think about it
Living Large, Off the Land
By MICHAEL TORTORELLO, Los Angeles
KELLY COYNE and Erik Knutzen do not subsist on a diet of lentils and gloom. Yes, the Los Angeles couple proselytize for a more self-reliant household in their new book, “Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World,” just published by Rodale. And to that end, they include in it illustrated directions for making things like homemade dog food and washable sanitary napkins.
Ms. Coyne sewed one of the latter by making a pad out of her husband’s old flannel shirt. Or, rather, Mr. Knutzen stitched it. “I’m a horrible sewer,” Ms. Coyne said. “Poor Erik.”
But the point is never “self-deprivation in the name of bettering the world,” she said. Like “when you go to a potluck where people have concerns about some issue or another.”
“And because of those concerns,” she added, “they feel obligated to eat a pure vegan diet — not that there’s anything wrong with that — and they talk about the depressing End Times to come. And they serve up a communal meal of lentils. That’s ‘lentils and gloom.’ ”
At a recent Sunday brunch, Ms. Coyne, 43, and Mr. Knutzen, 46, were noshing on happier fare: a loaf of freshly baked levain with a spread of tangy harissa. “It’s so easy to make,” she said. “Ancho peppers, garlic and oil,” plus a shake of sea salt.
“And it’s in the book,” Mr. Knutzen added wryly.
Promoting a do-it-yourself revolution — in the book and on their blog, Root Simple (rootsimple.com) — is an unusual occupation. With their olive oil lamps (see page 8 in the book), dental twigs (page 12) and dry toilets (page 237), the couple can seem like historical re-enactors. Or prisoners of “Frontier House” on PBS.
Their 1,000-square-foot bungalow in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, on second thought, might be a junkyard Biosphere2, an experiment in the future of sustainable homemaking. This is the way we all could live if we weren’t working 50 hours a week, sitting in traffic on the way to the mega-mart, burning gasoline at $4 a gallon.
Just a few years ago, Ms. Coyne and Mr. Knutzen were trapped in the car themselves (a 1994 Nissan Sentra), commuting to jobs. Mr. Knutzen was a researcher and writer at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a semisubversive think tank. Ms. Coyne worked nearby as the administrative director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a meta-museum filled with imaginary natural history and assorted magic.
But the drive to the Palms district of Los Angeles, an hour each way on a typical day, was a haul. “Toward the end, I was biking nine miles to the center,” Mr. Knutzen said.
“And it was faster,” Ms. Coyne said. “That’s one thing I don’t miss. We are both old-time, crunchy slackers, and we’ve tried our whole lives not to have office jobs.”
“I don’t like working for other people,” Mr. Knutzen said.
“That’s why we went to grad school so long,” Ms. Coyne said. “To avoid employment. And then we slid from grad school into these alternative jobs in informal spaces. And we graduated from those to living by our wits.”
The jobs Ms. Coyne and Mr. Knutzen remember fondly; grad school they do not. The couple met at the University of California, San Diego, where Ms. Coyne had wandered into the dense thickets of conceptual art.
“By the time I graduated, I didn’t have any use for it anymore,” she said. “A graduate degree in art is a good way to get anyone to stop making art.”
Mr. Knutzen was enrolled in a program called Theoretical and Experimental Studies in Music. However ponderous that sounds, the music was even worse. “I don’t do music anymore,” he said. “I leave it to the professionals.”
Outside their apartment in San Diego, the couple started growing tomatoes in a container. Unlike their studies, this act was down-to-earth and fruitful, in a literal sense. According to David Wilson, 65, the director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Ms. Coyne and Mr. Knutzen had found a new philosophy to replace their academic training.
“Both Kelly and Erik practice what they call amateurism,” Mr. Wilson said. “They would talk quite a bit about the way in which amateur efforts are viewed in this culture, as a pejorative term.”
The couple’s homestead is just such a project, down to its foundation. The 1920 house sits on a steep hillside on the fringe of Silver Lake. Ms. Coyne calls the area HaFo SaFo, after a revolving podiatrist’s sign (a cartoon of a happy foot and a sad foot) on nearby Sunset Boulevard.
“We bought it in 1998 for $198,000,” Mr. Knutzen said.
“It was worth half that,” Ms. Coyne said.
By the time they closed, the little clapboard box was already sliding, “California-style,” downhill. For $80,000, contractors injected two truckloads of concrete under the house. Now, pylons connect the home to the bedrock.
“We basically have the Hoover Dam now,” Mr. Knutzen said.
“When the Big One comes, our house will stand,” Ms. Coyne said.
Nature itself seems to punish the amateur. Take the arbor over the back patio, which Ms. Coyne calls “the masculinity pavilion,” in honor of her husband’s feats of carpentry. As they finished a pot of coffee after brunch, the couple should have been sitting in the shade of their grapevines. But a pest (the glassy-winged sharpshooter) has infected the grapes with a blight called Pierce’s disease. Now, the vines are dying.
Writing on the couple’s blog, Mr. Knutzen finds a consolation for such failures in “The Odyssey”: “I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardships,” Odysseus proclaims. “But once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim.”
With the noonday sun glaring overhead, Ms. Coyne waxed less profound: “All I wanted was a shady place to sit.”
MS. COYNE and Mr. Knutzen have a problem with taking work home. Their home is their work and they’re always there.
The dishwasher runs three times a day. Mr. Knutzen has been in a baking frenzy while he masters a no-knead sourdough loaf. He recently helped found the Los Angeles Bread Bakers with the aim of fabricating wood-fired ovens in community gardens.
Ms. Coyne, meanwhile, has started making her own cleaning formulas, body products and natural medicines, with materials from the garden.
“Sometimes it’s actually faster to make your own product than to buy it,” she said. An all-purpose household cleanser (page 70) is no more complicated than mixing in a bottle equal parts vinegar and water, plus a squirt of soap to cut through grease.
Basically, she said, “I don’t like shopping.”
And that leaves the couple at home. “You can see why pioneers killed each other,” she said. “When they were building a house in the middle of the prairie and they had no one else to talk to. And nothing to do but survival activities.”
Until recently, their avocation would have been called urban homesteading. They harvested the term for the title of their first book, “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City” (Process Media: 2008).
But in October of last year, a Pasadena farmstead registered the phrase with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. And in February, the couple’s first publisher, and 16 other parties, received legal notice that they would have to stop using the words “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” in their books and on their blog.
The couple and Process Media filed a trademark appeal in April, with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the dispute captures something about the conflicted nature of the movement known as … well, whatever it’s called now.
On one hand, Ms. Coyne said, “the bookshelves are crowded with these kinds of titles,” rapturous accounts of how to tend city chickens, city goats (probably city yaks, too). On the other hand, it’s possible to walk for hours across Los Angeles and see no sign of a food garden beyond a lonely lemon tree.
“There’s a lot of hype,” Ms. Coyne said.
“A lot of hype,” Mr. Knutzen said, nodding.
Mr. Knutzen sometimes finds himself flipping through an old copy of “The Whole Earth Catalog” or “The Integral Urban House,” classic D.I.Y. guides from the 1970s. And he wonders: Why didn’t the movement stick?
Ms. Coyne trawls “ancient home-economics books, from the 1880s to 1920 or so,” she said, looking for clues about how women accomplished tasks like conditioning their hair before the chemical age. Indeed, these books have been lecturing and hectoring Americans forever, said Sarah A. Leavitt, 40, a curator at the National Building Museum and the author of “From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice.”
“Every generation would say, ‘These people don’t have the connection to the past that our grandmothers had,’ ” Ms. Leavitt said. “But people have been saying that since the 1840s.”
Over the centuries, she said, the counsel is often the same: homemakers should embrace simplicity, thrift, cleanliness, independence. But the rationale changes with the mood of the times. In the mid-1800s, Ms. Leavitt said, good housekeeping was a Christian virtue; a few decades later, it was sanitary and scientific. During the immigrant boom of the early 20th century, the well-made home was a testament to nativist fervor.
It would be easy to read these “domestic fantasies” with a cynical eye. But then, where you get your food and how you clean your home has always been about something more, Ms. Leavitt said. The question is, “What kind of person do you want to be?”
Ms. Coyne wouldn’t disagree. She doesn’t care to fret about national politics, peak oil or the coming zombie apocalypse. “Within our control,” she said, “is what goes in the house, in the backyard, in the neighborhood.”
Without the obligations of a day job, Mr. Knutzen has made himself a fixture at community meetings and municipal hearings. He recently helped win a $350,000 state-sponsored Safe Routes to School grant for the neighborhood elementary school, to encourage walking and biking. This kind of unglamorous activism makes him “tremendously happy,” he said.
When he is in a particularly expansive mood, he quotes the stoic philosophers. “As within, so without,” he said, citing Hermes Trismegistus. The maxim appears in plainer form on the Root Simple blog: “All change begins at home.”
Mr. Knutzen walked in front of the big picture window in the living room and hoisted his thyrsus.
“It’s carried by the maenads,” he said, holding out a four-foot-long mace.
The followers of Dionysus in the procession, he said. Mr. Knutzen had seen an image of a thyrsus in a frieze at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It’s a fennel stalk with a pine cone on top.”
“We realized that because of our Mediterranean climate — —,” Ms. Coyne said.
“We can source this locally,” Mr. Knutzen continued. The fennel was growing right in the backyard.
“I’ve never seen Erik so happy as when he made his own thyrsus,” Ms. Coyne said.
“It’s good to carry around your masculinity pavilion,” Mr. Knutzen said. “I considered mass-marketing it to Target and Wal-Mart.”
Some day the American consumer may be able to find a scepter next to the beer nuts in the bacchanalia aisle. For now, if you want a thyrsus at home, you’ll have to make it yourself.