Letter From Arkansas: Homesteading Tips

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ILLUSTRATION: FOTOLIA/KLARA VISKOVA
Veteran homesteaders advise mixing the best of the past and present to achieve your dream of a bucolic, cozy homestead.

Dear MOTHER EARTH NEWS:

I must tear myself away from reading long enough to
acknowledge receipt of the back issues. What wonderful
material … and to think that right away I see letters
from neighbors: Eureka Springs, West Fork, Bentonville,
even Fayetteville and several other Arkansas places I’ve
visited. Howdy, y’all! (This is wonderful country. I’ve
been from coast to coast and border to border and found but
one place that I like as well.)

MOTHER EARTH NEWS has brought me so much enjoyment and recalled so
many memories that I’d like to say a first-installment
“thank you” by sharing an experience or so.

I’ve had more than a passing acquaintance with so many
things in my lifetime that I might be able to help others
in difficulties they may meet. I’ve been a city gal,
schoolmarm (nationally honored), farmer’s wife, farmer,
mother, VISTA teacher. Now that I’m
retired–again–I’m a garden and flower
specialist with several sidelines belonging to my various
careers.

It’s because of my own experience that the temerity of so
many–who seem to think they can go practically
empty-handed and moneyless back to the land and live
comfortably through hard work and their love of the
countryside (“The pioneers did it, so can
we!”)–simply amazes me!

Believe me, I wouldn’t for one minute want to lessen the
enthusiasm or weaken the ambition of sincere young people
… but–if you’re one of them–I’d like you to
go into the great experiment with your eyes open, your head
alert, and your feet planted solidly on the earth so that
you won’t become disappointed and heartbroken. There is
another and better way, and if you’re interested I’ll provide some homesteading tips. In the meantime let your wanderings include a
questioning walk through a pioneer cemetery. Look at the
markers and ask yourself, “Why?”

In that graveyard you’ll find the headstone of John Doe,
65, 70, or even 80 years of age, and beside him memorials to
his beloved wives Jane (23), Anne (30) and perhaps even
Mary (50). Alongside, in the same section, there’ll be rows
of little graves of children aged one month to two or three
years. That’s the price the pioneers paid for our heritage.

“Oh, but it can’t happen today,” you say. Believe me, it
can, if you insist on doing everything the way our
ancestors had to do it. Country life doesn’t have to work
out like that, but I’ve seen just such misfortunes.

Along with the word “organic” we must keep in our
vocabulary such concepts as moderation, reason,
consideration, cooperation, self-respect, self-sufficiency,
and many others–like good judgment–which make for a
complete, fulfilled life. (Notice how few of these words
show up in your letters.) As for you more mature-minded
folks who sincerely want a satisfying lifestyle of reviving
and restoring nature, let’s hope you’ll save the best of
the past, use the best of the present, and build a future
that we can honor and respect.

Now to a few practical points: One of the first things
you’ll need after you find that little wooded farm is a big
black iron kettle–set up not too far from your spring
or well and downhill from it–and a three or
four inch stirring paddle. You’ll have dozens of uses for
this tool besides making hominy, rendering fat for food or
soap, and heating the laundry water. Do make a cover for
your kettle … it’s heavy to empty when it fills with
rain.

Another hint: Did you know that wheat will pop, and so will
milo and kafir? You need an iron skillet which will keep
the heat steady and not get too hot too soon. Take wheat of
a good grade (fanned clean, so it won’t stick and burn),
spread a relatively thin layer in the hot pan and keep
stirring. The grains will brown like toast and double in
size. You can hear the kernels pop, although they don’t
burst open. The aroma is delightful and the taste while
warm is to regular wheat as that of toast is to bread.
Then, if you grind the grain and recook it like any wheat
breakfast food, you’ll enjoy a second surprise.

Another way I’ve used wheat is to soak it several hours in
at least double its bulk of water, bring it to a boil, and
cook it slowly for about an hour. Then add rice in
proportion to take up the excess fluid and simmer the
cereals until they’re tender. Finally, stir in raisins. Eat
the mixture as soon as it’s cool enough. It can be reheated
in a double boiler, but my family seldom left that much.

Here’s an idea which we’re using in the third generation
… one that you backpackers might find useful: Put a large
package of “quick cook” oatmeal in a big dishpan, add two
or three pounds of raisins and a package of dates–
chopped–and mix these ingredients thoroughly. Then
prepare a heavy syrup of Karo and sugar or molasses as if
you were going to make popcorn balls. When it has reached
the right degree of stickiness to hold the mix together,
add it to the oatmeal, stir (and work fast). Then grease
your hands and make the stuff into cookies. They’ll keep as
long as you let them, and should be wrapped individually to
keep them from sticking together.

Speaking of sweets, Kihi Mick wrote in MOTHER EARTH NEWS about
trouble in making cane syrup … but the letter didn’t tell
enough about how he was doing it for us to be able to help.
I wonder if he knows that he must plant “ribbon cane” seed,
that the crop must be headed and stripped (leaves taken
off) and the stalks left for several days to mature. Then
the stems must be cut and ground, and the juice pressed out
and boiled in a shallow pan (for faster evaporation) until
it reaches the desired consistency. I’ve seen it done many
times but never did it myself.

Thanks again, and best wishes to all MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ readers.

Myrtle Cress
Fayetteville, Arkansas