Mowing Grass, Cutting Wood, and Other Wisdom From Helen and Scott Nearing

Methods of mowing grass and cutting wood without consuming fossil fuels were among the inquiries readers made of Helen and Scott Nearing in 1981.

067 Scott Nearing

Scott Nearing had advice for readers on effective means of cutting wood and mowing grass without using fossil fuels.


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The following are questions readers submitted to Helen and Scott Nearing in their regular column on homesteading.   

Q: I'd like to know how—in your efforts to avoid the use of unnecessary electrical and fossil-fueled machines—you manage to deal with two rather mundane chores: removing snow between your home and a plowed road, and mowing grass around the house. (I find the latter act to be necessary since an unmowed lawn attracts mosquitoes and, in the summer months, tall dry grass can present a fire hazard. It seems to me that a scythe and push mower could be used, but that would take a lot of time that could be spent on more pressing jobs.)  

Our new house is only 50 level feet from the town road, so it's easy to shovel a path by hand. And we have no lawn or meadows to bother with now, just woods behind the house and a view over the bay in front.

When we lived in our previous home, however, Scott worked out a way to cut his snow shoveling in half. We were situated atop an inclined road, a good 250 feet from the town highway. After snowstorms he simply shoveled this distance, by hand, in 20-foot units: clearing 20 feet, and then leaving 20 feet unshoveled. When going down the hill, the car would reach the unshoveled spaces with sufficient momentum to carry through the 20 feet of snow. And, once the trail was broken in that manner, the auto could get back up again without difficulty.

There were meadows and a small lawn around our old house. Scott scythed the high grass and considered it good morning exercise, and pushing a hand mower around the tiny handkerchief-sized lawn was no great chore for Helen.

Q: Do you use a chain saw for cutting wood, or have you found a crosscut adequate for the task? (I hate to own a fossil-fuel-burning tool if it isn't necessary! ) 

We had a chain saw in Vermont and bought a second one in Maine. In both cases, however, we gave them away because of the fumes, the vibration, and the noise. (And also because we enjoy handsaws.) We have three bow saws, ranging from 30" to 42" in length. (We've found the 42"-frame model to be clumsy unless two people are operating it.) At least three-quarters of our wood is sawed with the 30" bow saw, which is equipped with a thin, highly tempered Swedish "Sandvik" blade.

Q: Do you feel any moral qualms about destroying a living creature (a tree) that has a lifespan far greater than our own, simply to provide yourself with fuel ... or do you cut exclusively standing and fallen deadwood?  

When a tree has matured and starts to deteriorate, we clear it out and thus make room for new growth. We also cut down dead, ailing, and misshapen trees, and pick up some driftwood from the beach.

Yes, we do respect the life in a growing tree, and dislike cutting down such a beautiful being. Once, on a tree in a public park in Madrid, Spain, we saw a sign on which the following bit of wisdom was printed:

"I am the warmth of the hearth on cold winter nights. I am the shade screening you from the summer sun. My fruits and restoring drinks quench your thirst as you journey onward. I am the beam that holds your house, the door of your homestead, the bed on which you lie, and the timber that builds your boat. I am the handle of your hoe, the wood of your cradle, and the shell of your coffin."

Q: My husband and I plan to move to a homestead in northern Pennsylvania. This will be a new experience for us, and we'll be looking for leadership and guidance from experienced "pioneers" such as yourselves.  

 Could you supply us with a list—complete with mailing address and prices (including postage and handling costs)—of your publications, describing your years of gardening and homesteading? (I'm sure such information has probably appeared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS in the past, but we—and other new readers—would be grateful for an update! )  

Anyone who wants a list of all our available books can write us for a listing. Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope when you do.

Q: I live in Minnesota, at about the same latitude as your home in Maine, so I believe our winter weather conditions are similar. Currently, I'm helping a friend build a log cabin from scratch, and we're thinking about using stone and mortar to build up around the outside of the cabin. What's your opinion of this approach?  

Why not build originally with field stone and mortar? We wouldn't use anything else. Why try to apply a stone structure to a wooden building? We have built one log cabin, and felt it was not half as durable as our stone homes have been.

Q: We are two couples in our early 30's who agree with your view that cooperation is one of the keys to the future. Collectively, we are of moderate means, and we have several years of survival-skill building behind us. Last summer we jointly purchased 40 acres of land at a site which has good soil, available building materials, and an existing, livable dwelling.  

The four of us have spent the better part of a year working on partnership agreements and such. However, we don't know of many joint ventures of this kind that have succeeded. Could you provide us with some tips on how (and how not) to successfully maintain a cooperative relationship?  

Any collective effort will encounter difficulties unless the people involved are cooperators first and individuals second. However, most Americans have been taught, meticulously, to be individuals first and to put collective activities in a poor second place. (Indeed, we often consider group action to be the next thing to subversion.)

Therefore, your proposed collective endeavor has a strike or two against it from the start. Try to overcome the handicap by being certain that you have interests in common—organic gardening, building, music, crafts, etc.—and a mutually agreed-upon general philosophy of life. (It's no secret that religious experimental communities tend to survive much longer than do others.)

Know each other well, too. Living in close proximity with even the nicest people can result in a surprising number of hassles and petty irritations, which can be enough to rupture a relationship.

In short, be careful and consider well what you're attempting. And, above all and forever, be considerate and kind!