Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book learning vs. real life

There was a wonderfully uplifting post over at Thoughts from Frank and Fern a couple days ago entitled Dream Big, Be Patient.

Fern outlined some of the things she and Frank have learned just in the last year: sourdough baking, making yogurt and cheese, gardening, canning, dehydrating, dehydrating, medicinal teas, using ham radios, and (not incidentally) blogging.

One line in particular caught my eye: "Five years ago, we barely knew how to garden. We had a lot of book learning, but no practical experience."

These two people have achieved something too many others only dream about, namely homesteading. They put their book learning to good, sound, practical use, and in doing so they learned where book learning ends and real learning begins.

Make no mistake, my admiration for books knows no bounds. That's why we have over 5000 volumes in our house -- we're crazy for books.

And there is a stage in everyone's life where book learning must take precedence. You can't exactly keep a cow while living in Manhattan, so the best you can do is read books on how to milk, how to make butter or cheese, how to muck out a barn, how to compost manure, etc. There are endless topics about which my only knowledge comes from books rather than personal experience.

But book learning will only take you so far. If you want to homestead, if you honestly want to get your hands dirty, you can't learn it all from books.

True example: I'm working on a novel, an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it type adventure told from a woman's perspective. It's pretty much rough-finished, so now I've started the first round of edits. I have a scene where the family is threshing wheat (most people are reduced to subsistence farming from sheer desperation). A wise elderly neighbor becomes a valued mentor during the heroine's (and her family's) steep learning curve, and he shows them how to hand-thresh wheat.

This particular scene was written before, you guessed it, I'd ever hand-threshed wheat. When I went back last week and re-read that scene, I was appalled by how unrealistic it was. Now that I've hand-threshed wheat (and hated every minute of it), I can re-write the scene with greater realism.

I guess the point of this post is to warn people who are planning to, say, bug out to a rural location if/when the bleep hits the fan. Here's a reality check for you: Nothing will go as planned. Your book learning won't amount to squat when you actually have to milk that cow, grow that garden, or thresh that wheat.

As I mentioned, many of us are in positions where book learning is the only thing we can do... for now. And that's fine. Just don't make the mistake of thinking that real life will be just like in the book.

Where book learning becomes dangerous is when people plan for their future survival with no room for error. They plan elaborate off-grid systems but don't keep candles or kerosene lamps on hand should those systems fail. They grow a windowsill herb garden and conclude they're experts on survival gardening. They claim it's easy to preserve an entire season's worth of fruits and vegetables before they've even broken their new pressure canner out of its box.

In other words, I urge people to get as much practical experience as possible to supplement their book learning.

On the up side, there is nothing more satisfying than learning a skill or procedure in real life. When we got our first cow in 1998, I was terrified to milk her and had no idea how to actually get milk out of those teats. I queried up and down the road we lived on, asking if someone could tutor me (no one did). So I learned. And you know what? It's fun. (Most of the time.) It's educational, it's satisfying, and it's productive.

So whenever possible, lay down the books and plunge into the reality, just like Frank and Fern have done. You'll never look back.


  1. Hi Patrice,
    You are correct, book learning is wonderful, but putting that learning to actual use is the best way to really learn a skill. I am a hands on learner as are my children. While we are always learning more through our reading we are very blessed to also do a lot of practical learning on our little Farm.

    Over the last 15 years we have had the chance to garden and put up food, raise and care for sheep, milk goats, chickens and ducks for eggs and meat, horses, dogs and cats. We have also done numerous building projects, both large and small. This year we are going to start a new adventure into bee keeping as well as training our horses to harness both things we have read many books on and now are finally ready to put that learning to practical use.

    Love your wonderful blog as well as Frank and Fern's blog. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and skills of farm life and life in general with us.

    Willow Creek Farm

  2. This particular scene was written before, you guessed it, I'd ever hand-threshed wheat. When I went back last week and re-read that scene, I was appalled by how unrealistic it was. Now that I've hand-threshed wheat (and hated every minute of it), I can re-write the scene with greater realism.

    Now that's funny right there.

    - Charlie

  3. So true. You can't swim until you get in the water.

  4. I just bought a scythe outfit with a grass blade and extra brush blade. I plan on growing wheat and cutting down Johnson grass.

  5. I am so glad to hear that you are writing a book from a woman's perspective. Most of the novels in this group are full of good info for men - guns, ammo, tactics, hunting...but SOMEBODY needs to know how to kill, pluck, and cook a chicken. I am very interested in what the daily schedule of the homemaker would be in a hunker-down to use time wisely, economize resources, cook, clean, laundry, gardening, canning....the list is HUGE!

  6. What a very interesting post. I can't wait to read Fern's essay, too. I've been enjoying her - and Frank's - posts tremendously.

    I remember the first time I made butter from goat's milk. I'd read and read about how to do it.

    I was fascinated. They said it would take a long time to collect enough cream from goat's milk. It did. They said the butterball would happen quickly. It did.

    Everything I read about the process turned out to be true. Especially the part about how satisfying it would be to eat the butter.

    Now Hubby teases me every time he sees me trying something new: "Hmmm, did you read another book?"

    Just Me

  7. I looked at the photo of you guys using scythes to harvest grain and remembered seeing there are still people making horse-drawn reapers and side-delivery rakes for the Amish. Have you looked into these products? I think that would work way faster than hand harvesting, and it would give you a SHTF skill to trade with your neighbors, portion of the harvest for doing the harvest faster than by hand?

  8. I am an avid reader of all things " homestead" and the only thing that ever went EXACTLY as I had read it ,was how to gut a chicken...I wish I remember which book it is in, I was amazed that the words actually matched the sights smells and sensations of every single was like the book was in my head ...the reason it stands out so clearly is because this has never happened before or since! Usually I reread the book afterwards and then I can say NOW I understand the words as they were meant! or sometimes I can say OBVIOUSLY that author never really did this!! now I like to watch You Tube so I get an idea of the motions that go with the words so much more helpful.Karen

  9. So true, if we have to survive it will be fruit trees don't produce enough, my garden grew only green tomatoes, every year I try and my husband laughs at my is a lot of work....not to mention how it will be hauling water in a chickens do well...mostly...and I know how to make yogurt and cheese if I can find milk. I do have the books!

  10. Oh how I have thought this MANY times!!!! I'm not saying I know a lot. I don't. But, I know people that think they do and the only thing they know is what the book says.