Growing up in the backwoods of Oregon and later Alaska, my parents took us camping out in the boonies every summer.
I remember the year we got sleeping bags! Oh my goodness I felt uptown and rich. Plus I no longer had to share blankets with my older sister.
We didn’t have much “cash money” and that seems an odd way to talk these days. What I remember is not being poor and suffering for it, but being excited about what I did receive and loving where I lived and how we lived.
We spent every year camping on the riverbank.. I learned to swim in the river, but until then I had a German Shepherd Guardian that herded me along the shallow edges, as deep as HE felt was appropriate. No appeals allowed. When I complained to mom, she laughed in my face and said Shadow saved her worrying every minute of the day. Once I learned to swim (dog paddle) Shadow allowed me to swim across the river only when mom held him back. She let him go and he swam across to me and beside me all the way back. God how I loved swimming. How could life be better for a short person?
My dad commuted to work in town from our campsite. In the evening things got livelier because dad showed us exactly the right way to bait a hook and cast our line out. I had a little Zebco closed reel on a small pole. My first fishing pole! While dad was teaching, mom always caught dinner. She had to clean it herself, too, because if you catch it you clean it. Cooked it too!
Dad gave us kids endless attention, and I see him in my son who physically looks like his own handsome father, but acts more like my father: sort of kind and gentle.
My dad taught me all the plants in the backwoods and I could gather food by age 6. Even better, he had stories about wild food and Indian tribes, and white settlers and how his family came to Oregon.
Any chance he got, he talked to elderly folks about their lives and stories. Even later, in Houston, we lived near a nursing home and dad made a weekly pass through visiting elderly people and taking books and magazines for them. His biggest gift was interest in their lives and what they had seen of the world.
All summer we lived without many amenities, picking fruits and berries, greens, and digging roots. Mom went sometimes, but I tended to do the gathering. My older sister kept our camp site clean and hauled wood and water up from the river with my mom. They went out deeper in the water to fill buckets. Mom chopped wood for our campfire and did most of the cooking over the fire, although we could if we wanted. I ate mostly in the woods; I love raw food. There was a big pot of dreadful camp coffee for mom and dad. Nasty stuff with the grounds loose.
Sometimes dad brought marshmallows and hooted in derision when we set ours on fire. He showed us the fine points of gentle roasting until the marshmallow was a delicate, perfect brown. Meat, too, had to be roasted on a stick over the fire. And every night dad told us stories and history until bed time. I remember falling to sleep feeling safe and listening to my parents laugh over camp coffee and the fire.
I know we lived well all summer on the river. Living well means having a little shelter, fresh water and fresh food. Convivial company most of all.
Even then there were boogeymen. My mom and dad were well armed, always. I had a large male German Shepherd with me every minute who would have given his life for me, but since that was never necessary he mostly herded and pushed me around until he cuddled me all night while I slept. I was his job.
All four members of our family took on chores without complaint. Dad went to work every day without complaint or resentment. He passed by our house to check on things, fed the chickens, and brought eggs for our breakfast.
Mom did shine at breakfast. She never made up stories but memorized reams of poetry. In the morning while she cooked, we each requested a poem and mom recited poems she liked, too. I loved Skeleton in Armour and know parts of it still. She loved Robert Service.
At university I heard that my mom’s recitations were too singsongy. That silly prof never heard my mom over a campfire in the morning, with the sound of the river in the background, birdsong, and breakfast sizzling.
What I do not remember is perfection or any concept of it. I don’t remember wealth or the lack of it. I do remember family and friends coming to camp and visit, and contributing to the community pot. More kids to play and get scrapes.
Now all the woodcraft I learned living rough all summer enriches my life. I can live with fewer market economy things made by others and enjoy making my own. It is fulfilling to create and have a reasonably self-sufficient life. I say reasonably self-sufficient because we need convivial companions to make that life worth living.
Is life scary? Sure enough. Always has been if you know history. I am nothing and nobody in this big scary world. I will survive every thing that happens to me until I don’t, but there will only be one time that I won’t. I use reasonable caution.
I am less interested in living for the disaster that comes in the end than in living a powerful life that only comes with knowing I can do my part and creatively make what I need. Self-sufficient living is ultimately about life. And as I well know, life is compost!