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In a conversation with my sister the other day, she was mentioning her desire to move with her husband to a remote location, remote enough to be off the grid. She indicated that people ought to get back to the old ways of doing things before those old ways are forgotten.

Whenever someone discusses going back to the “Olden Days,” they tend to speak in a wistful tone, waxing on romantically about how  it was so much better back then. Have you ever talked to someone who lived through those “Olden Days,” the days of intensive farm labor and no clothes washing machines? They aren’t wistful or romantic about them at all. They have a realistic sense of how much work had to be done and they’re typically glad they don’t have to do it anymore. Ask them to trade in their refrigerators, clothes washers, cars, and other tools of convenience and they’ll tell you to go jump in a lake.

The fear among those who haven’t lived through the “Olden Days” is that we’ll lose the traditional knowledge of how to do things from scratch and if our modern society suddenly collapses, we’ll be shit out of luck in terms of survival. Maybe, but I have more faith in humanity than that for a number of reasons.

First of all, how did we get to the point we’re at in modern society, with our massive array of technological wonders? Human ingenuity and persistence, of course. These don’t go away when a society collapses (unless everyone dies, but I’m not talking mass extinction here). If anything, they get stronger. Witness the aftermath of any recent natural disaster and you’ll see this play out once the general chaos subsides. You’ll even see a lot of it during the general chaos, particularly when there are people to rescue.

Second, there are always people engaging in traditional ways of doing things, sometimes within communities that are specifically structured to operate this way, the Amish, for example, and sometimes as hobbies. My husband doesn’t have to brew beer at home because there is plenty mass-produced beer for him to purchase, but he enjoys working through the traditional process. I don’t have to knit or crochet or sew in order to make clothing, but I, too, enjoy these traditional experiences.

Even though people may take up traditional ways in the guise of hobbies, as opposed to an entire way of life, the old ways are living on through the collective society. If you survey a bunch of your family and friends, you’ll likely find that a number of them are engaged in traditional activities as hobbies. That collective knowledge is nothing to sniffle at. Check out any specialty yarn shop or home brewing store to see the number of people taking part in the old ways and their rabid level of commitment to keeping individual craftsmanship alive. People with specialty knowledge can be called upon if needed during times of social upheaval.

With a little observation, people worried about losing the old ways will notice that gardening is undergoing a resurgence.  The seed department in Wal-Mart has exploded with packet after packet of cucumber, tomato, and bean seeds, with organic varieties thrown in for good measure. If Wal-Mart, the poster child for modern mass retail, is increasing its products for gardeners, that means there is a sizable and lucrative market for a traditional process and we’re not likely to lose that knowledge any time soon. (At least we’ll know how to keep ourselves fed in the event that our telecommunications networks fail.)

My sister and her husband are fine examples of people who are saving the old ways. They have a small farm, where they raise a large garden and keep chickens. In years past, they’ve also raised pigs. Their farm has wooded and fielded acreage, where they hunt game for food. My sister cans excess produce. Between the canning efforts, wild game, eggs and butchered chickens, there is little they have to purchase from a grocery store. My sister is also learning from a friend how to tap maple trees in order to produce maple syrup, which is an example of the transmission of traditional knowledge from one person to another.

Just because something like tapping maple trees is considered an old-timey task, that doesn’t mean the task itself continues to be done in an old school way. Spiles (spouts) for tapping the trees used to be carved out of wood. Now they are made of metal or plastic. The same goes for the buckets used to collect the sap. The old ways continue to evolve,  which brings me to another point in trying to convince people not to become too nostalgic for the “Olden Days” they didn’t live through. Which “Olden Days” did you want to return to? Would you like to give up your truck and paved roads for a Model T and ungraded dirt roads, or shall we head back to the horse and buggy days? Are horses and buggies too modern? If you’re living in North America, would you like to go back to the days when the continent had no horses? (They were introduced by the Spanish.)

Feel free to play this game with any technological wonder you take for granted (indoor heat, houses, stoves, the computer) and see what you’re willing to give up to go back in time. You may be surprised to find that the “Olden Days” don’t look quite so golden.

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