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Small Farmers as the Ark

Introduction to a controversial essay

(or perhaps more of a rant?..)

 

I had written most of the essay below during the winter of 2007 and specifically so for the Small Farmers Journal (referred to below as S.F.J.). In March 08 or so I sent the still unfinished manuscript to the editorial staff for the initial consideration, but nothing came of it that time and so I let it rest for a season. Next winter I updated a few details (like the name of the new USA president), although by then the whole “prelude” (everything up to the subheading 100 million Farmers) seemed even more like an old hat than when I first wrote it. With other words, it should not need to be reiterated because (or so I thought) most people were well aware of the implications of climate change, as well as the growing financial and political tension due to resource depletion in general, with oil in particular.

But the S.F.J. was never skimpy with words and somewhat comprehensive introduction to the urgency of the article’s core seemed in order — if only for the benefit of a handful of the readers — so, in March 09 submitted it all again. In case you didn’t know, this is the cat’s meow of a publication with regard to the nuts and bolts of serious country living. (By “serious” I do not mean the existence of the independently wealthy country estate owners who may keep couple of dogs and/or cats, perhaps an expensive riding horse or several of them — all well fed on elsewhere purchased rations. Rather, the serious country dwellers exist in the place they refer to as home primarily by the sweat of their brows. They tend large gardens, spend many hours eating dust rising from the earth while fields are tilled, they fork manure and hay, cut their own firewood, etc. They fall asleep physically tired but content, and rise before daylight again…) It is these latter folks I admit partiality to, and for whose behalf this website even came to exist in the first place.

The readership of S.F.J. consists to a large extent of the serious country dwellers, many of whom have been farming for years. Not all of them are exactly small, though many are, with significant portion being draft animal enthusiasts. Some readers have only recently bought their homesteads, others are still dreaming to do so. It is particularly for these newcomers that my essay (and even more so it’s intended follow-up) was meant to be of help. In addition, it might function as a wake-up call to the few stragglers amongst the veteran country dwellers who still think that our life tomorrow will unfold more or less in the manner we’ve been used to — and who therefore continue with their short and long-range plans accordingly to the blueprints of yesterday. I didn’t think that amongst the S.F.J. readership many would belong to this (still sleeping) camp. Apparently I was wrong…

The editor refused the manuscript because “…we at S.F.J. have become hyper-sensitive to our role of providing a usable optimism… (and) your doomsday scenario… doesn’t leave breathing room or much chance for hope… at a time when so many need to find the strength to carry on.”

After 33 years at the helm of his own creation, Lynn Miller (the editor) probably understands the psyche of his readers and knows what amount of “reality” they can digest. If he is indeed correct — in that my article would cause more harm than good — then I would feel sorry for not only the likes of S.F.J. readers (whom I perceived as the vital components of “The Ark”), but also for the rest of humanity because the ark might thereby be slower in getting built…

However, I still think that Lynn missed the focal point of my article (or felt that the readers would miss it?) — which isn’t “an invocation of full-on doomsday” (as he put it), but rather a call to a mode of action that, for the most part, ought to have been the norm all along. What norm is that? In principle it is the timeless ecological paradigm: living within the means of this planet’s carrying capacity, with an important clause — that in the process of carrying us (present population of Homo sapiens) the carrying of future generations, as well as other forms of life is not sacrificed. Of course, most statements along these lines are general at best and require further qualification — but this was precisely what (with pertinence to small farmers specifically) my article attempted to accomplish.

Above all, it’s intent was to stimulate some important country living-related questions. For instance: can the readers readily obtain the information on most of the events concerning the use of essential tools through S.F.J.? Are the tools which no well-informed homesteader/farmer would want to be without obtainable via the sources advertised in it? Is there an even remotely complete list of sources of learning –without someone needing to travel a thousand miles to attend a workshop on how to shoe a horse or chop down a tree? Well, all that can be argued; actually I had hoped it would be argued within the pages of S.F.J. Even if the editor would win the argument — as editors have been known to do (simply by virtue of being editors) — it might at least provoke a meaningful debate. I further hoped that, as a result of it, people would contribute to a comprehensive directory of sources of well-made basic tools and the knowledge of how to use them, both live and the best of the books on the respective subjects. Such a directory has been urgently needed for years — but I do not believe it exists.

The best attempt to date of something along the similar lines were the Whole Earth Catalogues — still valuable sourcebooks. The primary difference is that many people now need something considerably more streamlined, plus they must establish connections between the multitude of groups working for related cause — and do all that fast. (During the 70ties and 80ties we still had more “grace” and thus the typical dawdling may have been more forgivable, perhaps) Nevertheless, the dedicated folks who put those volumes of information together back then had somewhat similar goal in mind and what’s more — managed to implement it! I haven’t… What specifically we (meaning the Vido family) had presented couple of years ago as a tools/skills-related concept you can read here.

But now here is the “gloomy” essay:

 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to changes.”
~Charles Darwin

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
~W. Edwards Deming

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.”
~Howard Ruff

 

Small Farmers As the Ark: Are We Ready for the Storm?

The “Ark” is of course a metaphor; not a negative one alluding to some apocalyptic doom, but rather to change with a still-unknown outcome. And while the “Powers Above” may be watching the drama, the outcome is in our hands — hands that had better get busy very soon. Only the denial-prone folks out there still entertain the notion that politicians and scientists will solve the energy-related challenges while this civilization continues its “development”. The Storm, in fact, is the inevitable antithesis of obsessive economic growth and, as I see it, an imposed era of UN-DEVELOPMENT. The financial crisis of recent months is but a lead-up to a meltdown of the global infrastructure and along with it the scarcity of many goods and services we have taken for granted.

We should not be surprised. Within the last decade, writers like Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over and Peak Everything), J.H. Kunstler (The Long Emergency) and many others have sounded the trumpet and substantiated the reasons for these concerns in a very eloquent and data-based manner. Books and websites dedicated to the theme abound. Still, although the debate over the upcoming energy shortages is finally gaining a little momentum and the subject is addressed by a small handful of daring politicians, the saving grace is sought almost exclusively in the realms of more sophisticated versions of cold, inorganic technology. I agree with the many energy analysts that, given the destruction we have already wrought, the proposed band-aids (biofuels, electric cars, acres of photovoltaics, mega wind “farms”, etc.) will not take up the necessary slack in time. We knew of the potential of these “clean, green” alternatives decades ago, but neglected to redesign our infrastructure around them then. Now they are being presented as a manna from heaven which is to help maintain, as much as possible, the way of life that we have become addicted to.

And it is not just the politicians seeking prestigious seats and willing to sell their souls that talk as if they do not get the comprehensive picture. Some formerly respected eco-oriented scientists the calibre of James Lovelock now add fuel to the vile brew of the high-tech rhetoric by pushing for major expansion of nuclear fusion. As an added example of human intelligence seriously warped, this obsessive methane reductionist suggested that all of the world’s bovine race be deliberately exterminated by means of some lethal virus. (Presumably, devoid of ruminants’ gases, the Earth will be able to tolerate human farts still longer.) The pseudo-Permaculturist David Blume is intoxicated by ethanol etc…

Amazingly, no prominent figure on the international energy-related forums has seriously addressed the potential of vast amounts of HP and KW equivalent which could be generated by the hands and feet of the species responsible for the impending shortages. Yet Cuba, for instance, managed to scale its post-USSR crisis by grasping options our leading thinkers do not. Its rapid response was to turn to human and draft animal power, mini-farms and small gardens everywhere, and a reduction in what (during relatively prosperous times) was considered an “acceptable” lifestyle. Altogether it represented the life-saving curtailment of the country’s energy demand. The citizens of Cuba lost on average twenty pounds during the transition, but they survived — a shining example of what is possible on a nation-wide scale! It, however, required wiser leadership than the countries operating on the model of industrial capitalism appear to have…

This once resource-full continent of “ours”, where milk and honey was said to flow freely, is not immune to similar and even greater challenges. Given the average American’s food- and shelter-providing skills, along with the unwillingness to part with the automobile, they could well find themselves losing considerably more body weight than did the Cubans, should large-scale shortages hit this society. As of today, the stores are well stocked with goods, and fuel to move consumers to the mall and back is cheap. Television, the great pacifier of modern North American culture, is telling everyone that the new Mr. President is about to somehow fix the system, re-create jobs, build more highways etc.

As for tomorrow, who knows? But common sense should tell us that those contributing to feeding the hungry will be part of any long-term solution, and furthermore, that it will not be the mega-corporations masquerading as food providers, because the slippery slope on the other side of Peak Oil will take their feet from under them. As some authors and the family farm protagonists (Wendell Berry, Lynn Miller etc.) have claimed for three decades, they ought to — and eventually will be replaced by the small farmers. A large portion of them, I think, are going to be very small farmers, because the size of this continent’s traditional “family farm” is likely to shrink considerably. That in itself is not a bad thing; the neighbours with who we can then work as well as “eat, drink and be merry” will be closer at hand.

In any case, we are entering a period of history when the long trend of diminishing numbers of “primary providers” with some earth under their fingernails will reverse — and this at a much faster rate than they have been disappearing. That trend is evident now (certainly to those with open eyes) and there is no indication that it will abate. Possibly by the time this readership’s young children are mature, nearly everyone will, to some degree, be actively involved in the practice of agri-Culture. Utopian? We shall see…

Presently, the Culture of the Machine along with its McDonalds’, Super-Centers and bottomless credit is terminally ill, kicking only on life-support. Clearly we need a new paradigm. The formulae for a more life-respecting alternative are many — ranging from the ancient wisdom of “primitive” people to those of the more recent cultural analysts along the lines of, for instance, Ivan Illich (Tools for Conviviality,1972).

In the last 16 pages of his visionary book New Roots for Agriculture, (1980) Wes Jackson shared an image of a “Utopian Village”. Writing that chapter as if 50 years had passed, he describes in some detail the future approach to food and fuel production and the associated social arrangements. The scenario hinged on the “awakening” of the mainstream’s mindset, and it is easy to see how in the late ’70s he could be so optimistic. Back then, and up to the mid/late eighties, the number of bright academics in support of alternative agriculture was steadily growing. With the mushrooming conferences on sustainability held at so many universities across North America, and all the cases made in favour of “small, diversified and organic”, the sense of hope was palpable. As a working small farmer and an active participant in some of those events, I had been part of what (prematurely) we thought of as a kind of “new agrarian revolution”.

Then during the 1990s a certain wave of hope receded. Although much of the rhetoric remained and “sustainable” became a cliché in the mainstream dictionary, few real advances with regard to Jackson’s imagined “New Roots” were made. The popularity of SUVs, ecotourism, “green” villas and still greener promises grew by bounds. It seemed that a hefty segment of the alternative movement (amongst them many former hippie homesteaders turned yuppie) was content enough to largely act as a family of idealistic theorists, still riding the Peace Train from Cat Stevens’ old song. Many forgot the message of the far more astute analyst of the human condition — Bob Dylan — who already in 1962 perceived the Storm in the making. The timeless “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, presented in his distinct socio-psychedelic style, is a cry and a warning… worth listening to still. But perhaps it makes little difference now; given our collective lethargy, the Peace Train’s very next stop may be a place of awakening, where chopping of wood and carrying of water will matter more than words.

Furthermore, while the no longer disputable phenomenon of global climate change sparked many international conferences, with the Kyoto Protocol ratified by most of the nations, the state of our oil-dependent and other-resource-depleting food production system (otherwise referred to as agricultural industry) continued to be largely ignored. And, to my mind, it is still being ignored. The notion that agribusiness might possibly bail itself out by producing “biofuels” to keep the industrial machine going is naïve, and if implemented en masse, even more people will starve in the long run.

In any case, I still trust Jackson’s premonition that community land trusts, functioning with due respect to local climate, soil and “resource” limitations is the path we’ll have to take. There are no indications that the climate will change to a more people-friendly one. This culture is rapidly moving closer to the “flood zone” and resources of all sorts are likely to become progressively more precious. Not because we will have managed to completely suck the earth dry of oil but because the infrastructure we have come to depend on will crumble like a rotten termite-eaten castle long before then. The acquiring of anything superfluous will be the privilege of a few, and I mean many fewer than is the case today. The vast majority of us, including the Utopian Village dwellers, better gain some clarity regarding what we really need and what we do not. This is not something to give serious thought to merely in the face of a possible emergency — it ought to have been a given all along.

It was precisely by virtue of such awareness that Homo sapiens managed to survive for millennia. Eventually, the exploiting of coal and then oil gave this species previously non-existent energy-related advantage. That turned out to be a two-pointed spear — with one end aimed at nature and the other at its thrower. Simultaneously, certain attitudinal mutation gradually took place. Whatever ingrained conservation ethic remained until mid-20th century was thrown out the window altogether soon thereafter. Unimpeded economic growth became the dominant paradigm. The masses were systematically re-trained (and deliberately so) for the promising new profession — The Consumers.

On the one hand the strategy worked exceedingly well – the “zombified” citizens of industrial nations turned into a volunteer army of slaves, tilling the soil into which the mega-corporations could drop their profit-oriented seeds. On the other hand the economic growth strategy did not work, because in a mere few decades it upset the already precarious balance between the “civilized” man and the natural world to the point that we proceeded to cut off the branch upon which we stand. The tumble downwards from the tree of free-wheeling capitalism will be anything but a gentle one… and the once-faithful consumer may soon be left out in the cold. Stupidly, in a last-ditch effort to save the status quo, energy of all sorts is now squandered, energy which ought instead be used to redesign the system from the ground up. Gracefully or not, I believe the redesign will take place. Indeed, herein lies our only hope!

Of course, thousands of grassroots voices around the globe have been calling for precisely such a change -unheeded as yet by the national (or international) policy makers. To what extent the deaf ear of our leaders is due to the desire to continue gaining power and filling their own pockets, or the result of fear that the (still largely ignorant) masses of tax payers and voters would “crucify” them, I do not know. What I think is that we no longer can count on the bastards and must instead implement a 21st century Common-Cause Revolution — to thereby relegate the responsibility for the future of humanity (as well as many other life forms) into the hands of the common people, not governments. This will require, above all, the courage to walk beyond whatever, up until now, has been our “comfort zone”. On the positive side — comfort zones are often mere illusions; we may well be happier without many of them…

 

One version of the Revolution — 100 million Farmers

The “hundred million (American) farmers” concept was “officially” presented by Sharon Astyk (an academic-turned urban farmer) at a conference in 2006 – although this is not some absurd new idea of one outspoken activist. Lynn Miller didn’t attach an actual number to his vision of more farmers (nor did Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and many others), but his very astute call in this respect began when Sharon was still a toddler. (Lynn is the founder and editor of the S.F.J. — likely the most down to earth agricultural publication in North America). The issue here is not of idea-proprietorship, however. The relevant question is: where are all these potential farmers now, and how can they be helped aboard the ship?

In the recently published A Nation of Farmers, Sharon and the co-writer Aaron Newton throw a wide net in search of all the new agrarian revolutionaries-to-be — and perhaps because one of the authors as well as the majority of the populace now lives in cities and suburbs, that is their main fishing grounds. The most obvious focus is therefore on house-lot size gardens, with perhaps a backyard chicken flock — and the book might have more appropriately been called A Nation of Gardeners. That does not diminish it’s merit however; in a healthy society gardening ought to be a national hobby. Having spent the first 18 years of my life –with parents and grandparents as avid gardeners — in a socialist country where it was part of the educational curriculum (every public school had a garden), I’ve been stumped by the lukewarm interest in this essential of pre-occupations. Finally, I can applaud America’s gradual (but notable!) awakening in this regard.

At the same time, the intent of this essay/rant is a variation of Astyk/Newton theme. Perhaps because I have long been a farmer/livestock keeper rather than strictly a gardener who would not want to live in a city, one of my intents here is to help others who long for the open countryside, but presently are still “stuck”.

 

Breaking Loose

Over the last 30 years I’ve heard a certain story so many times that it’s slightly different versions merge into an echo of one hopeful (though still sad) voice crying in the wilderness of urban civilization. It is presented by sincere exclamations along the lines of “I wish I didn’t have to live here, because what I really want to do is to make my home on a piece of open land, have a garden, a cow and maybe a horse, watch my children play with newborn lambs under the blossoming cherry trees.” etc. etc. With other words, all these people wish to be in a place surrounded by real meadows, not sterile lawns and concrete. Yet, some of them, after many years of maintaining that vision, keep trudging to their 9 to 5 job. “Why are you still there [sucking the city-offered baby-bottle]?” I usually ask. The typical answer is money-related; each week, a month or a year at that job represents a sum they can’t yet imagine doing without.

Overall, I think, they lack trust in themselves and in “The Above”. ( This issue is an important one and, fortunately, has been covered in depth by a slew of motivational writers and from a diversity of religious philosophies — so I can leave it un-discussed) Apart from it, they also believe that a small fortune is required to start a homestead and that their (often despised) job is the only honest means of acquiring it. So every week they dutifully put some money into a bank account, while during evenings they read John Seymour’s “5 acres and Independence” or similar country living guide, dreaming of the romantic days to come. Their future plan is typically to be implemented in two years, three at most. Then they will purchase a piece of land, tools, seeds and the cow. Thereafter they hope to harvest the bounty of the garden, enjoy the butter and cheese made from the cow’s milk and revel in the “freedom of country living”.

What these good folks do not seem to realize (but every seasoned homesteader was taught by many of life’s hard knocks) is that homesteading theory gleaned from a book can be misleading, and that a stint of actual hands-on apprenticeship can function as an effective antidote to possible dreamtime euphoria. At the very least it can effectively balance out the interpretation of one individual’s experience presented on paper –and often in a book written by a relative greenhorn… A real live education, I am convinced, would be worth forsaking many paychecks for. In addition, I am about to exclaim that far less money (but more heart) may be necessary than many recipes to date called for — simply because “the times they are a changing” …and the clock is ticking.

 

The necessary re-tracing of some steps.

The phenomena which Ivan Illich referred to as “radical monopoly” has imposed a sort of insidious moratorium on the continued existence of many of the elemental kinds of vernacular knowledge. It has been a long process of un-learning the essential… Consequently, competent live tutors in some areas of once common knowledge are now not easy to find — the average person’s neighbour no longer knows how to sharpen an ax, harness a horse, help deliver a calf etc.

We are, for the most part, left to learning many life-sustaining skills from books, magazines and, within the last decade, the all-knowing Internet.

But within this electronic brain of our civilization the information is so scattered that even the search engines can seldom make a clear heads or tails of it — and as the w.w.w. fills up with progressively more stuff it becomes difficult to sort the grain from the chaff. A beginner looking at a list of available books and tools on, for instance, the subject of gardening, is likely to be overwhelmed by the various of the internet’s know-how sources or the many e-catalogue’s descriptions. Each second book appears to “explain it all” and most individual tools are presented as if a gardener would be deprived without it. Many printed catalogues, if not most of them, are not much better.

All in all it is an overwhelming task, often yielding confusing results — i.e. which of the books are really the most informative and which tools of best design, adequate quality and not superfluous? Specifically on the topic of tools most trends- dictating authors of alternative lifestyle books fail miserably; many of them “grind the ax” metaphorically, but leave the actual ax out of the discussion completely…

For instance, the bible of the now 30+ year old world-wide Permaculture movement devotes but 1/2 a page (of 570) to tools per se… and most of them are petrol-fueled at that. “A Nation Of Farmers” is peppered with recipes on how to cook all that organic food but not a word on tools with which to procure the ingredients. Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Town Handbook (a very worthy manual on the direction in which urban infrastructure ought to move) makes no mention of tools whatsoever. Neither does Pat Murphy in his otherwise very good “Plan C”. The list of similar examples is long.

The assumption appears to be that someone else will explain what actual physical tools are necessary for the implementation of the various visions. Furthermore, that whatever tools one may need tomorrow will be available in the local store — which I think is a grave mistake… Do these authors realize that we have allowed (to great extent by our shopping preference for the lower-priced items) the dismantling of much of the former tool-making infrastructure? Most of Europe also fell for the economy-oriented outsourcing scams, (though not quite as blindly as North America) but many counties there still have more good tool-makers left. I am talking of the basic tools, of course, not computers or hockey pucks. In this regard, Canada gave up it’s ax manufacture over 40 years ago for instance; and how many people are aware that another tool which once was the symbol of rural America — the classical pitchfork — is no longer made on this continent? Is this a healthy state of affairs? And if not, how are we going to change it and when?

But let’s assume for a moment that the boats from China (and elsewhere) will keep on coming to North America’s shore and our degraded dollars will retain enough purchasing power to at least pretend that we can pay for the cargos. The pitchforks etc. are a far cry from what the best versions of them used to be, but they are more or less functional and at least still available. So let’s for now limit the question to: where can the specific skills on how to use those tools of yesteryear (I refer to them as basic or “essential”) be learned now?

Some of you may tell me that this and that magazine or a website has a list of educational events –draft horse/wool processing/sustainable woodlot management etc. workshops. But can most people who are seriously interested find enough of that information in a clear format so as to be really well served by it? Hmm… How many of you seasoned homesteaders/small farmers have lately tried to put yourself into the shoes of a greenhorn trusting that someone well- qualified is editing the material they managed to access? I dare say that the majority of information — be it magazines, books or the internet — is (relatively speaking) of low- grade. There are exceptions, of course; many excellent publications and hands- on courses do exist but are often hidden within the sea of inferiority.

Fortunately, in spite of my bemoaning the loss the essential skills, the countryside still does (as you might guess) harbor people who haven’t forgotten it all — and though many of them may not be readily willing to take the time to share what they know, some would gladly do so. The challenge is to find those “some”, because they are scattered, and as of now no readily available guide exists providing the whereabouts of most of them. The well-organized programs like that of MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners), for instance, ( which put apprentices in touch with interesting farmers), are too few to fulfill the needs of all those former urbanites who will in turn soon be needed to fulfill the needs of the nations. Every state/province ought have a similar program — but most don’t ! Yes, progress in this regard is being made, yet given the urgency, much of it is very slow.

Tools — the importance of good choice.

The homestead or farm-bound people often end up buying as many of them as they think they can afford, yet at the same time some real gems remain missing from nearly everyone’s tool chest.

Many of us with years of country living experience have, besides libraries of books, gradually accumulated sheds full of tools. Looking back, we know that perhaps three quarters or even more of those books and tools are now somewhat superfluous. For instance, we may use one of our dozen hoes 90% of the time, while the others gather dust. In other words, had we known in the past what we know today, our places would be cluttered with fewer books and tools — but the ones that count. The same is true of more complex agricultural implements. (For an example of my own learning experience in this regard — and one specifically horse farming-oriented, you can read this note.)

As long as the customary times of relative plenty last, we can shrug shoulders and simply say “live and learn”. True enough, living is learning. But the luxury we’ve had of squandering resources to learn in the manner we have, and to be able to accumulate the stuff we now posses, has, throughout the course of history been the privilege of only a tiny fraction of humans. The arsenal of implements found on the average North American family farm (even a horse-powered farm, sometimes) would be enough to suffice a whole village in many cultures. Can this continue? Can such disparity be somehow morally justified? Can it ever be “green”? How much of the Life on this planet do we hope to “sustain”? What will it take for us to streamline our needs,voluntarily, and not feel hard done by?

Reflecting on my experience with a rather large diversity of tools and implements, I now know that much of what I once considered “necessary” is not. Imagining myself anew, as an aspiring horse farmer with limited means and/or equipment availability, there only are three “essentials” I would take some pains to acquire in as good shape and design as I could afford. Every other invention in the realm of animal-powered agricultural implements I would either make — or could live without. But I have jumped ahead of myself here…

Now, because there is a considerable abyss between the present conditions and anything akin to the kind of nation-wide convivial infrastructure that we need (and one day may create), the suggestions below are geared toward the interim subsistence of individuals (preferably couples) or families (preferably an extended family)with an eye toward a community set-up as soon as personal readiness and or opportunities allow.

 

“Walking on water”

Representing a possibly extreme viewpoint on the subject, and risking to be written off as a lunatic, I am attempting to inspire a forum regarding “essentiality” with a considerably lower platform than may be popular. But first a little story:

The man who taught Latin in my high school (in Slovakia) was an eccentric, fluent in seven languages, or so we were told. At least half of his time in the classroom was spent walking among the rows of desks, as if in some strange trance, rattling off maxims and proverbs — first in Latin, and then in the other languages (of which only two were included in our curriculum). Occasionally he’d raise his hand with outstretched finger, as if for emphasis that “This indeed is one to remember!” One of those with the finger high which has stuck with me throughout these forty-plus years is: “Omnia mea mecum porto” (Everything I own I carry with me).

Now, in honour of that crazy old professor, (who I have come to think was much wiser than his students realized) as well as for simply pragmatic reasons, I’d like to begin with a scenario at ground zero, so to speak, and only then expand in a few concentric circles beyond the mere survival state of affairs. One of the several reasons for my approach is this: As inherently social creatures always dependent on other members of the clan, but also ones prone to addictions, most of us have “slipped” into first letting, and then demanding, that much of what we could (and ought to) be able to do for ourselves, be done for us by others – all the way from extended family and/or community members to slaving people (often children) in faraway lands.

I am therefore suggesting a more serious re-training session than the status quo of the present homesteading/farming psyche has called for. Initially, this could be viewed as a personal challenge the way some people choose to scale a difficult mountain while they have no need to do so. Then, having honed some of these elemental skills, we will be useful to others in need. And, because we are entering uncertain and possibly very choppy waters, this seems to me a good idea.

As a springboard to what I am talking about, let’s imagine me still living in the city, (preferably, though not necessarily, as young in body as I once was) , but having already accumulated the experience (and opinions!) of the intervening 35 years. If I were to start from scratch today with the vision of being a small farmer, the lack of formal land ownership would not deter, or slow me down. There are scores of other possibilities. At least on this continent (and at least for now), un-utilized land is plentiful; one simply must be willing to move about in order to find it and, of course, drop the notion that a legal deed is the ticket to paradise.

I know that at least some of the elderly farmers, if presented with a convincing case, would give the new inspired blood a chance and allow me to put my dream and skills to test on the back of their farm or ranch. I’d devote time helping them with the jobs which require more enthusiasm than specialized skill (shoveling manure and snow, yard work, stacking firewood, carrying water, etc.) and they would let me pre-homestead without having to buy the land. Many absentee landowners might do the same.

In many ways both simpler and more complicated path is to join an already established land-based community. There are dozens of them, and although too few have focused seriously on farming, they soon will. (However, manuals on how to drop some self-importance in order to easier interact with a group might have to be put near the top of my “topics to study” list; this in view of our collective future is a good idea in any case.)

Finally, the most faith- and defiance- testing option is to simply squat on public land (of which every citizen, after all, is a co-owner!). I would be prepared to be kicked out (though I wouldn’t give up easily) and be reminded of a valuable life lesson: nothing is permanent. The experience I’d gained interim would be mine, to be turned to advantage on the next spot I’d land.

In short, as soon as I was ready regarding the clarity of my vision, I’d not squander another month of my life in a city or elsewhere at a soul-degrading job. However, I would not leave quite empty handed. If otherwise unemployed, and with no savings, I’d offer my services for any wage doing anything (delivering newspapers, sorting garbage, cleaning toilets) just to earn enough money to purchase (used if possible) the few essential tools listed below. The amount required is small and procured relatively easily, at least in the North America of today. Such a tool kit would go a long way in providing me with a degree of independence and/or the respect of people on whose land I might begin to implement the small farmer’s scenario.

What I wish to emphasize above all is that at this point in history there’s no time to waste. Feeling unfortunate, unprivileged or too poor to start, won’t help; determination, courage and faith are the traits to cultivate, period.

As for the selection of actual tools, the groupings below are flexible. I’m not suggesting that anyonedeliberately relinquish the use of a tool as basic as, for instance, a carpenter’s level, a chisel or a good digging fork, but also want to point out that, given an emergency, it is quite possible to get by without any single one of them. Of course, some are more replaceable than others. A small ax is an example of a “tool worth it’s weight in gold” (actually more!) because such an array of tasks and the making of so many other wooden tools can be accomplished with it. The same goes for a good knife, though given the option of only one of these, I would take the ax, because it can replace the knife at many more tasks than the other way around.

Hence the list of tools in any of the kits below is only an approximation — adequate for some people (and in certain niches, climate and resource-wise) but not for others. For instance, after I listed the contents of the very basic kit, I asked my son Kai to do the same before letting him read mine. As you can see, his list is more extensive. He grew up using all those tools in my kit and knows what can be accomplished with them. Yet he is a more rational and less idealistic (or crazy?) individual. While I would consider, during wintertime, bedding down beside an animal (alone for their hot water bottle effect) as a perfectly acceptable — even long term — arrangement, he would work harder to make for himself a separate and adequately warm dwelling… but inevitably have to lug a heavier pack.

Now before you read what specific tools I think you ought to obtain before others, here is a reflection from Laurence Gonzales’ book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why

“… experience, training and modern equipments can betray you. The maddening thing for someone with a Western, scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”


So here is my “kit” of bare essentials:

two knives (in case I loose or break one)
one hatchet plus one light ax ( say 2 1/4 lb. head on a 26″-28″ handle)
one small two-bladed mattock (head would suffice)
one 65cm/26″ scythe blade and a mounting ring
30″ bow saw with a spare blade
a good “round point” shovel head (no handle)
set of (4) gimlets (this, at least in N.A., is an uncommon item)
sharpening accessories for all of the above
approximately 6×6 piece of tough (but not too heavy) tarp or a piece of sturdy netting, preferably both (this would be my initial cart/wheelbarrow)

Additional supplies, such as water bucket, fry pan, pot, cup, cord/rope, wire, fishing line and an assortment of hooks, etc. plus food provisions, are a given, detailed in many outfitters manuals. What they would not mention is seeds and livestock, simply because they have in mind a temporary excursion. In this essay I’m talking about a serious attempt at beginning a permanent homestead. Thus my pack would include the basic seeds — nothing fancy like peppers and melons, or superfluous like lettuce and radishes. (Keep in mind that my point of reference is the climate we live in, with 80-85 frost-free growing season.) By the time the lettuce would naturally (i.e. without a greenhouse) be productive enough to feed a baby rabbit, I’d find wild edibles galore to keep a belly full of vegetable matter. (Knowledge of the local flora is a must, of course.) What “salad greens” seeds I might include are the perennial greens like nettles and dandelions (both of which are our family’s staples). The stuff to concentrate on at the beginning would be easily storable crops, the seeds of which are also no trouble to propagate- potatoes, beans, peas, squash, garlic etc. Corn, rye, wheat and possibly hull-lessvarieties of oats and barley would be my staple grains.

 

How I would proceed to establish a homestead on either a bought, leased or squatted piece of land without any buildings, fences or recently tilled (i.e. sod-less) fields, and which tools and livestock I’d add next, in progression from an individual survival situation to a land-based community of many families — all this was to be the subject of my intended Part 2, which I hoped could appear in the Fall 2009 issue of SFJ. I had written it in rough last winter, but after the Journal’s refusal, lost for a while the inspiration to brush it into a shape fit to print. Now that we decided to post the initial essay here, I’ll try to finish the follow-up ASAP.

Thanks for your patience.