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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thoughts On Heirloom Skills

This post could so easily turn into a rant.

That's not my intention, but it could.  Just saying...........

The past few days, the subject of heirloom skills has been a hot topic in my house.  You know, heirloom skills, plain old basic life skills that used to be passed down from one generation to the next, much like Great-Granny's English tea pot.  These skills were learned by little girls at the elbows of their mothers and grandmothers and when the little girl was grown, she could apply that skill in her own life and pass it down to her daughters.  (I say daughters, mothers, grandmothers, but you could just as easily replace those terms with sons, fathers, grandfathers.)  I remember doing that; learning plain old basic life skills by working next to my mom and grandmother and my favorite aunt Vickie. 

I remember springtimes spent in the garden, watering transplants with buckets of water brought up from the creek.  Summers were spent juicing, snapping, shucking, milling, canning and freezing in the cinder block summer kitchen.  The wild black raspberries ripened in mid- to late-summer and oh how thrilling it was when Papaw climbed over the farm fence and disappeared for an hour picking berries!  It seems like he'd always come back with gallons and gallons of fresh black raspberries that we'd turn into jellies, cobblers and freeze for winter.  At least the ones that made it to the kitchen.  A fair number of them never made it beyond the walk back from the orchard. 

In fall, there were gorgeous fruit harvests of apples and peaches followed by peeling, saucing, buttering and canning.  I remember one year having brown hands from all the peaches I helped Mom peel and turn into peach butter.  I was about 13 and I was so embarrassed of my brown hands and stained fingernails!  I wasn't so embarrassed when it came time to top mom's homemade biscuits with peach butter!  That was some good eating right there. 

Wintertime was the greatest because all our efforts came inside.  Thanksgiving was a huge affair, with a full spread of food, all homemade and much of it homegrown.  There was no instant this and just add water that.  It was full-fat, full-calorie, full-flavor and made in bulk to accommodate all the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandchildren.  I remember homemade gifts and Christmas cakes baked from scratch.  And homemade toffee candies made with black walnuts that we gathered from the tree next door in Mr. Adam's yard.  I remember homemade peach and apple pies every year for Mamaw's birthdays, made from homegrown peaches and locally grown apples.   I remember Mom crocheting baby blankets and Mamaw making quilts when her old ones wore through.  And when spring came around again, Easter was a huge celebration, with homemade cakes and candies.  Our lives revolved around the seasons and our time was spent close to home.  And with few exceptions, I cannot imagine a more idyllic childhood. 

Somewhere over the past couple generations, that's all changed.

Life is spent at a hurried pace, going from one activity to another.  From school to sports to community functions to take-out restaurant then back home again to hurriedly get a few scant hours of sleep in order to start all over again.  Not that there's anything inherently wrong with those activities, but home and the family unit have been neglected in the process.  Hours spent together in the kitchen learning to cook whole foods have been swapped for fast food in order to free up time for watching TV.  Hard work and sweat in the garden have been traded in exchange for manicures and shopping sprees.  We don't produce anything; we simply consume.  We rack up debt to free up our time and then poison ourselves with convenience foods because we're simply too tired to cook.  What the frig??????

Now what we have is a generation of Americans who aren't capable of survival.  I don't mean survival as in Bear Grylls and roughing in the wilderness with only a package of matches and a tarp.  I mean cooking foods in their most basic form and mending a pair of jeans to last through the winter.  I'm talking about nourishing our family's tummies and spirits with simple hearty fare that we grew through our own labors.  Scrapping together a thick, fluffy, warm blanket to snuggle under on a cold winter day.   The skills of 3-4 generations ago are long-forgotten and have been replaced by mind-numbing, budget-killing, body-sickening hobbies and habits.

We're now enslaved by convenience.  Do you realize that?  What was once pleasant and convenient has now become a necessity and big businesses are laughing all the way to the bank.  Processed, packaged foods have become a staple because we've forgotten basic cooking skills.  Manufactured clothing has become a necessity because we've forgotten the ability to sew.  We're reliant on goods shipped from overseas because we've outsourced our skills for convenience and leisure.  We don't know how to sew, quilt, cook, work leather, make soap, tap trees, heal ourselves with herbs,  raise livestock, brew ales, make yogurt, construct simple furniture.  We absolutely refuse to make do or do without...that would be beneath our dignity.  After all, we're Americans and we're entitled to a certain quality of life.  And so we're now slaves to big business and mass consumerism; oh and the debt that goes along with it.  In so many ways we're like children; reliant upon someone else to take care of our most basic needs. 

We make fun of folks on welfare and look down our noses at entitlements, but honestly, are we any different?  We are nearly 100% dependent on other people to feed us, cloth us, heal us and give us a warm place to sleep.  The question is, where does this all end?  At what point do we learn again to take care of ourselves?  At what point do we free ourselves from bondage and use the skills of our forefathers in order to provide for ourselves?

If you don't know these skills, honestly, I'm not picking on you.  Our generation is the product of a crazy environment and an ever-maddening culture, but that's no excuse not to move beyond what we know and develop skills that will enrich our lives and that of our family.  There are so many resources available now to people who only look for them.  County extension offices offer courses in gardening and canning.  Local hardware stores teach classes on basic plumbing and carpentry.  Family-run greenhouses and garden centers can teach you the basics of planting a garden or using herbs.  Craft and fabric stores often teach elementary sewing.  And if none of that pans out, there are surrogate grannies to be found everywhere who would love to trade their skills for an afternoon with a captive audience!  There is a wealth of information to be had online, you just have to take the time to find it.  And old books, they're the greatest at teaching basic skills.  Watch garage sales and auctions for old home economics books, pre-WWII 'receipt' books, Girl/Boy Scout manuals.  They can be bought for practically nothing but are full of essential information.

Our culture is so big on the acquisition of stuff, especially if it promises to make life easier, but now it's time to turn away from that and work on the acquisition of knowledge and relationships.  It's time to build a home and a family, to develop our minds and expand our culture beyond what pop-media tells us is trendy.  Can you think of a better time to start than right now? 

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Chris W said...


Far beyond the skills you mentioned, how many people can't do such simple things as change a tire or sew a button? That bothers me a lot more than the one who can't grow a garden or cook a meal from scratch.

Andrea said...

Thanks Chris!

You're absolutely right about changing a tire and sewing on a button...now we just take the car to the shop and let the professionals fix it....and throw away the shirt in lieu of fixing a button. I wonder what's going to happen when the expendible income is gone and people HAVE to do it themselves?

I think the reason I get so worked up about cooking from scratch is from an experience working on my church's community garden. Last year, people who NEEDED food were TURNING DOWN food...because they didn't know what to do with fresh green beans or corn still in the husk. They had no idea how to feed themselves. That is simply a tragedy in my views.

Gen-IL Homesteader said...

EXCELLENT POST, ANDREA!! Right on, girl! I don't have anything to add because you said it all! Amen!

Anonymous said...

We all need to be like a sponge absorbing all the information we can . A Jack of All Trades is better than a master of one when it comes to sustainable living . Thanks for another great post !

Andrea said...

Thanks for the encouraging comments.

Anon: you are absolutely right...we all need to be learning a little bit of this and a little bit of that in order to survive. It's good to be a master of something, in nothing else for bartering pursposes, but you're dead on that being a jack/jill of all trades lends itself to independence.

Buttons said...

i completely agree that skills are being lost! i was so very blessed by my grandmother to be taught not only sewing, baking/cooking, and so on but also the value of frugality and simplicity no matter your income. a great motto to live by is "it's not how much you make, it's how much you don't spend" and another we live by is "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without"!

i would like to address the other issue though, of people in need, since i've cooked for a food pantry and know this issue...
some folks don't have any way of cooking raw foods so it's like giving a hungry man a can of tuna with no opener; if you give him fresh beans and corn on the cob and he has no pots/pans/stove, what is he to do?
you might not have realized this is a reality for many people. there are many who are homeless, and there are people who are close to homeless, they may have shelter but no electric/gas to fire their stove, or no working stove.
so if at all possible, if you could cook up a pot of veggie soup with a neighbor's extra tomatoes and whatever veggies they may have and donate that to local food pantry that would help so very much!(and it would stretch those veggies further!)

sorry for rambling, just thought to share that info... and thanks for this article, i'm always ranting about this subject and many others similar, i.e. raise your own food, children should know where their food comes from and know how to provide for themselves (city kids can container garden!).

great books to get for kids to start out are "Dangerous Book for Boys" and there's a similar one for girls but cant recall name (Daring book for girls??). i checked both out of library for my son though and we ended up buying the boy one. it shows everything from how to make a invisible written message on paper to how to skin/clean a rabbit and everything in between. but both are similar.

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