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Moving Toward Self-Sustainability

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I live in a typical New England suburb: tall trees, a smattering of ranch houses, a few grand Colonials, a Cape or two. Yet, we still have our share of wild creatures, like the flock of turkeys I startled while walking my dogs, about a dozen prehistoric looking birds with gray wattles, brown feathers and clownishly large clawed feet.

As always, the turkeys proved to be as silly and indecisive as a flock of teenagers at the mall. As one started to dash across the road, two more followed. The others looked on anxiously, hesitant to make a run for it. This caused the three initially brave turkeys to question their own moxie and turn back partway, just as the first group decided to go for the gold and cross the road. Within a few seconds, all of the turkeys were milling around in the middle of the road, gobbling in distress.

The dogs and I finally moved forward. Turkeys scattered. As I watched them scramble up a bank, I thought about the book I'm reading, "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer." It's a great read -- funny and edgy and informative. The author, Novella Carpenter describes how she created a garden in the middle of downtown Oakland, California on an abandoned patch of scrubby land. A central part of the narrative describes her decision to raise her own meat poultry. The first bird destined for the chopping block is a turkey named Harold, who she fattens up in anticipation of Thanksgiving dinner. I left off reading just as she was gathering Harold in her arms to bring him upstairs to the chopping block.

Seeing the turkeys this morning led me to wonder whether I could kill my own meat, and to ask myself why my family isn't more self-sufficient. I have a yard, enough land to grow vegetables, and there's no zoning in my neighborhood against raising chickens. Why don't I raise my own carrots and tomatoes? I could even have a stand of corn. And, if I'm willing to eat meat, shouldn't I also be willing to kill my own?

Thus far, I've rationalized my decision to buy every morsel I consume with this PC mantra: "I'm a busy working mom; I buy local; I recycle; I eat organic foods where it makes sense; I try not to eat much red meat;" etc. Hey, what more could any green-thinking progressive do?

I could raise my own food, that's what. I've been like Rip Van Winkle, sleepwalking my way through life. Yes, I drive a Honda with 155,600 miles on it and try to cook everything we eat instead of relying on packaged foods, but I'm newly awake and aware that I've become a lazy domestic animal accustomed to choosing from 514 brands of cereal on the grocery store shelves.

We've become a country where most of us take it for granted that food arrives on the table, as long as we can make the money to buy it. But making that money leads to lifestyles so far removed from the land that we never think about how much effort and energy it takes to produce what we eat.

This month, my husband and I made an offer on a small fixer-upper farmhouse with an acre of land and two barns on Prince Edward Island, Canada. We made the offer on a whim after seeing the house from the road and peering in its windows. The house has been abandoned for years; we're going up for a home inspection on Columbus Day weekend to see if the house will stand up until we can funnel the time and energy into it to make it a year-round home again.

PEI is a place where everything is about the weather, since the bulk of the island's revenue comes from tourism and farming. Behind our house is a sheep farm, and across the street and on either side, the farmers raise wheat and potatoes.

Prince Edward Island is famous for its potatoes; the island produces over 20,000 pounds of potatoes each year, and over one-half of the island's total farm receipts came from potatoes alone in 2006 (www.peipotato.org). The island even has a potato museum .

What could we grow on the island? Potatoes, surely. I'm guessing that an acre of land would be plenty for carrots and broccoli, tomatoes and chickens, fruit trees and whatever else we needed to sustain our own family, too.

My mother says this is crazy talk. She's thrilled to pay someone else to grow her food. She and my father lived through the depression; Mom's dad raised rabbits and chickens to get them through, and even when her parents came to live with us on the gerbil farm, Grandfather insisted on having a half-acre vegetable garden, geese, sheep and a flock of chickens. He and my grandmother froze, preserved or canned everything we didn't eat over the summer and fall. He even made his own dandelion and apple wines.

"You never know when the world is going to end," Grandfather joked, but of course to him it wasn't a joke.

It isn't a joke to us any more, either. The economists say that the recession ended a year ago. Ha! I don't know about you, but I must have slept through that, too. After walking the dogs and scaring the turkeys, I hopped in my car to drive to the gym. There was a bankruptcy notice on the gym door. A house down the road from us just went into foreclosure, and three other businesses in town have shuttered their doors. Several of my friends have been out of work for months. This is only small potatoes, so to speak, compared to what the midwest has faced; I drove through Ohio and Michigan last summer to visit my husband's family, and nearly every small town we drove through was a ghost town.

Yeah, I know I'm late, jumping on the self-sustainability bandwagon. I had college friends who were determined to go organic, get back to the land, dumpster dive, whatever. I made total fun of them. But now I think it's time for us to imagine a different life for ourselves.

What if? What if we could be more independent? What if we found a bolthole -- Prince Edward Island, in our case -- and figured out how to put food on the table ourselves? If Novella Carpenter can do it in Oakland, surely I can do it in rural Canada. I just need to quit being like those indecisive turkeys gobbling in the middle of the road.