The Self-sufficiency Handbook by Alan and Gill Bridgewater

Skyhorse Publishing

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

During the Great Depression of the 1930's, many people were able to live fairly well because they were able to produce a large amount of what they consumed, particularly food. Because they were less dependent upon the money economy, financial shocks made less of an impact on their daily quality of life. Unlike city-dwellers who often experienced hungry days when jobs melted under their feet, rural people generally would have enough of the basics put by to at least get through. (My own grandparents always were able to keep a small flock of chickens that would keep them in eggs and allow them to eat the occasional chicken dinner, and even if they didn't have their own cows, would usually have access to the milk of a cow owned by the landlord, and they always planted as big a garden as they could). The diet might be monotonous and devoid of many of the things we take for granted, and it would take careful planning to make it nutritiously balanced, but it kept the stomach full.

There are many reasons people want to unplug themselves from the grid, or at least reduce their dependency upon it. The authors of this book are working from the assumption that reducing one's carbon footprint and otherwise creating a greener lifestyle is one's primary motivation, but it's certainly not the only valid one. Cushioning oneself by reducing one's dependency upon the money economy is certainly just as important.

The authors acknowledge that nobody can truly be self-sufficient. Even if we buy our land outright with cash rather than having a mortgage, there will still be property taxes owed to the local government on an annual or semi-annual basis, for which we will need some access to the money economy. No matter how carefully we tend our health ourselves, we will need to deal from time to time with the medical system, and most doctors and hospitals nowadays aren't going to accept barter, which means that there will be need for funds to pay them. Equally, some equipment will have to be purchased, and will have to be replaced or professionally repaired when it breaks or wears out.

But the inability to attain perfect self-sufficiency doesn't mean that one cannot make major reductions in one's dependence upon the money economy, particularly as relates to basics such as food. Being able to grow and put by enough vegetables to get through the year can make the difference between eating adequately every day and having to miss meals. Having some sort of supplemental heating and electrical generation can make a major contribution to one's quality of life when it becomes difficult to pay electric and gas bills. The less one is dependent upon the vagaries of the financial system, the less one is a hostage to the decisions of people in Washington and New York who often have little or no mental connection with the way ordinary people live (it's truly scary to listen to some politicians and banking executives talk about what they think "middle-class" and "poor" mean).

The first part of this book is focused on making one's home more energy-efficient and less reliant upon the public utility grid. There is a very good emphasis on the idea that every change is going to involve both benefits and drawbacks. For instance, trying to generate all one's own electricity will mean having to give up some electrical appliances, particularly those with heating elements such as electric teakettles, frying pans, and the like. Switching from gas to wood for one's heat will mean having to learn to operate a woodstove properly, which is a lot of work and requires closer attention than a thermostatically controlled forced-air furnace. There are diagrams of several kinds of "perfect" houses, depending on what one is important in one's lifestyle.

The next section, and it's a big one, deals with gardening. There is general discussion of equipments and techniques, including different kinds of tractors and power equipment (and if you're going to have a big garden, you're going to need some kind of mechanical assistance unless you've got a lot of time and upper-body strength to expend on doing everything by hand). The remainder of this section is devoted to the various kinds of vegetables, grouped to put related species with similar needs together. For instance, all the brassica (cabbage and its relatives) are discussed together, while the cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc.) are discussed as a group. There are also A-Z quick-reference sections on vegetables, fruits, and herbs so that a gardener can quickly find any particular species.

The next section is devoted to livestock. Obviously some species are easier to raise than others, and some require different living situations. A cow is going to need a lot more room than a goat, and ducks or geese will require access to open water in which to swim, which is not a consideration for chickens. Some livestock are more apt to be behavior problems (geese are notorious for being jerks toward smaller fowl, and pigs will often fight to establish a dominance hierarchy and will apply their considerable intelligence to having their own way).

The final section is devoted to various skills for turning raw agricultural products into foods you can store in your larder -- making butter and cheese from milk, turning fresh fruit into jam, and cabbage into sauerkraut

On the whole, this book has a wealth of practical information with a minimum of preaching or objectionable transnational-progressivist political philosophy. The authors are British, so some translation will be necessary to adapt the advice to the American rural situation (some terminology differs, and the rural American landscape, or landscapes, differ widely from each other and from prevailing conditions in England and Scotland).

Review posted June 9, 2011.

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