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.

If you're interested in Back to Basics, you may also like Country Wisdom & Know How or The Encyclopedia of Country Living.

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bakednudel
bakednudel
12 years ago

I often drive down the interstate in my airconditioned car at 75 mph and wonder…how did my own ancestors clear this wooded continent, find water, dig wells, build houses, grow food, use horses and mules and cattle…

It seems impossible to me, yet I’m only a couple of generations removed from it.

I’d enjoy a book like this for satisfying my curiosity! Great find–and I assume it was well-discounted at Costco?

christine
christine
12 years ago

I am putting this on the list to buy my husband for the holidays. He will love this book!

Angie
Angie
12 years ago

Strangely enough, I have a copy of what must be the first edition of this book (70s vintage) that I got from my great-uncle almost 20 years ago.

Pretty funny/cool that it’s on the cultural radar enough to end up in the stacks at Costco!

Susy
Susy
12 years ago

I have the original version of this book from 1981. It’s fun to look through. My parents already taught me much of what was in it since they’re HUGE diy people. We always raised all of our own food when I was young. One summer we lived completely off the grid at my family’s hunting cabin (yep, no running water – pit toilets & sun showers). It was fun!

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

I forgot to mention in the review above, but this book gets amazing ratings at Amazon. The second edition has 59 ratings, of which 56 are five stars. (The other three are four stars.) @Bakednudel I’m sometimes amazed at the difference in lifestyle and skills even between my parents and myself. And especially between my grandparents and myself. My grandparents had very little money, but they did own their home. They had an enormous vegetable garden, tons of blueberries, raised cattle, and harvested wood for winter fuel. They lived just down the road from us, so I grew up watching… Read more »

Another Ed
Another Ed
12 years ago

Like the above reader, I always marvel at our forebears. They managed to travel cross country, plow new fields, build houses and grow crops with only their muscle, wits and what their forebears taught them. My wife can’t even bear to drive in the summer without air conditioning!
Makes me wonder what would happen if the economic collapse the more paranoid among us worry about actually DID occur…..

Another Ed

Organism
Organism
8 years ago
Reply to  Another Ed

You can bet the “more paranoid” have already researched these kind of things and will be doing just fine. Good luck to all of you who never prepare for any kind of situation that may call for self sustainance for you and your family. I have no pity for those that can’t remember the last book they read, but can tell you the winner of last night’s episode of Dancing with the Stars.

Ryan McLean
Ryan McLean
12 years ago

This sounds like a book my dad would fall in love with! He loves handyman stuff. He loves saving money on builders and plumbers by doing as much as he can himself

Michael
Michael
12 years ago

I’m a huge DIY fan and have given any number of “traditional skills” a try. But it is massively hard work that takes experience and good tools to do well. Hand-hewing a beam? Most novices would be hard pressed justifying the time cost of learning work an ax efficiently. On the other hand, raising chickens is fairly practical given enough space and and the assumption that you don’t live in a city with zoning ordinances. This book sounds like a good idea source, but some dedicated research into the particular topic would be needed before it became a wise investment… Read more »

Abbott
Abbott
12 years ago

My parents had this book and I read it over and over as a little kid. It was fascinating! Richard Scarry was good and all, but he didn’t tell you how to kill and drain the blood from a pig you raised, or how to make your own beef jerky, or how to do scrimshaw, or make your own leather sandals. I learned a lot about American folk history from this book: how quilt patterns like “robbing Peter to pay Paul” got their names (I can still name them all today), and the history of Johnny Cakes + how to… Read more »

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks&Me
12 years ago

I have had this book for a few years and have enjoyed reading it very much. It stays in my “reference” section but I pull it out just to read once in awhile.

I have a very old copy of The Encyclopedia of Country Living, written before it was professionally edited… very fun to read.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

A semi-related story: The neighbor across the street (the real millionaire next door) has a big old cherry tree. He’s in Alaska right now, of course, but we’re friendly with his renter, Patrice. She can’t eat all of the cherries (no normal human could), so she’s been letting us glean them. We’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit (which led me to understand finally what that phrase actually means), so we headed over with a ladder this afternoon. Kris climbed into the tree first, but she chickened out. “You’re a girl,” I said. “I’m a boy. Let me at it.… Read more »

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

The book reminds me of the old Foxfire series–some great lessons on living off the land, etc. I’ll have to check this one out, too!

Jib
Jib
12 years ago

I love this stuff. My wife and I are trying to find ways to be more self sustainable. We have recently started making our own soap and became apart of a co-op garden.

Any tips for self sustainability in an urban environment?

—-
Austin Hike and Bike

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

This was a really wonderful book and I got a whole more than I anticipated. This book covers all kinds of traditional skills from chopping wood, building houses, plowing fields, food preparation, and so on. Just about anything you can imagine on everyday life skills from days long gone. The bonus part to this was that it included a lot of modern day adaptations and applications for these skills. It could be a useful how-to manual for those that want to live a more simple life. It also includes a description of alternate eco-friendly fuel sources. Very nice book! Sam… Read more »

Belinda
Belinda
12 years ago

This book reminds me of the Foxfire series as well. I just picked up a copy of a Foxfire cooking book this weekend at a used book store. Fascinating reading.

Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl
Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl
12 years ago

That sounds like a very neat book…I love to do things myself! Although I doubt I will be hand-hewing a beam anytime soon, soapmaking and preserving food are right up my alley.

Phelan
Phelan
12 years ago

Hi J.D. I was wondering why I was getting some many click through from here. Wow, it has been awhile since I wrote that article for you, many things have changed here. This book isn’t one of the best. We have had it for awhile (one of those free things that people like to give you when you talk about homesteading) and it doesn’t give out much details. It is a good one to look over a think about things, though. Check out The Lost Arts series, they are hard to find but worth it. And the other two you… Read more »

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
12 years ago

I love this topic and overall theme, despite being mechanically challenged, myself. I do have great basic cooking skills, though, and I definitely am happy to share my expertise on how to ‘travel smart’ and save money on gas. http://www.diamondcutlife.org/how-to-save-money-on-gas/
best,
Alison Wiley
Portland, Oregon

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

Hand-hewing a beam? Not very green. Think of all the wasted wood. You can be sure it didn’t get recycled into compost or paper. It was left laying in the dirt or, at best, raked up to use as kindling in the stove or fireplace. It’s nostalgic to think how people lived in the allegedly good old days. That’s because we forget they didn’t live for very long. Infant mortality was as high as 50% and a man could expect to live about 50 years. Think of all the things we can do that they couldn’t imagine, in many instances… Read more »

kendra
kendra
12 years ago

We’ve been buying our yeast at Costco too. One bag of yeast lasts a long time! That book looks interesting and also reminds me of the Firefox series, you should check those out.

Even though we live in town we’ve been trying to add more of those practices at our home,which I blog about. We have chickens, a large garden and do a lot of home canning and freezing. Although I’ve never posted before, I really enjoy your blog!

Tziporah
Tziporah
12 years ago

Just a question, and I’m not trying to be impertinent.

I live in a small apartment without a balcony. I don’t have access to the basement and there isn’t any land to turn into a garden (assuming a landlord would even allow a tenant to dig up the lawn). I don’t own a car.

I agree these are excellent ideas, but other than making my own bread (which I enjoy doing), how could I adopt the ideas in this book?

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Tziporah
This book is targeted more at people who want to do the homesteading thing, which usually means a need for land. There are ideas in here that are appropriate for apartment living, but they’re generally all about food preservation, and you’d probably be better served finding a book specifically about that topic. This book has a narrow target audience.

Dave Farquhar
Dave Farquhar
12 years ago

I agree, it’s scary how much we’ve forgotten how to do in just a couple of generations. My grandfather built the house my mother grew up in, and I didn’t know how to properly use a hammer until I was in my late 20s. And yet, I know more about building and fixing things than a lot of people my age. If a chair breaks, I fix it, and I’ve picked up the occasional piece of broken furniture from the curb and fixed it and put it back to use. I have a great admiration for those who are able… Read more »

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
12 years ago

Looks interesting. We have John Seymour’s Guide to the Self-Sufficient Life and Storey’s Country Skills, which are wonderful and informative, as is Gail Gibbons’ Barnyard in Your Backyard. They are great sitting-around-and thinking books.

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
12 years ago

Cool! I like John Seymour’s books better (more details). Another one to pick up is Carla Emery’s encyclopedia. Also, if you can get hold of the Foxfire books — they’re a bit harder to acquire. In case you want to buy the tools, Lehmans is the go to place.
For those stuck in apartments, rather than keeping a worm farm under the bed or rabbits in the closet, I would recommend getting a big solder iron (20W or so), etc. and start learning how to fix consumer appliances instead. howstuffworks.com is a good starting place.

Carmen
Carmen
12 years ago

I can’t wait to read it!

Jennifer
Jennifer
12 years ago

This sounds like my kind of book, thanks for posting about it.

TJ
TJ
12 years ago

Now you are talking about my favorite books! I love Back to Basics! It has a different feel than Encyclopedia of Country Living (my most favorite book!) because it has craft and trade areas not well known today. I also have enjoyed reading 5 Acres and Independence, and Living On Less. Really there are so many good books out there.

zohngalt
zohngalt
12 years ago

We, too, have an older edition of Back to Basics which we bought new and is now well worn. I agree that the Foxfire books are another great resource for old-timey skills. There are several volumes of Foxfire and I think most libraries will have at least 3 or 4. But, an even better (in my opinion) source of homestead and/or back to the land info is contained in the early editions of TMEN – The Mother Earth News magazine. Maybe used bookstores or EBay. Especially the ones from the 70s. I find myself pulling these out at intervals and… Read more »

David W.
David W.
12 years ago

Sounds like a fun book, but to me “voluntary simplicity” means living simply. Hand hewing your own logs to build furniture by yourself hardly sounds simple when compared to simply slapping down the cash and buying what you need. It might be more enjoyable for some, but simple hardly seems like the right word.

Shan-Oh
Shan-Oh
12 years ago

Another good resource, wherever you are, is the local Cooperative Extension. I recently attended classes on gardening, integrated pest management, canning and jam/jelly making. They have free how-to handouts specific to your area, and they are well researched. I learned how to smoke fish from one handout, and how to container garden from another. The Extension Agents are experts on ‘how to’ knowledge and they love to pass it on.

liz
liz
12 years ago

Ditto on the Foxfire resemblance comments– I wonder if those are still in print? My parents used to collect those books. They (and I) were also fond of a late ’70’s Britcom called “The Good Life” which spoofed both a couple going a bit far with their simplicity and the (1970’s british version of) yuppies next door.

…hmm, both of these things were popular in the ’70’s– do recessions bring on urges for simplicity and diy?

Jeff
Jeff
12 years ago

I always imagine living in a neighborhood where I know all my neighbors. Sounds like you hit the jackpot.

I will have to look into getting this book. My girlfriend is very DIY and I think that she would flip over this. Thanks for the great review.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

If you haven’t see The Good Life you should definitely check it out. It’s the ultimate urban homesteading comedy. Of course I’m biased as it’s set in the sort of area that I grew up in.

Brady
Brady
12 years ago

It’s not hyperbole to say Back to Basics changed my life. When I first saw it six years ago I didn’t know anything about growing food, but now our entire backyard is covered in fruit and veggie plants.

Great choice J.D.!

STL Mom
STL Mom
12 years ago

The Good Life, when shown in the U.S. on PBS, was called “Good Neighbors”. I loved that show.
http://www.amazon.com/Good-Neighbors-Complete-1-3/dp/B000784WKO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1217018653&sr=1-2
I love to look through books like this, but then I drive to the grocery store and buy canned food that I can microwave in my air-conditioned kitchen, and feel thankful that I was born in this place and time!

Karin
Karin
12 years ago

HI! I’m sorry if I mangle up the english here. I’m danish but I want to share this with you. I’ve baked my own bread for years and years. I always bake loads and put it in the freezer. I pack it up in roasting bags. This way you can re-heat the bread and get a nice crust again. For a weekend treat I make the dough the night before. Shape into rolls and put on a baking tray. Cover it with a wet tea towel and put it in the fridge. The next morning I stick the baking tray… Read more »

Lise
Lise
11 years ago

My parents had this book when I was growing up, and I LOVED it. I read it time and time again, fantasized about homesteading (I had a whole fantasy family, the Monroes, that took their lead from the activities in this book) and eventually absconded with it when I moved out.

It’s still a great book, but now that I’m an adult I realize how much work some of these DIY activities are 😉 Doesn’t discourage me too much – I still have a garden! – but I won’t be slaughtering my own chickens any time soon.

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