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Will it be the hot water bath or the pressure cooker? Or hung out to dry?

Will it be the hot water bath or the pressure cooker? Or hung out to dry?

An uncle in my husband’s family, now deceased, made it his mission to collect all the family records, photos, and news, and organize them into albums. Now and then my mother-in-law would forward a request from him–she was the one most in tune with my husband’s branch–for current photos or dates of significant events. It pleased me that someone was taking the time, and that he extended his attention to anyone grafted in to the branch of the family he had married into (he was probably keeping records of his birth lineage also). Someone might want this information some day, even need it, and he didn’t want it to be lost.

I am in the thick of preservation of a different kind this fall, as the tomatoes, plums, and apples pile up and I boil up sauces and jam and pack and boil the jars, slice and array fruit on screens, bunch herbs to hang from the light fixtures, roll seeds out of their crackling pods and blow off the chaff. As well as putting food by, I am preserving the tradition of my parents, who did this kind of thing. Instead of settling in the suburbs and shopping and the superstore, though their children tried to drag them into the late twentieth century where life looked so much more socially acceptable. For some reason the subsistence of my dad’s parents on rabbit, fish and salmon from the Gander River watershed never left him traumatized and clamoring for economic progress and a “higher” standard of living. He still had Shakespeare and art, and the salty bay to swim in. My mom’s folks weren’t exactly subsistence, but living by the river with a teacher mom and a journalist/gentleman farmer dad, she caught on to the handwork that makes a home from scratch, and being a hardworking, creative person, used it as a creative outlet. Said the best wool for dying and hooking into rugs came from her dad’s old stump socks. Living in the sticks between the St. Nicholas River, she still picked up Acadian French culture at the hardware store and overheard interviews her dad conducted in the living room with the reel to reel, heard the clacking of the typewriter on the roll top desk. It was all a kind of free range parenting, I guess.

Because of my parents’ decision not to get a television–it really hinged on that, which makes me very skeptical now of the rush to get all children “connected,” I picked up a few things too. Not so much through being formally trained, but because I saw that using the sewing machine, paint, pen, wood and whatever, was a way to get things done–to create, capture, produce, build, get a meal without getting a ride into town. And other than being coerced into helping with weeding or grinding or winding wool now and then, I was free range, too.There was school, but homework wasn’t demanding and could be done on the bus, and sports was floor hockey or touch football with the principal and vice principal before the late bus came, so it didn’t take up much time. Time, a world of books and the outdoors, free of so-called twenty-first century essentials, was for the mind of a child like warm, damp compost to worms.

In the old days, seasons came–fishing season, planting, haying, harvesting, hunting, storing away, and winter trapping, and someone was around doing similar work and able to lend a hand—neighbor, spouse, child or uncle. Now, when anyone an be anything they want to be and we lean on a college education and the world economy for our livings, seasons are interchangeable in the global economy, and there’s always something more fun and entertaining to do than hoe the garden, weed, pick berries, shell peas, or make apple sauce. So I’m often alone in the garden and in the kitchen. Alone experiencing the satisfaction of accomplishment and sense of security and good sense (as I add up the savings in grocery bills and fuel costs, and possibly health costs) of a job well done. Here’s to home economics and shop.

Here’s my justification for the reintroduction of home economics shop into the curriculum: No matter whether robots take over our carpet cleaning, factory work,  telemarketing, and lab research, being capable of growing food (along with finding wild food) can never completely become obsolete. Nor mechanized—it’s both too complex, requiring intelligence, adaptability, physical strength and endurance, and creativity, and too simple, relying on fundamentals like sunshine, microbial life, rain and air, all of which have no technological substitute. The temptation to modernize, mechanize, and outsource is there, but one soon finds that the costs outweigh the benefits. Growing and storing food handy to the house is immensely satisfying, meeting the human need to labor and build, providing great opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth, and enhanced by team work and community. There is rhythm, change, beauty, and surprise. There is the call to be creative and innovative within the complex rules of ecology and the limits of conditions and available supplies. There is abundant life, from the succulent Swiss chard and rambling pumpkin vines to the daily visits of hummingbirds, discoveries of multicolored varieties of leaf hoppers and spiders, pollinators large and small. In this season, there’s a sense of the miracle of such abundance, as I go back again and again to fill yet another bowl or basket with produce. Then as the shadows of the trees lengthen across the yard I heat up water, slice and blend and boil and hope that this time we can get through an entire winter without buying store potatoes, frozen beans, or dried oregano. Certainly we’re good on tomato sauce and applesauce.

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Yay! Mass Production! Just in time for the holidays

Being a handy person, I never feel right about buying a gift I could make myself. Especially when the item is so basic that no one would make it at home anyway, and the only reason anyone would buy it at all is that it’s on a cool rack with hundreds of others looking all trendy. As I stood by the bookstore checkout waiting for the clerk to finish entering my order of David Adams Richards’s River of the Brokenhearted, I scanned a nearby display of colorful magnets announcing, “Yay! Chocolate!” “Yay, compost!” “Yay! Mom!” “Yay! Gay!” And all I could think was, this is weird. Not the words or the meanings, which were merely conversational and affirming, but that someone could make a living selling these things. They don’t really qualify as a craft or art, because what crafty person would say, What a good idea–I think I’ll make some myself as gifts. They’re definitely a step own from the “Life is good” T-shirts that have made a killing in the last few years, which at least are wearable, good quality, and have cute little stick figures doing stuff on them. But they too have been elevated in status by mass production which gives them that aura of homey pop culture. Did you know the phrase “Life is Good”on clothing is copyright protected? As I walked up the stairs to park myself in a booth with my laptop and a cup of coffee, I tried to think of a crafted item that could work in reverse, as in be useful, attractive, good quality, but not susceptible to low quality mass production copying. Here it is: a shopping/tote bag designed to sling over the shoulder and last many years of carrying heavy things, end embroidered or hand painted with, “Down with Mass Produced Junk. Up with Quality”. I’ve been thinking about this theme for years, most intensely when I step too far into a bargain department store and see the crap that we ship here from the sweatshops of the world to pawn off on our poor or tightwad rich: plastic toys, cellophane gift bags, figurines, housewares, cleaning supplies, poorly made clothing, reusable, recycled shopping bags that can’t handle anything heavier than a few bags of chips, and food that will keep months without microorganisms ever being interested in taking a toxic nibble. I often feel physically nauseated at such an experience–not only the reminder of that awful appetite for consumption, but that ordinary human beings in my own community support such a system, as even I do in my quest to appease a child who “has to” have a certain item for a team gift exchange. I’m under no illusion that just because buying the same gift bag at the “nicer” store costs eight times as much, that anyone at the bottom of the economic ladder is benefiting from the extra cash. Do we really need to keep the economy running on such poor fuel? Now that we’re starting to count the costs of our throw away culture, what alternatives will we come up with? Homemade takes so much time, and who has that? There are always kits, complete with instructions–for cement garden stepping stones, E-Z sew Disney theme fleece pillows, pre-designed memory albums. And to save money there are or cheap, imported, plastic craft supplies–sparkly beads, styrofoam flower arrangement bases, prefab paintable birdhouses, synthetic yarn, and squeezable puff paint, all priced subject to economy of scale. No need to source alpaca wool, wood knitting needles and quality crafting tools.And anyway, “Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches,” as our Brave New World has taught us, and we didn’t even have to be asleep to soak it in as a mantra to live by. Buying good quality homemade items at the local artisans’ fair is another option, but prices there are pretty hard to swallow after years of comparison shopping  online. And in my experience, artisans cater to a limited range of esthetics, and items truly useful over the long term are rare. One can use only so many landscape paintings, earrings, Christmas tree decorations, scented soaps and candles, found item collages, hand bags, ceramic hors d’oeuvres dishes, and funky fleece hats. The products available through developing world fair trade artisan coops are gorgeous, but also not always very practical, and/or they fit best within the culture in which they are made, with all their bright colors and cultural symbolism. I’ve been working on an idea about this—I’ve heard there’s at least some appetite for it—to teach kids to make things with their hands. In the name not only of training them in useful skills such as woodworking, sewing, and equipping a life, but also as a counter the present dearth of opportunities to practice creativity, depth of concentration, problem solving in real time and space, and a priority on quality. I picture teaching some good basic skills with the materials, whatever they be, and encouraging students to take it from there and express something of their personality and values, working some special esthetic into their pieces. Engaging in an artful productivity, a beautiful practicality. With conversations about the hidden costs of economies of scale, outsourcing, and making it big.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Culture & Society, Economics

 

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No stone unturned, but please set them all back in place when you’re done

No stone unturned, but please set them all back in place when you’re done

Had a whale of a time mucking around on the beach at low tide that morning with my son’s fifth grade class a few weeks ago. All up to the gills in neat things to look and, smell and feel, deep in concentration, ebb and flow of kids between water line and rocky shore. And kudos to the leader the facilitating non profit environmental education group, who reeled all the parent volunteers in and specifically gave permission for the kids in each of our “groups” to drift off down the beach and not be called back to stay with the group. “Just wave and say, ‘see ya!'” was her wise advice. I like to see that prioritization of learning over control. There weren’t any cliffs or dangerous undertow currents, after all.

A good hour or so of free exploration, a few optional tools and field guides, parents to carry heavy stuff and bandage fingers sliced by shells. The field guides went by the wayside, the shovels got whisked off for use on the sandy part of the beach, and the pan filled up with things to look at and show off: purple sea stars, sun stars, limpets, clams, mussels, hermit and rock crabs, red, green, and brown algae, sand worms, and small fish. One find let to another: as we were lowering a rock after we’d finished admiring the mass of golden eggs stuck to its underside, the water in its muddy footprint swirled and revealed a mud-colored fish keeping guard. Later I found a post with a good photo of the fish.

All very nice, all very good. The kids gently return all the creatures and habitat samples back to the wild as instructed, and toddle back to the school in time to ride the diesel-powered buses, parental hybrid vehicles, SUVs, and minivans lined up on three sides of the school. Today they learned how neat nature is, and did what children way back to Adam and Eve’s got to do with their morning hours, messing around with real things God placed on this Earth. What now? …I’m fishing for possibilities, plumbing depths for implications, diving for pearls. How about this: instead of merely poking and prodding, then gathering up at the park shelter for pizza and drink boxes, why not then gather firewood, pull out the nets and rods, and catch dinner? Och, it’s a park, girl, and what if everybody did that? And I say, what if–let’s explore the idea in theory, anyway–what if a lot of folks really did? Not all in the park, but spread out, like, along the coast, up and down. If all the current inhabitants of the coast had to go locovore and forage with their young and old ‘uns, go out and fish, and never venture back to the grocers’ in the petro-powered vehicle at all? Would the impact really be net destructive? That’s what I want to know. I mean, if the contents of those intertidal zones and pelagic fields weren’t contaminated by mercury and whatnot from the other more modern ways of pursing  a livelihood, if they were still edible like in the old days?

Next time, I want to take the kids up to the Lummi shoreline for a lesson in survival from the elders who still know how to make that kind of living. Just in case California really does dry up in the next few years and not send us any more off season fruits and veggies, let alone lunchables and go-gurt.

 

 

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