Growing Up Off-Grid: Interview with a Traditional Skills Pioneer


This article was produced from a 2019 interview with Renee, a 57-year-old retired librarian and knowledge manager, and married mom of two adult sons who lives 12 miles south of the state capital in Warren County, Iowa. As Renee will tell it, she “was raised with MOTHER EARTH NEWS.” And while she doesn’t claim to be an expert, but rather someone that learned and utilized information from the magazine from an early age, she’s used all the skills she learned through the years. “I still ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’, Renee says, and brings her feelings of blessed happiness into daily reading, weeding, crafting, and cultivation of the simple life.

The beginning and a catalyst for the way I was raised was the marriage of two people with five kids with a one-income family who needed to figure it out. My mom and stepdad were city-raised but going back one generation further, and it’s the farm.

The credo for my family was use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. We moved to a 3.7-acre homestead, with the vision of being self sustaining. It met all the requirements that my parents were looking for: It was rough and wild and a good price with well water deep on the Jordon aquifer. Running water on the land. Dead wood and living trees. A house with three bedrooms and one bath and a double basement.

Reflections on Firewood

In the ensuing years, we cleared the brush and dead wood to stoke and feed the wood-burning furnace.  Some days, it was so hot inside we sweat. My parents learned about what wood burned best and hottest.

They bartered with other farmers in the area to clear the dead fall for the hauled-away wood.  My dad made a log splitter, and in August after the hay was put up we, would start the wood brigade. Pickup truckloads of wood carried, split, and stacked — one year we did 11 cords! We always kept the wood pile about 50 yards from the house to discourage critters and bugs. Every night after chores, we all carried a large arm-full to the house. Mom preferred apple wood, but my dad liked the walnut and other hardwoods.

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