Sep 122012

Kitchen Garden at Hagley Farm 1964

Until WWII a lot of people in this country lived on subsistence farms and had for generations. By subsistence I mean that they produced most of their own food and, in addition, raised cash crops like milk, hay, eggs, meat or maybe something more exotic like tobacco. The cash was used to buy equipment, extras and foodstuffs they didn’t produce themselves. They didn’t go to malls or supermarkets. Those did not exist.

My father’s family lived in what might be called a “kin” neighborhood in a part of Virginia that can now almost qualify as a suburb of D.C. Relations owned four or five contiguous properties and had lived in this spot since the 1840’s. Often they worked together, sharing labor, teams and equipment. All the places had names: Mt. Atlas, Oak Shade and Hagley. Hagley was my grandfather’s place. Before he built Hagley in around 1910 there was Old Hagley founded by his grandfather. New Hagley was built on higher ground and closer to the road. By US standards the family had been attached to that property for a long while. I was in the sixth or seventh generation to spend time at the place.

I found Hagley fascinating as a child for it was like dropping in on another planet, another style of life and almost another language with the drawls and “you alls.” There was so much food. Tons of food for every meal. Breakfast was breakfast, lunch was dinner, dinner was supper. My grandmother and aunt seemed to live in the kitchen and wouldn’t let you hang around in there. They would shoo us boys out so we helped where we were able or dug worms and headed to the pond to fish. From this photo it appears my brothers, cousin and I were doing something vaguely agricultural.

Farm work

I liked to look at the cellar with cured hams hanging from the ceiling and shelf after shelf of home canned goods. I remember the food most of all, fitting because subsistence farming is all about food: vegetables, pickles, milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, ham, beef, fish, bread, corn, biscuits and on and on. They not only grew food for themselves but for the animals as well: hay, corn, orchard grass, oats, rye and wheat.

At that time I really didn’t understand or appreciate what I was looking at and shortly after I graduated from college it all came to an end when my grandfather decided, perhaps in his dotage, to auction off the farm, all the implements, all the antiques, all the stock and knickknacks and everything that had accumulated in that spot in the previous hundred or more years. I guess he’d had enough of subsistence. He sold it off and along with my widowed aunt and bachelor uncle moved to town and began shopping at the supermarket just like everyone else in America. Grandpa sat on the porch til it was time to die, my old uncle went to the basement and turned wood bowls on his lathe, while my aunt kept cooking breakfast, dinner and supper.

The era of subsistence farming was over. Three generations later it’s starting to regain traction. But it’s much tougher now. There are building codes, safety rules and employment laws one has to follow. Plus, we live in a litigious society where some one will sue you at the drop of a hat or narc on you to some code official. The only instruction I recall getting at Hagley was “Stay out of the pig pen.” There was, apparently, a real danger of being eaten by a large boar. In the hallway was a .22 rifle on the gun rack which I was free to take it out and shoot at stuff like skill pots (snapping turtles) or squirrels. They would no doubt been shocked to learn I’d never even see a .22 before I took that one out in the woods and shot it.

Recently, my cousin who still owns his dad’s farm across the road from Hagley made a diagram of how Hagley looked in 1955 just a few years before the sale. I marvel at this information which details almost a village worth of buildings and functions. Take a look by clicking the link below.

Hagley Farm 1955

First of all note the two large kitchen gardens with a grape arbor in between. Then take a look at the functions and activities represented by the various buildings: hog pen, wood shed, meat house, hog butcher pen, hog butcher tub, chicken house, blacksmith shop, tack room, the dreaded pig shed and pen, turkey/guinea house, tractor shed, mill house and granary, corn house, milk barn and more.

Imagine the difficulty today of trying to get approval for these outbuildings. Then imagine the cost of building them. In those days, all these farmers were also carpenters and mechanics and veterinarians in addition to being horticulturalists. They were experts in animal husbandry as well. The women were experts in everything else. There wasn’t much specialization. One had to know how to do a bit of everything to survive in comfort.

There really aren’t that many back to the land people around today. It’s rare to find someone with a garden in the city. More rare to find a subsistence farm in the country side. It’s possible that we might have to get back to that and important that we maintain some bank of knowledge of the skills we need if we have to do the work ourselves and if we reach a time when we don’t have petroleum to do our work for us.

Today, Hagley still looks like an old farm house. It’s been updated some and the land around it sub-divided and partitioned into a small suburb for folks commuting to the capital and other venues in N. Virginia and Maryland. They are back on the land but not subsisting there. It will be hard for them (and all of us) to make the transition to a simpler, sustainable existence if circumstance dictates that we must.


  5 Responses to “Hagley”

  1. It sounds remarkably like the Shire! Minus the 22 caliber rifle, of course. Cool look into a vanished age.

  2. We’ll be getting back there soon enough. Detroit is already bulldozing derelict houses for fill-in gardens etc. Then will come bartering of skills a la Craig’s list.

  3. When this post was first issued, and I read it, something stuck me about why subsistence living has been given up in favor of the modern life but I couldn’t quite put it into words. I have tried several times to write a response without feeling like I got to the point. I know quite a few people who would rather live like Randy’s grandfather (and so many of that generation) but do not even attempt it. There are the handful of folks that do attempt it for a short while, but give it up. Very few that I know are still trying it and these are mostly hippies out living on land so bad that it is nearly free, or folks that are living duel lives and are supplementing their subsistence with their other life. So is it not possible today, or is it possible but just not appealing?

    So much of the challenge is to get everything set up and the cost involved with building the 22 outbuildings and and tools and such. But lets just say that one inherited all that is needed to live in that way, or you were able to get all set up and then quit your day job, would it still be appealing? Without an inflow of a significant amount of money you would not be able to have an iPhone, a computer, internet service, cable TV, trips into town would be limited to once every few weeks, eating out would be once a year (if that), no music festivals or plays or cinema, musical instruments would be hand-me-downs or freebies, news would be what your neighbor tells you or yesterdays newspaper, basically anything costing money is nearly unavailable. Where does that leave you in the bigger society? Where does it leave your children when they go out into that society if they choose to have a life other then subsistence living? Is it fair to leave them unprepared to be able to use email and be awestruck by the technology that is expected to be commonplace today? Would they be able to survive at a university should they choose to pursue a higher education?

    Since humans have developed society it has been the drive for those in subsistence living to get ahead so that they could attain the benefits of that part of society that reaped the rewards of cultured living. Higher education, refined music, clean clothes, and to be able to smell more like a flower then the back end of a pig. It seems that sometimes people want to go back to the less cultured life, but only after they have attained culture and education.

    There is great appeal to some of us in the do-it-yourself style of living. It is fascinating to us how things like storing food, and making vinegar, and growing beans actually work and it gives us some comfort to know that we can do it ourselves if society and culture collapse. But to actually live like society HAS collapsed is somehow going against our instinct to better ourselves and our society, and it seems somehow to be a traitor to progress. The only caveat is that for collapseitarians it can be seen as a preserving of the knowledge and skills it would take to bring society and culture, and humanity for that matter, back from the brink of total failure.

    But is that reason enough to live like grandpa? My supervisor at work is a extreme right wing Christian Norwegian who lives in Budapest and is building an off-grid subsistence living homestead and is awaiting the second coming and Apocalypse. When I listen to him talk about why he is building that kind of life, I wonder if I am as crazy as him, but for different reasons.

  4. Hi Klayton!

    I don’t think there is so much of an either/or involved here. Music, books, plays, community events, culture of all types existed before petroleum products made it possible for most of us to do things easier, be more mobile and work less. If suddenly there was no gasoline or natural gas culture would still exist. Great civilizations and cities were built before petroleum. The whole point of my exercise with this blog is to motivate myself and perhaps a few others to be more prepared for sudden collapse. Hopefully, it won’t come and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about everything. There’s no doubt that when I go out to mow the grass I hop on my new zero radius turn lawn mower. But, if I didn’t have fuel to run it I also have a very effective Austrian scythe. Scything is a lot harder; but possibly more satisfying and healthier for me and the planet. I’m just too lazy still to use it all the time.

  5. No doubt great civilization can exist without petroleum. I imagine 19th century Vienna with the horse and buggies going to a Mozart show. It would most assuredly be better for the planets health and our personal health (I saw Noble was very effective with a scythe in his field). But that high culture only existed for those who were not living a subsistence life and had somehow achieved the riches to elevate themselves out of it. Anyone living the life described in this post, generally did not have the time or money to avail themselves the pleasures of what was high society in those days and what is commonly available to nearly everyone in our culture today. I aim for a subsistence living and long for the day when my iPhone collects dust and the only mail I read comes with a stamp on it. I realize that without a job I will not have the money needed to keep up with society and will be foregoing many of the pleasures of modern society in lieu of a slower, quieter life. But if everyone did that, there would be no culture or elevated society. Petroleum make civilized culture available to the masses and it destroys our health and the ecosystem in the process. Pre-petroleum it took all of society to elevate the 1% to high culture. Today 99% of us live better then that 1% did back then (maybe that is an exaggeration, but you know what I mean).
    When Randy’s granddad opted to sit on the porch and shop at Wal-mart, he realized what all of us unconsciously realize everyday. He made the choice that we all make every day. That living with the goods and services that a modern petroleum-fueled life affords us is worth the damage it does to us and the planet. In granddad’s case, he probably was not aware of the damage to the planet, but I am sure he was well aware that the life he chose would not have the feel good factor country living, but he chose it anyway. But for us that are aware, and chose it anyway, we are making that choice very clear. When idealistic college kids first become aware of the petroleum paradox some of them try to chose a life that does not involve petroleum or any of its benefits. It rarely lasts as they realize that the luxuries of modern society are too tempting and Taco Bell and a road trip win out over potato soup and another quiet night reading by candle light.
    It seems a lot of us in this movement are wanting to live a pre-petroleum era lifestyle to try and establish a viable alternative to the petroleum era lifestyle so that if it possibly takes hold that we could convince everyone to go back to living in the 1800’s. But my thought experiment with all of this is what would it be like to live like I was in the 1800’s when everyone else is living in the 2000’s. The feeling is that I would be betraying my society. Many of us environmentally minded folks are fully living in this petroleum fueled society allowing it to support us and others that are wanting and trying to find an alternative. If I don’t engage in the current modern society, am I inhibiting the search for a cleaner, safer way for modern society to live? Should I drive my car to my university class to study and develop ways to live without cars? Or at least support those that are doing so? I guess I am searching for a balance in it.

    But aren’t we all?

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