food, history, rural life, and how we connect our cultural past and future
Taking care of ourselves and each other: Self-reliance, sustainibility, and Andrew Zolli
Around about Thanksgiving is pretty much when I close up the summer and early fall making/doing/storing food bustle. I’m getting ready to hunker down; you’d think I was a squirrel. South Dakota winters have a way of sticking in memory even all these 29 years later. I count up the jars on the shelves of canned tomatoes, peaches and applesauce, and frankly, take a moment to feel a bit smug (and a bit giddy in anticipation) with full freezers of homegrown pork and chicken, and a cellar containing boxes of homegrown potatoes, bags of local grown apples and this year several spectacular 10-15 pound winter squashes.
Does all this food and the two beds of fall/winter fresh greens still out in the garden give me a feeling of self-sufficiency? No indeed. Why? Because at my house, while we raise a good deal of what we eat, and make from scratch a good deal more, we are in no way prepared to live without coffee, chocolate, flour, cornmeal, lemons or avocados, just to hit a few high points on my regular shopping lists. Along with the generator as emergency backup we see our food bounty as a way of having plenty when the power fails. Instead of an imaginary self-sufficiency we strive for self-reliance.
Last week a friend on Face Book shared Andrew Zolli’s recent New York Times article “Learning to Bounce Back.” Zolli has taken a topic I am particularly interested in –self-reliance –and interpreted the concept even larger; at the national and global level. In a thoughtful examination he describes the difference between ‘sustainability’ “achiev[ing] a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another” versus “resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an unbalanced world.” I recommend the article highly and the url is below.
For many years while my husband and I were farming in South Dakota the buzz word in the counter culture back to the land press was self-sufficiency and many a ‘back to the lander” busted their butts trying to raise it all themselves or live uncomfortable lives doing without, and even worse to presume to look askance at those who bought items the converts thought should be home grown or made. I do believe we are well past that early self-conscious and often humorless stage when for so many the idea of growing your own or building your own was new, intense, and amazing. So here again is a version of my fall season post:
“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 ready made rough clothing and shoes for slaves which they found via ads in urban antebellum newspapers. Ladies (both urban and rural) bought the newest fashions advertised for in the same source. 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 sacred tobacco pipes is one example, decorative bird feathers from the Caribbean another, and certainly corn, bean and squash seeds would have been early trade items.
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 and goods 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 than judge ourselves by some illusory benchmark of historical rural American self ‘sufficiency’ we might do better for each of us to 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 learn to cook from scratch, and we all can vote to create conditions of food justice for others both nationally and globally.”
This year as a thrilling example of what self-reliance can mean I want to share the concept and resulting project pioneered by Growing Power in Milwaukee where a local organization of urban neighbors, community members, and activists guided by the energy of Will Allen’s vision are producing, not a self-sufficient, but a self-reliant, hundreds of thousands of pounds of food per year from within a 3 acre greenhouse/hoop house complex, and satellite farms in the heart of the city. I gotta tell you I get chills every time I check it out!