Daniel Rubin: The 'Radical Homemaker' explains the benefits of going off the grid

"Radical Homemakers" author Shannon Hayes, with husband Bob Hooper.
"Radical Homemakers" author Shannon Hayes, with husband Bob Hooper. (DANIEL RUBIN / Staff)
Posted: November 06, 2012

The Radical Homemaker drove with her husband from their farm in Upstate New York to Penn State Great Valley, where she was giving a talk on their anniversary.

Not the day they married. The day he was fired from his job.

For author Shannon Hayes and husband Bob Hooper, Nov. 1 is liberation day.

"He was a county planner," Hayes said. "And for their Halloween office party he dressed like Nick Bottom from Midsummer Night's Dream."

Picture a wiry man in a tuxedo wearing an ass' head.

The next morning, his boss, a Republican, fired him for insubordination. Said he'd made a mockery of the Grand Old Party.

Just two weeks earlier, they'd bought a cabin on 15 acres near her family's livestock farm. Despite her fresh doctorate from Cornell in sustainable agriculture and community organizing, none of her job-seeking letters had landed.

Together, Hayes and Hooper did some math: If they moved, found new jobs, a new house, two cars, work wardrobes - the whole package - they'd be only $10,000 ahead of where they'd be if they stayed put and "put our hearts and minds to work on our grassy hillsides."

They decided to stay and unplug themselves from consumer culture. This was the seed of her 2010 manifesto, Radical Homemakers , a self-published book that has helped establish Hayes as an icon for a movement at once both traditional and future-thinking, feminist and egalitarian.

For the book, they traveled the country with their two young daughters, interviewing men and women, young and old, who had found ways to be more self-sufficient.

"Some gardened in city plots or suburban backyards. Some were wizards at car repair. They sewed, made furniture, played music or wrote. All of them could cook. None of them did everything."

Radical homemaking, she explained to about 90 people on the Malvern campus Thursday night, follows four tenets: ecological sustainability, social justice, family, and community.

Hayes is not only a spokeswoman for the movement, she says. She's its stereotype:

"I burn wood, use solar panels, I'm usually barefoot, I home-school my kids."

She and her husband commit to idling their one car, a Toyota RAV4, several days a week. They can fruits and vegetables, barter, make their clothes or hit secondhand shops, and go to the grocery store just once a month. The family spends less than $45,000 a year.

Their path is not ascetic. "It's joyful. We have time for vacations, canoe trips, afternoon swims and naps, and even evening cocktails." Vacations have meant twice renting a home for three months in France.

Admittedly, it is easier to go off-grid when you have a family farm.

I asked her about this after her talk, when we met in a small room, where she was knitting slippers. Must one go all-in at once? I asked, relating a battle scene from the Eminem movie 8 Mile in which the crowd chants, "There's no such thing as a halfway crook."

My cultural reference rang no bell. I was no clearer when I described the movie as being like Rocky but with freestyle poetry.

Whether the movies clicked with her, her answer came out in whole cloth. "It is essential for everyone to be at least halfway radical," she began. "By not being that, that's how our country got into trouble, by everyone thinking someone else would take care of things."

I mentioned that what's been troubling me is going to work each morning, post-Sandy, and leaving a yard of broken branches.

"You start out by picking up your sticks, and the next thing you know, you're clearing brush so you can put out a beehive," she said.

I'm allergic to bees, I explained.

She exploded in laughter.

"I know many beekeepers who are allergic to bees," she replied. There was going to be no easy way out.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin

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