Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick-Maker

Bread & Butter Pickles

A man should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. – Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

A few days ago, I happened to click a link on a friend’s Facebook page and it reminded me of something that’s been on my mind of late. The link led to a utopian sort of communal living arrangement whereby small families live on and work small parcels of their own land within a community while surrounded by a larger, natural environment.

That took me back a few years to a yahoo group I used to be a member of where we were discussing such a thing and if it would be a practical way to go about homesteading. The natural leader of the group posed us this question: If you lived in a communal homesteading society, what skills could you bring to the group?

Well, there were all kinds of answers -- we were not stupid sheeple after all! One person could teach yoga, another could teach French, someone else with a degree in accounting could keep our books, another knew all about computers. “All fine things to know,” he says “but who’s going to do the dirty work?” A few more spoke up they’d be WILLING to milk the cow or mow the lawn. Finally someone said “I would be EAGER to work the ground with hand tools and produce a garden from it.”

And this, my friends, is why utopian communal societies do not exist in a world where they aren’t strictly necessary. It is the difference between being merely WILLING to exercise hard physical labor and being EAGER to engage in it. Oh sure, if you found yourself in a post-apocalyptic world, you’d HAVE to do whatever it took to eat; but as long as there’s an option, you’re always going to have people in the group who are only willing, not eager. It’s that old saw about 20% of the people doing 80% of the work while 80% of the people do only 20%.

The simple fact is, most people have developed a personal distaste for physical labor. We have become an elitist society who believe that people who labor and sweat for their subsistence are doing untouchable jobs. We are obsessed with outer cleanliness and hygiene without realizing that sweat is the ultimate purgative for the body, and that without it, our bodies soon fall into a state of stagnation and illness.

In “The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing, I’m reminded of the paragraph where Helen talks about Scott’s love of physical labor, especially for chopping wood: “Scott rolled up his sleeves, thanked his host for putting two newly filed saws and a sharp axe at his disposal and spent the morning happily fitting the wood to the fireplace. After days spent in airplanes and nights in hotel rooms, the relief to him of sawing wood for hours was truly wonderful.” Scott Nearing lived to be 100 and was of sound mind and body until the end.

I am also reminded of a certain scene in “Gandhi” (the movie). Gandhi started out as a lawyer in a society that was governed by the caste system. At the top of this system are the elite -- the spiritual leaders & educated people. At the bottom are the untouchables, those who work for them and do the jobs no one else will do. As he struggled to understand how his country could be so rich in people and resources, but so impoverished and enslaved by the British, he realized that it was only by abolishing the caste system that his people could be unified to realize a higher standard of living and be free of British rule. Knowing he must set the example himself, he and his wife decide to live communally and become as self-sufficient as possible. One morning he tells her that it is her job that day to “rake and clean the latrines.” Welllll….. she was used to being the wife of a lawyer, who in that society was part of the upper caste. “But, but…” she says, “THAT is a job for the… untouchables!” At which point he yells at her “You will do it with joy or not at all!” Of course she ends up conceding to raking and cleaning the latrines in the end, but the point is, SOMEONE has to do the untouchable jobs.

And then you also have to look at the definition of the word “skill.” Now personally, when Webster’s uses the word “skill” in the sentence: “Poker is a game of luck AND skill” I almost fall in the floor laughing. Unless you’re James Bond (or Lady Gaga!), poker is not a skill. Neither is yoga. When a bunch of sweaty, tired farmers walk in from turning an entire field with a broadfork or cutting a field of hay with a scythe and the yoga instructor says “Now it’s time for your yoga lesson!” guess how much enthusiasm that’s going to generate!

A while back I heard tell of a teacher who asked her young students to write and tell about a skill they might have. I forget which grade she teaches, but I know they are pre-teens. One boy said he’d like to write about dressing a deer. She told him that wasn’t an acceptable skill to write about. Now in all fairness, she teaches in the city and many of the other students didn’t realize that when he used the word “dressing” a deer, he meant “butchering” a deer. Several of the students took that to mean he’d be giving the deer a bath and putting clothes on it! And I’m not making that up. When she explained what he meant, most of them got really grossed out and I suppose she might have taken more flack from the parents of the other kids for allowing him to discuss such things in a room of elitist children than from the boy’s parents, if it came to that. Which is a sad statement about our society. In any case though, a pre-teen who can butcher a deer by himself probably has more ACTUAL skills than any kid in that room. I’d pick him to be on my team anytime.

In my own mind, a “skill” must be defined within the boundaries of how much it benefits society. A skilled craftsman who can build furniture, weld and forge metals, or make and repair tools is indispensable to a self-sufficient community. Taking a pail of fresh milk and turning it into butter, cheese and yogurt is a skill. Turning an orchard of fresh fruit into jams, jellies and pie filling is a skill.  It is when we lose touch with reality that we consider these jobs to be less important than punching buttons on a computer or moving papers from one side of the desk to another. And before you wrinkle your nose in distaste over another’s sweat….

What REAL skills do YOU have?


It has been a busy couple of months and I’ve been more engrossed in “doing” than writing about it. I recently visited my mom and stepdad in NE Oklahoma and ended up staying for longer than expected because I found so many wonderful homesteading activities to occupy me. Curtis was able to stay home and tend the animals so it was a nice “vacation.” And a VERY nice birthday!

Of course I fished a lot and brought home lots of fish for the freezer.

And the peaches and plums were ripe in Zeke’s orchard. I canned a couple cases of pints of the wonderful plum jam.

You can buy sweet corn on the cob on the street corner for about $15 a bushel! Who knew? I can't grow sweet corn for that price. Never saw that in Texas. All of that was cut off the cob and went into the freezer.

On the homefront, I’ve been canning pickles all week. A 200’ row of cukes makes for a bumper crop.

And I butchered the goat last month. That was a new experience. Did it by myself except for getting it on the gambrel. (That was a BIG goat!)

I’ve kept the garden very small this year because I’m not convinced many things are going to survive the summer after the drought of last year. But there are fresh squash every day and there will be okra this week. There are chickens ripe for the plucking. The first crop of peaches has already ripened and I’ve got 2 more trees so heavy with them the branches are sagging.

Life is good. Life is abundant. And that’s all we simple SKILLED folk can hope for. J

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

These are more of a pre-marinated salad than a pickle. Because they aren’t processed, they stay nice and crisp. I like to keep a half-gallon jar of them in the fridge for a fast summer side dish. Some chopped or sliced sweet peppers can also be added to this salad. I opt to use Braggs Cider Vinegar in this rather than the cheap commercial stuff. They are ready to eat in about a day.

*Slice unpeeled cucumbers very thin, about 1/16”

*Chop an onion and mix with the cucumber slices.

*For each approximate quart of vegetables, sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sea salt or pickling salt. Let stand 1 hour. Rinse and drain well. Place vegetables in a large jar or bowl.

*For each approximate quart of vegetables, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon each celery seeds and mustard seeds. A few whole cloves or a pinch of ground cloves is also nice.

*Mix dressing in the proportions of ¾ cup of sugar to ½ cup of cider vinegar. You can use as much or as little as you like of this dressing and will probably need several batches to cover a 1/2 gallon jar of vegetables. Pour it over the vegetables and stir well, or cover the jar and shake it thoroughly.

*Refrigerate for at least 24 hours.