Saturday, June 09, 2007


My husband and I were talking the other day about how much knowledge has been lost in the last generation or two, knowledge that probably took hundreds of years to originally accumulate and was routinely passed down until just recently. He wants to try canning some stuff from our garden this summer and said that his mom knew how to can, but neither he nor any of his siblings ever learned. I've been more fortunate in my upbringing. Sometimes I feel like I grew up in two different centuries. There was the century where we gardened, picked, and gleaned much of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts, canned, froze, and dried them, bought eggs and milk from neighbors (at one point in my childhood, our milk even came in glass bottles delivered to our door), and my mom and grandma sewed, knitted, and darned socks; and then there was the century where I played guitar in a punk rock band and ate at Pizza Hut. Because I lived close to my grandparents and because my parents and grandparents carried on traditions passed on to them, I have a lot more knowledge of the essential basics of sustainable living than most people my age.

It's not just knowledge about specific techniques (like canning or sewing) that get passed on though, it's an entire human database of details that encompass a way of life that used to be much more in touch with the land, the seasons, the sun, and the rain, and all things that grow or live on the earth. Our new neighbors just moved into the house next door. They seem like very nice people, but the first thing they did was to chop down the huge and beautiful Japanese Maple on the south side of the house, take out the large and flourishing grapevine on the arbor over the windows, and trim all of the lower branches off of the cherry tree in the front yard which is completely laden with cherries. I'm not kidding when I say there must've been a gallon or two of not-quite-ripe cherries just on the branches they whacked off, lying there on the ground. It's enough to make a gleaner cry!

Now, no one in my family would ever even think about cutting down deciduous trees on the south side of a house, nor would they take out a mature fruit-bearing vine, nor would they trim a tree harshly while it is fruiting (and not just for the loss of the fruit, but for the health of the tree). These things just seem wrong to me, but I had to stop my inner rant long enough to examine why something that seems so obviously insane to me does not even bother my new neighbors (who, again, seem like very nice people). I think it is because for most people of my generation, the knowledge of the seasons, the light, the heat, the fruit, the shade and the sun have been lost. They probably don't know that their house will be ten degrees hotter than ours this summer because they've taken out the trees and vines that would've shaded their windows. I can already hear their heat pump running on the day it reached 90, but the interior of our house was still a cool 71 degrees with no heat pump or air conditioning. They will probably go down to the grocery store and buy grapes or cherries while fruit from their own trees lies fallow and the grapevines that shaded their windows get added to the brush heap.

At some point in the future our society will be unable to continue cooling houses with gas or electric power when a shade tree would suffice. I grew up in an area where it routinely reached 100 F in the summers and we never had an air conditioner. I remember opening all the doors and windows in the house overnight, and then in the morning pulling all the shades on windows that got sun, and buttoning the house up to keep the cool air inside. That's how our house now is cooled all summer long, and on the hottest nights we'll be sleeping in the basement. In the winter, I often open up our garage door on sunny days and let the south sun bake the cement garage floor. At night, it radiates the warmth back up into the garage, providing a warm room as added insulation between our living areas and the outside of the house. Eventually, we hope to add a greenhouse room on our south side to make the passive solar process much more efficient, but my makeshift garage heat-sink does quite well in the meantime.

I think a time may be coming when keepers of such knowledge are needed. Those of us who are remembering, re-learning, or improving on ancient knowledge will be as essential to our culture's survival as the tribal storytellers were to theirs. And since much of this knowledge is specific to a certain area, it will be vital to local communities to have people who have accumulated local knowledge for years or even generations. As I stood there dumbfounded when my neighbors described all of their "improvements" to their landscape, I didn't know how to say any of this in a way that might be useful and not come off as criticizing their decisions. So I stayed silent. But maybe there will be a time when this 3rd-generation Oregonian and great-granddaughter of a woman who was born in a sod house on the prairies of South Dakotah will be able to share something of use.


Wendy said...

I love this post. I come from a background similar to your husband's. Both of my parents grew up on farms where they took for granted how to plant, grow, harvest and preserve their own food, and make their own tools and clothing. They took self-sufficiency for granted, and through hard work and financial planning hoped to make the lives of their children "better" than theirs, and so they never taught us those things. Ironically, all I want is to know what they grew up learning.

hak said...

Great post. As a semi-frustrated urban farmer on an 1/8-acre lot, there are a lot of lost skills not being passed down.

I haven't fully appreciated this until I consider what my Polish grandfather tried to teach me when I was little. He farmed to feed his family during WWII in Poland and would often run extra eggs and milk into the city at night as part of the black market exchange.

When he was able to move his family to the States, he always kept his farming and was a fantastic orchard man.

With the race we're all in to "survive," it's nice to remember to slow it down and to get rid of all of the stuff (except bikes!) that we're working so hard to pay for.

Ahhhh...I could go on for days on this topic, so I'd better shut up now.