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The LA Hillbillies, Photo Courtesy FAZ/ Chris Kelly

The Revolution of the Squashes

Critics of Globalization and Capitalism are demonstrating in Heiligendamm. The Family Dervaes on the other hand lives a life apart from the consumer society – and that in the middle of the Big City Jungle of Los Angeles.

If Jules Dervaes steps out of his house door, he stands in a jungle: man-tall artichoke plants with gigantic violet leaves stretch themselves tall under bananna and peach trees. impressive cucumber and squash vines knot themselves into a tightly-knit leaf-weave. Tomato plants, beanstocks and grapevines frame the beds of herbs and lettuce.  Beyond the curious complaints of two dwarf goats one notes a droning sound-the freeway. For Dervaes’ house lies not in the remoteness of a pastoral landscape, rather right in the middle of the City, between two eight-lane main arteries of Greater Los Angeles, in Pasadena, California.

Exactly here, in the much-maligned Babylon of America, in a hundreds of miles stretching ulcer of concrete and steel where the air conditioning runs even in seventy-degree weather, where “Carpool” means an automobile with more than one occupant, where unconscious comfort determines the lifestyles of the rich, the beautiful and the thoughtless, here stands the “urban farm” of Jules Dervaes. The presence is not large: between two schools and a church community snuggles a parcel of land comprising barely 800 square meters with a small house from 1917, an equipment shed, animal enclosures and the garden which serves Dervaes and his three grown children as their source of nourishment and income. 2700 kilograms of fruits and vegetables were harvested by this family the year before last on four hundred square meters. A large part covered their nutritional needs, with the profit from the surplus one buys what one doesn’t (yet) produce: milk products, beans and grains.

Jules Dervaes is an odd survival artist, a Big-City Indian, a Scrounger who mostly uses what the urban landscape offers him: rusty wheels and plywood scraps as trellises, wood that remains from municipal tree maintenance as heating fuel. He has no Air Conditioning.  He has ripped up the concrete slabs of his driveway so that rain and sprinkler-water remain on the property, instead of running away down the gutters. The family car, a huge 1988 Chevrolet Suburban, is fueled with Biodiesel which Dervaes distills, with his own homebuilt processor, from the used cooking oils of surrounding restaurants.

Jules Dervaes regards the amenities of modern technology with skepticism. “One loses the feeling for one’s own capacities”, he says. The Life(style?) concept of the former Mathematics teacher is an experiment, a philosophical test of the autonomy of urban dwellers in the twenty-first century. Growing wine somewhere on the edge of a forest and declaring oneself free of urban pressures is one thing.   But in the middle of a metropolis?  Even here, says Dervaes, can one step away and recreate a totally personal independence.
“I have sprung over a generation and myself and oriented myself back to the life(style? ) of my grandfather”, says Dervaes, seated at the oval dining table.   Nothing here other than two flowerpots is new.  Dervaes has found the couch by the roadside, a couple of shelves were also found in the trash. The family acquired the wooden sideboard and several cabinets in secondhand stores and the floral-patterned curtains were sewn from used bedsheets. One is particularly proud of a recently-acquired hand-cranked washing machine. “Ideal for underwear, socks and dishtowels,” as Dervaes says, “Voluntary Simplicity” he calls it.

Not more than two kilometers away, the other world goes at its normal pace. In Marston’s Restaurant, Feta cheese salad and mango-encrusted chicken breast are served- with vegetables from the Dervaes’ Family Garden. Marston’s is located in an upscale neighborhood; in the parking lot BMW SUVs stand next to Lexus sedans, carefully-coiffed ladies and tanned gentlemen in angora coats come here to dine. The irony of this is not lost on Jules Dervaes, on the one side to build ones own (chosen?) lifestyle on the leftovers of the Consumer Society and on the other side to provide this Consumer Society with his own surplus. His is an inner Independence, not a withdrawal from the World.

His pioneer spirit was [re]awakened in 1992, as a drought was visited upon California and the city began to exact fees from residents for watering their lawns. “It was so bad”, he recollected, “that residents of Santa Barbara sprayed their lawns with green paint.” Dervaes, on the other hand plowed his lawn under and sowed edible wildflowers and fancy cresses and began to sell his produce to local restaurants in which luxury culinary items were considered fashionable. That’s when his plan began to take shape; to live from his little piece of land, in the middle of the city.

Of course then came the dot-com crash and the resultant economic slowdown; suddenly his fine flowers were out. Armed with nothing but a green thumb he had inherited from his hobby-gardening Father, he began to educate himself as a garden-guerrilla and to plant Fruit and Vegetables. It was a difficult path to completion, overwhelmingly gardening work, with the additional need for outside income from gathering of bottles and cans to feed himself and the Family.
The Life experiment also demanded victims.
“That was not easy.” Like when they were picked on because they had cheap tennis shoes and not the fashionable Nike brand. The children didn’t attend a school, instead Dervaes “ home-schooled” his children , as is possible in the United States. They learned how to provide  themselves what they needed to know. Daughter Anais, 32, told of the many hours in the city library, “Today I know, that I can learn anything myself. That makes me independent.” Her brother Justin, 29, has developed himself to be a gifted Mechanic. And

Jordanne, 23, takes care of the animals.  She recently taught herself Programming and put up the website of the Family (www.pathtofreedom.com). “Unfortunately”, says Jordanne, we have given up the social structure in which one learns from the elders”.
“We have to help ourselves with Grandmother Google.” The Internet is one of the few modern exceptions, that the family does not wish to do without.

Some hold the Dervaes for Extremists, they recount. “That which we do here, definitely has a dangerous undercurrent. We point out other possibilities in a society that has lost every sense of that which man as an individual is capable of, without groups, unions and such. On their internet site, the family calls out for a” home-grown revolution” with the “hands as weapons of mass creation”.

When his  kids several years ago wanted to drive to a World Trade Demonstration in San Diego, said Dervaes, “You can go to protest and march all day-or you can stay here and plant something in the Garden.”   The kids stayed home.  “If we don’t change ourselves”, opined Dervaes, “How shall the world change?” A Globalization Opponent Who Starts with Himself.

[Thanks again DT for taking time to translate this article into English for our readers.]

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  1. gerry medland says:

    Superb,Stunning,a shot in the arm for all of us who want to see and be the ‘change’in our lives today,tomorrow and in the future!