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.


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Guest's picture

*runs to see if my local library carries it*

Guest's picture

Books like this are also great for homeschooling- whether you live on a "farm" or not. They teach lots of skills that are fun to try with your kids and give them a taste of what living self-sufficiently is like. And even you live in the city, one can usually gleen lots of information to practice a more frugal and sustainable lifestyle.

Thanks for this!

Philip Brewer's picture

All the skills of self-sufficiency are valuable, even to someone who isn't trying to live a self-sufficient life--although some of them (how to harness a horse for plowing) probably don't help very many people who aren't already trying pretty seriously.  Doesn't make them less interesting, though, especially for kids.

Guest's picture

You can also be "strategically self-sufficient". It may not mean living off the grid, but positioning yourself for being able to do so in the event of any disasters.

Guest's picture

"...especially those who want the vicarious pleasure of imagining a self-sufficient life."

How did you know I was going to read this?

Philip Brewer's picture


Right there with ya! 

Real self-sufficiency is a tough life--lots of hard work for a much lower standard of living than you can achieve by working a regular job and then buying what you need with the money you earn.  On the other hand, a bit of "strategic partial self-sufficiency" can save your family from real hardship if something goes really wrong.

Guest's picture

My first recommendation for homesteading information would be to read "The Good Life" and "Return to the Good Life" by Helen and Scott Nearing. These great-grandparents of self-reliance moved to a rundown farm in rural Vermont around the time of the Great Depression and turned it into a comfortable way of living using only 4 hours of "bread labor" each day. They were communists (before that word took on the insidious meaning of the Soviet Union) and occasionally have annoying side-rambles about collecitivism (which can be easily ignored), and also vegetarians (not helpful if you want advice about raising livestock), but their farm became incredibly fertile and productive because of their composting practices (despite the bitter Vermont weather). These two books are easy, pleasant reads and can easily be obtained either separately, or in a combined book at most local libraries.

Another source is the Mother Earth News archives ... especially older homesteading articles from the 1970's. You can buy the entire collection 1970s-present on CD-ROM for around $50, peruse their website for -some- of the articles, or read more recent articles from the newer magazines at your library. The older articles are useful for homesteaders because one of their writers follows their own efforts (successes and failures) in setting up their own homestead with great detail.

A third source is USDA "Yearbooks" from the 1970's related to farming and homesteading. Most libraries have these. Unlike most homesteading sources which put a glossy picture on the subject and skip over "unimportant" things such as siting your septic system so it doesn't pollute the well you're using to water your livestock, these collections of scientific papers written to help farmers and homesteaders in different USDA districts are thorough and backed by science. This is the only place I've seen important subjects such as -which- farm to buy credibly addressed (many "cheap" farms are cheap for a reason ... there's not enough arable land or water to homestead).

Lastly, don't forget our old friend Henry David Thoreau. Our original American back-to-the-land advocate goes into great detail about how he built his simple homestead on the shores of Walden Pond and how clearly he began to see the odd consumeristic behavior of his peers in town (even back in the early 1800's). It should be noted that Thoreau was best friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that other great literary work "Self-Reliance" warning about the risks of globalization (again, way back in the 1800's).

Philip Brewer's picture

@Hayden Tompkins:

Yes, "strategic partial self-sufficiency" is the term I use in my post on self-sufficiency, self-relience, and freedom

Every time you are able to satisfy one more category of your needs without resorting to the money economy, your family is that much more secure against not only disasters (where you really have to be more self-sufficient) but also against less serious hiccups and glitches (like a direct deposit that goes awry or an ATM machine that's out of cash).

Guest's picture

so I looked on Amazon. Holy smokes he wrote a lot of books before passing away. I ended up buying the self sufficient gardening book and can't wait to get it! Thanks for introducing me to John Seymour.

Guest's picture

I agree with the point above about being strategically self-sufficient. It's one thing if there were a third world war and we all literally had to grow our own stuff, but there's a good reason why we've developed systems in which not everyone has to do everything from scratch, because it's more efficient and allows human labor to expand into other labor-intensive activities. The US, however, is known for relying on the rest of the world for its products, so perhaps there is a bit of just irony in here. Personally I wouldn't want to make my own blankets and socks and I'm glad that I'm able to buy them, and keep them (I don't buy new versions of everything all the time).

So I think it's important to point out that we need to be awake to the processes of production that we live upon (this is actually a Marxist point for all y'all Marx haters:)). But it's also fair if one person makes them and another pays for their full value (or trades for what they're worth). Great thinking pieces in here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a lover of the idea of self-sufficiency. But I agree with the point in the post about there also being a great deal of "romance" attached to it. Personally, I've learned to garden quite easily without a book to show me how. It's basic trial and error. Not at all something exotic and mysterious. But I also own some survivalist books, too:)

Guest's picture

I agree everybody should aim to be minimally self-sufficient for a variety of bad things that could happen (economic meltdown, energy collapse, job loss, natural disaster, asteroid hitting the Earth, etc.). If you treat minimal self-sufficiency like a 401(k) and take a few steps every month to build up your capability, it's a manageable task (OK ... maybe not for asteroid hitting the earth ... but if you're prepared for everything else perhaps you'll survive long enough to figure out a way to avoid extinction...)

I volunteer for my county disaster response team and people -should- be scared about how ill prepared and dependent we are upon other nations for things we need to survive. Walmart's "just in time" supply chain (and governments reliance on "privatization" for so many of these supplies) may be good for pinching pennies, but it is a disaster waiting to happen from an emergency preparedness standpoint.

H5N1 "bird flu" ... even if the CDC is able to come up with a vaccine, 100% of our rubber gloves, face masks, and syringes are made in China and Tamiflu is made in Europe. The Europeans have already said we're last in line to get their antiviral drugs and do you honestly think China is going to keep shipping syringes to vaccinate our people if millions of their own people are dying?

War ... sure we have nukes and "smart bombs," but nearly all of our weapons-grade plutonium comes from the former Soviet Union, most of our bullets (and nearly all of the materials to make new bullets) are made in other countries, and 100% of certain rare minerals we need to make those Smart Bombs are mined in China. We've burned through our reserves in Iraq and Afghanistan and are having trouble keeping up with new demand, much less build a stockpile. We can't go to war without permission from China because they've got our supply chain by the short hairs.

Look at what happened after hurricane Katrina? My daughter served her army AIT in Gulfport, Mississippi and she said they -still- haven't rebuilt much. Municipals buildings have been rebuilt, but there are few neighborhoods. Church groups invite soldiers off the base and feed them in the hopes they'll help because FEMA didn't. These people weren't asking for charity, just to pay a fair wage because the FEMA-certified private contractors ripped off their money and didn't do the work. Very few people know how to build a house these days. My daughter attended several church/soldier "house raisings" where the carpentry/masonry specialists acted as construction supervisors and taught parishioners what to do.

People should be especially terrified about what happens when we start running out of oil, which will be a lot sooner than most people think. The experts are warning we're way past peak oil and should plan for $9/gallon gasoline within the next decade. Although our population and energy usage have risen dramatically since the 1970's oil crisis, the strategic national oil reserves have not kept up. Peak oil collapse is going to make the 1970's look like a picnic.

There are -no- more caves filled with USDA grain, canned pork and cheese to tide over the American people if disaster strikes. And there is -no- more gold in Fort Knox to buy things from other countries if our currency collapses. Do people honestly think pro-big-agribusiness Congress is going to stop Monsanto's grain barges from shipping our food supply off to other countries for a hefty profit if Americans are starving?

I agree with the poster who says it doesn't make sense to plan to do everything from scratch, but it -DOES- make a lot of sense to at keep potential calamities in mind and make sure you have the capability, knowledge, social networking, food and supplies on hand for a broad variety of disasters (both natural and man-made). Mormons may seem a bit "different" to the rest of us, but I think they have the right idea when they urge parishioners to keep a one-year supply of all food and supplies they need on-hand (including money in the bank) and host free classes to teach critical life skills ranging from mending your clothing to gardening to minor home repair to maintaining your car.

I've put the Seymour book Philip recommended on the waitlist through interlibrary loan and am looking forward to reading it. I'm sure we've forgotten -something- on our at-least-know-how-its-done sensible self-reliance list.

Guest's picture

Nice review.

I would also recommend:
Storey's Basic Country Skills and Emery's The Encyclopedia of Country Living

Guest's picture

I am a sucker for these types of books, and am actually re-reading The Good Life (the compilation of the two books) right now. It's a good read.

I understand the desire to stockpile, but I don't. If I buy canned tuna, brown rice, bulk flour, and canned veggies...then I have to eat them. I actually prefer eating fresh foods (so I am learning to garden). I kind of go back and forth. I simply can't imagine storing a year's worth of food, because I don't like eating that kind of food. OTOH, I have considered paying a few hundred bucks for the Costco "emergency food pack", figuring that it lasts years.

I really like your articles.

Philip Brewer's picture

Relatively minor disasters (local flooding, blizzards, traffic pileup that closes a major road) can be a huge inconvenience--and relatively ordinary preparation (making sure that there's always food in the house and gas in the car) is an effective solution.  A larger, but still medium-sized disaster (Katrina, earthquake, recession) is still relatively easy to prepare for, and a little self-sufficiency can help a lot.

Too many people seem to focus on the mega-disasters (nuclear war, meteor strike, etc.) and decide that preparation is hopeless.  Then, when the disaster doesn't materialize (as it generally hasn't for mega-disasters), they draw the perverse conclusion that preparation is wasted effort.

Basic preparation seems like good sense to me, and a bit of self-sufficiency is a good second step.

Guest's picture

This is a fantastic book. I bought it for my husband for his birthday, and it gets lots of use.

Guest's picture

I'm not a survialist, but I am concerned about the huge amount of "lost knowledge" that comes from our separation from the means of production. It just seems to me that every human being ought to know the basics of raising his/her own food, whether or not s/he ever needs to or chooses to do so. These just seem to be good, basic skills to have. At very least, they give you a bit of perspective and a sense of where your food comes from, even if it was grown by someone else.

Guest's picture

The Foxfire series of books are pretty fascinating reads on this kind of subject.

Guest's picture

Sounds awesome, i shall pick up this book on my next trip to the bookstore!