Once upon a time, everyone could find an elder, even if it wasn’t in their own family, who had ties to the “old ways of doing things.” The homesteading era wasn’t that far off a hundred years ago, and plenty of people remembered how to live and thrive off-grid (before living off-grid was even a “thing”). The skills and homesteading knowledge they had collected and honed through life were manifold: they knew how to heat and cook with wood, how to manage land with their own hands, how to save seeds and garden for the majority of their food, how to dig and maintain wells, how to store up a winter’s worth of food, how to build their own houses, how to make and repair tools, and how to keep and provide for livestock on a self-sufficient, small scale… just to name a few.
But as waves of “progress” drove people from their farms and into the city, as the veneration given to knowledgeable farmers was transformed into comic-relief stereotypes about toothless hillbillies, as movies like Deliverance made mountain people into boogeymen, and as the suburban sprawl slowly transformed the ideal life from self-sufficient responsibility to keeping-up-with-the-Joneses dependency, the desire to live that way of life fell out of fashion. Even while preservation projects like Bittersweet and Foxfire tried to gather up as much old knowledge and wisdom as they could, the inevitable passage of time closed up that opportunity for firsthand recollection. Now, the harsh reality is that everyone who had direct access to that time period is gone. And sometimes, even the most modern person can feel it. How often have you heard someone pick up an old tool, look at an old hand-carved cabinet, or see endangered heritage cattle and mutter, “They don’t make them like they used to…”
So here is where I find myself as a new homesteader in the modern era: a bit adrift. Maybe you understand—my background may sound familiar. My grandparents spurned their farming roots and lived a suburban life where modernity was king. My parents raised me with what they knew, which was a continuation of the middle-class “dream” of going to college, getting into debt, graduating with no real skills, getting a lackluster job to pay off the debt, and paying services to take care of tasks they didn’t know how, or want, to do. Now, I’m not necessarily a card-carrying Luddite (I am writing articles on a computer for websites, after all), but I can’t accept forgetting thousands of years worth of knowledge and self-sufficiency in exchange for pizza delivery, an electrician repair bill, and Netflix.
Suffice to say, though, I’m certainly not popular with my smartphone-addicted peers, I’m not satisfied with the sort of life I was handed. As an off-grid homesteader, completely at odds with my upbringing, I want to rediscover all the life-knowledge that everyone once knew only two hundred years ago. Maybe you understand that same desire. But where do we look? Maybe you, like myself, have no elder or mentor to guide you—they’re all too long gone. And maybe you’ve also found that many Internet resources and modern books on homesteading and living off the land are unsatisfactory, to say the least. I’ve seen topics that seem to just be mentioned with no real source of sources for homesteading knowledge or experience—books sold for attractive pictures, rather than the richness of content. I’ve found rampant plagiarism, with familiar paragraphs skipping across articles and titles. Many modern resources, without life experience bolstering them, even convey totally incorrect information, perhaps because editors don’t know that it’s wrong in the first place (admittedly, a hard thing to correct when lots of similar resources cite the same misconception as fact! I’ve found lots of instances of this in foraging books and gardening books in particular).
So, as cast-offs of the modern era, our backs turned to the roiling chaos of the city, our faces searching the horizon for a bit of land where we can put it all into practice, and no childhood training to fall back on, where can we turn for real, detailed, rich, reliable resources of the stable, old ways of doing things?
This question has both haunted and driven me for nearly a decade. And as this is something that directly influences my way of life, I have been highly motivated to find the answer—the success of my own homestead has hinged on some of the answers I’ve found. I have searched like a post-apocalyptic scavenger, picking over the scattered bones of buried documentaries, dusty, out-of-print books, and forgotten projects to try to glean bits of old wisdom and knowledge. I bring them home and hang them on the still-forming scaffolding of my direct experiences, my homestead a growing patchwork of modern and ancient ideas and practices. It all echos with a lot of loss and a little bit of hope, a strange bittersweetness woven between my rows of heirloom corn, sapling-sized food forest, and compost piles. Now, I’m aware that what I’ve found is no substitute for a childhood of experience, training, or a committed community of like-minded families, but it’s the best I can offer in this article.
Foxfire and Bittersweet
In the 1970s, Elliott Wigginton, a teacher in the Appalachia Mountain area, had an interesting idea to teach his students about journalism, photography, and writing by sending them to interview their mountain-born grandparents. This after-school program soon blossomed into a full-scale preservation project to capture and record Appalachian life before it disappeared. Not merely a record, however, the volumes of the Foxfire project include detailed diagrams, long-form interviews, and instructions on many living-off-the-land skills. There are at least 12 volumes of the Foxfire project—those looking for old knowledge are best off looking specifically at the first 6, when Wigginton still headed the project.
Inspired by the Foxfire project, Ellen Gray Massey, a teacher in the Ozark Mountains, headed up a similar journalism program with her own students. Bittersweet is a similar record of Ozark life, and while I’ve never found it in print, the entirety is available online at this website.
Online Facsimiles of Books, Such as Project Gutenberg
The Project Gutenberg website is overwhelming in its scope, to say the least, but if you know what to look for, it’s a goldmine. Essentially, you can find facsimiles of very old, very out-of-print books here. This is a great resource for those of us with small local libraries that can’t hold thousands of old books just to hold them. Books that I’ve found bits of helpful information in include
Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan, by F.H. King: https://www.scribd.com/document/268686654/Farmers-of-40-centuries-pdf
BBC’s “Farm” series
I once asked a fellow homesteader where old knowledge might be hiding, and she directed me to this treasure trove. Alex, Peter, Tom, and Ruth are British archaeologists and historians who decided to explore history as actively as possible—by dedicating several years of their lives to literally live it out on working farms. Each season of the show explored a different time period. In all their attempts, by putting dusty old words into living practice, they understood the day-to-day nuances that are sometimes impossible to put to paper. They also interviewed and learned with old craftsmen—sometimes the last of their kind—to capture a bit of their expertise in person. If you look hard enough, you can find every episode on Youtube (as of February 2021, all the links I have below are valid).
- Secrets of the Castle
- Tales from the Green Valley
- Tudor Monastery Farm
- Edwardian Farm
- Victorian Farm
- Wartime Farm
- Full Speed Ahead
On the surface, this is just a wordless documentary of an old man going about his yearly business as he provides for himself with his gardens and fields. But it’s so beautiful it can make the heart hurt if you’re the person whose been looking to also embody this man’s knowledge. Worth the watch for the imagery alone, Grandfather is a rare glimpse into the hard work and rich life lived by those who understand how to live off the land.
Eric Sloane started out as a sign-painter and weatherman with an interest in old bridges. But that interest soon blossomed into a lifelong fascination with old buildings, old manners of building, old ways of doing things, and America’s farming and homesteading past. In all of my explorations for any sort of record of living and working, few sources have been as rich and detailed as his work.
They’re not a dry read, either! If ever there was a title for Official Curmudgeon, Eric Sloane would have been a prime candidate. His grumpy-old-man tone is endearing and amusing as he talks about the America that once was, and what it has become in the dulling wake of modern living. His extensive collection of books is excellently and beautifully illustrated, with clear diagrams and notes of details that are often overlooked.
If he were still alive, he’d understand my drive for finding real information about the old ways. Even when he was writing and illustrating his books in the ’50s, artist and author Eric Sloane also experienced a similar sense of dissatisfaction. In one of his books, he relates the story of searching through New York’s library system for a book detailing old ways of building barns—he knew there were notable gaps in his understanding. After much searching, the librarian handed him their only resource on the topic…his own earlier book.
You’ll be rewarded reading any of his books, but a good handful to start with are:
A Reverence for Wood: A useful collection on early America’s deep understanding of different types of wood and how to use them.
American Yesterday: A detailed delve into how “grandfather”(though, in 2021, it’s really great-grandfather, or great-great grandfather) lived off the land.
Diary of an Early American Boy: An intimate exploration of a specific homestead in 1805.
Our Vanishing Landscape: How early Americans understood, built on, and used the land.
A Museum of Early American Tools: Handmade, amazingly-specific tools you’ve never heard of.
Spirits of ‘76: a particularly heart-rending meditation on what has been exchanged for modernity.
Lots and Lots and Lots of Trial and Error
What has taught me the most about how to rediscover a self-sufficient way of life, however, isn’t a book, documentary, or magazine. It’s been lots of experimentation. None of the fragments and gleanings I’ve collected mean anything if I can’t breathe life back into them through active use! Reading about making your own dyes from tree bark, for example, is all well and good, but only by actually collecting the materials and giving it a shot will the words make real sense. The subtle nuances and idiosyncrasies, the actual, indescribable elements of Craft when you are making things and growing things are only understood when they are actually done. And when you’re the only one you know doing them, you have to really pay attention to your triumphs and failures!
This article may come across as a little over-dramatic and tragic in tone, but if you yourself are trying to break free from city dependency and learn how to live again, I think you understand. It’s hard describe, but while watching footage of aging, master craftsmen at their work, I realize that I’m watching the collective knowledge of hundreds of years of fine-tuning and refinement, passed on from master to apprentice. Now, without a tribe of master craftsmen, knowledgeable old housewives, or work-honed peasant farmers to lead the way anymore, I sense the loss of those thousands of years of refinement. Rather than being a master, many people are considered pros if they can do any “old-fashioned” task at all. But meditating on what’s been lost only results in mourning. I don’t want to stay there, and if you are reading this article and understand the heart of it, neither do you. Really, all we can do is to keep practicing, keep looking, and keep learning. So with my patchwork homestead bulging with scavenged bits and shards of knowledge, I’ll keep trying. I exhort you to keep trying and hunting, too.
This list in the article is but a sampling. If you have any sources for homesteading knowledge that you’d like to add to the collection, please comment below so we can all benefit!
About the Author: First, Wren was an environmental educator and language teacher living in the city. Then, she and her husband decided to escape from the confines of city life and its dependence, and move their family to 12 acres of land in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, permaculture-based, off-grid homestead, one step at a time. She can be typically found armpit-deep in brush foraging, cooking on cast iron, talking to her ducks and chickens, pumping yet another bucket of water from the well, and, in quiet moments, sketching art around the homestead.