For four decades, a few Denison University students have shunned dorm life and chosen to rough it in the name of sustainability.
After the first five minutes of walking from your car to the Homestead at Denison University in Granville you arrive at an imposing pair of letters. They rise as high as your head, maybe higher, and from a certain angle on the gravel road they block your ability to see the buildings and outdoor facilities that make up the small complex. Made out of thick stone, the capitalized “WE” have sunk slightly into the ground, with letters angled towards each other a bit. It’s the way those letters lean that is the first clue of what is at the end of the gravel drive.
After 40 years, the intent of the Homestead at Denison is still in vogue. In the 1970s, the late Denison University professor of biology Robert W. Alrutz had an idea for a living experiment involving a collective decision-making environment, focused on eco-sensibility, for a small group of students at the college. Alrutz’s vision took root in the rolling hills just north of Denison’s campus where students helped design and build the cabins. To this day, the work of the Homestead’s student residents continues each semester—and during summers—depending on the goals of the students who inhabit the cabins there.
Amid the new chicken coop, the wood-powered kitchen, the garden and living spaces is a group of students who have decided to be resolute within their small community and outside of it, and each day they discuss and decide the best ways in which they can live as “WE.” To them, making decisions as a group in a modern world that too-often champions individual accomplishments allows their purposefulness to add more muscle to their ultimate goal of working together toward sustainability.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
They want to thrive with each other, both on the Homestead and off it. After decades of what began as an experiment, these students may be demonstrating results we all need to see.
Holding fast to their community, each new set of students has the freedom to mold, scale and develop the buildings and surrounding landscape. Carried with them are the decisions made in the past, what they see in the present and what they feel that future students will need to thrive.
All of this is done during the dynamic and stressful years they spend in college. For the Homestead’s residents, there is a lot of manual labor every day. Most college students might prefer an easier path instead of one in which they are almost wholly responsible.
Spanish professor Jason Busic, co-chair of the Homestead advisory committee, phrased it this way: “The Homestead is a model of what a learning community can be. It is an opportunity for students to step outside the highly structured academic, social and physical environment of the university—any university—and connect with the real: the natural world, close and meaningful community, hands-on work and so forth. Abstract ideas like sustainability and community living become concrete, immediate. Students get the chance, indeed are obliged, to work on these as real tasks, have real experiences, put into practice big issues.”
Cabin 1—one of the original buildings constructed in 1977—now serves as storage space instead of a residence. Cabin Phoenix, an earthship-designed building on a site where Cabin 2 burned down in 2000, features straw bale insulation and south-facing windows to optimize solar heat in the winter. Three homesteaders—colloquially referred to as homies—use that building as a residence.
Cabin Atlas, built in 2013 on the site where the original Cabin 3 was torn down, represents a giant step forward in both amenities and the sustainability. In Atlas, there is radiant floor heating; a composting toilet system; insulation made of cashew oil in the form of a spray foam; a Trombe wall for passive solar heating; a high-efficiency washer and dryer; and indoor showers. Cabin Bob, named after the founder of the Homestead, houses the wood-fire stove, as well as community areas for eating and studying.
The Homestead’s buildings might catch the eye first, but it’s the gardens, the chicken coop and the woods around the buildings that help sustain the students just as much. Vital parts of the students’ days include growing and canning their own food, harvesting eggs and chopping enough wood to fill the barn each winter so that they will have heat.
According to the former chair of the Homestead advisory committee and English professor Linda Krumholz, the three main goals for the students living there are to learn independence and personal responsibility, to live environmentally conscious lives while putting their views about sustainability into action, and to learn and practice alternative philosophies. Those goals surely broaden and elevate the generally held concept of higher education, during which students learn skills and ideas that will help make them mature into contributing adults in society.
The Homestead’s goals challenge each student to rethink what an education can be, embolden them to challenge the simple expectations that society might hold for them, and give them the ultimate freedom to redefine what it means to be a responsible and mature adult. Maturity is a mental and emotional construct that can be wasted without the proper context of the realities of our world, and these students are tasked with confronting realities that whole generations of mankind before them have entirely ignored.
Talking to the students that are living there this semester you learn quickly that residents are not all environmental studies majors. Whether they are a cinema or English major, each student has their own reason for being there. Some want to learn how to live sustainably so that they will be prepared to live in the same fashion after Denison. Some want to have a better and fuller sense of community during their college experience. Others want—as did some of the original homesteaders—to remove themselves from the expectations of a typical college experience.
Regardless of their original reasons for why they choose to live there for a semester, a year, or longer, the students all have the same dedication to this deliberate lifestyle. Talking individually with them, walking the grounds with them, eating with them and seeing them prepare for a whole Saturday of chores, you get a glimpse inside their world. Chatting with them about trips they’ve taken to South America or their writing classes or how this environment reminds them of their own homes provides even more insight. No matter their majors and backgrounds, they’ve found a way to fit comfortably at the Homestead. Each student who lives there will undeniably leave their indentation somewhere on the grounds.
Scratched hurriedly on a small sheet of yellow paper and taped to one of the beams in Cabin Bob is the line: “They are all the right choices.” Its meaning? With intent, with an eye on global and community needs, stressing the simplicity of responsibility for each act as their own, there are very few wrong choices that these students can make.
Dependence is a shaky concept if you cannot name that which you are dependent on, but these students know the names of the people they depend on and they walk on the ground that promises to sustain them if properly tended. As The Homestead’s coordinator Kimberly Byce says, “In 20 years the Homestead could evolve from a fringe experiment to a mainstream model for living. As people continue to awaken to the realities of the climate crisis and what that will mean for daily life—cutting consumption, conserving resources, relying on local economies, existing in harmony with nature—they could look to the Homestead as an example of how they, too, can achieve a shift in mindset and skill sets.”
It’s a fantastic notion, that a small group of evolving students might be showing us how to best determine our own fates. But the enthusiasm they share with each other for the process of living simply and sustainably should—at the very least—give us hope for extending the future of our own communities.***
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