Have you ever heard of The Foxfire Book? I hadn’t until a few months ago, when I saw a new copy of the updated repinted version that had been sent to the newspaper office where I sometimes go to work. It looked interesting to me then but I didn’t spend much time with it. Then just a couple of weeks ago I was at one of my beloved garage sales. It’s the season for those again and I couldn’t be happier. In amongst a pile of old books was a faded, slightly grubby paperback copy of the original one, published in 1972. The person who’d owned this one wrote his name, Brian, neatly in red ink, with the year 1973 underneath it.

Foxfire was a project undertaken by a high school teacher and his students in the Appalachian Mountains during the 60s. They were rowdy and wouldn’t settle down long enough to learn anything so he suggested they start a magazine instead of using their stupid boring textbook. The people in this part of the country were living then as they had always lived, but their kids, these high school students, were losing the old ways. This teacher, who wasn’t from the area, was curious about some of their habits, such as the way they used the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon to know how to plant their vegetables, but the kids didn’t know the answers. So they went home and interviewed their parents and grandparents, who turned out to be an incredible wealth of knowledge of all kinds of things: home remedies, religion, making clothes, making soap, preparing for winter. Simple plain living in sometimes difficult, bare circumstances. They made their magazine out of these interviews and eventually turned it into a book, which as you might imagine was popular with the people of the mainstream culture in the 70s who were trying to figure out how to live more simply themselves.

Some of the stories just make for interesting reading, especially because they use so many direct quotes and an effort was made to transcribe the language the way the people actually sounded. Some of it is fairly arcane but plenty of it could be adopted by us modern city living people. Not slaughtering and dressing a hog, maybe, but preserving vegetables and fruit, learning to understand the signs the weather gives us, and making soap and sewing quilts. I know from my own experience how satisfying it is to make something yourself—books, zines, embroidered pictures, knitted clothing—and this is something many modern people can’t relate to. It’s bad for your soul to have an entirely passive existence: being carted through the streets on various conveyances, letting machines help you do your work, then sitting in front of a TV or a computer for hours for entertainment and “relaxation,” which is also passive. You don’t have to go bananas and go live off the grid to rectify this. If you shuffle a few simple things into the mix of your life, and take a few of the unsimple ones away, you’ll start to feel happier. I promise this is true.