(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam.)
(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)
(From the 18th-floor homestead. May 2020)
I am about to propose a radical idea – yes, another radical idea of which there is no worldwide shortage. I do not minimize the seriousness of the current pandemic but I plea for calm, rational thought rather than running in circles like Chicken Little, proclaiming that the sky is falling. While so many are bemoaning the end of life as we know it, I can also see golden opportunities emerging. Through the magic of a paradigm shift, it is very possible to use this moment to consciously reinvent your life to achieve a better, sustainable, more satisfying lifestyle. You can begin to fashion our new normal of the future by borrowing an important concept from the past: self-sufficiency.
I remember stories from my father and grandfather about the family farm back in Rolla, Missouri, USA. During the years of the Great Depression, that 160-acre farm provided almost everything the family needed to survive. They were virtually self-sustaining; that is, they grew, canned, cooked, and ate their own food. Indeed, that attitude of self-reliance was an underlying theme of their life during those hard years. Food was just the tip of the self-sustaining lifestyle iceberg.
In the spring, they planted a huge and highly productive garden for the family of two parents and five children and, occasionally, additional family members who might be living with them. As a young child, I remember seeing the garden which my grandparents still planted every year, even after all their children had grown up and left home. In their earlier, depression-era gardens, they grew row after row of vegetables that could be harvested, processed, and put in jars to be stored in the cellar. (Just like in some of the old movies, their cellar really was reached through a trap door in the pantry.) In that dark and eternally cool cellar, the jars of veggies sat on shelves for months until needed. The canned vegetables in their clear glass jars included tomatoes, green beans, and many others. Those cellar shelves overlooked large trays filled with straw which held other vegetables that did not need to be canned. In my memory, I recall cabbages, onions, potatoes, and apples in those trays.
Since the family only occasionally went to town for shopping, it was up to the farm to provide for most of their needs. Even in the town stores, rapid transportation and refrigeration were not as refined as we have come to expect in modern times. Canned and packaged goods predominated. Fresh produce was limited in season and variety. For example, at Christmas, a special treat would be an orange from a far-off semi-tropical location.
Mostly, the family ate what grew locally, and only when it was in season. Thus, apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, and various wild berries – including tiny wild strawberries, one of the most luscious of native fruits in Missouri – were enjoyed during the brief periods when they were ripe and ready for harvesting. However, during their harvest peak, farm families also canned these fruits for winter treats. Nuts don’t have to be canned. They keep a long time; ask any squirrel. But almost everything else has a very short season and an even shorter shelf life unless carefully preserved. On the farm, they had grape arbors and cherry trees for making jams and jellies. These were winter alternatives to fresh fruit. Some farm families made and canned peach butter, apple butter, apple sauce, and other kinds of jellies to enjoy and to barter. These are skills that were passed down from generation to generation.
There was a similar process for preserving meats. On the farm, they raised cattle, pigs, and chickens. Self-sufficiency meant they did their own butchering. But, they had no electricity; this meant no refrigeration so freezing the meat was not an option. Like the vegetables, they also canned meats. My father talked about how, as a young boy, his job was to carry boiling water from the kitchen range in the house out to the barn where the adults were doing the butchering. Think of the primitive supply chain involved in this relatively simple operation: Someone had to cut and haul the wood to the woodpile just outside the back door. Someone had to split that wood into pieces suitable for burning in the kitchen range. (Indeed, as Gordon MacQuarrie reminded us, “The man who splits his own wood warms himself twice.”) Someone had to fetch the water from the cistern which was kept filled with rainwater. (No running water because of no electricity, get it?) Someone had to start and maintain a fire in the kitchen range. Someone had to wait while the water slowly came to a boil then carry it to the barn. Later, someone had to carry out the ashes from the range and dispose of them so they didn’t blow back into the house – or over Grandma’s laundry which was hanging out to dry. Talk about labor intensive! Hot, too. My mother told me she remembered Grandma working over a wood-burning kitchen range in the heat of summer afternoons, canning vegetables. There was no air conditioner, not even a fan. Under those conditions, Grandma sweated… a lot! But the food got put up and the family was assured of adequate supplies until the next harvest.
The meat was processed and placed in those same clear glass jars which could be sterilized, then sealed to keep food safe for months. Other pre-electricity means of preserving meat were by smoking it or salting it. I remember their little smokehouse, near the house, was a small, separate building – for fire safety reasons. Various cuts of pork, especially whole hams, were slowly smoked to dry and preserve them. Delicious eating, too. The smokehouse was also used for salting meat, another means of preserving meat without refrigeration.
In regions where it was feasible, one common solution before refrigeration was to cut large blocks of ice from frozen ponds and streams in the winter, then store them in a well-insulated “icehouse” until needed. Inside the home, an insulated “icebox” served as a proto-refrigerator, with a large block of ice lasting several days until it completely melted. The process was not very efficient but it chilled a small space adequately to keep food from spoiling. True, you had ice to store, then you had to carry heavy blocks of ice inside the house and, later, ice-melt water to dispose of, but it was a viable way of keeping food.
Years later, they bought a convertible kitchen range. This modern marvel still burned wood but it also burned propane gas. Guess which one Grandma preferred. This civilized uptick was made possible by placing a huge LP (liquid propane) gas tank next to the house. This tank would be periodically refilled by the local LP gas distributor. This was also the origin of Grandpa’s phrase to express satisfaction or approval, “Now you’re cooking with gas!” Indeed, the 1950s brought many improvements to the remote farms: electricity right into the house, LP gas tanks, telephones – the kind on the wall, where you had to turn the crank to get the attention of the operator back in town – and refrigerators, washing machines, sewing machines, etc. The pot-bellied stove in the living room was retired and an electric or gas wall furnace made winter less dependent upon the woodpile, even if it lacked that wonderful smell of burning hardwood.
In those days, the family farm used mules for pulling the wagons and farm equipment. This practice continued until sometimes in the 1940s when Grandpa switched to the vastly more efficient tractors – but those tractors required gasoline, something they couldn’t produce on the farm. Mules didn’t need gas, only grass and grains. Indeed, decades later, in the old barn, I found the leather harnesses for those mules still hanging on nails in the support beams, a mute legacy of the old ways. “Just in case,” I can imagine Grandpa saying. Besides, they never threw anything away.
Indeed, except for coffee, sugar, salt, and a few other things that simply could not be grown in Missouri, they ate what they personally raised and harvested. Going to town was not done casually or quickly; there were no convenience stores or fast food drive-throughs, anyway. Corn was dried in the fields, then stored in silos or mouse-proof grain bins. This corn was for feeding the farm animals but some strains – called sweet corn – could also be people food when freshly picked from the garden. Wheat was grown and, after harvesting, could be taken to the local feed mill where it was ground into flour for baking bread at home.
All this was many years ago and no one is suggesting that we return to those days. Grandma would look at you like you were crazy for even thinking such a thing. She would remember the amazing innovations like a washing machine, electric lights, gas range, and running water and how they greatly reduced the sheer manual labor of earlier methods. But, what I am proposing is that we become a little more self-sufficient as a means of improving our current quality of life and self-esteem – plus our sense of control. That means developing skills that have been largely lost, and taking time to do things with our own hands.
Over this terrible last winter, my son and I made orange and lemon marmalade and I can assure you that making it yourself makes it doubly delicious – plus you can be assured that there are no questionable preservatives or inferior quality products. Slathered on a slice of fresh home-baked bread, it is worth the time and labor investment. This is in addition to the intangible rewards of the heavenly aroma of bread as it comes out of the oven. Simple dishes, done well, can be immensely rewarding and the savings over purchasing the same foods as prepared in an outside facility can also be significant – but the real reward comes from the feeling of self-sufficiency.
In our home in 2020, we have three types of food: Mommy Food – as prepared by my wife, who shops for fresh food (meat, fish, veggies, and fruits) in the neighborhood markets almost every day; Factory Food, which includes food from restaurants and street vendors, as well as canned, packaged, dried, and frozen foods from the supermarket; and Fast Food – an occasional treat which we relish because it is an occasional treat. I will leave it to you to decide which is superior for safety and nutrition. (Chocolate, cheese, coffee, and Jack Daniel’s forms a separate but important basic food group, not part of this discussion. Self-sufficiency goes only so far before it becomes self-deprivation.)
At times, those stories of life in the “good old days” seem to be describing a more gracious, less hectic era. Would I like to go back to it… including all the other features of that time? Hell, no! Virtually every aspect of their daily life was inferior to our modern technology-based lifestyle. Medicines and transportation were primitive and ineffective by today’s standards. Writing my articles with a typewriter and white-out correction fluid? I don’t think so. And even that typewriter was a vast improvement over the previous level where communication was by words hand-written on paper and stuffed into an envelope, to be held until the next time the family went into town and stopped at the Post Office. (For the farm family of the depression era, daily delivery to a mailbox at the end of the lane came years later.) Local newspapers and radio stations were unreliable and biased but they were often the sole sources of news of the outside world.
Let me state it loud and clear: I am not advocating a return to a primitive, labor-intensive, near-horizon lifestyle. Even if you could master the various survival skills essential to being almost self-sufficient, it would still result in a life experience that was severely limited… at best. Try asking your survival mates to help deal with your toothache. Earl Nightengale said it succinctly, “Did you ever try to make your own fishhooks?”
What I am promoting, however, is a reduction in our near-total dependence on others for every service in our lives. That dependence makes us unconsciously aware of how helpless we are without the perpetual presence of countless others, each of whom acts as some tiny but essential cog in our lifestyle machine. This realization adds to the belief that we have no control over our life.
I am thinking of a girl I knew long ago who argued with me that she “needed” her car so she could drive to her health club where, while wearing fashionable exercise togs, she could walk around the club’s indoor track with the other tony members. This is a prime example of see and be seen, pay for the privilege exercise where the health benefits are secondary to the social aspects. As she would say, “You wanna play? You gotta pay.” In her mind, if the doors to the health club were locked, exercise was impossible. The idea of putting on a sloppy, comfortable sweatsuit and walking briskly around her neighborhood never occurred to her. This is a characteristic of people who dislike solitude and, in some cases, actually fear being alone. This sarcasm doesn’t apply to me, of course. I will be rough-and-ready Mr. Self-Reliant… after I have my two cups of morning coffee.
But, those days on the family farm were simpler and quieter. They were not so dependent upon vast numbers of unseen “others” to survive. Perhaps we can copy just that much. Yes, we can select some features of that lifestyle and consciously incorporate them into our new normal. Old fisherman insisted that time spent fishing is not subtracted from your allotted three-score-and-ten lifespan. Maybe the same exemption applies to preparing your own foods. I am advocating the enhanced sense of control and satisfaction that would come from being able to do more things for ourselves, especially those things that we can do with our own hands.
I will close this article on self-sufficiency with a quote from James Beard. In his utterly charming autobiographical book about an earlier era, Delights and Prejudices, he wrote of his mother, “Stocking our house for winter was an operation on a scale appropriate to the hotel business. … I can assure you that once she had the larder full, all of Portland could have dropped by for a meal. … Summer and fall the Mason and Economy jars were in constant use. … The amount of work that was put in from June through October was staggering, but Mother thought it was a disgrace not to fill the cellar with the good things of life, and by the beginning of November a tour of our winter’s food supply was an impressive experience.”
Excuse me, gotta go. I hear a big pot of beans and made-from-scratch cornbread calling me. Self-sufficiency and working with your own hands is fine therapy for dealing with the anguish and fear in these uncertain times; it also assures you of good things to eat. Cooking and eating your own food can be a fine addition to your new normal lifestyle. A reasonable degree of self-sufficiency is definitely superior to the full-on, 24/7, immediate gratification syndrome we thought was so essential to our happiness.
我现在要提出一个激进的想法 — — 是的，另一个激进的想法，全世界不乏这种想法。我并没有贬低目前这种流行病的严重性，但我恳请大家冷静、理性地思考，而不是像 “小鸡仔 “那样兜兜圈子，宣称天要塌了。当很多人在哀叹生命的终结时，我也看到了金色的机遇。通过范式转变的魔力，很有可能利用这一刻，有意识地重塑你的生活，实现更好的、可持续的、更满意的生活方式。你可以通过借用过去的一个重要概念：自给自足，开始塑造我们未来的新常态。
有时候，那些关于 “美好时代 “生活的故事，似乎在描述一个更亲切、更不那么忙碌的时代。我愿意回到那个时代，包括那个时代的所有其他特征吗？见鬼，不! 他们日常生活的各个方面几乎都不如我们现代的科技生活方式。药品和交通工具都很原始，以今天的标准来看，也很低效。用打字机和涂改液来写我的文章？我不这么认为。而且，即使是那台打字机也比以前的水平有了很大的进步，以前的交流都是在纸上手写的字，塞进信封里，直到下一次全家进城，在邮局驻足的时候，才会被保存下来。(对于大萧条时代的农户家庭来说，每天都有信件送到巷子尽头的信箱，这是在多年后才有的)。当地的报纸和广播电台虽然不可靠，有失偏颇，但往往是外界新闻的唯一来源。
我想起很久以前我认识的一个女孩，她和我争论说她 “需要 “她的车，这样她就可以开车去她的健身俱乐部，在那里，她可以穿着时髦的运动服，和其他的会员一起在俱乐部的室内跑道上散步。这是一个典型的 “见缝插针 “的例子，在这种情况下，健康的好处比社交的好处更重要。就像她会说的那样，”你想玩吗？你得付钱。” 在她的脑海里，如果健身俱乐部的门被锁上了，锻炼是不可能的。她从未想过穿上一件邋遢舒适的运动服，在小区里轻快地走一圈的想法。这就是不喜欢孤独的人的特点，在某些情况下，实际上是害怕孤独。当然，这句挖苦话并不适用于我。在我喝了两杯早晨的咖啡之后，我就会做一个粗制滥造的 “自力更生先生”。
但是，在家庭农场的那段日子里，他们更简单，更安静。他们没有那么依赖大量的 “他人 “来生存。也许，我们可以复制的只是那么多。是的，我们可以选择那种生活方式的一些特点，有意识地将其融入到我们的新常态中。老渔夫坚持认为，钓鱼的时间不会从你分配给你的三分一秒的寿命中减去。也许同样的豁免，也适用于自己准备食物的时候。我所主张的是，能够为自己做更多的事情，尤其是那些我们自己能亲手做的事情，所带来的控制感和满足感的增强。