Book review: The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: The Complete Back-to-Basics Guide by John Seymour

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Reviewing this is as dicey as reviewing the Bible. The late John Seymour is considered, at least in his native England, the father of self-sufficiency. This is a truly beloved tome to back-to-the-landers young and old. The Self Sufficient Life was originally published in 1976. This edition (2009) includes 100+ pages of another of Seymour’s late seventies books The New Self-Sufficient Gardener.

Unlike some self-sufficiency (hereafter SS) books that I have read of late, Seymour very clearly defines what SS means to him. I tried, but I can’t really sum it up in a few sentences. (Hell, I’ve had this blog going for over two years now and I still haven’t finished revising my own definition of SS!)

One of the really inspiring aspects of the book is the explanation of how knowledge of natural cycles and ecological interrelationships allows us to get the most out of a plot – garden and livestock – with an economy of effort. What Matt and I have been calling the “Joel Salatin Method” (as he was the first we encountered who laid out the system for us) turns out to be the 19th century concept of “High Farming”: “a carefully worked out balance between animals and plants, so that each feeds the other: the plants feeding the animals directly, the animals feeding the soil with their manure, and the land feeding the plants.” Essentially, the good old-fashioned closed-loop farm. In practice, like the natural systems that it echoes, High Farming is more complicated than that, with each crop and livestock animal fitting in like a cog or gear, but once in place it works almost like a perpetual motion machine, with the farmer acting as husbandman, greasing the bearings of the great machine and keeping down the weeds.

As do most SS books, this one contains chapters on gardening, livestock, wild food, cooking and food preservation, energy/waste, and crafts/skills. Seymour covers all topics on several levels – urban, suburban, small (1-5 acre) farm, and large scale, explaining, from experience, what is feasible and what isn’t.

He also takes things a step further than many SS books we’ve read. In dealing with waste he covers composting, feeding to livestock, reusing, and recycling options – and then discusses in two illustrated pages (including a hilarious and foul-mouthed poem) the viability of the thunderbox. Not a polite, plastic, indoor composting toilet, but a full-on pit biffy (or outhouse, as they are known outside our region). You can see where Tom Good got his inspiration for the methane digester in his basement (in my edition, it’s on page 349). In his section on pottery, a topic not found in all SS books, he does not suggest merely buying some clay and throwing some pots to take to a friend’s kiln, but digging and testing your own clay, building your own potting wheel, and even mixing your own glazes. Wool spinning is included in most SS books, but Seymour also explains how to spin cotton and – brace yourself – flax. This is impressive because despite the high price of linen (on par with and sometimes above real silk at my local fabric store) and its very desirable properties, the process of converting flax into linen (which includes allowing it to rot in water for 2-3 weeks) is generally considered too involved for the homesteader. (I dare you to tell that to generations of Irish crofters!)

Most importantly – even more crucial than all the valuable information Seymour imparts on “how-to”s galore – is his guidance. This man had decades of experience all over the globe, on all sizes of plots. He has worked alone, with African tribesmen, with a single helper, with children, with families, and with friends. You feel immediately that you can trust his friendly, humorous, practical, and sometimes blunt advice. You’re left with the feeling that you arrived at your grandfather’s house and caught him at his lunch (or tea, in this case) and asked him point-blank, “How can I do it?” He’d look out over his fields, think over years of successes and failures, cough, and start, with a growing twinkle in his eye, “Well, if I were you, but knew what I know . . .”

— Amanda

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