A friend asked me this week, “What did you learn from living on the land that would help me cope if I’m stuck at home for two weeks with my children?”
An interesting question. I, of course, immediately began trying to work that out. We moved off the grid in 1973 and raised most of our own food for many years.
What did my children do for entertainment, and how did I keep from going ga-ga? What did we do for food and water?
During the years we had no electricity, our children, out of necessity, learned to entertain themselves without television, electric record players, tape decks, or the new electronic tablets.
I remember Rubik’s Cube and the battery-operated Speak and Spell and Merlin toys being popular with my son, but soon the batteries went dead, or he lost the cover to the battery case or got sand in the works.
I don’t expect the Coronavirus to impact our electricity service, but those are still the types of toys that can keep youngsters occupied for hours.
Something else to think about if you live where there might be a power outage is how you will cook if you have an electric range and oven. I have always purchased homes with fireplaces. In an emergency, I can heat water and cook on my fireplace insert. I also have a new butane two-burner camp stove, which could serve very nicely. I still have kerosene lamps from our off the grid days, and I keep them stocked with fuel and wicks. My kids think I’m nuts—they use the far more effective battery-operated LED lamps—but I love the soft light of the old lamps.
Keep them busy
Our children participated in all the chores on the land—washing dishes, wiping tables, feeding animals, weeding the vegetable garden. They kneaded bread, chopped vegetables, iced cakes. We made our own wrapping paper by saving the folding computer paper their dad brought home and decorating it with potato prints. Papier mache was popular. We made puppet heads, sewed bodies, made a puppet theater, and staged plays.
On warm days, they painted outdoors on long strips of butcher paper fastened to a fence. Hand prints, murals, life-size drawings of their bodies. On inclement days we read long chapter books, sang songs, set up my one table as a craft workshop. We played with clay, paint, corn husks, yarn, fabric—whatever we had on hand.
You could institute some of these practices in your own home now, so that they will feel normal if your children are suddenly restricted to the four walls of your home. And—guess what—you might even enjoy them.
Because we had no refrigeration other than a tiny propane RV fridge, we stocked up on canned food, dehydrated food, and dry goods such as beans, rice, powdered milk, corn, nuts. That is still a good strategy—none of us in California knows when PG&E will declare another fire emergency and cut our power for several days, or when a storm will do the same. It’s a good idea, too, to plan grocery shopping carefully to reduce our reliance on running out to Burger King or Safeway on a moment’s notice.
We had hand-crank grain mills to make the grains and nuts more palatable, and those mills still exist. A hand-cranked ice cream maker may seem like a strange thing to purchase today with electric models in the marketplace, but making a batch of hand-cranked ice cream can take a couple of hours.
We grew most of our own vegetables. Before we had a water tank and a hose full of water, we collected water in 5-gallon jugs at the well, and stored several of them in a shed for watering the garden when it didn’t rain. I still grow herbs and salad vegetables, and have just sown additional plants in my suburban back yard in case our farmers’ market shuts down due to the virus.
Looking at our life on the land and our life today, I see that there are some rather basic habits we learned that we still carry on. Recycle, conserve water, cook from scratch, grow your own veggies, keep an emergency stock of basic foods, lots of water. Reduce screen time. Talk to one another. Play with one another. Sing together. Read. Nothing you haven’t heard before, but now might be a good time to try some of these practices in your own life.
Marlene Bumgarner is a writer, teacher, and grandparent. She writes a monthly essay about families, food, and gardening, and her memoir about living on the land will be out in May. She can be found at marlenebumgarner.com