11 March 2007

The Why Of Self-Sufficiency

I met a man, recently, who, I could tell, was quite taken with our somewhat-self-sufficient lifestyle. Clearly of an age where he feels unable to job-hop – too close to retirement to risk jeopardising his pension plan, and deeply unhappy with his work situation. I can empathise. I remember that feeling: day after grey day in a multi-storey concrete box, breathing recycled air, recycled fast-food lunch, recycled office politics, endlessly recycling the same paperwork the same bits back and forth, to and fro. At the end of the month The Company arrange for some bits to get shuffled in the computer bowels of various banks, from whence more bit shuffling happens to make the mortgage payment pay the credit cards pay the car pay the taxmen pay the bank pay the healthcare pay the life-insurance pay pay pay all the death merchants to stave off their death grip on your life your breath your soul. Remember that the word "mortgage" comes from the Old French for "death pledge".

No wonder I wanted to find a way Back To The Land. No wonder he does, too. How many people complain of feeling "disconnected", "out of touch", complain of a "sense of unreality". Of course all those bits are unreal! Trust me on this; I'm a Computer Scientist! "  Out of Touch" with what? "Disconnected" from what?

The Earth. The simple connection of bare feet and hands in contact with the soil. The simple pleasure of harvesting more cucumbers than you can realistically eat, that you planted and cared for. The simple connection of watching water fall from the sky, the music of it trinkling into your water tanks. Often, when it rains, I go into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water, and drink it as I watch the rain fall outside the window: Now this rain falls through my body. No other water ever tastes as good. Then go outside and return the water to the Earth. Hard not to feel connected, then.

Impossible to be disconnected from your Potroast Chicken when you had to kill, pluck, butcher and cook him yourself. Very, very far, this, from the disconnected, tired, pale Chicken Little, wrapped in plastic, prettily presented on a non-recyc polypunnet in the supermarket. But then: I know everything about how my Chicken lived. How I had to remove the last bits of eggshell stuck to his head when he hatched. How we kept him under lights for warmth the first few days of his life because his birdbrained mommy abandoned him. How he excelled at finding well-hidden egg-laying places for his Hens. How he loved to crow at two in the morning. He died so that I could eat. But he died with respect; without fear; as quickly and humanely as possible.

And I take full responsibility.

Ah! Now we arrive at the essence. At the heart of the matter. My Chicken Dinner was not a factory product. Nor am I; nor are you. How much does the modern world take your life out of your own hands? I know all the arguments from economics about specialisation, about multiple layers of value-add. None of them address the dehumanisation that accompanies it. Human beings did not evolve to spend 40 hours a week hacking away at some meaningless single-function task. Honestly, I am convinced that most corporate meetings are just a way to get some social interaction going. But what quality is that interaction? A meeting over trivial bullshit, of questionable utility, in a group of people whose company you would never willingly choose...

But it's not for everybody. A great many people ''prefer'' not to have to take responsiblity for themselves, their needs and their actions. Probably a ''majority'' of people in the Western lifestyle mode have had any notion of resposibility and self-reliance brainwashed out of them at an early age by the education system. Well, I am (clearly!) not addressing them. Let them go on whingeing about their disconnected lives, their empty existence. For those who feel they lead a full and fulfilled life in the Western mode, Good Luck when energy gets real scarce and the house of cards come tumbling down. Those meals bought in fancy restaurants with credit supported by derivatives trading where 4 minutes constitutes a "long-term position"... well, they're truly not so nourishing, anyway, coming as they do from an impoverished agrifactory. No wonder you need all that health insurance -- your body cannot possibly obtain the nutrition it needs from "food" manufactured on a least-cost basis. So, if you truly believe that your modern lifestyle fulfils all your needs, if your spirit is strong with fulfilment: This Is Not For You! I wish you well. Really!

But. If you feel that there is a gap, a void in the bottom of your soul, then I strongly suggest you think about getting just a little more self-sufficient.

Just a little. We don't need to sell-up everything, don sackcloth and righteous self-denial, and move the the country. Self-sufficiency is not, and has never been, about self-denial or doing without. I plan to address the How of starting in small steps in future posts. Although it may seem that we leapt off a cliff, all in one go it was not really so. We adopted small practices, took baby steps, cultivated simple habits and changed our thinking over a span of ten years before finally taking the plunge: upping-stakes and moving to the countryside in 1996. You don't have to swallow the whole cup of coffee all in one go!


For the decade preceding my Move To The Country, and probably for several years following, I struggled to find words describing what we were really doing. For many years I would tell people that I wanted to "Go Farming". That was wrong. I would not wish to be identified with those Plunderers of the Earth, those Rapers of the Soil. Modern farming is a travesty; a slap in the face of all that truly supports life. Thankfuly, most modern agriculturists would prefer not to be called "farmer".

I tried calling it "smallholding" -- but that seems to me to carry too many images of landed gentry, horses grazing peacefully on the front lawn, servants hacking away in the kitchen. Too many people in citified suburban subdivisions of one acre doing "smallholding". Too little idea of actually supporting yourself.

I tried the American term "Homesteading". That's close. Very close! But not very well understood outside America. Not well understood inside America, for that matter. For many years I was subscribed and contributed to the Homestead mailing list. For the first few years it was a great resource; a great source of support, inspiration and learning. Then it morphed into something else. Lots of people looking for free land, and not really grokking the idea of self-reliance.

Terminology: it's a difficult thing. I'd love to know how to choose the half-dozen keywords that people will use to google this topic. I'd love the web-traffic. But I don't know the words. Nowadays I stick to "self-sufficiency", but that phrase took me 15 years to find, and I don't have the faintest clue how long it may take you, groping in the dark, as I did for so long, to find the words to describe this desire, this yearning to be free, to be connected.  To become fully human.

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