Raising Children, Homesteading Books, and Other Wisdom From Helen and Scott Nearing

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Scott Nearing meets a visitor.

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

Q: Do you think raising children in a “homestead lifestyle” during these difficult times is a good idea? We’ve tried both communal living and alternate educational systems, and haven’t found either to be particularly helpful.

A: Children can readily adapt to—and participate into—a day’s homestead life. Young people should be called upon to contribute to the household, and to enjoy doing so. Keep them away from television, and much in the company of their peers. If you enjoy what you’re doing, your children will enjoy sharing in your work.

Q: My wife and I are just about ready to “make our move” to the country. We have been spending our weekends (we both work in the city right now) building a house and clearing enough land to plant our first garden. We would be very pleased if you would share with us your personal choices for a small library of homesteading books.

A: I got carried away looking through our library to answer your question! Here’s a list of more than twenty that we’ve used and enjoyed:

Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins (Houghton Mifflin, 1977).

Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe (Ballantine, 1975).

Nature’s Children by Juliette de BairacllLevy (Schocken, 1971).

Herbal Handbook for Everyone by Juliette de Bairacli Levy (Branford, 1988).

Grow It! by Richard W. Langer (Saturday Review Press, 1972).

The Complete Book of Composting by J.1. Rodale (Rodale Books, 1980).

Gardening for Independence by Barbara and Mort Mather (Durrell,1978).

Food, Farming, and the Future by Friend Sykes (Rodale Books, 1951).

Companion Plants by Richard Gregg and Helen Philbrick (Devin-Adair, 1900).

The New Pioneer’s Handbook by James Bohlen (Schocken, 1975).

Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss (Woodbridge, 1975).

More Than Land by Heman Chase (Bauhan,1975) .

Developing Farm Woodlands by John Frederick Preston (McGraw-Hill, 1954).

Plowman’s Folly by Edward H. Faulkner (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974).

Nutrition and the Soil by Lionel James Picton (Devin-Adair, 1948).

The Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard (Schocken, 1972).

Eating for Life by Nathaniel Altman (Theosophical Publishing House, 1978).

Talk to Your Plants by Jerry Baker (Pocket Books, 1974).

Gardening Without Poisons by Beatrice Trum Hunter (Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

Living Better on Less by Patrick Rivers (Turnatone Books, 1977).

The Owner-Built Homestead by Barbara and Ken Kern (Scribner, 1977).

The Owner-Builder and the Code by Ken Kern (Owner-Builder Publications, 1978).

The Manual of Practical Homesteading by John Vivian (Rodale, 1975).

(And, if I may mention our own books as well ….)

Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing (Schocken, 1970).

The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing (Schocken, 1970).

Our Sun-Heated Greenhouse by Helen and Scott Nearing (Garden Way, 1977).

Q: Do you raise any or all of the grain that you consume? If so, what grain cultivation methods do you use? We raise no grain except green corn. Our growing season is too short for cereal grains, and even if we could ripen the crop, we lack the harvesting and processing facilities we’d need to make grain growing profitable.

When I first read Living the Good Life I was especially impressed by the thoroughness of your planning … particularly in the layout and upkeep of your gardens.

Ever since then I’ve wished that I could get a peek at your garden planning book. Do you keep such a record (surely you must) and could you give us an idea of its basic design and layout?

A: Our “garden book” is a loose-leaf affair that is divided into sections according to use. For instance, we have one “chapter” which is devoted exclusively to our twenty-odd compost heaps and sod piles. This section covers the “life” of each heap: when it was begun, the date when we began use of its contents, and whether that particular compost was acid or alkaline.

The main body of the book lists a row-by-row and bed-by-bed record of all of our gardens: types and names of plants grown, sources of the various seeds, the planting dates, and records of maturation and harvest, with recommendations for the future.

Q: Could you please tell me the most effective method of attracting earthworms to a piece of land (it is heavily laced with clay) that they now avoid almost completely?

A: You’re going to have to lighten up that clay by adding something to it. Sand will lighten clay soil, as will sawdust, but compost is the single most important agency for breaking up clay.

Our present Maine garden has a subsoil of yellow clay that we’ve been working on for 25 years. Thanks primarily to the use of large amounts of compost, that soil now has a high humus content and can be worked after an ordinary rain without sticking to our tools.

Q: Is a stone wall strong enough to use underground? Can it withstand the pressure and movement of the surrounding earth?

A: A loose stone wall would not be particularly effective. Our basement walls are built with forms filled with a well-tamped aggregate of clean stones and a lean mixture of sticky concrete.

Q: I’ve enjoyed many of your helpful and inspirational writings and books. You folks have affected my life and I appreciate your willingness to share. Now, as silly as it may sound, I’m interested in knowing how you wash your clothes since I’m concerned about both the economic and ecological impact of our three-person family’s wash.

A: Laundry has never been a problem for us. When we lived in Vermont I washed everything in the kitchen sink after heating the water on our wood stove. Now, 28 years later, I’m still doing it the same way. I do, when we have exceptionally heavy and dirty articles, go to the launderette. In all cases, of course, I use good old soap powder and never detergents.

Q: A lot of “city folk” seem to be going back to the land these days. Our family has been considering this, and we are saving money, but we know that the change will be enormous and isn’t to be taken lightly. Can you suggest any sort of preparatory activity or training that might help us to “make it,” should we decide to try our hands at a simpler lifestyle?

A: We recognize the difficulty and suggest that, while you’re still in the city, you carefully read all the descriptions of homesteading that you can find in book or article form (including our own book, Living the Good Life). Then, when you do take the step from city to country life, pick a district that you like, rent or buy a house there, find a likely neighbor or family in your new location, and “apprentice” yourselves to them for a period of time—even as much as a year. Take part in their work, learn their skills, and look upon this period as a valuable educational experience. At the same time, put what you learn into practice on your newly acquired property.

Q: Your books and articles have made you quite well known. Do you receive a lot of “fan mail”? If so, how much of this correspondence are you able to answer, and how do you budget your time to handle this task?

A: Yes, we do receive a lot of mail, and we try to answer all of it as promptly as possible. We either find or make the time, and often write our letters early in the morning, before we get involved in our own work. We accept this chore as an obligation which we should fulfill as one of our contributions to the burgeoning homestead movement.

Incidentally, we have kept all of these letters (boxes of ’em) that relate to homesteading—including the requests to visit and participate in our work—and have filed them alphabetically, noting the interest, age, and geographic location of the sender. Someday this collection may prove to be a gold mine for some Ph. D candidate’s thesis.

Q: Do you ever make use of any of the “wild foods” that grow on your homestead? If so, could you give me a partial list of those that you find most useful?

A: We generally find it easier and more convenient to raise our food in the garden rather than forage for it in the wilds. We are gardeners, not Euell Gibbonites. We do, however, dig dandelions out of our lawn when they’re at the right stage, and we greatly relish lamb’s-quarters, a prolific weed.

Q: I have a regular infestation of small rabbits in my garden. Last year I vowed to just “plant enough for all of us,” but the bunnies have increased in number and are taking too large a share. Fences don’t seem to faze them. Any suggestions? I can’t bring myself to kill the little things.

A: You’re right, ordinary fences won’t stop them. We keep all wild animals (and dogs) out of our gardens with a five-foot stone wall which we built ourselves. The wall’s foundation is three feet deep — to resist frost heaves — and the structure successfully thwarts burrowers, keeps out witch grass and other weeds, and even confounds slugs (they get tired trying to climb it).

Q: We have had poor results from our attempts to transplant wild berries (from neighboring woods and streams) onto our land. Blackberries and salmonberries have been particularly difficult … they either die or remain stunted for long periods. Could you give us some tips on what time of year to transplant these berries, and perhaps on transplanting techniques in general?

A: Why transplant wild berries? Why not just leave them in their natural habitat and pick them there? Mankind has spent centuries cultivating and breeding various wild fruits, and the result of that work is an extensive variety of domesticated berries and the like, available in western countries. We realize that these may lack the tang of their wild cousins, but they do give a greater yield and are available in far more varieties than nature alone can equal. Don’t get too caught up in the “nature thing.” Why not grow good berries in your own garden, under your own control, and pick the wild ones in the woods at the same time?

Q: Do you folks ever use “games” or any sort of evening social activities? We would be especially interested in activities that can be shared by two people and that have some educational value.

A: We don’t play indoor or outdoor games. (Quite aside from being too old for many of them, we never did dissipate our energies in that way. An acquaintance once asked Scott to play miniature golf with him, whereupon Scott replied, “When I’m physically incompetent I’ll play golf … and when I’m mentally incompetent I’ll play miniature golf.” We’re not yet either physically or mentally incompetent, so we don’t play games.) We have no TV or radio, but we do have a large collection of fine phonograph records, and an extensive library of both contemporary books and classics. In the evenings we usually read aloud to each other or listen to good music that we’ve chosen. We might shell beans or sort potatoes or apples, or do some knitting or darning, or work on the next day’s soup while we listen to get something constructive done. And every Sunday evening we play fine records while watching the sun set over the water in front of our house.

Q: We will be settling a good three hours from any sort of professional medical help. Our research (and advice) about the sort of “homestead medicine chest” we should carry has been largely contradictory. We would very much appreciate your suggestions.

A: We have no medicine chest as such. We do not believe in medications, and prefer to eat the right foods in place of such things. We also fast one day a week, and occasionally for longer periods during the year, to preserve our health. Along with the medicinal effects of good food, we advocate fresh air, sunshine, hard outdoor work, and periods of relaxation. We do keep Band-Aids handy (and bandaging) for binding wounds in addition to tweezers for splinters, rubbing alcohol for foot (and other) massages, and an aloe plant and comfrey leaves for poultices.

Q: Our new homestead is wonderful, but we were unlucky enough to settle in during a particularly bad “tick year.” This isn’t a real problem (aside from the Rocky Mountain spotted fever possibilities) of course—we just check the children and animals at night (or whenever they come in from the woods or fields)—but do you know of some method of keeping these pests away from stock and humans?

A: As far as we know there are no ticks in our neighborhood, nor were there any in Vermont during our sojourn there, so we’ve had no experience with them. We have been told, however, that rubbing alcohol, kerosene, or turpentine will kill the pests. You simply take a small bottle of one of these liquids, turn it up over the tick spot (holding the mouth of the bottle tight against the skin), and the tick will drown. It’s then quite easy to pick the parasite off.

Q: I don’t mean to sound trite, but most of the marriages that I’ve known (those of friends, relatives, and one of my own) since I’ve reached adulthood have fallen apart in the first few years. Could you tell me anything that you’ve learned about successfully living with another person? I suspect that it’s a vanishing skill.

A: First, there must be an area of common interest. Within that area, there should be the widest possible range of activities in which all members of the family can participate while giving each other both mutual respect and mutual aid. Each person must be considerate of the other’s failings, idiosyncrasies, and divergencies, and both partners should have free time to be on their own. Each party, furthermore, should be sufficiently independent (financially) of the other to be able to carry out his or her own personally chosen interests. Of course love, added to all of this, would be nice too.