A long post for the shortest day

by Max Akroyd

Sorry for the slight delay in posting! It’s been a befuddling time on the farm since we last spoke. Big changes have taken place in this household, most of them positive but all of them very distracting.

Readers of longstanding will recall that I aimed to feed myself from my field. Am I succeeding? The short is answer is: “no. I failed.” The long answer might be of interest to anyone interested in living off the land as a viable alternative to a distinctly non-viable, mainstream economy.

What went wrong/right

It’s difficult to discern success and failure when every endeavour seems to contain elements of both. As soon as October, however, it was apparent that my project wasn’t going to work out. ‘Real life’ (whatever that is) had intervened and disrupted the uninterrupted effort required to grow, cook and eat our own produce.

I can’t overstate, however, how well it had all been going up to that point. The generous weather, and the related abundance of soft fruit was a real help of course. It didn’t seem to matter if things like beans and sweetcorn were frazzling in the hot, dry summer when there were strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries aplenty! This glut of fruit attracted the interest of our children who were soon grazing on the field for snacks and eating gooseberry ice cream for pudding. The best outcome of all was their realisation why we are doing what we are doing and their full participation in the processes of harvesting, processing and eating. They even did some weeding!

Distanced by recent events, it feels like a golden time. The dream came true and now stands in our collective memory as an ideal to be recaptured. We fitted seamlessly into a happy landscape populated by other happy animals working and living the land. What started as a solitary undertaking soon became a familial purpose (which is another way of saying they ate all my strawberries!). The tastes and textures of life became subtle and robust all at once. I soon discovered that it doesn’t matter if you only have a bit of meat and some potatoes and something green to eat as long as they are the best. This way you can enjoy pretty much the same thing every day if you have to  – many peasant cultures do. Now I understand how and why. Contrast this with eating devitalised supermarket fare which makes you crave endless variety. Or just plain more.

It’s a lot of hard work though – exhausting actually. The comforting idea of preserving the harvest loses its aura if you’ve already been on your feet all day growing it. Ideally, you’d inherit land worked by previous generations and have an extended family to share the baby, and other pressing commitments, around. In these (and many other) respects we were just not ready. By its nature, the Rural Idiocy? project was a simulation, a self-imposed test. It proved difficult to maintain this illusion while the rest of the world continued with real life (for now). Bills still needed paying and the kids kept growing out of their clothes… I suspect neither of those things were so significant for the real peasants of yore.

Reality bites

By midsummer the money ran out. Very early one summer morning, Emma – who finds poverty infuriating – baked a range of things, got in the car, got out of the car to jump start it and then set off to a local market. She’s been doing this – selling baked things and sewn things to French people in French – ever since. She’s kept the wolf from the door – and I’ve been kept behind that door trying to contain our toddler turbocharged by homegrown produce! It’s been a pleasure making his acquaintance properly, but the garden did soon suffer.

This neglect was compounded when I became embroiled in a complex legal dispute. I can’t say much more about it except I’m owed money. I’ve had to do a lot of learning about French language and French law in the the last six months and this distraction above all others killed an already tattered project stone dead. C’est la vie, as we used to say in Keighley. But when your new old life is invaded by responsibilities from your old new one, it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated.

Making eggs out of an omelette 

If you want to “go back to the land”, it’s useful to acknowledge why so many people left the land in the first place and continue to do so in poorer parts of the world.

Fact is, the idiocy of rural life remains a dour struggle. At times the work can be back-breaking and lonely and boring. Freedom from wage slavery can also mean freedom from cash and new shoes for the kids. The muddy path to self-sufficiency seems to always stretch out in the opposite direction to the neon-signposted one which says “money this way”. It’s either cash or carrots: two incompatible goals in life, it seems. Smallholders with fewer than two surnames have to add a business venture to their rural escapade to make ends meet. Almost invariably this involves selling something homely, but non-essential, to fellow human beings who remain wage-slaves. In other words you’re still reliant upon the health of the wider economy.

Oh dear. Not going so well in the real world, is it? Sometimes it’s been hard to ascertain which version of living represents a reckless, Utopian, delusion. Back in 2008, brave politicians should have ignored the bleatings of donors and lobbyists and declared this international bankruptcy, defaulted and reset. Instead we are confronted with an undeclared insolvency magnified every day by cowardly things like quantative easing. Unresolved insolvency isn’t a static thing, something that happened in 2008: it’s dynamic – like a vortex – pulling in more and more things of value until the fabric of modern life collapses. No, we’re not ready for that either!

I felt all marginal and peculiar responding to a notion of economic collapse a few years back. Now you can read all about it in the mainstream media. I don’t feel vindicated if the sky still can fall on my head. To paraphrase an ancient Chinese proverb: “The best time to prepare for global economic collapse is ten years ago. The next best time is now.”

The return

Not very uplifting is it? Crashing out of the encapsulated safety of suburban existence back into the sweating, bleeding core of normal human experience was never going to be a barrel of laughs. And that’s certainly been our experience here at the end of world (aka Finistère). That concludes the report from the advance party down the slippery slope.

But there is, I believe, a glimmer of hope. Most people know that food you grow yourself tastes better – the true texture and flavour of things rediscovered through hard graft. As everything from nurseries to nursing homes close down, and families are forced back together, perhaps we’ll also regain some thing similar, something invigorating we didn’t know we’d lost. The true and difficult quality of life will be restored. Maybe a safe, sanitised and moneyed existence wasn’t that secure, salubrious or rich after all. The alternative is messy, labourious and unglamorous – just like people are really. Welcome home.

Rural Idiocy? 2.0

I’ll be resuming proper blogging on 12th January 2012. There’ll be a new Rural Idiocy? website by then too – but the blog will continue right here. The general aim remains the same: to find a safe mooring for my family as the storm approaches. Thanks to my M.A. in subsistence setbacks awarded by the University of Rural Life, I think I’ve finally got the measure of this growing food malarkey. I’ll be recording everything I do, whilst trying to consolidate that fragmented knowledge into a coherent whole. Who knows? It might be useful to others. But no big plans or promises this time. I learnt that too.

I almost forgot to mention the garden. It’s now in the best shape it’s ever been. The overwintering peas and beans are in. I’ve dug a dozen big new beds for roots and the pigs and plough have prepared a huge area for spuds and for everything else which will go in a trench. The polytunnel and greenhouse stand ready for the season to come. And so do we.

Just space left to wish a happy solstice to anyone and everyone who is reading this. Who knows what the next year will bring? But at least, from today, the light is returning and that cannot be stopped.