This month while our family is off in South Africa, a brave couple from the East Coast are house sitting our little estate–chickens, bunny, fish, garden, lawn, weeds and all.
Their emails every few days form a fascinating silhoutte of the questions I too have asked for the last decade:
– How do you know when pea pods and purple beans are ready to pick?
– Why did the lettuce go bitter?
– A chicken went missing in the afternoon–any idea where to find her?
– Do you have to blanch vegetables before freezing?
– What are those wild little purple raspberry things in the woods, and are the edible?
– What might have eaten the top off the raspberry bushes?
– What do we do about the inside of the fish tank suddenly turning brown?
Being the one to answer questions like these reminds me how grateful I am for all the people across the years and continents who have answered my own similar rapid-fire questions. The women in Nicaragua who taught me to pound out tortillas, hand wash clothes, and raise pigs and chickens in your yard (or even in your house). The Chinese farmers whose plastic and bamboo greenhouses I marveled over on walks between teaching classes. The gardener friends in Georgia, Madison, South Africa, and elsewhere who taught me organic bug repellents, fence-building, bunny-handling, grape-pruning, and more.
I can’t claim to be anything like an expert on this stuff yet. Lately I blogged about one place I go when I need an expert: The Country Living Encyclopedia, by Carla Emory. Carla writes about everything. Maybe not everything, but every novice-homesteader thing I need to ask and can’t find anywhere else to ask, at least.
Over the years we’ve developed the game of “Stump Carla.” We run into the craziest farming-stuff questions we can dream up, and then we dig into her book index to see if she has the answer. She consistently astonishes us, and her answers always beat out the first twenty pages Google brings up.
We’ve thumbed through her pages over some doozy questions.
I remember reading it when fruit leather and saving tomato seeds were mysterious new discoveries in my early married years.
The book went with us to Nicaragua and back. In Nicaragua, we asked “How to protect seedlings from pigs and chickens,” and “What’s the English name or this weird fruit and how do I cook it?”
In early parenting years, “Can you eat acorns?” (yes, and we made the acorn coffee she describes).
In the home we now own, “What do you do when baby chick toes curl up?” (tape them and get them warm). Or “How do you eat black walnuts?” (my friend Shelley won out on this one, teaching me to crack them lodged between nails on a board).
What I love most, though, is that in between practical advice gathered from her own experiences and her many readers’ letters, she’s always throwing in stories. Right between information like how to make “brandied fruits” (which are most definitely trying for the first time this year), she slips in profound reflections on keeping baby bunnies by a wood stove, giving birth, accidentally burying a jar of fruit for half a year, car break-downs, chicken-butchering, and selling poems.
Answers.com and Wikihow can’t just ain’t got that kind of personal touch.
I believe that asking questions can be–should be–one of the best exercises we have for depending on people and letting people’s real stories come spilling out. This is the stuff community is built on. And community is something I believe is worth stepping out of our way to build.
Being in South Africa reminds me of this, too. I do not need to fumble through this country on my own. People here take us into their homes, lend us cars, introduce us to their friends, answer our questions. People here still give directions instead of expecting us to use a GPS or google maps. People here answer questions I never even knew I needed to ask.
And in between the questioning, we turn into friends.
Up for a challenge? Try it for a week–instead of turning to Google with your questions, find a real human to answer them. How many more times in a single week can you interact with people this way? I’d love to hear what happens.