Book Review: The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency

This classic by John Seymour was one of the first books written for a generation that loved the idea of being self sufficient but didn’t know where to start.  First published in 1976, this book has inspired thousands of people to move forward to a “better sort of life”.  Our 1992 reprint is one of the most treasured books on our bookshelf, and I love leafing through it of an evening in front of the fire once the kids are in bed.

The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency covers the whole gambit of living a self sufficient life.  It is broken into various sections that cover different aspects of growing your own food such as:

  • Food from Fields – growing grains and cereals
  • Food from Animals (from poultry to beef, bees and rabbits)
  • Food from the Garden (growing fruits and vegetables)
  • Food from the Wild (foraging)
  • Natural Energy
  • Crafts and Skills

Seymour has tackled an enormous topic with skill and good humour.  His chapter on Horse or Tractor Power details the pros and cons of the three main methods of powering farm instruments.  The tractor, garden or walk behind tractors or animals.  His discussion of the various merits of different animals speaks volumes of Seymour’s experience

“Mules are very hardy, particularly for hot and dry climates.  They walk fast, will pull hard, can live on worse food than a horse, and I find them completely unlovable.  They will not exert so much traction as a heavy horse and are inclined to scratch, kick, bite, and generally misbehave.”

Each section meticulously lays out what techniques you need and what equipment you require.  Most of the tools described are hand tools, that today are hard to come by and look laborious to use.  We have found some of the tools in our shed, relics of a bygone era.  It is nice to know what they were used for, and for some, we have been able to re-use them.

When we started butchering our own sheep, I referred to Seymour’s book.  He describes the technique used to humanely butcher and clean several animals such as sheep, pigs, rabbits and poultry.  He explains the techniques, with a practical element borne from his experience.

“Keep working until the pig is absolutely clean… You really need two or three good men and true to scrape a big hog, with one boy to bring on the hot water and another to fetch the home-brewed beer (vital on this occasion).”

The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency is written for a much gentler climate than ours.  Seymour estimates that a horse will eat the produce of a one acre of land in a year, or of two or three acres of poorer land – which is a very optimistic estimate for our area.  Seymour’s basic model is for a one acre (4000 sq m) lot, however it can be expanded to a five acre lot (2 hectares), and meet most of the needs of a large family, except perhaps coffee and tea.

A special section deals with (almost lost) crafts such as spinning wool and cotton, dyeing and weaving fabrics, tanning hides, working stone and making bricks and other techniques important for someone who wants to have a go at everything.  In this modern age of YouTube, you can easily find videos to augment Seymour’s descriptions of how to practice these skills.

Even Seymour’s section on Natural Energy is still relevant.  Whilst not listing the latest in solar panel and inverter technology, the principles of solar passive design, insulation and harnessing wind power are almost timeless.  The section on a water-wheel was particularly quaint, as it was a form of power that was too unreliable with Australia’s cycle of droughts and floods.

Underpinning the whole book is the importance of soil – the basis of all life on earth.  Seymour’s whole enterprise is based on many facets of poly-culture.  Beneficial relationships between every enterprise increase soil fertility and recognise the inter-contentedness of every element of the farm.  We would now call Seymour’s techniques permaculture or even regenerative agriculture.

There is something magical about a book such as this.  Part of it harks back to a simpler time, however it was written in the modern world for people seeking a life more ‘fun that the over specialised round of office or factory”.  Despite it being written over 40 years ago, it is as important as ever, and one of my favourite books.

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