The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Pondering old books

Homes without hands

Mom brought me this 140-year-old book yesterday, and I've been pondering it ever since.  Books like this always feel like an opportunity, but I generally end up asking myself, "An opportunity for what?"

Harvest mouse nestThe illustrations are beautiful...but the text is really only interesting to folks who are intrigued by both nature and history and thus don't mind mentally translating captions like "hive bee" into "honey bee."  There is a print-on-demand version of the title available on Amazon already, but the book's lack of ranking within the store means it's probably never been purchased.

My mind wanders through various scenarios for bringing the heart of this book back into the public eye.  I could hire someone to scan every image and simply write a quick summary of the nest to go with each picture.  Or I could think outside the box and turn it into a children's story since the author's theme (animal nests) is very age-appropriate.

I've gone through similar mental perambulations over more homesteading-related titles, and always ended up veering away because I have a hard time figuring out which books are really in the public domain and up for grabs.  Robert Plamondon does an excellent job bringing old farm-related titles back into print, so perhaps I should leave the job to him.  But it's hard to turn down opportunities when they stare me in the face so prettily....  Ideas?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Yes, written in the years leading up to the Civil War, and published in the decade after it: the writer had his idea, of Homes Without Hands, and maybe he chiefly was writing after he created the scenes that are so fanciful. This was also the period of whaling, and of South Sea Island discovery. (btw, when did Darwin have his Beagle voyage?) I think of that sketcher-writer, and remember Charles Kingsley's Water Babies (Kingsley was, first, a minister, and all the "lessons" he embellished his fanciful episodes with, I skimmed, when I read that book as a child. That is, I couldn't take to heart the moral reasoning behind Ton's becoming covered with thorns, I think, while at the same time in my life, I never skipped Jack London's "lessons", or Will James', in Smoky, or Lone Cowboy. I read those lessons avidly, as sort of "How to's", trying to learn!

I guess I might try to skim the text, to see if it is "purely" scientific, just to see the real purpose of this book.

I think the children's book approach is one of the happiest ones, in using this! I can see that maybe that book was to have been sort of an all-purpose "reference book" back in the days of wonderful personal libraries (which even had their own bookcase ladders). How to convey some of the fun of the illustrations? I can see the old grandparent holding a little toddler on her lap, pointing out all the amazing parts of the drawing, the strange perspective of the Eskimos dogs way off in the distance, as seen from inside the polar bear's ice cave, for ex. Drawings can be so fanciful!

Maybe save this book for ideas, or to give to a child who would be mesmerized, and forget the writing, except that the writing sort of does frame the pictures. Most of it conveys a feeling of safety, in spite of possible hunters, or prey.

Comment by adrianne Sun Aug 10 08:35:49 2014
"Most of it conveys a feeling of safety, in spite of possible hunters, or prey." I think this hits the nail on the head! That should definitely be the theme if I turned it into a children's book.
Comment by anna Sun Aug 10 10:10:58 2014

If the author was this guy (Englishman, died 1889), any copyright will have expired by now. It doesn't matter if Engish or U.S. law applies.

See copyright lenghts;

  • UK: copyright is life of author + 70 years = 1959
  • US: books published before 1923 are in the public domain

The illustrations (engravings?) are well worth preserving in digital form, in my opinion.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Aug 10 11:04:53 2014

This is an interesting post. Maybe most people argue with themselves over whether or not old books are worth the gladness they bring. Some things are just intrinsic. We like figs because they taste good. We appreciate touching those old pages and peering into odd expressions because it makes us feel good.

Enjoy that pleasure!

Comment by Maggie Sun Aug 10 11:56:38 2014
Personally, I love old books and think you should preserve and reinvent it. A children's book is a splendid idea since kids have an innate sense of wonder and appreciation for nature. The illustration depicted is gorgeous. I would love to see the rest.
Comment by Susan Sun Aug 10 13:15:46 2014

Thank you, Roland, for looking up this author-sketcher! I agree that the illustrations need to be disseminated (I wouldn't mind having a poster-size of some, either, or postcards...!) Good idea to skim the text, too, just to see if any thoughts are worth passing on. Actually, Anna, my sense of the safety conveyed was in the "quiet time shared" that the reader and art-lover has to take--since ideas, and themes--from a book--can be anytime, not dependent on electricity! Neat that he gave sketch-lectures, which might be the best way to teach. Maybe his notes (lectures) were in his preps for creating the etching.

Possibly, if Anna wanted, you could lend out a book like this, Certainly it would be neat to have this available on "inter-library loan" somehow? Another use might be for the teacher to read most of the "facts" about a particular creature, then to let the students draw their own conceptions of what the habitat actually was is. Maybe, if you have time, Anna, you can read how he actually got his facts, if he tells, in the foreword?

Comment by adrianne Sun Aug 10 14:33:30 2014
Children's book gets my vote-- maybe enlarge and make it a coloring story book? Also may find children's ( or other) nature poems that are out of copyright and so combine many lost treasures into one. Then again, I thoroughly enjoyed watermelon summer, so you may want to let your imagination weave a story together around this project instead of recycling other lost materials or ....may be do both--write a meta-story about lost books & nature lost & found.?!? Lots of possibilities...
Comment by Jean Mon Aug 11 09:58:55 2014

If it was published before 1923 it is in the public domain (that is, it doesn't have a copyright anymore). Some books published after that time are in the public domain, but figuring out if they are is a little trickier. And there are many ways of making money from public domain text and images. I've read a lot about how to find out what is in the public domain and not, how to make money from them, and I love this sort of thing...I am not an expert, but I think I know a lot about it. You had a lot of good ideas...I love the idea of creating a story based on them.

There are people who love to use these old images for crafts and decorating and other projects. I've seen people who collect these images scan them in and sell them in digital format on sites like Etsy (the great thing about doing this on Etsy is that they will automatically deliver digital products to customers, so you don't have to do a lot of work. I have been planning on doing stuff like this myself.

I've also seen people just give images like this away on blogs. Check out to see how she gives images away (but makes money from advertising I suppose) and examples of craft and home decor projects people use them for.

One thing I have done is I actually use images that are in the public domain to put on Print On Demand (POD for short) products at sites such as and Sites like these show the images on products such as t-shirts and mugs and if a customer buys one they print it and send it to the customer and give me a commission.

Comment by Sharon Wed Aug 13 00:12:07 2014
If there are illustrations representing a variety of seasons (or even not), you could make a great calendar. I would also be tempted to hand color the illustrations with watercolor for a vibrant calendar.
Comment by hennybenny Wed Aug 13 08:57:23 2014

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