Meatless Diet, Open Kettle Canning, and Other Wisdom From Helen and Scott Nearing

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Scott Nearing (seated here with a visitor) was a vegetarian and encouraged parents who shared that orientation to teach their children the value of a meatless diet. 

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.