The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers by John Seymour (Dorling Kindersley, 2003)

True homesteaders will seek to husband their land, not exploit it. -- John Seymour

I once knew an old lady who lived by herself in the Golfen valley of Herefordshire. She was one of the happiest old women I have ever met. She described to me all the work she and her mother used to do when she was a child: washing on Monday, butter-making on Tuesday, market on Wednesday, and so on. “It all sounds like a lot of hard work,” I said to her. “Yes, but nobody told us then,” she said in her Herefordshire accent. “Told you what?” “Told us there was anything wrong with work!” -- John Seymour

It is amazing what can be packed into an urban garden. Even the smallest space can be made productive and what could be a more attractive that the sight of a well tended succulent fruit and vegetables right outside your back door. -- John Seymour

Nothing should be wasted on the self-sufficient holding. The dustman should never have to call. -- John Seymour

I first came across this book in its original incarnation The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency at least two decades ago. Then I used to brew beer and make wine, grow fruit and vegetables in the garden. Since then the trees in my garden have grown too tall, shading out most of the garden, and it has been turned into a wildlife garden, although runner beans and tomatoes still grow, and in addition I have turned old and lazy.

My interest has recently been rekindled for several reasons: A friend has a small holding up in the mountains of Tenerife, he has built a house, terraced the land with dry-stone walling, planted at least a hundred fruit trees, possibly many more, keeps chickens, grows potatoes, maize and many other vegetables, many of which, if not all, in the future, will be heritage varieties, his bible is the original The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, plus his own practical experience, he toils on the land every day, weather permitting; another friend has been toiling away clearing a woodland glade in the Surrey Hills, the logs he burns on the fireplace in the winter; yet another friend has squatted a block of flats to prevent the local council destroying an estate of social housing housing in an area of acute social deprivation, the squatters are greening the estate, have so far created a wildlife area and are in the process of creating a community garden for a food co-op using traditional varieties; and from an entirely different perspective an interest in heritage seeds, re-kindled by Seedy Sunday, currently we are growing some of these with the help of a few friends. Then I happened on the updated book, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency.

People today rush hither and thither. Have no time for anything, other than to drive to the local superstore, pick up a ready-meal and pop it into the microwave, and even that is going out of their way, compared with using the mobile phone to call for a pizza topped with its artificial plastic cheese.

We have forgotten what real food is. We have forgotten what it is to live.

A true home should be the container for living real hospitality, true culture and conviviality, real fun, solid comfort, and above all, real civilisation. And the most creative thing that anybody can do in this world is to make a real home .... One of the essential characteristics of a good home is “craftsmanship”.

It is true that our friends in the supermarkets have made many “advances” in the complexity of pre-prepared meals. But the sad fact is that our food now travels thousands – yes thousands – of miles between the placed it is produced and our mouths. Most people never get an opportunity to taste real local-grown fresh food – they do not know what they are missing ... if there is no quality in the food we eat, then we must just hope to get through life as quickly as possible ... the sources of our food are getting further away from our tables and the food goes through more and more industrial processing, the only quality now deemed important is long shelf life. Such food is dead food: all the life has been taken out of it. The best food of all comes from our own garden and our own land. Next best is food from a local farm, or farmer's markets, and then food from a local shop.

The best thing any of us can do is throw out the TV, that monster that dominates our lives and dulls the senses.

I used to be invited around to spend the evening with a lovely friend Estie. I'd bring a bottle of good wine, she'd prepare an excellent meal from fresh ingredients. We'd sit and relax and talk or listen to good music.

We can all start by learning to make our own things, repair that which is broke. When I was young, we used to build everything, repair everything. My father still does. He even repairs his own shoes. He was taught, I believe by my grandfather, and inherited his cobbler's last from his father. Sadly I have not acquired these useful habits

We don't have to have a small-holding, but we all have, well nearly all, a back garden, or lacking that, a few pots or a window box. We can start by growing our own food, or at least some of it. Nothing is as tasty or delicious, as the food we have grown with our own hands, picked from our own garden.

When we grow our own food, learn how to prepare and cook it, our sense of values change.

We had never had any real conscious drive to self-sufficiency. We had thought, like a lot of other people, that it would be nice to grow our own vegetables.

But living here has altered our sense of values. We find that we no longer place the same importance on artifacts and gadgets as other people do. Also – every time we buy some factory-made article we wonder what sort of people made it – if they enjoyed making it or if it was just a bore – what sort of life the maker, or makers, lead.

Seymour describes two Cretan villages. One high up in the mountains, remote, accessed by a pot-holed road, close to the cave where Zeus was born. The villagers farm in the traditional way as they have for generations, are self-sufficient, happy. Further down, a village is connected to the outside world by a new road. In has come TV, developers. The developers have ripped up the old trees and vineyards, grown olives as cash crops, the villagers now have to 'pay' for their olive oil and were dragged into the global cash economy, the TV tells the people what they are 'missing', the 'delights' of Coca-Cola. To the young of the village, the new road is the road to the city, to bright lights, to freedom. Seymour sees it for what it really is 'a road to sadness, wage slavery, and discontent, and one from which the youngsters could not return.'

Right up to and after the end of the Second World War, if you had looked in anyone's back garden, you would have found a well-tended vegetable garden, with a few fruit bushes. Then it all started to change. Vegetable gardens were replaced by well-manicured lawns with a flower border. Now it is all starting to change again. Gardens are being bricked over as though people have an aversion to soil.

However limited the space available, you only need the determination to abandon your space-wasting lawn and flowerbeds in exchange for a programme of planned crop rotation for every inch of your garden to become a productive unit ... your end products will be fresh, and your garden will be a fine example of a dying breed: the cottage garden of yesteryear.

It was not uncommon to find where I grew up, people keeping chickens in their back gardens. Fed off household waste, fresh eggs for breakfast. So common, that new houses, and in particular council housing, often had covenants and conditions attached that prohibited the keeping of chickens and pigs.

What is interesting is that these age-old traditions are starting to be revived as people react to the rubbish found on the shelves of supermarkets.

Nothing compares to food fresh out of your own garden, especialy if you use traditional seed varieties. If you save the seeds and swap with your friends, as well as enjoying good food, you are also helping to safeguard endangered seed varieties.

There are two principles to attend to for a successful smallholding: maintain the vitality of the soil and crop rotation.

If you move up from a back garden, to a one to five acre plot, you should be thinking of a few animals, a few chickens, maybe a pig or a goat. Seymour does not believe you are entirely self-sufficient unless you also keep animals, and that animals be essential for the recycling of nutrients.

Nothing beats home made bread, brewed beer and fermented wine.

If you grow your own food, there will peaks and troughs. As well as growing it, you need to master the often neglected black arts of storage – pickling, bottling, freezing, salting, cold storage.

It is autumn and you have a surfeit of all the crops you have been gathering through the summer. What more fulfilling than to bottle, pickle and preserve in all possible ways for for the dark days of winter ahead? ...

... [there is] a vitamin shortage in the dark winters, and those dark, cold days should be enlivened by nice tastes and odours beside that of salt bacon. So the self-supporter will wish to preserve certain things, preferably by a process which improves their natural flavour, such as bottling, pickling, chutneying, or wine-making. There is nothing more encouraging in autumn than the sight of shelves heavily laden with full jars and crocks. More than anything, they give you the feeling that you are likely to survive the winter.

Freezing is an aid to attempt to retain the freshness of the original. Seymour sees pickling, chutneys, jams, wines, not just a method of storing our surplus for the winter months, but a way of enhancing their original flavours.

Seymour recommends salting runner beans, but I have always found freezing to be preferable. A friend goes out and collects elderberries, freezes, then uses to top cakes in the winter.

Tomatoes can be bottled, but nothing else is worth bottling. Mushrooms can be dried, then used in winter soups or part of a casserole.

If you are self-sufficient, it isn't just what we grow, food is there for the picking in the wild. Who hasn't stuffed their face full of blackberries at the end of summer? But it isn't only blackberries, have you tried elderberries, hazelnuts, and what about some wild fungi in the autumn?

Shaggy Ink Cap, I have never thought much of, Field Mushrooms though are delicious. I also recommend Puffballs. Cook as Seymour recommends, in the oven. I will always remember finding a puffball whilst walking the coast in Cornwall, then walking with it all day. It was worth it though, when we cooked it in the oven that evening for supper. So were Horse Mushrooms that I found in a grassy field.

Collecting wild food is part of our pleasure. If we go for a country walk we keep our eyes open for for fungi ...

Giant puff ball is the easiest food in the world to prepare, for it cuts cleanly into lovely firm white slices which can be fried in butter; and then it is delicious. Parasol mushroom is another favourite of ours. It tastes similar to field mushroom, but is strangely flavoured and I think better. Champignon, or 'fairy ring' toadstools are fine if you can find enough of them to make it worth cooking them for they go down as cooks say 'to nothing'.

Sweet Chestnuts, as Seymour says, are smaller than those found in the shops, but infinitely preferable.

Sloes, eaten straight off the bush, make your mouth curl, but drunk on a cold Christmas Day curled up before a log fire after dinner as Sloe Gin, now that is an entirely different matter.

Nothing goes to waste when you are self-sufficient. Clay can be dug up and turned into hand-made bricks.

Willow can be used for basket weaving. My friend on his small-holding has a whippy, willow-like tree, only it is not willow. He made himself a small tool out of hard word, pointed, with three grooves. He slips this into the end of a thin willowy-like branch, and slips it through the branch, dividing it into three. Self-taught, with help from neighbours, he has made a range of baskets. Some are used in the house for fruit, others in the fields to collect potatoes. Nothing goes to waste.

If you are self-sufficient in food, you should also be self-sufficient in energy, or at least aim to minimise consumption and waste.

Don't go it alone. That is the advice Seymour ends with. He went it alone. Too much like hard work, no time for the pleasures of life, no time for music, no time for literature, no time for conversation. Cooperate with neighbours.

We can of course continue our pact with the Devil, work for global corporations, help them get rich and rip other people off, churn out useless crap in our mind-numbing routine, work our balls off to pay for the season ticket, our mortgage, to pay for all the worthless crap we buy to maintain our lifestyle, then when we retire, often early through ill-health or because we have been forcibly retired, find our pension is worthless because we too were ripped off, that we cannot pay off our mortgage because we were ripped-off there too ....

If we are successful at self-sufficiency, and to be successful we have to work with nature not against, and we learn but one lesson, it will be this: we are a part of nature not apart from nature.

The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency was the guide to self-sufficiency. Revised and updated, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency is still the guide to self-sufficiency.

Also worth reading

Suzanne Ashworth, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener, Chelsea Green

Jose Bove and Francois Dufour, The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food, Verso, 2001

William Cobbett, Cottage Economy

Brian Donahue, Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, Yale University Press, 1999

Archie Duncanson, Ecology Begins at Home, Green Books, 2004

Dominique Guillet, The Seeds of Kokopelli, Association Kokopelli

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, Chronicle Books, 2002

Richard Mabey, Food for Thought

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food, Columbia University Press, 2004

Pauline Pears (ed), HDRA Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Dorling Kindersley, 2001

Julia Ponsonby, Gaia's Kitchen, Green Books

John Seymour, The Fat of the Land, Metatonia Press, 1991

John Seymour and Herbert Girardet, Blueprint for a Small Planet, Dorling Kindersley, 1987

Patrick Whitefield, The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook, Permanent Publications, 2004

Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2005 -- February 2005 rev 0