Monday, April 15, 2013

Living Differently: Self Sustainability

Original illustration and design by Lauren Merrick Copyright 2013

Meet my friends: Dave, Em, Zeph & Pippi Beetleshack.  

I asked Dave if he would answer some questions for me about their goal to be self sustainable. Dave and Em are growing a family and growing much of their own food to feed them, which I completely admire. This new series on the blog aims to shine some light on people who are living differently, to encourage me (and anyone else who wants to be) that there's a community of people who are on the journey together. 

What is your motivation / goal?

Our goals have tended to change over time - as we learn more of what can be done, of what we’re doing wrong, of what other’s are doing, of how I’m feeling about life in general. 

On an very basic overarching level, there is the goal to “live more simply”. To further define that, I mean living in a way that is more responsible and recognises the excesses of western consumer culture, that seeks to be more connected to our locality and community of people and creatures within it, that places great importance on ensuring that our faith is integrated into all areas of our lives, not just a few parts.

I suppose my motivations / goals could be broadly lumped into three categories. These all intersect with each other in many ways, but for the sake of explanation I’ll group them as follows:

- Physical (labour, provision of nutrients, health, life cycles)- Mental / Emotional (learning, satisfaction, joy, understanding the world, appreciation, teaching our kids) 
- Moral / Ethical / Spiritual (an integrated way of living, limits on our actions, understanding the sacredness of life and the sacrificial nature of death)

As part of the physicality of my goals, I would hope to be working / labouring to provide our own food and resources to a greater extent each year. I’m aiming to import less food and nutrients to our home & land and export less waste from our land each year. All of these then have a bunch of mini-goals that need to be met to achieve the larger one. E.g. growing our own vegetables, and preserving the seasonal excess means less imported fresh and canned produce, and less waste (packaging) leaving once we are done. Even before this is the fertilisation of the soil, which unless you have some animals becomes pretty well impossible to do without importing compost/manure. So, some chooks (we currently have 17, and a duck), who also eat any waste food from the kitchen, also provide eggs and invaluable chook poo for the garden/compost. That in turn grows healthier plants that produce more vegetables for eating fresh or preserving.

The mental / emotional component ties in through the learning and thinking that is required; planning for the seasons, learning old skills (from preserving to growing different plants and animals), solving unexpected problems, innovating and improving existing systems. It is amazing how much there is to learn, and each little piece adds to the puzzle. The buzz of working out why the tomatoes failed this season and having a cracker next season is really nice. Similarly, whilst dispatching animals for meat is not what I’d call fun, there is certainly a level of satisfaction in being a part of the process, and knowing that the animals we are eating have had good lives. Joel Salatin says that understanding the sacrifice of death (of an animal for our sustenance) highlights the sanctity of life and demands a response - I like that philosophy.

All of these things take more physical effort than just going to the supermarket, but they are immeasurably more sustainable.

The process of learning and the satisfaction gained from developing new skills is not to be underestimated either. The value that is inherent in food I have grown and provided for my family seems so much more tangible than the sometimes abstract provisions that other paid work can bring; there just seems to be a clearer link.

This leads me to the idea of “living within our means”, something that Wendell Berry talks about a lot (if you haven’t read or listened to Berry, stop reading this and come back to me when you’ve read everything of his!) and this idea straddles the mental / moral / spiritual fence. Most of us have some understanding of what it means economically to live within our means (i.e. don’t spend more than you have) but few of us seem to consider how this applies to the rest of our lives. That is, what we consume and the rate at which we consume it; the sustainability of our purchasing and eating habits. This goes to heart of being a good steward of the resources that I personally have been given and the common resources that humans have been given.

I view it in terms of Jesus’ to command to love God and my neighbour as myself, and do to others what I’d like done to me. Again, Wendell Berry puts it like this: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” So if my faith is expressed through how I live my life, then the effects on others of my food consumption (amongst other things) become very important (i.e. am I a part of an agricultural system that can be live up to those commands? Am I being a good steward of our common resources through my choices?).

Turns out living more simply involves a whole lot more thinking than going with the flow! But I like that too.

How did you get started?

I had had an interest in becoming more self sufficient for quite a while but the ideas probably took root after Em bought me as a birthday present a book by John Seymour titled THE SELF-SUFFICIENT LIFE & HOW TO LIVE IT - the complete back-to-basics guide. That book is incredible, and through it’s various revisions is widely regarded as the definitive work on that subject - John Seymour was a bit of a legend.

From there we started with some snow peas against a wall, extended that to a couple of bigger garden beds and kept going from there. 

We picked up a couple of chooks and over the years seem to have inherited others to the extent that at one point we had about 20! 

Things just seem to roll on like that; getting started opens your eyes to new things and opportunities that you would not have otherwise noticed. We are currently in the process of setting up our rabbitry to breed rabbits for meat and getting some meat chooks also.

Did you come across obstacles and if so how did you overcome them?

Time is a big one, especially working full time and growing a family. But spending time in the garden is something that the kids like to do, so my surfing has had to take a bit of a back seat to the self sufficiency pursuit and family time, which is as it should be. 

I think working out what your priorities are and setting out to achieve them is the key. Lots of reading doesn’t hurt and looking on the interwebs for inspiration; there are so many cool grassroots things happening all over the globe and most people are glad to share their knowledge.

How would you encourage others? What are 3 simple ways people can follow our lead?

Start now. The best thing you can do is start.
Milkwood Farm philosophy captures it perfectly:
1. Start where you are, 
2. Use what you have,
3. Do what you can.

Thanks so much Dave and Em. So looking forward to seeing your garden grow!

L x


  1. Gorgeous, amazing, fabulous and inspiring! Such a beautiful interview and wonderful illustrations. Love, love, love!
    Sophie xx

  2. Merrick, you are a nut case of awesome.


  3. This is the coolest. So inspiring. We try and grow what we can every year and it’s super hit and miss (as our weather in Ireland is!) but there is nothing better than eating a meal that only travelled a couple of steps from garden to plate.

  4. Time is my hurdle. I can't seem to find enough to live the way I want. Right now it feels like I have to give up too much to make that time. I wait for the shift... x