Saturday, October 30, 2010

Get Out the Map

I'm not the world's biggest planner these days. Probably everyone has heard that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, but I've also found that life keeps happening whether or not you bother making plans in the first place. I don't think I was always so ambivalent about long-term plans but, after a decade married to someone else's NPS career - a life where you truly cannot predict where in America you might end up next, let alone when that might be - my ideas for the future have come to seem a bit moot.

I'm trying to view this project a little less lackadasically. I'm serious about this, and being serious requires a plan.

With that in mind, I've been thinking about the process I'm going to follow in this project. I've realized that my ideas about process are largely conditioned by the years I spent in school and the structure of an educational program. Therefore, what I'm planning seems - to my mind at least - conceptually similar to I went through in obtaining my Master's degree. It involves four overlapping domains: research, classwork, projects, and writing.

There isn't any need for me to reinvent the wheel in learning skills for self-sufficiency: other people have attained, practiced, and written about these skills already. It would be ridiculous not to make use of what is already out there.

Columbus Day was a couple of weeks ago and it brought with it the usual musings of why we celebrate the "discovery" of the Americans when both continents were already inhabited by a large, diverse population of humans who had spread into every available niche and developed some complex, dense, and fascinating cultures.

I am, in essence, the Columbus of my planned project. I'm exploring the continent of self-sufficiency: it's a place that many people, both past and present, have spent their entire lives. Unlike Columbus, I am fully aware that the place I am exploring isn't new, uncharted territory, and I am not going to plant my flag claiming that I own it. My goal isn't to conquer anyone, give them smallpox, or look for their vast, fabled cities of gold so that I can dismantle them.

So, maybe I'm not Columbus after all. I'm more like an anthropologist (shocking revelation, that). A visitor from a culture based in the consumption of mass-produced products, here to learn about the noble savages of self-sufficiency and to produce an ethnography that records and preserves the quest. The journey!

Tangent A: And so this quest, like so many others, begins with the fool setting forth...
Tangent B: I vaguely remember someone quoting about the waves of conquest beginning with the explorers, followed by the missionaries, military, and merchants. And then the anthropologists. Perhaps I've got that wrong. In any event, I feel like there is something to delve there, even if I can't figure out what it is at present. Perhaps the notion that I will start out studying the culture of self-sufficiency and end up either try to sell it or evangelize it.

A few days ago, I was pondering tanning a deer hide and, in looking into it, I realized that there are several different avenues I might travel in attempting the process: urine, brains, tannins from acorns or bark, and - oddly - fells naptha soap. It's possible that there are other ways as well. It seems obvious, now that I have thought it through, that I need to make some decisions before I set out randomly to tan a hide. Choose one or more methods; decide if I want to experiment by splitting a hide and testing different methods at the same time, or if I want to focus on one method; learn whether the final intent for the hide - what I will do with the leather - should condition this choice; find a stretcher, or some trees between which I can stretch the hide; gather my tools and materials. Once all that is done, it'll be time to get going.

I have a tendency to jump into things feet first. It can produce some interesting and amusing results, but I think that this whole project will be more interesting - if less amusingly laughable - if I put the research before the experiments.

So... Research first. Most of the time.

If anyone reading this has some suggestions for books that would make interesting background research, please let me know.

I'm very lucky to live where I do right now: this is the perfect place to undertake my project because there are a lot of educational resources available on the topics in which I am interested.

To start with, I am planning to take some classes from a group called Cover over the coming months.

They have an educational program that includes instruction in some of the areas that interest me and are topical to this project: basic construction, refinishing furniture, electrical work, plumbing, and car repair. Obviously I won't become an expert in anything through a single class, but I'm such a novice that anything I learn is bound to be new, and I have a good chance at making connections to people who can point me in the directions of the next step.

I'm hoping to find similar classes on different topics that I'm including in this project: animal husbandry; beekeeping; sewing and/or clothing construction and repair; gardening and food preservation; local, edible, wild plants; and the hunting and processing of meat. To name a few. I'm going to lay out the individual project goals in a different post.

In some cases, I'm going to be better served by simply finding one person who is familiar with a task and asking them to teach me one-on-one or as a member of a group. Even if it isn't formalized, it will still fall under the heading of classwork. There are a lot of people in our area who have specific and interesting sorts of knowledge and I hope to track them down and get them to open up and teach what they know. Strengthening community and learning about the personal histories of the people who work with me are also among my goals, and I think informal teaching is going to be a way to accomplish those aims.

I also have a vaguely nascent idea about going out and finding out what would be taught in a high school-level shop or home economics class and putting something together based on that. Maybe even try to get some grades. I always worked harder for good grades.

This process is all about achieving some level of proficiency in necessary tasks, so it would be largely pointless to stop at the theoretical without delving deeply into the practical. I could write all day about gardening, but until I actually dig a garden and grow some food, I haven't really demonstrated whether I'm capable of providing for myself. I'm going to (attempt to) demonstrate my capabilities through projects.

I mentioned above that I am coming up with individual project goals related to self-sufficiency. I'm going to elaborate more on them in a separate post (largely because I haven't come up with all of them yet - I think they'll be better after I do some research...) but my basic idea is to plan projects of increasing complexity to try and accomplish them over the course of a year (more or less).

For example, in regards to construction, I'm going to be working in the immediate future on some (presumably) easy garden boxes to use as raised beds in the spring. I also want to work on setting something up so that, in the future, if I get a shot at processing a deer hide, I'll have a place to stretch it. There are a few pieces of furniture that I need for the house and would like to take a shot at (a futon frame, for example) but that's a bit down the road from where I am now. Our landlord is sounding like she is going to allow us to get ducks, and we'll have to build some sort of duck shed. Eventually, I'd like to be able to build the kids a tree house. I think, in general, these projects build upon each other and, once I've gotten some classwork out of the way, I should be able to tackle them over time.

Now, obviously, I'm not going to become a master woodcrafter in the course of a year. Especially while I am also darning socks and digging a garden... and doing all the other stuff that I do in life (like checking Facebook and child care). But the goal isn't to become a skilled artisan in each of these crafts - it is to lay a foundation for doing them on my own. I started this post out by saying that - because of my husband's job - I never know where I might be three years ahead. And it's true that I don't. But, even with that uncertainty, I don't want this process to be something I pick up and try out for a year and then forget. I want these to be foundation skills that I continue to build on throughout my life. So, yes, I am aware that - in a year - I won't be an expert anything. I'll just be a more accomplished Jack-of-all-trades. Or, possibly, a Jack-of-more-trades-than-at-present. That's the goal. Not mastery.

So, you can expect a post that is a bit more specific, and that will have more information on a wider variety of topics, soon. For now, just be aware that I'll eventually write quite a bit about what happens when I put hammer to nail, spade to garden, tomato to can, and so forth. This is not the sort of project where theoretical knowledge alone will do. It's about becoming proficient.

I think it would be interesting to learn to practice self-sufficiency whether or not I was sharing my journey. The skills are the primary goal.

That said, writing about the process, sharing it with others who are interested, comes in at a close second.

When I started college, I was an English major. When asked (as I often was) about what I wanted to do with my life, I would usually reply: "I want to be a writer." And it was true. I wanted to write.

So I got to college, registered as an English major, got a brand new computer, sat in front of the computer, and...

Nothing happened.

Sometimes I would write a couple of lines, or even a paragraph about something. Then I would go back and read it. It was terrible. So I would erase the whole thing and write some other lines - mostly similar but maybe sort of different. Then I would read those and erase them as well.

I couldn't come up with a single thing to write about. Even more confounding, I had no idea how one would even go about the process of writing something as big as an actual book. I had the desire, but I had nothing to say and no way to say it.

A year later, I was an anthropology major.
A move I assumed would end my (nonexistent) writing career.

Anthropology, however, gave me something to write about. I've now written, well, lots of stuff. Some of it long and ponderous, like tomes about studies of garbage in Yosemite. Some of it short and technical, like environmental compliance documents in Death Valley. Eventually, I started writing bits and pieces of fiction again and, while it is not a quick process for me, I have hope that I will finally manage the long, slow labor of delivering a story from my mind (where they exist in a relatively complete state) to a piece of paper.

I like to write. I don't know that I'm great, but I'm not bad, and I think that continuing to write and organize my thoughts on paper is an important process for becoming a better writer, whether of archeological reports or fantasy fiction.

as I've mentioned before, I have a lot of ideas that feel like the hold together as a related whole. Because I don't keep all my writing in one place - or even manage to get everything written down when I am thinking it - the ideas that I want to put together and examine as a whole seem to slip away before I can get a glimpse of the larger picture. I think that organizing them in the format of a blog is a way to pin them to a board, like an insect collection, and see if they actually do interrelate. I think that the topic I have chosen, skills for self sufficiency, will work well for getting all these ideas out in the clearing.

And, finally, I also think that this whole project is meant to be shared. It feels important to me and I hope that other people will find it important as well. I'd love to have comments, feedback, and discussion. A blog seems like a good format for all of that.

Whether or not it turns out to be, only time will tell. But it's nice to start out with optimism.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In The Beginning...

For many years, I have had the feeling that I have something to say but that I don't have a framework for structuring the story; a sense that I am holding the pieces of something, but that I don't know what it is or how I can even begin to put it together. My home, education, and work lives have involved so many fits and starts that I now don't know how any of it relates to any other part. As I stated elsewhere, I occasionally begin something - a book or learning a new task - and I feel as though it is a constellation in the universe that I want to explore, but usually it fades away before I can figure out how it relates to the larger picture.

This blog is my attempt to stop that from happening.

I believe that most of my efforts have been hampered by a desire to rough out the larger picture before I start on the details. I try to start with a single paragraph that explains how archeology and fantasy fiction both relate intrinsically to gardening, painting, making jewelry, the destruction of the environment, self-reliance, local consumption, the importance of community, mythology, craft and art and the whole thing shatters to splinters - too flimsy a structure to support its own weight.

But I still believe that all these topics and ideas that I love - the things that excite and inspire me - do hold together. And that they can have meaning and relevance when viewed and discussed as a whole. And so I keep coming back to try and patch all those splinters together.

Here, I will attempt to take things a bit differently by approaching these topics from a practical perspective. There are skills that I would like to acquire that are, I believe, relevant to all these topics. They fit into the larger whole.

For various reasons (that I intend for a whole different blog post - or, more likely, several posts) there is a category of skills that have been a part of human existence for a healthy chunk of the time humans have existed, and I don't know how to do them. These can be concisely defined as skills needed to survive.

As the recipient of a fantastic education that focused on the theoretical at the expense of the practical, I am a fully grown, intelligent adult that, if left to my own devices, could not create my own food, clothing, or shelter. I cannot, at present, see to my own hierarchy of needs. Which isn't astounding, given the fact that I was raised in modern American suburbia - a lot of the people who are reading this post probably are, to varying degrees, in the same boat with me. A boat we didn't construct and probably couldn't replicate, even if we had the necessary tools and materials. Because, presently, we don't usually make boats (we buy them from China) any more than we create the culture in which we are raised. But we can probably learn to build boats - if we are interested - and we can work to make changes that will impact the culture that exists going forward.

Or, at least, that's my intention here.

In order to do this, I have set forth a couple of goals.

First Goal: set forth to learn some skills.

I've spent some time pondering both which skills I want to learn and the criteria that I should use to consider them learned. With regard to the latter, I am thinking that I want to attain a level of proficiency that would allow me to know how to do things on my own. For example, if one day life presents me with a large quantity of produce that needs to be preserved, I'll know the steps that I need to take to go about preserving that food. Will I sometimes ask a friend to join me? Yes. Will I need to search a book or the internet for a new recipe? Yes. I don't intend for this to be a solitary journey and I don't want to send time memorizing ratios of sugar to fruit. I just want to know, in my own mind, that I have the skills required to go about the task and that, if necessary, I could preserve whatever food I need to see me through the winter, or teach someone else to do it.

Will I ever need to do that? Probably not. Maybe. Perhaps it sounds crazy to even think that, one day, there won't be a grocery store from which I can buy a jar of Smucker's jelly. Sitting on the porch of the library, typing this for friends across the country using free wireless access, it does sound crazy. But, as the archeological record shows again and again, anything that isn't sustainable is headed for collapse. Sort of a dismal thought... but enough to justify the idea that learning to can some tomatoes might not hurt.

Second Goal: WRITE ABOUT IT!

In writing the above paragraph about preserving fruit, I managed to distract myself on two topics that made me think "Oh, I should stop what I'm doing and go research this for a while!" Which is the sort of distractible person I am. It's not that they aren't interesting topics (the first being kimchee and my family's history in Korea and the second being the collapse of cultures as reflected in the archeological record), and it's not that they aren't pertinent to the overall thesis that I am getting at here. It's just that I need to take things one at a time. To decide that I will talk about kimchee and family history (and, now that I think about it, how these relate to the fact that everything steady and stable that a family considers their life can be whipped out from underneath them in a moment) in the blog post where I actually describe making the kimchee and becoming proficient in that task. Which I've just added to my list.

I don't know how other people's minds work - but in mine, everything exists within a web that ties it to something else. Or, at least, it should be a web. A lot of times the various connections end up more closely resembling a Gordian knot. Hopefully, this blog will be the sword I need to slice through it.

I am, at present, working on setting up the wide variety of tasks that I want to learn. I know that I want to focus closely on skills that will teach me the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. If you have skills you'd like to suggest, or ways to go about learning them, I'm all ears. And I'd also appreciate whatever else you have to say about this project. I am hoping to have at least a blog post a week: if I fall below that, please hound me.