Feast or Famine

By , August 23, 2011

Even though we garden, our existence often relies on hunter/gatherer mentality. Particularly, anthropologists tell us that hunter/gatherer societies operated on feast or famine. Relying on found foods, they sometimes went without. Other times they had more food than they would normally eat, but no means of preserving it, storing, or carrying it. That meant that the general pattern of life became one that vacillated between carefully conserving scarcity, and indulging in occasional excess.

This has become our pattern here on the homestead, where much of our food is “found,” fishing, gardening in our short northern season, foraging and hunting, and we have no refrigeration.

This is why our generally frugal diet is punctuated with extravagance, particularly in the warm months, when leftovers don’t linger. But the pattern extends way beyond food.

Alternative power follows feast or famine patterns for us. We get by on very little electricity, which is fine during times of low intake—calm, heavily overcast days. However, during our many high wind days, and especially sunny windy days, we literally have power to burn.

Water collection follows the same pattern. I’ve described here our late husbandry of the water supply, trying to make the dwindling summer water supply last as long as possible into the autumn, while trying to avoid draining the full tank at the end of the season. We began to take unusual pains to maximize the available water for drinking, washing, watering the garden, and keeping the compost piles alive. We plumbed the tank on August 11, the first day of serious rain in a long time, and found that we had 17 inches remaining in the bottom of the tank. A few days later a thin trickle developed in the intake, and we began to hope.

That day of rain slowly built into close to monsoon levels. We recorded 2.3″ in a 24-hour period Saturday morning. I checked the water tank and found water literally gushing out the top, a massive overflow! Even if we did not receive anymore, we are guaranteed plenty of water up to the first hard freeze of the coming winter.

In fact, we suddenly have water to waste. We’re having to shift from conservation to lavish use, in order to take maximum advantage of the available water. It feels almost shameful, but it makes better sense than continuing to conserve.

As I say, feast or famine.

6 Responses to “Feast or Famine”

  1. Don says:

    What do y’all do to preserve food? Do you dry or salt any fish? I recall that y’all do some canning.

    Have you considered finding a place to put in a small hoop house? Could add a couple of months to your growing season.

  2. Joe says:

    I have a silly question, but can you do what the guy on Alone in the Wilderness did and dig out a makeshift refrigerator in the ground?

  3. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Joe, that’s a good question. We can, but not the extent he was able to. He lived much farther north, where the winters get colder (I forget, but he may have been above the permafrost line as well).

    We have a root cellar built into a rock cliff, and a pit cellar closer to the house. In the winter, the latter works great, but it’s not very useful in the summer. The root cellar stays fairly cool year ’round, dipping toward freezing in the cold weather, but getting up to the 50s if it’s warm for too long.

    Both of these extend our “refrigeration,” somewhat.

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    We have a smoke house, but have never used it, as we generally eat all we catch. We do can fish when possible. More often than not fish carry parasites that should be killed by freezing before smoking, which is problematic for us. Mostly, it’s just a matter of not having enough fish to smoke at any given time.

    We also dry herbs and some vegetables from the garden, and mushrooms. We pickle and kraut some of the produce as well. There’s a really good book, Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation has been very useful to us.

    We use hoops in the garden in the spring and autumn. It’s tough, because those are high wind seasons, and we have to work to keep them from blowing down. This last summer we kept them up most of the time, because the wind was drying out the plants too much. We also use cold frames, with old windows as covers. Those hold up in the early and late snows better than the hoops.

  5. Joe says:

    Here in Pennsylvania, they used spring houses which were on or near cool waters for refrigeration. I wonder if this would work even better in AK where I’m sure the water is even colder.

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Joe, that’s a great method of “refrigeration.” Aly’s been the one eager to pursue this, after learning about it from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. It’s a common practice here, although limited in the winter due to freezing. It’s not practical for us because we don’t have a reliable creek. We have a very small one adjacent to the property that flows in the wetter months, then dries out, so it’s almost never flowing when we need it.

    We’ve also had people suggest routing the cabin’s water supply through the cool box, but that’d be far too much work, and would more than likely kill our water pressure.

    Mostly, it’s a matter of working within the limitations we have. It’s not as easy as having a refrigerator in one’s home, but it’s an aspect of our life that we’ve become comfortable with. We may improve on it someday, but there’s no urgency, thankfully.

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