FOR years it was my dream, the dream, to live self sufficiently, and in my mind's eye we lived on a rampantly green five or 10 acres, a small river at one end and a rustic house at the other. In between the two was everything we'd need to live an idyllic life.
At least twice a week I'd wander into the Angus and Robertson bookshop around the corner from The Herald in Newcastle to look at the self-sufficiency bibles, and I could never persuade myself to buy one. That's because, I think now, I was never quite persuaded by the self-sufficiency movement.
I mean, the books had conveniently black-and-white drawings of how to butcher a pig, and the very last thing I wanted to do was slaughter and butcher a pig. Had the illustrations of this process been in colour I probably wouldn't have looked at the books more than once.
How, then, was I to be self-sufficient if I wouldn't kill a pig, or for that matter a chook? It never occurred to me that I and my flock could be vegetarian. The answer was simple: I'd offer the real farmer next door a quarter of the pig to do the job.
How was I to be self-sufficient if I wouldn't kill a pig, or for that matter a chook? It never occurred to me that I and my flock could be vegetarian. The answer was simple: I'd offer the real farmer next door a quarter of the pig to do the job.
But then I wouldn't be self sufficient.
Money or its absence never had much of role in the dream. I'd have a stall at the gate, selling our excess, and somehow that was going to be all the moolah we'd need. There was no working for a wage, which may have been an underlying attraction to the lifestyle.
Nor was bartering in the picture, perhaps because I sensed that if I had an excess of mandarins the neighbouring self-sufficiency dreamers would also have an excess of mandarins. And who was going to pay for the fuel to truck the mandarins to dreamers whose climate wouldn't allow them to grow mandarins?
There was a more persistent niggle in this dream than my discomfort with slaughtering and my handyman ineptitude and the small matter of money. Time. I knew that I did not have enough time in each day to produce enough food to live on an approximate par with modern expectations.
I knew that for the good reason that on our suburban block in Newcastle's inner suburb of Cooks Hill I had a big vegie garden, many fruit trees, chooks, briefly ducks, and bees, and I could see that there would never be enough hours in the day for me to grow wheat and other grains for flour and animal fodder, to grow barley for beer, to tend an orchard of many different trees, to grow enough vegetables to feed a family, to manage pigs and sheep and milking cows and geese and chooks and a draft horse.
There was no end to it. There were the sheep to be shorn to provide the wool for my wife to spin then knit, the day's firewood to be gathered and chopped, the cows to be milked, the fish in the river to be caught.
I knew it couldn't work, for me or my wife, but I seldom said that to the people who asked if they could check out our small suburban farm. They were welcome, and I was as interested in them as they were in me.
They, too, were self-sufficiency dreamers but they were different from my wife and me. Their dream was even more impractical than mine for the simple fact that none of them had ever grown vegetables, tended fruit trees, kept chooks or bees. Perhaps they'd had herbs in a pot on the kitchen ledge.
They were easily impressed in my backyard but I was not their cup of chai. They were hippy like, wearing natural fibres and talking of their organic buying collective, and they saw themselves as alternative and they saw me, after half an hour with me in the backyard, as an enigma, and a strange one at that. We were not fellow travellers.
Over the years I've wandered through a number of hippy or alternative communities and in each case I've been puzzled by the absence of food gardens, when I'd long believed that an essential part of being an alternative community was providing your own food. Man cannot live on dope alone, or even my preferred poison, homebrew.
It occurs to me that a deal-breaking difference between me and the alternative people is that I was not driven by a philosophy to do what I did and do in my backyard. I have never wanted to opt out of my community, or been horrified by what our society stands for, while I think the people who'd wander dreamily around my backyard and who live in communes wanted to start afresh. Good for them.
So, I'm not driven by a philosophy but I am driven to grow fruit and vegetables, to keep chooks and bees, to make stuff, and I don't know why. Neither of my parents were so inclined. As always, there are contradictions. I grow carrots, for example, because I like the rows of foliage, and I don't eat the carrots because I much prefer bought carrots.
My dream of self-sufficiency came to an end many years ago on the rock called time. There was nowhere near enough time in a day for a small family unit to grow and make enough to meet its own living needs, at least in terms of modern needs.
It became grudgingly clear that the solution is specialisation, for someone to husband the cattle, for someone else to butcher the beasts, for someone to grow the grain, someone else to mill it, someone to bake the bread, and so I was back in suburbia. Not that I ever really left it.
I like community.