On the homestead, spring is a flurry of activity. The garden is woken up, quilts are aired out, lambs and kids take their first, unsteady steps, and fences get mended. The summer is full of grit, toughing it out through the hottest days and long daylight until we finally sit, weary on the porch, watching the fireflies dance. Autumn is a hurry of shutting things down, putting up food, filling the hayloft, butchering, threshing, and glancing askance at the dark clouds on the horizon.
And then comes winter. Even though there’s plenty left to do, there’s no denying the long, still pause that falls over the land as the sky darkens around 4:30 pm, trees stand stark and bare, and the animals just hunker down in their warm barn, waiting for the cold to pass.
With the long, dark night, the cozy warmth of the woodstove, and the comfort of breads and pies baking in the oven, it’s time to pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea, and finally take some time to read a book. After all the hard work we’ve done all year, I’d say we’ve earned it!
Here are some recommended books, then, to accompany you by the fireside. Whether you’re looking for a good story, a new hobby, some encouragement to keep at your homestead dreams, or just want to learn from the past, I bet anyone can find something here to enjoy. You may be able to find these books at your local library. If yours is an endearingly small, rural establishment that can’t possibly hold all the books you’d hope it could, however, check out the link given at the end of each recommendation; if it’s available on the immensely useful site, Archive.org, it’ll take you to an online copy of the book that is free to borrow and read. Otherwise, we’ve linked to where you can purchase the book.
Farmer Takes A Wife, by John Gould
The basic premise of this autobiographical story is simple: a farmer marries his city-born love, then brings her back to the family farm where she joyfully sets to “naturalizing” herself into the rural setting of 1940s Maine. Reading this book is like swiping the whipped cream off of a fresh-baked, pumpkin pie: sweet, slightly fluffy, and very easy to like. The author uses some clever turns of phrase that carry a subtle humor that is completely absent in today’s often dull, one-dimensional writing. The bulk of the story is also is full of unforgettable anecdotes about his local yokels, the lore of the Maine countryside, and surprisingly insightful observations about humans in general.
Furthermore, as a book published in 1946, it is unsurprisingly (and somewhat refreshingly) absent of modern identity politics and our new fascination of mining for things to cancel. The eponymous farmer’s wife is very, truly happy to be a farmer’s wife and to learn all the feminine skills of her new, vitally important role in the kitchen of her farmhouse (I particularly enjoy the farmer’s tribute to his wife’s elegant pie-crusts and their willfully wasteful “economy” of heating up the whole wood-fired oven for a single apple pie). If this book offends you, perhaps a break from the hamster wheel of the 24-hour news cycle to bake a scratch apple pie of your own would change your point of view.
American Yesterday, by Eric Sloane
Choosing just one of the many excellent books in Eric Sloane’s repertoire is next to impossible, but I covered my eyes, pointed, and picked one. I hope it whets your appetite to seek out more of the endearingly and meticulously illustrated books by this historical and artistic curmudgeon. Sloan is the grumpy grandpa we all want to hear stories from, propping his feet up by the woodstove, cracking nuts, and telling stories of the days like they “use’ta be.”
And reading American Yesterday is a great place to start—this is no dry historical tome. It’s an illustrated, deeply insightful look into what this country once was without deviating into bland, nostalgic adoration or sensationalized depictions of the “hardships of the past.” I found, personally, that walking the streets and cobblestone alleys of 1700s America and learning about the occupations that time has forgotten, the buildings with fascinating uses that we now don’t understand, and the slower cadence to life conjures a sense of loss in our progress.Diary of an Early American Boy, Our Vanishing Landscape, A Reverence for Wood, and Spirits of ‘76 get just as many recommendations as this book. If you can find any of these, read them!
Second-Person Rural, by Noel Perrin
I’ve not been able to track down a free copy of Noel Perrin’s first book, First-Person Rural, but I have heartily enjoyed his unintended second installment in an unintended series. His first book largely focused on the how-tos of homesteading. This second one, however, focuses more on the intangible whys. In a set of delightful essays, from cider-making with children (not a straightforward task) to the psychoanalysis of whether you’re the sort of person to entice your cows with a bucket or chase them from behind, his comforting prose skillfully captures the otherwise indescribable moments of farm life that the friends we left in the city just don’t get.
Perrin is a back-to-the-lander himself, new enough to the homesteading scene that he can sometimes see the things that those who grew up in the backwoods may take for granted. His appetizer-sized chapters are easy and enjoyable to read and they absolutely demand an afghan and a quiet evening to enjoy them.
Restoration Agriculture, by Mark Shepard
Mark Shepard takes on our inherited way of industrialized agriculture and not only casts a vision of what a better way of life it could be, but he also lives it daily. His living-what-he-preaches experiments at his New Forest Farm have turned a used-up field on the verge of desertification into a thriving permaculture savannah full of life, food, and self-replenishing fertility. If you’re unfamiliar with permaculture, this book is a thrilling introduction. And if you’re familiar with the concept, this book is an encouraging road map for What Could Be at your own property.
Through scientific analysis, dirt-under-the-fingernails practicality, insightfully written prose, and a keen eye for the way that the natural world functions, Shepard gives real instruction and advice on how to take any area of land and work with, not against, its natural features to grow food on a sustainable, profitable, and self-sufficient scale. If you have a homestead, this book could be revolutionary in how you see and use your property.
This one’s not on Archive.org yet, but you can buy Restoration Agriculture on Amazon here.
Herbal Handbook For Farm and Stable, by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
If you’ve ever gotten fed up with chemical-based, artificial means of trying to care for your livestock, this is a fantastic book to add to the shelf. Juliette de Bairacli Levy was a true healer and adventurer, traveling through much of Europe and the United States treating animals with her natural methods and deep understanding of plants.
Utilizing her methods of animal management changes the relationship between homesteader and livestock. Rather than forcing these animals to bend to our increasingly warped and artificial will, it seeks to restore balance to their health by letting them follow their natural design. Juliette clearly understood how animals functioned on animal terms, rather than human terms, and her gentle therapies and treatments are natural and effective.
This book covers many animals on the homestead, including the often-overlooked chicken. Not just a series of treatments, it also covers the all-important—yet frequently neglected—role of prevention through maintaining a healthy environment for the animals described. I use this book often, and wouldn’t be without it!
Even if you’re on the fence with herbal remedies, I challenge you to give her book a thumb-through. Her experience-based advice and recommendations will certainly give you something to think about.
This one’s not on Archive.org yet. You can buy Herbal Handbook For Farm and Stable on Amazon here.
The Last Whole Earth Catalogue
I don’t know how to define this document. It’s 400 pages too long to be a magazine, but it’s certainly not a book… though there is a strange little novel hidden in the margins. It’s not an anthology of 1972 homesteading magazine articles, though there are useful articles throughout the whole thing on self-sufficient, DIY endeavors. Parts of it are certainly NSFW. There are listings for off-grid supplies, gardening tools, and books alongside poetry, and interviews suffused with the countercultural, anti-war sentiment characteristic of the times in which it was created. And all of it is crammed-to-the-edges in a claustrophobic layout that would give a modern graphic designer heart palpitations.
The Last Whole Earth Catalogue feels like the distilled essence of an entire generation of disaffected hippies, commune-founders, back-to-the-landers, beatniks, and builders. It’s weird. Like, really weird. But it’s weirdly fascinating. It was originally conceived to give folks alternatives to their inherited consumptive lifestyles and connect them to the land and each other in authentic ways. You’re bound to find something you disagree with, something you feel passionate about, and learn something you didn’t know before. It’s an adventure to leaf through its many, many pages.
Propaganda, by Edward Bernays
This may seem an odd inclusion in this list of homesteading and farming-themed books, but I think it’s a required read for anyone looking to be more self-sufficient. Certainly not the most comforting of next-to-the-fire reads, it is nonetheless a fascinating document to understand how so many of the things that are now commonplace in our cultural world came to be. The title may make you think that it is some fringey “conspiracy theory” book, but I would contest that it is merely a documentation of conspiracy facts. This book was originally written to exhibit Edward Bernays’ methods of mass manipulation and the “engineering of consent” (his words, not mine) to his clients. Clients like the President of the United States, CBS, the American Tobacco Company, General Electric, and Procter & Gamble, just to name a few.
Though homesteaders can be as varied as they come, I think it’s a safe assumption to believe that they are alike in that they largely want to make their own decisions on how to live their own lives. If you want to understand how you have been actively manipulated to believe that you need to live the way that They have told you to live and think the way They have told you to think, this book is an excellent way to pull back the veil and declare some mental and psychological freedom.
Art Of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz
Once upon a time, most humans ate fermented food daily. Our breads, cheeses, meats, drinks, and vegetables were all teeming with vigorous bacterial life that made them taste interesting and be easy to digest in our balanced guts. Now, in modern times, we have banished bacteria from our plates, and in many cases, our good health along with it. But you don’t have to take my word for it—take Sandor Katz’.
In this award-winning, deliciously-thick, brick of a book, he explores how to ferment pretty much anything you can think of (and several things you may not have thought of). As you leaf through the chapters of recipes, scientific explanations, personal anecdotes, and historical practices, you won’t get the sense that fermentation is some difficult-to-understand, esoteric practice. It will seem accessible, important… even fun and exciting!
When I first tried my hand at fermenting, I was intimidated, convinced that I would do something wrong and then Botulism would creep out of the wallpaper like a boogeyman and attack my family. Many experiments, accompanied by the encouraging, you-can-do-this tone in Katz’s book, have completely changed my mind, and the state of my kitchen. Thumb through it and I imagine you might feel the same.
This one’s not on Archive.org yet, but you can buy Art Of Fermentation from the Amazon here.
Handmade, by Drew and Louise Langsner
This book is hard to find, but if you can, it’s well worth the read. From October 1971 to October 1972, Drew and Louise Langsner lived off-grid and traveled a tangled path from Turkey to Finland. But rather than taking a touristy pleasure-tour, they set out to find and learn from the fading reserves of the self-sufficient, pre-industrial peasantry that remained. They followed shepherds in Greece, walked the terraced garden hillsides of Yugoslavia, and wove baskets in Bulgaria. They adopted local customs to try to learn how to live with—not on—the land, to produce very little waste, and to understand the extent and limits of natural resources. True to the title of their book, they argue that the highest quality craft is handmade, and that the most successful farming ever done—in terms of sustained yield, soil, maintenance, and food quality—is done by hand and animal labor.
As I wrote in my earlier article, “Seeking the Old Ways“, a book like this touches on something that most of us no longer have: firsthand experience with traditional, self-sufficient ways of life. To those of us trying to rediscover this lifestyle, it’s a heart-wrenching document of loss and a deeply encouraging record of what could yet be. Travel with Drew and Louise, try cooking the recipes they’ve recorded, and dream about what your own two hands can still be capable of.
Stalking The Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons
If you want to begin foraging this spring, it’s almost a rite of passage to read Euell Gibbons’ books on the subject. None of his works are more well known than Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and the praise is well-deserved. Strolling through his chapters of edible wild plants is like strolling down a country lane with an elder, meeting his good friends along the way. Not only does he write about collecting these edible delights with the familiarity only gained by a lifetime of wilderness wandering, but he also gives plentiful recipes on how to enjoy your wild haul. Spring will come sooner than you think, and with it comes dozens of opportunities to reap where you did not sow.
And once you’re done with that one, you’ll have to pick up copies of Samuel Thayer’s three foraging books—The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, and Incredible Wild Edibles. Sometimes called the “Modern-day Euell Gibbons,” Thayer has carried on the legacy of loving, gathering, eating, and teaching about the abundance that grows right outside our backdoors. Thayer’s books cover plant identification with far greater detail than Gibbon’s, too, giving photographic and botanical clarity to foragers both new and old.
About the Author: Wren was once a teacher living in the city. But she and her husband decided to make their escape from the confines of modernity and its dependence and move their family to 12 acres of land in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing an off-grid homestead, and now happily spend their days as modern peasants, seeking out, learning, and trying to preserve the old skills that their urban backgrounds never gave them.