Dateline: 23 February 2015
|Poore Family Farm, New Hampshire|
“The successful modern hardscrabble lives in two worlds and keeps them distinct and separate in his mind and actions.”
How Many Miles From Babylon (2006)
Note: the photographs with this essay were not part of the original 2006 essay.
The next principle of successful self-sufficient living is what I sometimes refer to as Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. That is, don’t mix paradigms, don’t deal in unlike coin.
It’s a popular modern concept that the totally self-contained homestead provides all its own food, water, fiber, building materials, fuel and other energy as well as enough surplus to secure modern goods and services such as tools, medicine, motor transportation, etc. But if we pitch about to find such as homestead (or community) to use as our example, where is it? Alas, it doesn’t exist.
At the time in human history when farmsteads were more or less entirely self-contained, they supported very modest housing, and were very modestly heated. People had very few changes of clothes, limited access to water, no means of personal transportation for everyone on the farmstead, no plethora of books and such, and certainly no computers, refrigerators, air conditioners, microwaves, power tools, etc.
Heavy machinery has been in widespread use on farms for scarcely 60 years and we have no examples of its long term sustainability, oil depletion not withstanding. In fact since the advent of oil dependent farm machinery, most farms have been eliminated, with the remainder growing monstrous in size and in a constant state of flux and change.
Most folks looking into the self-sufficient life stumble on this concept. It is where so many aspirants to self-sufficiency have the most confusion. The economic concept of unlike coin is like the riddle the Sphinx asks of those entering the realm. It is Connan the Barbarian‘s ‘Enigma of Steel’ without which answer Crom will not allow you to enter Valhalla.
Advocacy for the self-sufficient life is almost universally met with “But wait, you’re using a computer so you are dependent just like the rest of us!” At this point the Sphinx devours the pilgrim and Valhalla shuts its gates.
The successful modern hardscrabble lives in two worlds and keeps them distinct and separate in his mind and actions. This is quite easy to do. In many ways it is easier than living in just one of the worlds alone, so long as you realize one important principle: The two worlds use different currencies. Avoid mixing the paradigms and do not try to traffic in one world with the coin of the other.
Our farmstead is the source of our food, water, heating and cooking fuel, building materials (timber and stone), and the majority of our medicine. It has the potential for being the source of our fiber as we have done spinning and we’ve raised experimental beds of flax. It’s coinage is soil fertility, organic material, skills and strength, water, and management.
From outside the farmstead we get luxury foods (tea, chocolate, etc), computers, books, DVD’s, motor transportation, energy for gadgets and conveniences, and such. The coinage is cash (for us, never debt).
Now what if our trafficking with the outside world were cut off? We’d forego all those things in the above list. No more tea and chocolate, no more movies, and we wouldn’t drive anywhere. We’d shift the food from the freezer to canning, salting, and dehydration (a short step for us) and we’d coordinate our activities with natural daylight to save on the beeswax and tallow. We’d finish up that ram pump project or install a foot valve on the base of the line to the hand pump and use less water. But we wouldn't starve or freeze.
We do all of those things some of the time already so the transition wouldn’t be stark. We’re on the electric grid, but electricity use is optional in our household. Goods and services we can’t create in a direct use economy for ourselves are part of our everyday existence but we don’t utterly depend on them.
When a job of work that we think we might like doing is available, we work it for cash. We also have cottage industries, the products of which we sell in the cash marketplace. Then, with Caesar’s coins in our pocket, we indulge in the goods of Caesar’s world. But we don’t try to buy an independent life with those coins. That’s a false bargain. When there are no jobs of work to do and sales of cottage products wane, we indulge less, or not at all.
Nor do we use the fertility of our land or the strength of our backs to buy goods in Caesar’s world. That would be an even falser bargain. The two economies exist side by side but do not admix.
In a documentary made in the 1970’s Helen Nearing is explaining the basis for their homestead economy while she is picking their cash crop, blueberries. She explains that the few quarts of blueberries she sells every year buy garden tools, seeds, and pay the taxes and insurance. That is, it makes the homestead operation self-sufficient. She adds as an aside, “Couldn’t buy a truck with it, though.” Yet they had a truck. They kept the self-sustaining homestead economy separate from the rest of their economic dealings.
The house we live in is made of timber and stone and no labor was hired to build it. It is wired for electricity but was not built to be dependent on it. It is heated with wood and is cooled because it is in a mature oak forest. It is sustainable without input from outside. The disreputable old bottom-feeder vehicles we drive are not sustainable. They require gas and oil and replacement parts (not in that order) from outside which we can in no wise obtain without cash. But the beauty of this economic system is when we can no longer get the gas and oil and parts or the cash with which to buy them, we won’t need the vehicles in the first place! We’d still need the house and so we made sure in our design that it would not depend on continuous input from the outside.
So as the homestead develops, the homesteader must separate his doings into (at least) the two economies and not mix them if at all possible. If you build a suburban type house, it is part of Caesar’s economy and you’ll need a plan on how you are going to maintain it with Caesar’s coin separate from you homesteading plan. The homestead won’t support high property taxes and energy for a heat pump. If your animals require continuous purchased feed, they are part of Caesar’s economy and best to view them that way. What’s the plan for keeping them going indefinitely?
It is quite a different thing to stop for a spell and have a glass of Babylon’s wine and listen to Babylon’s song and go on … quite a different thing from being Babylon’s slave. Only the Free Man walks in both worlds without shackles.
|John Calvin Kenneth Poore, a true hardscrabble.|