In my article “The Accidental Luddite” about losing my phone, I explored some of the many changes which would occur if I had to live without a smartphone. Fortunately, short of some sort of dystopian meltdown, that is only a theoretical question. But… what if I deliberately chose to not replace my smartphone? How would I live without the multifaceted digital device which is at the center of so many of my activities? What if I gave up all my technological wonders to return to a simpler lifestyle? Although I frequently lament the intrusions on my privacy, irritating interruptions, and long-term damage to my attention span, I would not want to live without the efficiency, immediate gratification, and productivity boost which the smartphone and other digital devices bring to modern life. Indeed, frequent readers of my drivel know that I often proclaim this to be a golden age that men have been working for and dreaming of ever since we came down from the trees, back in Africa. In other words, you can have my smartphone when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers! However, as always, the coin has two sides. This article will examine the pros and cons of self-sufficiency, simplification, and greatly reducing our dependence upon others. Let us harken back to the days long before the smartphone…
I remember hearing my father talk about events from his childhood. Those stories illustrated a worldview and lifestyle of an era that is now irretrievably past. Here are some of the elements of life on a Missouri farm from one hundred years ago, a life in which the family was largely self-sufficient and independent: His family – typical of most farm families of the time – grew and processed almost all of their own food, then ate it. They might gather local wild crops like nuts and berries and some looked at hunting and fishing as a source of meat but their diet was largely unsupplemented by things they had to purchase. (Exceptions were coffee, tea, sugar, and salt – liquor, too, unless they made their own.) They had no electricity or telephone. Instead of a tractor (requiring gasoline), they used horses and mules to pull the farm implements. Their yard had cherry trees and grape arbors. In season, these fruits were processed into jelly which was their source of fruit in the winter months. Chickens, raised in their own separate “chicken house” to protect them from predators, provided eggs and, occasionally, a Sunday dinner. Pigs and cattle were raised and butchered. My father talked about carrying pails of boiling water from the house to the barn where the butchering was done. The meat was cut up and preserved in glass jars in the cellar. (No electricity meant they had no freezer.) They had a huge garden which provided vegetables which were also “canned” in those glass jars and also stored in the cool, dark cellar. (Just like in the old movies, you descended steps to the cellar through a trap door in the pantry.) Some families raised wheat which would be harvested, taken to town (via horse-drawn wagon) so the local mill could grind the wheat grains into flour which was then used for baking bread at home. Silos held dried corn and the barns held hay for feeding the horses, mules, and cows (the source of their milk, cream, and butter). There was a small building (separated from the rest of the buildings to reduce the fire hazard) for smoking meat or for preserving it in salt. In later years, after electricity and gas in your home were widely available, it was a three-way tie which appliance my grandmother most loved: the washing machine, the gas stove to replace the woodburning kitchen range, or the refrigerator/freezer.)
The family was not only self-sufficient in their food sources, but they were also largely self-reliant in terms of depending on outside sources for their other needs. Someone in the family was expected to be a medical doctor, animal doctor, mechanic, and blacksmith as needed. (To his dying day, my grandfather referred to the separate garage as “the machinery shop” because most of their machines were made or repaired there long before it was primarily a place for sheltering a car or truck.) Depending on the distance involved and the habits of the family, they might go to town once a week or even less often. They didn’t need to buy much. This was also when they stopped at the Post Office to see if they had received any mail since the last trip to town.
The farm family was virtually independent of the outside world. This is important to remember if you are to understand their mindset. They relied upon the government – local, state, and national – to provide basic services and protections. But, as the Chinese used to say, “The Emperor is far away.” Basically, the farm family lived alone and apart from all but their closest neighbors. (One of the pioneers, Daniel Boone, of my state (Missouri) was a famous explorer of early America. He once said that, when a man could see the smoke from his nearest neighbor’s chimney, the area was getting too crowded.)
It was only one hundred years ago that the radio and the automobile were still new inventions. In a short time, however, they radically changed rural life by connecting the most remote farms with the outside world. Prior to their introduction, farm families had none of the amenities which, today, we assume will always be available.
With this background, you can begin to understand part of the reason Americans place so much value on independence and self-reliance… even if they don’t always practice it in modern times. This attitude was also found in American writing. Wisconsin (one of the northern states bordering Canada) produced Gordon MacQuarrie, a prominent outdoor writer of his generation. His stories were filled with phrases like, “Turn him loose anywhere in his native heath, which is Wisconsin, and, given matches, an ax, a fishhook and some string, he’ll never go hungry or cold.” Or, “He represents something almost gone from our midst. He knows the value of working with his own hands, of being eternally busy, except when sleeping.”
Another famous American, Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, went to extremes, even for his time. He built and lived alone in his small cabin in a forest for over two years in his determination to identify what was truly essential in life. He wanted to find the basics of living and of values which are frequently lost in the noise of communications failures, the dictates of the latest fashion trends, and division of labor… not to mention news fluff and celebrity antics. Living in the forest, Thoreau was virtually independent of the outer world. He planted and cultivated his rows of beans which constituted much of his diet, supplemented by what he could gather from the surrounding forest and Walden Pond. Coffee, tea, liquor, and other luxuries were entirely absent from his life in the woods.
Now… for the negative aspects of such a lifestyle.
While we can maintain a rather romantic vision of such a life, it wasn’t without its limitations and discomforts. Personally, I like being able to turn a tap and have fresh, safe water for drinking and cleaning. Likewise, I want to enter a room and flip a switch to instantly have light. Comforts, conveniences, and connections brought to us by modern technology are things I choose to live with, despite some complications and expenses which accompany them. Likewise, I enjoy some diversity in my life. I don’t want to exist by living only on the food I can grow or gather locally, or depend on hunting or fishing to provide unreliable additions to my table. Did I mention that a common chore in those earlier times was to chop firewood and carry it inside for burning to provide heat, light, and cooking fuel… then carry out and dispose of the ashes?
There are times when I want some pizza, there are times when I want hot pot, and there are times when I want seafood. I would hate to eat the same foods over and over because there was no possibility of variety. Cooking without using any seasoning from locales around the world would be an unwelcome restriction. (Try eating for a week without using any spices or seasonings.) Even my beloved coffee has to be imported from tropical zones, then processed, then distributed. And, if anyone wants to be truly independent, try making your own fishhooks and your own string. Let me know how that works out. In addition to the long, long learning curve of all the skills needed just to make a useable fishhook and string, don’t forget the opportunity costs. What might you be doing while you were learning how to make a fishhook and some string?
I love making my own jelly with my son and baking my own bread so we can enjoy the aroma as well as the taste and healthy ingredients. Baking and cooking as grandmother did it is a great pleasure. But, I want to enjoy different breads made from many different flours from around the globe. I enjoy teaching my son some of the skills which were common in earlier times. But, I enjoy them only because they are an occasional indulgence… not a daily requirement. Do I want to take my son camping and sleep overnight in a tent? Sure. Do I want to live in a tent permanently? No! The fun ends when the cold rain begins.
I am perfectly happy with being interdependent. I value and romanticize the self-reliance of earlier times and it is undeniable that DIY (do it yourself) is sometimes quicker and simpler and less stressful than depending on other people to do things for us. But I would not want to give up the diversity and connectivity which add color to my life. That means diversity in my relationships also. One of the most deplorable aspects of the isolation of the farm family was that it was an incubator for provincialism, which is a nice way of saying that they feared and distrusted – and, often, actively persecuted – anyone who was different from them in appearance or beliefs.
What about you, dear readers? Where do you strike a balance between complete independence and unhealthy total reliance on others? How do you want to access all the needed services and unneeded luxuries in your life while maintaining some degree of control and simplicity? I invite you to submit your thoughts in the comments field below.