The Only Book You'll Ever Really Need

Maria Rodale explains the personal impact of the book "Self-Sufficient Life" by John Seymour.

November 26, 2010

These days, it's easy to believe that anything could happen...climate crisis, economic collapse, and flu pandemics have cast a gloomy pall over our lives. Trying times have made us realize that what really matters is being able to provide the basics to ourselves and our families. Today, we recognize it as sustainability. In the 1970s, it was called self-sufficiency, and was identified with the loony fringe. The recognized leader of the self-sufficiency movement was a Welshman named John Seymour.

Meeting John Seymour was one of the pivotal moments of my life. My father had just died in a car accident, and I took his place at a soil conference in Germany. Shell-shocked from his death, I was woefully unprepared to speak on his behalf. But in an old German farmhouse, sitting next to a gorgeous green tile oven and eating a full head of baked cauliflower smothered in cheese sauce with ham, I met the most sane and delightful man who seemed able to make it all simple and sensible. During that lunch, I learned that it's not the planet that needs saving, but us (the planet will be just fine without us). I learned about the importance of animals to any farm and food system. And most important, I learned that philosophy and ideas are a dime a dozen and often don't hold water--but what is most essential of all are the skills and knowledge of how to do things...much of which has been lost over the past 50 to 100 years. And all of those essential things to our survival are captured in Seymour's book, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: The Complete Back-to-Basics Guide, which has just been updated and rereleased.


Years after meeting him, I saw an ad for a self-sufficiency course with John Seymour at his home and "smallholding" in Ireland. Much to my daughter's and husband's chagrin, I signed us up. It wasn't quite their idea of a vacation--she was 15 at the time. However, we now all consider it one of the best weeks of our lives. We milked cows, learned how to use a scythe, made butter and cheese and bread and jam, and then ate it while it was all still warm and fresh. We made baskets! We killed the mean old rooster (although they saved it to eat until we were gone) and fed the pigs called Ham and Bacon. We ate delicious beef and lamb from the farm's own animals, with whatever vegetables and fruits we picked that day. I remember John talking angrily about the rise of genetically modified organisms and how he and his friends had protested with pitchforks and shovels at sites in Britain where they were being planted. It was the first time I heard of GMOs. I didn't quite understand then what he was so upset about. Now I do (as you will read in my upcoming book, Organic Manifesto). Britain has banned growing GMOs.

And I can't help but think this success had something to do with John and his willingness to take up "tools" to fight for what is right (and against what is wrong). John passed away at the age of 90--he had long joked that he would live to a ripe old age since he was pickled from drinking homemade beer. Today, his companion Angela and her husband, Will Sutherland, are carrying on Seymour's work at their house, Killowen, down a beautiful lane in County Cork, Ireland. If you get a chance, go and take a course--it could change your life. Details of the John Seymour School for Self-Sufficiency are at, but much of what you need to know is in Dorling Kindersley's new edition of his book.

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