Treasures of Simple Living
Part I
Section 2
Simple Living

CHAPTER 6 FOOD

I once took a train from France to Spain, and at the border I not only had to get my passport stamped, but change trains, as well, because Spanish trains travel on narrower tracks.

In groping for a new life we have had to switch tracks many times in order to enter a new country of personal freedom. Moving from the 30-year mortgage to building our own homestead in the forest was one radical transformation, but we also began to question what we ate.

We became uncomfortable with the standard American diet we grew up on as we learned about the harm too much meat could inflict on our systems, the dangers of high sugar intake, and the threats to health that preservatives and chemicals pose. It wasn’t enough to drop this or that item, or to cut down on meat or desserts. A whole new way of thinking was called for.

Slowly, ever so slowly because lifelong habits are hard to break, we have discovered a new way of eating. Our family of four now spends about $100 a month on food, (Note: Unfortunately this was written in 1987, and prices are naturally higher now!) and we developed a rule of thumb in our search for a new diet: how can we eat food that tastes better, is better for us, and costs less?

Meat vs. Tofu

The single most expensive item in the American diet is meat. Our bodies need protein, but is there a better way of getting it? Our answer was found in the lowly soybean. It is one of the few vegetables that is almost a complete protein, close to meat, itself, which means it provides almost all the basic amino acids the body needs.

Soybeans are versatile, as well. They can be cooked and eaten as is, or they can be processed at home and transformed into tofu and tempeh, which is how we always use them. Judged by our rule of tastes better, better for you and costs less, they are champions. Tofu and tempeh accept many different seasonings readily and thus can be turned into delicious meals. As for the price, there is simply no comparison. Five cups of soybeans weigh about two pounds, and when I buy a sack of soybeans it costs me $.29 a pound. Those five cups end up serving four of us nine times, which comes to a grand total of 1.6 cents a serving. Unbeatable! If I can process soybeans in my forest kitchen with an electric blender and spend half an hour a week doing it, if Indians in Guatemala can do it using their ancient stone kitchen utensils, then the modern American woman or man can do it easily. If I pay less than two cents a serving and feel like we are eating like royalty, then think of how far a normal food budget, or even a social security check, would go. A complete description of how to process tofu and tempeh can be found in Part III, but in general terms you soak the soybeans overnight, blend them with hot water, pour the mixture into a piece of cloth and squeeze out the soy milk, which is then processed into tofu. The soy pulp that is left in the cloth can be turned into tempeh. They both can be fried, barbecued, baked, made into sauces, put into soups or stews, and the soy milk can be turned into ice cream. The soybean is a true basic and we never tire of it.

We think soy foods are such a great idea that we have tried to share our knowledge with others from time to time. One incident I remember in particular. We were vacationing in Mexico and heard of an orphanage nearby. We decided to visit them because if they could learn about tofu, think of the savings and all those children getting protein in abundance. The head of the orphanage was interested, but the woman who ran the kitchen had gone to the United States to get some food. She would be back in a couple of days, so we decided to wait. When she did arrive she listened to us for a few minutes, and then told us to go ahead and make the tofu while one of the cooks watched us. Where was she? Unloading a truckload of out-dated packages of baloney and hot dogs, piling up cases of dented soup cans and sorting stacks of old bread. Here we were with what we considered a genuine miracle food and she didn’t have the time to listen. Why? Because telling her about tofu was like speaking a foreign language. After all, did she know anyone personally who ate tofu?

We had offered her a chance at a new way of eating, but perhaps the error was on our part. It had taken us literally years of moving in a new direction and trying many experiments before we made soy foods one of the pillars of our diet. We had learned that one acre of land can produce 20 pounds of usable protein in the form of beef compared to 356 pounds of usable protein from soybeans. But how could we share our vision of what the soybean meant in the five minutes she allowed us? Needless to say, we failed, and the orphanage is probably still eating outdated baloney.

Despite the fact that the U.S. produces millions of tons of soybeans, most of them go for animal feed and they are hard to find in town. I buy organic soybeans in bulk from a health food warehouse. Cakes of tofu are sold in supermarkets now, but we as a nation have not graduated to processing the soybean ourselves. It appears to be complicated, but it isn’t. When Jim and I make tofu and tempeh once a week, I blend the soybeans in the mixer, he squeezes the soy pulp, and then while I am solidifying the soy milk to create tofu, he is adding the vinegar and tempeh culture to the soy pulp which will be ready in a day or two. That’s all it takes, and our movements resemble a culinary dance.

"Would you eat tofu if you were rich?" asked a friend, as if to eat tofu is a sacrifice we put ourselves through because we cannot afford meat. Yes, of course I would. Eating what we call celestial chicken made from tofu, or fried tofu accompanied with tartar sauce which makes a remarkable fish meal, or serving spaghetti with tempeh in the sauce are not what I would call sacrifices. Another favorite is fried tempeh in tacos complete with tomatoes and greens. Yum! And whole books filled with appealing recipes have now been written to tempt the American palate.

We are not strict vegetarians. We eat meat occasionally, and we also eat eggs and use dairy products. But instead of meat seven days a week we might have it once every week or two. The best part about our tofu-tempeh diet is not only that our bodies feel better for the change, our social conscience is eased, as well, when we think of the thousands of acres of South American jungles that have been ripped up to create pasture for cattle to be turned into fast-food hamburgers. What if whole societies followed the ancient examples of Japan and China, and turned to the soybean instead of meat? There would simply not be the protein deficiency that exists today, and there would be plenty for everyone, no matter how poor they were. It’s certainly worth thinking about.

Bread

Bread, the staff of life. Or at least it was in grandmother’s day before it got bleached, its vitamins destroyed and chemicals added. Now we get to eat enriched bread, meaning they take out most of the nutritional value, put only a fraction back, and it’s expensive, as well.

Running to the nearest corner store for a loaf of bread is simply out of the question here, even if there were good bread to buy. During our first year my only stove was the wood-burning cook stove which had no oven, and for bread I made tortillas, cooking them right on the stove top.

But we hankered for bread that rose. So for an oven we took an electric range from the local dump, pulled out the oven section, cut two holes in the floor of it, and each week Jim and I would hoist it up, place it on top of the wood stove, and wait around until the unmistakable aroma of fresh bread announced it was done. That first loaf disappeared within minutes. Many times friends about to leave delayed their departure so that they, too, could test the bread to see if it was done.

I used to think it was complicated to make bread, but it isn’t. Baking bread is so easy that the children have taken over the task. They grind wheat berries using a Vita-Mix blender, heat up water to lukewarm, add it to a bowl with some sugar, sprinkle the yeast on top of the water, wait to see it explode, then add half fresh whole wheat flour and half unbleached white, mix, knead, let it rise, put it in the bread pans, and bake it. It’s not only not complicated, it is very forgiving.

The Bread Factory

We once took the kids on a tour of a bread factory, and we were suitably impressed with its sophisticated technology. The dough was mixed in huge caldrons, it rose in a special steam room, it was shot through pipes to the waiting bread pans, and then baked. As the conveyor belt moved out of the ovens, perfect loaf after perfect loaf marched in front of us, and at the end of the tour we were given free bread and doughnuts.

But something was radically wrong. We thought again of our rule: tastes better, better for you and costs less. Ours was full of flavor, theirs was bland. Ours cost 20 cents a loaf, theirs four or five times as much. Ours was full of vitamins and fiber, theirs was denatured and limp. No contest.

Why couldn’t the bread factory produce bread that is as good as mine? I think it is possible. But we have been educated to accept the white, empty bread as the best, and our standard of health suffers as a result.

Yogurt

Another basic is yogurt. But how do we make it without electricity or pilot lights? The same way people have been making it for centuries. In the evening I mix 1 cups of non-fat, non-instant milk powder with six cups of water, heat it to lukewarm, and pour it into a container along with a cup of yogurt starter. Then I put a couple of knitted winter hats snugly over the container, and perhaps a jacket or sweater, and leave it until morning. That’s all. No yogurt maker, no elaborate routines, and we enjoy yogurt along with fruit every day at lunch.

"It’s sour," is a common complaint when visitors eat our yogurt, but the truth of the matter is they are used to the heavily sugared yogurt you buy in cute containers in the store. You don’t get to taste the yogurt at all in such a concoction because of all the flavorings. In making yogurt I either use a package of starter or I buy a tiny container of yogurt for the first batch, but I have to be sure that it still contains active ingredients. Many brands no longer do because they have been killed in the processing, which makes me wonder just how good they can be for us. After that first batch is made I take a cup out and put it aside to serve as the starter for my next batch. Yogurt can also be drained like tofu to create a soft cheese. And the price of my yogurt is just pennies.

Salads

We grow salad greens all year long, and sometimes we supplement them by producing our own alfalfa, lentil and mung bean sprouts. We prefer the vitamin-rich leaves of kale, collards, chard and leaf cabbage, flavored with mint, onion tops and garlic. Since we pluck a few leaves just before dinner, we are eating the leaves when they are at their freshest, and we know what has gone into the soil and on the plants. For salad dressing we use cold-pressed oil and vinegar, avoiding the sugar dressings entirely, and our daily salads provide some of the vitamins and fiber essential to good health.

Economically, after considering the cost of building the greenhouse, buying the seed, hauling in truckload after truckload of manure and hay, and buying organic soil amendments, it costs us more to grow our own, but in this case we don’t mind, and our salads, especially in the summer, are huge. In fact, the children complain that they are growing rabbit ears.

Wild Edibles

We try, from time to time, to have some wild edibles in our diet. Some years we can blackberries or gather wild plums, and both are delicious with yogurt. One of our favorites is the lowly lamb’s-quarter. Lamb’s-quarter is best in the spring when the plants are tender. We snip the tops off and steam them. They taste better than any spinach we have ever eaten, and they are one of our few outdoor garden volunteers thriving in the poor soil and scant moisture. When we tell our friends about how good they are they look at us a little funny, and never try this treat themselves. Lamb’s-quarter is not really a useless weed, but a relative of the quinoa which is grown in the mountains of South America, especially in Peru. The natives take its tiny seeds and grind them up to produce a high-protein flour. People are literally walking past these valuable greens on their way to the store to buy aged and dead lettuce. In this case, lamb’s-quarter costs nothing, tastes better than lettuce and is much better for us.

Town Eating

When we go on a trip several things invariably happen. We eat more meat. We forget about yogurt and salad. We indulge in the ever-present junk food. And we get a lot less exercise without our usual chores to do.

What are the results? I usually gain a few pounds, our bowels become afflicted with constipation, the lack of exercise and polluted air make us feel tired faster, and it is inevitable that we catch whatever bug is currently going around. One of the children gets a fever, or someone throws up. Lovely.

And then we come home, almost too tired to drag ourselves through the door. We can no longer run to the store for food, so the next day we make a herculean effort to bake some bread and make yogurt. We soak our soybeans and make tofu the following day, and within a week the lost spring in our step comes back, our bowels unscramble themselves, we do our chores without complaining, and the unwanted and unhealthy extra pounds fall off, the last of the sniffles disappears, and we are once again, finally, home.

Vitamins

Another essential part of our diet is vitamins, which we treat like the health-giving foods they are. Instead of trying to cure our little ills with drugs, we use vitamins, especially vitamin C. When we do that we feel we are not battering our already weakened systems, but simply giving it more of the nutrients the body naturally needs to fight off the bugs. As soon as we feel the sniffles coming on, or become a little flushed, we take lots of vitamins and slow down until we feel our normal energies coming back. It seems to work for us.

Another technique I use when one of us gets sick is to refer to a natural healing book which suggests various organic ways to deal with illness: herbal teas, acupressure, special exercises, vitamin therapy, etc. Then I feel I can do something, not just stand by and wring my hands. And not only can I do something, the patient can do something as well, and relief is usually felt almost immediately. Sickness is no longer something that strikes us down and renders us helpless until its grip loosens.

Going Shopping

I am both amused and outraged at the lengths I have had to go to in order to make sure my family gets truly organic basics. Soybeans are rare in town, and if I can buy them they usually come in cute little one-pound sacks at a very high price. And even then I have no assurance they are organic. The same goes for brown rice or wheat berries, the other two staples I use in large quantities, so once a year we travel to get what we need at a natural food warehouse. But for the rest of the year I know I have stocked away in my root cellar the very best and healthiest food I can buy. Whenever I open up a container to bring a small supply into my kitchen, one of the kids invariably grabs a couple of handfuls of the rice or wheat and lets the grains fall gracefully back into the bucket.

The health food warehouse is my primary source of organic food. Not only do we buy grains, but organic raisins, organic peanut butter, cold-pressed oil in 5-gallon containers, etc. But my next stop in stocking up is shopping at the local discount market. One fall we brought the pick-up truck to town and did a major shopping trip for winter. I had calculated out just how much we would probably use, and I ran up and down the aisles with my lists flapping, the kids coming behind me and grabbing as I pointed. We managed to fill three flat bed carts plus a few regular baskets. People stopped and stared, and one lady couldn’t contain herself any longer. Just what, she asked, were we doing? And just how much food did we really need? Were we feeding the whole town? When I explained we were stocking up for winter because we lived in the forest, I noticed a slight uneasiness as she tried to imagine herself being snowed in all winter. Obviously the thought made her uncomfortable, and she followed us along for a while as we gaily piled more and more on our carts. I could sympathize with how she was feeling because it appears that we have totally regressed. The thought of not being able to run to the store at will, or not being able to call a friend, or even flick on the television is enough to send any self-respecting civilized lady screaming back to the city lights.

But when you actually do it you get a unique opportunity to look at yourself and the outside world from an entirely new perspective, and it’s not really scary at all. On the contrary, moving away has given us a chance to move closer to both the inner

workings of ourselves and the gentle movements of the wild creatures and the seasons. To look out the window and see nothing but towering pine trees, to watch the white clouds drifting by, or hear the coyote greet the full moon, is to let awaken a part of us that is usually dulled into unconsciousness in our hurry-hurry world. To create our own store, literally, for the winter, to see our woodsheds bulging, to see our bookshelves sagging with winter reading, is to feel truly, deeply rich.

 

CHAPTER 7 WINTER, TRAVEL AND WILD PLACES

Winter. For most people it is a time of colder temperatures, occasional dangerous driving conditions, and a possible day off from school, but by-and-large it is business as usual. Snow, if there is any, turns to slush or is removed by snow plows.

Winter in the forest is an entirely different matter. We are 15 miles as the crow flies from Crater Lake which can get 50 feet of snow a year. The most we have gotten is 4 feet on the ground, but that is still a lot of snow. We think about winter occasionally during the summer when we make an effort to gather our wood supply, and we think about it all the time during the late fall. The road we use is ten miles from the nearest pavement and no official agency plows it for us.

Planning for winter is a little like imagining going on a six-month boat trip without sighting land. If we don’t buy what we need in the fall we might run out of it and it may be a while before we can get out, buy it, and backpack it home. My lists are five pages long, and I find myself keeping track of just how quickly we use items up so that we won’t find ourselves short in March.

How much propane do we need? How many tubes of toothpaste? How many pounds of raisins, or how many sacks of powdered milk? And what about typewriter paper, carbon paper, paper clips, etc.? Will 14 rolls of paper towels last us? Will my garlic powder run out? And how many bottles of shampoo?

In the late fall we get what we call mountain rain – a snow which covers the ground for a few hours and then is gone – but about the middle of November we usually get our first serious snow fall, and that snow stays until late spring. The snow at our altitude does not turn to slush but stays beautifully clean all winter long. We park our truck at the bottom of our hill, and the only tracks we see are those of rabbits, an occasional coyote, and our own.

Snowbound

Our first three winters were mild. We only had about a foot and a half of snow and we could get in and out with our truck. And then the fourth winter came. Just after Christmas it started to snow heavily. At first we had 2 feet on the ground, and then 3 feet, and we began to get concerned. What if our roofs started to cave in? All we could see of the bioshelter was the doorway. When I had to literally swim through the snow to get to the woodshed, for the first time I began to feel a tinge of fear.

We had a family meeting, all four of us, and talked about what was happening. Was anyone sick? No. Did we have enough food? Yes. Did we have enough wood? Yes. Did we have each other? Yes. What was our major problem? The roofs. Theoretically they were supposed to be strong enough to withstand all that snow, but we decided we would do what we could. Each of us took a shovel and started working, though with the bioshelter it was hard to figure out where the roof ended and the ground started.

By the time the storm ended we had a full four feet of snow on the ground, our truck had disappeared under it all, but enough of the snow had been taken off the roofs to make us feel comfortable again; we felt stronger as a family because everyone had worked together and we were beginning to relax. We did not have a CB or skis that winter and we wondered how everyone else was doing, but they all had radio contact with each other, so we figured they were all right.

The sun came out showing us a wondrous world of wintry glory. The heavily burdened trees sparkled as the sun glinted off their new white coats. It was hard to believe we were only three miles away from the highway in a direct line because we now found ourselves in a world truly apart. Our passive solar house worked to perfection. It captured the sun’s rays so well for the moment that we turned off the wood stove and basked in the sun on our living room floor.

Suddenly we heard a knock on the door. Who, or what, could that be? Two friends had been plowing the roads with a bulldozer, rescuing people, and then reopening the roads as the continuing storm and the wind filled them up again. A baby had gotten sick, visitors had to be gotten out, and they had no idea how we were doing. They thawed out in our sun-drenched living room, drank hot chocolate, and we assured them we were doing fine. For the rest of the winter we enjoyed the road they had created.

Trip to Town

A few days before Christmas one year the three families in our forest that were home that winter decided to make a joint trip to town. Jim and the children stayed home, but I trekked down to the forest road at 6:30 a.m. The weather was below freezing and we had had a fresh snow storm. Soon my ride arrived: a 26,000 pound logging truck pulling a Datsun pick-up. I hopped in the Datsun, thawed out and enjoyed talking to my neighbor’s wife as we tried to make our way to the highway only five miles away. When the logging truck got stuck or the pickup veered off the road, we got out the shovels. After the first two miles the Datsun was unhooked and our neighbor had to drive the logging truck backwards for a quarter of a mile in order to pull the third neighbor’s truck down to the main road because the drifts on the sides of the road were so deep he couldn’t turn around.

Then the Datsun got rehitched as the third member of the caravan, and off we went. A mile down the road everyone stopped: a tree heavy with snow was lying across the road. Two chain saws appeared, we helped drag the pieces of the tree away, and we were off again. Another tree or two held us up, and after a total time of four and a half hours we finally saw the highway! It was 11 o’clock in the morning, we were already exhausted, and town was still 40 miles away. We dug our way through the berm the snowplows had created, left the logging truck behind, did our shopping and reconvened at 7 p.m. It took an hour to turn the logging truck around, and then we hooked ourselves up again. It was quicker going home because no new trees had fallen in our path. We dropped the first family off, I got out in what seemed the middle of nowhere in pitch darkness, and by the light of my flashlight I made it home. Time: 10:45 p.m. Jim and the kids were still awake, they warmed up my dinner and eagerly gathered around me while I told them of all my adventures, but in the back of my mind I wondered if the few things I had managed to buy were worth the tremendous effort we had all gone through. Luckily this kind of epic journey was rare.

Travel

When the snows get deep on our road the usual means of keeping it open in recent years has been a World War II 6-wheel-drive Navy truck, again owned by our neighbor. If he can manage to make a track and keep that track open, then we can get in and out. We had eventually graduated to a 4-wheel-drive truck, but often the going is hard, if not impossible, even with four chains. There are two problems with this system: following a track means that the snow between the tracks can get too high and we get high-centered. The second problem is that the snow on the track gets very hard, but the adjacent snow is soft, and if we slip off the track the truck sinks into the softer snow and we are high-centered on the track itself. The only way to get out of this predicament is to use our Hi-Lift jack, and as the truck goes higher and higher (two are on the jack and two are leaning against the truck to keep it from wavering in the wrong direction) we decide if it is high enough, and then we push the truck. It springs off the jack and (hopefully) falls back on the track. More times than not it misses, and we have to repeat the procedure until all four wheels are where they are supposed to be. Needless to say, this work is not only exhausting, but it is often fruitless. One day I remember in particular. We were playing the road game of jacking up the truck, pushing it back on the track, moving forward a few dozen yards and slipping off again. Dripping in perspiration, we finally decided to simply push the truck off the road and go back home. What had taken us four hours by truck took us only 20 minutes on foot!

Skis

Fighting these kinds of road conditions encourages wild plans to solve the problem: a giant snow blower, a bulldozer of our own, a hovercraft that would simply sail over the top of the snow, and even balloons - anything but what we were doing. Good snowmobiles or a snow cat would be more practical, but expensive. Our solution was to get cross-country skis. After that we never had to worry about the road in the same way. Sometimes we would leave our truck at our neighbors a mile and a half away and ski back and forth.

And then we began to wonder what we would do if some year no vehicle traffic at all was possible. We decided that since the highway was only three miles away as the crow flies, now that we had skis we could be crows, too, and ski to it directly right over the travel-inhibiting brush of summer. The first time we tried it our spirits soared as we moved over the crisp virgin snow aided by compass and tying survey ribbons to the trees to guide our return trip. We assumed the hard part of the trip was skiing, but once we got to the highway no one would pick us up. After an hour and a half of standing in below freezing weather we knew we had no choice: we would have to ski back home. We looked at one another, silently put our skis on, and headed back into the woods and our own special world that most people avoided because it was so untamed, yet which was much gentler in many ways. Needless to say, that was the first and last time we skied to the highway without making prior arrangements.

But if skiing in the forest was exhilarating, it could also be dangerous. On another trip we skied out to the highway, were picked up by a friend, got to town, did our business, stayed overnight, and then we were brought back to our drop-off point. It had been snowing all night, but we hadn’t paid much attention to it. When we started back our tracks of the previous day were covered and the new snow was deep and powdery. At first it wasn’t so bad, but as our elevation went up the depth of the snow increased so that we could not even see our skies at all as our feet plodded along. Going through snow like that made us feel like we had lead weights on our feet. We let John, the smallest and an excellent skier, go first because he didn’t sink down as much, but when he got tired we went back to taking turns. What had taken us two hours going out was now taking us almost four hours coming back.

The storm was getting stronger and we began having difficulty finding our markers. We couldn’t contemplate all those hours back to the highway and the difficulty of getting a ride. And though we had a small amount of emergency gear with us, to stop and spend the night in our wet and drained condition would have been equally dangerous. We pushed on.

Finally, by moving our feet by a sheer act of the will, we reached home. No one said a word. We all got into dry clothes, Jim started a brisk fire, we dangled our feet over the loft so our toes would thaw out, and we thanked God we were unharmed. What had started out as a pleasure trip could have ended up badly, all because we were not aware enough of the dangers of this kind of traveling.

The Snow as Guardian

Despite all the problems we had learning to cope with winter, we realized that it really was a blessing in disguise. If there were no snow in our area, and it’s just in our area – the little town of Chiloquin only 16 miles away usually gets only a few inches at a time – or if the roads were systematically maintained out here, we probably couldn’t have afforded the land in the first place. The snow creates a world apart. Some winter days are so exquisitely beautiful that we jump on our skies and go through the forest with no destination in mind at all for the mere joy of it. Snow men, snow castles, snow balls, and for a special treat chocolate snow ice cream all celebrate the winter season.

And the snow has taught us not to continually try to overpower nature. We have to learn its ways and bide our time until the conditions are right to make a move. We have to live with the snow and storms, sense something of their moods and then nature mostly shows her benevolent face.

It’s good to experience a nature still untamed and unconfined. Once when one of our forest friends was going to town she found an older couple stuck on the lower, less difficult reaches of our forest road futilely putting paper bags under the wheels of their motorhome. She quickly jumped out of her truck with her shovel and soon had them on their way. But it was a sad commentary of how we have all strayed from nature and don’t even know enough to fear it, still less understand it.

A Winter Retreat

We usually go to town every week or two, but one winter we decided it would be fun to stay home without going to town at all, just to see what would happen and how long we could stand it. At first we were concerned about how we would spend our time. Would we get cabin fever? Would we start to bicker with each other? Would we run out of things to do? Would we get desperately bored? Would we be craving trips to town until we couldn’t stand it any longer?

We had all our supplies in, and then came the announcement: This is Day #1 of staying home. We all made a special effort to keep busy, and when the first few days passed without any crisis, we relaxed a bit. Jim and I not only had time to go through all our old files and papers, we started what was to become a full-time interest: writing. The kids spent more time reading and doing school; we still had to do the daily chores; a wide variety of topics came up for family discussion; we had the leisure to enjoy music; once in a while we would ski over to our neighbors for a short visit, and soon, much to our amazement and delight, we were flying along. There didn’t seem to be enough winter days to do all we wanted to do. Our winter challenge had not found us wanting when the announcement came: This is day #80 of staying home!

More Trips

We don’t need much money for our simple lifestyle, but an even greater benefit is the blocks of time we can call our own. If we avoid motels and restaurants we can take trips that last for weeks or months. When our 80 day retreat came to an end, for example, we skied to our neighbors, got a ride to the bus stop, traveled across the country in three and a half days, and found ourselves in the wheel-screeching, graffiti-decorated subways of New York City where Jim had grown up. What a culture shock after the peace and quiet of the forest! But we saw the sights, visited relatives, flicked on light switches, had hot showers, watched television, and generally experienced for a while what most people take for granted.

Another year we thought about going south. The month was January, our means of transportation was a Datsun hatchback, and our tentative destination was Mexico. Would we rough it? Would we all sleep in the car if we had to? Were we willing to take only the bare minimum of equipment? We thought it was worth the possible discomfort, and our one rule was that no matter what happened, no one would complain.

We left our snow-locked forest behind, visited friends along the way until we got to the border, and then we entered Baja California: a new culture and a new world. We followed the one paved road all the way to the tip of the peninsula, spent many nights on semi-tropical beaches, reveled in the 80 degree temperatures, met people along the way, and since I speak Spanish we even delighted in spending time in out of the way ranchos. We spent a week at a village on the Sea of Cortez where we made friends with the fishermen, ate some of their catch, roamed the unpopulated beaches, and cooked our meals over a wood fire.

Another of our favorite places was a small rancho in the desert that had been homesteaded by an older couple whom we called the abuelitos, an affectionate diminutive meaning grandparents. They had a house with walls of cardon cactus wood and a palm-thatched roof which sat on a small rise overlooking an arroyo. They had planted an orchard of guavas, figs, lemons, limes and pomegranates, and had a flock of goats they pastured in the sparse land twice a day. Turkeys, pigs and kittens surrounded the house, and the children loved it. We had dinner there one night and in the flickering flames watched our friend shred the dried goat meat and prepare a delicious meal. True simplicity. And what was most impressive was their serenity and kindness.

When we wanted a change of scenery we went to La Paz and enjoyed Mexican city life. Movies were 30 cents apiece and a meal for four $5.00. Traveling and camping was costing us not much more than staying home. We were rich not only in free time but in the opportunity for new adventures.

Wild Places

Ours is a society where most areas have been paved, surveyed, fenced and defined. When I was a child the house we lived in still had empty lots around it. There was a spring in the backyard that invited skunk cabbage, wild rhubarb and tadpoles. Fireflies delighted me during the early evening hours of summer, and there were plenty of wild flowers and just plain weeds. But soon those empty lots were sold, lazy afternoon naps were disturbed by the pounding of hammers as house after house went up, and the swamp disappeared.

So I began to wander further from home and happily discovered a whole hill no one seemed to own or want, for it was too rocky and steep to build on. But once I clawed my way through the thorny bushes the view was spectacular. I could see half the town from up there, but no one could see me. That hill is still there today, of course, but it is much harder to get to because the little path I used has been walled off, and the last time I visited, it was littered with broken glass and crushed beer cans.

Wild places like the forest, desert or seashore all offer special gifts. I can’t forget the days we spent by a tiny stream in the desert in Mexico surrounded by a fantastic jumble of boulders and cacti where high on a cliff was a cave with Indian paintings. Or the weeks we passed camping along the Pacific. Each morning we would hurry to the beach to see what treasures the tide had left of abalone shells, driftwood or seaweed. At night with the surf booming in the background Jim would study, the kids would read and I would play the guitar.

Wild places are rare, far too rare, in our modern society. We need them, our spirit needs them, and not to have them is to experience a depth of poverty so severe we don’t even know what we have been robbed of. And truly wild animals can unlock something deep inside of us in a way no zoo dwellers can ever do.

In the forest the ordinary rhythms of our days are punctuated by magical moments when a herd of elk thunders across the road, an eagle soars over our hill or a score of crows spiral in a strange reunion against the stormy sky. We don’t live in a constant wonderland of visible wildlife, but over the months and years our paths cross those of the other forest dwellers. Sometimes these encounters are uplifting, at other times exasperating and amusing.

One night, for example, the continual blaring of a horn shocked us out of a sound sleep. It was 1 a.m. and our imaginations went wild as we groped for the flashlight, threw on some clothes and raced down our hill. We saw neither friend nor foe, but our own truck still shattering the stillness of the night. A porcupine had crawled up into the engine compartment, chewed on the wires and short-circuited the horn. If it had scared us, imagine what it must have done to him! We disconnected the wires, breathed deeply in the hopes of getting our hearts to slow down, and went back to bed.

Porcupines like to eat trees, but they are crazy about glue, and the plywood of our porch was a special treat. The first time it happened our imaginations went wild again, but once we cautiously opened our door and peeked to see him calmly munching away our fear dwindled. We found a stick, made loud, hopefully menacing noises, and chased him away. The second night the performance was repeated. Then he skipped a night, and we figured we could get a regular quota of sleep. But no. Back he was again. Another chase, another attempt to return to slumberland, but something had to be done. That glue was addling his little brain, and if he kept it up there wouldn’t be much left of our porch.

The next morning we tried to think up a plan. Problem: how do you trap a porcupine and remain unscathed? Jim came up with the idea of creating a trap out of a piece of chicken wire. You form a tube, hook the top together, weave a rope along the bottom, and when you see the porcupine you put the wire tube on top of him, and then pull the bottom rope. Sure. We all laughed at that one, but it was better than nothing.

Once again we went to sleep, and once again our visitor came back. He saw us coming, took a last chomp, started to run away (which isn’t very fast), we grabbed the wire and pushed it on top of him. Great! Now we have a porcupine in chicken wire. What do we do next? Why, pull the bottom rope, of course. Of course. We found the rope, pulled it, and astounded ourselves when we ended up with a trussed-up porcupine. But now what do we do? Don’t know. Didn’t ever think we would get this far. Think quick! So we emptied a trash can, carefully put porcupine-in-chicken-wire in, and anchored it down.

Now that we have a trapped porcupine, what do we do next? Why, we put it in the truck and drive miles away, carefully undo the rope and watch as our freed hostage ambles calmly off into the woods. Whew! City life was never like this.

"I’m scared of bears," a visitor declared, so if she had to leave the house once it got dark she made sure she had company. "But we’ve never seen a bear. Relax," we said. And we never had. Hunters come up to our part of the forest with their hunting dogs and occasionally tree one, but they are very shy and had never been a bother. The closest we had ever come to a bear was the notorious Twee Twee URR! bird. When we were building the first house and our nerves weren’t too steady in any event, we had heard a loud grunting which seemed to come from close by in the bushes. We got the kids ready to start climbing the trees and it wasn’t until after 20 minutes of grunting that we discovered it wasn’t a bear at all, but a bird circling overhead, which went Twee Twee, and then by some strange process, let forth a loud URR!

But then one day I went down to the bioshelter for bread and discovered my freshly baked loaves were gone. Now what could have gotten into them? Probably a porcupine, I thought. So I baked another batch and didn’t think much about it.

The next week, during the afternoon, I had six loaves rising in the bioshelter and Jim and I were in the top house. The kids went out to play, and came rushing through the door, screaming at the top of their lungs, "Someone ate all our loaves." Sure enough, all six pans were empty, and we even found one or two pans outside. A porcupine is nocturnal, so maybe it isn’t a porcupine. Then what is it? The intruder had obviously gotten into the greenhouse through a window with no glass in it, so we boarded it up.

Our new visitor returned in the night, casually broke open another window, drank a gallon of oil and a gallon of soy sauce, and left a few black hairs and a few paw prints for souvenirs. No doubt about it. BEAR!

Jim took to standing armed guard while I made dinner in the bioshelter. A few nights later the bear was trapped at an RV park miles away, and we haven’t had any trouble since. We were happy when it turned out not to be one of our wild bears, but a young black bear who had grown accustomed to the tidbits left by visitors to Crater Lake National Park and had strayed too far south.

"Something’s snacking in the greenhouse. I’m going to leave a live trap so we can catch him." We imagined it was a pack rat or squirrel and thought nothing about it. The next morning when Jim went down to check the trap, what he saw made him come running up the path to tell the rest of us. "It’s a skunk!" We all dropped what we were doing, raced down the path, delicately opened the greenhouse door, and peeked. Sure enough, there he was, and he was a cute little guy. But now what? He seemed quiet enough and looked at us curiously, but we were keeping our distance. Whenever he turned around we backed away. The trick is to get him out of the cage without a mishap we would all regret for weeks. Jim came up with the idea of feeding him peanut butter balls. He stuck one on a long stick and dropped it into the trap. The skunk sniffed around, found it and began to eat happily. We fed him a few more and then we left him alone for another consultation.

Half an hour later we were all hanging in the doorway again. Jim took two skis and tried to manipulate them so they would open the door. But it’s hard to do long-distance. A few more peanut butter balls were offered as a sign of friendship, and then Jim gingerly dragged the trap a little closer and finally got it open. Did the skunk race out? No. He was thirsty and there was some melted snow on the skis. He calmly started licking them. Then he looked around in mild surprise and wandered off into the greenhouse.

Spring

Winter finally gives way to spring which is my favorite season. The temperature soars into the 50s and 60s but four feet of snow melts slowly. As it disappears we come upon a now-exposed mouse tunnel, and the sleds and tools that we couldn’t find in February. Sometimes our trips to town start in deep snow, progress to occasional drifts, and by the time we have reached the end of one of the forest roads ten miles away we are raising dust. At other times, when the road has been closed and now has melted to scattered mounds, we get in the truck, make a rush at each drift and blast our way through. The road is officially open.

The very beginning of winter was hard because it seemed to stretch endlessly before us, but once we experience the first serious storm we settle down to a new and peaceful life. When we were marooned by our snow guardian we knew we would remain undisturbed, and we were masters of how we spent our time. Now spring jolts us out of our complacency and requires a more open and active attitude. We feel vulnerable. Our winter solitude is over.

 

 

CHAPTER 8: TELEVISION

What was the first step we took on the road to the forest? Well, it was actually one we didn’t take. Just before our daughter was born we were on the verge of buying a television. But while we were looking at 19 eyes glowing at us from the department store shelves we had serious second thoughts. We knew that if we had a TV we would spend a couple of hours every evening watching it. But what would happen if we didn’t get one? How would we spend our evenings? The challenge of kicking the TV habit excited us, and we left the store with our money still in our pockets. Besides, we knew we could always come back.

The first two weeks were terrible. We went to the library and took home piles of books, I did more baking and we would go for walks. We were surrounded by silence and unstructured hours. Every evening was free. We didn’t have to keep looking at the clock so that we wouldn’t miss a show. We had more than ample opportunity to talk to each other about all sorts of things, and between our reading and those talks we found ourselves coming up with new ideas about how to live our life. Soon we realized we were hooked, no longer on TV but on our own adventure of discovery, first in the living room of our apartment, and eventually on our own piece of land.

When the kids came along there was no TV to gobble up endless hours of their childhoods. They didn’t know what it was like to crawl out of bed in the morning and flick on the tube until school time, or to spend evening after evening watching show after show. They didn’t have constant fights with us about what shows they could see, nor did they pester us to leave the table so they could watch a program, or stay up an extra half hour to finish one. And we were not plagued with the insidious feeling that it was the TV rather than us that was directing their lives, thoughts, emotions, desires and time.

When we go to town and visit friends, naturally our children get the chance to watch television. They are fascinated with it, as you would expect, and they often prefer watching it to playing with the other kids. One difference I noticed though, was that when our children were younger they used to get excited, laugh, shout, get very tense and jump up and down on the chair, according to what was happening on the screen, while the other kids just sat there or turned to look at our kids in surprise. And they had to talk about what they had seen to clear up little things they didn’t understand, or that shocked them, or that were especially scary. In short, they had to diffuse the emotional packages that had been delivered to them, and they needed to distinguish them from real life.

But what would have happened if they had grown up day by day accepting outlandish personalities, cartoons, crimes, killings, etc., as more or less normal without reflecting on them and rarely had the chance to talk about those things they did not understand, or that bothered them? They would have become receptacles of all those electronic experiences and been clogged up with them. They would have become plugged into the machine and would not be able to conceive of what life would be without it. And that, I feel, would have been a real loss for them, and for us.

It is hard to imagine any other single thing that so disrupts the life of the family today and robs all of us, but especially the children, of energies that could be used to build a better life. What parent can compete with the TV for his child’s attention? And how many families have given up a leisurely dinner hour or accept it as a constant background noise, even when no one is watching it? Or how many times have you gone to visit someone and the TV stays on while you are trying to talk with them and you find your attention is strongly divided between them and sneaking a peek to see what is on the screen? A child can literally see more of his favorite TV characters than he does of his own parents, so it is important to see what the television is giving him.

Passivity

We were visiting friends and had just finished watching a movie on the television. Afterwards everyone drifted off, except the 4-year-old. She stared at me as I turned the machine off and said, "Can’t we watch some more?" "No, there’s nothing good on now," I answered. She thought that over for a minute, then turned and ran to her mother shouting, "Mommy, mommy, can I watch something bad on TV?"

The TV turns us into a spectator society, sitting for hours without moving, letting the images, emotions and questionable morals all wash over us, and that’s not natural. We are not built to sit in front of a box, letting that box take away our precious time in exchange for canned entertainment. Life is meant to be lived. There is so much to know and do, feel and love. But the TV suppresses all these precious elements and substitutes loud, flashy entertainment, punctuated with shouted notices to buy, buy, buy. Children end up with far too few hours of play and far too many hours actually bored in front of the machine but too weak to turn it off and discover more interesting but demanding things to do. The ultimate robbery is that an adolescent can find himself lacking in the interior ability to make a better life for himself because his foundation of creative play had been frittered away in useless TV watching. Now when it comes to making mature decisions for himself he finds that the TV has no answer for him, and his own initiative is undeveloped. The school educated him for years, the TV entertained him for endless hours (perhaps as much as 6 or 7 hours a day), but how much time did he have to wonder about the seasons, the mysteries of butterflies, how sea shells are made, where does the rain come from and what does his heart sound like? We have taken a perfectly fine baby, trained him at a very early age to sit in front of the television to keep him out of mommy’s hair, and then we wonder why as an adolescent he is directionless, gets bored easily, seems to have a permanent pout demanding that society gratify him, doesn’t know there is a strong relationship between work and a good life, and is easily influenced by other teenagers, equally directionless.

Emotions

TV manufactures emotions and inflicts them on us. The background music, the tone in voices, the very action itself, all are contrived to create a mood. We feel what we are meant to feel, we laugh in the right spots, we feel tense or depressed. But it is not real. When the tube is finally flicked off the viewer has to mentally shake himself and bring himself back to reality, perhaps feeling a little ashamed, and even used and resentful, that he let himself be manipulated. Our emotions are delicate, and after watching TV for a few hours they feel as if they have been mauled and used indiscriminately. The soaps, of course, are the crudest example of emotional manipulation, preying on a less beautiful side of us, cameoing jealousy, lust for power, sex, etc.

Have you ever noticed that after a long stretch of TV viewing a child sometimes aberrates, runs around, or picks a fight with the first person he sees? Why? Because all those emotions have been poured into him and he wasn’t able to do anything about them at the time, so he reacts when the machine is off. He has to do something, for he is not a machine, and he needs to express his own feelings that have been pushed and pulled. The world expects him to just go on with his life as though nothing has happened, but something has happened. The TV has subjected him to violence of a degree that is far beyond what most of us will ever experience in our lifetimes, and it has created impressions about people, sex, world events, even nature, that he would never have gotten in the calm, slowly revealing and on-schedule evolution of his own discoveries of life. A child learns at a tremendously rapid rate, but he learns what he is capable of learning, and he is learning it in his own unique way. TV has taken that organic process, yanked from the child his attempts to figure things out, and in exchange, presents it all for him, complete in living color and zoom shots. The result? A distorted view of the adult world, glamour, crime, etc., and so he feels he knows it all, and ends up with a pseudo-sophistication that is unnatural, unattractive and harmful. All in all, TV is junk food for the mind and heart.

Concentration

I made an informal survey of what kids are like in school today compared to years ago by talking to teachers who have taught for many years, and the same comments kept coming up: the attention span is shorter; it is harder to get and keep their attention; they are less interested; they get bored easier; they don’t work as hard and they are much more restless. Why? Children are used to sitting while the machine does everything. Nothing is required of them. And when they get to school they bring that passive attitude with them. They have lost the ability to see the difference between first-hand self-motivation and a second-hand life of passivity. They seem to lean back with their arms folded over their chests waiting for (challenging?) the teacher to do something spectacular enough to be worthy of their interest. No human being could, or should, try to accept that challenge because it is so unrealistic. The child doesn’t realize that true learning takes place only when he reaches out to know, corrects his mistakes, and has a reason and need to learn. He has to see that the most important ingredient of an interesting life is himself.

If I am hard on TV it is not because I don’t like to relax and see a good movie or travelogue, but because television has become so omnipresent in our society that we don’t realize that it functions as an addiction. It fills up the holes of meaning in our lives and prevent us from stirring ourselves up to do something about the problems we are enmeshed in. It homogenizes us as a nation, blurring valuable regional and individual differences, and we become too mass-minded to cope with creating genuine alternatives.

We are worth more, much more, than what television has to offer. There are more exciting and rewarding things to do and more genuine family life to be lived. We have never returned to the department store for our television, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

 

CHAPTER 9: HOME SCHOOL

I naturally assumed that when our children reached school age off they would go. But when Elizabeth was 3 I got a book out of the library that said you could teach your preschooler how to read. I didn’t think it was possible, nor had I ever considered teaching her myself. But the book suggested putting simple words like dog, cat, or house on index cards. So, just for fun, I decided to try it. And it worked. And then one day, while I was going through the cards with Elizabeth as usual, 2-year-old John told me what the card said before she did. "Fluke," I said to myself. Then I put the second card down, and he guessed right again. "Coincidence," I thought, but I was beginning to wonder. Then he proceeded to name eight cards in a row, with no mistakes. I couldn’t believe it. He had been watching from the other side of the table, and had learned them upside down!

That was the day my attitude of something to do with the kids changed into seriously considering teaching them myself until school started. After that they both got a few minutes of school every day.

When they reached the point of being able to read simple sentences when I strung the index cards together, I started looking around for very simple readers. But I couldn’t find very many that were truly elementary enough. So I started writing tiny books complete with stick drawings. I would write a 4-page book, one sentence per page, in five minutes, using words they had just learned, and I would write about them, which caught their interest. "Elizabeth has a doll." "John has a big red truck." Nothing astounding, but useful. Soon they would sit on the floor and read through a stack of homemade books, and the very number of them began to impress them, and me. They could read a bit, and it was fun.

We ran the woodworking business, traveled, camped for months while we looked for land, and finally moved to the forest, and all this time, no matter where we were, the children were doing school. They read; they drew pictures; they did some math; they got "general knowledge" from us, which was countless discussions about whatever came up, and they were also playing in the sand on the beach, meeting new people all the time, playing with other kids, seeing new towns, doing their chores, helping with dinner, etc. School was integrated into the flow of their daily life. When they reached school age not only were we deep in the forest amidst the snow, but it felt natural to just go on teaching them ourselves. And so we did, and they have never gone to school.

When we mention to parents that we are teaching our children they often say that they would like to take their kids out of school because they are unhappy with the system. But their overriding fear is that they would never be able to properly educate their children. I felt the same way, too. Why? Because if there is a huge organization of school buildings, teachers, curriculums, planned extracurricular activities and faculties devoted to teaching teachers how to teach, then what chance does a lowly parent have to take over the job? Besides, there is the added fear that it is somehow against the law to take the matter of our own children’s education into our own hands. And if we do take our children out of the system, or never put them in it, we will be depriving them of something very important. They will go through life with that lack clearly visible, and it will handicap them forever.

School and What it Does

The school takes a child 5 or 6 years old and spends the next 13 years trying to teach him to read, write, do math, spell, learn some history, geography, and perhaps some language, and sports. It sits him in a classroom 5 days a week for 5 or 6 hours a day, and then expects him to go home and spend even more time on homework. He is supposed to sit at his desk, pay attention, do his written work, and take tests.

Society as a whole accepts unreflectively the fact that this educational system is the best for the child, and when problems arise, if Johnny can’t read, if the kids don’t pay attention, if there is unrest in the classroom, then, obviously, the solution to the problems is to pour more and more money and energy into the system.

But what if the whole system is going in the wrong direction? What if it is not best for Johnny to be made to sit at a desk for 13 or more years and be talked at, hearing about subjects he did not choose and doing work that is essentially boring to him? What if the whole heart of education has to shift out of the school building and into the home? The parents and not the teachers should and do have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. Parents today are not only educated, but they know their children in ways that no one else ever will, and they know how to reach them. If parents would take on the responsibility for teaching their own child, the child would probably not get six hours a day of schooling, but the times he would get would be devoted entirely to him or her. When you are teaching your own child, you are not only concerned that he learn certain things, but that he is happy learning them. If he does not catch on to what you are teaching him, what is the harm of dropping it for now and picking it up later, perhaps a year or two later, when he is ready? What is the harm if a lot more time is spent on a subject that is really interesting to him, even if it seems to be off the mark? Whose mark?

At home when you are trying to teach something and the child looks at you vacantly, you will know right away if he or she 1. is bored and would react better to another approach 2. is bored, and the subject should be dropped entirely 3. is tired, and wants to learn, but not right now 4. has too much energy to sit for a lesson and would really rather play 5. has to be disciplined to pay attention – which happens far less frequently than you might think.

Love of Learning

The school system feels threatened when it sees parents taking kids out of the classroom, for it feels it alone has the right and the ability to teach them. If a parent wants to take over the task, then the system often insists on supervising the home curriculum, sometimes wants to observe the home classroom, and if the child does not pass the yearly tests given by the school, then he is supposed to return to the institution and get a real education. But many things are educational that do not fit into the standard curriculum, and at home those subjects and paths of interest can be pursued easily and can change from day to day.

Most importantly, the essential thing about the education of our children is not a lot of facts and figures, but that they learn to love to learn. Children go to school with a strong love of learning. After all, they have already been learning vast amounts of things at home, going from gurgles and goos to full sentences – an astounding feat! But after a couple of years in school that love of learning has often been stifled by being bored or having to slow down while the class catches up, or by being made to feel a failure. If school kills that essential feeling of a deep love of knowledge, then what good is it? What good is it if it teaches children how to read and write if as adults they will never read a serious book or write something beyond an occasional letter?

Is it fair to keep children apart from adult life? What would be the harm if they were allowed to grow up with adults, sharing the same spaces, and seeing us with our problems, trying to work out solutions just as the children have to work out their own? What is wrong with letting children see that adults are weak and often don’t know the answers? If children were to see us trying to learn things, trying to study new areas of interest, and trying to put that new knowledge into use, that alone would be of inestimable value to them.

Socialization

"Your kids are missing the socialization of school." Mothers who point this out to me often go on to tell me all the problems their children are having at school, but they always end up by saying, "At least they are getting socialized." But what does socialization mean? Does it mean learning how to act like all the other kids act? Does it mean expecting to be punished if you don’t act like everyone else? Does it mean learning how to compete? Does it mean fitting into the intricate social pecking order that goes on among peers, to know that no matter what, we would never have the hope of being the leader, or even a member, of a particular group of kids we secretly admire? Or is it the feelings of exhilaration when the group wants to play with us or the feelings of desolation and abandonment when the group rudely excludes us? Socialization? If that is socialization, it’s not much fun.

Individual Differences

In school the children know where they stand academically. Everyone knows who the smart kid is, and who is dumb. Even more damaging is they know the name of the game is to beat out all the others and be the best. And so, from a very early age, most children know that they will never be best, and, in fact, may feel early in life that the most they can hope for is not to fall too far behind.

We were camping one weekend and the kids met a quiet little girl of 6. She told me downcast that she had to repeat first grade because she didn’t learn enough the first time. My heart went out to her because she considered herself a failure. It’s not right to do this sort of thing to our children.

We are complicated beings, but in school only certain skills and responses are acknowledged. The boy who spends hours daydreaming is constantly chastised because daydreaming is not acceptable. The active child who has enormous energy is sat on. Skills like reading and writing have to be learned on time. The kids have to fit themselves into the institutional schedule even if, for some reason hidden in the depths of their developing selves, they are not ready to read and write, or are interested in simply playing and daydreaming and will get to reading and writing in a year or two or three and more than catch up because important interior, untestable, work has been accomplished.

Each child has his own way of learning things, and to try to force one child to learn exactly the way another child does is a mistake. One of ours, for example, learns easily audibly, while the other excels visually. I often wonder about the difficulties teachers must have over this one fact. Each one needs individual attention, so I have found that it is often better to teach each one separately. No one gets held up and no one has to compete.

We as a family have a tremendous backlog of shared experiences. We live together, work together, meet the same people, travel together, go through the seasons together and talk to each other every single day. When it comes time for a "general knowledge" discussion it is natural to relate new facts to past experiences, and so the new material is rapidly assimilated. But in school the teacher knows nothing of each child’s past, and therefore must deliver her topic cold without touching a personal element within the child’s life – that something that will make the topic come alive for her or him. What a loss!

If a child is doing a project that he is interested in and it turns out that he needs writing, reading or math skills in order to do that project, then he will want to learn to read or write or do math. He will have an inner enthusiasm for the goal, and the skills will rightly be seen as a means to reach that end.

If he gets excited when he reads a mystery story, then his reading skills will naturally improve as he reads one mystery after another. No one will have to ask him questions on comprehension because he has automatically become deeply involved in the plot and rushes ahead to find out how it will end. If he gets excited because he has received a letter addressed to him, then he will want to answer that letter and will be interested in writing it well so that the reader will be able to read what he has to say. Children have more initiative than we often give them credit for.

For example, when our son was 8, he decided that he wanted to do some chemistry. We priced chemistry sets and found them quite expensive for the small amounts of chemicals they contained. As a result we started looking at the list of chemicals needed for the initial experiments and saw that many of them could be purchased in the grocery store and over the counter at the drug store. Our only requirement for his doing experiments was that he write them down in a lab book. Every morning he did a new experiment. Some he didn’t get right immediately, and he learned that he would have to read directions more carefully, and pour his chemicals together more precisely. But to our surprise, and his, too, he ended up doing 54 experiments before his interest lagged. When it did we did not force him to continue because the goal had been accomplished; he had a good feeling about himself and he had a notebook filled with his experiments to prove that he had done a lot of good work. There were a few complaints when strange smells filled the house, but there was also excitement when a particularly dramatic experiment was going on, and everyone was called to his room so we could see it, too.

Boredom

"I’m bored." Parents all over the world hear that. We tell our children, "Good. Learn to handle it now and you will know how to handle it later." We may offer a suggestion or two, which they usually reject, and then we tell them to sit there being bored until they can think of something to do. They never sit there for long. Soon they are banging together a few boards to create something, or they rummage through their books. Or they start a new project or go for a ride on their bikes, or play. In other words, they look inside themselves and their personal resources, find they are not lacking, and come up with something new to do. That is an important lesson for them.

Together and Apart

We talk to each other all the time, and we don’t even think about it as a teaching aid. It is an organic part of our family life. Lunches and dinners are time for family conversations, and we discuss anything from atomic energy to tadpoles, the existence of God to nail polish. And often during the course of a topic the kids divert it with a new thought or question, the subject gets shelved for the moment as we explore a new direction, and then, after a couple of minutes of silence to absorb what has been said, they often ask another question so that the thread that had been dropped gets picked up again. Talks are circular, interspersed with personal facts and feelings about the matter, or we laugh again at some past situation, but it is exciting, and most important, it is alive and vital to all of us.

And it is important for kids to have time alone, as well. For example, they may curl up with a book and be entirely free to read it to the end or reject it after 20 pages. What does it matter, except that the child is learning to direct himself, to marshal his own energies and use his own sense of discipline? The result, of course, is self-education. The kids use us for sounding boards and encouragement, but the real work is in their own hands. For a long time I thought I had to teach them particular subjects, and would get upset when they were merely enduring or rejecting my lessons. No one was happy, but I thought that if I just left them alone and let them play they would learn nothing, be nothing, amount to nothing.

Now I know differently. They need time with me as a teacher, yes, but they also need time to develop their own interior resources, a development no one can rush. They both loved to read, but didn’t like to be tied down for long stretches. So I eventually came to call our home school the "5-minute School": 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there. It seemed to satisfy them, but when I would think of their friends being in school 6 hours a day 5 days a week while our two were playing with dolls or building forts, I couldn’t help but wonder if their freedom was harming them, if the lack of long daily lessons would be a disadvantage. I don’t think so now because I see an amazing ability to stick to a project or a subject if they are interested in it.

By not being exposed to daily TV or daily school they have had to develop their own imaginations and inner discipline. Ideally we hope they will never stop studying. We feel the need to study every day. There is so much we don’t know as adults, and we want our children to have the enthusiasm and interest to always want to learn things, too. We have seen so many adults who have been soured on learning, or who think that if they want to learn something new they have to go back to school to learn it. That’s not true! We are more than we think we are, and our inner capacity is waiting to be used. If we need to learn something, we can find books or people to help us.

Books

When we go to town I often wonder what is more important: going to the supermarket or going to the library. We spend a lot more time with "food for the mind" than meals, and we can all be found at various times during the day with our books.

The kids read all sorts of things, from comic books to difficult non-fiction. I wonder what happens in their minds when they are reading, because sometimes they do not even hear us when we call them. They are attached to the page, and I am sure that vast numbers of images are racing through their brains. When it is time to go to bed they often say, "Not yet. Just one more page." Or, "I’m almost done," and I look and see 40 more pages to go. They are like huge vacuums, sucking in all this material and imagery and they never seem to get enough. If they get one book of a series and they like it, then they quickly get 5 or 10 of the same series and read them, one after another, sometimes two a day. It is like candy to them.

When a child is reading he has control over it. If he does not like it he can put it down and never pick it up. If he likes it, but gets tired, he can put it down and finish it later. If he really likes it he can read as long as he wants. If it is sad he can sit there with his book and cry, or he can laugh out loud. Sometimes they spontaneously come to us and report what is happening next, and every day they give reports at lunch or dinner on the serious things they have been studying. For a long time it was animals, lions, camels, penguins and on and on until we were hearing about animals we barely recognized. Lately it has been history: ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, the Black Death and the Civil War. We end up talking about the people and events, and they come alive.

Jim usually reads to them after dinner when they take turns doing the dishes. One excellent book was Journey to Nowhere about what happened to the middle-class people of the Midwest when the steel mills and car manufacturers closed down. The result was a new awareness of the invisible poor among us, and a concern for the people who come through our area on the rails. Powers of Ten was a math book in picture form which had all our heads hurting as we zoomed from human scale up to trying to encompass not only our galaxy but others as well, and then going in reverse, from human scale down to the mysteries of cells and atoms.

Reading is an integral part of our daily life, and when we go on trips and have a limited number of books, the lack of abundance is felt by all of us. A book is a treasure, a ticket to anywhere, free. It is a window to wherever you might like to go. It is a chance to see that others have the same fears and joys and challenges that you have.

A couple of winters ago we decided to go to Baja California for a few months and camp. The weather was lovely, the people were wonderful, the beaches were beautiful, but one thing was lacking: no libraries. We had brought quite a few books along with us, but eventually the children had read all of theirs. So they started to read ours. As a result, at the age of 9 and 10 they both ended up reading Roots by Alex Haley, which had 729 pages in the paperback edition. Some of it they didn’t understand, some of it upset them a bit, some of it had to be explained, but they both finished it and had new ideas about life as a result. It provided material for quite a few general knowledge sessions, like what the book meant by manhood training. Why don’t we have manhood training now? What can we do today that could be classified as manhood and womanhood training? And situations that called for extra responsibility on their part, or more than usual bravery were chances to live out these ideas.

Tests

We do not give tests to our children. To test them would be to numerically point out "I’m smarter than you are," which is not the idea we want to teach at all. They sometimes ask for "quizzes," like who can find Tunisia on the globe, and the only reason they do it is because it’s fun and it stimulates them. They can see for themselves that they are improving, have a better grasp of what they are doing, and feel stronger inside themselves. What more could we want than a child’s face suddenly glowing with the thrill of a new connection or a new insight? That’s real education.

Sometimes I think that teaching is like piling little sticks of kindling next to the child’s mind, but the child alone can provide the spark which sets it all aflame. But when it happens it is awe-inspiring. Education is cumulative, and when all the lessons and feelings suddenly come together for him and make sense, when he can draw his own conclusions and invoke his own brand of wisdom, that is education, not test scores.

Trust

When I began teaching my children I had the feeling it was all up to me. I had to do the work. I had to lead them around from one skill to another. I had to make them do their lessons, and ultimately, if they got educated, then it was all because of my personal skills. I, therefore, had to perform well. Such a way of thinking not only put a tremendous pressure on me, but on them, as well. They felt they had to do well in order to make mommy happy. If they failed, then I felt I had failed, and we were both unhappy, and that special feeling for my children got clouded in the push for education.

After making plenty of mistakes I have come to realize how important it is to trust him or her. He loves you and wants to please you, but it is wrong to push him when he is not ready or interested in what you present to him. Trust his judgment. He, alone, knows what is going on inside him, and in the end, if you take school time as a time of being together with him in a special way he can astound you with his mental leaps and bounds and also reward you with great affection. His mind is his own, and to see him begin to lift off the ground under his own mental power is a priceless experience.

Play

Play appears to be such a waste of time. But what is really happening in play? The children get a chance to act out a multitude of possible experiences, both fantastic and realistic. They try on adult roles just as they would try on old clothes. They become so involved in what they are playing that they truly become those things. They are the strongest man in the world, or someone who has the power of life and death over everyone, or the most beautiful woman in the world who is pursued by countless suitors. Playing is essential, in ways that we have yet to understand, in the ultimate balance and confidence of our children. Why take that away from them? It is as important as breathing. But if the child spends most of his daylight hours in school, and then goes to structured extracurricular activities after school, and then has to fit in his homework, and finally sits down in front of a TV that does his playing for him, in ways that he does not choose and which fosters passivity and non-creativity on his part, what is happening? Frankly, I think that the child loses a lot of enthusiasm for life.

Have you ever noticed how a child sometimes reacts if you plan out an activity for him that you think will be fun a trip to the city, going to the zoo or the beach, and then you are disappointed when he ends up argumentative and out-of-sorts? In contrast, watch a child when he emerges from an hour or two of play. He is rested and inwardly satisfied, as though something important has been accomplished.

Touching

I find that in home school it is important to have close physical contact with the children. They warm up to me, it is easier to talk to them, the informality frees up thought, allows lots of so-called tangents to happen, and it is an outward manifestation that I care about them in a very deep way. But the little five-year-old goes to school and how many times does he or she get a little hug from the teacher, or even from other children? At home it’s not unusual to give the child a big kiss if he does something a little harder than usual, or we might have a special dessert because he has finished a project. Success is enthusiastically acknowledged by the whole family. In teaching handicapped children there is no pressure to compete. The main qualifications a teacher of those children must have are love and patience, in abundant amounts. Why should it be any different when it comes to teaching normal children?

Home School Today

When the children were little we gave them lessons, but a few months ago they were actively rebelling against them. Since they were 12 and 13 we decided to turn over their education to them. If they wanted to learn, fine. If they decided not to do a thing... school was now up to them. And we sat back, a little apprehensively, I must admit, to see what would happen, for it would be a good test of our home school ideas. As if newly energized, they immediately organized their own programs that were so ambitious that if we had tried to impose them on them they would have felt they were being overworked and rebelled even more. Elizabeth decided to write a novel; they studied foreign languages; kept giving reports, etc. Jim had been reading poetry to them while they did dishes, and since they were not in a structured class they made it very clear which poems they liked and which ones left them cold. Lindsey’s "The Congo" was the catalyst which sent them running off together one morning, and an hour later they returned with their first poem:

Tough Guy

Tough guy walking down the street
To the juke box beat
Beer bottles littering the street
Little kids playing in the heat
And nice guys are hard to meet
Tough guy smoking on a weed
And a little old wino drinking to his need
Tough guy streaking down the street
Like a cannon ball speeding in the heat
And the little kids come running off the street
To the juke box beat
A cop car comes speeding down the street
The lights are flashing and the
Sirens are blaring in the heat
To the juke box beat!

This past summer we encouraged them to pursue outside interests. Elizabeth decided she wanted to learn to ride a horse, and they both took up jujitsu and swimming. With the help of a friend who raised horses, and the YMCA, they got a chance to do them all. They had to reach down inside themselves and cope with new situations and places, but by summer’s end they had accomplished the goals they had set for themselves.

A couple of years ago they began to feel the need for their own rooms, which really meant a whole addition to the house. So we made a deal with them. We would help, but they would be in charge. They peeled the posts for the foundation; they helped put them into the barrels for treatment; they dug the holes; they put together the framing, and it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was much harder and more tiring than they had thought. Measurements had to be fairly exact, nails had to be driven in straight, everyone had to cooperate during various stages of the job, but once they got the walls up, once they actually completed the roof, once all they had to do was inside work, they began to be impressed by themselves. Insulation went in, interior boards were cut and put into place, and it was theirs. They did it. It wasn’t like running down to the store and buying something they wanted. They had to work for it; they learned just how short their tempers could be, and how difficult it was at times to keep at the job when it didn’t seem to be getting finished soon enough to suit them. But it was true education. A special pride is evident in their voices when they show off their rooms. They know how much work went into them, and they are not about to forget it. Nor do I think they will ever fear to tackle building their own houses if they ever have the need.

No Diploma

"What are you going to do when the children get older?" ask concerned friends. "Are you going to send them to college?" "What will they do about a high school diploma?" A diploma is the piece of paper that all those years sitting behind desks were leading up to. We did not put our children behind those desks, and so their future seems dubious.

But what if we were to take a look at the educational process and evaluate the real results of all those years and all that effort? If education is not bringing deep satisfaction to the students, if people put mental limits on themselves because they failed somewhere along the way to get the right certificates, what good is it? We are worth more than that, and as complex individuals we need more than just one course of study. What if we as a nation decided that we didn’t need all those formal schools and diplomas? What would happen? Would we fall apart? Would we become illiterate?

The results might be wondrous to behold. Whole buildings might close up, but classes could move to living rooms, community centers or field trips. Just because the institution disappears does not mean the end of human curiosity or our basic thirst for knowledge. On the contrary. Not having schools might show us that our desire for knowledge is not to be denied, and that we are far more capable of teaching ourselves and each other than we have ever had the chance to know.

Here in the forest we are literally surrounded by books. By reading and talking we free our minds and experience mental trips every day. Living in the woods becomes a soothing, peaceful backdrop to deeper activities. Research for our next book, studies on orthomolecular medicine or spirituality in the 17th century, dinosaurs, birds, rock stars, classical music, religion, art, etc., are all ingredients for an exciting day. What would it be like to read the Bible from beginning to end? What if I could learn German or Italian or French? What if I could actually draw a picture? Let’s study the planets. To read, to learn, to share is in the very mental air we breathe. Nothing and no one except our own inner weaknesses and hesitations are stopping the creative flow. To accomplish something may take a lot longer than we thought, or it might turn out to be even easier, and it was only our thinking about how difficult it was that held us back. That’s the secret of home school. No one gets graded. No one gets upset if we make mistakes. The essential point is that we keep going. The simple life is our launching pad, and count-down occurs every morning when our eyes first open. We are all in home school.

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Treasures, Part II

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