Self-Sufficiency, Not All-By-Yourself-Sufficiency

I was attempting to turn and loosen one of my most heavy-soiled beds this weekend. I needed a good stout garden fork. Sadly, I had not yet replaced the fork I snapped in half while transplanting asparagus crowns a few months ago. Without a garden fork, I was hacking at my soil with a pick-mattock. Doing a hard job is made worse for doing it with the wrong tool, and I was silently cursing my lack of garden fork.

Then it occurred to me to ask my neighbor, an avid gardener and the source of much gardening wisdom, if I might borrow hers. Of course she gladly passed me her fork over the fence, and I was able to turn and loosen the bed properly. To ask for a small favor seems simple and hardly deserving of fanfare, but asking is not something I’m good at.

I hate asking for things. Favors, help, assistance, money, stuff: when it comes right down to it I prefer DIY to “do you mind?” Even as a kid Christmas made me uncomfortable because I didn’t really enjoy being on display while people gave me things.

This mentality works well for someone trying to be more self-sufficient while still remaining fully plugged in to the conveniences of the electrical grid and public water supply. It allows me to “play” at increased self-sufficiency while still enjoying all the conveniences I could ask for: refrigerator (with ice maker!), car, alarm clock, espresso machine.

Self-sufficiency is a deceitful moniker. It implies that we can do it on our own. We can’t. Even real self-sufficiency is rarely all-by-yourself-sufficiency.

I just finished reading Better Off, the true story of a husband and wife who “go Amish” for a year-and-a-half to see if electricity actually improves the human condition. (I read this book as part of the Better Off Book Club over on Crunchy Chicken. It’s not too late to join in if you are interested!) Without giving away too much, the author, Eric Brende, manages to conclude that the strict Mennonite-type community he joined was investing too much work in their labor saving devices, the horses, and might be better off if they got rid of yet more technology.

Yet even in this completely unplugged, zero-watts society what is striking is how absolutely necessary other people are to the self-sufficient lifestyle. The work is – and must be – shared.

Side-by-side with neighbors and family, fields are sowed, weeded, harvested and threshed. Vegetable gardens are planted and fruit is picked and summer’s bounty is preserved for lean times. Horses and pigs and cows and chickens are kept or slaughtered. Pumpkins and molasses are sold and deals are made. Children are born and raised and taught and disciplined and enjoyed. Tools and skills and labor is traded and bartered.

There is simply too much to do to attempt it all solo. These people are the epitome of self-sufficiency. Not only can they do it all, they can do it all without power tools. And yet there are no survivalist bunkers or bug-out bags. Every member of the community depends on their neighbors and their community members. They are interdependent in their self-sufficiency.

Sharon Astyk talks a lot about adapting in place. That’s the idea that in uncertain times it might be best to just stay put and work with what you’ve got. Sharon makes the case that knowledge of your town and strong relationships with the people around you might be your biggest advantages in a peak-oil, social disorder meltdown senario (or, less dramatically, an “oh shit, I lost my job” senario). Adapting in place has a lot to do with community building. Strong communities are in a better position to weather social and economic disruption than fragmented ones.

But as Better Off makes clear, the best way to build a strong community is for people to be mutually dependent on their neighbors to their mutual benefit. When you borrow your neighbor’s horse and he borrows your hay baler you both have a vested interest in cultivating a relationship that goes beyond enjoying each other’s company.

If I ran out of sugar, my natural reaction would be to go to the store for a five pound bag, rather than walk up the hill to borrow a cup from the neighbor. I’m trying to change that mentality. I’m trying to remember that we are not all islands, and there is no reason to glorify duplication of effort or resources in the name of self-sufficiency.

But I am still going to buy myself another garden fork.

How much self-sufficiency is there in your self-sufficiency? How much community is there in your community? Do you and your neighbors help each other out?


  1. says

    When looking for your next shovel.. keep an eye out for some of the old ones. While handles break, the old ones are nice in that you can replace the wood shaft and keep on going. I can't tell from your picture if you can replace it on yours but that may be an inexpensive alternative.(to be quite frank.. in attempts to get a nice shiny new shovel, pitchfork, etc. a few of mine have "accidentally broken" and each time my husband fixed it.)

    Definitely a quality to look for when buying something.. how "fixable" the item is should it break.

  2. says

    Interesting thought…I guess a community really does start one neighbor at a time…the many times I have lived in the city, its always amazed me that I didn't know the name of the people that lived next door for years…Now that I live just outside of a small rural town, I do know most of my neighbors..and we do share (borrowed George's log-splitter last fall)..He will get some fresh tomatoes this summer…So, maybe its more of an attitude…a slower paced living setting is the best I can describe it.

  3. says

    It is interesting to compare and contrast the strengths of a virtual community (such as this one) – diversity, geographic range, asynchronicity, potential scale – with the strengths of a physical, proximal community – namely the ability to toss a tool over the fence.

  4. says

    Excellent post, Erica, and how I agree with you. As I was leaving the Farm Festival I attended yesterday, I made a point of thanking the owner of the farm, Noah Shitama, and he just looked at me and said "It took an awful lot of us working together to do this. I didn't do it alone."

    It's all about community.


  5. says

    My neighbors are quite friendly. I've worked hard to make that relationship like that. Mostly I help them, but they were quite amenable to my having chickens when I brought it up. I attribute it to the relationship I've built for a decade. They do lend me tools on occasion, especially a compost screen. I'll make one from scraps from my coop project, but until then, I'll use his. I even have an arborist for a neighbor, he's come in handy quite a bit with trees that needed to be taken down. I always encourage folks to get to know their neighbors.

  6. says

    Interesting article. My take is that the Mennonites and the Amish aren't actually self-sufficient people. They are interdependent people. They are a true community. They just don't rely on the larger society and its modern tools to exist. 150 years ago, they wouldn't have had any particular advantage or disadvantage over the rest of society as far as technology, but they would still have been very interdependent and tightly knit as a group.

    I think for those of us who participate in modern culture, it's important to be able to be self-sufficient. If society collapses for whatever reason, or parts of it decay, you'll need to rely on yourself, and you *may not have neighbors who can help.* If there's a natural disaster like a giant earthquake or hurricane or tsunami, your neighbors are probably in the same boat with you, and you need to be self-sufficient so you can help yourself, and potentially help others, and not be a burden on others or on outside aid.

    Then I think it's important to go further and take that self-sufficiency and help others gain theirs, and then together build that interdependent community. Community doesn't actually have to be the people who live next to you (though if we lose the Internet or cell phones, things will get interesting…) It's great if you live somewhere you can build a community in your actual neighborhood, but if not, you can build one in a larger area, or through connections at school or work, or people a little farther away in your town.

    Like Erica, I'm not good at asking for help. Most of the time I won't even ask directions or if a store has something in stock. I'm an extremely independent-minded introvert, and it just bugs me. I don't chat over the garden fence. (To be fair, there's only one neighbor I can SEE over a fence, and they're elderly, so they're not out much.) But what I *do* like to do is offer things up to people. I have extra seedings…anyone want some? Hey, I need to unload two dozen eggs…takers? Um, I'm going to be baking this week, I heard you wanted to learn to make XYZ, wanna come help? And from there, we build community and make connections.

  7. says

    Uh-huh, nods and agrees. Trying to build an urban homestead, and build community bonds, and still live my regular life with kids and job and stuff, has found me exhausted and questioning, what can I change? Well, I don't have to run the community group, I can just participate; I don't have to have my own chickens (and goats and grains etc), I can support the local, free-range, organic producers; I don't have to learn all the skills, just be good at a few of them!

    Great post, Erica, off to share this everywhere!!

  8. says

    I've got some friendly and helpful neighbors and others who are stand-offish (despite slowing waaaay down and checking out everything we are doing in the yard every time they drive by). One neighbor and I talk gardening frequently. He noticed my 55 gallon water barrels that I picked up from the local bottling company and plans to get a couple himself. It's a long drive to get them and I want two more. I was just thinking today that I ought to talk to him and ask him to pick some up for me if he gets in to town before me or offer to get his if I get in to town before him. Silly for us both to make the same long drive.

  9. says

    We are all still wayyyyy too comfortable to really understand the importance of community as a coping mechanism – we get it on an intellectual level but the time will come, after TSHTF that the community will become profoundly important to your very existence and well-being. we can feel it here in the northeast – this winter was simply brutal – we all squirreled away – bent our shoulders into it and didnt complain (so much) because that would be as foolhardy as looking forward to or pinning for spring… but now we are all a bit giddy – the last bit of snow is melting right now in my front yard – people are more talkative to one another and we say to each other "how was winter for you?" and we reply "it was long" and then we all agree "it was brutal" but its now passed and we each, even if strangers here in my tiny village, we know we have survived one of the most intense winters in a long time – its a bonding thing – but if we didnt have power or if there were no way to plow (each winter it gets more and more iffy regarding the town's ability to pay for snow plowing) the people in this place would emerge and help one another.

  10. Sharon Miro says

    For me the idea of knowing neighbors does not matter whether in a city, or living in a rural town. It is about attitude. Sharing life experiences is just plain more fun when there are more people doing it. We have lost so much by not living in extended families, and knowing our neighbors, can help ameliorate that loss. Get to know the senior that lives down the street–just maybe they know the people that built your house. Or the Asian couple 2 doors down can show you a new vegie to grow, or cook. It costs nothing to say hello…admittedly, not all neighbors are good ones–but you don't know until you reach out.

  11. says

    I strongly suspect that this is my weakest area – I am very not good at asking for help, and very stubborn about doing things myself and having my own of whatever it is that I need. I know it's not the best way to be, but I keep doing it, and need to learn different. I'm really not thrilled with my current neighbours (the ones upstairs let their dogs use their balcony for a bathroom and then sweep it over the edge and onto our lawn, for instance), but I need to get over that, find some new people, and get over myself. This might take some practice, I suspect, but you're so right.

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  14. Sherri Kindsister says

    What a great article! I love the idea of making one’s own citrus cleaner…but as a sister infuser, You will understand how difficult it is to think of any fruit peel going into vinegar instead of spirits!! Egad, woman! “how does this make you feel?” ;) . I for one, look forward to peeling citrus not only because I love all citrus fruits so much, but I can barely wait to add the result to any number of glass jars rotating around in dark places, filled with any number of spirits!
    I SUPPOSE, if you can do it, than so can I…I do like the thought of trying out a better herbicide, as I have never had much luck with vinegar & soap alone.
    Now as for the loss of my precious digging fork, I can’t imagine how terrible! It is, along with my beloved Japanese Houri Houri one of the tools I can’t believe I ever lived without!
    Thanks for the good read! Nice way to start the day, as usual!

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