Anyone starting out on the road to self-reliance, living “off-grid” and moving back-to-the-land, would do well to have a copy of John Seymour’s “The New complete Book of Self-Sufficiency” (Darling Kindersley Ltd., 2009). This book was first published in 1976 and has been reprinted a number of times since. The first edition had a foreword by E.F. Schumacher, author of the other great self-reliance classic, “Small is Beautiful”. Schumacher goes straight to the point: modernity creates the organisation-person, who lacks self-reliance. But the danger in this is: what if the system breaks down? Over-specialisation could spell doom. Part from that though, living the life of an organisation-person ultimately is soul-destroying and the days flash by in a meaningless monotony as one awaits to live on the weekend.
Seymour says that striving for self-sufficiency in one’s life style is not the fruitless quest to return to some idealised past but rather, “it is the striving for a higher standard of living, of food which is fresh and organically grown, for the good life in pleasant surroundings, for the health of the body and peace of mind which come with hard work in the open air, and for the satisfaction that comes from doing difficult and intricate jobs well and successfully.” (p.16)
Seymour’s main concern is for a back-to-the-land approach, which he lived in Ireland. He recommended that a type of “High Farming”, as practised in Europe in past centuries be used. This is a balanced farm of plants and animals, so that the animals are fed by the plants and the soil enriched by the animals’ manure. There are no monocultures, and animals and crops are rotated to protect the soil. Having monocultures of plants grown on the same piece of land, year after year, depletes soil nutrients and leads to a concentration of pests and diseases. Labour can be saved by allowing such as pigs to go free-range in a paddock, rooting around and depositing their dung.
The 408-page book, endowed with superb artwork, beautiful and homely, after dealing with the philosophical aspects of agriculture and self-sufficiency goes on to consider in nine chapters, the following topics:
Food from the garden; food from animals; food from the fields, food from the wild, dairies; kitchens; brewing and wine-making; energy and waste and finally, crafts and skills. Seymour considers two self-sufficiency scenarios: having a one-acre holding and a five-acre holding. Both of these options are not likely to be met by most city dwellers, having only a house and a backyard garden. Yet, if one abandons having purely decorative plants and shrubs, and minimises the use of lawn a lot of food can be grown. During World War II people were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” in their backyards, which was a welcome addition for food. The backyard gardener getting started can get a concise account of constructing a food-producing garden, even on a small scale, learning about liming, mucking and mulching; organic gardening; green manuring; compost crops; preparing a deep seed bed; sowing and planting and natural pest control, working with nature, not against it, allowing natural predators to kill pests.
Seymour gives a very useful index of vegetables, herbs and fruits. I would also recommend that would-be gardeners also get a copy of the classic “Yates Garden Guide” to supplement this, and keep everything accurate for Australian conditions. The artwork in Seymour’s book featuring large double-pages of fruits, vegetables and herbs is exquisite and is always a delight for me to look at. Then there is a wealth of material about the cultivation of vegetables, fruits and herbs from pages 88-191. Read this to get off to a good start in your gardening adventures.
The urban self-sufficiency seeker probably cannot expect to have large farm animals in their backyard, but chickens are wonderful for production, a healthy and ready source of protein. On a larger holding poultry can be farmed for meat, but for most of us we will be looking for eggs. Seymour makes a one-page mention of rabbit-breeding for meat and if you can get over the “cuteness” factor
And actually kill them they supply lean meat. To get essential fats you will need more variety and eggs will supply this. Seymour makes mention of bee keeping and gives an elementary discussion of bee keeping, a topic which will be covered in more detail at the Crossroads site.
Although Seymour was not opposed to using machinery he recognised that the small farm may, for reasons of economy, be farmed using hand tools. There is some nice artwork of hand tools, some of which you simply cannot buy at the local hardware shop. Need to clear blackberries but don’t have a whipper snipper? A slasher, a heavy blade on a sturdy handle will do the job, but you cannot buy one in Australia. A firm in Britain still makes them, but will not sell them to us – why Australian customs will see it as a “weapon”.
Along the way Seymour tells you the correct way to fell a tree – cut first a “face”, a deep V-shaped notch in the tree in the direction which you want it to fall, with careful consideration of the tree’s geometry, land contour, and where it “wants” to fall. You can find out how to build a hedge, do rock walls, build wooden fences and many more traditional skills.
In conclusion “The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency is a “must have” book for all of us contemplating an end or breakdown of the social system. It represents a wholesome alternative and meaningful way to live. It is simply a wonderful book.