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Back to March Ed Reporter

Education Reporter

Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Third Edition, Editor Abigail R. Gehring, Skyhorse Publishing, 2008, 456 pages, $24.95.

First published by Reader's Digest back in 1981, this book has time-tested appeal. The revised edition remains a great reference for those who aspire to a more independent, self-reliant way of life; but even firmly entrenched urbanites will find doable projects that interest them.

The book is organized into six main sections: shelter, energy sources, raising and preserving food, home crafts and recreational activities. Some topics receive only a solid overview; for example, you'll need more than the six pages of instruction included to build a stone house. On the other hand, you can make cheese and soap, and butcher a hen using just the instructions provided.

In all there are 65 major subjects, many with subsets. For instance, the beekeeping section covers standard hive configuration, choosing a site, bee identification (drones, workers, or queen), favorite bee plant blossoms, tools and equipment needed, how to avoid swarming, and methods for harvesting and storing honey.

The book has over 2,000 color photographs, drawings, charts and diagrams, which add visual interest and enhance "how-to" understanding. Resource recommendations are provided for further reading.

Other features include short interviews with folks who practice the "lost arts" in the book, as well as relevant historical background for some skills. Did you know that scrimshaw - the art of etching and coloring teeth, ivory and bone - was invented by American whaling men during the long days between whale sightings? Or that New England colonists created patchwork quilts because they needed more substantial blankets than the coverlets they brought with them?

Kids (and adults) who want to understand how gardens and herds supply us with our daily sustenance will find Back to Basics absorbing. Some readers will be inspired to start their own kitchen gardens. Others may decide to raise a few chickens, pigs or goats, as do the featured young Eastwood siblings in suburban Brewster, New York. Many will simply find it interesting to know how the hide of an animal was transformed into tennis shoes or a leather jacket through the arts of tanning and leatherwork.

Families will find projects they can do together, like making candles or homemade ice cream. Kids will enjoy playing one of the six varieties of "tag" described, making a corn-husk doll, or a kite, and learning to play "cat's cradle" with yarn or string. There really is something for everyone.

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