Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

Self-Sufficiency is a cardinal American value. Yet our chickens demonstrated, just last night, what a crackpot idea it can be.

The hens missed the dusk closing of the automatic door. I'd made the mistake of giving them a treat a bit too late in the day, so they ended up stuck outside the coop. When I went out to check on them, as we do nightly to be sure all are safely tucked away to roost, all six hens were clustered together, for warmth, on and beneath the cleated board that leads to the closed door. In a few minutes, I ushered them inside and shone a light to help them onto the roosting bar.

Chickens, like humans, have no night vision. They needed a light, and without it, they huddle together for mutual protection.

When I visit homesteading e-lists and Web sites, I run into the "Prepper" mentality quite often. These folks often assume that with enough supplies, ammunition, and skills, they could ride out nearly any human-made or natural disaster.

I think they need to watch a flock of chickens. They might also want to imagine their world without helpers with medical skills, without a policeman to call to sort out contentious neighbor, without a local government to resolve property disputes.

No, thanks. I'll take the imperfect compromise we call "modern civilization."  But either way, I'd also take a community over the myth of the heroic, Neitzschean loner who shapes the world with his bare male hands. In truth, that macho posturing gives way to realism of splitting wood with a hydraulic splitter, using a tractor, and hiring help. I do split wood by hand for exercise, but in a time when I must manage other tasks, the big machine helps us heat enough that the splitter has paid for itself in its first two yeas of operation.

Friends offer help, but too often I know them too well. They are not strong enough, they lack the skills and training that I got over twenty years with my father-in-law. They mean well but "play out" after 45 minutes of clearing brush or moving lumber. Even worse, they might be injured and I trust no one with my chain saws, tractors, or other machinery that can lop off limbs or crush a human body. This is what the Preppers fail to consider. Unless they are both physically fit and have a group of similar friends, any ventures into self-sufficiency would fail. Too many of my fellow citizens are metro-area folks and pretty darned soft.  A gym membership does not prepare one for the sort of work a homestead demands. And while I'm not Conan the Barbarian, I can work many hours outside doing physical work. Thank God for that.

So I'd recommend an old and rather forgotten literary reading when one gets tempted to imagine a world without laws or restrictions. Try Emerson's "Self Reliance." I'm breaking his own rule about quoting sages in quoting him, but this passage tells me how an individual might cope with a conformist world without becoming a misanthrope:
Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day.
Emerson is not much read any longer, yet this Unitarian minister had a great influence on many American thinkers and what were once called "Men of Action." While his prose might not have the punch it did in a less harried, more attentive age, we might wade in again.

Once we know ourselves, in the way Emerson recommends, then seek out a community of others, we won't be self sufficient. But we'll have the self-reliance to find others to huddle with us, to help us in a sustainable way,  through the darkest of seasons.

A blessed Solstice to you all, as the light comes back and the ground warms enough for another year of turning the soil