Then it occurred to me to ask my neighbor, an avid gardener and the source of much gardening wisdom, if I might borrow hers. Of course she gladly passed me her fork over the fence, and I was able to turn and loosen the bed properly. To ask for a small favor seems simple and hardly deserving of fanfare, but asking is not something I’m good at.
I hate asking for things. Favors, help, assistance, money, stuff: when it comes right down to it I prefer DIY to “do you mind?” Even as a kid Christmas made me uncomfortable because I didn’t really enjoy being on display while people gave me things.
This mentality works well for someone trying to be more self-sufficient while still remaining fully plugged in to the conveniences of the electrical grid and public water supply. It allows me to “play” at increased self-sufficiency while still enjoying all the conveniences I could ask for: refrigerator (with ice maker!), car, alarm clock, espresso machine.
Self-sufficiency is a deceitful moniker. It implies that we can do it on our own. We can’t. Even real self-sufficiency is rarely all-by-yourself-sufficiency.
I just finished reading Better Off, the true story of a husband and wife who “go Amish” for a year-and-a-half to see if electricity actually improves the human condition. (I read this book as part of the Better Off Book Club over on Crunchy Chicken. It’s not too late to join in if you are interested!) Without giving away too much, the author, Eric Brende, manages to conclude that the strict Mennonite-type community he joined was investing too much work in their labor saving devices, the horses, and might be better off if they got rid of yet more technology.
Yet even in this completely unplugged, zero-watts society what is striking is how absolutely necessary other people are to the self-sufficient lifestyle. The work is – and must be – shared.
Side-by-side with neighbors and family, fields are sowed, weeded, harvested and threshed. Vegetable gardens are planted and fruit is picked and summer’s bounty is preserved for lean times. Horses and pigs and cows and chickens are kept or slaughtered. Pumpkins and molasses are sold and deals are made. Children are born and raised and taught and disciplined and enjoyed. Tools and skills and labor is traded and bartered.
There is simply too much to do to attempt it all solo. These people are the epitome of self-sufficiency. Not only can they do it all, they can do it all without power tools. And yet there are no survivalist bunkers or bug-out bags. Every member of the community depends on their neighbors and their community members. They are interdependent in their self-sufficiency.
Sharon Astyk talks a lot about adapting in place. That’s the idea that in uncertain times it might be best to just stay put and work with what you’ve got. Sharon makes the case that knowledge of your town and strong relationships with the people around you might be your biggest advantages in a peak-oil, social disorder meltdown senario (or, less dramatically, an “oh shit, I lost my job” senario). Adapting in place has a lot to do with community building. Strong communities are in a better position to weather social and economic disruption than fragmented ones.
But as Better Off makes clear, the best way to build a strong community is for people to be mutually dependent on their neighbors to their mutual benefit. When you borrow your neighbor’s horse and he borrows your hay baler you both have a vested interest in cultivating a relationship that goes beyond enjoying each other’s company.
If I ran out of sugar, my natural reaction would be to go to the store for a five pound bag, rather than walk up the hill to borrow a cup from the neighbor. I’m trying to change that mentality. I’m trying to remember that we are not all islands, and there is no reason to glorify duplication of effort or resources in the name of self-sufficiency.
But I am still going to buy myself another garden fork.
How much self-sufficiency is there in your self-sufficiency? How much community is there in your community? Do you and your neighbors help each other out?1