31 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

By noon on Saturday I was standing in the gardening section of Waterstones. Despite the efforts of the grévistes (blockaded bridge over the Loire, missed flight) I’d made it to Leeds with an hour to kill.

During the couple of years I’ve been making this trip to be reunited with my oldest two children, I’ve noticed a remarkable resurgence of interest in the growing of food in the UK. For example, within the crumpled newspapers I find discarded on trains, next to the half-finished crossword puzzles, there are now special sections devoted to vegetable growing. Similarly, the book shelves in front of me were groaning under the weight of gardening knowledge (printed in China). Perhaps, one day, historians will trace our future back to such minor cultural artefacts.

Perhaps. It does seem there’s an instinctual awakening afoot: there’s a whole shelf of beekeeping books and at least half a dozen tomes with ‘self sufficiency’ in the title. As I flicked through the latter it was apparent that – sensibly enough – they were essentially just compilations of the gardening and animal-related knowledge spread out on all the other shelves.

Although I’m sure all their information was present and correct, these guidebooks from suburbia to the good life didn’t hit the mark for me. Disappointingly for the weary traveller wanting a self-gratifying hit of glossy reading matter, I left the book shop empty-handed. This happens all the time these days. I already had that information stuff three times over on our book shelves at home… Sometimes you need to know the planting distance for broad beans. Other times you just plant them. In fact, truth be told, I conclude that the perfect self-sufficiency manual would be devoid of any pages at all. You’d open up the the shiny cover and inside there would just be a little mirror… 

Fortunately, somewhere in the depths of my bag, I’d packed a copy of this book rediscovered by a fellow blogger:

I read it once, and then I read it again! Because, if you want to learn about growing to subsist it seems sensible to swat up on how our peasant forbears did it for all of recorded human history, and probably more besides. The only problem is their experience wasn’t much recorded. Instead, you usually have to rely upon the disdainful accounts of peasant life written by sneering modernists – which, by the way, pretty much typified all the social history we were taught in school. Like an old soviet propaganda piece about life in the West, I’m sure the official take on peasantdom contains recognisable facts, just organised in a very unreliable way.

Instead, without much useful historical record to go on, Segalen has to coax the truth of peasant life from regional French proverbs and other found objects washed up on the shore of real history. Her main purpose is to prove that peasant life might not, in fact, have been all that patriarchal and revolting. But, for a revolting rural patriarch like me, the invaluable insights are found in the mundane structural organisation of ye olde family farm: room plans of peasant houses and the timetables of their days. The book also explains why, one day, having a cow or two in our living room might again be a good idea.

Like raising a child, you can read all the manuals you like, but eventually you give up on all that expensive advice and just trust your instincts. Simulation will never match the intelligible intensity of the act itself: you can buy a book about pigs, go on a course about raising pigs or you can simply obtain a pig. If you keep them clean, dry and well-fed, farm animals are easy to look after. The mutual understanding which arises naturally between a peasant and his or her animals represents a direct challenge to knowledge as something to be bought and sold. 

So, unless you want to sell something – like a book – it’s also good news that you don’t need a degree in horticulture or a tractor-driving licence to feed yourself.  Jump into the river of self-sufficiency wherever you like. Often despite yourself, you’ll always end up drawn into the deep water of human experience.