Guest post by Serena Tene
As soon as I walk into Siobhán Hanley’s large, comfortable kitchen, I can sense a lot about her and where her passions lie. This is the kitchen of someone playing, learning, and actively exploring what it means to be self-sufficient. At one end of the kitchen, three empty beehives are stacked up on the floor beside a large, stainless steel kettle used for brewing beer and a white tub filled with straw that Siobhán uses to grow oyster mushrooms. A tray of tall white bean and squash seedlings rests on a table (“I like to grow beans of different kinds, squash, and some corn to have the three sisters together,” she says) near a sprouting kit full of mung beans. A grain mill and a sizeable bag of cracked barley that is destined for the brew pot sit on a counter in a little nook.
I take in this happy scene of a well-lived in kitchen for a few minutes, and then Siobhán eagerly invites me to check out the trays of home-made, luscious-smelling soaps in the dining room. She also excitedly points out a big package that contains what will soon be a coop for three new chickens she’ll be raising. She opens her fridge and shows me the jelly she made with her own grapes. In a small cupboard, she stores her own dried oyster mushrooms and the hops she grows for the beer, along with other culinary and medicinal herbs.
I marvel at where Siobhán, a practicing lawyer for over thirty years, finds the time to do all these activities, but the drive and desire to learn various skills and explore self-sufficiency, nature, and healing have been with her for most of her life. When she was a nine-year-old growing up in England, she bred rabbits (“I only sold them for pets,” she says) in hutches that her father helped her build. As a teenager living in Edmonton, Alberta, Siobhán developed interests in holistic approaches to wellness, and she eventually studied yoga in Victoria, British Columbia, and trained as a massage therapist in Toronto, Ontario, before studying law in Nova Scotia.
But it was becoming a young single mother that deepened her commitment to becoming more self-sufficient. “All my choices were geared to having a young child at the time on my own,” she says. “Self-sufficiency was about putting principles and philosophy into practice. Finances played a role insofar as my budget was very limited. Therefore, it made sense to go to the whole foods store in Victoria, B.C., where I lived, and buy monthly supplies, out of which I could make bread and meals from staples. Having a garden was part of this; the joy of growing food and herbs, and the good health effects from every aspect of that.”
Fast-forward to a few years ago in Guelph, where Siobhán moved in 1989. It makes perfect sense that she was drawn to a poster or ad for Minga skills building workshops. She thinks she first took an artisanal cheese-making workshop, followed by workshops on making beer (she’s about to brew another batch, which explains the bag of milled barley), soap (“I loved making soap, I just thought it was wonderful” she says), and sourdough bread. Growing mushrooms was another long-term interest she pursued by taking a Minga workshop on cultivating oyster mushrooms.
I ask Siobhán what purpose skills building hubs like Minga serve, and what attracts her to taking these classes. Regarding soap-making, for instance, she doesn’t think she would have worked with lye without seeing how it was done properly in practice. “And anyway, I’d much rather go to a workshop with other people and enjoy the social experience than look at something online, though I do use the online resources subsequently,” she says. “Minga is a way of getting started in something. It’s a very efficient way of getting access to resources, information, and know-how in one day.”
Ultimately, it’s about living a good life and “the pure joy of successfully making and learning something,” she says. “When one is involved in these manual skills, the brain is working and solving problems in different ways. It’s like going on an unmapped journey. It gives me a sense of participating in life and life processes in a way that feels very good. Following instructions carefully, having respect for what has been done before, for knowledge, and being a willing and humble disciple open to new things, gives me a sense of being connected with life. It’s a feeling of complete satisfaction — emotional, physical, mental.”
Skills building centres fill gaps, she says, in a technological and sedentary society in which we are dependent upon others to make things which we are required to buy. They give people opportunities to learn skills that they are unlikely to learn anywhere else as each generation gets increasingly more disconnected from traditional skills. As we end our interview and I prepare to leave, Siobhán, who has been keeping bees on her property in Durham for around eight years, gifts me with a jar of luscious linden honey.