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.