Often one hears "the simple life" in connection with the choice to go back to the land, live in the country, and try to be as self-sufficient as possible. But I’m going to share an open secret: It’s not simple.
True, the idea conjures up images of a time when life arguably was simpler, at least for rural people of modest means. Their needs and possessions were rather few compared with what’s typical in our modern, industrial societies. Generally those who choose a self-sufficient, back-to-the earth lifestyle today also do with less in the way of possessions, amusements, and conveniences. But does this make life simple?
Not necessarily. The reason has partly to do with something called reskilling. Our industrialized society has forgotten so many of the skills that are needed for real self-sufficiency, such as felling trees, building barns and houses, heating and cooking with wood, spinning, weaving and making clothes, hunting, butchering and foraging, many food preparation skills, soap-making, and the list could go on. For those concerned about reducing their carbon footprint, it might include plowing with horses, harvesting by hand, or maintaining solar, wind-powered, or geothermal energy systems.
My efforts at environmentally responsible self-sufficiency have been very limited: a large garden and a few fruit trees and berry bushes; poultry for eggs, meat, fertilizer and pest control; a spring-fed water system; and a small array of human-powered tools for mowing and gardening. Still, much of my time and energy have been devoted to developing new skills: mowing with a scythe and reel mower and keeping them sharpened and properly aligned; troubleshooting and maintaining my water system; driving T-posts and putting up fences; raising, housing, and processing chickens; canning, pickling, and preserving; loading and firing a gun; making my own laundry detergent; and improving and expanding my very rudimentary gardening skills.
Meanwhile, I bring to this endeavor some of my modern middle-class sensibilities and expectations that I’m not prepared to give up. For instance, I want home insurance because if my house should burn down or my roof falls in I can’t expect my neighbors to come and help me rebuild it. And I feel I should get to the dentist now and then because I don’t want to end up with missing teeth, at least until I’m too old to care. Living as spread out as we do today I need a car, and my aging vehicle often needs repairs. Plus I’d be hard pressed to do without a refrigerator or washing machine. I use a clothesline in the warmer months, but the convenience of a dryer seems indispensable at other times.
My vision of the good country life always included multiple free-roaming cats. So when I came here with two mostly indoor ones I expected to take on a couple more, thinking they’d stay outdoors. But if you have a heart it’s hard to shut some out while you let the others in. So I’ve ended up with five cats, one of which has to stay out because he terrorizes the other cats, one who’s afraid to go out now, and three that are indoor-outdoor. Now I have to cope with a constant influx of fleas, which means either spending money I can’t afford on expensive flea treatments, or dousing my cats, the carpets, etc. with diatomaceous earth about every other day. And with all that fur and flea dirt, I really do need my vacuum cleaner! Not to mention that cat litter has to be purchased and litter boxes cleaned.
A litter of kittens every now and then also fit my vision of the good life, so when I picked up a young female cat at the dump I didn’t bother to get her fixed. Soon she was pregnant, and since I didn’t have the heart to keep her outside, the kittens were of course born in the house. But after raising one litter in the house I said never again! It was hard giving away the kittens after bonding with them as family, and what a mess they made!
So from now on all my pets have to be neutered. And I feel I should get rabies shots for the outdoor ones, even though it’s not enforced here by the county. What happened to the simple life, where cats roam willy-nilly, turning up with kittens outside, and pretty much taking care of themselves?
I’m not sure how gardening ever managed to be simple. Keeping four-footed marauders out of the garden certainly requires some combination of fencing, dogs, and firearms. And the same goes for the chicken coop. How did families with chickens all go out for an evening of music, dancing, or other fun? I have to be home when it gets dark to shut the chickens in, so that rules out any evening social activities from about April through October. Having a secure, enclosed run would help, or maybe a dog to keep the raccoons at bay. But a dog would bring further complications. And what if a coyote turned up?
Besides, organic gardening today means mastering the art of permaculture, and/or investing in an arsenal of organic pest management tools, soil amendments, and infrastructure.
So you see, it’s not that simple. Is it worth it? I’m still inclined to say yes. I do enjoy my chickens — and even my cats sometimes! — and there’s always some satisfaction when I’ve brought in a basketful of vegetables, or have put up a jar of pickles, kraut, or jam. Working outside sure beats working in an office, and once I’ve improved my soil and my gardening techniques and infrastructure things will get easier. And if my efforts at self-sufficiency fail miserably, I can always just sit on my front porch and enjoy nature!