Late in his book, Vic Sussman describes the homesteaders of 100 years ago -- the settlers and farmers of the vast lands that the government was trying to tame. "The classic homesteaders had a hard life on their 160 acres," he writes. "They got to own it only after living on it for five years and improving it with buildings and crops or stock. That was true 'sweat equity.' They earned the land with payments of years of hard work, misfortune and loneliness."
Sussman perhaps should have added to his list pain, depression, ugliness and death -- all the result not of modern civilization and the encroaching suburbanization that Sussman despises, but of the nature that he reveres. In many ways today's serious homesteaders' lives parallel those of their forebears. Here lies the fallacy of Sussman's book. Although "Never Kiss a Goat on the Lips" is a welcome change from the continuous flow of how-to books, and it approaches its subject with all-too-rare humor, what he has written is an ode to the urbanite's fantasy of "going back to the land" -- a la Mother Earth News -- an optimistic, romanticized and too often overly sentimental view of the joys of self-sufficiency.
Sussman speaks at length on the question of self-reliance. "Our goals right from the start were to enjoy the aesthetic benefits of living in close communion with nature, to raise as much of our own food as possible, and -- like the original homesteaders -- to acquire skills and experience leading toward self-reliance." In the 11 years the Sussman family has homesteaded on two acres in Potomac, Md., they have learned to heat with a wood stove, delivered their youngest child at home and cut their grocery bills by becoming vegetarians and growing much of their own food in an organic garden. Because they are lacto-ovo vegetarians, they keep goats for milk (hence the title, which comes from a time Sussman's wife Betsy nuzzled a goat after it had buried its head in a succulent growth of poison ivy).
What is never addressed in the book is the deeper meaning of self-sufficiency, not so much a life style as a mental attitude. It is the capacity to face the realities of survival at its most basic, deal with these realities and rise above them until a sense develops of being able to live without the benefits of modern civilization. It is the sense that you can, in a pinch, do anything to make it through. To reach that level it is necessary to get beyond the Bambi-like images Sussman dwells on so lovingly, to go beyond the romance, the joys, the rewards and face the constant frustrations of such a life and the unsentimentality of the natural world.
Sussman rightfully speaks of the pleasures of sitting down to a groaning board of food, all of which you grew yourself, or the fun of watching people play with the goats you bottle-fed from infancy. But what's irritating about the book is the way he trivializes his experience by glossing over the difficulties he must have faced, equally rewarding and maturing, but far less pretty.
He does point out a frequent misconception about homesteading -- that it is a return to the simple life. "The truth is that the so-called simple life is quite complex, while modern urban life, supposedly complicated, is really simple. After all, the simplest way of getting something done is having someone else do it. Doing it yourself seems simple, and it might be if the task itself is simple -- mowing the lawn, painting a table, hanging a picture. But what if the job is complicated? Your car needs a new water pump. Your air conditioner dies. Your pocket calculator picks up reruns of "The Gong Show." Faced with a problem beyond your capability, the simplest course may be to have someone else do the job.
"Now extend this thinking to basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, energy. The really simple way to have these needs met is to buy them as goods or services." At first, the book is light, readable and very funny. Sussman, a former disc jockey with a fantasy of being a stand-up comedian, has a wry wit and a store of excellent anecdotes. His book informs without lecturing. He teaches you a lot about foraging for food, the benefits of snakes, ways to handle garden pests, how to renovate an old home, the internal workings of plumbing and electricity, vegetarian cooking, the joy of goats and some veterinarian tips that I, for one, didn't know about. In a revealing, endearing way, he examines his and his wife's reasons for becoming homesteaders.
If he had stuck to this approach throughout the book, instead of lapsing into venomous rancor about the encroaching city and maudlin sentimentally about saving the life of a house mouse, his book would have been a delightful recitation of the uplifting aspects of homesteading -- perhaps without much weight, but pleasing nonetheless.