Recently in the Doylestown bookstore and Terrain Garden Center, I noticed quite a few books on homesteading. And now the January-February issue of ” Yankee” magazine has a large feature, “A Guide to Simple Living: a More Handmade Life” — homesteading. Farmers make their living raising one or more crops. The homesteader raises, grows, makes for family. The Yankee Guide provides brief descriptions about where in New England you can take cheese or bread making lessons, learn to raise or butcher animals, preserving and canning, basic carpentry, gardening. Want to learn spinning and weaving, open hearth cooking, bee keeping.
The current interest in a simpler, rural, self sufficient life echoes the “back to the earth” movement, communal living, trendy in the 1970s. Armed with a copy of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” drop outs from the New Left political movement of the 1960s, followed Helen and Scott Nearing back to the earth. Was it the future?
Stewart Brand was the founder of the first 1968 “Whole Earth Catalog.” It was basically short articles with addresses, access to tools and ideas, a complete guide to homesteading. A catalog of catalogs. Today you can follow “Whole Earth” on Twitter and show support by purchasing books and other items through their Amazon account.
Helen and Scott Nearing were the grandparents of the back to earth movement. Scott had been an Economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, fired because of his socialism. He and Helen bought property in Vermont during the 1930s. They were classic homesteaders — gardeners, vegetarians, intellectuals, pacifists. They became the gurus of the back to earth movement.
In in the early 1970s while Diane and I were living (homesteading) with John and Barbara Paglione in New Hope, we read the Nearings — “The Maple Syrup Book” and “Living the Good Life.” I wrote them asking if we could visit. In the 1950s when the ski industry began to transform Vermont, the Nearings sold and moved to Blue Hill peninsula in Maine (just south of Arcadia National Park). My letter was answered positively and with my father in tow we piled into two VWs and headed to Maine.
When we arrived at the Nearings they were repairing some blueberry nets. Several visitors sat in a circle with them. Most visitors arrived unannounced, some camped out, a few even bought nearby property. In Maine, blueberries were the cash crop (it was maple syrup in Vermont). Homesteaders aren’t totally self- sufficient — trading is common but money may be needed for some things — gasoline, coffee.
Scott was extremely friendly, we piled into an old pick up and drove to the shore, collected seaweed for mulch, stacked some long cut poles that would be used for kindling (“warms you twice, cutting and stacking and later burning” Scott told us). Next we tourned the new house under construction — labor provided by the Nearings (Scott was in his 90s; Helen was younger and not as friendly) and volunteers who came and stayed days, a week, months.
In the 1970s, in New Hope we rented a house on Old York Road for 4 years. In the summer John and I worked on local farms (another story). We had a large garden growing and canning enough tomatoes for the year. We canned some other vegetables, made sauerkraut and pickles. We bought corn — 100 ears to a sack — and froze it. Bushels of apples from Jerico orchard were turned into apple sauce. Beef was 1/2 a cow from a slaughter house butchered into various cuts. Milk was raw and eggs were fresh from the farms where we worked. Chickens — broilers and fryers — from small freezers in a local farm house basement. We made our wine and a crude beer. Apple peels were fermented into a apple wine. Bread was home baked. We were at least on our way to true homesteading.
But in 1975 our small intentional household dissolved. John and Barbara headed to Ann Arbor — graduate school for John. We lived briefly in Bristol and then bought our house in Yardley. Much of the live simply, hand made, rural style disappeared from our life. Graduate school, school administration, teaching, raising a daughter, local politics took precedence.
About ten years ago we began to return to some of the basics. Our garden got bigger — past few years, I harvested over 300 pounds of tomatoes, many heritage, canning returned. I freeze peppers and zucchini, make sauerkraut and pickles, various relishes and salsa. In the fall I make applesauce and apple butter. Peach butter is another favorite. This summer we picked 10 pounds of wild raspberries — pies and preserves. We buy several types of pumpkins to make pies and soup and freeze some in 2 cup bags to use off season. Have experimented with pickled asparagus and green beans. This year the garden got even bigger. We have some perennials — rhubarb, asparagus, raspberries, sorrel. For two years I planted a Fall crop harvesting lettuce and other greens in early December.
I bake quite a bit of our bread, biscuits, and desserts. Took a rye bread class at King Arthur Flour Baking School in Vermont. Diane took a cheese making class and we both took a one day “fun”class in Deerfield, MA in open hearth cooking. About a year ago I discovered the Farm Cooking School in Stockton, NJ. I’ve been there for a beer- centric dinner and a class in cooking with peppers. For Christmas, I gave Diane a gift certificate for a class. Eli has been there for one class and both he and Viv will go to a pizza making class in January.
About 3 weeks ago John Paglione tasted his first home brew since we made beer in the 1970s. Much more sophisticated today. I’ve been wanting to try some beer and wine making for several years. Jenny turned me in a slightly different direction. My gift from the Kwaits was a Kombacha kit, bottles and a recipe book. Beer and wine will have to wait.
Most of our “homesteading” has been limited and related to food. But it does express values we believe. And we may continue to experiment. Diane has expressed an interest in knitting. And I enjoy (not sure I have the will and energy) woodworking — I did make a few pieces of furniture in the 1980s and recently inherited some of my father’s tools. We buy frequently from crafts people. And have used the wood stove more frequently– heat as well as atmosphere.
I don’t plan on abandoning technology. I’m writing now on an I-Pad. And will continue to use a computer, drive a car, buy kitchen gadgets, and carry a cell phone. But when possible I will try to simplify, become involved in the process of creating, making. It may not be real homesteading; but maybe there is a need for a new designation, a new word. What do I call this hybrid lifestyle I would like to develop?