by Marie Doyon
In 1912, textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts staged a three-month picket, to protest for fair pay, tolerable working conditions, and good quality of life. One young woman in the picket line carried a sign that read “We Want Bread, but We Want Roses Too.” This line, adapted from a James Oppenheim poem, has greatly shaped the attitude and language of labor protestors for over a century since the strike in Lawrence.
There is a deeply satisfying quality to creating something with your hands, something that takes time. How gratifying is it to feed a gathering of loved ones with food you made from scratch? How rewarding is it to paint the interior of your home? How different does it feel to receive a gift that is handmade? Our culture has always had an understated respect for blood, sweat, and tears, which persists today even as we move away from a lifestyle and an economy that encourages, much less necessitates, us to produce most of the goods and produce we consume.
But there is something honest and true about the process of creating something ourselves. Somewhere deep down we know it is good—good for our hearts, good for our muscles, good for our minds. And yet we’ve reached a point that such practices are widely considered vintage or novelty, if not just outdated and inefficient.
Some people are making a strong push for old-world skills to come back into the foreground, and not in a facetious, hipster-ish way. The Transition movement, which strives to adapt communities’ practices and attitudes to prepare for life in a post-fossil fuel society, involves relocalizing the economy and detaching from the unsustainable corporate consumerist model. Rob Hopkins, pioneer of the movement, envisioned one of the key ingredients for Transition would be “The Great Reskilling.”
Hopkins writes, “A key consideration in scaling up to a more localised economy is addressing the fact that we have lost, or never learnt, many of the skills that such a shift would require. While fostering a culture of social entrepreneurship and its role in creating a strategic local infrastructure will be essential, its realisation will require a huge reskilling, a shift in the focus of existing education and training, not just in terms of local food initiatives, but across the board, particularly in terms of energy and construction.”
Reskilling is, in essence, re-equipping ourselves with skills and knowledge of yesteryear. The (practical) collective wisdom of our species has been clouded over, but it has not been lost entirely. There are pockets of people all over the world still saving seeds and growing food by hand; constructing homes from cob; shearing, spinning, and weaving wool; brewing beer in their basements. By relearning these skills, we are tapping back into our rich cultural and technological legacy. And we are taking back our power. If the power turns off and the gas stops flowing we can still do these things, which makes us resilient.
In Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, he writes about the general view in our modern specialized consumer culture where “‘leisure activities’” should involve consumption, whereas any activity that involves production is leisure’s opposite: work.” He observes how, from our transactional mentality, leisure activities are something you don’t want to outsource because you derive pleasure from them, whereas anything that companies have figured out a way to do for us (and market to us) becomes work, something we should pay to avoid having to do ourselves.
Pollan goes on to examine how home cooking, in its new status as an optional activity, finds itself at a curious and confusing intersection of work and leisure, production and consumption. He suggests that the experience of such an activity has to do more with one’s approach (passion, obligation, intrigue, reticence, etc.).
I think this understanding can be expanded to incorporate all activities taught in reskilling. Before, people tilled the land by hand because they had no other option. With hoes and rakes in hand they were using the most state-of-the-art technology available to them. As technology evolved people seized at new tools to make their work easier, faster without thinking of the long-term impacts of shifting their practices. Now we have the boon of hindsight and the opportunity to willingly take back up our old tools, with the recognition that our more ancient practices were better connected to the earth, less harmful, more sustainable, and fundamentally empowering.
Reskilling is not an abstract, far-away thing. Workshops and classes are happening regularly throughout the Transition network. In Ulster County you have an opportunity to participate in some reskilling activities at the Common Ground Harvest Celebration at the Stone Ridge Orchard on October 26. This “new kind of country fair” will feature reskilling booths with local craftspeople teaching skills like woodworking, blacksmithing, seed saving, beekeeping, and wild crafting (making creams, tinctures, and other products from wild plants).
So before you dismiss Gran and Gramps’ old-fashioned, slow-cooked way of doing things, take a minute to think about the multiplied impact of our modern practices a couple generations down the line. Think about the satisfaction and fulfillment that awaits you at the other end of that handmade project.