20 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Nine

This month's Locus Focus theme is settings that make great "unschools." The two we've looked at so far have been "nothing special," in the sense that they were perfectly accessible to the people who already lived on or near them. So much for the idea that the best schools are the hardest ones to get into, aye? Today's setting is another "school" that anyone can walk into and learn in, as long as he has someone who can point out the way. 

The Catskill Mountains
My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George

Miss Turner . . . found Gribley's farm in an old book of Delaware County. Then she worked out the roads to it, and drew me maps and everything. Finally she said, "What do you want to know for? Some school project?"

"Oh no, Miss Turner, I want to go live there."

"But, Sam, it is all forest and trees now. The house is probably only a foundation covered with moss."

"That's just what I want. I am going to trap animals and eat nuts and bulbs and berries and make myself a house. You see, I am Sam Gribley, and I thought I would like to live on my great-grandfather's farm."

Let's not underestimate the influence of grandparents, great-grandparents, and all ancestors in general, in education. Not because they often take a direct hand in it, but because just knowing about them is an education in itself. The story of your family's past is your first history lesson--and the best way to teach you that the past is never really the past. Woods and mountains are already some of the best "unclassrooms" there are and don't need much more to improve them . . . but if they also happen to be woods and mountains where your great-grandfather once tried to start a farm, then you've really got something special.

Most of run away from home when we reach our majority, but Sam Gribley is especially lucky: his parents give him their blessing to go before he even hits his teens. Armed with his family's living tradition, his knowledge of edible plants, some basic survival skills, and about about $40 worth of tools, he is confident that he will be able to live off the land for as long as he likes. But while he is ultimately correct, it also takes him a while, and a lot of trial and error, to get there.

There's something about having to make it in nature that shows a person his measure, in an objective way. Or as Alone titled one of his classic blog posts: When Was the Last Time You Got Your Ass Kicked? The good thing about having been in a fight is the same good thing about having tested your ability to survive in nature: you learned something true about yourself. I'm sure we all have a fair guess about how we'd do in either conflict; but only a fortunate few of us really know.

My Side of the Mountain makes the Catskill Mountains seem like the best place in the world for a boy (or girl?) runaway to thrive. Sam is able to cook the roots, stems, leaves, and fruits of more plants than I even knew were edible; to catch fish, frogs and deer for a balanced diet; and to season what he eats with "salt" from burned up hickory wood. He whittles tools from the trees and finds companions among the wild animals. And when he ever finds himself at a loss, he can tramp back to society and get what he needs from the local library. Halfway through rereading it, I longed for an annotated edition that I could take along on a vacation to the Catskills and use to help me live off foraged food for a month. Of course, what I really should have been wishing for was a guide to foraging in a Philippine rainforest. =P

It is a sign of my lack of education that I'd have no idea what to eat in my own natural backyard. Those should have been my first science lessons, rooted in the same soil as my first history lessons. Well, who knew that modern schools can be as effective at separating children from the natural world as they are at separating them from their families? Unschooling seems to be a logical corrective for both.

Question of the Week: What interesting fact can you share about an indigenous plant or animal in the place where you live?

Image Source: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


love the girls said...

roli-polis are edible crustaceans.

Enbrethiliel said...


*snort* Well, everyone else is welcome to my share! =P

Belfry Bat said...

A few people are not sensitive to poison ivy; but reports are that you won't like having such hopes dashed. Burning the stuff doesn't help, but only aerosolizes the irritant oils.

Enbrethiliel said...


I hope that you didn't have to learn the hard way! LOL!

love the girls said...

That's a good point about not everyone is allergic to poison ivy. The same is true of poison oak.

When I was at TAC a girl at school lent her pants to a friend who went hiking through the hills all day in the poison oak she was not allergic to and afterward gave the pants back to her friend who was allergic without first washing them. Needless to say, the girl who lent the pants wore them afterwards without washing them.

I suppose there might be a better example of no good deed goes unpunished, but I'm rather partial to this one because the punishment was so surreptitious.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've just read the symptoms of poison oak and the fact that there's no actual remedy. Your poor classmate . . . =(

Sheila said...

This was one of my all-time top favorite books as a kid! I spent lots of time daydreaming about doing the same, especially when I was out hiking in the wood with my family. I would imagine sneaking away from them and just living out there forever!

I admit I was a bit incredulous that this would actually work; I felt the kid got lucky in a lot of ways. Then again, perhaps surviving in the wilderness isn't so hard as I imagined -- I mean, we are all descended from people who did so, if you go far enough back. Then again, it's being *alone* that makes it tough. It's hard to make any progress on building shelters and carving tools (creating civilization, in other words) when you are too busy getting food several times a day. Which is where we get the notion that leisure is the basis of culture. Only when you've mastered survival can you take on improvements -- but if you are a group instead of one person, people can specialize.

Anyway, hm. I know a lot more about surviving in my native Northwest than here, so let's stick with that. Everyone knows that the thorny wild blackberries that pretty much blanket half the state are edible, if you are lucky enough to be doing your survival experiment in August. But not everyone knows that stinging nettles are not only edible but extremely good for you. (You have to cook them first so they don't sting you!) You can also peel the bark off a hemlock tree (not the weed, which is the poison one) and cook and eat that. And the invasive weed that grew all over my yard, Japanese knotweed, is another very healthy dish. I can't believe I spent my whole childhood making fake "recipes" out of this plant and never suspected it might be edible!

The fact is, very few plants are actually poisonous. Most wild plants are just *unpalatable,* or indigestible, like grass, but won't hurt you. And quite a few are perfectly edible, just not as productive as their cultivated cousins. I know seven different edible plants in my own yard, besides the ones I grow on purpose.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, Sam does get lucky when he steals his first deer from a poacher. LOL! Like both Robinson Crusoe and Brian Robeson of the YA novel Hatchet, Sam is not totally without the assistance of civilisation; the main difference is that he doesn't take stuff from a wreck, but from a thriving society that will always be his safety net. And that's what makes this a fun adventure instead of the sort-of Horror novel that Hatchet turns out to be.

If I still lived in my former neighbourhood, with all its green lots, I'd definitely be trying out the plants there in stews and salads. After consulting some naturalist resources, of course. ;-)