Back to basics: A guide to traditional skills
Based on reader suggestions, Kris and I made a trip to Costco on Friday to buy bulk yeast and a fifty-pound bag of bread flour. (We're serious about this whole home-made bread thing.) While I waited for Kris to pick up some other groceries, I leafed through Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills edited by Abigail R. Gehring. “Wow,” I thought. “I am the target audience for this book.” I bought it.
Here's an excerpt from the book's introduction:
Back to Basics is a book about the simple life. It is about old-fashioned ways of doing things, and old-fashioned craftsmanship, and old-fashioned food, and old-fashioned fun. It is also about independence — the kind of down-home self-reliance that our grandparents and great grandparents took for granted, but that we moderns often think has vanished forever…
At its heart Back to Basics is a how-to book packed with hundreds of projects, step-by-step sequences, charts, tables, diagrams, and illustrations to help you and your family reestablish control over your day-to-day lives.
Back to Basics is not for everyone. If you have no desire to grow and prepare your own food, or to build your own furniture, or to practice voluntary simplicity, then there's probably little of value here. But if, for whatever reason, you are drawn toward voluntary simplicity, this book offers a treasure trove of information.
Some of the topics in Back to Basics will be too big for the average reader. Part one, for example, deals with buying land and building on it. But how many people will want to know how to convert trees into lumber or how to build with adobe?
Other sections have broader appeal. Part two explains how to derive energy from wood, water, wind, and sun. It begins with an excellent discussion of how to make your home energy efficient, and then explores alternative energy sources. (My family heated our home with a wood-burning stove when I was a boy, so this brought back memories.)
Nearly 150 pages of Back to Basics are devoted to growing and preserving food. There's a fine section on growing herbs, fruits, and vegetables, but the book also offers tips on beekeeping, fish farming (in a swimming pool!), and raising poultry and livestock.
My favorite section is part four, “Enjoying Your Harvest the Year Round”, which offers tips on:
- Preserving produce — twenty pages of information on home canning (including techniques and recipes)
- Preserving meat and fish — learn how to make your own beef jerky!
- Making your own dairy products — butter, milk, cheese, and ice cream (and tips on how to raise dairy goats!)
- Baking bread
- Producing your own cider, beer, and wine
The largest section contains more than 110 pages describing skills and crafts for the house and homestead, including topics such as spinning and weaving, making dyes, and pressing flowers. This section also contains 30 pages of tips on woodworking and 18 pages on metalworking.
The book's final chapter offers ideas for recreation at home and in the wild.
More than anything, this book is a guide to the practical skills one needs to live a life of voluntary simplicity. As a boy, my extended family still valued and practiced many of the traditional skills described in Back to Basics. Though Kris and I are not full-fledged urban homesteaders, we do subscribe to some of its ideas (especially with regards to food production). I find other aspects of this lifestyle very attractive.
I've sometimes considered beekeeping, for example. My father practiced this for a time when I was a boy, and apparently the previous owner of this house kept bees as well. Back to the Basics makes it sound like an economically viable option:
Few projects yield so much satisfaction in return for such a small investment in money and labor as beekeeping. Once the bees are established, a single hive can easily produce 30 pounds or more of delicious honey each year — enough to supply the needs of the average family of four or five plus plenty to give away or even sell. In return, bees need only minimal attention and a little feed to carry them through the winter.
Back to Basics provides solid information on scores of subjects and contains copious illustrations. It also offers long lists of supplemental reading for every topic. I've only been able to spend about an hour with it, but already I can tell this is a book I'll be referencing for years to come.