What would you say if your husband bought you a book for your birthday on how to slaughter a pig? I can’t say I was too impressed, particularly since I’m a vegetarian.
Seeing the look on my face, Johnny grabbed the book and flicked over to a more edifying page – this one on growing root vegetables. Still not exciting – it didn’t look as though I was getting anything that smelled nice or with frills on. I felt rather like the owner of a cat being presented with a delightful, chewed-up bird.
Johnny is from Irish farming stock so the land is already in his blood. Being born and raised in Manor Park (one of London’s less salubrious suburbs) only added to his resilience and ingenuity. As a boy, he spent summers working on the family farm in County Mayo and has memories of lifting bales of hay from dawn to dusk, barely having enough strength to raise food to his mouth at the end of the day.
Small wonder then that books on how to shear a sheep and make a compost toilet were top of Johnny’s must-read list and he spent many a happy moment leafing through my birthday present, reading out snippets and making comments, such as “we should learn to make hurdles” and “we should build a bread oven.”
The book in question is the bible for anyone wanting to launch themselves on the path to a sustainable life – The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour (ISBN 0-7513-6442-8). There are others that we have read since on forest gardening and permaculture design, but this book was certainly my first glimpse at a-whole-nother world of living with the land.
You can just imagine then how thrilled Johnny was to discover that the current owner of John Seymour’s small-holding in Ireland still runs courses on how to become self-sufficient. So we packed the Landy up with wellie boots, gardening gloves and smelly chip fat (more of this in another post) and rattled all the way down the M4, along the windy roads of western Wales, after six and a half hours finally arriving in Fishguard, then onto a ferry for a three-hour tossing about on the Irish Sea, staggering off into a massive passport queue and then getting completely lost in the lanes of County Wexford looking for our rent-a-cottage. I remember thinking, “This had better be worth it!”
And it was! JS had created a vegetable plot and orchard around a beautiful stone cottage which now houses the current owner and his family, as well as a dozen or so hens, and a pig. Even though the weather was grey and damp, I could see fruit weighing down the rows of bushes. Now I was interested.
So for a week, we learned how to prepare the ground for planting, to sow seeds and manage the crop as it grows. We made beer and baskets and learned how to scythe.
Here’s how the professionals do it:
And here are our efforts:
And before you laugh your head off, I’d just like to say “IT’S NOT EASY!” You have to keep sharpening the blade as you go, but not before peening it on a peening anvil. I love that word – it always makes me laugh in a Carry On kind on way. Perhaps we need to take our tops off to realise our full scything potential!
I have already mentioned the pig – the family had christened him Hamlet because he was going to come to a sticky end (presumably using the instructions in the JS book). To me, he was Bacon Sandwich and it was love at first sight.
Each lunchtime, we would be provided with a tasty dish prepared by the lady of the house. Usually this meant Bacon Sandwich’s predecessor served up in some form or other, although as veggies, we were able to avoid eating our little friend’s relative. When I talked about having a pig in France, the others couldn’t understand why. After all, a pet pig would just eat without producing a yield. I do get this very practical point, but I don’t believe that “yield” can always be explained in tangible terms. I certainly got a high yield of happiness from my friendship with this little fellow. I gave Johnny a very evil eye when he suggested that “we could always get a man in…”
The week passed very quickly as we planted and weeded and picked and packed. We were having a lot of fun with a heavy-duty pounder which knocks fence posts into the ground until the lady of the house pointed out that we were only securing chicken wire for peas to grow up, not building a corral to keep in cattle. But we could do that now, if we wanted to.
The final day was rainy and grey, the perfect day for making baskets because the damp kept the willow supple. If you’d asked me ten years ago what I would be doing now with my ideal man, you can bet that it would not have been making baskets together, but the simple repetitive action of weaving the willow back and forth and watching our baskets grow from our fingers’ work was hypnotic.
The peace we found working together side-by-side that day continues with us now in Bournac – whether we’re painting the endless wooden ceiling slats, pruning the million trees or simply collecting cow poo, we’re a team and we’re one.
So, as we packed up the Landy once again and set off smelling like a dyspeptic deep fat fryer, we reflected on what we had learned from the Master – that everything has a purpose in a self-sufficient system (and sometimes more than one), nothing is ever wasted and, boy, does this life make us happy!