Like a lot of people, the global pandemic has made me think about our relationship to nature. What might life look under the combined effects of climate destabilization, disease, and other environmental stressors (wrapped up nicely in the concept of planetary boundaries)? Could we expect, in the wake of a global population vastly reduced by these effects, to be back where we were during the Middle Ages or Renaissance? Certainly this is akin to the worries of many environmentalists who are trying to interpret lessons from the world’s dramatic, and undoubtedly short-lived, global decrease in carbon emissions.
As a result, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the possibility of living self-sustainably from what we can grow in the garden. I’ve been reading about permaculture (sustainable planting), hydroponics (sustainable planting in water) aquaculture (fish), aquaponics (plants and fish together) and have been scratching my head as to how to make it work in a garden that’s a sloping forest of hickory and magnolia, punctuated by camellias, azaleas and beds of hosta. Should we maybe raise pygmy goats and bantam chickens instead?
Looking for inspiration on my book shelf, I came across a couple that seemed promising. Lost Country Life is a look at how English country folk lived, worked, threshed, thatched, rolled fleece, and a host of others. Ultimately, though, while fascinating from a historical perspective, it doesn’t give any practical instructions. I wanted some DIY help.
Then I came across a slim little leather-bound volume I’d long since forgotten I had. The Bushman’s Handcrafts, by R. M. Williams, 1950. I picked it up somewhere during my decade in Australia, where R.M. Williams stores selling rugged leather and smart khakis have been an institution since 1932. Reginald Murray Williams (1908-2003) was, in the words of Paul Myers, a ” remarkable Australian [who] was also an explorer, pastoralist, horseman, stockman, stonemason, leather craftsman, gold miner, well-sinker, author, businessman and historian – excelling at all, and more.”
His book is full of useful information for living off the land. In the introduction, he says:
In the choosing of [the handicrafts in this book] I have been careful not to include anything that cannot be mastered by careful attention to the instructions [that follow].
I think Mr. Williams is giving me a lot of credit. I’m not sure I’m up to much he’s written about. He has instructions on how to make a moccasin (if, for instance, his online store doesn’t have moccasins in your size), how to shoe a horse, and a whole chapter on plaiting leather for straps and whips etc.
And, yes, he does in fact tell you how to tan a kangaroo skin. Should you have a kangaroo with some extra skin you’d like to make darker, here’s what he says: “Open skins can be tacked to a door or side of a building. Trim off ragged edges or points and cut and scrape off the shreds of muscle and…” Okay, never mind. I’m not going to do this. I don’t have a spare kangaroo anyway.
This does bring up a good point, though. How would I, or any of my fellow urbanites, manage if we suddenly found ourselves having to live off the land. Sure, we grow blueberries. We have some herbs in the few patches of sunlight that exist on our property. But really to survive may take us rethinking things in a big way.
City dwellers are increasingly turning toward community gardens. It appears to be growing in popularity in many different places, for instance across the US. In Raleigh NC, where I live, there is the nonprofit Raleigh City Farm. It was founded in 2011 on a formerly vacant one-acre lot in downtown Raleigh. About themselves, they say two things that really resonate with me:
We believe in the power of urban farms to create healthier communities and reconnect city dwellers with healthy food production through more frequent encounters with agriculture.
We believe that turning vacant lots into productive, nourishing farmland can create something from nothing – an amenity from an eyesore.
Add to that, increasing local biodiversity and reducing the city’s carbon emissions, as well as proving an opportunity for school kids to see where their food comes from. Most important, though, these kinds of gardens makes for resilient communities, ones that are ready to meet all kinds of challenges head on.
Whatever our toolkit of viable solutions ultimately turns out to be, it’s clear than the “new normal” can’t look like the very recent old normal. This is a time for innovation, for looking back to our deep roots to find inspiration by combining it with new technologies to build a future that is safe, healthy and ultimately can be relied on by the generations that follow us.