The following are questions readers submitted to Helen and Scott Nearing in their regular column on homesteading.
Q: Help please! How would you—being vegetarians—teach a youngster that a meatless diet is best, without causing him or her to lose faith in a schoolteacher who's instructing the class about the four basic food groups?
A: Which would you prefer: that your child have confidence in you and your chosen lifestyle, or in his or her schoolteacher, a person who may be pushing a way of thinking that represents values opposed to those you're trying to teach? All you can do is show your children the best way you know how to live, share that life with them, teach them to be considerate of every living thing ... and let them educate the teacher, if that's necessary.
Q: In Continuing the Good Life you mention the open-kettle canning of a tomato, celery, and onion mixture. All of the food preservation books that I've come across say that such a concoction should be put up by the pressure-canning method in order to avoid any possibility of botulism contamination. What are your comments on this?
A: We never pressure-can our homegrown food. For 40 years, Helen has put up hundreds of bottles of fruits and vegetables by the open-kettle method (which is by far the simplest way to can), and we've had no problems with food poisoning. Occasionally, of course (in perhaps one of a hundred jars), the contents will spoil because of inadequate closure, caused by a bad rubber seal or a cracked glass cover. The lids of such imperfect jars pop up to indicate the spoilage, and we dispose of the contents. However, it's very important to remember that the vegetables we can by the open-kettle method are always highly acidic. Low-acid foods, such as beans and corn, would require the high heat of pressure canning. Those foods we either freeze or dry.
Q: I'm interested in working with you next summer. You've previously mentioned that you see visitors from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. daily, but I'd like to know whether you ever take anyone on for a longer period of time, perhaps for a month or two, as part of an informal apprenticeship program?
A: We no longer have an apprenticeship program, even though—in the past—we have allowed groups of would-be homesteaders to work with us. However, we've found that doing so requires a good deal of time and organization, as well as a great number of extra tools, if the program is to operate to the satisfaction of all involved. And now that Scott's in his 90's and Helen in her 70's, we feel it's time to pull in our horns a bit. We garden on only four acres at present, tend our own wood supply, and do a moderate amount of building on our site. All of these tasks are easily completed without outside help.
Q: Last spring we moved from the mountains of Wyoming (where cultivating a productive garden plot was all but impossible) to the warm Colorado plains, and I had visions of growing a wide variety of vegetables at our new home. Well, this year's backyard plot flourished, but then—come midsummer—grasshoppers began eating everything in sight. We didn't want to use chemicals on the garden, so we tried spraying the voracious insects with solutions of hot peppers, onions, and soap—to name just a few—but the pests seemed to thrive on our homemade infusions. Now I don't mind feeding a few bugs, but by season's end the invaders had harvested more of our produce than we had!
Q:Have you ever faced a similar problem, or do you have any suggestions on how we can battle the hoppers next year so we'll have a successful garden?
A: We've never undergone a siege of insects such as you describe. We have had more grasshoppers around this year than ever before, but they're in no way devastating the garden. By moving from the mountains to the plains, of course, you've changed from one climatic belt to another, thereby subjecting your garden to the "new" pests that thrive in the warmer temperatures.
If your homemade sprays don't take care of the grasshopper problem next year, you might try covering the entire growing ground with a fine mesh nylon net, as we did with our plantation of 200 cultivated blueberries when birds began to devour the delectable crop.
Q: Do you feel that it's important for homesteaders to have a spiritual connection with the world around them? If so, what do you do in order to nurture your spiritual life?
A: In every life relationship there are physical, mental, and spiritual concerns, and we believe that it's important for each person—whether homesteader or city dweller—to recognize such obligations and to deal with them accordingly. For our part, we meditate and dedicate ourselves daily to living in harmony with nature, humanity, and the cosmos.
Q: I'd like to know if you recommend saving your own vegetable seed.
A: No, we feel that seed selection is too highly specialized for the average homesteader to tackle. Furthermore, on a simply practical scale, the space which would be required in order to produce one's own seed would probably be wasteful in relation to the small quantity needed. For instance, a pinch or two of lettuce seed is all we use to grow our year's supply of the salad fixings. It would be extremely inefficient for a land-limited gardener to devote yards of growing space to plants that are merely going to seed.
Q: I realize that both of you have been extremely active in the concerns of your community, and you've obviously tried, through your publications, to share your views with other people. Do you feel, then, that it's morally wrong for homesteaders to run from the complicated problems of the "real" world by living in isolation and hiding their heads in organic soil?
A: The "real" world is not exclusively the world of the city, nor is it found solely in nature, books, or art. The real world is the world within us and around us, wherever we are.
It is important for the homesteader who seeks a fulfilling life for others, as well as for him- or herself, to keep in touch with current happenings in the world. Back-to-the-landers need not "cop out" when going to the country to live, but rather they can, and should, be aware of as much of the sum total of existence as is possible.