in the soil, some of which have anti-depressant qualities. Researchers have been particularly interested in Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe that can be found in soil and water. Initial studies suggest that the immune response to M. vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is our bodies’ “happy chemical” that reduces stress and contributes to a sense of well-being.

children's garden book
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal, from “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” by Kate Messner.


But no single microbe is a miracle cure. More likely, says Daphne Miller, M.D., it’s the exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms that is healing for our immune and nervous systems.


Why we need a diversity of microbial exposure

Unfortunately, exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms is exactly what’s lacking in our microbe-phobic, over-sanitized modern lives. We’re killing the microbial diversity that we’ve evolved with and seem to need for our well-being. Asthma and allergy, for example, are lower in farming communities than in urban areas, as farm children get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.  

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure, “It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control and even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health.”

So go ahead. Get your hands in the dirt and let your kids play in it too. Glove-free digging, handling compost, saying hello to the occasional earthworm — and above all, eating the fresh, not-obsessively-scrubbed garden produce — may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Unlike with pharmaceutical anti-depressants, gardening has no side effects. Warning: it may be highly addictive though!

I think it’s an addiction we can say yes to. Not only can gardening act as an anti-depressant, but it results in fresh, healthy, nutritious food, which also tends to correlate with overall well-being.

How to deepen your sense of place

We all live somewhere. We’re all from someplace. What does it mean, then, for some of us to have a more awakened sense of place than others? Is a sense of place something that can be deepened, or nurtured, with practice?

Sense of place is hard to describe; it’s often that intangible, indescribable quality that seems to linger in the air but is hard to pinpoint.

So let’s start with its opposite: we’ve all been to a place that lacked a sense of place. How many times have you driven through a strip mall that looks so identical to every other strip mall you’ve ever driven through that you feel disoriented, unsure of where you are? The same chain stores, the same chain restaurants, the same gas stations, the same anonymous, nondescript look that we’ve come to associate with an office building, a bank, a shopping center — or with a suburban neighborhood, for that matter. You could be anywhere.

A special or unique place, then, is the opposite: a place that communicates to you — unapologetically and through all your senses — that you couldn’t be anywhere else but here.

It’s a place that embraces its specialness, that which sets it apart. Maybe it’s its natural features, maybe it’s the pulse of the street life, maybe it’s the smell of salty sea air or spicy traditional foods cooking or the legacy of who and what was here before you. Maybe it’s the energy of the people who call it home. It may be gritty industrial or sophisticated elegance or the mossy moisture in the air in a mountain holler. But it’s someplace special.

If you live in one of these places with character, with its own vibe, consider yourself lucky. But wherever you are, you can absolutely deepen your relationship to your place. It doesn’t have to be your forever home. (And I say this as someone who has moved 26 times in her lifetime. I’ve often been transitional, nomadic, yet found that these ways helped me get a fuller taste of where I was.)

16 Ways to Deepen Your Sense of Place (and Have a Great Time While You’re At It)

Get rooted where you are

  • Look at all different kinds of maps of the place… not just street maps! Visit the library or Google Images for old maps of your place. Look up your watershed map. Many counties have a free GIS database for maps that show the topography, water bodies, main natural landmarks and natural resources.
  • Learn about the history of your place. Who was here before you? Who was here before them? How did they live, what did they eat? Plan a trip to your nearest museum or heritage center that celebrates the stories and lifeways of people who used to inhabit the landscape.
  • Take the Bioregional quiz.
  • Find ways to enhance your connection to nature and the seasons. Keep a local seasonal produce calendar taped to your fridge and plan meals around what’s in season when. “Bring the outdoors in and indoors out”: bring natural greenery into your house in all seasons — winter greens during the winter holidays, wild flowers in the summer — and take more of your daily activities, like coffee and lunch, outside during the warm seasons.
  • Get a bird feeder, place it close to your window and notice how you simply start to develop a relationship with local bird life.
  • Get to know one local wild plant a month. No, you don’t need to memorize the Latin names, and you don’t need to feel embarrassed if you don’t have your plant ID’ing game on yet: there are now tons of free plant ID apps to choose from that identify the plant for you. Tip: I find it much easier to remember a plant if I learn what it can be used for — for example, if it used to be a medicine for headaches, or if it’s an edible that can be thrown into a salad.
  • Explore the natural world. Move in whatever way moves you: hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming, rock climbing. Find a hiking buddy and make a monthly date. At least a couple of times a year, plan a longer, ideally overnight or multi-day, trip to a special place like a national forest or state park.
  • Find your own special place. You don’t need to explain it to anybody. It’s any place that makes you breathe in a little deeper, feel a little more grounded, the place from which you return invigorated and feeling more like yourself.


Get to know your foodshed

  • Farmers’ markets are great places to soak up the local vibe. You’ll be find local delicacies and special food varieties to sample, enjoy the sense of community, get to know who here grows what.
  • Get to know your farmer in other ways. Join a CSA, visit farm stands, go apple-picking and pumpkin-hugging in the fall, join in on farm volunteer days.
  • Get to know and celebrate your region’s specialties, heirloom foods, foods with terroir (“taste of the land”). If you need ideas, check out Slow Food’s Ark of Taste or the place-based foods lists from RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Initiative.
  • Join the local chapter of Slow Food International.

Harvest your own local edibles

  • Plant a garden if you haven’t already. There is no better way to connect with the land! If you don’t have access to land, join a community garden, trade with someone who does have land, or plant a windowsill/balcony garden.
  • Join a local guided edible wild plants walk or a mushroom foraging club.
  • Check out Falling Fruit to see what other edibles might be growing in your neighborhood, yours for the pickin’.
  • Find other local initiatives to tap into the abundance of locally grown food that might otherwise go to waste, like fruit gleaning clubs.

Why the material life matters

Why am I writing about material life, the pleasures of rediscovering a connection to land through the things we eat and use and consume? After all, I was trained as a historian of the spiritual life, and specialized in the study of the kinds of people who specifically shunned all material possessions, pleasures, and rootedness. The Buddhist monastics and Jain ascetics I spent years researching viewed the material world with suspicion and sought to be free from its fetters.

But I’ve come to believe that the unique challenges of our time require a different way of engaging the material world.

Perhaps, in the twenty-first century, a conscious awakened life — in terms of caring for the well-being of the entire world — is a mindful material life, crafting a material life that gives a damn.

Being conscious about the way we meet our needs. Being conscious about what we waste, discard, or reuse. Caring for the things we own so that they last longer, fix them when they break. Participating in one’s own material life, not merely as a consumer but as a producer, a maker, a grower.

First of all, our material lives shape who we are inwardly, as persons — what is possible for us.

The foods that you ingest literally become a part of you. They shape your body and your mind. We now know that diets high in fast foods and processed foods compromise our physical health, but also affect our moods and our brain health in negative ways. Nutrient and mineral deficiencies in food may be reflected in depression, attentional disorders, and so on. Your nourishment changes what’s possible for you mentally and emotionally.

But actually, the same is true — although to a lesser extent — of virtually all the material goods that we touch, use, interact with, ingest, apply to our bodies, and so on.

If you accept this idea that your material life changes you — that your physical environment, diet, physical habits, and the objects around you shape you in complex ways — the question then becomes: Who do you want to be? In what direction do you want your material life to nudge you?

There’s certainly the direction that the forces of global market capitalism have pre-programmed for you: the mode of passive consumption, in which we interact with the world primarily by pressing buttons, fill our stomachs with substances wrapped in plastic, and rush on to the next thing? There are diversions on offer there, for sure, but primarily to fill the void created by the absence of real connection, real firsthand experience: virtual realities, staring at rectangular screens, entertainment that involves watching other people talk, dance, have adventures in nature, and even cook.

The alternative is claiming a more grounded way of participating in the world around you. You step boldly onto the ground beneath your feet, into actual landscapes around you, become awake to what grows and moves and lives around you. You move your body and make it create things — build, bake, craft, garden, harvest, gather. You source the things you need from actual people with names and faces. Little by little, you gain a sense of where things come from by participating in the processes of how things come to you. And because you are sourcing things more consciously, from within your foodshed or from artisans and producers in your region, you get to experience a range and depth of flavors unattainable in the world of mass-manufactured, computer-programmed, chemically enhanced and intercontinentally transported food. You’re in for sensory surprises, foods that taste like the earth in which they grew — a life re-infused with sensory experience, unique flavors and smells and textures and sights and sounds. You’re in for real connection with other people, an interdependence with them. And you’re in for a feeling that you’re a little bit more human again.

What kind of a person will these kinds of habit shifts, a grounded material life, make you? I can’t wait for you to find out. But I will venture to make some guesses: You will feel physically healthier. You will spend more time in the natural world, feel at ease there and connected to what is around you. You will move your body more. You will develop a rootedness, a sense of place, that supports you in whatever adventures you embark on. You will spend more time preparing and enjoying food. You will connect with more people in your community. You will feel more resourceful and confident. You will have new skills.

These habit shifts at a physical level make you inwardly grounded, too: down-to-earth, balanced, secure. A person with grit in your spirit and a bit of dirt under your fingernails, perhaps. This kind of inward groundedness is what we need in the twenty-first century, facing as we do an unpredictable future.