By the time my father was in his third year of college at Villanova there was nothing he could not do. Newly married he and my mother lived in a small apartment above a garage. His in-laws paid the rent. Pregnant at 19 they wanted a roof over my mother’s head, and that of her unborn child, who would later become the engaging blogger whom you’ve come to know and love. Right? Anyone?
Villanova and the Navy were educating my father on the intricacies of chemical engineering, and the value of hard work. His only opportunity to earn a paycheck was on weekends. This he did every weekend, holiday and school break. One of his professors had in mind to build a house from the foundation up. He enlisted my father’s help.
Perhaps because of the satisfaction this experience provided, my father dreamed of buying a piece of land, and raising his children in the country where they could breathe clean air, and work their butts off satisfying his every whim for self sustainable living. My mother was so in love with my father that her judgment may have clouded her practical nature. Look at the way she looks at him in the photo. Notice the smile on his face, the clasp of her hand in his. They were in love. I’ll skip the sad part of the story. That occurs much later in time.
His Navy term over my parents purchased a 10-acre farm with a fixer of a house. The house lacked all essentials: water, sewer, electricity. They needed help. Five more daughters were conceived. We did the work ourselves, our father drawing up lists, and barking orders nearly every weekend, and all summer long.
We built a barn and populated it with animals. We ate some of them. My father installed a pond, and stocked it with fish: bass and blue gills. We ate them. These memories do not go down well. A dead cow strung up by his back legs while my father cut steaks from his loins. A chicken running around with its head lopped off spurting blood. We were allowed to hide from the sight. But sometimes the sight was so gruesome we couldn’t turn away.
Many days were spent in the kitchen, the smallest of us on stools to reach the counter, plucking chickens as they were hauled from steaming cauldrons on the stove to loosen the feathers. Had there been neighbors within sight of our house I might have been tempted to contact them through Morse code to alert Social Services.
Today, there is a resurgent Homesteading movement afoot. In 1862 the Homestead Act granted 160 acres of surveyed government land to anyone who wanted to claim and improve it by farming, planting trees, working livestock.
In the 1960’s and 70’s when suburbs expanded, grocery store chains proliferated, and the energy crisis loomed, people began to realize they knew little about the source of their food. The same rumblings are heard today. Like many other current styles Homesteading seems almost retro.
People hunger today for a simpler lifestyle. My hippie town values the self-sufficiency ideal. As land is so expensive two or three families pool funds, buy a couple of acres together, and set about learning how to homestead. It’s not easy, as these skills are long forgotten. Canning, preserving and fermentation classes proliferate. A cow, bought for milk, requires apprenticeship on a dairy farm. Chickens need coops, and year-round vegetables require a greenhouse. Permaculture experts are consulted to learn how best to utilize the land sustainably.
Like my father they install ponds to farm fish. Unlike my father they use “kill cones” to peacefully dispatch chickens. Turning a chicken upside down induces a trance-like state, and it welcomes having it’s throat slit. I wonder if a chicken whisperer worked that out scientifically. I eat these guys so I acknowledge it’s a bit hypocritical of me to judge. I’m happy they get to enter that trance.
The crazy thing is even after my dreadful childhood experiences I yearn for that ideal. A little. Maybe. I plant vegetables in the summer, and can usually get through a few months without buying produce. I ferment a wide array of vegetables (delicious and the health values are immense). I’m a long way from becoming self-sufficient. If I add one component each year, maybe I’ll get there, if I become a vegetarian. I could not dispatch a chicken or a rabbit humanely or otherwise.
My final caveat: if I am required to give up time with my Smartphone, cable television, and internet connection I would need to negotiate the details with my chickens.
What about you? How far would you be willing to go in a quest for self-sufficiency?