“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Many of us have a strong interest in knowing where our food comes from. My own interest runs perhaps a little deeper still—into the growing and hunting of what my family eats–because I believe they remain critical skillsets in the exercise of resistance while we remain trapped behind the lines of a dominant culture with different priorities.
But even if you don’t share my interest, it would seem difficult to argue that, as a practical matter, knowing how to grow and harvest one’s own food, and how to process and preserve it, isn’t just as important as knowing how to drive a car, read a book, or buy a plane ticket.
The efforts we are making to that end, here on our tiny ranch on the eastern slope of the Cascades, aren’t easy. They aren’t even cost-effective. Given that a McWhopper goes for about dollar, I can have a pile of pizzas delivered anytime I want, and frozen turkey by the metric ton is available at Costco every day of the week—why bother with the time and expense of building a greenhouse or raising chickens? And worse, after years of costly and determined effort, we still get the vast majority of our food from a local grocer.
All of which troubles me.
That kind of dependency troubles me because we are never much more than three missed meals away from the collapse of law and order—proof of which can be seen on CNN after virtually any natural or man-made disaster around the world. But even here, in a mostly secure nation, it’s inescapably true, for the vast majority of us, that without our local grocer, and the complex and astonishingly fragile system that keeps food coming into the aisles, we would eventually, in all likelihood, starve to death.
That’s dramatic, of course, but probably not as far-fetched as it sounds, given the unpredictable, turn-on-a-dime nature of life on planet earth, and more importantly it serves as a constant reminder that a life of utter dependence is a sucker’s game.
Particularly when it comes to food.
Industrial food producers “will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.”
One challenge of writing about our personal efforts to grow and harvest food is that the topic falls easily into the habits of a reader’s pre-conditioning, and therefore elicits a lot of eye-rolling. That pre-conditioning is accomplished by means of consumer-marketing imagery that we have absorbed into our tissue like radiation poisoning after decades of internet, television, and radio advertising. It is so pervasive, in fact, that now we barely even notice that all of that promotional carpet-bombing is designed to compel our surrender into dependency.
Just eat the Doritos, and forget about growing kale.
We are, many of us, walking around with a veteran consumerist’s thousand-yard stare, which can be seen clearly in the aisles of any Target or WalMart, where the shell-shocked and emotionally flat-lined queue up daily to buy mostly disposable products manufactured by sweat-shop slaves in Chittagong and Rangoon. Especially when there is a “Fire Sale” or its cousin, the infamous “Year End” sale, and my personal favorite, the “Blowout Sale.”
Sometimes, the imagery is even amusing. A mention of gardening might, for example, conjure images of the Blue-Haired Gardening Gestapo, those mean little old ladies who lead community garden tours while wearing badges denoting their frocking as “Master Gardeners,” and who go about tsk-tsking anyone who hasn’t bloomed the Dracula Lotax, a notoriously difficult orchid, in their own designer arboretum.
Hunting—and firearms in general—comes with its own set of baggage. It’s a world where every armchair outdoorsman secretly thinks he’s Peter Hathaway Capstick, and seems to attract a strange confluence of Fire in the Belly, Neo-Tribal, Uber-Tactical, Club-Faraday crazies. These are the folks who, virtually without fail, serve to lower the level of any meaningful hunting or gun conversation by swamping it with over-heated diatribes about what caliber we should all be shooting, or with epic tales about the main-beam score of their last bull elk.
But I don’t hunt for trophies, and I’ve probably given far too much thought to double-tapping the next square-range commando who assails me in a religious pique over the virtues of all things 1911.
At any rate, the hunter-gatherer discussion remains useful, even essential, if we care about building meaningful resiliency into our lives, or merely wish to avoid a complete metamorphosis into oversized insects ordered around by our smart phones.
Here on the Figure 8 Ranch—which we named because naming things has a way of elevating our appreciation for them—we have, over the last few years, made a conscious, challenging, and often frustrating effort to grow, or to hunt, as much of our own food as we reasonably can.
That effort begins in the greenhouse in early spring, when we sow seeds, and ends in the late fall when I head out with a rifle into the woods or onto the high desert to find an elk, or a deer, or both—who I pray, as the Wintu Indians of California thought of it, is willing to die for me that day.
My belief in the importance of growing food, I realize now, started long before we ever moved into the woods of Central Oregon, and is inextricably linked to the circumstances of my own upbringing.
I was raised on the sagebrush desert of northeastern California, at precisely that point where the northern Sierras form the western boundary of the Great Basin. It was, and remains, a rural and largely ignored part of the country. My mother managed a large garden each summer from which we drew our vegetables, and we raised sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens for protein. My step-father worked at the sawmill in town and my mother, when she wasn’t churning butter out of cream from our milk cow, raised four kids.
We never had a lot of money, but we never worried about going hungry either.
None of that autobiography is important except that, I think, it demonstrates to some small degree that how we teach our children to live often ends up becoming how they actually live. If no one ever teaches them, for instance, how to grow a vegetable, or to fish for trout, or to hunt a deer, they probably won’t be passing those skills on to their own kids, so that within a single generation the bedrock of our long-heralded American self-reliance—growing and harvesting food—is either breathing through a ventilator or stone-cold dead.
Mostly, and when it is probably more important than ever, I fear that it is dead.
“The capacity of people in the cities to do things directly for themselves is extremely limited. They can’t produce food. They can’t produce building materials or the materials needed for clothing. They’re so cut off from the natural sources of their livelihood and so far cut off from fundamental skills, most of them, that they can’t directly do much of anything.”
To be sure, there are people out there doing the same thing better, smarter, and more successfully than we are. Some of the people I draw inspiration from, such as the YouTube sensation WranglerStar, are doing it at a very high level of intelligence and accomplishment that we can only dream of, given our own limitations.
But our own efforts remain relevant because we are probably more like everyone else—forced to keep one foot closer to the grinding centers of population and commerce in order to keep the lights on and the freezers humming.
Even so, and the unavoidable irony notwithstanding, we are still making a genuine effort at food production. And in this endeavor, effort counts. It counts because every failure is instructional to an extreme degree in the enjoyable pursuit of eventually getting it right.
Which is why, when we sat down for dinner not long ago and ate an entire meal consisting of food we had either grown in the garden, or hunted off the rimrock, I felt no small measure of satisfaction. It was a victory for the quieter kind of activism I admire most—the individual taking direct action to responsibly improve their own condition. No petition, no pussy hat, no sandwich-board required.
Truth is, I am mostly interested in acts of solitary activism, in the spirit of Thoreau at Walden, or Rick Bass in the Yaak Valley of Montana. Because I no longer have much faith in the gargantuan, far away, machine-bureaucracy apparatus known as the Federal Government, or its long term intentions to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution, you won’t find me banging a gong in support of one retail political candidate or another. In other words, I have no political home, and staying off the reservation demands that I ride a wide circle, keeping as far as possible from the diseased blankets and steel trappings of the soldier’s fort.
Raising a vegetable can be, and hunting certainly is, political in the eyes of many. So be it. For my wife and I the act of planting seeds, tending a garden, and eventually harvesting a basket of vegetables, or of hunting an elk out of the junipers on the high desert, and finally putting them all together on a plate at our dinner table, is a ballot cast for precisely what matters most to us. It is a vote for intimacy with the details of our lives, and for the maintenance of our diminishing freedoms.