The following are questions readers submitted to Helen and Scott Nearing in their regular column on homesteading.
Building a Stone House
Q: We're making plans to build our own stone house. Can you tell us how to eliminate the problem of moisture that we have in our area? Also, are there any how-to books on this subject that you could recommend?
A: We built our home in Vermont when commercial insulation was unknown to us, so we left an inch of air space between the stone-and-concrete walls and the inside paneling. That house was never damp. Our dwelling here in Maine is protected by an inch and a hall of commercial insulation, which also effectively eliminates the problem.
We can recommend the following books on stone house building: The Owner-Builder's Guide to Stone Masonry by Ken Kern, Steve Magers, and Lou Penfield (Owner-Builder Publications, 1976) $6.00 ... How to Build a Low-Cost House of Stone by Lewis and Sharon Watson (Stonehouse, 1975) $5.95 ... Build Your Own Stone House Using the Easy Slipformed Method by Karl and Sue Schwenke (Garden Way, 1975) $5.95.
Q: Is there any way—short of building a wall—to keep marauding raccoons from devouring our sweet corn every year?
A: Even a stone wall doesn't keep out raccoons, simply because the masked animals climb about as cleverly as house cats. If they can't manage your walls, 'coons will clamber over the wooden gates. Only adequate electric wiring will keep the cunning rascals out. In fact, the persistent beasts have just about convinced us to give up on trying to grow corn. Though last year—with late planting—we managed to harvest a fair crop before the little marauders broke in.
On a friend's recommendation, we also tried a new method of discouraging such incursions. We covered the ground of the corn patch with masses of newspapers held down by handfuls of earth. The theory behind this scheme is that raccoons don't like to walk on paper and will avoid doing so even at the cost of a meal. It worked for a while, too, but the critters soon saw through our plan. Therefore, we can't recommend the procedure.
Work Day Length
Q: In Living the Good Life you said you've been able to devote an average of only four hours per day to "bread labor." Fantastic! But to what do you attribute this efficiency: engineering training, super-organizing, lack of middlemen ... or what?
A: This "work day" is the result of careful and economical planning, tending to business and the refusal to be distracted, and consistent minimizing of our own personal needs. But please remember that the four-hour figure is based on a year's average. Some days we have to labor longer, and at other times we don't work at all.
The Homesteader's Workout
Q: I know that just managing a farmstead can give a person quite a workout, but do you pursue any other forms of exercise on a regular basis?
A: Just follow us around for an ordinary working day and see if we're not more than adequately physically occupied. We shovel, fork, dig, bend, stretch, saw, chop, weed, pick, construct, hammer, mix, etc. We don't need any artificial calisthenics to keep us fit and supple in our 70's and 90's.
Q: Out here in the arid West, many farmers (including ourselves) have trouble with alkaline soils. Our earth also tends toward heavy clay, and those plants that we can get to grow remain stunted. Do you have any experience with—or suggestions on—how to deal with alkalinity?
A: We've had no experience with alkaline soil. Our Maine earth tends to be acid, and we treat it with ground limestone and wood ashes. We do, however, have a yellow clay subsoil, which we lighten with sand, sawdust, forest loam, and compost.
Q: Are you—or have you ever been—affiliated with any religious group?
A: Neither of us attends any church, unless it's for a concert or lecture. We don't feel the need for a preacher or priest to dictate our actions or morals. Instead, we've worked out a way of life for ourselves that we regard as both ethical and moral. Of course, our lifestyle isn't perfect, and we're continually tested and testing as problems arise. The main thing is, however, that we try in life to do as little harm and as much good as possible.
Natural Versus Synthetic
Q: How do you feel about synthetic materials? Do you use any, or do you only stick to natural fibers?
A: There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of fabric. Natural fibers can involve the exploitation of animals, if not their deaths. But — though we deplore the misuse of another living thing — we do use wool. Synthetic fibers, on the other hand, are not as pleasing to wear, but they're cheaper and nowadays readily available for most forms of clothing. Like most everyone else, we use some of both, but avoid leather in belts and shoes when we can.
Q: Common sense—plus all the material I've read on building with stone—says to build with clean rocks. However, the rock piles on all the old farms in my area are covered with mossy growth. So ... how do you clean a stone?
A: Concrete won't stick or set on mossy or dirty stones. Many of our rocks, therefore, come from the beach and have been washed clean by the tide. The rest are salvaged from old stone walls or from earth that has been disturbed by road crews. We do find a few rocks that are covered with mossy growth, and we scrub them clean with a wire brush.
Q: I have a great number of blueberries growing on my property. Is it possible to turn them into blueberry wine or brandy? If so, do you have a recipe that you like?
A: We regard alcoholic drinks as one of the most detrimental and dangerous substances In the present American diet. Needless to say, we offer no recipes for producing such drinks.