Why Radical Homemaking Makes Sense

Shannon Hayes, who blogs as the Radical Homemaker, sees homemaking as an ecological movement.

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Hands baking dough with rolling pin on wooden table
Anchiy / Getty Images

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, baking, gardening, and other hyper-local, self-sufficient pursuits have become more popular – and more necessary – than ever. And likely will be for the near future.

At the same time, concerns about the environment mean individuals, families, friend groups, and communities are looking for ways to create a healthier and more equitable life. That likely means some big shifts are in order — maybe even some radical changes.

Where better to turn for advice during this time than the Radical Homemaker, aka Shannon Hayes, who publishes a blog and regular essays on the subject? Hayes wants to make social and environmental change (hence the "radical" in her site's title) and also respect the fundamental roots of homemaking.

I was surprised to learn that those roots are actually gender-neutral. "In my researching on homemaking, I learned that before it was 'the women's sphere,' it was the first sign of middle-class freedom and economic independence as Europe emerged from the dark ages. This is when ordinary men and women were beginning to have the ability to own property and make a household that provided for their sustenance," Hayes told MNN (now part of Treehugger).

But can homemaking really be a way to change the world? Hayes makes a great case for it: "The choice to apply these lifestyle choices could really help to lay the foundation of a new, life-serving economy and help people untangle from the massive extractive economy that we now see unraveling," she says.

Becoming a Radical Homemaker

Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemaker
Growing up, Shannon Hayes was was inspired by the self-sufficiency of her neighbors. Shannon Hayes

How did she find her way off the beaten path? In the 1980s, the self-described latch-key kid spent time with her elderly neighbors, Ruth and Sanford. She was inspired by their self-sufficiency, which allowed them to live happily on a minimal income.

"They mended, repaired, tinkered, gardened, canned, butchered, berried (yes, they considered that a verb), crocheted, read, played and chatted," writes Hayes in an essay on her site. Still, she went off to college, getting a degree in creative writing from Binghamton University, and then a master's degree and Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University.

But she never forgot how much joy Ruth and Sanford found in their way of living.

Hayes then wrote a manifesto based on this lifestyle called "Radical Homemakers" in which she explored the "social, economic, spiritual and ecological significance of this choice." And then she did some serious research, traveling around the country to learn from others who had chosen a similar path.

Drilling Down on Happiness

messy workshop
The workshop of a happy tinkerer isn't always tidy. AdaCo/Shutterstock

She found that while the work suited some, there were also homemakers and homesteaders who were miserable. "All of them were masters of canning, mending and gardening. But as they slowly divulged their innermost thoughts, I discovered that only some of them were happy," she writes.

This was important, because, like many of us, Hayes didn't want to put all the work into becoming a passionate homesteader and wind up as miserable — she already knew a more conventional way of living would leave her feeling that way. So as she traveled and talked with people, she noticed that those who were content had something in common: They weren't focused on having the tidiest toolshed, every last detail prepped for, or perfect woodpiles.

The happy ones were also the messy ones — because they were focused on something that was bigger than themselves. "They had just enough self-reliance skills to reduce their dependence on the conventional economy. And they used that freedom to apply themselves to the bigger, tougher projects of making a better world," writes Hayes.

That comes from the sense of community they were able to create, tap into, or become a part of, expanding their worlds outside themselves. And it also meant that they weren't working so hard on a different way of life just for themselves — but as part of creating a better world for all.

The work of connecting their homesteading work to larger issues also kept them busy with positive, goal-oriented work: "I'm a big believer that working on interesting problems is actually a huge part of our happiness. It absorbs our thoughts, helps us connect with others who share the concerns, and enables us to challenge our limits and experience inner growth," says Hayes.

Crafting Community

So Hayes took this to heart, and modeled her own homestead life on those she saw succeeding in the ways she found important. She realized that for the happy homesteaders, "fixing the problem wasn't anywhere near as important as the journey of working on it," and she incorporated that attitude into her work at Sap Bush Hollow Farm. The farm includes a working farm — which produces pasture-raised chicken, turkeys, eggs, and pork, as well as grass-fed beef, raw organic honey, and maple syrup — and a farm store and cafe.

People from out-of-town pull up to her cafe and are surprised by the sense of community there, but Hayes said she always saw it, even "when our town was considered dead, a hopeless food desert, with mostly non-viable farmland." She says she believes "community is in every place, and building it is a matter of learning to identify the early signs. Maybe it is the one person who nods hello. Maybe it is the barista who remembers how you like your coffee. Community is about commitment to a place: to a business, to a cause, to the people who might cross your path in a given day, to stepping forward for a receptive neighbor."

There's even some online community around her books and ideas: over 30 Facebook "Radical Homemaker" groups have popped up throughout the U.S. and Canada. Hayes says she's relatively hands-off with the groups — they are self-organized and she includes them on her website so people can connect with them if they're interested.

Dealing with Detractors

As she's published book after book (six and counting), been featured in a variety of publications, watched her children grow up, and written her many essays, Hayes said she's seen her share of haters. "People would write to tell me I was selfish, that I was over-privileged, that my successes and joys were unfairly garnered," she says. "Those letters would hurt a lot."

But she realized that most likely, the intense anger her life brought up in some people was more about them than anything to do with her. "I just feel driven to live a life that I deeply believe in ... And I had to learn that making those choices, refusing to sacrifice ideals and dreams, can bring out a dark cloud in others who have not yet found the means to make similar choices."

As many of us assess where we are, where we want to go and how we want to live our lives, Hayes has provided plenty of learning material to spark action towards a more environmentally and fiscally responsible lifestyle. Her journey so far has brought her lots of joy (and not a little heartache) — both of which are part of being a radical.

But her work is also a ready reminder that to enjoy it all, involving community is key to making it really work. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? By working together in joy, rather than separately in fear, we stand a good chance of finding everything we need.