food, history, rural life, and how we connect our cultural past and future
The Value of Self-reliance vs the Ideology of Self-sufficiency
None of us are self sufficient. We all need somebody! Despite the often nostalgic retro-interpretations (our idealization of Little House on the Prairie comes to mind!) Americans weren’t self sufficient in the Colonial past, the Revolutionary Era nor the long 19th century. Few people or families, if any, ever possessed all the varied skills or owned all the necessary tools to produce enough cloth, iron tools, crockery, wagons, harness reins, shoes, or staple provisions such as wheat flour, to name a few basic items of those more rural times. The ‘rugged, intrepid pioneer’ family made what they could, but they purchased or traded for what they couldn’t. And as soon as a general store opened in the neighborhood folks rushed to buy industrially manufactured consumer goods; needles, tea kettles, ribbons, jack knives, rum, sugar, cloth by the yard, paper and ink, to name just a few items. In many cases plantation owners bought barrels of readymade rough clothing and shoes for slaves which they found via ads in urban antebellum newspapers. Ladies (both urban and rural) bought the newest fashions found in the same sources. In truth long before Columbus arrived in the New World Native American cultures traded over long distances for interesting and innovative products not available locally; the red soapstone (Catlinite) for tobacco pipes is one example, decorative bird feathers another.
From the late 19th century till well into the 20th Montgomery Ward and Sears supplied Americans on the farm and in small towns with all the tools for self reliance but nobody was fooling themselves with some idea that they didn’t need anybody else. Folks farmed to sell crops to enable them to purchase the tools that would help them lead a more comfortable farming life. The local blacksmith might repair a plowshare but the iron stock he used to do it came from afar.
Today rather then judge ourselves by some illusory benchmark of rural American self ‘sufficiency’ we might better make an effort to be more self-reliant. By self-reliant I mean making efforts to do as much as possible for one’s self. When organizing a household – whether in an urban apartment, a suburban lot, or a small acreage – learn to cook what you can, grow what you can, barter and buy what you can within your local community, and beyond that to understand the costs and production realities of the things you do buy from the wide world of regional, national and international trade. No way to avoid it; we all use gasoline and electric power, we buy tools made by someone else, we buy foodstuffs grown by others. But we can discipline ourselves to participate in the world economy in a more conscious way and to strive for a level of self reliance appropriate to our life circumstance.
The vast majority of Americans live in cities and suburban settings; they are not going to make their own cheese or harvest their own wheat. But they can support local producers of fresh vegetables, they can cook from scratch, and we all can vote to create conditions of food justice for others both nationally and globally.