“The fundamental illusion we all have to overcome, is the illusion of separateness.” — Chuck Chamberlain
by Bill Robichaud
This month marks a year since I embarked on an experiment in not going grocery shopping. The idea of a grocery store moratorium came as I returned home last winter from Europe, a just-in-time, pre-pandemic visit to my girlfriend in Switzerland. At 30,000 feet, in that delicious time-suspension particular to long distance flights, I idly pondered my canning shelves and chest freezer, and wondered how long their contents of summer glory, along with my cupboards and what I could creatively forage or barter, might sustain me. I decided to find out. COVID-19 had not yet entered our lexicon or our lives, and my sabbatical from grocery stores was a whim of curiosity, rather than a premeditated ideological plunge into self-sufficiency. The depth of winter in Wisconsin, with no advance preparation, is perhaps not the most propitious time and place to commence such an endeavor …
But as the year unfolded, I’ve found abundance rather than deprivation. A year on, no fodder here for another Krakauer book on misadventured starvation. In fact, my physical health is better than ever, in part being insulated from the processed food temptations that line grocery store canyons. I’ve lived mainly on gifts of the Driftless land — vegetables, herbs and fruit from my gardens; eggs from my hens; venison, wild turkey and a few morels from the woods; and trout from our Driftless streams. I have bought coffee beans, tea and wine, and on occasion some spices, chocolate and popping corn, and sublime bread from two bakeries without storefronts not far from my home, Cress Spring and The Shoppe. My daughter Alonda is a wonderful, passionate cook, and after a visit she helpfully left in her wake some unused flour and oil (she’s not banned from grocery stores). I’ve also occasionally patronized cafés and restaurants per my normal pattern — this wasn’t meant as a radical dive into monkhood. But in this pandemic time, like all of us my frequency at cafés has been much less than usual, increasing my reliance on my own food.
Somewhat to my surprise, feeding myself has proved fairly easy. It is, after all, hard-wired into millennia of human DNA. Billions of humans today still mostly feed themselves (although the trend is shifting; in 2007 the number of urban dwellers surpassed rural humans for the first time in history). I’ve discovered that grocery stores are not so much a necessity as a habit, which I’ve now dropped for the time being. Granted, I have advantages where I live, mainly in the space available to me. But I’ve also learned that with, say, a few hens, a 10 x 20-foot garden, access to some dairy and flour, and a bit of time, you can make one hell of a lot of good food.
That said, there is no such thing as self-reliance. Even a sourdough hermit in the Alaskan bush doesn’t eat his own fingers or navel; he is utterly reliant on gifts of the Earth. A grocery store isn’t a source, it’s just a middleman. This year I simply brought myself closer to the source, and have found it deeply satisfying. Contrary to a sense of self-reliance, this endeavor has deepened my connections, both with the land on which I live, and with other people in my life — a fortuitous outcome in this otherwise pandemic year of isolation.
Here in my quiet corner of Iowa County, I’m blessed to live along a road where I have some wonderful neighbors, who also produce much of their own food. Our road has become for me something of a 2-mile long Silk Road trade route of sustenance: Judy and Allen gave me starter tomato plants in exchange for maple syrup; from Greg and Linda, a freshly cut Christmas tree for eggs (although not quite a grocery, a Christmas tree is a perishable essential). I set up a small self-serve stand in front of the house to flog extra eggs and jars of pickles, and used the money to buy dairy from another neighbor. One of the best trade gigs has been with Mary and Dave: I’ve been sending them kale, leeks and potatoes (their young grandson, Archer, helped unearth the potatoes — a sort of late summer Easter egg hunt), and Mary’s been making sublime quiche and batches of leek-and-potato soup and sending half the output back to me.
A bit beyond the road, I traded rhubarb and eggs for a meal or two from Cliff and Yvonne at the Barneveld Community Cafe, and swapped leeks and delicata squash for olive oil from Bob and Kate at The Shoppe. My buddy Greg helped me with pickling, and in payment took some jars home. He also keeps dropping off venison sausage and apple butter, and gets eggs and homemade kimchi in return. With my friends Willi and Kitas at Bleu Mont Dairy I swapped birch syrup for cheese. Later, when my anemic harvest of garlic ran out, Willi offered me some of theirs. When I asked what I could give him in trade this time, he replied with warmth, “Friendship.”
Willi’s succinctly beautifully answer well sums up how, somewhat paradoxically, my explorations into self-provisioning this year have manifested as deeper connections — with the Earth, myself and others. The Driftless terroir is generous, and so, too, are its inhabitants.
Bill Robichaud is a writer, an award-winning conservation biologist and president of the conservation organization the Saola Foundation. He lives in a century-old farmhouse north of Barneveld, and chronicles his “no grocery store” experience at www.birdinthebush.net.