1. Any book written by Helen and Scott Nearing
My entire existence can basically be traced back to a Helen and Scott Nearing book. My dad found Man’s Search for the Good Life on a radiator when he was skipping school back in the ’70s in Needham, Massachusetts. He spent the day reading it, and years later when he was bumming around on his ’83 Sportster thought: Maybe I should give Maine a try. He met my mom, never left, and now I’m one of his two daughters and own my own copy.
The Nearing’s became the founding pioneers of the Back-to-the-Land movement at the start of the Great Depression. Despite the times, they were successful and living in New York City but were fed up with the ‘ills of modern society,’ which they defined as war, greed, pollution and overconsumption. The Nearing’s left NYC in 1932 with basically no rural living experience. If you’re nervous about the state of the world now, imagine what these people must have been feeling back in the ’30s, when most of the country was sustaining themselves off of what my grandfather used to call ‘mush’ — white bread and water in a bowl — and Scott Nearing was leaving his job as a college professor to ‘take a stand.’
That stand took them first to Vermont, where they worked a sugar maple farm. After a year or so, they packed up and moved to coastal Maine, where their farm in Harborside (called The Good Life Center) still remains. The Nearings built every structure completely by their own hands — they were firm believers in stone building — and they never kept or ate animals. Every material that they used came from their own property. It took a little while but their books caught the attention of a huge community, resulting in thousands of thousands of people moving to my own state, Maine, back in the ’70s. And that was the Back to the Land Movement — a massive reason why Maine’s rural areas are filled with progressive, sustainably-minded farmers and gardeners today.
All of the Nearing’s books are good but a great one to start with is just The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living, it’s a combo of their experience in both Vermont and Maine.
2. Any book compiled by Lloyd Kahn
My boyfriend is a custom home builder who specializes in constructing with the most sustainably-minded materials. He showed me Lloyd Kahn’s book, Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter, a few years ago and since then, I’ve been hooked — between the two of us we own every book Kahn has compiled.
When Kahn became interested in green building and green architecture, he wasn’t a builder, he was an editor and photographer. But he started kind of small, experimenting with sod roofs, doing some timber framing, moving up into some Japanese-inspired post-and-beams with poured cement walls and then later building some serious geodesic domes. As he started to gain all this building experience, much of it in the Pacific Northwest, he became really interested in how other people were building their own shelters in the rest of the country. So he started Shelter Publications, Inc. and started pumping out these beautiful, photography-oriented books that are basically just collections of self-built homes around the world. The homeowners tell in their own words and photographs what they built, why and how they built it.
I’ve always loved Home Work but Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter is really inspiring for anyone interested in taking their self-built shelter on the road.
3. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Even today in 2016, basically every conversation about pesticide usage can be linked back to the work by Rachel Carson which brought forth Silent Spring in 1962. Carson gave us a lot to be thankful for. Her work is the reason we’re not breathing in DDT every day without knowing it just because dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane happens to kill a few insects. Silent Spring might be the only reason the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even exists. If you’re interested in the effect that chemicals have on our environment and especially in the politics of all that — the federal government’s role in pesticide use and its impact on public health — you need to just start with Silent Spring.
4. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
This is an interesting one for all the parents and soon-to-be parents out there. Richard Louv is a child advocacy expert who wants us all to pay attention to the fact that technology is freaking everywhere and nobody seems to go outside anymore. He brings up some really interesting insight about how large of a radius children get to play in around their home — apparently, it used to be pretty much never ending, and now it’s barely existent. Louv’s work draws a strong connection between the lack of nature in modern children’s lives and the prominence of prescription pills and diagnoses of disorders like ADD. He’s coined the concept ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in this bookand it’s worth checking out, even if you’re not a parent.
5. The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery
This is an important one, especially for anyone interested in growing their own food and learning what to do with it all once winter hits. Carla Emery began writing The Encyclopedia of Country Living in 1969 during the previously mentioned Back to the Land Movement. At first, it was just self-published, now it’s on its 10th edition. It’s really easy to follow, there are great photos and illustrations, and it will teach you all the basics of things like cultivating a garden, buying land, preserving your produce, baking bread, etc. Emery even talks about running a business off of your land, which is often hard to find advice on.
6. Trials of the Earth: the True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton
This one just came out in July 2016 so full disclosure: I haven’t read it yet. However, I did listen to a great little tidbit about it on NPR and it definitely caught my attention. Basically, it’s a memoir. The author, Mary Mann Hamilton, lived in the Mississippi Delta until she passed away in 1936. Hamilton was a pioneer woman who had all kinds of interesting experiences. She ran a boarding house and a logging camp at one point, she writes about surviving floods and tornadoes, bears, and she lost a few of her children just to the hardships of the times.
She wrote about all of these experiences in a secret diary, which she eventually tried to get published through a writing competition by Little, Brown in 1933 — three years before her death. She didn’t win, so all of her stories just sat, for decades, until they were finally dug up again by her descendants and published this year. Today, Hamilton’s book is believed to be the only firsthand account we have of a pioneer woman living in the American South.
7. Back to Basics edited by Abigail R. Gehring
This book focuses on the skills that have pretty much been lost by the current generations. This one’s going to give you tons of projects — with full-color photos — to attempt like dying your own wool, digging your own well (something I plan to attempt soon), raising a log home, building your own footers, etc. Even if you live in an apartment and don’t own property, you still may have wondered how to build a foundation or how the hell people keep bees without getting stung — this book will answer those questions and more.
8. Off Grid Living: 25 Lessons on How to Live off the Grid and Survive in the World by Kevin Evans
A lot of books written about ‘off grid living’ are preachy, apocalyptic, or both. This one is neither of those things. It’s just a simple, practical, down-and-dirty Kindle book about the little things you can do to lead a more self-sufficient life. Evans isn’t trying to scare you into a bunker or make you feel guilty for loving a restaurant that won’t stop using styrofoam, he just wants to suggest a few ideas. His book is going to give you a basic rundown on foraging for food, transitioning to renewable energy-fueled utilities, collecting water and storing it, among many other things.
If you’re already well-versed in sustainable and off-grid living, skip this one. But if you’re an absolute beginner and have no idea what gray water is, check it out. There was a time in my life when I had no idea what gray water was and I’m not ashamed of it.
9. The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
Fukuoka is a rice farmer in Japan. In his book, he connects farming and gardening to how we think about health, education, nature and even spirituality. He’s funny, it’s easy to get through and his insight is very inspiring. Fukuoka doesn’t plow, he doesn’t try to control insects, he doesn’t use chemicals. He doesn’t even weed or make little holes to plant his seeds in — instead, he just throws them all over the place. As a result, his rice yields completely trump those of other mass-producing rice operations in Japan.
10. Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from your Home Garden All Season Long by Eliot Coleman
I had to add this one to the list because Eliot Coleman is a Mainer and I’m really proud of him. This addition also brings the list full-circle because Coleman actually bought the back half of the Nearings’ Harborside farm as a young man in 1968. This book is going to teach you all about four-season gardening, the most elusive of which is winter gardening. You’re going to learn about cold frames, you’re going to learn about root cellars, you’re going to read a lot of kale and hardy greens praise. I think the secret to successful winter gardening is that whole ‘lowering your expectations will bring forth the most joy’ belief — you are not going to get tomatoes in January. However you could get some interesting salad greens, and interesting salad greens are always good.
Also, this is not a book written only for people who live in year-round warm climates. Coleman’s going to tell you that most of the United States gets more winter sunshine than the south of France, which claims to be the ‘kingdom of vegetable cuisine.’ How does he know this? Because Eliot Coleman went to the south of France on a ‘winter-vegetable pilgrimage’ and he brought back a lot of great information about it. Read about it all in theFour-Season Harvest and then move to Maine to be closer to people like him.
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