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  • Cheryl Catrini

IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A CITY

Originally published on TheChiEye (thechieye.com)


THERE ARE A LOT OF QUESTIONS IN MY HOUSE. My inquisitive two-and-a-half year old wants to know why, my shared-calendar-loving husband wants to know when, and every houseguest and visitor wants to know, “What is that?” The answers to these usually go something like, “Because the builders need to be able to reach the roof. Thursday at 6, I just added it. Veggie broth. Kombucha. ADAY. Garlic greens. The Office of Angela Scott. Jalapeño plant. WasteNot Compost. Lemon tree.”

Since the majority of people reading this have yet to come over for dinner and inquire for themselves about our cauldron of a 60-quart stock pot, the citrus grove in our living room, the eight gallon-sized jars in various states of science fair on the counter, my oversized tee with flour fingerprints all over it that is made of recycled plastic bottles - I have yet to master the art of the apron - or the rose gold Mary Janes that I wear while baking, let me just be forthright in saying that our house is kind of like that friend’s house where as a kid you were always a little nervous visiting, but that you also really kind of loved. There is always something going on here and it is usually the type of thing that requires some explaining. The overarching explanation has long been that I’m prepping for my future as a hippie on a farm - expansive land, jersey cows, pre-sunrise chores, butter, pies, fresh eggs, composting, more butter, apple p icking, greenhouses, friends in for long weekends, root cellars, growing all the things - and this is just my way of biding my time until I can quit the city and ride off into the sunset on my tractor (and then continue to work well into the evening because everyone knows that a farmer’s day is never done).

That was the explanation, but, as with most things said by default, upon further consideration it isn’t quite as accurate as I’d thought it was. True, aside from Lincoln Park, and my community garden plot within it, I have no land to speak of, and despite a level of egg consumption that borders on dependence, I won’t file a chicken as an emotional support animal to get around my building’s no-pets policy, but I have slowly found that being urban has not meant leading a life where growing my own vegetables and saving their scraps for broth, using lavender essential oil to alleviate the ferocity of a second-degree (caramel-making) burn and considering the environmental impact of the products I buy are distant, unattainable notions. In fact, Chicago has proven to be fertile ground for cultivating my ideal lifestyle where I am both hippie and yuppie, farmer and foodie, doer and informed consumer. It is also a place where I get to encounter more people who are interested in the craziness I am homesteading/brewing/fermenting/preserving/growing/creating, and if you are still with me at this point, I presume you might be one of them and so I shall share a few of the ways that the city is a good place to hippie. Sometimes even the best place to hippie.


VEGGIES COME FROM THE GROCER GROUND

Grabbing a fistful of lacy greens and tugging until a bright orange carrot emerges from the soil never gets old. It is magical and intriguing, maybe more than it should be considering that through a peculiar form of conditioning, we have spent so long calling carrots a root vegetable while simultaneously buying them in plastic bags, sans greens, from the refrigerated case at the grocery store, that along the way root vegetable became no more than a phrase, and the actuality of a carrot as the root of a plant fell away. The good news is that reclaiming the carrot as an underground straw for sucking up food and water (as I have defined root for myself, I mean, my son) is easier than actually biting the carrot is. This is because, ironically enough, living in the city means you have more avenues to a freshly grown carrot than my farmer alter ego otherwise would. Farmer Cheryl could grow a carrot in a pot but so can you (just ask and non-farmer me can teach you), Farmer Cheryl could grow a carrot in the ground, but, courtesy of community gardens and allotments throughout the city, so can you, and Farmer Cheryl could ask one of her farmer neighbors for some carrots but so can you. With farmer’s markets, CSA’s and food-waste reduction programs like Imperfect Produce, you can ask dozens more of Farmer Cheryl’s neighbors for carrots than she could. Copy and paste this idea to a majority of the other fruits and vegetables we eat on the regular and soon enough we will have regained the ability to see lettuce and strawberries for what they really are: plants that we have decided we like to eat. Footnote, because I do not expect anyone to give up the grocery store, especially not cold-turkey - I myself know the odd joy of slowly wandering the aisles surrounded by so much food - you can start your new hippier ways by simply looking for foods that are labeled as local. Buying vegetables that were grown in a ground near you not only supports Farmer Cheryl’s neighbors but also helps to reduce the environmental impact of food production by cutting down on long travel distances.


COOLER PEOPLE THAN MYSELF DOING COOLER THINGS

If this were an episode of Family Feud and one hundred people were surveyed and asked to name an adjective describing cities, I would buzz in the quickest, guess “Diverse”, be correct in identifying the second most popular response and then my family would go on to play the question. If the next round was then a bit redundant and involved naming the things that make a city diverse, my first guess would be WasteNot Compost. Granted this response probably wouldn’t be on the board, but it is one aspect of Chicago’s diversity that is perfect for incorporating some subtle hippiedom into your home and so I would guess it so that you could know it. But before I explain further, let’s insert some backstory.

Despite my lack of space for a compost pile, I have remained dedicated to the idea of not throwing away food. Obviously many scraps go into a container in the freezer to be boiled down into the broth I have attested to making, but not everything is eligible for that - here’s looking at you, horrendously bitter cucumber skins. One of the alternative options I considered, and you should too, was vermicomposting. This is essentially a large, odorless box where you can toss your egg shells and melon rinds and the 3,000 new pet worms you just bought off craigslist will render them into usable fertilizer. I decided against this solely because I know my son would bring those 3,000 worms to join the three dozen stuffed animals in his bed. This is where WasteNot Compost comes in.

Run by two college students, one currently enrolled in Loyola University’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability, WasteNot is a zero-emission compost pick-up service that picks up and drops off compost buckets for in-home or business use on a weekly or biweekly basis. To be honest, now that I have been using them for a few months, in the internal debate that continues over the pros and cons of being a city mouse versus a country one, having the opportunity to support the efforts of people who are actively working for change, is more rewarding to me personally than simply composting for myself.

My second guess, should I be allowed to break the rules and make one, would be the availability of worthwhile and unique ingredients for all the from-scratch food and drinks that any self-respecting urban-farmer-hippie or urban-farmer-hippie-in-training would attempt. A prime example is Letherbee, a Chicago-based distillery that not only has a line of seasonally-inspired gins (no further explanation of the innate coolness of this is needed), but also sources some of their ingredients from Field & Florist, a local florist duo who grow their own flowers. Sure, Farmer Cheryl would still have access to the fruit liqueurs she makes, the negligible amount of alcohol in the kombucha she brews and potentially the moonshine of some local acquaintances, but City Cheryl has gin infused with eucalyptus, vanilla and strawberry.


DRESS THE -PPIE PART

I don’t believe in the concept of overdressing. You can be your fancy self whenever you want - I wear oxfords while out walking for exercise and I look forward to the day that the athleisure trend passes (there! I said it!). That being said, I don’t live on a farm. If I did, I would in fact always be overdressed as pleated trousers and a fedora would be wholly unnecessary. That is why in reality I do better wearing my denim overalls with a tank top to my city garden, filling the pockets with harvested green beans and peas and then going home and swapping out the tank top for a white button-up and brunch. Now while it might seem trivial to mention clothes in a how-to for urban hippiedom, everyone is in maxi skirts and off-the-shoulder tops already, it is in truth a huge way to move toward a more natural, concerned lifestyle, which is closer to the heart of hippiedom than flowy materials. The clothing industry is the second worst polluter after oil and because money is a vote, what we choose to spend it on is not only a reflection of what we support but also what we are willing to accept.

When I was in middle school I had a shirt that à la a sewn-in dicky mimicked the look of a sweater over a collared button-up. At the time I thought it made me look rather sharp and intelligent and as such wore it every exam day. Admittedly, I had the GPA to prove the efficacy of this practice which is why today I don’t dress for the job I want - being a writer that usually doesn’t even require pants - but rather for the way I’d like to feel. Most days that falls somewhere between fancy hippie and capable wordsmith yuppie. How to achieve such a look, and thus such a feeling, was logicked out in the following manner.

Since being a hippie requires caring about the environment, I need to dress in brands that are doing right by the Earth. But since I can’t feel fancy, or be a yuppie, in a hemp sack, I have to find brands that are both conscious and stylish at the same time. This fancy factor also extends beyond how I want to feel because like most people I do have to leave the house to go to appointments, meet with clients and/or just to be able to say that I did.

In order to find the brands that I now support, I did what everyone does for every weird itch, both physical and psychological, that they experience - I googled it. More-time-spent-researching-than-I-care-to-admit-to later and I was ordering from ADAY (as pictured appropriately near this paragraph), Reformation, Nisolo and The Office of Angela Scott. These brands are all actively contributing to a better world while being legitimately cool of their own accord. If you don’t believe me, take into account the foolproof coolness determining factor of Instagram followers; Reformation doesn’t have a million followers for being lame or frumpy. If you perchance don’t like these brands and extensive Internet research isn’t your thing but you would like to transition into a cleaner closet, a few quick rules for environmentally-friendly shopping are: use the Good on You app, it rates clothing companies on their regard for the planet, people and animals; understand that if a brand new shirt from Forever 21 only costs $12 and that price has to cover materials, labor, transportation and profit margin, there probably wasn’t any money left for using clean products, processes or factories; shop at consignment stores - they are the yuppie thrift store and buying second-hand keeps clothes out of landfills and more money in your pocket.


OR YOU CAN JUST BUY AN ALOE PLANT AND CALL IT A DAY

I would never have anticipated becoming the person with more plants than furniture and more projects than plants, and I especially didn't imagine having a wardrobe that sparked the interest of others, but when I consider that I have always been the type of person for whom ideas snowball, it starts to make sense. I can’t help but ask myself if I can do this then why not that? If I can do that then why not this? If I care about that than why not this? If I care about this then why not that? And if I have learned anything for certain in life so far it is that if one person has felt a certain way then someone else certainly has as well. So maybe you are the type who isn’t into this at all (if so I am astonished you are still here), but maybe, maybe you are the type that if you give a mouse a city…

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