I have been thinking a lot about the path we’ve taken to our life today. It would be dishonest to imply that one day we just pulled up stakes, packed everything into a truck and headed out to a life of self sufficiency. It didn’t go down like that. Looking back there’s a breadcrumb trail of signposts that lead us here going back for years. I’ve tried to outline some of the major moments in making that big decision — the death of my mother, my wife’s warning about eating seafood during pregnancy from her MD, that kind of thing, but those were catalysts. They didn’t help us make the decision of what we ought to do as much as force us to do something.
So I thought I should put together a brief list of the books and films that underpinned our belief that it could be done. Each one of these resources had a profound impact on our thinking and shaped — to some degree — the kind of life we believed we could have if we matched our efforts with the message.
If you have children and you read to them, this is the one book you owe each other. We read this one thousands of time to each child and only recently have we finally put it back on a shelf after 17 years of heavy use. I think we have three copies floating around, the first one so dog-eared we re-drew the cover ourselves with colored pencil. It portrays the ideal family farm — whose human inhabitants have left for the day — and the animals who live there in such a simple and peaceful manner that anyone would want to live there. The sheep and the donkey, the geese and the goats... nothing is left out from the post and beam interior of the hay filled barn, to the sunset falling across the meadow. It is an idyllic and well ordered world where animals go about their business without being anthropomorphic. In many ways when I look at our farm now I can see how we unconsciously shaped it to reflect this book. Sounds silly, but I think that in many ways the repeated telling of this story in our home made the transition possible for us because we already imagined living this way for years.
Brought to you by the guy responsible for An Inconvenient Truth, Eric Schlosser, this documentary was a knockout punch when I first watched it. We had lived on the farm for about a week when it came out and although we were determined to live a better life, we certainly didn’t know just how bad industrial agriculture was compared to small scale production. I think the only livestock we owned at that point was a pair of spent hens my cousin gave us when we moved — the idea of having animals had barely crossed our radar at that point. This film introduced us to both the possibility of raising our own protein and a farmer by the name of Joel Salatin, the American patron saint of sustainable agriculture.
I don’t remember when I first read this book but I will never forget the descriptions of building their house from field stone or tapping maple trees in the Spring to make syrup. It sounded both fascinating and eminently doable. While philosophically and politically polar opposites of my wife and I — they were Depression era, vegetarian, communist wannabes who came from NYC in order to pursue their interest in not only living a self sufficient life, but in hosting a never ending stream of beatnik-ish visitors from the city. Irregardless of their ideological bent, they did exactly what they said they were going to do with nothing more than good intentions and their own bare hands. The details of how they did what they did stood out in stark contrast to the why they did what they did ramblings and by the end of their life they pulled up stakes in Vermont (their homestead was at the base of what had become one of the most popular ski mountains in New England) and started over in Maine. Inspirational and informative and worth every minute of it.
This is one of those books that gets used so often that it never winds up on a bookshelf. It’s always next to the bed, a chair, on the desk in the den and it’s spine is well broken. Tons of practical advice on everything from tools and maintenance to farm economy and animal husbandry. I learned how to plant an orchard and prune fruit trees, layout and cultivate gardens, construct animal shelters and determine soil quality. The language is dated and the financial stats completely out of synch with what the Fed hath wrought — “…if you buy a cow for $2.50 you can sell her milch for as much as 3 cents a gallon, realizing a profit over the years of $4!” but it is full of information that will never change. It also gives a steady stream of encouragement on how to profit financially from thrift as opposed to pure capitalism. This is one book worth having for anyone who wants to give independence a go.
This book is a series of collected essays by the poet laureate of rural America. Berry has served as the voice of the vanishing family farmer and has articulated as clearly and as starkly as a biblical prophet the costs associated with losing our connection to the production of food and the land. I cannot praise his work enough, his use of the language, his clarity of vision, his righteous, yet reserved anger at the deliberate campaign by our political establishment to dismantle independent families and communities in order to build their consumer driven world of the future. It reads like his poetry but it is far more than a collection of trifles — it is a loaded gun, cocked and ready to go off.