Oh…Pioneers…

I had heard of The Pioneer Woman blog before, but hadn’t really thought too deeply about the saga of Ree Drummond until I read a New Yorker profile of her the other night. This city girl moved to a ranch in Oklahoma after marrying a cowboy (the “Marlboro Man”), is homeschooling their four children, and blogs about her cooking, ranch life and parenting adventures, often with gorgeously photoshopped illustrations. I am salivating just looking at her Pineapple Upside Down Biscuits.

Judging by the stats in the New Yorker profile, I am not the only one eating it up. The Pioneer Woman blog gets 4.4 million unique visitors per month, with 23.3 million page views. The site is not particularly ad-heavy, yet her ad revenue for 2010 was “solidly one million” dollars (per the article). That doesn’t include the take from her best-selling cookbooks and other books, movie option, etc.

I have been pondering what exactly is so alluring about the Pioneer Woman’s glorified home making. It’s a subject I explore in a chapter of All The Money In The World called “The Chicken Mystique” — referring to the incredible rise in people keeping chickens in a not-so-agrarian age. It’s part of the broader trend toward turning our suburban backyards into edible gardens and, in more extreme forms, taking on more of a do-it-yourself, cashless economic existence. The idea is that by growing our own food, bartering with neighbors, and living a simple, rugged life, we can build green and happy homes with limited money — perhaps no longer needing two incomes, or (as hinted in Shannon Hayes’ 2009 book, Radical Homemakers) even one. You can remove yourself from the extractive economy, and be part of the production economy. You can be like the Little House on the Prairie books — living a simple life with simple pleasures.

Of course, few people glorifying this ideal are living this way. Hayes, for instance, spends a chunk of her time writing books. Drummond is running a 7-figure business. Barbara Kingsolver wrote about the roughly $10,000 worth of food her small farm produced in the year she chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but of course the best-selling book she got out of the experience was a far more lucrative investment of her time. The radical homemaking concept has a big element of fantasy to it — raising vegetables in the White House garden is cool when you know you won’t actually have to survive on that plot during a Long Winter (per the title of one Little House on the Prairie book).

This is why I refer to it as a “mystique” — similar to the feminine mystique women’s magazine editors were peddling in Betty Friedan’s day. The idea was that you were supposed to naturally find fulfillment through waxing your floors. Now we recognize that such shopping and chauffeur-ing domesticity isn’t that exciting, so we’re jazzed it up with our gardens, our chickens, our canning and pickling, etc. Now we want to find fulfillment by becoming pioneers.

But while some people may find perfect contentment in simply living this simple life, most of us find more fulfillment in doing something to change the larger world. For most of us who are not going to make 7-figures writing about our herb gardens, all this becomes a question of how we allocate that scarce resource known as time. If we are in jobs that do tap our core competencies, then treating do-it-yourself domesticity as something more important than a hobby is taking time away from what we do best — from what we will have a larger impact doing. That’s why it’s important to recognize the pioneer/farm fantasy for what it is — a fun fantasy to read about, rather than an ideal to pursue.

4 thoughts on “Oh…Pioneers…

  1. Very few of us change the larger world through our jobs any more than we do by our vegetable gardening. (I did both for a decade.) In most jobs, pay isn’t particularly related to productivity, either, and the hardest workers (my high school English teacher who assigned and graded essays) are often paid less than others on an hourly basis (PE teacher who never had anything to grade). (The best way to get a raise is often to work less.) I occasionally worked from home at my old job (reviewing integrated circuit defects and performing statistical analyses) but this isn’t work my children can understand, or will be able to understand for a long time. My current part-time work, editing engineering research papers for Koreans, is not something my children will be able to understand for ~20 years.

    We garden and grow fruit trees because we want to. (given the cost of city water and the need to irrigate, it’s not a “frugal” decision) My children understand where vegetables and meat come from, because they’ve helped me plant, weed and harvest and they’ve watched my husband butcher a deer that he shot. They’ve “helped” repair the dishwasher, riding lawnmower and the freezer. They spent much of a week watching the house next door get a sewer line and another day watching powerline workers clear trees under the power lines. We’ve made butter. (need to do that again…)

    Even when our income was much higher, we made choices to do things ourselves because doing hands-on work lets our children understand how stuff works. Most children don’t lack the decoding skills to read, but some lack the real-life experience to place what they read about into an appropriate web of knowledge. Our children will have the skills to live a low-income life. They will not be like a colleague who had a PhD in engineering but had never mowed a lawn, and had grown up WITH a lawn, not in an urban area.

    Most of us won’t change the world through our work. We want to do an adequate job for our employer. After that, some of us value doing real stuff with our children. And we don’t need to blog about it.

    1. Your points hit home with me. You really helped articulate what I’ve been thinking when our family does household stuff together, such as yard work, growing vegetables, cooking and cleaning. These are skills I want my boys to have as they grow up, to be able to take care of themselves and their own families. (and we need to make butter again too, they loved it last time)

      We have spent lots of time watching trees be cut down, storm drains cleaned, houses being built and various construction/destruction projects. I believe exposing children to many different opportunities and having them try things out helps them see the work in a new way, and broadens their horizons. You never know what will inspire them.

      I also think there is something confidence-building about a job well done, one that serves a purpose for you or those around you.

      1. Exactly. And, this goes toward house cleaning, too. If people eschew every bit of nuts and bolts work and only ever do “paper pushing” (which is now electronic bit pushing) it just strikes me as a kind of death. It’s healthy to get your hands dirty.

  2. I agree, and I think it’s no coincidence that people are becoming more drawn to practical survival-type activities in their home/leisure time as more jobs/workplaces become more disconnected from physical reality. There may be a sentimental element of nostalgia involved for some people, but that’s nothing new–the grass has always been greener. What is new is for human beings who have evolved a high degree of manual dexterity that has enabled us to manipulate and to a large extent control the three-dimensional environment we inhabit to be spending most of our time cut off from physical reality in the two-dimensional universe of electronic screens, rarely using our hands–or, for that matter, the rest of our bodies–at all, other than to click and type. This has huge implications not just for physical fitness, but also for mental functioning, since a huge portion of the human brain is devoted to hand function, and brain development is a two-way street: areas that are regularly stimulated enlarge; areas that are unused atrophy. People who find pleasure in doing hands-on, physical tasks during their leisure time aren’t just fantasizing about the good old days–they’re supplying a much-needed workout for the parts of the brain that tend to get under-used in modern life.

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