The Longhouse Gene

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Chelsey Simpson, Community, Family, Home and Garden | Posted on 25-08-2008

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by Chelsey Simpson

When I was about seven, my mother read a book to me about Native Americans, and I fell in love with the idea of living in a longhouse. The book said that several generations of the same family would live together in one home, where they worked as a unit for the common good.

At the time I lived about half a mile from my grandparent’s farm, where my father, my uncle and my grandfather maintained a herd of Holsteins and harvested wheat and cotton. Most evenings I was allowed to help my father feed the calves their bottles. I still remember the smell of every corner of the barn–the earthy manure of the milking stalls, the chemical musk of the medicine cabinet, and the damp, sweetness where the milk was stored.

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The land that the farm sits on has been in my family since Oklahoma’s land run days; I am generation number five. Even when my mother and father moved further south to establish a dairy of their own, the land they bought was still family land, and the house we lived in was built by my great-grandparents. The school I went to was tiny (I was one of only 10 children in my grade.), but when my grandmother grew up on the same farm she attended a one-room schoolhouse that also served as a community gathering place for social events of all kinds.

Essentially, I was already living in an extended longhouse.

Nearly twenty years have passed, however, and I still feel the same pull towards community that I did then. I lust for situations that force people to band together, even if chaos is part of the result. If this trait I have can be inherited, I’m sure I got it from my father. Our family life was always peppered with situations that others might have found strange.

A few years ago, for example, my dad became friends with a man who worked at a paint store he frequented. Before long, he was part of the store’s bowling team, and later that year he let the man and his family move into our house while they did some remodeling on their own home. It was only supposed to be temporary, but when the holidays came they were still there, so we put up two Christmas trees and carried on. It was a confusing situation to explain to outsiders, so I came to refer to them as “the other small family who lives in my house.”
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For people like my dad and I who have the Longhouse Gene, postmodern society can seem like a sterile place at times. One of my favorite NPR stories is about a seltzer deliveryman in New York City who knows he represents the end of an era. Referring to the beauty of his archaic profession, one of his oldest clients says: “[In the 1940s] everybody had different men in their lives. You had the seltzer man, you had the milk man … these were the people in your life. It’s a different world today.”

In modern America it is usually totally unnecessary and sometimes impossible to know the people who produce the products we buy. I’m not going to make any arguments about carbon footprints or local economies because I’m not an expert in those areas. All I can tell you is that I like the way it feels to live my life on a more local, personal scale. I like unraveling 100 years of American ingenuity that has brought us the one-stop wonder that is Wal-mart and the homogenization of Tide detergent.

Volunteering with the Oklahoma Food Co-op isn’t the easy way to get my daily bread, but it is the fun way. Every month I see 70-80 members of my own community at the co-op’s Edmond site. We share recipes and gardening tips. I see their children grow. This evening about 20 of us are meeting at Kam’s Kookery for a class about canning and food preservation

My Longhouse Gene can hardly wait.

Do you have a “Longhouse Gene”? What’s your favorite way to satisfy it?

Comments (3)

We love Kam! She is great and the work she is doing with the coop and organics is fantastic!
..be bold
PS: We are enjoying the blog!

love the metaphor of the longhouse and building community. when you’re in a good solid community, it can be magical.
i like to think the future holds a re-imagining of community that is not only sustainable, but incorporates a vibrant mix of the new and old, both in how we build actual physical communities, and in how we relate to each other.

I grew up in the country among many, many relatives as my grandfather had an identical twin brother and each of them had about 10 children. There were family members on every section of land in every direction….i couldn’t get lost. It’s different growing up in a ‘long house’ and moving into one. I also long for those days, but building a similar community these days seems far fetched..It’s tough find a like minded mate, much less several folks..i enjoyed your story.