It has been speculated that until recent history, around the 1600-1700s, Western people were not much interested in helping each other. Societies were feudal and there was no chance for advancement, so Europeans were working on survival, protecting the family, and fighting for territory. The recognition of individual freedom, and all that implied, eventually caused a handful of adventurous souls to venture to the New World. Even there, they were forced to look after home and hearth until they were established enough to reach out a hand to help others.
It’s been theorized that people can’t be very neighborly unless their own basic needs are met, that generosity and caring for others is a high order concept that doesn’t kick in until we’re sure supper will be on the table and the roof won’t leak. In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a “hierarchy of needs”—a lot of us learned about this, always illustrated by a pyramid, in high school or college, even though it has been somewhat discredited by later studies. Maslow believed that only if a person’s survival needs are met—food, clothing, and shelter—could s/he begin to reach out to others, respect community, contemplate higher values.
One of the reasons that Maslow’s theories were later all but tossed had to do with ethnocentricity. The folks he chose to analyze were highly motivated, educated Euro-American (aka Western) people. Later it became clear that other kinds of cultures don’t follow Maslow’s rules. It’s perfectly possible to be poor and struggling and still worry about your neighbors and your community, still be religious, philosophical and contemplative while your roof is caving in. Someone who, because of a catastrophe, suddenly becomes poor can still retain the ability to think outside the “box” of the house and family.
One good example are the Native Americans in early settlement days; as a tribal society, they would not have fit on Maslow’s pyramid of need. Despite having few possessions or land, and having to struggle constantly for physical survival, they were more charitable, at first, then “we” were. Their initial approaches to us often involved the sharing of food and seed. Sadly, we soon taught them the error of their generous ways.
But nevertheless, the early settlers were people who needed people, even if it wasn’t native people they believed they needed. Even in the earliest days of American settlement, people relied on one another. Yes, they would live alone in isolated family units in the forest; but they needed help to get the cabin built. Tradition, recounted by Appalachian people as late as the mid-twentieth century, indicates that neighbors, if any, assisted in putting up the logs: “At least ten men working together were needed to lift logs into place. If fewer men were working, levers were cleverly used to lift the logs. When the walls had reached shoulder height, skids were brought in, which were cut out of stout poles or small trees. These skids would rest on the last log to be laid up, while the next log was pulled or pushed into place. Ropes or chains were then attached to the logs and pulled up by horses or oxen, while the men guided the logs into position…To build a single-story cabin, it generally took a total of nine logs per side, or thirty-six logs total.” (From Log Cabin Pioneers by Wayne Erbsen)
It was not uncommon for these cabin raisings to include fiddle tunes, dancing on the new floor, and the consumption of local produce including liquid corn. Such customs (minus the white lightning) persist in a few cohesive farming-based groups like the Amish, nowadays. But how many of us even build our own structures? And if we do, how often do neighbors pitch in? And if they wanted to, would we let them?
In the 1950s-60s it was considered rational and profitable to plan environments for people instead of letting people design their own, a scheme known as “urban renewal” dreamed up by “social engineers.” One result was acre after acre of our nation’s largest cities converted into giant plots of tiny identical apartment boxes stuck inside huge identical multi-story towers that overlooked geometrically designed streets and “gardens” that consisted of two or three trees to fill in the corners. These looming four-winged blocks, usually in a sort of swastika shape as seen from above, replaced not only the old run-down buildings, but centuries of street culture: Jewish garment sellers, Italian street violinists, German greengrocers, Ukrainian tailors, Polish bakers, mothers, babies, children playing stickball, all on the stoops and in the shop front doors of a vital bustling streetscape.
Urban renewal changed forever our perceptions about city life, making it seem cold and inorganic, not to mention alienating and unsafe, a sad contrast to the days when people were crowded together. Once, neighbors were constantly policing their territory and everyone knew everyone. Jane Jacobs, a pioneering architect of the 1960s, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities decrying the social vacuums created by vast apartment blocks and large, basically empty parks, none of them planned for the dwellers, but based instead the schemes of the planners for how people ought to want to live.
But in mourning the death of culture in the cities we have to acknowledge that life in the country may be just as spare of neighborly graces. How often do we engage in the nearly lost street art of barter (haggling to lower the price) for something new we want to own (with a real person, not on eBay!)? (I have a friend who picks out slightly bruised peaches at the local mega-store, and haggles with the manager to get a reduced price—and mostly, she gets her way.) Have you knocked on your neighbor’s door recently and sat with her, listening to her trivia and her troubles? (I do this occasionally even though it can be trying—but sometimes hearing about how bad it is right across the street makes me appreciate the blessedness of my safe happy home.) Have you ever taken a slice of the cobbler to the shut-in around the corner? A jar of pickles to the immigrant family across the street, the ones who hardly speak any English? (I mention that example because it’s something my mother used to do whenever she made a batch of watermelon-rind pickles—her pickles were highly appreciated by our Ukrainian neighbors.) Such trivial occurrences of individual charity and contact used to be part of our culture, whether we lived in an urban brownstone or a country cottage.
In moving away from the crime-ridden, aggression-obsessed, unfriendly, zoning-restrictive, unnatural, inorganic monster cities and tacky faceless suburbs created by the social planners, we shouldn’t move away from each other.
Our own “social plan” should include ways to reconnect not just with plants but also with people. Those people may not live next door—land ownership is a complicated system and by following its imperatives, you can’t always choose your neighbors or even have many. Maybe, as happened with my friends who homesteaded in the Ozarks in the 1970s, the children will take up the land-loving life and its sense of closeness and communalism; often, I think, large tracts of land are purchased with that kind of “family neighboring” in mind. A friend told me she once got an urgent phone call from her “wife-in-law” (aka her current husband’s ex-wife) asking if she and hubby wanted any land on the parcel the wife-in-law was purchasing in Utah to hide out “until the end of the world comes.” So by that wacky model, even extended and estranged family can be included when we think of what kind of folks we want for neighbors! This is reminiscent of the way that people once established little townships in the country and named them for the clan—sometimes you see the remnants of such family colonies in farmsteads that include the proud old house with its big trees, a later brick one-story off to the side and a couple of recently purchased trailers on a new-cut driveway.
Even if we choose to live apart from the ills of standard society, we can gradually bring the people we value into the world we have chosen and build neighborhoods that span physical limitations. We can be neighbors to the world.
Many, I hope the majority, of homesteaders are driven by an impulse to simplify (and beautify) their lives by a higher drive to share resources. Trading goods for services is becoming increasingly popular, even essential, among intentional homesteaders (or shall we call them “non-indigenous farmsteaders”). Homesteaders often seek a return to older ideals of natural connection to community in which like-minded people find each other and gather to socialize, share work and reap the benefits of the work. Even home-schooling, a rather recent trend that is growing apace even in urban areas, is not as individualistic as the name implies. It is enhanced by sharing, with selected home-school parents taking turns planning field trips or teaching subjects in their own area of expertise.
So we can see a picture forming of a re-invention of neighborhoods that does not exclude those who live near us, but may include people farther away, even people we’ve never met. Homesteading “neighborhoods,” when intentionally planned, reach beyond the people next door, may even skip over the people next door, to include the people we respect and want our kids to be like.
In other words, neighbors don’t necessarily live in the ‘hood anymore. As a society now thoroughly embroiled in a love affair with the Internet, we have progressed beyond the need to define our neighbors solely by where they or we live. I am not so delusional as to think that we can always find good neighbors on social media, nor am I blind to the benefits of reaching across space via the web—but the problem is, you can’t send a cup of sugar through cyberspace. Yet.
Some of the reasons for the changes in the social makeup of stick, mortar and crabgrass neighborhoods are: employment (having to move to a strange place just for work), education (less likelihood that you can learn what you need close to home) and the ease of travel (a good thing when it comes to taking a vacation, but a factor that contributes to alienation when it’s done at the expense of actually seeing things along the way). These factors can make it seem like just too much trouble to develop relationships with the “nearbys,” since the friendships we make in one place may not endure a move, or two, or three.
If reaching out seems hard now, think what it would have been like in the pioneer and homesteading days when people often lived hundreds of acres away from the nearest other human. Yet for warmth, contact, and, let’s face it, procreation, barn dances, harvest festivals, and religious customs were organized to bring folks closer. It is well known that one of the biggest challenges that settlers faced was pure out-and-out loneliness. You can’t claim 400 acres and expect to be able to holler across the back fence when you want company. Women were especially afflicted with this problem, as it was often the men who went away to the far off towns for a little social pollination. Women and children might be alone on the vastness of the howling prairie or the darkness of the forests for weeks at a time. Towns were formed just to decrease the perils of being alone too much. Despite the difficulties, people found ways to get together. But someone had to take the first step.
The significant difference for us moderns is that we can, by choosing to live differently, also make a choice of whom we want for neighbors.
Even given the rather discouraging messages about alienation that have been around in American culture since the mid-20th century, there are signs of hope and change (to borrow a pleasant phrase). Some of us are going back to the land and re-inventing natural lifestyles because of a consciousness of simpler values that includes the reliance on faraway “neighbors” and occasionally, nearby others. This interdependence can reveal itself in small but important ways. Taken as a whole, migrating to where the land is often means loss of physical neighborhoods, and that gives us a chance to reinvent the neighboring concept.
My “rurban” homestead includes this neighborly outreach: mustard greens for all! My husband and I planted them down by the street. In three rows, about 20 feet in all, there is an abundance that exceeds our poor power to consume. Our neighbors can pluck at will. One naïve harvester wiped out, so it seemed, a half row of plants by harvesting every leaf on about six plants. We began to rethink our green generosity since this one anonymous picker obviously had no idea how to harvest greens—until we saw that by this means, the plants had experienced a sudden startling regrowth and are now twice as productive as before. Lesson learned.