The Limited Value of Ideas

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or, They Aren’t Worth Much Until They Are Executed

So: Ideas. So very important to have fresh ideas and keep coming up with new ones, right?

Well, actually no.

Ideas are the easy part. The ground is simply thick with them. They hang around the floor in great heaps, piled high in all the corners, and all of them begging and pleading pick me, pick me! Use me! Here I am, I want to be next. You have to kick them out of the way to move through the room.

Ideas are useless until they are executed. Written up. Made. Finished and put into place. You have to do something with them to make them worthwhile. Then, and only then, do you find out the value of an idea.


You have to do something with ideas to make them worthwhile. Only then, do you find out their value.

Otherwise, they’re castles in the air. Dreams. Pretty and useless.

We all have dreams. In my I have a perma-cultured yard producing a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, chickens and their eggs, bees and their honey, rabbits and their meat; all bordered by a high, wide wild border that provides habitat for birds, critters, and predatory bugs and screens my property from the neighbors and Google Street View. My beautiful productive garden that produces value in all four seasons. That fills my pantry and freezer. That keeps us on a healthy, organic, semi-vegetarian diet that we produce ourselves thus saving us big bucks at the grocery store. My two patios of outdoor living, one for summer and one for winter, with outdoor cooking facilities and space for solar dryers and a solar oven. The bike shed taking over the end of the driveway and getting all those bikes off the Florida Room and turning that area back into living space. The performance artiness of it all: my suburban farmstead as a meditation on entropy and the passage of time. And all on an intensively managed quarter-acre.

Is this happening for my household? Of course not. Could all of this be possible? Oh, sure. But it takes plenty of work and time to make all of this happen. The idea, the vision is so easy. So seductive. So non-indicative of just how much work every single day it would take to get to this stage. And the passage of years while you wait for the fruit and nut trees to grow. The plants to fill in. The weeding that has to be done year after year after year. Not just the time learning to garden intensively (Hi, John Jeavons!), but the time then spent learning how to cope with the immense harvest. Canning, drying, fermenting, pickling, and salting; all such valuable food production skills that I don’t have. And then, I’ll have to learn to cook it all as otherwise I’ve spent hundreds of woman-hours producing compost!

Likewise with chickens. We have a place for them: The abandoned wooden play structure would convert beautifully into an urban chicken coop. All we would need to do is do it. It wouldn’t even cost very much as much of the work could be done with materials at hand. Then I could have chickens. And what would I get with chickens? Eggs. How many eggs does my household use every week? Two dozen or so? About five dollars at the grocery store? Boy, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to get chickens! And then, as the chickens age and stop laying, it becomes time to learn how to slaughter them and fricassee them.

I come from a long line of poor, sturdy German peasants, and the idea of keeping old hens as pets is appalling. You stew old chickens and eat them. That’s what they are for. Likewise, pigs, chickens and rabbits are ways of converting things you can’t eat into things you can eat. And you get manure to compost and improve your soil as a side benefit.

So there’s the idea. But do I really want to go through all that work? I don’t have to right now, as every grocery store is full of eggs and already processed poultry and pork. Isn’t it a better use of my time-management skills to stop daydreaming about my petite homestead and become a supremely skillful shopper instead and minimize my grocery dollars?

And that’s what I have done. It takes less time and less effort for me to be a skilled and fearless guerrilla grocery shopper than it does for me to go into full-on food production mode. I grow vegetables and some fruit. I don’t have any livestock. I like the idea but not the reality of the work involved. Even the garden we have is becoming too much work as I no longer have the time to cook and preserve all that bounty. So the idea of huge amounts of produce has run smack into the reality of my time and energy limits.

This past summer, I spent all of my time writing and sewing. I can’t spend two or three hours a day cooking and have time for everything else. And cooking from the garden where I have to clean every last carrot and parsnip has taken plenty of time. That organic beautifully fresh mesclun I grow? Every leaf has to be inspected for slugs. They may be organic sources of protein, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat them. So I cook every few days and when I do cook, I make huge amounts. We eat leftovers (planned-overs if you want to be nice about it) for days. When recalcitrant family members complain, the response is as you’d expect: Take over the cooking and cleanup and see how long it takes. This solves the problem.

What does this mean for the idea of a garden? It means that next year, most of the beds will lie fallow. This isn’t a bad thing, they’ll benefit from a thick coating of green manure. The soil’s flora, fauna, and fungi can reweave themselves over the year of rest. And I won’t have to deal with the enormous amounts of produce: either I spend time cooking and preserving or I watch the excess that we can’t use or give away turn into compost. So idea of big garden meets reality of work: Big garden turns back into very small garden.

But the clash between ideas and reality doesn’t stop there, but that’s a subject for next Saturday.