7. Skills

Now that you’ve taken care of the many basic things necessary for sustained living, it’s time to step it up and make your homestead a wonderful place to be. I marvel at the pioneers efforts to make their lives a special place of joy. Most folks these days look at their efforts and all the hard work they HAD to do and thank God they didn’t live in the good ‘ol days. I wonder why we refer to days gone by as the good ‘ol days. They didn’t have cell phones, computers or any of the other tech toys we have today, yet they somehow made it through the day. The family would gather around the dinner table after a long day of plowing, milking and gathering to share the days stories and then after dinner they would read or entertain each other with songs and then it was early to bed. Simple living without all the noise and bother of keeping up with the Jones’ or staying one step ahead of the credit card bills or having both parents working with latchkey kids sounds pretty good right about now.

Education

One of the first skills a new homesteader will need is some education. Okay, maybe a lot of education but it will be fun. Learning how to plant fruit trees or how to birth a calf will become part of your life story. Once all the days chores are done it’s time to learn how to play a gitbox (guitar) or maybe a harmonica. Story tellers were much sought after before there was any type of recording device. Learning how to knit, crochet or sew will keep your family warm, dressed and looking good. The children can be taught the 3 basic R’s – Reading, wRiting and aRithmatic as well as how to cook, garden, mend and the most important item of all… common sense. The one room schoolhouse has been shown to be a very good method of instruction where children ready to advance are not held back simply because of their age. The older kids take the younger ones under their wing and become early mentors. What better way to learn then to teach others what you know. I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that learning something new everyday of your life will keep you young, sharp and one step ahead of the youngsters. We will start our own new method of discovery and creativity not built around the old model of schooling. We will advocate a return to the old apprentice/master method of learning a trade or skill as well as guilds where apprentices can become journeymen and work their way up to being a master. On-the-job training rules!

Pioneering

Pioneering is a section near and dear to my heart. As an ‘ol scoutmaster we would challenge the boys to design and make stuff out of 8’ long round poles and some rope. Making towers, catapults and bridges taught the young men how to figure things out and work as a team while building something they could point to as a major accomplishment. Learning to lash and tie knots that hold tremendous weight yet come apart with a few simple tugs is a skill I encourage everyone to learn. Knowing how to handle a knife and how to keep it sharp or learning how to read signs while in the wild or how to build a fort just for fun are all valuable skills every boy and girl should learn. That includes boys and girls of, shall we say, advanced age.

Craftsmanship becomes a vital part of our industry on the homestead. Learning how to sharpen and ax and how to replace a broken handle are important skills to have as well as learning how to fix all the stuff around the homestead that needs fixing instead of just going out and buying another one especially if there aren’t anymore to buy. Making your own soap and cleaning fluids from natural ingredients will keep your home free from harmful chemicals and you can trade or barter them for items you can’t make yourself. There are plenty of craft items you can make and trade or give away as gifts. You will not experience a happier situation then when you are getting together with neighbors and friends (they should be one and the same) to swap recipes, stories or trade goods. Everyone should find a craft or hobby they really like and get good enough at it that folks will want one.

As long as we’re building stuff, how about a still to purify water or make alcohol to fuel an engine. (Yes, we are an engine too!) Taking the time and effort to build a wood fired kiln will pay off huge dividends once you turn out pots and vessels the not only are functional but can be works of art and barter items as well.

Wilderness

If you are able to get out of dodge and relocate to a retreat in the woods you are to be envied. I don’t believe this is as impossible as most folks make it out to be. Learning to be self-sufficient before you get out there though is advisable but if the opportunity presents itself, go for it. One technological benefit we have is the ability to work on a computer from home. As telecommuting becomes possible for more folks, working from home or on a beach looks pretty good. My work is all computer based so it doesn’t matter where I work so long as I get the work done. This does take some effort to learn to be disciplined and work when you’re sitting less than 50 feet from the surf. Taking a hobby or skill to the level of being able to sell your stuff can free you from a boring 8 to 5 job making widgets for some large corporation. I know this is just pie in the sky for many folks but I intend to show many of you a better way to cope with life where you are at, right now.

Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve made an escape to the wilderness for a short time. This is definitely doable if and when you can take a long week end off. Starting with short hikes and car camping you can start to learn skills that will give you the confidence you will need to face any number of challenges. Knowing that if the electricity goes out you can access your camp stove and make dinner as if nothing out of the ordinary occurred or having the proper sleeping bag which will keep you warm if the central heat goes out will keep you and your family from panicking or worst yet, giving up in the face of adversity. Learning wilderness skills and most importantly, practicing these new found skills frequently are necessary to not just surviving in the wild but having a great time while you’re at it.

Hunting

Once you’ve become skilled and confident you can survive in the wild, you can now consider gathering some of your food from good ‘ol Mother Nature. Let me make it very clear, hunting and gathering takes a lot of time, skill and a healthy dose of luck. Those who have been hunting once with an uncle who was a very experienced hunter doesn’t count as experience you should count on. Those who think that in a long term emergency they’ll just head for the hills and hunt are in for a very rude awaking. I swear deer know when it’s hunting season because all of a sudden they are nowhere to be found. I enjoy it immensely when a wannabe hunter hefts a .30-06 and declares they’ll just get all the squirrels and rabbits they need to survive. (If you don’t know what a .30-06 is, find out and you’ll see why I think this is funny!) Oh, and by the way, there can be hundreds of squirrels and rabbits out there but if that’s all you can eat, you will die.

Fishing is another skill that takes some time to learn. (Except for my wife who with a simple bamboo pole, put a piece of bread on a hook, threw it off a pier and caught a large Bonito on her first cast! Go figure.) There are lots of poles and gear and baits for all types of fish. Go to a store that specializes in fishing gear and you will be amazed at the wide variety. The only advice I can offer is to determine where you are most likely to fish and get gear for the type of fish in those waters. I still have a few lures meant for deep water that just don’t work for trout, but I hang on to them ’cause I just never know when I might find myself on a boat in the middle of the ocean. A small compact emergency fishing kit can be carried just in case.

Trapping is another great skill that once learned can provide food for your table without a lot of work. Knowing where to place your traps and what type of animal you intend to trap is an important skill to learn otherwise you might find your traps full of rats or the neighbors cat, which in a pinch aren’t bad eating but wouldn’t be my first choice. Hunting, trapping and fishing falls under the guidelines of the Fish and Wildlife Department so make sure you know and follow all the rules. The penalties can be very severe making your catch so not worth all the trouble.

I’ve included hunting, fishing and trapping under wilderness because these things should be considered extra curricular activities once you’ve established a reliable food source. These take a lot of skill and experience to be successful so you should practice a lot and enjoy the time you spend out in the woods without making it mandatory to bring home some game. Besides, after you pay the hunting tag fees, purchase the necessary gear, factor in the cost of travel and food between your homestead and the hunting grounds that 20 pounds of venison could get quite pricey. And that’s if you were lucky enough to bag something as many spend all that money and come home empty handed. So just enjoy the experience of being out there with Mother Nature. She’ll get a hoot out of your efforts.