Helen and Scott Nearing: Wild Versus Garden Produce, Commercial Pesticides and Home-Schooled Children

Helen and Scott Nearing provide homesteading advice on building from local materials, wild versus garden produce, commercial pesticides for safe compost use and socializing home-schooled children.

Helen and Scott Nearing column

Helen and Scott Nearing are light-years ahead of most of us when it comes to living a life of voluntary simplicity in harmony with nature.


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Helen and Scott Nearing share their homesteading advice with MOTHER's readers, including wild versus garden produce, commercial pesticides for composting and how to socialize home-schooled children. 

Helen and Scott Nearing are light-years ahead of most of us when it comes to living a life of voluntary simplicity in harmony with nature. Back in 1932 they began homesteading a run-down farm in Vermont's Green Mountains, and later — when the slopes around them exploded into ski resorts in the early 50's — Helen and Scott moved to a rocky inlet on the Maine coast. . . and started all over again. 

That's where you'll find the Nearings today: They're still clearing brush, still building the stone structures they're famous for, and still raising most of their vegetarian diet themselves in productive wholistic gardens . . . just as they've been doing for 50 years.  

Naturally, the Nearings have learned a good deal about homesteading over the years . . . and they've agreed to share that knowledge with MOTHER's readers in a regular question-and-answer column. Send your queries about self-reliant living on the land to Helen and Scott Nearing, THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS ®, Hendersonville, North Carolina. Please don't expect personal replies, though. The most frequently asked questions will be answered here — and here only — so that we can all benefit from what the Nearings have to say.  

My wife and I plan to build our home from locally available materials . . . and we feel that a wood and stone building would best meet our requirements. We'd like to construct the dwelling under our own steam, too . . . but so far we've been able to find only limited information about appropriate hand tools (it seems they've all been replaced by gas- and electricity-powered implements). At the present time our only tools are a small wheelbarrow, a hammer, and a couple of wrenches and screwdrivers. We'd like to know which hand tools were especially useful in the construction of your home, and which (if any) power tools were essential. We'd appreciate, too, learning what particular brands or suppliers of high-quality hand tools, for both construction and gardening, you might recommend.  

Every job requires specific equipment, and constructing a home is no exception. For a start, though, you'll find that shovels, handsaws, garden forks, hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, and axes will be useful for a variety of homesteading chores ... including building a house. As for power tools, when putting up our first dwelling, we had both a saw and a cement mixer that were gasoline operated. However, these were soon replaced by hand implements, as we felt that the power tools were too dangerous to use, and we found them extremely noisy. The quietness and slower, more natural rhythm of working with hand tools far outweigh the convenience of power equipment. Our latest building venture — which extended over three years — included a five-room house, a garage, a workshop, and a storage area . . . all of which were constructed by hand and built of stone and concrete.

In answer to your last question, most of our tools were purchased so long ago (some of them are 50 years old) that the trade names have long since disappeared from the handles and blades. We'd suggest looking in woodworking and gardening magazines for suppliers. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Here are two sources of quality hand-powered implements: Smith & Hawken Tool Co. (Dept. TMEN, Palo Alto, California) . . . and By Hand & Foot, Ltd. (Dept. TMEN, Brattleboro, Vermont). Write for free catalogs.] 

My mate and I like to forage for wild edibles, as doing so enables us to enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of the out-of-doors and provides us with a variety of free meals. We were wondering whether you prefer wild versus garden produce with the practice of gathering wild foods is an important part of your lifestyle . . . or do you prefer to depend entirely on "tame" garden produce?  

We forage for wild crops only occasionally, as our self-contained garden yields us plenty of fruits and vegetables for the year. Rather than traipse through the woods in search of various herbs and edible weeds, we find it easier to raise some "wild" crops right in our own plot. Dandelions, for example, can be cut from the lawn . . . but we also plant a row of the greens in the garden. And although we do pick sorrel and chamomile when we happen to discover them growing wild, we cultivate the plants, as well. The same holds true for blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries: We gather the delectable wild fruits wherever they're found . . . but we grow tame berries within our garden walls, too.

I've been following a vegetarian lifestyle for the past two years and — largely as a result of my desire to consume only pesticide-free food — I've become interested in French intensive gardening. Furthermore, because composting naturally goes hand in hand with growing vegetables, one of my recent projects was to build up a sizable pile of decomposing material.  

Being short on vegetable matter, I contacted the local grocery store and worked out a deal whereby I receive all the store's rotten produce. However, after layering a month's worth of the humus-to-be in a blanket of dirt and leaves, it crossed my mind that the vegetables supplied to the store were probably sprayed with pesticides . . . and that as a result the waste might not be suitable for composting.  

Do you know whether commercial insecticides will break down sufficiently to be safe in a compost pile?  

We've never lived close enough to a restaurant or supermarket to have the chance of using throwaways . . . so we haven't dealt with a situation like yours. We'd suggest, however, that you mix the store-gathered vegetable matter with your own homegrown leafage and weeds in order to dilute the concentration of possible poisons in your compost pile. Adding on layers of well. decayed leaves should also decrease the proportion of impurities in the organic matter. And be sure to let your pile heat up sufficiently — reaching at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit — to help destroy detrimental organisms that may infest the supermarket leftovers.

I realize that you haven't had to deal with this specific problem . . . nevertheless I'd like to have your comments.  

We are a family of five living on 14 acres in rural western Quebec. Some time ago we decided to teach our children at home, since my husband and I feel that removing our youngsters from the mediocre quality of education found in the public school system is perfectly consistent with our goal of living a simple, honest, self-reliant life. We are a bit concerned, however, with the troublesome issue of socializing. We're afraid that the decision not to send our children to the local school could, perhaps, remove us from "social acceptance" in the community . . . and as a result, our youngsters might well suffer for our beliefs.  

We assume (from reading the chapter on "Living in a Community" in your book Living the Good Life ) that — in a similar situation — you wouldn't simply adopt an isolationist stance. What are your thoughts on this subject?  

Social acceptance was never a concern of ours . . . and we'd like to believe that most other mature adults would be firm enough in their own convictions to stand up for what they believe in, even if doing so meant running against the norm. Children, however, are — in general — quite concerned with the opinions of their peers. We would hope that, were we in your situation, we'd be able to influence our youngsters to see beyond that . . . by formulating our own family standards and living up to what we believe is right. Moreover, we feel that a bout with social acceptability now and then isn't always a bad experience . . . on the contrary, it can be a valuable lesson for both young and old!