Starving into 2010

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Character outs early. I was a stubborn, obnoxious baby, bent on having my own way. My mother, a sensible woman, made the decision early on that, in the interest of peace, she should give me as much autonomy as it was possible to give to a child who couldn’t walk yet. And so it was, one morning when I was eight or nine months old, when I said my first word. (I was a precocious talker, but made up for it by being behind the curve in every other area of development.)

My mother was trying to dress me, and I was having none of it. I squirmed and fought and carried on. My mother, accustomed to this, soldiered on. Finally, my patience was at an end. “Self!” I proclaimed, and snatched the clothes away from her. I got my pants on my head, but, goddammit, I was going to dress myself.

I was bent on being in control of my life, from the ripe old age of zero.

Given my track record, you’d think I’d get wholeheartedly behind the concept of self-sufficiency – hey, it’s got ‘self’ right in the name! – but I find myself surprisingly ambivalent about it.

I like the pioneer spirit it implies, the do-it-yourself willingness to work hard at something wholesome and constructive. But self-sufficiency also implies keeping your fellow man at arm’s length. In a way, it’s a vote of non-participation. At its most extreme, it has an off-the-grid, move-to-Idaho kind of militancy.

I don’t aspire to self-sufficiency. On a logistical level, it requires more work than I’m willing to do, but I’m not on board with it ideologically, either. Interdependence is, I think, part of what makes us civilized. Today, you’re growing your own turnips. Tomorrow, you’re the Unabomber.

I’ve had “self-sufficiency” in my subtitle since this blog’s inception a year ago, but only because I haven’t come up with a better way to describe what I’m doing. And other people are doing it, too – I’ve read books and blogs by people who hunt and fish, gather and grow, and very few of them do it with the aim of walling themselves off from the world’s food supply. Instead, “self-sufficiency” has become shorthand for trying to use the resources at our disposal – personal, financial, ecological, and agricultural resources – to feed ourselves and our families wholesome, interesting, good-tasting food. It is an effort to supplement, rather than to suffice.

Somehow, though, “Bumbling toward supplementation” sounds like a half-assed attempt to fulfill very low expectations. (Yeah, I hear you saying, “If the shoe fits …”)

I know some of the people who read Starving are undertaking some of the same projects I am. Do any of you balk at “self-sufficiency?” Have you found a better way to describe what it is we’re doing?

I’ve started thinking of it as “first-hand food.” First-hand food is simply that which you procure yourself, whether by raising it at home or harvesting it from the world around you. It can be as simple as a window-box herb garden or as complex as a full-blown farm. It can require minimal time and effort or it can be a full-time job. First-hand food is fresh, whole food whose provenance you know.

But it’s not just about eating. It’s about being outdoors, getting exercise, showing children where food comes from, learning about plants and animals. For me, that last one’s big. At 46, I’m past my physical and cognitive peak, and it feels very good to be getting better at a few things.

And I did get better at a few things in 2009. Fishing and shellfishing, gardening and foraging. Kevin and I ventured into lobstering, mushroom growing, and chicken raising. I delved into fermentation and preservation. I learned about motors and tools, trucks and trailers. It was a rich, interesting year, and I’ll be continuing the food-a-day challenge into 2010.

I hope that you, my readers, will stick with me. I’m grateful for the time you’ve spent, the attention you’ve paid, and, particularly, the comments you’ve left. Starving is way more interesting when we’re doing it together. I feel as though I know some of you, and I’d like to get to know more of you in the coming year.

Meantime, I’m trying to come up with a first-hand food subtitle that conveys the appropriate mix of enthusiasm and ineptitude. I’d ask for suggestions, but there’s only so far I can go with this whole interdependence thing. Self!

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Comments

  1. Though Starving captured me mid-year 2009, I have loved my every minute on the site ever since. Thank you, Tamar, for the consistent learning, frailty, wisdom, humor, and just plain smarts you display consistently in your writing. You truly are a rare woman. I look forward to 2010. Though I am hopelessly interdependent, I intend to absorb, integrate, and promulgate your experiences and the stories you create from them. And in so doing, memories from more self-sufficient times return for my enjoyment. Happy New Year!

  2. I think that self-sufficiency used to work, but is something of a misnomer, in this day and age. To be truly self-sufficient would take all of one’s time, and no one has time for that.

    I don’t think that first-hand food covers it though, as well, because I think there are a lot of folks, myself included, that are trying to pick up more skills than just providing food for ourselves, although I think that scratching out food first-hand is a huge part of it. For me, it’s the first part of it, and I’ve yet to put my garden together. I won’t call it a farm until I have bees, chickens and rabbits, and maybe a dwarf goat though.

    I’m probably more interested in most in acquiring useful skills, but they seem to pay off. I can’t afford a lot of the things I want, so I teach myself to make them. Maybe it’s all about scratching for a better life from your own resourcefulness. Maybe that’s a better term for it- self-resourcefulness. If you think about it in your own case, learning all the new things you have this year, you now have greater self-resources from which to tap, which you didn’t have a year ago. My big skill attainment this year was learning to knit and can. Next year I’m concentrating on learning how to feed us from the back yard. Maybe I’ll learn how to forage or fish as well, or maybe that will have to wait until next year.

    In any case, I’m working toward greater self-resourcefulness, which is what I think you’re doing.

  3. For me its simply better eating…I am from the fat kid school of thought. I am all for self-reliance, but a tasty meal is my true motivation. I admit digging for shellfish became an obsession this year, but for me it’s very Zen and mentally relaxing. Occaisionally, I go mushroom foraging too, its nice to take a walk in the woods in late September. Truth be told its still those yummy rewards that really get me out there doing it. “Bumbling toward better eating in the Wilds of Cape Cod.” Yeah, that’s me.

    That said, bravo to you Tamar, your journey has been entertaining to read and I am very happy that your are bumbling along into the New Year and taking all with you!

  4. Mimi — Thanks for the kind words. It’s very gratifying to be read and enjoyed.

    Paula — For me, it is all about the food. There’s very little that I’ve done (or plan on doing) that isn’t about eating. If it’s not direct food procurement, it’s things like building the wood-fired oven. Although I see the appeal of things like knitting and carpentry, they don’t call to me in the same way. It sounds like your efforts are more diverse.

    Rick — I’ve found that, sometimes, what I grow or gather myself isn’t as good as the same food, grown or gathered by someone who’s better at it. While I’m in it to eat, there is independent satisfaction in acquiring the food, and even making the best of it when the food is less than perfect.

  5. Self-sufficiency is definitely a catch-all word, broad enough to encompass turnip growers and unabombers. So I suppose it isn’t a definition per se.

    I like Paula’s self-resourcefulness idea, and your ‘first hand food’ term. I don’t know how to define something that’s so individual. We all seem to come to it for such different reasons.

    I changed my life a decade ago for the simple reason that physical work staved off a crippling depression. And eating is a harmless pleasure that brings me joy. Self-reliance gives me a sense of control over the unknown.(Cripes! It’s like an episode of Dr. Phil all of a sudden…)

    n.b. – Article in last week’s New Yorker on engineering a better stove for developing nations. Might interest you as you put together plans for your oven

  6. Happy New Year! I look forward to more great stories here in 2010 of your pioneer days. Your blog expresses a desire for simplicity that many of us feel as the world gets more complicated, and a nostalgia for something almost lost. Too many people do not give a second thought to where their food comes from or how it reaches their table. Corporate interests have won out over small farms. A sense of community needs to be revived. Did you hear the latest, that GM seed coatings may be what is killing the bees?

  7. I like the term “self-reliance”.

    I think that’s what people like us are working towards. We don’t want to cut ourselves off from the world, we just don’t want to be reliant on others for every little thing we need.

    It encompasses growing food, cooking, preserving, foraging, hand skills, crafts, mechanicals, construction – pretty much everything. And it doesn’t cut us off from everyone else. We can trade, barter, cooperate, do and collect favours, etc.

    In some ways, money is one way to measure our level of reliance on others. Money makes up for the things we aren’t able to do for ourselves. The less we need money in our day-to-day lives, the more self-reliant we are.

  8. my professional advice 😉 (hey, this is why people pay me the invisible bucks)

    Starving off the Land
    Tamar Haspel: hunter, gatherer, grower

    its specific, to the point, gives you a personal brand and good SEO and concentrates on what you DO, not try to qualify what you don’t.

  9. In economics they call self-sufficiency autarky, and it is definitely not what you are aiming at. “Self-reliance” would be OK but for its windy Emersonian associations. “Self-resourcefulness” (as opposed to other-resourcefulness?) would force me to revoke your blogging license. What you’re doing is simply what we old smokers used to call “rolling your own.”

  10. I forgot Amanda’s suggestion, which would be awesome if you were an action hero in the movies: “Hunter. Gatherer. Grower. Governor. Schwarzenegger.”

  11. Aaron, dude, you’re killing my mojo.

    sides… are you suggesting Tamar’s NOT an action hero?

  12. Jen — Amazing what physical work can do, isn’t it? And I did see the New Yorker piece. In fact, I was just thinking about tracking down one of the guys mentioned in it to try and get a handle on the thermodynamics of a dome oven.

    Darren — Your comment is making me try and parse the ways in which I want to be self-reliant, and I’m afraid it boils down to my work and my food. I see the appeal of building my own structures and knitting my own sweaters, but it’s more because I’m a cheapskate. Your motives are more honorable, I think.

    Amanda and Aaron — I’m liking the superhero thing. Hunter. Gatherer. Grower. Dabbler — oh, no, wait. Scratch that last one. “Rolling your own” is actually pretty close. Is there a more dignified way to say it?

  13. No. Why would you want to be dignified when there is nothing dignified about your project? “Rolling Our Own Since September 2008” — you could do a lot worse, and if you listen to the other advice you’re getting, you will.

  14. I don’t think you should call yourself a hunter until you hunt something other than shellfish and maybe scup, which is really stretching the term “hunter.”
    But it isn’t so much a question of how the name sounds as it is what you are doing and why you are doing it, which is something we hunter/gatherers sometimes chat about around the fire under the stars. It wasn’t long ago that many rural people grew gardens, raised chickens, hunted, fished, foraged, grew a pig or two and so on and so forth. The devil makes work of idle hands? Of course, the local foodshed offered more as well, in terms of meat, egg, dairy, fruit and veggie farms. So if you didn’t want to grow it, you could still get it from a neighbor, sometimes even by trade.
    There has been a continuous thread of gardener/chicken keeper/fisherfolk around here that is still unbroken. And it hasn’t anything to do with being self-sufficient – that’s for the serious folk. But it does make for good eating and, for some of us, it follows a natural progression away from environmentally damaging farming practices and spiritually and environmentally damaging food production methods. (Uh, was H1N1 a wake-up call about how fast vaccines can be delivered or was it more about how utterly disgusting the Tetracycline-fed pork is that US companies produce here and in places like Mexico. Local residents reportedly thought the virus was being spread by the flies that teemed from huge, stinking open manure lagoons. Then the spinach growing in the flood plain of those feed lots and manure pits…But we wouldn’t want to raise the price on that $.99 hamburger – people would starve.)
    Also, I think we grow because the backyard is there, and it’s fun and nourishing.

  15. Aaron — I dunno — makes it sound like a weed blog.

    Beth — You’re right about the hunting. I’m no hunter, yet. I did sign up for my hunter safety class (again), and should be certified this year. And I think your very last point is probably the best explanation I have for what I do. The backyard is there, and it’s fun and nourishing.

  16. no time at the moment for a longer comment, (which I have), but PLEASE don’t call it rolling our own!

  17. Tamar – if your as-yet undefined lifestyle ends up not working for you, you should take to the road with Aaron and Amanda as a comedy trio. HI-larious commentary. Will be laughing at the ‘rolling your own’ thread for ages.

    I second the superhero comment. But you’ll need an outfit. And special powers. I’m pretty sure it’s the law.

  18. this discussion is really distracting me from my facebook.

  19. Yay! I was hoping you were going to keep….rolling your own in 2010. I like that one the best so far. I’ve loved following along, learning, chuckling, oohing and ahhing. Looking forward to more. And you guys, she’s totally an action hero—-Tamar: Posh Pilgrim

  20. Susan — Although I like the RYO spirit, I can’t use the phrase. I’d only be disappointing every Googling pothead on the planet.

    Jen — I’ll work on the suit. Do I have to spin, knit, and sew it myself?

    Amanda — Come on, this is way better than Facebook.

    Sara — Posh Pilgrim! Nice! (Although, if you saw my house and how not posh it is …) And thanks for the kind words.

    For the time being, I’m sticking with what I’ve got. But I’ll be thinking about a new tagline …

  21. Tamar – Sewing et al is not part of your ethos. I see waders and a seashell bra (upcycled from a good meal of course), perhaps chicken feathers in your hair…

  22. Kevin F. (the spouse for those who did not realize it) says:

    Jen- Seashell bra, chicken feathers, after a good meal…Now were talking!

  23. Seashell bra? Chicken feathers? That’s it!! I’m cutting all you guys off.

  24. What about “shortening the food chain” or “yanking the food chain”? Or even “unchaining our food”?

  25. Darren — Nice play on food chain. Wish I’d thought of that. It’s going on my short list.

  26. I regularly visit a website called “Self Sufficientish”. They call themselves “Ishers” because they recognise that, in this day and age, it’s almost impossible to be completely self sufficient, but there’s almost always something you can do towards that goal, even if you live in a flat.
    I’m enjoying reading about somewhere quite different from the Welsh Borders, by the way.

  27. Lesley — Thanks for the heads-up on an excellent site. A lot of what I do is pretty ishy, so it hits home. And thanks for visiting all the way from Wales!

  28. I think that, in some cases, “self sufficiency” gets tied in with “bootstrapping” and being beholden to no-one. In that regard, yes, it can wind up feeling a bit like a (Rather smug) withdrawal from hanging out with those plebes who have to buy their knitwear at wherever-they-shop. That said, I think that has something in common with a middle-class affluence that affords one the luxury of “just hiring someone” to handle the tasks we aren’t up to handling on our own (instead of needing to form relationships with other people).
    I don’t think it has much in common with the self-sufficiency I see around me: the plant-and-rant parties my friends host to help everyone get their gardens in; the perogie parties and jam swaps and knitting groups I attend where we swap knowledge and products both; the community gardens in my neighbourhood… or, for that matter, the very self-sufficient but also very close-knit farming community of my grandparents and cousins, and the way my own community looks out for each other (taking each other grocery shopping, often in each others’ pantries) when someone hits a bad stretch, and shares information on where there are low-hanging fruit trees getting ripe int he neighbourhood.
    I find self-sufficiency has more to do with cultivating a small-scale, localized, non-cash-based economy (sometimes that means barter, sometimes that means sharing, sometimes that mean “negabucks” (to use Erica’s term), but in all cases it means being able to value things (and people) in ways that aren’t based on a price tag) and with not relying on suppliers who aren’t in the boat with you and whose supply is quite a long way away from anything you can control.

    That, at any rate, is my thought on that one. 🙂

    • It’s an excellent thought, and a very good description of why “self-sufficiency” isn’t, really. It’s just a different kind of interdependence.

      Now, how to I wrangle an invitation to a “plant and rant?”