I’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.