In John Steinbeck’s classic novella, Of Mice and Men, itinerant farmworker George repeatedly entertains his dimwitted friend Lennie with a promise of someday having their own place where they can be self-sufficient. “O.K. Someday — we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and —
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’,” Lennie shouted. “An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.”
Steinbeck’s idyllic portrait of pastoral self-sufficiency is wonderfully appealing. Indeed, as much as I like steak and lobster, my favorite meal consists of veggies from our garden and fish from Nolin Lake (or Nolin River). Every time we eat such a meal, I always comment that “we’re livin’ off the fatta the lan’.”
And we are living off the land —but not entirely. The veggies were grown from seeds and plants, and fertilized with 10-10-10, all of which we purchased from a store.
The fish is battered in cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper, and it is fried in shortening — all purchased from a store. My wife eats fish with ketchup; I eat fish with tartar sauce and cocktail sauce — all purchased from a store.
And then there is the electric stove on which we cooked the veggies and the fish. From the mining of the iron ore to make the steel, to the stove’s final delivery to our home, who knows how many hundreds or thousands of people were involved?
And then there is the electricity to power the stove. Here in Kentucky, 83% of our electricity is generated by coal. From the mining of the coal, to the stringing of the wires that deliver the electricity, how many hundreds or thousands of people were involved?
I am a fairly handy guy. I can build a house “from the ground up,” as they say. That includes forming and pouring concrete, laying block and brick, hanging and finishing drywall, interior and exterior painting, installing vinyl siding, and flooring, and roofing. I can build cabinets and simple furniture.
Our son went off to college in 2010, and since then I have mostly worked alone. Sometimes I am rather proud of all that I can d o—and all that I have done—working by myself. And yet I could not have accomplished much of anything, really, without lumber, concrete, metal, tools, electricity, etc. — all of which were provided by others.
The Amish are probably the most self-sufficient folks around here. But I see them in Walmart buying everything from dog food to laundry detergent to potato chips. I see them at the optometrist buying glasses. And I see them in the hospital where they are treated, too.
Back in the day, a person who practiced and took pride in their self-sufficiency was known as a “rugged individualist.” Merriam-Webster defines “rugged individualism” as: “the practice or advocacy of individualism in social and economic relations emphasizing personal liberty and independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, self-direction of the individual, and free competition in enterprise.”
Nowadays the cable networks feature many such people “living off the grid,” usually in the remote regions of Alaska; the Rocky, Ozark, or Appalachian Mountains; or the southern swamps. I have often admired and longed for such a life.
Chip and Agnes Hailstone star in Life Below Zero. Agnes is an Inupiaq Eskimo. She and Chip teach their seven children traditional methods of hunting and fishing in northern Alaska—with snowmobiles, rifles, and aluminum boats with outboard motors.
In Forbes, “Dear Homesteaders, Self-Reliance Is A Delusion” (7/29/2017), Adam Ozimek writes: “I am a big fan of shows about doomsday preppers, homesteaders, survivalists, generally people who live off the grid. Some of my favorites are Homestead Rescue and Live Free Or Die. But there’s a central delusion in these shows that is never far from my mind when I’m watching these shows: off-the-grid people are not self-reliant, but instead are mooching off of the civil society, government, and safety net the rest of us contribute to.
“The people in these shows often describe a very romantic vision of the lives they have chosen and the ethos underlying it. They describe themselves as fully self-reliant, and criticize the rest of society as being dependent and lacking in this self-reliance. It is morally superior, the story goes, to provide for yourself, take care of your own needs, and often, be prepared to survive if society collapses.
“It’s true that these individuals don’t appear to value many goods and services beyond relatively basic subsistence. But most off-the-grid households do benefit to some extent from cheap second-hand tools, guns, clothes, or inputs to basic home production that specialization, gains from trade, and the modern economy made easily affordable.”
Those of us who receive Social Security benefits are especially reliant on other people. According to AARP (11/2/2018), “12 Top Things to Know About Social Security,” by Kenneth Terrell: “Over the years, studies have shown that most people receive more in benefits than they paid into the program. The Urban Institute issues reports that estimate how much people are paying into the program and what they are likely to receive in retirement benefits. As a general matter, married couples are more likely to get back more than they contributed than single people, and both low-income and high-income people may receive more dollars from the program over a lifetime than the amount of money they contributed to it.”
In 2017, 174 million Americans contributed to Social Security, and 63 million people received Social Security benefits. That money is nonpartisan. Republicans, Democrats, and people of every political stripe pay into, and are paid from, the Social Security trust fund.
In his inaugural address on January 20, President Joe Biden said firmly, “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” Biden continued. “And unity is the path forward.”
In 1624, the English poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main....”
It’s great to have one’s own place in the country, with space to grow a garden and so on. But each of us represents just a tiny part of this world, and we are all intrinsically interconnected. Each of us is “a part of the main.”
It’s good to be handy and somewhat self-reliant. And yet now more than ever, we should be mindful of, and grateful for, the enormous and essential contributions of others as we unite on the path forward to creating a more perfect union.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.