Lessons from Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the PrairieI’m reading a book about wood. The title is “Wood,” by Harvey Green. It’s written a bit like the slightly more popular and accessible books by a different author titled “Salt” and “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky. But “Wood” is about our use of wood in home construction, furniture, machinery, packaging, religion—everything. In this book, the author makes many interesting observations, like the fact that although the saw was developed independently in many parts of the world and they are strikingly similar, some cultures designed saws to cut on the push stroke (Western) and others to cut on the pull stroke (Eastern). I think this is fascinating.

He also writes about a time in our past when almost everyone had some knowledge of working with wood because everyday activities like farming, cooking, cleaning traveling, required implements that needed to be made out of wood.

Now that I have read it, this seems so obvious. Back in Laura Ingalls’ time, you couldn’t just go to the store and buy everything you needed like we can today (alas, Mr. Oleson’s store was well stocked but not like what you can find at Wal-Mart). Still, what a cool common bond they all had. I feel a little envious of what seems like a really artistic skill, but then I think that this is sort of how computers are for us today. Almost everyone has to have some knowledge of a computer interface in order to help get our jobs done (supposedly) faster and more efficiently.

“Wood” the book is surprisingly tight and engaging (although the author shows off his vocabulary a bit too much). Still, I am distracted as I continue reading and I can’t help but think how much things have changed in just 200 hundred years. We went from a shared knowledge of working a tree into a usable object to a shared knowledge of QWERTY.

What does this say about us? About me? I wonder if it’s better or worse as far as conservation is concerned. I wonder if we were deforesting faster (per person) then or now? I wonder if people hated the wood working part of their day or loved it? Maybe this is why I read so damn slowly.

This also got me thinking about how our collective knowledge of sustainability is probably accumulating. When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey in the 70’s the most sustainable thing I knew was the “Give a hoot, don’t pollute” campaign. Although, for a long time I thought that crazy owl was the Tootsie Pop owl. Of course I used to ride my bike behind the town tanker while it sprayed a fog of DDT so maybe I was just out of it—but I think most of us knew much less than we do now.

While my sons may not know the difference between Mr. Owl (Tootsie Roll) and Woodsy (Give a hoot!) they do know a lot more about recycling. They learn about it in school and at home. They know to separate their materials and, when forced to, they take the compost out. They also know not to burn plastics when they are camping (in 1977 we thought this was so cool because of the great colors it produced).

Today my youngest son came home and told me that we should not pick up frogs because the salts in our fingers can harm the frogs skin. Wow. I don’t have that many occasions to handle frogs but this was news to me. In this context of measuring our collective knowledge about sustainability, things seem pretty positive. Perhaps learning and acting green today at a young age is similar to the kids in Little House on the Prairie learning how to build a fire from their Pa. We will need this knowledge to survive.

  1. Dave

    YOu made me think of my grandfather who farmed 140 acres in southern Ohio. With not much spare cash, she he needed a new ‘something’, he would go out into the tool shed, find something close, and fabricate what he needed. This was aided by never throwing anything away that might someday be useful.

    I marvel at his ingenuity.

  2. Aaron Szymanski

    Dave, Your grandfather sounds cool. I have driven through that area many times and I am sure you have noticed that the barn sales there always have tons of interesting things. I had not thought about why they never threw anything away but that utility of having a library of stuff to repurpose is great.

  3. John Apanites

    I realize as I read this how much I myself have lost touch with nature. I stare at my computer screen with the beautiful fall day sitting just beyond my window. I debate whether I should just keep working or actually get outside and at least feel some sunlight and breath in some real, uncirculated air.

    This all comes on the heels of a morning where my most “hand on” activity involved removing two 1 gig memory boards and replacing them with two 2 gig memory boards. So I got to get my hands on some natural plastic, tabs and some great pieces of silicon all after I had made sure I was grounded so I didn’t destroy the memory.

    I was also reminded yesterday that I couldn’t identify the two trees that are growing right outside in my front yard. My daughter needed a leaf from one of the trees along with the classification of the leaf and the tree it came from. Well we’ve lived here almost 5 years now and I know I have the trees, I hurry around them every time I cut the lawn but I don’t know the first thing about them.

    Maybe in the future there will be a book called Memory Chip and someone will trace back the development of computer memory and talk about how it was the basis of almost all of our products and affected every aspect of our lives. My kids can talk about how they remember when the notch had to be inserted this way if it was this style of memory or that way if it was that style of memory. Forget if we can identify any of the nature in our yard, it seems the more “important” thing is what operating system I’m running, how much RAM I have and if I have a dual or single core processor.

    All of this sort of leads to more movement inward, into this virtual world that everyone seems to really get lost in while the real world just outside my window, full of real, hands on stuff just gets lost in all the digital scenery and engagement opportunities of hi tech.

    I find that I just don’t have time anymore to really appreciate nature. My cell phone is ringing, my e-mail is ringing and none of the requests involve checking out nature or learning to respect nature.

    Our best nature lesson in our home came from my daughter when she was about 4. In school they talked about what to do if ‘pider was in your house. Well I had no idea what a ‘pider was but she told me that if one did get in your house you were to get a cup and a large piece of paper. Then you were to cover the ‘pider with the cup and slowly slide the paper under the cup, then taking the entire unit outside, removing the cup and allowing the ‘pider to escape.

    Finally it dawned on me with some translation assistance from my wife that the ‘pider in question was my much feared spider. I thought about it a long time and decided to follow Kate’s ‘Pider Rule and see how it all worked out.

    It’s been tough. I still kill flies, for some reason I have a great hatred directed towards them, but the ‘piders and others that I can capture and contain have all been released right outside our front door.

    A friend of mine reminded me a few weeks ago of a mantra he tries to live by. It’s fairly basic and clearly stated it is “Do No Harm.” Now that sounds easy. However when I start to expand that outside of myself and my little sphere of existence I realize that I have to think not only about doing no harm to myself (physical, mental or spiritual, which on even good days can be difficult), but I also have to work to apply that to others, many of whom I sometimes find trying.

    Well then I have to apply it outward to my environment. Sometimes, well most times, I get lazy and I realize it’s a lot easier for me to get on line and interact with something digital than to go out into a world that has a lot of things happening in it that I’m not really in control of but I am working to be a good steward of. It makes living in my digital world seem a lot safer than taking that lunch break and walking out into the bright sunlight and natural breeze.

  4. Connie Neumann

    Thanks for making the connection from wood to Little House on the Prairie. Your experience and comments about your grandfather making things were similar to mine. My Grampa was a carpenter/machinist with a 5th grade education who could build anything we needed around the house (he married a school teacher, my grandma, who made everything from scratch and sewed to clothe her family).

    All of this I have tried in small ways to carry on (even via the computer!). I taught elementary school for 30 years in the classroom and in the school library. With a love of the Little House books and going to all of the Little House homesites throughout the midwest, I do programs for kids, families and civic groups presenting the real Laura Ingalls Wilder. The main focus of my program features the tools of the times, and how the Ingalls/Wilders were self-sufficient. The children love to make butter and “help” with the pioneer chores – and I emphasize that is just what they will want to do when they return home: help do chores around the house like the old days.

    I hope you are reading the Little House books to your young children even now!

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