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I am going to explore how homes have the potential to be a valuable place of ecophilosophical knowledge-making. A close relationship exists between what we do at home and our epistemology or the way we go about knowing and understanding things. The way we live from day to day embodies our mode of participating with others and informs our understanding of our place in the world. Becoming more aware of the sensuous intersubjectivity that we are a part of and fostering this relationship at home deepens as well as puts into practice an ecophilosophical epistemology. In Mick Smith’s words: “Put simply, how we live obviously affects what we value and how we come to value it and values also work reciprocally to inform how we live.”1
The home is generally understood as one’s habitual dwelling-place. Human homes all over the world are incredibly various, often a reflection of culture, wealth, and the relationship between human and habitat (a caravan, a brick house, a lean-to, a blanket, a yurt).2 The inhabitants of one home may be equally various, such as an extended family, a single parent or one person, or house-mates. It is worthwhile commenting that although the home is a variable place for many individuals according to culture, place or other circumstances, the home is something universally familiar and valued. This is the case even when the home is displaced due to poverty, political circumstances, or other hardship. We can note too, that those who would commonly be seen as living in poverty from the perspective of dominant Western economics, may have a more nourishing home life than the affluent. Conversely, amongst the privileged, home life might be impoverished or fraught with conflict. Every individual has unique experiences and ways of belonging and being at home. While I cannot pretend to comprehensively address such diverse experiences in this essay, I would like to suggest that the home is a place of rest, sleep, safety and connection – connection with things and place, with oneself and others, with memory and future.
While the home may be seen as an expression of the self, it is not necessarily egocentric. The home situates the bodily self in a place where the creative or poetic self may be strengthened in relationship with others. The home is a place for the self to be aware of and in touch with others who also belong at home and who are welcomed into the home, human and nonhuman. It may be a place for refuge and rest, or of sharing and gathering. The home also exists in continuity with the wider human and nonhuman community. Freya Mathews asks that this connection to community be remembered, and suggests that we “try to commit to the rest of [our] neighborhood.”3 This commitment may take shape in many personal ways, such as going for walks, knowing who lives close by (be this your human neighbour, the spiders in your windowpanes or a magpie family down the road), or participating in community events and projects, to name only a few possibilities. Essentially, this commitment involves paying attention to the place where one lives, and engaging with the life and uniqueness given there. In this way, the home emplaces the individual in community through relationship.
Home-maker Usha Maira describes what ‘home’ means to her:
I spend my time keeping a home. It is the most important function of my life. I see it as responsible work for the proper functioning of our society. Home brings a sense of freedom and security for its members. It is a creative job – to make a home, where there is beauty and cleanliness. Where a person can say “good to be home,” and relax. This involves arranging flowers and other articles around the home, buying fresh vegetables and fruit, and making sure that there is freshly and lovingly cooked food. To have people eat with me, to have them stay in the house, makes the place a home. Sharing my home with others makes life so much richer for me. A simple meal enjoyed with friends, family and guests is what home is about. There can be no home without hospitality. Why has this occupation of home-making become of less importance? Why do some homes look like nicely furnished houses? When I come across such homes, I wonder: has the meaning of home not dawned on the hearts of these people? A warm welcome when a door is opened, a cheerful smile from the opener! One of the reasons many women go out to work is that for a long time our work was not respected – we were not the breadwinners. Our role of bread-making was not considered as high and dignified.4
I would like to pay attention to a few things raised in Maira’s words. Firstly, I have chosen to consider the subject of home-cooking because it offers much ecophilosophical and epistemological potential: home-cooking includes a number of aspects which put everyday ecophilosophy into practice. Although many other activities and things occur at home, including conversation, laughter, love and rest (all of which may be connected to home-cooking), the idea of home and its relationship to the hearth, fire and cooking, is an ancient and powerful one.5 It also signals a human home. The human relationship with fire and the invention of cooking has been long been a source of fascination, especially in relation to community. Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto explains that “when fire and food combined. an almost irresistible focus was created for communal life.”6 The sensual and poetic engagement with foods in the creation of a meal, the caring aspect of home-cooking which involves physical and emotional well-being, and the ethical dimension of thoughtful eating are all valuable directions for thought. Feminist ethics and its important contribution to understanding the value of home, home-making and women’s experiences in the home must also be considered.
Making a meal may be viewed as a sensual experience of creating something edible from the earth, whether this meal is as simple as a washed apple or tomato sandwich, or is something more elaborate like baked rice pudding. A major part of cooking at home is discovery by sensuous encounter. When cooking we participate with all of our senses with endless food textures, tastes, smells, shapes, colours and sounds. The sensuous encounter of cooking leads us into recipes, traditions and cultures, or ‘I-made-it-up’ ingenuity and creativity. Thus, cooking is also about learning and connecting and participating in “the story of things.”7 This story might be about the home-grown tomato picked from the garden and the connections between outside and inside, it might be about the pleasure of making a traditional dish that connects you to your heritage, or learning about another culture as you repeat a way of cooking and eating. It might be about your own story as it intersects and contributes to those you live amongst. Our relationship with the earth, the self, and with all others, is cultivated through cooking.
Home cooking also embodies care in relationships with human and nonhuman others. When we make a meal for family or friends, or for ourself, there is the potential to nourish physically and emotionally. The sociality of meals is significant. Food plays a role in most cultures during special social gatherings such as feasts, ritual or ceremony, or simply the meaning invested in a birthday cake. Giving, sharing, receiving, believing, love and care are all communal experiences felt through foods. Fernandez-Armesto emphasizes the sociality of food: “The loneliness of the fast-food eater is uncivilizing. Food is being desocialized. In the microwave household, home-cooking looks doomed. Family life must fragment if people stop sharing meals.”8
While the home is situated in a community and a place, cooking and the cyclical involvement of making meals may be a special way of situating the self in relation to home and to things of the home. The use and familiarity of a pot, its history with the persons who cook with it, the stories that all (the pot, the foods and the cooks) become a part of, brings a presence, an intimacy, even an aliveness to a home. Mathews urges us to let our possessions grow familiar, old and well kept. She draws attention to the connections formed over time: “from the viewpoint of letting things be, we would be most pleased, not with our brightest and newest things, but those that had endured the longest and which were accordingly our oldest and most well worn.”9 Memory and sensuous physical experience can enrich a space.
Home-cooking also emphasizes the human home in ethical relationship with human and nonhuman others. There is an ethical dimension to what we cook and eat. Relationship with nonhuman others in the context of home-cooking is largely centered on the fact that we eat these others. Addressing debates for or against certain diets such as vegetarianism is an enormous subject in itself.10 Rather than engage directly with that debate, I would like to raise the point that every person might attend to eating more thoughtfully as a way of choosing and believing in what they eat and consume; to participate with and experience truthfully what we eat, and to discover, through one’s own awareness and thinking, an ethical relationship to eating. Miche Fabre Lewin elaborates upon the eco-ethical practice of thinking about what we eat.
Every mouthful we eat defines or defies a choice. The word ‘diet’ derives from the Greek diaitan meaning ‘to direct one’s life’. A change in eating habits is a change in direction. It requires a re-orientation of lifestyle, new decisions on how and where to buy our food. To change our diet is to make space and time to sit, to eat at the table, and… sit a while longer for respectful digesting. To reclaim the kitchen as a hearth is more than a decision for personal well-being: it is an act of resistance against the dictates of agribusiness. It is a challenge to denatured, microwaved food and the anti-culture of fast food. It is a decision to rediscover ways of inhabiting more authentic, spacious lifestyles, attuning ourselves to the seasons and learning to tread lightly on the planet.11
What we eat and how we come to eat it are practices that reflect our epistemology. The “story of things” is not always positive. Making a meal may be based in destruction, or a life-threatening epistemology when, for example, the flesh of factory farmed animals is consumed thoughtlessly or taken for granted.12 Therefore, let us know the true story we are entering into when we cook. Let us choose to be informed, and make our own choices when we eat, and write ourselves into the story and create new parts of the story. Let the preparation of food bring appreciation and respect to it and the earth.The ethical key to epistemology in the home is knowing that our daily lives are ecologically interconnected with other lives, and elementaries of domestic life such as food, water, clothing and other belongings are the substance of these interconnections.
When discussing the home as a place for creativity and nurturing one cannot not ignore that the home has also been a place of oppression and abuse. Women traditionally hold the role of the home-maker, and both women and home-making have been devalued in complex social relations involving work, home and gender relations.13Feminist thinkers have drawn attention to that is particularly relevant to the discussion. I am principally considering the home as a place of sensuous intersubjectivity for all those who belong to it, regardless of gender. Everyone may be encouraged to engage with cooking regardless of gender and discover how it may enrich one’s home experiences and relationships. This valuing of a domestic activity – in this case cooking – relates to the following argument against paid housework done by those external to the home.
In response to the increasingly common modern tendency of paying someone else to do your house-work, such as cleaning, cooking, laundry, and just about any other domestic activity, feminist thinkers have had much to say. Gabrielle Meagher argues that paid housework “focuses on its contents as ‘the dirty work’ of daily life, work which. able-bodied adults should perform for themselves, or for each other in caring relationships.”14 She raises two important points. One is that home-making is about building healthy relationships and is part of the care that one gives and receives. Another is the perception of home-making as a lowly chore. The implications of this view include it being undervalued, that those who do it are undervalued or seen as unskilled (traditionally women, and increasingly paid cleaners or ‘domestics’), and that the practice and potential of home-making is diminished. Therefore the view of home-making as drudgery could change. It is important to note that changing this view does not necessarily remove the sometimes hard or ongoing work involved in home-making, however it does bring appreciation, recognition and satisfaction into the experience. Potentially, with a new view of the value of home-making, would be the sense that the never-ending necessity of doing it leads us into an ongoing cycle and rhythm and growth of relationship rather than endless chore.
If, as Smith says, how we live affects what and how we value, and vice versa; if how we live changes our epistemology, then our daily lives may offer opportunities for an active ethical reconsideration of our epistemology. Being at home may be a place of sensuous intersubjectivity and eco-ethical knowledge-making. Growing up in one home, I was fortunate to ‘settle in’ to place. So many relationships can be developed in a place. For example, in my parents’ back garden there is a lemon tree. It is an old lemon tree. When we were a much younger family it stood in the middle of a big vegetable patch that took up half the garden, and years of compost and manure built up the ground. It still stands there, in the raised half of the garden, but instead of vegetables it is accompanied by two younger apple and nectarine trees, grasses and clover, and mixed clumps of flowers. At the moment in summer, the tree is full of both lemons and blossoms. A few thick roots pull away from the trunk just above ground level. The broad low swelling around the tree conceals its roots below. I do not know how far the roots travel; they are a beautiful mystery. Beneath a layer of faded grass clippings the soil is dark and healthy. Ants arrive for nectar, spiders live in curled leaves. A blackbird’s nest has been in the tree for many seasons and generations have been hatched amongst lemons.
I consider that I have some understanding and knowledge of these things connected to this tree which is integral to my parents’ home. My father has shown me how to care for this tree, and I have spent many years knowing the tree and being with it in this garden. I know about picking lemons carefully and with thanks before taking them inside, bringing them into the cycles of a kitchen, or offering them to neighbors. Gently twisting a ripe lemon from the ‘knuckle’ of its stem will not damage the branch or violently shake the whole tree. My two and three year old nephews, Sam and Ollie, already know how to pick a lemon this way, and are keen to teach me and then get us mixing the juice with water and sugar. I know it is better to water away from the base of its trunk. I know that the tiny summer bees that hover very level and still before darting from visibility are Australian native bees. Indeed there are many things I know, and shall confidently assert I do know, because of my experiences involving and surrounding this lemon tree. I have long moved out of my parents’ home, but in the summer I always have lemons from the tree in my kitchen that become part of meals, connections and memories (squeezed on dishes, added to water, or inspiring special desserts of lemon tart or self-saucing pudding). Now when I visit my parents I always go to the lemon tree, see how it is going, and say hello. Such everyday practices of fostering communication, relationship and knowledge of and with non-human others can nurture a new earth-friendly epistemology. Home, and home-cooking, may be recognized as an everyday place and process for intersubjective creativity and knowledge-making that supports the union between developing philosophy in theory and putting it into practice.
Rebecca Lucas is a lecturer in Literature with Trinity College Foundation Studies, at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include ecophilosophy, romanticism and phenomenology. She is a committee member of ASLE-ANZ (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment – Australia/New Zealand division).
1. Mick Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory ( Albany : State University Of New York Press, 2001), p. 151.
2.Non-human homes are also dwelling places to be respected, although I am limiting this paper to the human home.
3. Mathews, Reinhabiting Reality, p. 51.
5.Of course, the home can be a place of fear, domination and abuse too. I will consider this further when I discuss the ethical dimension of the home explicitly.
6. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Food: A History ( London : MacMillan, 2001), p.13.
7. Mathews, Reinhabiting Reality, p. 98.
8. Fernandez-Armesto, Food: A History, p. 22.
9.Mathews, Reinhabiting Reality, p.34.
10. See, for example, Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, (New York: Continuum, 1990). Or see Peter Singer, ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy’, www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/singer05.htm (accessed 29/12/05). Also see Val Plumwood, ‘Integrating Ethical Frameworks for Animals, Humans, and Nature: A Critical Feminist Eco-Socialist Analysis’, in Ethics and the Environment 5:2 (2000): 285-322. Plumwood writes about vegetarianism, ontologizing the other as edible, sacred eating and predation.
12. For a range of essays on ethical eating, see Ben Mepham (ed.), Food Ethics (London: Routledge, 1996).
13. Iris Marion Young writes: “If house and home mean the confinement of women for the sake of nourishing male projects, then feminists have good reason to reject home as a value.” See Iris Marion Young, Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 134.
14. Gabrielle Meagher, ‘Is it Wrong to Pay for Housework’, Hypatia 17: 2 (Spring 2002): 52-66, p. 57.