This list got me thinking more deeply about the kinds of skills I have been striving to develop through this venture and the heritage I want to pass on. As Katherine of Granny Miller mentioned in a recent post, “a household that doesn’t provide for its own needs is the historical exception.” I know most of my generation likes to think the way it was raised is the norm, but (and this is not news) finding everything you could ever need to run a household at one convenient big-box store is not the norm for most of the world. Especially not for the workers who make the items found in said store.
However, many of us now find ourselves living in urban settings and working jobs outside of the home to make ends meet. Sometimes we find ourselves here because we chased “the dream” before realizing the mortgage for the dream came with a lot of limitations, and sometimes because it really is the more practical location for serving in the professions we enjoy. Whatever the reason we find ourselves here, our urban lifestyles typically do not afford the space or time to raise all of the yarn required to clothe a family or grain to make our own flour. And that is not a terrible thing.
The myth of self-sufficiency
Humans are naturally drawn to forming communities and sharing in the workload. In some ways this nature of ours has contributed to our current global trend toward mechanization of everything and convenience-first thinking when planning and raising families, but I don’t think the entire concept of community should be scrapped for the entirely self-sufficient lifestyle. Besides seeming very lonely to many of us, the logistics would be a mess today. There is very little land left that one can simply sit on and “stake a claim”, and the land that is available still costs money. Anyone seeking the so-called self-sufficient lifestyle will still need to work for someone else at some point to learn the skills and raise the money required to purchase the land to do everything himself. This is an attractive goal to some, but let’s not kid ourselves. We all need someone else at some point, especially to get started down such an ambitious path. Therefore we can never be truly self-sufficient.
But for those of us content to stay in communities where life is a bit more convenient, this does not mean we are off the hook when it comes to living ethically and responsibly. We recognize the impact urbanization has had on resources and the environment, and we want to do the best we can for our families. This awareness is rapidly being revived across all generations by economic shifts and environmental changes. As urbanites we are not necessarily less attuned to the plight of the world, but we can be more susceptible to being sold on “convenience” and “solutions”, greenwashing, and debt – simply because living with lots of people means trends and a degree of assimilation keep economic and communal wheels turning.
The promise of self-reliance
This is where traditional and nuveaux homesteading skills come into play for me, personally. I believe there is a way to live in dense communities where we make use of one another’s talents and give the broad-scale farmers immediately surrounding our city the social clout and support required to help them continue feeding us; where we have virtually no waste or heat island effect because we offset our footprints by growing on top of and all around buildings; and many other idealistic circumstances for any community. No need to tear it all down and go back to a purely agrarian lifestyle. Trust me, I would love it, but why not work with the infrastructure we have and just make it better?
A little self-reliance would go a long way toward these goals. We can still have specialized roles that serve the social, economic, and educational needs of a community, but each of us should be equipped with an arsenal of skills that teach us self-reliance and ease the demand on industries and farms that prompts them to turn to less sustainable practices. These skills also happen to teach our younger community members responsibility, ethics, and self-worth, and ward against the marketing ploys which have drawn our communities into debt and unhealthy lifestyles. Each community will naturally have a set of skills unique to its location and structure. This means that not all skills such as those listed at Granny Miller will be applicable to all community members, but in general everyone should have a sense of how to raise and prepare enough food for a family; collect, store, and dispose of water safely; make clothing; build and maintain simple shelters; establish supplemental trade or income streams.
I promise I am getting to my actual list.
This all use to be taught at home, in all regions of the world, but with the growth of cities and the out-sourcing of self-reliance education to public school systems, one by one these skills fell out of style until whole generations left their parents without a clue how to even cook with whole fresh vegetables and meats. (The home economics class at my high school mostly covered how to carry an electronic baby doll and make it stop crying with a key.)
The good news is that for those of us who recognize a need to take back some control over our livelihoods, there are ample resources to learn from. I got lucky with parents who gardened, cooked, and were fairly handy, but to fill out the skills on my list I have turned to others like me such as Kelly and Erik at Root Simple, folks at the Permies forums, and 100+ year old books like Tropical Planting and Gardening by H. F. Macmillan that offer very specific skills for growing and preserving produce in my region.
As I gain more of the skills on my list below I will share them with you here, but my intent in sharing is to urge you to come up with your own list and start working toward a more self-reliant lifestyle that works for your family and within your own community.
My list of skills for self-reliance in a tropical urban community
Propagate and raise enough food on my rooftop and small garden to cover the majority of my family’s grocery
Understand how and what to grow in the different wet and dry seasons
Have a sustainable system in place that nourishes and builds soil ecology
Prepare food in a way that is enjoyable and makes use of local, seasonal ingredients
Prepare food with energy-efficient (solar, etc.) and natural (wood-burning) appliances
Bake bread that consistently turns out well and is nutritious
Make butter, vinegar, and other condiments from raw materials sourced from the farmer or my garden
Preserve surplus produce safely through canning, fermentation, and locally historical methods
Save seeds from locally unique and resilient varieties
Eliminate all wasteful food packaging that comes into the home
Shelter and utilities
Repair and replace homes with natural materials
Understand the electrical and plumbing works in my home and how to repair them
Know how to build basic replacements for, and sustainable alternatives, to these systems
Build basic outbuildings and climate-appropriate animal shelters
Catch and safely store enough water to cut municipal water use by half
Build economical solar and wind electric systems to cut all municipal electric use
Make soap and hygiene items
Understand basic herbal remedies to grow at home or source locally
Identify common illnesses/injuries and apply appropriate first aid treatment
Sew and mend attractive and practical clothing for the whole family
Be skilled in a service for the greater community
Establish profitable streams of income or trade from cottage industry
Identify economic viability of producing a product at home or sourcing a more skilled community member
Obviously there are a number of skills to learn under each item, but I feel they are manageable chunks. If children were again raised with similar end skills in mind, they could easily achieve at least proficiency in each area by adulthood and establish their own livelihoods anywhere. What would you add to the list or have unique to your own?