To hell with self-sufficiency

Last week, just up the street, there was terror. There were a couple of really bad guys, maiming and killing people. Boston and its suburbs were locked down as one suspect, armed and dangerous, eluded capture.

Here on Cape Cod, we were perfectly safe; nobody trying to elude capture flees to a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, accessible only by bridge or boat. The trauma and horror, the grief and the fear, were as remote to us as if we’d been in Nebraska. Kevin and I followed the news intermittently, and went about our business.

We’ve never aspired to self-sufficiency, but interconnectedness never feels as important as when there is terror, just up the street.

On September 11th, we lived in New York. Kevin’s apartment, where we were that day, was literally in the shadow of the south tower of the World Trade Center. When it fell, we stood in a closet doorway, the way you’re supposed to in an earthquake, and hoped it wouldn’t fall on us. We didn’t leave the building until that afternoon, when we walked through the rubble, to my Upper West Side apartment, and moved in together.

I remember dinner. We went out, to the Chinese place down the street. Everyone, it seems, was out. We were all talking to the people on the corner, the people in line, the people at the next table. We were New Yorkers on a day when we were all New Yorkers.

I don’t want a life that sets me apart from my fellow man. I value the connections that interdependence fosters; they are the neurons of civilization. In times of trouble, I don’t want to go to ground, with my husband and my root cellar and my generator. I want to reach out, and to know that we’re all in this together.

Kevin and I have freezers full of food, a lake full of water, and a property with enough wood to heat our house and cook our dinner in perpetuity. We have tools. We have skills. We have guns. Come Armageddon, those would look like the building blocks of survival. But, come Armageddon, I’ll go down with the ship, thank you very much. The idea that we’d hunker down on our two acres, trying to protect what’s ours against desperate people who aren’t so lucky, is more distasteful to me than any fiery end.

Tonight, for dinner, I scrambled eggs from our chickens with bacon from our pigs and onions from our cellar and garlic from our friends. It was, as it always is, profoundly satisfying to eat food that we grew, food that we knew. I love our two acres, and what we’ve done with them. But I never miss cities, and neighbors, and humanity, as much as when there is terror, just up the street.

40 people are having a conversation about “To hell with self-sufficiency

  1. Stephen Andrew says:

    I can’t imagine what a strange feeling it was to be relatively close but another world away. So I shouldn’t be expecting you on the next season of “Doomsday Preppers”…
    Great post.

  2. Yeah, when people start talking in serious survivalist terms, I often wonder: What do they think will happen if the shit really hits the fan? Don’t they think we’ll be responding as communities, collectively? Do they really plan to defend their home and their well-stocked pantries against their neighbors?

  3. Nicely put. Come Armageddon my friends know to come over for an end of the world BBQ! Might as well enjoy what’s in our freezer. All kidding aside, tragedy seems to remind us of how we are interconnected. Maybe we should remember this more often? Thanks for sharing Tamar.

  4. Reading this again (which I always hate doing), I find I conflated two things that don’t necessarily go together. I think a lot of people who strive for “self-sufficiency” do it for the same reason we grow our own food — they find it interesting and constructive. It’s not necessarily, and perhaps not usually, an end-of-times survival strategy.

    People use the word “self-sufficiency” because there isn’t a better one. It doesn’t necessarily mean isolation. Still, I think interdependence is what to strive for.

    • That’s an important point, Tamar. I know plenty of people who are engaged in a wide range of activities that could fall under “self-sufficiency” or “self-reliance,” yet have no apparent “survivalist” tendencies. We might be well-advised to think and talk more clearly about being engaged and involved with our own sustenance and shelter, and drop the “self-” prefixes.

  5. I come from a family that has more than its share of survivalist nuts. I have always maintained in the face of people gleefully slobbering about what they will do when the world as we know it hiccups that 1) my preference is to be one of the victims who is killed immediately, as in vaporized at gorund zero, executed quickly by the invading forces, etc., rather than dealing with all of the unpleasantness that comes after, and 2) as long as I have food my friends and neighbors will not starve. I will no more allow someone to starve on my doorstep as I eat than fly over the moon. Self sufficiency that eliminates community from the solution is really just a version of pulling the covers over your head in hopes that the monster won’t get you. I do not want to be barricaded with my MRE’s and boatload of weapons and ammo (unless the zombies attack!); I want to invite my neighbors in and thrive together.

  6. Laura, I’m with you — and think most other people are, too. But I think that would all be clearer if we (that’s the royal we — all of us involved in doing stuff like this) took Tovar’s advice and took the “self” out of the way we talked about this.

    So, what’s a better word than “self-sufficiency” to describe growing and hunting your own food, and maybe trying to provide your own energy or fibers — but emphatically not trying to cut yourself off from interdependence.

    But, then again, if you’re growing and hunting your own food, and maybe trying to provide your own energy or fibers, how are you NOT trying to cut yourself off from interdependence?

    I’m not sure I know.

    • I’m not sure what the best term is either.

      I’ll just offer this observation: As a society, we’ve become so accustomed to specialized labor roles that it seems unusual when people grow their own food (or engage in similar activities). In another time and place, having multiple skill sets, including food-related skills, would seem normal. It would also seem like part of the fabric of a resilient community.

      Some people think of their food-growing and related efforts in that larger frame: as a set of practices that are useful to their own families and also to their communities, both in the present and in a future that might or might not include widespread catastrophe.

  7. When I first started Starving, my tagline was “Bumbling toward self-sufficiency in the wilds of Cape Cod,” and I abandoned it for precisely the reason we’re getting at now. But, when I ditched it, I couldn’t come up with anything better.

    Goose, I don’t think husbandry conveys what we’re talking about, although it’s a good place to start. Husbandry, to me, is more about the management of livestock and, to a lesser extent, crops. I’m looking for something that’s more about the impetus.

    SA — Yeah, that whole “ring to it” problem gets me, too. I settled on “first-hand food,” but that’s never worked for me, either. Domestic production is pretty good, but it sounds so technocratic.

    Let’s keep thinking.

    • A good term or phrase would convey both interdependence and hands-on involvement in sustenance (and perhaps shelter, etc).

      For many people, for many centuries, it was called “living,” if it was called anything at all.

    • Possessing useful skills like growing vegetables or raising animals for dairy, meat or fiber, in my opinion, should be viewed as community-building. I plant a garden for my older neighbor every year and share whatever extras we harvest. In return, she helps me look after my livestock and babysits my children, on occasion. We mutually benefit from this since neither of us have extended family to depend upon, which was the historical norm. I am just now learning what community is and why it is so successful in other parts of the world. Each of us driving to the grocery in our separate cars and hiring out agribusiness or nannies for every little service should not be juxtaposed to “self-sufficiency”.

      • Christine, I’ve found some of the same things you’ve found. We trade our eggs and fish for all kinds of things, and there is community in the informal barter system that seems to crop up around people who grown their own. But that’s very different from the kind of community I found living in close proximity with lots of other people in a city. Very few of my connections there were as close as the kind where you trade food, but there were many, many more of them.

        Cities are the ultimate in interconnectedness, which is different, I think, from a being a community. And being “self-sufficient,” even in part, does feel like a cutting off for me. Say what you will about agribusiness (and I know many of us have a lot to say), they do free most of us to do things like invent stuff, and write books, and build things — everything we can do with the time we don’t have to devote to growing our own food. So I’ll disagree with you on not juxtaposing agribusiness and self-sufficiency; having the one frees us to make the choice about the other.

    • Of course words and phrases, and espeically words in the American English lexicon, are not fixed, but change. The denotative “Husbandry” is a good fit. Or so the OED, Webster, and a Etymology prove. But the conotative “Husbandry” doesn’t fit, not because “Husbandry” can’t connote impetus or because its denotative or connotative meaning is limited to the raising of animals or argricultural produce, in fact, the word means conservation, frugality, the prudent and careful management or conservation of resources; economy, and inter-dependence within a communbity, and when taken in the context of one who leaves, physically and spiritually, an urbane life to join a community of farmers, the word caries precicely what is called for. The example, in the etymoogy, is not Emerson, so not “self-reliance”, but Crèvecœur, who wrote to his old urbane European friends about his experiences as an American Farmer:

      As you are the first enlightened European I have ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with, you will not be surprised that I should, according to your earnest desire and my promise, appear anxious of preserving your friendship and correspondence. By your accounts, I observe a material difference subsists between your husbandry, modes, and customs, and ours; everything is local; could we enjoy the advantages of the English farmer, we should be much happier, indeed, but this wish, like many others, implies a contradiction; and could the English farmer have some of those privileges we possess, they would be the first of their class in the world.


      Sometimes I delight in inventing and executing machines, which simplify my wife’s labour. I have been tolerably successful that way; and these, Sir, are the narrow circles within which I constantly revolve, and what can I wish for beyond them? I bless God for all the good he has given me; I envy no man’s prosperity, and with no other portion of happiness than that I may live to teach the same philosophy to my children; and give each of them a farm, show them how to cultivate it, and be like their father, good substantial independent American farmers–an appellation which will be the most fortunate one a man of my class can possess, so long as our civil government continues to shed blessings on our husbandry. Adieu.

      –Letters From an American Farmer : Letter II – On The Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures, of an American Farmer

  8. I like the term “living” that Tovar proposes.

    I also have a theory about Doomsday preppers. Skills are only valuable in relation the the society in which they exist. I think people with the “grow, hunt, and farm” skillset feel they would be valued in a post-apocalyptic world. In our current world, respect and reward go to people who can manage a hedge fund, walk in Laboutin shoes, and have reality shows on E! – totally different skillset.

    Laura and Tamar, I’m with you at Ground Zero. I have no interest in surviving an apocalypse of *any* kind. Until then, I’m going to enjoy growing vegetables and helping my ewes deliver their lambs.

    • The guest list at Rick’s Apocalypse Barbecue is getting better and better!

      Like you, I have no interest in a post-apocalypse world, and I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams deliberately cultivate skill sets that would be useful in one. But I haven’t exactly been working on my Laboutin shoes, either — which leaves me ill-equipped for both pre- and post-.


      • I think Rick’s Apocalypse Barbecue falls under Twain’s Heaven for atmosphere, Hell for company axiom. All the people I want to hang with are going to be at the BBQ, but maybe not so much afterward.

  9. Hmmm…. “homemaking”? Alas, the negative connotations of femaile enslavement.

    “Homesteading” implies building a cabin in a wilderness and staking a claim…


    Maybe the problem is our desire to create a lifestyle label beyond simply “growing vegetables,” or “raising chickens.”

    • Maybe that is the problem. And I’ve always balked at calling what we do a “lifestyle.” But it is a group of things that are similar in purpose, and the Linnaeus in me wants to give it a name.

  10. “self-sufficiency” is an interesting phrase. It means different things to different people. Some people mean they’re an island. For us it is appropriate interconnectivity. We have the ability to be self-sufficient, to produce everything we need such as food, heat in the winter, building materials, etc. There are many things we like but don’t need which we can not produce such as chocolate and computers. I like having these luxuries but we won’t die for lack of them. Understanding the difference between like and need is important.

    • Walter, I’m glad you weighed in here, because, of all the people whose lifestyles I’m familiar with, you are the most genuinely self-sufficient. As you know, I find what you do fascinating and even critical (if we’re going to change the nature of our food supply) — but do you ever feel cut off? When something bad happens, are you glad you’re far away, or do you want to be closer to other people?

      Do you miss community? Or do you have it, in a way?

      I don’t mean to ask impertinent questions. But you’re doing something remarkable, and I’d like to know. Feel free to tell me it’s none of my business.

      For those of you who don’t know Walter, he pastures pigs at Sugar Mountain Farm:

      • We don’t feel cut off – after all, there is the internet. 🙂 We like where we are but then we can be quite content not going down off the mountain for months sometimes. We do go contra dancing and to other ‘social’ things. For other people that would not be frequent enough. Everyone’s different – our quiet life would probably drive someone people nuts from ‘isolation’ but the busy city life would drive us nuts.

        Within our family individuals are different – Holly, my wife, goes to the butcher and then does deliveries which is two big days of driving and meeting with people each week. She enjoys that but she says likes getting back to the peace and quiet on the mountain.

        When world events happen like you’re alluding to we are thankful that they are far away. We don’t want to be anywhere near them. In fact, we were commenting that it is nice we don’t get a newspaper every day nor have radio or TV (no reception) because it gives the news a bit of time to age and ripen. Live news is a bit too exciting.

  11. I also like the term “living” although I suppose it’s not much of a title. My mother grew up on a farm in western Kansas with no electricty or running water. I belive “living” is probably what they would have considered it. She then brought all those skills here to MA and raised my sister and me to be, in a way, “self sufficient”. I am often asked by people when the find out what I do if I am a “prepper” or “homesteader” etc. I wouldn’t consider myself any of those things. I am also not much into lables. I think that once you get into making lables then you get into stereotypes and then things go downhill from there.

    • Your point about labels is a good one, and it’s why I’ve shied away from “self-sufficiency.” It implies all kinds of things beyond just having livestock and gardens. But I still need something to call it! Like “numismatics” is collecting coins. It’s just a word, not a full-fledged label. I want a word!

  12. Mindful Living. It changes the focus from the activities involved to the thought behind the choices we make.

    • But that implies that people who make different choices aren’t mindful, which I’m not ready to do. It’s hard to do this and stay neutral.

    • That is pretty radical. And very serious. I guess overtones of “this is kind of fun” is too much to ask for. When there was a similar discussion here a long time ago, I remember my brother Aaron suggesting “roll your own,” which has the right feel for me. It obviously has other problems.

      • While it is a now a hobby for me and should be more fun, I pretend that it could make a real difference economically for us if our income changed, for example, when we are retired and my husband didn’t need to work. Better yet, if he could retire sooner than expected and be home with his young children because our living expenses were under some realistic control, in contrast to my age peer group, I would feel accomplished and would have contributed the balance of my unrealized income as a cog in the wheel of society. The more serious I take it, the harder I commit and work towards this goal. So, while far from a necessity it motivates me to be efficient, if not sufficient.

  13. Small farmer? Merriam-Webster defines farmer as “a person who cultivates land or crops or raises animals (as livestock or fish).” Sound like just the word for you!

    all this talk of the post-apocolypse makes me think of this great old Talking Heads song “Flowers”, which is a totally different take than most of what we’re talking about.

  14. First Officer says:

    That’s some story Tamar.

    9/11. It was one of those days people remember where they were, what they were doing when they got the news. Like Pearl Harbor or when President Kennedy was shot. I was at work, outside of Philadelphia when i first heard about it. My first thought was that it was a hoax. That was quickly proven false and my second, and others thought was, what a tragedy, though, in the back of my mind i couldn’t figure out how the pilot could not avoid the South Tower on such a clear day. Then the second plane struck and then we all knew the truth of the matter. We were under attack.

    My thoughts quickly turned to my sister who worked, at the time, at 4 World Trade Center. I tried to call, like the 10’s of millions who tried, but there was no getting through. All we could do was watch on TV and listen to the commentary. We watched the first tower go down and then the second. As tragic as the situation was, as engineers, we felt it could have been even worse. The buildings at least pancaked rather than toppled, but it was small comfort and i knew i wouldn’t be able to get through to my sister for some time.

    The next day, i did finally got through. In one of those small miracle serendipity stories, my sister’s commuter express bus was running late. It had just cleared the Brooklyn Battery entrance when she looked up through the window and saw the first plane crash into the South Tower. She managed then to get off the bus and headed down to the Staten Island Ferry and caught the last boat allowed to leave. As it was cruising toward Staten Island, our fighter jets arrived. My sister saw a number of ferry passengers jump off the boat into the river, thinking they were enemy planes.

    My sister made it to Staten Island and was picked up by a friend whom she stayed with for the next 3 days

    • FO — There are so many stories from that day. I’m very glad your sister got off the island, to safety. Thanks for telling her story.

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