We live on the grid, but in ways that emphasize self-sufficiency.  Or so I have fancied.  We grow a lot of food, have solar panels to supply most of our power needs, have a rain catchment system to gather water to for the gardens.  We can mend and fix and make from scratch.  And for a few years, I was an EMT, so I have at least a passing familiarity with what to do in a medical emergency.  All of which made me kind of cocky about my ability to live lightly, to take care of myself.

BUT BUT BUT I have come to doubt whether I really can do this.  Have, moreover, come to wonder how possible it is to be SELF-sufficient in contemporary culture.  For sure, you can live low and light, but I am not sure you can be of the culture–engaged in it broadly–and also be self-sufficient.  At least I can’t.

And rather than simply lapse into some kind of self-recrimination, this realization leads me to wonder about the notion of self-sufficiency now.  As I mentioned in a post a while back about Common Ground Fair, I don’t think of self-sufficiency as literally making homespun and such.  I think about it as having the skills to live well in the world.  And a surprising number of those skills now are about being digitally connected to others.

Here’s what I am stumbling toward.  We lost power for nearly a week after the snow storm on November 2nd.  And while it wasn’t great not to have it, the only thing we really emphatically, impatiently, frustratingly missed was the internet.  Candles and kerosene lamps gave us adequate, if not great, light.  The woodstove served us well.  We had plenty of food and a generator that ensured that we didn’t lose what was in the big freezer.  But without the internet, we couldn’t do our jobs.  And we missed having e-mail.  And the New York Times on-line.  And the ability to google;  it’s grown hard for me to write without being able to look up some little something for the next sentence.

And we are not even particularly connected.  Facebook-less, Twitter-novices, we don’t use the tools that most of our peers rely on.

Is self-sufficiency fundamentally different in its contours in a hyper-connected world?  Is it even possible?  And if it is, what does it look like now?

Keeping Options (and Seeds) Alive: Common Ground Country Fair

When we moved to Maine full-time, I more than doubled the size of our garden. I’ve waxed poetic about it in other posts, so I’ll spare you that here.

But I want to say a few things about it in the context of having gone to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, this weekend. That fair brings together thousands of people (more than 50,000 were projected to attend, I think, this year) interested in various aspects of “country living.” That appellation doesn’t always feel like it settles well on my shoulders. I like hanging out in urban settings and am at best a country novice. But the ethos of the Fair is absolutely one I share. It’s about re-claiming our capacity to take care of ourselves well.

And that’s what I want to say in terms of the garden here. The point, for me, of growing our food is the same as that of most folks: great quality, good exercise with a delicious pay-off, local, sustainable, no fears about what is in or on our fruits and veggies.

And all that is celebrated at the fair, for sure. But it is done in the context of self-reliance, and about celebrating the fullness & richness of a self-sufficient life. When I think about self-reliance, I don’t think about it in terms of knowing how to make cheese and put up preserves. Those are fun, and can certainly be a part of a self-reliant life. But really, what I think it means, at core, is having the skills to meet life’s demands, and to do so in a way that maximizes your freedom. That’s a heady word. And I don’t mean it in a political sense; I mean it in a philosophical sense. Being free from the inability to take good care.

As that last probably suggests, I come to the Common Ground Fair and its celebration of self-reliance from a fairly cerebral rather than intuitive place. And because of that, my ideas of sufficiency have been informed not so much but what I think I need to eat or grow or wear as by what I think I need to do (or not do). And what I think I need to do, at least what I’ve thought for the last few years, is keep old seeds in production. Several years ago, I went to a talk by Gary Paul Nabhan about RAFT (Restoring America’s Food Traditions), where he gave out lists of foods that used to be prevalent in New England but that are now rare or endangered. So, I plant off that list as much as I can. (He has a downloadable copy on his website, which you can find at:

For me, the intersection between the idea of taking good care and preserving old seeds is about potential. When I was growing up, my dad used to always urge me to “keep your options open.” He wanted me to be sure that when an opportunity arose, I’d be ready to assess it and take it. I’m sure he gave me lots of other advice, but that’s the bit that rings in his voice in my head. In every seed, I literally see potential, literally see an option. And if they go extinct, those options are gone forever. I don’t know what those options might mean for me, for my community, for the ecology of the region, for our foodshed as the climate changes, and so I don’t want to take the chance of losing them before we know.

Keeping them in production keeps an option open a little longer. Maybe, possibly, long enough.