Triumph of the Generalist

SUBHEAD: A overview of attempts at farming & homesteading encyclopedias.  

By Sharon Astyk on 27 February 2012 for Casaubon's Book -  

Image above: Photo of farmer reading Progessive Farmer, by George Ackerman, 1931. From (
I admit it, I'm a generalist in a world of specialists, and I always have been. Looking back on my career history, for example, I see the way I attempted to make the academic model of specialization adapt to my own taste for generalism - my doctoral project was a little bit insane, integrating demography, history, textual analysis and half a dozen other disciplines across a 250 year timeline - just the sort of thing advisers hate to see.

The polite word was "ambitious" but "nuts" is probably more accurate. As you can probably guess from the title of this blog (for those who haven't read George Eliiot, Casaubon is trying to write the ultimate unified theory of everything - and failing miserably), both the joys and dangers of generalism are something I try and keep in mind.

Having left academia behind, it is perhaps natural that I would find myself a career as a generalist- as a writer covering a wide range of subjects and as a farmer, the ultimate generalist. Agriculture requires a wide-ranging set of skills vaster than almost any field I can imagine, and while one becomes deeply expert in some parts of the work, it is still necessary, even imperative, to constantly be gaining some superficial understanding of a host of new things.

The generalist is jack of many trades, but master of few. That's not a criticism. Being good enough at things is often sufficient for most of a life - particularly an agricultural life. I don't need to be able to handle the most complex medical crises in my animals - only able to handle the day to day ones that come up regularly. It is fine with me to call the vet for the hard stuff. I don't need to be able to knit objects of incredible, perfect artistry - only to be able to make enough mittens to keep the kids' hands warm.

I can get a mechanic when something seriously breaks down, but need to keep the tiller in order for most common problems, can propagate most plants, but leave the germination of rosemary seed to others. I can make a passable fruit tree graft, build a bentwood fence that will mostly keep things in or out and produce bread that will never pass for european artisanal, but that tastes awfully good. I'd like to get better at many of these things, but I don't NEED to - the comfortable level of passable generalism is sufficient for much.

Not long ago, I was asked by a publisher if I would consider writing a farming/homesteading encyclopedia, and I declined, although it was an interesting idea. Still, I think much of that ground has been covered or is being covered by others, and I'm working on another project at this moment. It did, however, make me think about the way the ground has been covered in the past.

These overview books on starting up a smallholding/homestead/small farm/urban sustainable oasis are often the first books any of us come to, precisely because we need that encyclopedic breadth so badly - eventually we may need to know more about growing melons or delivering a calf or butchering a rabbit or canning pickles - in fact, most of us end up with specialist books on all these things. But at first the best of these books give you a picture of the whole range of the work you are entering into - and that's what a lot of us need. When they are really good, they also come with enough thoughtful detail that even experienced farmers and homesteaders learn a lot from looking through them.

The criteria I use to evaluate them are these. First, can you follow the instructions enough to actually accomplish the things they show you? Second, do you get misinformation or inadequate information from them - in their attempt to be concise, do they leave critical things out? Next, are they enjoyable to read? Finally, are they books worth buying and having on your shelves - that is, once you move past the beginner stage, will you still go back to them?

 Encyclopedia of Country Living  
Carla Emery's book is, of course, the be-all, end-all of encyclopedic farming, food and homesteading references. Full disclosure - Carla was a personal friend and I was involved in the revisions for the 10th edition (along with a lot of people at the Homesteading Today forums). Even given my bias in Carla's favor, it is the most complete reference out there - if sometimes idiosyncratic. Moreover, its focus on recipes - ie, it will teach you how to make a BLT starting with wheat seeds, a pregnant sow, a hen and a long row of empty garden - really makes the "food to table" connection clear.

That said, this is a BIG book, and a friendly, chatty, idiosyncratic book - one that attempts to do two simultaneous things - talk to you like a neighbor would and cover the landscape. Most encyclopedic texts don't try both - and it can occasionally be hard to find what you are looking for, but the book is so warm and friendly and fun to read or just meander through that I can't wish for less that was personal. It is manifestly possible to do many of the things that Carla suggests with her book - I know people who have butchered their first pig that way, or milked the first goat with the book in one hand. Carla has been helping people actually do for themselves for a long time.

For the 10th edition, Carla attempted to really sort through all the thousands of recipes and update it with a lot of help, and it really is a good job. Still, there are some recipes left that aren't that great and a few incoherencies, but if you were to buy one farming or homesteading book, this would be it.
I wouldn't recommend just one - in fact, I have come to think that Carla's Encyclopedia actually is even better with a companion book, and I know just the book. Carla's book is a product of the fist back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s (in fact it is just about as old as I am) - if there's a new back to the land movement now, as some have claimed,

 The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading
Nicole Faire's  book is the logical companion to Carla's book. This book filled with pictures (and very, very good pictures at that!) is truly a collection of encyclopedia entries - from "how do I make a homemade tasty toothpaste?" to "how do I thatch a roof?" Everything from first aid for a range of medical conditions to making tools, fiber crafts and food storage is covered here, in brief and with images.

Most of the entries are brief enough that you probably won't use them as a primary reference - for example the explanation of how to knit or crochet is totally inadequate and the pictures don't really even tell you what you are seeing. Some entries are more complete than others and more detailed.
Sometimes you can do things from the book, sometimes all this is is sufficient information to make you want to find a better book. But even someone who has been doing this for more than a decade (me) and counts herself as reasonably famliar with much of this stuff learned new things from this book - and was intrigued enough with the basic explanation to want to follow up with more detail from one of my collection of specialists. This is a good and interesting book, and together with Carla's Encyclopedia, is probably the best two-piece basic reference I can think of.

I love the idea of John Seymour, and I want to use; 

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It
as a reference, but I find that I rarely turn to it for that - it is more for inspiration. It isn't the Britishness of it - other guides to British-style smallholdings hold my interest, but much as I like Seymour's writing in itself, I find it very hard to follow his instructions for most things - I don't find him clear at all.

He tends to make flat statements like "spray potatoes with bordeaux mixture in April." Why? Why should I spray them? What's bordeaux mixture (ok, I know that, and I can guess why he suggests I spray them, but many beginners won't - and I don't spray my potatoes or need to.) Some sections of the book are excellent (his illustrations of how to fell a tree are better than any encyclopedic book I know, his description of scything is pretty good and almost followable), and the illustrations are visually very appealing.

I know a number of people who have done major homesteading operations from Carla Emery's book - every time I try to follow John Seymour's instructions in the same way in order to butcher, preserve, garden, etc... I find myself wondering "but wait, what about..." I really do like his work, but either British beginners already have a culturally embedded memory of who to cut up a chicken or he leaves a lot of things out. Still, I do refer to it sometimes and I'm glad I own the book - but I don't think I'd list it as truly necessary. I see his books as more useful for conveying a picture of the British farm past than for the homestead present. For this they are deeply enjoyable and very readable.
In the 1980s, Readers Digest put together several books on Homesteading and small farming, all of which are back in print in new editions now

Back to Basics: Traditional American Skills 
being the most famous of them, but there are several related books. These are the opposite of the previous three books, all of which allow the author's personality to shine through - these are true encyclopedias, written in the dry abstract.

That said, they can be useful - they are well illustrated or have good photos and cover a fairly reliable landscape. Want to build a sauna? Make a raft? Graft fruit trees? Make a basket? Braid cornhusks? Learn regional US cooking? Put up fencing? As a straight reference, they give more information and clearer instructions than any of the previous references - you can always pretty much DO what they show you from the instructions. The books lack the chatty personal element, and once you know the basics of these projects, you will surpass them pretty quickly, but the sheer functionality of the books is useful - a great adjunct to some of the others.

Storey's Basic Country Skills
 is the most boring useful book on the planet - from its visually unappealing cover to its pages with plenty of white space lest your eyes be over-excited by something interesting, it is a hard book to really look at. I don't usually complain about the formatting of books, but this one is so unpleasant to look at and read that I rarely open it, even though there's some good stuff in there.

The book brings in experts to produce each section, and there are some really good people in there. Louise Riotte's Wetland gardening section is something I really have found useful. Stephen Bushway has produced the best section on woodburning and wood heat in any book not wholly about this subject. The range of projects is good, and there's a heavy emphasis on home repair which most of the books lack. If you can get past the fact that it is actively unpleasant to read - as big and heavy as Carla's book with none of the charm and humor - it is a useful thing to have around.
If you are planning on doing this on a smaller scale, either urban or suburban,  
The Backyard Homestead
edited by Carleen Madigan has a neat focus - exactly how much can you produce in a small space by optimizing. That said, its focus is also oddly narrow - it doesn't talk about water issues, it says goats can't fit in your backyard (ummm...), and it has I think most of the disadvantages of encyclopedic books, without most of the advantages - it is almost impossible to follow the directions successfully, and it has only enough information to intrigue - but little to offer someone with more advanced knowledge I don't think highly of this volume, even though I want to like it - if all you are interested in is food, however, this is probably a good very basic work, but take it out of the library.

 Integral Urban House  
The 1970s-era by the Farallones Institute was re-released in 2008, and in many ways is still a really important book - the focus on urban sustainability was prescient and it is very good in a lot of ways - that said, it is also very dated and could stand to be radically revised and updated. The book is derived from the direct experience of an urban collective, and seems ripe for revision - I'd add this to any urban homesteader's list of important books, recognizing, however, that it is extremely dated. Still, in many ways it has a freshness missing from the more polished but less useful _Backyard Homestead_ book.

The Self-Sufficient-ish Bible  
Andy and Dave Hamilton's is a really nice book, and has a nice, contemporary and thoughtful feel - I love that besides "do it yourself" they include ethical banking and purchasing. freeganism and other ways of economic disconnection. The book is definitely geared to more urban life - community gardening, rather than your own yard, livestock only gets a few pages and focuses on the small,. and the urban low-cost decor section seems a little over-emphasized, but basically it is really nice book with a lovely emphasis on reuse and repurposing. I like it a lot. and I enjoy its aesthetic. When it lists a project, you can always actually do that project from the descriptions here

 Householder's Guide to the Universe
If there's a non-rural successor to Carla Emery, it is definitely Harriet Fasenfest. I've written before about how much I like her book, but it deserves a mention here, because it has what Carla's book has - that chatty, funny, "I'm your neighbor and we're talking over the back fence about this stuff that we're trying to figure out" quality. There's a lot here - including both absolute basics for the kitchen and household and also much to make use of for more advanced folks. Following Fasenfest's instructions is a delight - probably no other author here is as clear and complete. If she says you can do it, you can be sure you can.

So which of these books do I need to own? Well, I don't own all of them, but I find that there's a place for half-a-dozen of these books on my shelves - they all have different strengths, because after all, so do their authors. Different authors see different elements as central - ultimately most publishers won't let you publish anything the size of a Britannica, even if (like me) you could write that much - so choices must be made.

More about cows or more about community gardens? More about housebuilding and insulation or more about getting along without money? These are the kind of choices all authors make and ultimately, no one book can cover the landscape for all we'll need - even all we need to begin. There are some that come close, but the happiest outcome are shelves that have a few of these covering a wide range of possibilities.


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