Thursday, September 01, 2011

Reading, Learning

"Diogenes, on being asked why people give to beggars but not to philosophers, said: 'Because they suppose they might become lame and blind but they never suppose they might take up philosophy.'"[1]

I just finished Possum Living, "How to Live Well Without a Job and (Almost) No Money;" the author's father was a great admirer of Diogenes and the (then) 18-year-old Polly Free sets out with her own lamp of truth, describing how the two of them were getting through the late 1970s -- years of malaise and stagflation -- on practically nothing but their wits and the kind of small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry you can practice in a suburban back yard and basement.

As someone who grew up in a home with ducks in the yard (ahh, duck eggs! Nothing better for baking! I liked them fried; you might not), a good-sized vegetable garden and a beehive[2], I found the book utterly charming. And it includes descriptions of home winemaking and distillation, for those inclined towards chemical recreation. Not just a period piece, it's at least as full of practical notions as any similar work and refreshingly free of politics or scaremongering. This book is worth owning.

What became of young "Polly," unschooled from 7th grade on? Why, she grew up to become an aerospace engineer (with a degree and a job at NASA) and later, a Nature instructor, and has raised a few kids of her own. Not bad for a "possum," hey? Not bad for anyone!
1. That's a "chreia," by the way, a class of writing well worth Googling.

2. Absolutely true: Mom never "smoked" her bees to calm them and though she owned a beekeeper's veiled hat, after a few years, she didn't bother with it. She and the bees got along just fine, even when she was collecting honey. I have no idea how this arrangement was reached; I can only report what I observed. When my parents moved to a bedroom community near Indianapolis and brought the bees along, the little town sent a code-enforcement honcho over: the bees had to go. "Too dangerous," they said. Yeah, just like roses are dangerous.


Art said...

There's some youtube vids out there of interviews with Polly that are worth the watch. A movie too.

Ms. Free is another example that schooling ≆ education ... no matter what the union leaders of the local public schools will tell ya.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Some years ago I tried via Google to learn what happened to Polly Free in the years since. I got nowhere--just to some survivalist and homesteading forums where people wondered what had become of her also. How did you find out about her later life?

WV: thloarde. Trust in thloarde.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of chreia, I listened to a radio interview last week with Counselor Farnsworth, the author of "Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric" and found him very interesting.

I am much better with electrons than rhetoric. I didn't know about chreia or even progymnasmata before reading your post. Wikiwanders are fun.


Joanna said...

In fairness to the code honcho, roses tend to stay where you put them, and they don't cause fatal allergic reactions in a small, yet significant, portion of the population.

However, I'd rather have a nice civilized hive of honeybees next door than a neglected apple tree. Those things attract yellowjackets, and yellowjackets are mean. Civic code sure is weird.

JohnW said...

A close friend of mine, in a previous life, was the beekeeper at a monastery in Boston. He used neither smoke nor a suit as he said that after a while the bees just "knew" him. Strangers still got stung, however.

Dwight Brown said...

Mr. Clifton:

I can't speak for Roberta or where she found the information on Polly Free, but I read this profile of Ms. Free a year or two ago. It was the first I'd ever heard of her and the book.

Stranger said...

Duck eggs on cottage fries, with a side of thick sliced bacon. Just the thing when a 600 foot tower climb is on for first thing after breakfast.

Climbing outside a tower with an elevator, at that.


Roberta X said...

Joanna writes: "In fairness [...] roses tend to stay where you put them, and they don't cause fatal allergic reactions in a small, yet significant, portion of the population."

Color me surprised that a statistically-significant number of the susceptible cannot be treated with an epi-pen. I really thought this was a solved problem. Sad. :(

Chas, prosaically enough, I plugged the book title into Google. Up popped the site, with links to her blog and other info. Timing!

greg said...

I flipped through that book once at a book store. The part that blew my mind was when she was talking about the different meats she had tried. I specifically remember her lamenting about how in other countries, cats are considered food, while here we put millions of them to sleep each year while folks go hungry.

I just don't think I had enough cash in my pocket to by it...

Joanna said...

Bobbi: All I meant was that thorny flowers aren't really comparable to stinging, swarming insects. Roses stay where you put them, but bees come to you. Whether or not allergic Mrs. Smith down the block carries an epi-pen doesn't enter into the argument.

Thornharp said...

If mom ate enough of that honey regularly, maybe she smelled like a hive sister to the other bees.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Dwight, Roberta: I sure mangled her name. Sorry about that. I should have found my tattered copy of Possum Living and double-checked. Thanks for the link!

Chas S. Clifton said...

To continue --- I read the book in the 1980s, and it was Frank who gave it its dark overtone. On some level, I always expected to turn the page and read something, "Our neighbor died, so Daddy and I decided to try eating him."

Now I am imagining a mash-up of Possum Living and Winter's Bone.

Anonymous said...

Where does Mrs. Smith down the block live that there's aren't bees -- and worse yet, wasps?

That's what bugged me. It's not like bees are some strange, exotic species that would not be encountered if there's wasn't a beehive down the street. Give me ten minutes in any residential neighborhood and I will have found you bees.

She should have disguised it as a composter or toolshed.

Windy Wilson said...

Interesting. That book is going on the list, too, which, if I could still find it, is doubtless long past its original 8 single spaced pages.
As for the bees and allergies, if it's just a wild hive, you have to argue notice, and they are therefore wild animals while a kept hive has an owner attached, all convenient for lawyers and lawsuits and liability. IIRC Los Angeles and such suburban satellites as Santa Monica allow bees and chickens, but no more than one rooster (sorry, tom, it's into the pot with you).

Anonymous said...

>How did you find out about her later life?

Yea, she dropped off the radar there for a few decades. meanwhile she quietly became famous to preppers because someone had OCR her now rare, out-of-print book and uploaded it to the internet.

This sorta remindes me of how "It's a Wonderful Life" became such a popular movie.

Anyway, since you obviously haven't searched lately. She at some point contacted her publisher (or the other way round) wrote a new intro and went with a second printing (and ebooks, and a web site)


Anonymous said...

if you want to flex your search-fu, try "Yeasts and humans have a true symbiotic relationship, I believe" for a nice little preview

-SM, a member of the Fraternity of the Ridged Nose too