Anne Lafferty’s “Pared to the Bone”

I read a most intriguing book over the course of the past few days. It was written by a woman who with her family – that being husband and children – went as far off the grid as it probably is possible to do. It is not a “how to” book – but more a “I did this” book. That is, you won’t learn how to can foods for the winter – but you will learn that it takes an enormous amount of work that cannot be avoided if one wants to eat. Its set on a real farm called “Core Hollow” in Western Wisconsin. Apparently, the lady and her husband bought 50 acres and decided to set up a homestead with as little reliance on the modern world as possible.

There are actually many people who do this still in America – with the Amish and the Mennonites leading the way. There are many others with less a religious bent and more of a political-survivalist mentality doing the same thing. What does it take to do it? Ah, that’s what this engaging book can present – it is not the romantic notion of sitting on the front porch looking out at the pastures and woods – but one of endless toil. The book, “Pared to the Bone” is a recounting of Anne Lafferty’s roughly 15 years doing it. (Published by Tate Publishing, and I’m sure available on Amazon.)

Oh, it’s possible, of course, but it’s not easy. And it can’t really be done in the way that truly removes oneself from the grid. I hear often of people who think they are removing themselves from the alleged horrors of modern society by putting up some solar panels on their roof and thinking they are escaping electricity. The Laffertys did not do that – they used oil lamps and candles and a wood stove. People who think that solar panels removes them from the modern world seem to be clueless as to how much of the modern world is involved in the creation of solar panels. The metals must be mined, the rare earths metals dug out of the landscapes of far western China where God in his frolicking wisdom decided to put 95% of the world’s accessible supply. Supposedly Japan has discovered vast deposits of the stuff off their southern shores – but alas, at depths of a mile or more down – and thus inaccessible at the moment. Apparently to free us from drilling for oil at home we shall dig up dirt in China.

Wherever the panels are assembled, from many parts – all those parts have to be shipped to the assembly point – whether in a factory in Guangzhou or in Monterrey Mexico or Phoenix Arizona, somehow vast amounts of resources must be shipped and then the finished products shipped again. I can’t help but thinking about the fact that during Roman times about the only place Rome could get tin to make bronze was from Cornwall in what they called Britannia. Indeed – about the only reason Caesar took over Britannia was to get at the tin without paying the Tinman. Better to own the resources than buy them, went the economic theories of those times. Putin thinks along these lines still, hence is grab for Ukraine. But global trade it was, no matter small they thought the globe was. The Romans had Chinese silks too – brought all the way from China, with pepper from India. The Calif of Baghdad famously sent Charlemagne in France an elephant in the year 800 AD or so. Global trade is a long human tradition – now some are against it – they don’t know history.

I hear too of Localism – Locovores as they are called – “We shall only buy locally!” they crow. At a recent festival I was at there was such a group pushing the idea. Some group calling itself “Local First Arizona” with its own website. Oh, they so heartily recommend buying local “to keep the money here” – and then I wonder – do they realize that coffee, bananas and sugar don’t grow in Arizona, nor the trees for the paper on which their propaganda is published? In fact, modern localistas don’t seem to realize that the world has been into global trade for millennia. The Incas traded with the Mayas who traded with the Apache who traded with the Iroquois in a trade network over ten thousand miles. Surely there are goods of all four cultures found in the others. Somehow they got there. They didn’t fly in. Those people didn’t think locally whatsoever. The bronze Buddha from India found in a Scandinavian grave of the 700s AD didn’t fly there, that’s for sure. Kiev in Ukraine was founded by Vikings to keep the trade route open, after all.

Mrs. Lafferty seemed to drink coffee a lot – well, so do I – but it doesn’t grow in Wisconsin – and thus there’s no way to live so off the grid and still have coffee. Somehow someone far, far away toils to grow coffee so that it can be sent to Wisconsin. I don’t begrudge the coffee to the lady, I just point out that some creature comforts of the modern world require our trade with “neighbors” far, far away.

Then too objects of metal – saws, pails, tubing, pipes, buckets, troughs – the windmill they found for free, though in not good repair, at a farm not far from their place. Centuries ago, making metal was a rare thing. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t have much of it. Neither did the Romans. Nearly all they had went into weapons, and not farm implements and household goods. Glass, another not easily made thing – rare as recently as the 1700s. In a book I wrote about the Czechs & Slovaks of Louisiana it was noted by some people living near the Bohemian Colony in Libuse, Louisiana, that “The Czechs had glass windows in their barns before the locals had them in their houses.” That was the 1920s.

The Laffertys grew many vegetables and legumes, squashes and even utilized meat like beef, deer, chicken and turkey – all of which had to be “canned” – or really “bottled” – in that it was all done in glass jars with metal tops. For they had no true refrigerator. And while homemade goodies are always a joy – the reality is that the jars and caps were made in the modern world. I’m not sure it’s possible to truly remove oneself from the modern world, as many of the more political-survivalist types wish to do. These are the sort that feel the government is a behemoth they can and must get away from. Well, that’s not really possible to do completely – and surely it can be done in the city as well as the country.

There were cows on the farm – for milk, from which came the butter, cheese and yogurt consumed – but waking up at the crack of dawn or earlier to milk the cows is backbreaking work. It’s hard to haul five gallon jugs of milk and store them in a cold spring fed trough when one has no refrigeration. One of the cows had a medical problem – modern veterinarian skills were required to save it. Making cheese is really just using souring milk. One must hand it to this family for giving it a good try. I would think most people couldn’t have done it.

There is an element of political-survivalist in the book – not that that was the intent at the beginning, but that Mr. Lafferty apparently went a little too deep into believing the government and the modern world was simply so evil – as he perceived from a new found Bible-based belief – with perhaps a misguided push from Timothy McVeigh of Oklahoma bombing fame – that ultimately the marriage was untenable. He grew to despise bacon – against the Bible – Leviticus and all that – but it was lesbian veterinarians who saved the cow, much to the bemusement of Mrs. Lafferty.

A son required modern medical help – the father was opposed. Many people believe that modern medicine can cure every ill – as if no one should ever get sick and die. No, the son didn’t die, but well, a brain tumor set the guy on a different path than he had envisioned. That’s something that may have killed him if he didn’t get the operation. Maybe it wouldn’t have, but done something else. A tumor in the brain seems never to be a good thing – no matter how one deals with it. But I think too many people today are lulled into believing that all the ills of the human body can be fixed with the wave of doctor’s wand and a bureaucratic law stating “health care for all!” Ah, we still are clueless as to many things.

Then too, guns were required on the property – to both put down ill animals, as is considered “Humane” – and to protect against the wild beasts that still roam the forests and rural precincts of this land. In fact, seemingly unbeknown to most everyone is that North America has the second most dangerous collection of animals after Africa. Europe and Asia and South America are mere wusses in the drastic animals that can eat their way through livestock and possibly any humans wandering around. I read sometimes of people who build houses in the woods and then complain about coyotes, wolves and bears come to haunt their patios. They are shocked and demand action! Ah, but perhaps they shouldn’t have moved into the wilderness. My own sister has to be careful in her yard for bear do roam through from time to time, and she’s barely 75 miles from Manhattan.

But the guns have to be made somewhere – the modern world makes guns. And the gun lovers of this nation – with which I have no problems whatsoever – and I’m quite a proponent of respecting the 2nd Amendment – can’t at one and the same time want to “get away from it all” but still go buy a rifle. The rifles come from “it all” which can’t be gotten away from.

Just as I find it humorously thoughtless that many people who are in love with wind-power are quite sure it’s “Free!” and environmentally blissful – without any realization of the mining of metals to make the 300 foot tall towers that blot the landscape miles from their homes – and the apparently millions of birds that are killed by the spinning turbines. Nor are they aware that the electric lines must be strung from wind-farm as much from coal fired power plants. Somehow transmission wires hanging from 100 foot tall towers from a traditional power plant are evil – while those strung from wind-farms are just peachy keen. Digging for coal – bad – digging for metal for 300 foot tall towers – good. Yah. Environmentalists have always been long on happy-blissful thinking and short on practicality, for sure.

Mrs. Lafferty suggested that the windmill they had be rigged for power – but the gun loving Mr. Lafferty thought that too close to civilization – while the guns he loved seemed to be OK. He also had a truck he used to get to his day job and seemed not to do much on the property at all. He was against civilization but couldn’t get away from it – she wanted some modicum of modern comfort and it was too much for his Bible-based survivalist beliefs to allow. Something was askew. It apparently became clear enough for the book ends with her walking out of the place – and I know, since I met her, that there was divorce involved.

There was also apparently a son with a pregnant woman not his wife. That is part and parcel of humankind since time immemorial too – in “simpler times” as well as now. And it’s perhaps this belief that there were “Simpler Times” that is so bizarre. For the book so amply presents the reality that life was never simple “back then” – no matter how far back one looks. Indeed, we are living in the simple times. Never before have so many been so rich, so healthy and so long lived as in this current time when supposed we are all going to die of cancer. Well, better of cancer in our 60s or 70s or even older, than from a Saxon or Viking horde coming into to do the honors of head lopping. Longevity has now reached 70 and plus in most nations – and certainly 50 and plus in even the third world. Less than 150 years ago 50 was old – and 30 or 40 a more likely life span – but the belief is thick that we’re all dying of the ills of modernism. I’d say it’s just the opposite.

Ah, the book is charmingly written by a woman who surely enjoyed her time there, even if not 100% of the time. I’m sure she learned things I or most people could never do – like skin a deer and can the meet for the winter. It’s a moving book, funny in parts, some bits of terror here and there, and certainly poetic in the depiction of the difficulties and toil. Surely one wanders into the mind and fears and thoughts of the writer easy enough.

For those thinking of moving off the grid, and out into the countryside, and away from the modern world, and back to “simpler times,” and to survive if it all falls apart, and be independent as they wish – it’s an eyeopener of “Wow, not as easy or carefree as I had believed.” Most certainly not.

I was never into this sort of thing – I’m a city boy – and live in central Phoenix, within relative walking distance of all I require, like a modern supermarket where the vagaries of climate and location don’t inhibit my consumption of any food I require – and some that come from very far away indeed. But it is interesting to see how other people dealt with the trials of our times – which however terrible we feel they are – don’t even approach the times of just 150 years ago.

Ah, it was the great lament of Hammurabi 5000 years ago that people were leaving the farms and crowding the cities. Such is the reality of mankind – get off the land, and into the burgs – and I don’t see it much changing anytime soon. And after having met the author at a book signing, to which I took a bus I had to walk a half mile from my house to catch – I gladly took the ride home in their new Mercedes – I’m not willing to abandon modern comforts at all. But if you are, you should definitely read Mrs Lafferty’s “Pared to the Bone” before you head out to the wilds.

 

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