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Tomatoes in a window box

MANY years ago, I owned a hard-cover copy of John Seymour's The Complete Book of Self-sufficiency, published by Dorling-Kindersley in the mid-1970s.

Despite attention given to it in its various locations over time, it went the way of many of life's printed treasures: into thin air. I found a soft-cover version, published in 1996, and, if you are learning of its existence just now and can get your hands on a copy, read it with your eyes hanging out, as Dylan Thomas put it, and treat it with the care and reverence it deserves.

John Seymour has been dead for some years now. He lived to an advanced age. He was English and, at one time, lived in a double-decker bus. He tilled his plot, grew his own food, did some teaching, talking and ballad-singing.

He eventually acquired a small-holding near New Ross, Co Wexford, and was an advertisement for the life of self-sufficiency, building, digging and planting.

There are others who urge: do not dig at all, don't break ground, drill directly into the soil and don't uproot worms and beetles or allow nutrients to be washed away. We'll come back to that.

John Seymour bent his back with spade and fork, tended his crops, milked his cow and made butter. He liked to impart his enthusiasm to listeners, but became impatient with those who liked discussing self-sufficiency, but did not follow up with honest toil. He saw them as "self-supporters" who were occupying plots of land that could be worked by others.

Seymour was an author and philosopher as well as being a land worker and husbander of animals. He once said that Polly, his cow, had a philosophy far sounder than many a PhD of his acquaintance.

He shrugged off any suggestion that he was the 'father' of a particular movement, although his book was eventually translated into 20 languages and has sold in excess of a million copies over the years.

Of his philosophy, he was forthright: self-sufficiency was not going back into the past, seeking some idealistic lifestyle, but rather a going-forward to a new and better one for food. Food that is fresh and organically grown - for a "good life in pleasant surroundings, for the health of the body and peace of mind which come from varied and hard work in the open air and from the satisfaction of doing difficult and intricate jobs well and successfully".

The best compost could be made in 12 hours, he said, having passed through the innards of an animal. He looked on lawns and flower-beds as a waste of space and urged that tomatoes be grown in window-boxes on high-rise apartment balconies and that every inch of suburban garden be productive.

I failed to meet him when there was an opportunity, so I never got his opinion of a scientist who held that it was unwise to disturb the earth and, indeed, it was dangerous to do so. This man, and others of a similar opinion, would have been treading on thin soil with Seymour in supporting the use of "innocuous" herbicides in direct drilling and, they held, so retaining organic material in the soil.

Soil and the earth beneath our feet is the vital element here, to be turned with plough or not necessary for human survival. It's all in a Sanskrit text of 1,500BC. Take care. Abuse the soil and it will die, taking humanity with it.

Sunday Independent