This is one of those posts that has been lurking in a half-finished state on the thumb drive for months, waiting to be polished and posted. In light of yesterday’s post about antique tools, I thought I’d finally trot it out.
One of the books I reviewed recently, I believe it was The Self-Sufficiency Handbook by Alan & Gill Bridgewater said that self-sufficiency is not, as it sometimes appears to outsiders, a movement to reject all modern conveniences and live exactly as our grandparents did. They explained that while self-sufficiency may entail, for matters of practicality, adoption of some older techniques (such as a wood-fired cookstove that can be fed from your wood lot rather than a gas range that would keep you dependent on an outside source) it does not reject the use of cutting-edge technology (such as photovoltaic solar panels).
I think that there are two elements to this embrace of antique tools and methods that may look like going back to the land by way of going back in time: nostalgia and practicality.
Dictionary.com defines nostalgia as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness.” I disagree. I don’t think you have to have a firsthand memory to be nostalgic about something. (A similar phenomenon Matt and I discovered is that you can, indeed, be homesick for a place you’ve never been. Interestingly, the nost in nostalgia is Greek for ‘a return home’.) I feel that nostalgia is communicable.
During a recent visit to a local pioneer museum in my hometown, while Matt and I goggled and drooled over pristine artifacts that we covet (kitchen queens, tractors and implements, vintage clothing, old logging and woodworking equipment, gramophones) our guide, an elderly life-long resident of our valley, said in a sort of admonishment to our obvious zeal for the past, “You wouldn’t want to go back to those times, though.”
Well, we do and we don’t. I try to explain this form of nostalgia to people the same way I used to explain our involvement in the SCA: we want to live the past as it should have been (which is to say, with indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and social equality). In the SCA we “reenacted” what we loved about the Middle Ages (pageantry, drama, battle, and chivalry) without the parts we loathed (slavery, pit latrines, and plague). In our seemingly backward movements during our advance on self-sufficiency (such as Matt’s conversion from power to hand tools and my attempts to interject the tailored, everyday elegance of the late forties and early fifties into my wardrobe) we are taking on the trappings of a time that had, in our eyes, better values of community and consumerism (in that there was a sense of community and consumerism was tempered by common sense) while rejecting its more lamentable elements (gross racial and sexual inequality).
But there are also practical reasons for this stuff – Matt’s hand tools will still operate during our wintertime power outages and my self-education in home-tailoring will produce better clothes cheaper. Additionally, older equipment (like our beloved WWII-era tractor and our Aladdin lamps) was built before the introduction of planned obsolescence into the marketplace. They were built to last and, if necessary, to be repaired, based on the idea that better (e.g. more dependable, and longer-lasting) products would create brand loyalty, and that if they did break down someone could make money on repairing them or in selling replacement parts. If my cell phone quits on me or the digital camera refuses to power on one day, we’re screwed. Gotta get another one. You can’t get a lot of these gadgets fixed for less than you paid for them in the first place – and you can bet that the newer, better model is cheaper now anyway. However, if the tractor starts to sputter and belch smoke, chances are good that between Matt, Aaron, and the local auto parts store, it will be happy again by the end of the day. In fact, thus far Art has needed only consumables (a tire, oil, hydraulic fluid, a new battery), maintenance (battery charging, carb cleaning), and the occasional length of bailing wire (Got a better way of securing the exhaust system?).
Keep in mind that practicality in our situation is not always the same as efficiency. If what you want is efficiency of time, buying a loaf of bread is far preferable to the Little Red Hen method. However, if you have the land and time to grow it, grind it, and bake it, you’re saving an astonishing amount of money and eliminating your dependence on an outside source for your daily bread. Is it time cheap? Hell, no. Is it money cheap? Hell yes. Practicality, I have come to see, is a matter of perspective and situation. I didn’t bake when I worked full time because I didn’t have four hours to be tied to the house waiting for single-celled organisms to act, so I bought bread for anywhere from two to five dollars a loaf (depending, apparently, on the whole grain content). Nowadays I don’t necessarily leave the property every day so baking bread is no trouble.