What If Emerson Was Wrong? Self Reliance as Social Movement

by Tyler Robinson

When Ralph Waldo Emerson published his seminal essay “Self-Reliance” in 1841, one could argue that the modern homesteading movement was conceived in that small town of Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson boldly declares “…that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” He drives the point home a few words later: “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace.”

Homesteading, farming, modern-ranching, or whatever you call it, all point back to Emerson and his pal Henry David Thoreau with his tomic text Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. Their belief in fierce individuality, staunch independence, a desire to be closer to nature and creation, and a mistrust of the public and its institutions can be found in every homesteading conversation, whether it be a blog post about slow-cooker apple butter or a how-to video on calming your goat before milking. The most successful of these ventures contain at least some element of the celebration of individual achievement in the face of a society that teaches social reliance.

But what if Emerson and Thoreau were wrong? What if self-reliance is a much more communal endeavor than we realize? As my family has attempted to become more self-reliant over the past couple of years, I have learned just how much I need to rely on others in order to become more independent from society. I have learned one key thing:

Self-reliance is social.

Over the past two years, we have amassed a stockpile of wood that should get us through this winter and the next. But here’s the rub: Except for one 70 foot tree, none of that wood has come from our property. It has come from a family friend reaching out and offering cords and cords of oak that he already felled and split. All I had to do was pick it up. It has come from strangers posting pictures of fallen trees in their yard and just asking for someone to come take it away. Not selling it–just giving it away to a stranger. When we have needed to split wood, that has become an inherently communal activity as well. Rather than purchase our own splitter, we decided to go in on one with another family. We literally split the costs. So the splitter goes back and forth between our homes, and usually the previous user stays with the current one to help with the day’s work. And by the way, that 70 foot tree that I took down? It was done with the help of friends and family taking time out of their days.

Self-reliance is social.

My wife, Jen, wanted to harvest fresh honey for our home, so she decided to join the local beekeeping association. Over several months, this local cabal taught her everything she could want to know about keeping a healthy apiary. When she had purchased and set up her hives, members offered to sell nucs to her at a discounted price; beekeepers will tell you about the importance of locality to bees. And I cannot say enough about Paul. An aging man with a hatchet face; all it takes is one text from my wife with a hint of worry, and he comes over with his suit and examines every store and answers every question. 

We are looking forward to June, not just for our first batch of fresh honey but to the harvesting party. The equipment can be quite expensive, so the association offers a day where members can bring their hives and harvest their honey for free. All that is asked is a dish and drinks to pass around.

Self-reliance is social.

We raised and harvested chickens for meat for the first time this past year. To save money, we put in for a larger order of chicks with another family (the same as the wood-splitter). We also split the cost for a plucker. And on the big day, the processing became a communal endeavor, each of us with our tasks but each aware of one shared goal. The next day, we reconvened to finish the job of butchering the birds, finding great joy at our increasing skill in taking a carcass and transforming it into breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings. All in all, two families processed 92 Cornish-Crosses, and neither had to purchase chicken for months.

Self-reliance is social.

Emerson wrote about the power of the moment when the individual is alone in nature. He describes himself as the transparent eyeball, as seeing himself in nature and nature within himself. I believe that is the nirvanic moment a homesteader is looking for when she enjoys a caprese salad that consists of lettuce, basil, tomatoes, and goat-cheese mozzarella from her own garden and livestock. Or when he sips on some hard cider from his own apple tree. This moment is made up of a mixture of gratitude and satisfaction.

I am lucky to say I have had those moments as well. But when I limit myself to reflecting upon the creation that gave itself to me and my own individual abilities, I limit the enjoyment of the moment. When I feel the warmth of my wood-stove, I am reminded of the warmth of the friendship that provided the wood. When I taste the sweetness that the honey will provide to my tea, I will remember the sweetness of the bonds my wife feels with others like her. When I am filled with joy over a drumstick that came from my land and was cooked in my smokehouse, I will remember the joy I saw in the faces of those who joined me in that journey.

Self-reliance is social.

Upon realizing this simple truth over the past year, I decided that my own personal, small self-reliance must overflow to others. I will leave you with one example. Last February and March, I had a very successful season in my greenhouse with vegetable seedlings. The room was overflowing with successful start-ups of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash, green beans, radishes, and everything else you could want. Upon seeing this bounty, an acquaintance offered that I could post the extras online and sell them. Selling them at a discounted price would more than pay for the seeds I purchased. I was reminded of Voltaire’s conclusion at the end of Candide: One must tend his own garden. Another great conclusion for self-reliance. 

But a garden isn’t meant to be contained. Tomato plants grow up and out over their cages. Cucumber vines climb as high as they are encouraged. Have you ever tried keeping watermelons in their row? Just like gardens, human beings aren’t meant to be contained either. The more of us who embrace self-reliance means only a greater community to find learning, help, and comfort. So I decided that I would offer up my extra vegetables to others. For free. I would give them away to anyone who wanted them.

Self-reliance is social.

photo credit: Warren Wong, “Bound,” Unsplash