Book review: The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It
The Self-sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour.
In the days when self-sufficiency was simply the normal way of things, you'd learn the necessary knowledge and skills from your parents. (And from your grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, and whatever other adults happened to be around.) Now that most of us work for money to buy what we need, rather than growing or making things ourselves, few of us have the knowledge or skills to be self-sufficient. Few of us even know anybody we could learn from. This book tries to fill that gap.
The breadth of scope of this book is amazing. It talks about farming, gardening, and managing a homestead. It talks about hunting, fishing, gathering wild foods, and raising cows, pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, and geese. It talks about making beer, wine, and hard cider. It talks about spinning, weaving, pottery, tanning leather, and making bricks.
It's probably worth thinking about knowledge and skills separately, because knowledge--different kinds of soil and what grows best in each kind--can actually be learned from a book, while skills--how to throw a clay pot on a wheel--really can't be. But that doesn't mean that it's useless to have a reference for those skill-based tasks--quite the contrary. I wouldn't want to live under the first roof that I'd thatched after reading how in this book, but I'm sure it would be a much better roof than if I'd just tried to figure out roof-thatching from first principles.
Other good things about this book:
- Lavish illustrations. Any time a picture can help, the book has a picture (eleven little thumbnails, for example, on how to make butter).
- Beginning at the beginning. There are a lot of places where you can learn how to make beer from a kit. This is the only one I've found that covers the whole process, beginning with growing your own barley and hops.
- Principles. Improving your land calls for an understanding of what comes out of it when you harvest your crops, and how those things can be returned (via compost, manure, letting the land lie fallow, grazing animals on it, etc.). In this part of the book--and in many others--Seymour explains the principles rather than just suggesting specific solutions to specific problems.
- Encouragement. Without making things sound easier than they are, Seymour makes it sound possible that you'll be able to gain a mastery adequate to your needs. It can take a lifetime to become a great vintner. But if all you want is to turn a bounty of fruit into a tasty beverage that you can enjoy long after the fruit would have spoiled, the four pages in this book will suffice.
Books of this sort always have two audiences. There are the people who are actually living a self-sufficient life, and there are the people who simply find the topic interesting--and especially those who want the vicarious pleasure of imagining a self-sufficient life. This book is suited to both. It has enough stories of hard-won experience to satisfy the vicarious reader, while being jam-packed with useful information for anyone trying to be more self-sufficient. (And there are a lot of reasons to do things for yourself, even if you don't aim as high as actual self-sufficiency.)
I've written before on the self-sufficient life and the trade-offs involved. It takes three things: a willingness to work very hard, some capital (in the form of land and tools), and knowledge and skills. You'll have to come up with the first two on your own. But if you've got those, then The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It will give you a huge leg up on the third. Better if your parents can teach you how to milk a cow or build a hedge. But if they can't, this book can.