The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Embracing the Bardic Arts: A History of Making Fine Things July 23, 2017

One of the changes that humans have experienced with the rise of industrialization, and more recently, consumerism, is a shift away from creating our own lovingly crafted objects, objects created with precision, skill, high-quality materials, and care and into using things that instead are made by far away people and machines. I wrote a little bit about this before in a post on wood. In speaking of the 17th century, Eric Sloane writes in the Reverence of Wood:

“In 1765, everything a man owned was made more valuable by the fact that he had made it himself or knew exactly where it had come. This is not so remarkable as it sounds; it is less strange that the eighteenth-century man should have a richer and keener enjoyment of life through knowledge than that the twentieth-century man should lead an arid and empty existence in the midst of wealth and extraordinary material benefits” (pg 72).

I know that a number of us on the fringes (and growing increasingly towards the center) are picking up these old skills through the process of reskilling and supporting craftspeople in their trades. The craft brewing movement, wood carving movement, and fiber arts movements are several such examples.

 

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Recently, I’ve been learning a few new skills including making candles from the beeswax from my beehives, learning how to make my own leather shoes, and learning basic woodcarving techniques (some of which I’ll write about at some point). But what has struck me in the process of trying to learn these things is the lack of specialized, accessible knowledge on the subject, especially in my local area. What I’d ideally love to do is to sit with a master and learn the process from him or her here in my local community–but there are no masters to be found locally. Youtube, old books, and an occasional class where I drive a long way to learn is the most common way of gaining this knowledge these days.

 

And so, I wanted to step back a bit from the specific crafts, and today, spend some time reflecting upon the idea of making things as both a functional handicraft and as a bardic art that cultivates the flow of awen. I think this is important for a few reasons. For one, as someone on the druid path, supporting the bardic arts, which includes various functional crafts, is an important part of that path: finding one’s own creativity and being able to do something with that creativity is central. But second, that learning how to make my own things that will last, from local materials, helps us minimize our footprint on the living earth. Third, making our own things helps me slow down and reconnect with the earth and her gifts. Plus, there is simply a lot of fun to be had in making your own shoes, paper, jams, spoons, or whatever else! (Of course, all of this requires time, which is a challenge I also wrote about earlier this year).

 

The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

At one time, humans in communities provided nearly all of their own needs: there were coopers, cobblers, tanners, barm brewers, blacksmiths, wainwrights, apothecaries, tailors, as well as bustling home economies that produced many other things that a family needed. A list from Colonial America offers a description of some of these jobs here.  What strikes me about this list is the amazing number of specialized professions there were for making everyday objects and tools for human use, everything from brewers’ yeast to barrels, from medicines to wagon wheels. In other words, humans in a community used to make things for that community–the expertise was centered in and around that community. My example of making shoes, or the art of cobbling, falls into this category: every community had a local cobbler to make and repair shoes–this required specialized knowledge, tools, and practice.

 

The second kind of economy in these times was, of course, the home economy. Homesteads were places of constantly bustling activity: bread baking, cheese making, tool making, farming, candle making or rush light making–providing so many of a family’s own needs.  My candlemaking experiences, here, certainly fall into this category.  I’m not going to talk too much about the home economy today (although I likely will at an upcoming point).

 

The system I outline above was no perfect system, but it was a system that employed highly skilled people working with more local materials in their local communities, making things for the use of that community; combined with highly adaptable home economies that produced the bulk of a household’s needs. This system allowed people to monitor how supplies in the local ecosystem would last and to understand their direct ecological impact when they made new things. Further, this general system has worked for most non-industrial agrarian cultures around the globe for millennia. Its especially interesting to note, too, that this system actually seemed to be less work intensive than current systems; one such presentation of this is through Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and in Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto.  Both of these books explore the issue of work, showing how many of our ancestors had plenty of time for 12-day feasts and much revelry and worked fewer hours than we did (a topic I explored earlier this year).

 

Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

Tucked into quiet places, you still may find the remnants of these locally-based, highly skilled trades: odd tailor who makes his or her own suits, the local wood turner, and so on. Today, we see the remnants of these older ways of life in antique shops and other nooks and crannies: hand-hewn and worked wooden objects, iron tools clearly forged by an expert blacksmith, homemade buckets, spinning wheels with various small repairs, handmade clothing and quilts, and so on. In fact, my town still has a cobbler who fixes shoes (but doesn’t’ make them; he tells me his grandfather from who he learned the trade from did). At a thrift store visit last year, a dear friend of mine found an incredible green suit made by a tailor right here in town (and obviously, no longer in business).

 

But with the rise of consumerism and industralization, we left behind many of these skilled trades and we left behind our home economies to buy things. We also, unfortunately, left behind even the idea that craft was something to take seriously and that a high-quality product was worth paying more for or to spend a tremendous amount of time to make.

 

The Decline of the Skilled Trades

As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the rust belt/flyover zone, I have always lived in a time of declining small businesses and large corporations. Each year of my life, I’ve watched more family businesses and local shops close up for good and be replaced by large corporations on the edge of town reachable only by car (rather than in town, reachable by foot). In fact, I lived this firsthand, watched my parents’ own graphic design home business steadily lose their local customer base as one business after another closed their doors, or relocated, or were bought out by a bigger corporation who were headquartered in a far off state and not interested in offering work to local graphic designers. The first Walmart came to my area while I was still in middle school, driving many local establishments out of business within only a few years’ time.

 

At this point, exploring the landscape of most places in the US shows the most boring monotony of the same businesses selling the exact same things (an issue I took up last year). I had, of course, read in various places about the engineering of American society to be consumerist in the times following WWI. This general pattern was well underway long before I was born, and in fact, was several centuries in the making. To understand this phenomenon better, I spoke to some older family members to try to understand their firsthand experiences. My older family members attribute a large number of factors to the loss of our small trade businesses and creation of handicrafts locally, but I’m going to hone in on three that seemed to arise with the different conversations: 1) the rise of large corporations (which is the fairly obvious one), 2) the lack of new apprentices to carry on the family businesses; 3) the loss of the blue laws and 4) the cultural disregard for handmade things.

 

Obviously, when large corporations like Walmarts and Targets come to town, economics has a lot to do with the issue. For one, because they buy and ship in such bulk, they can undersell local businesses on the same products. But they also sell cheap products in snazzy packaging with fancy words masquerading as good products. This has been talked about a lot in other places and is fairly well known, so I won’t belabor the point here.  This decreases the demand for these locally-produced crafts and trades.

 

The second reason was the lack of young people wanting to go into these traditional crafts and trades–which has a lot to do with economics, but also with interest. When my parents attended the closing of our local shoe store in Johnstown (called Yankee Shoe Repair), they spoke with the owners, who said that there was nobody who wanted to carry on their business and that was one of the reasons they were closing. They purchased a good deal of leatherworking supplies for me, and that’s how I got my start in leatherworking.

 

Third is my mother’s “blue law” theory. Blue Laws, which used to protect family time, also contributed to the downfall of the trades here in our region. The Blue Laws governed, among other things, when businesses had to stay closed to ensure adequate time for families and religious services. After the blue laws were removed, family businesses often kept with those traditions (and still do, in limited places) while big corporations remained open for longer and longer hours, making it more convenient for customers. Today, we are seeing the real effects of these pushes with the loss of Thanksgiving day and the push for being open on Christmas day. The limited hours made shopping at these stores (and their associated value systems) less convenient and, in an age of convenience, folks less likely to visit the family owned business.

 

Finally, the idea of something being handmade (rather than store-bought) after World War II took on a negative connotation for many Americans. Handmade objects were looked down upon and seen as less desirable. My mother shared with me stories of wearing “hand me downs” or “handmade” clothes rather than purchased ones and how she was teased as a child. Even in my own childhood, I experienced this. My paternal grandmother was a maker, going to church sales, picking up huge bags of old clothing and drapes, and repurposing them into toys, skirts, doll clothes, and more. When I went to school with my handmade clothing lovingly crafted by my grandmother, I was mocked (which, to the other children, suggested poverty). Today, “handmade” still has some negative connotations (especially if it’s done in a less-than-sleek manner).

 

Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

So now that we have some understanding of what happened to the skilled crafts and trades, I want to briefly explore a few problems that this has created. These are key problems for both individuals, communities, and our broader lands.

 

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

The Loss of Highly Skilled Workers and Educational Opportunities. First is that the highly skilled labor required to produce these objects has shifted to mechanized low-skilled labor. This means that these highly skilled trades employing people in every community that offered a good living have now vanished. These skilled trades had offered young people educational opportunities and career opportunities through apprenticeships. Now, these positions are largely relegated to lower-skilled or unskilled factory workers in a single community (likely these days, overseas). We’ve taken 100,000+ cobblers located all over and have replaced them with 10 factories each employing 300 low-paid, unskilled employees in far off locations. Pressing a button on the shoe cutting machine is a lot different than the custom measuring, cutting, and fitting of a pair of  shoes for a specific person in terms of the skill, care, and precision necessary for the work.  Not to mention that you end up with a much better product if the shoe is made for your feet. Finally, a pair of shoes made in a factory vs. one made by skilled hands fundamentally changes the nature of the work we do, and I believe, makes it a lot less meaningful. 

 

I have firsthand experience of this factory work: when I was in high school, I worked for a summer in a bra and underwear factory; we didn’t produce bras or underwear (they were made in sweatshops overseas), but we hung them, packaged them, and shipped them off to various big box stores all over the country. It was the most wretched four months of my life. At the factory, anyone could do the work; it could be learned with minimal training, usually less than a few hours. There was no craft, no care in the work–and how could there be? People worked in rough conditions, for minimal pay, and there was no need to be skilled or invest time in the quality of our work done well. This isn’t to say that people at the factory were lazy–they worked hard, but the nature of that work was much different than our skilled shoemaker fitting a person for a custom pair of shoes.

 

Environmental Health and Health of Ecosystems. One of the things about goods being made right in your local community is that you know what goes into those goods and where those goods come from. The local tanner and hunters have some idea of the level of the deer population; the local woodworker knows about the health of the forest; the local farmer can speak about the quality and health of the soil. When the creation of goods is removed from our vision or done on the largest industralized scale, we no longer can assess the health of those places where raw goods are coming from nor the impact of those goods on the land.  Sure, we may hear stories, but it is a “far away” problem that we pay no mind. Further, those producing goods as a family profession are going to care about the health of the land from which those goods come (and continue to come) as their livelihood depends on it. Not so with the large-scale production factory, who can often just find a new source of raw materials to exploit (this, also hidden from view from the end consumer).

 

The truth is, I have no idea where my goods really come from when I’m purchasing something at the store; they are hidden behind various “distributed by” labels on packaging and even writing a company often does not lead to any deep understanding. This means I can’t really assess their real costs to myself or to any community that may be involved in the extraction of resources nor production. And I certainly have no idea what the environmental costs of those goods are (and I suspect they are generally quite high).

 

Product Quality and Comfort. On the consumer end, the quality of the products has declined with the loss of our skilled trades and crafts; in many cases, options in many cases is to choose between low-priced junk and high-priced slightly better junk. While factories can certainly produce these objects more “efficiently”, they certainly can’t do it better or of a higher quality. Shoes are a great example here. A pair of shoes fitted to an “ideal” foot is not a pair of shoes fitted to my foot, and my feet nearly always hurt because they are different than the factory-produced ideal. I have never liked shoe shopping and it usually takes me many tries to find a decent pair of shoes that are comfortable. The factory standardizes human feet in a way they shouldn’t be standardized, and my limited experiences with cobbling have already taught me that human feet don’t come in simple digit sizes. Tracing my own and others’ feet on paper as part of learning to make shoes has taught me that feet are as unique as we are, and shoes, therefore, also need to be. Goods designed in a specific local context or body in mind are simply better than those that are not!

 

Variety and Weirdness. The standardization of goods also comes with the loss of diversity (and anyone who has studied evolution knows how important diversity is to any system!) A local shoemaker in one town might produce a very different kind of shoe than one three towns over depending on his/her skills, training, and creative approaches. With a factory pumping out 10,000 shoes a day that are identical, we now have much less choice, less quirkiness, and less all around creativity.

 

Suffering, Joy, and the Energy of Goods. As I’ve stated on this blog before, the things that are near to us, including physical goods, bring their own energy and that energy impacts us. A shoe produced in a sweatshop invariably brings some of that suffering into your own life–it carries the energy with it from how it was extracted and made. I highly suspect that the cobbler enjoyed his or her work much more than, say, the under-paid and chemically-exposed factory worker. Whose shoe would I want to wear?

 

The “Real” Costs. I think the real lure here is the idea of a cheap good and its overall value. Cheap products are not better ones, ones that are of quality and that last.  It’s true that Walmart and Payless Shoes other bargain stores can sell a cheap pair of shoes for $25, while the local shoemaker sells a much better and high-quality pair of leather shoes for $150. This doesn’t seem very competitive on the surface to the average consumer. However, given that the whole purpose of consumerism is to consume as quickly as possible, and so, the $25 pair of shoes you wear every day have barely a year shelf life.  You’ll have to replace those cheap, uncomfortable shoes 10 times in a decade.  This ends up costing far more than the $150 pair of shoes that last a decade with minimal maintenance and repairs.

Where do we go from here?

Industrialization isn’t going to go away tomorrow (and it would be very bad if it did for those of us who still depend on it).  And yet, I think there are a lot of things we can do to cultivate the bardic arts, both within ourselves (as my earlier posts in this series suggested) and to cultivate a culture in which the bardic arts are valued and profitable.  Let’s look at a few of those things now!

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!

 

Supporting Skilled Trades

I think the very first thing all of us can work to do is to support those folks who are still around, still engaged in their skilled trades.  My town has a cobbler–he doesn’t make shoes (unfortunately, I’d love to learn from him!) but he does repair them, and I’ve been glad to visit him every few months with small shoe repairs. I honestly know enough about shoemaking at this point that I could manage some of the repairs–but I want to give him business (and his repairs will be nicer than mine!)  There’s a local wood turner who I’ve been buying wooden bowls and plates from, and so on. The more we can seek these folks out and help them thrive, the better. On the more fine arts side, the same thing applies: finding local artists, local theaters, local musicians, and supporting their work as much as possible. Each town and community has its own quirky, unique scene of great people creating great things, and supporting that work is so critical to returning to a bardic-arts enriched culture.

 

Reskilling, Time, and Community

We just don’t have time like we used to have to engage in these functional crafts; our ancestors who were making these things in pre-industralized cultures had a lot more time to do so.  (Pre-industralized cultures worked a lot less and played a lot more than people do now). The time and “productivity” suck we are all facing means that we simply don’t have the life energy to really invest in these skills and get good at doing them. I feel this really harshly because I have lots of things I want to do–a wide variety of skills to learn and master–and more often than not, I’m exhausted with my work (and paying off those darn student loans) and don’t have the energy or time to do many of them. This is a cultural problem that faces anyone who is trying to earn a living within our current system.

 

I think that this time crunch we are all facing means that we don’t necessarily have the energy to figure things out or to fail in order to learn.  The way we learn as humans, even when there is someone teaching us, is by trying, testing things out, failing and re-trying, and fiddling with things till we get it right.  Its like a slow spiral, working ever inward and deeper.  We need a lot of time to hone our crafts, to take them from beginner attempts into things that are functional that we can be proud of.  This means we have to invest a lot of time in them–the one thing that we don’t currently have.  Without investing the time, we can’t get good at them and turn them into an art.

 

Still, these skills are worth doing and worth preserving, and finding ways of doing so (living arrangements, working arrangements, defending vacation time, etc) are important things we all need to figure out how to accomplish.

 

My solution at present to this is twofold.  For me personally, it is a matter of making the time and keeping with it. I’m working to make the most of the small amounts of time that I might have available (e.g. stitching up a hand-bound book while talking with friends or waiting for my car to be repaired, similar to what knitters do).  But also, setting aside sacred days and times to do that work.

 

The second is community–I’m working hard to find friends to learn these skills with and working on building a network of folks who have different skills.  Like the mini-villages of old, finding people who can teach and who are willing to trade is a great way to keep these old skills alive and vibrant.  And so I have a friend who carves spoons, and we trade for artwork, another friend makes really great jams, and so on.

 

The third is to pick a craft and really hone it.  I’ve been such a dabbler for a lot of my life, and I really want to start making a few things and doing those well.  I’ve suck with my painting and writing longer than anything else, and the results of those efforts show.  I’m really getting into leatherworking and some primitive woodworking, and I know those skills will both take me years of time to develop and master.  These seem like enough: both in term of the time investment, but also in terms of the materials/tools investment (which is considerable).  But picking one, or two, and really working at it is important.

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

As I’m involving myself deeper in my own reskilling, I’m also seeing the serious cracks and edges of this movement from a knowledge perspective. While knowledge of how to do many things used to be widespread, local knowledge about many of these more complex skills  seems to be absent almost entirely. Skilled knowledge about these things may be out there in the world, but it is often contained in small pockets, or inaccessible in faraway places, or offered only at considerable cost (I could travel to a master shoemaker and learn, but it would cost me over $1000 to do so). Or, knowledge is contained in good books, many of which are out of print.

 

Another issue with this is that many of us no longer have this knowledge or access of where to find it, and we are learning a little bit and bumbling about in that learning and sharing what we learn.  But the truth is, you can’t just replace a master craftsperson with a short online tutorial and expect the product to come out the same way.  I am learning this the hard way with shoemaking–I tried what looked like it was a decent online tutorial, but my shoes didn’t really come out and the key aspects of the tutorial I needed were lacking. I invested in a kickstarter campaign to learn from a master craftsperson and his course is incredible and deatiled–and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first pair of custom shoes!

 

And so, in terms of reskilling movement for more specialized skills, we need to continue to build first-hand knowledge. I think it would behoove us to seek out the teachers of these kinds of skills, learn from them, and work hard to pass it on and to keep those traditions alive.  I can’t stress this enough–seek these folks out, learn from them, document that knowledge, share it, and preserve it.  The internet is great for this!  Share, share, and share!

 

Localizing Resources

Another strategy that you might try to start bringing more handcrafted functional things into your life is looking at what resources already exist in your community or local ecosystem.  Here, there are always places being logged, and those loggers leave behind so much good wood.  Straight branches, curved interesting pieces, green or drying out.  This is part of what prompted my interest in woodworking: the materials are so abundant and easy to find here that it seems that all I need is to put some time and hone the skill of doing it.

 

I have a friend who makes these incredible pieces of art from buckthorn vines in Michigan.  Buckthorn is everywhere in Michigan, and townships often have clean up days where they pull them out and burn them.  She takes them home and turns them into baskets, picture frames, and more. My other friend, Deanne at Strawbale Studio, uses the clay, sand, and silt in her soil combined with phragmites reeds to make houses and natural structures.  Again, she is capitalizing on resources that are already present there in the landscape. Yet another friend has cultivated abundance by growing bamboo for flutes and whistles!

 

So rather than picking a hobby that requires you to bring resources in, perhaps look at what resources are there and use them, if you can. This is the best synthesis of nature-oriented spiritual practice and the bardic arts and crafts.

 

I think that the edges are starting to wear thin for a lot of us concerning the lure of consumerism with its flashy gizmos and cheap gadgets. It’s exciting to see the rise of the reskilling and maker movements, where people are realizing the potential of their own creative gifts and working again to create functional and lovingly made crafts. I think that many of these movements are not yet mainstream (perhaps craft brewing and the tech/maker movement being the most mainstream at this point), but I do see them as gaining momentum, at least among the fringe groups focusing on sustainable living, permaculture, transition towns, and the like.  While this post explored some history and problems, our next post will continue to get us deeper into the relationship of the self with the idea of craft and the bardic arts–and how we can embrace this work as part of our own spiritual and sustainable path.

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The Wheel of the Year and Sustainable Action: The Spring Equinox March 19, 2015

I began this series of posts with examining sustainable actions for the winter solstice. Today’s post celebrates the current holiday–the spring equinox–and suggests activities for sustainable and spiritual actions that are appropriate for this delightful season. (I will note that these activities are appropriate for readers who reside in the Northern Hemisphere who are coming into the springtime–for those in the Southern Hemisphere, look forward to my Fall Equinox post later in the year!)

 

A few words about the spring equinox–the spring equinox is a time of balance, when day and night come in equal parts. The spring equinox is a great time to clear away the old habits and clutter that no longer serve us and that pull us back into unsustainable patterns and behaviors. The spring equinox is also a great time to start new activities, hobbies, actions, or even reorient our way of seeing. Given the energies of the Spring Equinox, I’ve compiled a list of things that you can do to help engage in more sustainable and earth-centered practices during this most sacred time!

 

On Personal Rituals

I like celebrating the eight-fold wheel of the year because it brings a sense of ritual and consistency into my life. I have crafted a series of “personal rituals” for each of these sacred days (like the inner spring cleansing, the first item below), and doing these with regularity each year gives me some balance and focus.  So you might also think about how your own personal ritual and spiritual work fits with the season at hand.

 

Beautiful spring violets!

Beautiful spring violets!

Spring Cleansing/Balancing (Inner). The spring equinox is a time when the darkness and light are in equal balance. And truly, this is a time of balance, a time of introspection when we can understand how to achieve inner balance in our lives. I think this is important because so many of us don’t take the time to do such balancing and cleansing work in this busy world, and an inner imbalance can lead us towards all sorts of outer imbalances and cause chaos and pain for us. How does one seek inner balance?

 

One suggestion is a practice I started few years ago on the spring solstice: I started with a list of all of the things that make me happy: writing, painting, being outside, being with family and friends, growing things, spiritual practices, sitting by the fire, spending time in the woods, teaching, mentoring my students, etc. And then I kept track of how much time I spend on everything for one week–its like a time diary. I kept track of it as precisely as I could (if anything took more than 5 minutes, I wrote it down). After one week, I evaluated how I did and how many minutes, of my 24 hours in each day, I spent doing things I really loved. I also meditated on the list, trying to work through my week, and worked to eliminate anything that wasn’t helping me. The following week, I tried to increase the time I spent on my favorite things by 5%; then I again evaluated my successes. Slowly, over time, I was able to clear extraneous things and time sinks (like Facebook!) and focus really on what made me happy. This led to inner balance and, honestly, a new way of seeing and living. To keep myself on the right track, I do this activity each year for at least a week as part of my spring equinox celebrations–to reinforce my goals and spiritual path.

 

Spring Cleaning (Outer Living Spaces). Now is also a great time for outer work–work that can help you live simply and more meaningfully. Part of the reason we have “spring cleanings” is that spring is really a great time for all kinds of cleansing work. The accumulation of excess stuff that we don’t need can energetically hold us back and keep us from moving forward. For example, I had a friend who had a serious accumulation of things–a lot of it was junk, but it had piled up in his living space to the point where he couldn’t walk or really do anything. He would spend many countless hours and days organizing his things, but the stuff always seemed to get the best of him because while he shuffled it around, he never actually got rid of anything, so the clutter and energy remained. Eventually, he was forced through external circumstances to do some serious spring cleaning–and energetically, his creativity started to flow again.I found this to be true with myself as well–after some life changes, I ended up unloading about 40% of my stuff–with each bag or box I donated, I felt lighter and happier. I’m in the process of unloading even more stuff to prepare for some more big life changes this summer. The more I donated and rehomed, the easier it was to let go of more. The clutter really does stagnate us energetically and harms our living spaces and inner work. Once we’ve done such an external spring cleansing, we can evaluate what is really needed for a happy and fulfilling life and only bring those things in that fulfill us, not bog us down.

 

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Foraging for Spring Greens. Depending on where you live and the temperatures in the year, in the next few weeks, you can likely begin foraging for the first spring greens. In my neck of the woods, these are cattail shoots and poke shoots (both to eat like bamboo shoots), dandelion greens, nettles, burdock root, and a bit later in the season, ramps. For the poke, you can have them as long as there is no pink or red coming up the stalks.

 

Spring Tonic Greens and Tonic Teas. Unsurprisingly, once you are able to find those spring greens, they make a great spring tonic blend. The idea behind a tonic tea is that the winter would leave one rather malnourished–so the early spring greens and roots often helped to nourish and revitalize the body. This is not a “cleanse” in the popular sense of the word but more of a revitalization for long health. There are lots of ways to make a tonic blend using the early spring greens–you can make up a spring greens stir fry (with dandelion greens, nettle, and burdock root) or you can just make yourself up a dandelion root-nettle tea. Regardless, the early spring greens can be consumed early and often and will leave you feeling revitalized for the coming months!

 

Evaluating Spending and Reducing Excess. Part of the challenge for those of us living in western industrial civilization is that everything encourages us to spend, buy, and consume, very often when we don’t need it.  think there is often confusion over what is a need and what is simply a strong want. This is a good time to year to analyze spending habits and work to reduce excess (a great book for this is called Your Money or Your Life and it will help you break down your necessities and what you really need–a fascinating and highly recommended read).  Evaluating spending and reducing excess in our lives is well-suited to be combined with any external or internal spring cleaning we are ready to enact.

 

Sacred space

Sacred space

Planning a sacred space. Early spring is still a great time for thinking about creating outdoor spaces–either on your own land or in out of the way nooks and crannies in public lands. I have found that the longer I hold an intention of creating such spaces in my mind, the better such spaces become when I enact them in the world.  Meditation and visualization to plan the right kind of sacred space is useful as well. I have several posts on sacred spaces: developing sacred spaces, stacking stones, bee and butterfly gardens, stone circles and spirals, shrines and more.

 

Reskilling. While any time of year is a good time to reskill, the spring is fantastic because it is a time of new beginnings, a very good time to clear away the old and bring in the new. Reskiling, or the practice of learning skills that allow for more sustainable skills, can help us begin to make the transition to lower-fossil fuel and lower-impact living. I have a post on reskilling where I cover the basics of this practice.

 

Seed starting. At this point in the spring, if you haven’t already started your seeds or are considering a veggie garden, this is a great time to start those seeds!  A lot of farmers and gardeners in my zone (Zone 6) plant their gardens on the 31st of May, so this is the time to start the plants that have an eight-week indoor growing time–and that includes most of the nightshades, such as the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Some info on seeds and seed starting is found here and here!

 

Learning Homebrewing. There are a fantastic array of spring beverages that one can craft–elderflower wine, spruce tip ale,  ground ivy gruit, and my favorite, dandelion wine. If you want to learn about some of these unique brews, you can check out Stephen Harold Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Ancient Art of Fermentation. You won’t be disappointed!  There are also many recipes to be found freely online, such as at the winemaking site.

 

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Early Spring Observations. I recommend that you take every opportunity to be outside, to live and breathe the spring air, to watch the ice melt, and generally experience the seasons.  The melting ice, the rise of the crocuses, the running of the sap, the unfurling of the leaves–there is just so much magic in the land this special time of year! Spending time walking outdoors, being still, and focusing your awareness on the landscape and the tiny details can reveal profound insights and draw you closer to the land. I think one of my very favorite moments of the year is when we have the big melt, and being outside as much as possible during those amazing days!

 

Reading and Study.  Like the Winter Solstice, for many of us, the spring equinox still has much snow on the ground and its an excellent time to read a few good books. I have a list of books recommended for homesteading here, and I also have listed some books for sustainability and druidry here.

 

May the blessings of this Alban Elier be upon you! /|\

 

Reskilling for Sustainable Living: Ways to Learn New Skills December 27, 2014

Everyone, to some extent, is a product of their culture. Our culture’s formal education system teaches a set of skills that are claimed to be beneficial and practical for functioning in present society. Certain sets of skills are privileged, and others are simply not taught, and in some cases, skill sets that are deemed no longer relevant are lost from the collective knowledge of many communities and families. Unfortunately, many of the skills of the past that are needed to help us transition to a lower-carbon and lower-fossil fuel society have been lost as newer generations weren’t interested in learning them or because these skills are no longer part of any community or family educational system.  This is where the concept of reskilling can come in.

 

What is reskilling?

“Reskilling” is one of the terms that often comes up in the sustainability and permaculture communities. The concept of reskilling is simple–those of us wanting to get ahead of the curve and transition to low-fossil fuel, sustainable living, need broad sets of skills that aren’t typically taught in our education system nor are typically part of growing up in our present culture. Reskilling is really about gaining the skills to provide for our basic needs for ourselves, our families and our communities–the movement is concerned with skills that help feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, provide daily functional items for ourselves from local materials, entertain ourselves, deal with our waste, keel ourselves healthy, and keep ourselves sheltered and warm.  So we can think about reskilling as the process of gaining a set of skills for basic human life in a non-industralized or lower-fossil fuel setting–a setting that future generations and many of us today are heading toward. Typical reskilling may include a lot of the concepts discussed in this blog-natural building, homesteading, gardening, fermentation, herbalism, animal husbandry, candle making, and much more.

Animal Husbandry as an important skill

Animal Husbandry is an important skill

Why Reskill?

I think there are a lot of reasons people start reskilling, and I’ll give you a few of mine. Reskilling has been a really empowering thing for me for a few reasons. First,I found that each time I learn a new skill–from how to properly start seeds or rotate crops to how to deal with an egg-bound chicken or make my own medicines–I was stepping further away from modern industrial and consumerist society. This meant less dependence and financial support for practices/companies/lifestyles that I spiritually disagreed with.  Second, being able to provide some of my own needs, like food or medicine, also made me feel like I was doing something to face the problem directly rather than lamenting over what wasn’t being done by government, etc. Third, reskilling, while hard work, is fun and exciting–and has created a really fulfilling life full of activities and new interests.   Finally, reskilling allows people like me, who were heavily trained in a specialty, to adopt a more generalist mentality, and there is great benefit in such an approach.

 

Since my spiritual path is rooted in the living earth, I see reskilling not only as a sustainable practice, but as a sacred spiritual practice–the earth is honored, I live more sustainably, my needs are taken care of, I learn more about the land, and I live much closer to her rhythms and seasons.  This is a big part of my druidry, my sacred action.

 

Ok.  I’m sold on reskilling. What should I learn first?

I have found that it is important to learn one thing comfortably at a time–when you start trying to do to much, you risk frustrating yourself.  Start slow, read, talk to people, and find out what you are inspired to try.  Also find out what you can learn about in your area–who is around and willing to teach. One of the things you want to think about is if you want to specialize in one kind of skill extensively or learn a bit of everything. A typical community 150 years ago had certain activities that everyone did (e.g. the home cottage industry such as growing and preserving food, brewing, making home cheeses, churning butter, raising some chickens, etc) but then there were those that specialized, such as a blacksmith, wood carver, or herbalist.  You want to think about your interests and see where they develop.

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

 

How does one reskill?

There are many, many options for reskilling.  I think you’d be surprised the places and things that have things to teach you. It really depends to a large extent on what is in your area, how many like-minded people you have, and how you best learn.  The rest of this post presents ways you can reskill through multiple angles: history, firsthand learning,

 

History

History in its various forms have so much to teach us in terms of reskilling, becuase many skills we are learning when reskilling are skills of our past.  Here are three different kinds of histories that I’ve found are helpful to reskill.

 

1) Living Historical Events/Festivals: The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and other forms of reenactment (civil war, colonial, etc) offer one way to learn traditional skills. Some friends invited to me to their reenactment camp a few years ago, and I was really excited to see how many skills the reenactors were preserving and excited to teach. From these sources, I learned about soapmaking, weaving, spinning, flint knapping, blacksmithing, leatherworking, and more.  While these provided me with “glimpses”; I was able to be inspired, gain some basic instruction, and connect with others preserving these various skills.

 

2) Historical Villages. You can find various kinds of historical villages peppered around the country, and like the “living histories” above, there  There is a wonderful village called Old Bedford Village in Bedford, PA, where all sorts of old traditions are preserved–they have a full fledged print shop, an apothecary, a candlemaker, various woodworkers, a blacksmith, a potter, a tinsmith, and more.  Its an inspirational place and while there is limited hands on, you can learn a lot just studying the old tools and ways of living.  Even seeing a typical house in the colonial era (like where the hearth was placed, the cooking instruments, etc) gives me lots of ideas for reskilling.

 

7) Historical Study: Learning about your town’s and family’s local history serves as another theme for reskilling. Read family historical documents and journals, studyold maps, study what your town or city used to look like also give some hints as to life in centuries past–and the skills that people had.  If you are *really* lucky someone is still around who knows a lot about your town or your family and how people lived.

 

8) Historical shows. If you don’t have any access to the above, the other thing you might check out are a series of “living history” shows produced by the BBC.  These are shows such as “Victorian Farm,” “Edwardian Farm,” “Tudor Monastery Farm.” What I like about these shows is where historians live a year on the farm and practice all sorts of interesting skills.

 

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Firsthand learning from others.

There is little substitute for learning firsthand.  Here are a few ways that one can learn:

 

1) Classes: Classes are a great way to learn many skills, and one of my preferred methods of reskilling. Since I started reskilling six years ago, I have taken all sorts of classes–natural building (round pole framing, rocket stoves), compost water heaters, rocket stoves, organic farming, winter organic farming, herbalism (year long), foraging, candlemaking, fermentation, mushroom foraging, livestock, and so much more.  These classes were found by reaching out to friends, looking to see what others were doing, and also looking on Local Harvest for classes there.

 

2) Apprenticeships: If you find someone who knows how to do something you really want to learn, consider asking to be their apprentice.  While this might be an old idea, its a really good one. Learning under someone who has a skill allows you to have a mentor, to aid them in their work, and to learn firsthand.  I can’t stress this enough.  I was lucky enough to serve as an organic farmer’s apprentice for a season, and there was no substitute for learning under her.

 

3) Friends: Friends may know all sorts of interesting things.  I learned how to make soap from two friends, and now already I’ve taught soapmaking to other friends.  Friends can learn different skills and then swap skills.  Learning a new skill with a friend is a wonderful experience!

 

4) Community Organizations : I’m lucky that in my area, we have a fantastic amount of organizations and groups that you can learn new skills from in my area. Everything from the Mother Earth News Faire (offered in three locations each year) to a more local events like Ann Arbor Reskilling and our own Oakland County Permaculture Meetup allows people to come together and share skills.  I should also say that if a community organization or group doesn’t exist–consider starting one–that’s what a group of friends and I did with our permaculture meetup, and its going on three years now and I’ve learned so much from everyone.

 

5) Reskilling Festivals: Reskilling festivals are becoming another great way to learn how to do various activities.  Some areas may have local reskilling fairs (there is one that takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about an hour fro where I currently live, for example).  There are also national reskilling fairs, perhaps the most well known being the Mother Earth News Fair.  Keep an eye out–they may not call themselves “reskilling” fairs, but if you take a look at the program and see things on there you want to learn, go for it!

Fermentation is a great skill!

Fermentation is a great skill to learn on one’s own!

Learning On One’s Own

Sometimes its best to learn just by doing or trying things out on your own–especially if you want to learn something and can’t find any classes or anyone else doing anything.

 

1) Videos, Blogs, Websites and Forums: There is so much good knowledge to be found on the web–Youtube Videos, websites, forums and blogs. I am always amazed at the amount of knowledge freely available out there just to learn. One of my favorite forums to learn is the permies forum; I’ve learned a lot from reading and more when I ask questions.  How-to stuff on the web, I have found, is generally quite useful and often is vetted by people through comments and responses.

 

2) Books and Magazines: I have saved my favorite way of learning to reskill for last–books! I am especially drawn to books from the 1970’s, as they have a wealth of really good information, great graphics, humor, and wit. From building my own solar cooker to solar greenhouses to organic farming, there are wonderful books out there on literally any reskilling subject. I like to collect books during the year, and then in the dark winter months, hole up in my home near the fireplace with a few good books and get ideas for the coming season. I created a list of some of my favorite books for homesteading (there are so many more I have yet to list!)

 

Reskilling as a Way of Life

What began growing my own food and investigating sustainable practices, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I am so grateful for the people who I have had the pleasure of learning from, from the awesome books I’ve read, the people on the web who have shared their knowledge, and those who have inspired me. Reskilling has become a passion of mine and really, has changed the way I live and work and I am so glad to be on this path!

 

Historical Reenactment and Reskilling – Learning from our past May 27, 2013

A great deal of discussion exists within the sustainability/transition movement concerning the loss of “old” and sustainable skills and the importance of reskilling to help preserve the future and live comfortably in it.  The concept of reskilling is a simple one–you learn older skills that allow you some degree of independence and possibly supplemental income, skills such as learning home brewing, seed saving, community-building, maple syurping, weaving textiles, soapmaking, herbalism, papermaking, organic gardening, foraging, hunting, etc., with the understanding that these skills will most likely be quite useful as we enter the long descent in a post-peak oil world. (And regular blog readers will note that I devote a lot of this blog to such skills).  Much of the discussion I’ve encountered on reskilling, however, deals with where to learn skills and the lament at the general loss of most of these skills in only a few generations.

Our "camp" at the Feast of Ste. Claire.  I stayed in the tent on the far left.

Our “camp” at the Feast of Ste. Claire. I stayed in the tent on the far left.

If sustainability-focused people, those following druidry or other nature-based spiritual paths, and the like are serious about reskilling and building a more sustainable future, one of the best places to start learning these “lost” skills is with the historical reenactors. Historical reenactment, for those who are unaware, is not just about reskilling, but rather becoming a monument to living history, embodying an earlier time period, learning about the people, the ways of live, the food, the culture, and so much more.  In all of my experiences, I have not found the source of better, well-rounded knowledge about the past than in the hands of historical reenactors.

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

This past weekend, I did my first reenactment “camp” where I stayed with a group of friends for three days and experienced living in the 1750’s (French and Indian War era) at a local reenactment event called the Feast of Ste. Claire.  At this feast, I learned about so many different kinds of skills, including cooking over a fire using various forms of iron cookware, various crafts such as weaving and spinning, information on map-making and surveying, woodworking and bucket making, lace making, and much more.  I also learned how cold 30 degrees farenheight really is, especially if you are not quite prepared for the cold (my costume, known in the community as “garb” is still in progress and I didn’t have too many period-appropriate cold-weather clothes).  I also learned a thing or two about community building. Beyond what I learned, however, I also brought skills and information to our camp and the public who visited our camp, including information on foraging for wild ingredients and on making plant-based inks and dyes.  Furthermore, I was able to pick up two items that I have been wanting to aid in reskilling–a loom and a butter churn.  I’m going to tell some stories, mainly through pictures, of the skills, and I’ll be blogging in more depth on many of these as I learn more about them in the future.Reenactors preserve and practice a number of skills while at camp; they also prepare a great deal in advance in the way of clothing, food, and craft items.  As you walk about the event, you can see so many different skills being practiced, with people who are more than willing to teach you and share information, answering any questions that you have.

Pottery using a kick wheel

Pottery using a kick wheel

1750's military medicine demonstration

1750’s military medicine demonstration

Inkle loom weaving - this weaves long strips and straps.

Inkle loom weaving – this weaves long strips and straps.

Weaving on a peacock loom

Weaving on a peacock loom

Surveying and map-making

Surveying and map-making

Spinning

Spinning

Wood carving

Wood carving

If you’ll notice, there is an old loom and a butter churn at the bottom left of the photo above.  I ended up purchasing these for $35 from the wood carver here.  He said both were sitting in his barn for the last 50 or so years.  I’m quite excited to learn how to make butter and also use the loom–I’m sure I’ll be posting about these activities in the future!

Some of the activities that we did in our camp, and which the public was able to enter and ask questions about, were as follows:

Painting using natural inks/dyes (there I am!)

Painting using natural inks/dyes (there I am!).  Behind me, Pat works on his bow (made entirely with a hatchet).

Flint knapping and bow making (this is flint knapping)

Flint knapping (to make arrow heads) and bow making (this is flint knapping)

Spinning using drop spindles (this is my friend Debbie and I)

Spinning using drop spindles.  We demonstrated spinning as the public came into our camp and asked questions.

Cooking over the fire - we are making breakfast here, I believe.

Cooking over the fire – we are making breakfast here, I believe. All cooking takes a really long time over the fire, I’ve discovered.

Foraged tea ingredients

Foraged tea ingredients

I took some of the knowledge from my foraging classes to teach the kids how to make a locally-harvested tea out of red bud, dandelion flowers, wild violets, and pine needles.  It was quite tasty!

 

I want to conclude my post with a short discussion about the difference in politics and focus of sustainability-minded people with historical reenactors. Usually, I don’t find historical reenactors in the sustainability movement to a large extent.  The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold.  First, reenactors are a bit of a closed community, and unless you know someone, its pretty hard to “break into it” and the terminology and sheer amount of knowledge needed to participate in a meaningful way is not easy to acquire.  Second,  I’ve found that the reenactors have very different kinds of political leanings from the sustainability folks, so I can see why there isn’t a lot of crossover. To give you an example of this, while the Feast of Ste. Claire was going on, a group of anti-GMO protestors staged a rally at the edge of the park and then walked along the edge of the park with their signs.  Most reenactors were confused, at best, or opposed at worst, saying that they didn’t agree with the protestors.  I did my best to educate them about issues of seed saving and heirloom seeds, explaining about the kinds of seeds available in the 1750’s vs. now….but it was still a difficult thing because many reenactors are quite conservative.  I think this example demonstrates  the difference in political leanings and focus of the two groups. The reenactors are very concerned with preserving the past as a general operating mode while the sustainability folks (including many of the GMO protestors, who I had a chance to talk to) were focused on preserving the future.  The same skill sets apply either way, however.

 

And politics aside, this was a weekend well spent in learning a variety of new skills and also gaining the opportunity to share those skills with the public.   I would encourage others interested in reskiling to seek out these kinds of events, attend, and learn!  Not only did I learn many new skills, I came home with the butter churn and the loom, which I am very excited about!

*Thank you to my friend Debbie for taking so many great pictures and allowing me to use them here.*

 

Review, Video, and Discussion of John Michael Greer’s Detroit Community Lecture, “Not the Future We Ordered” May 2, 2013

Recently, our druid grove brought John Michael Greer to Michigan, where he did a book signing and gave a talk on the fall of industrial civilization.  If you are interested in either druidry or sustainability, John Michael’s works (on druidry, esoteri wisdom, and peak oil) are some of the very best you can read (and I’ve recommended some of them before on this blog). I should also add that beyond his books on peak oil, you can read his blog, the Archdruid Report.

 

I wanted to spend a little bit of time today outlining some of his major arguments on Peak Oil/Industrial Decline, posting the video from his community lecture he gave in Detroit, and providing a personal response.  While the arguments and information that John Michael presents  are not easy messages for anyone in the industrialized world to hear, they are necessary discussions that need to take place.

 

Video of John Michael Greer’s Community Lecture in Detroit: “Not the Future We Ordered.” 

This is about the first hour and 15 minutes of his talk, which includes a few Q&A questions (but the discussion continued long after my memory card ran out of space!)

 

Overview of JMG’s Talk – Peak Oil and Industrial Decline.  In a nutshell, John Michael presents evidence and research through his books, blog, and talk that indicates that the world is running out of fossil fuels (our cheapest and most abundant energy supply in human history) and that this will invariably put our modern industrial society into decline. This decline will not be quick, but rather will likely take the path of most societies in the past—what Greer calls a “long descent” over a period of centuries, with smaller crises and upswings, but a general downward pattern.

 

As Greer demonstrates, back in the 1950’s, Hubbert (a geologist who worked for Shell Oil) demonstrated that oil production in an individual field works a lot like a statistical bell curve due to geology—the oil, which can only be pumped out of the ground so quickly—comes out more and more quickly until it reaches its peak, then it slowly declines in production until there is no oil left. Hubbert’s argument (which was proven right in the 1970’s) suggested that just like an individual oil field, the US oil production would reach a peak and then decline. And that’s exactly what happened in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s, Hubbert’s data also indicated that there would be a global peak in oil production (as we do live on a planet with finite resources, a fact that much of industrial society seems to have forgotten). Most researchers who are studying peak oil agree that we’ve already reached our peak of production (somewhere around 2005).

 

Industrial society, built upon cheap oil, cannot be sustained at its current rate of consumption nor standard of living without the influx of said cheap oil.  Since the world has reached its peak already in 2005, we will continue to see oil prices skyrocket.  We’ll also continue to see our government’s ability to provide for its citizens, and people, over time, will be forced to provide for more of their own needs, grow their own food, and learn to live and make do with less. We also see, as John Michael argues in his new book Not the Future We Ordered, industrial society sticking its head in the sand and working hard to ignore the problem, because the idea that progress will happen no matter what (the “myth of progress” as JMG calls it) is our “civic religion.” This means that people believe in progress so strongly, they hold onto this like a kind of religious belief, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will dissuade them.

 

One more important thing—civilizations don’t rise or fall within a day.  Charting human history, John Michael suggests in the Long Descent that this fall of industrial civilization will take time, likely several centuries. We are seeing the start of it now—walk around New Orleans or Detroit and you’ll see the crumbling buildings, the areas that have already been abandoned. In Detroit, however, you’ll also see a thriving Eastern Market where people are shifting to local eating, using pedal power to deliver vegetables, putting up hoop houses, and converting abandoned lots into vegetable gardens. The future, JMG argues, is here in the rust belt.

 

Where do druids fit in all of this? From my perspective, if we accept these arguments as valid (and by all means, watch his talk and read his books yourself to make up your own mind), and we want to do something about it, we have a long, hard road before us. Most individuals living in industrial society haven’t yet even considered this as a problem (and you may recall my earlier post on Stasis Theory and before policies can be enacted to facilitate change, we first must agree that there is a problem and that it is serious). I try not to think about the larger forces that are continuing to drive us on as though our limits to growth aren’t quickly approaching, because that mindset depresses and overwhelms me, especially insofar as it demonstrates my own powerlessness on that national/international level. Rather, I think about what I can do, individually and in my local community, that will make a difference.  And most importantly–I move from thought to action, to doing things rather than just talking, and its in the act of doing things that I feel empowered.

 

JMG suggests, and I fully agree, that if we want to enact such change, Druids can have a special place in this transition. As the potential holders of “oak knowledge,” (to reach back to the ancient etymology of the word “druid”), we can think about what the knowledge of the oaks is all about. The ancient druids held oak knowledge, in the sense that the oak tree was rooted in their survival. We can think about what modern “oak” knowledge means–literally, things like how we might use all those lovely acorns that drop each year to the ground to being resources for others who need help. While we still have access to cheap, abundant oil, we can work to reskill, to learn things that will be helpful in the future, and to preserve basic technologies for future generations (like JMG’s suggestions in his talk for HAM radio, wind turbines, basic printing press technology, etc). We can work to make sure that when things really begin to shift, we are mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to that we can help others (which is the subject of his new book, which I’ll discuss further in an upcoming blog).

 

And I think that JMG’s arguments and talk further demonstrate why things like reskilling, organic gardening, permaculture, and so forth are so important—its not just about sustainability but about survival in a post-peak oil world.