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  • Erin


It's Christmas Day and I'm curled up in a comfy chair with a newly received Christmas present - a copy of the newest Dark Mountain book.

I have a chore to do today and it's prepping my boots for tomorrow's trip to the snow.

I need to re-waterproof the leather and if there's anything I've learned from Dark Mountain it's to Do the Chore; care for the things. The things made of knowable materials that are fixable and maintainable.

There are two passages from two books that have stuck with me since I read them that speak to the knowable and maintainable qualities of our things. I share them below. Knowable, maintainable materials are about relationship rather than information as noted by Jay Griffiths below.

The boots needed treating and it is a cold and rainy Christmas. I'm pregnant and don't want to stink up the house with the beeswax-based but chemical-smelling product I have (and apparently have had for quite a long time as it has a note to my housemate from many, many years ago written on the top in marker).

Chemical smells make this chore best done outside. I bundle up and put a newly-gifted and handmade apron on over my clothes. My mom had made me this apron with deep, usable pockets out of fabric from my grandma's stash and jean overalls I'd had in high school (I think she had kept them around these past twenty some years to wear during messy chores).

So I reluctantly leave my comfy chair and take up the wooden chair on the porch. Rain is falling on the roof above my head, hanging onto oxalis leaves and oak leaves like crystals drops. The green just off the porch is deep and lush; deep as in up to my calves if I were to step into it. Such a contrast, now, at Winter Solstice, from the dry, dusty, flat yellow-gold of summer.

I had kind of hoped my husband would offer to do this chore for me. He is a focused maintainer-of-things and this kind of chore is right up his alley. He didn't offer and now I'm grateful to be sitting out here tending my chore in the relative quiet of Christmas Day, the gorgeous green, the glittering raindrops.

Graspable, Visible, Knowable

As a child, when I pictured the Middle Ages I could see who everyone was: a woodcutter with his axe, a merchant selling satins, a farmer or a weaver. People's activities and their trades were graspable, visible and knowable, unlike careers in finance, project management or consultancy, which are in comprehensible to children. Where there were unknowns, in the Middle Ages, they were known unknowns, the secrete magic of witch, healer, seer, and wizard. (I realize I'm sailing close to Donald Rumsfeld, whose life redeemed itself, just this once, in his extraordinary rendition of human unknowing, but I won't let that stop me.). IN terms of landscape, the Middle Ages told me of a finite, knowable village and an infinite and knownly unknowable beyond, and both glimmered with appeal. No plastic. Things were handmade and crafted, unprocessed and unfactoried. Everything was itself and was knowably makable, findable, buildable. Everything came from the known earth around: leather, wood, wax, honey and apples. Things known, in this sense, shade into being close, intimate and beloved: this is not about information but relationship. Like most children, I wanted to understand things, I wanted objects to speak their names, and it seemed as if in the Middle Ages everything carried its own weight in its own hand, the hand-held heft of the thing, so a Childe would touch the earth directly in everything they touched. - Kith by Jay Griffiths, page 276

Making Glass on the Solomon Islands

In nature-based cultures, nearly everyone is an expert, or at least competent, in nearly every activity the people engage in. By contrast, few of us are competent, much less expert, at more than a few minor activities that contribute to the functioning of mass society. To make things worse, as technologies become more complex and society increasingly fragmented, we become less competent. "This is the plan for a B-1 bomber," Candice Bergen states on the 1993 Sprint television ad. "This is the plan for DNA, and this is a long-distance calling plan. What do they have in common? You can't understand any one of them!" According to anthropologist Stanley Diamond, the average man of the hunter-gatherer-pastoral African Nama people is "an expert hunter, a keen observer of nature, a craftsman who can make a kit bag of tools and weapons, a herder who knows the habits and needs of cattle, a direct participant in a variety of tribal rituals and ceremonies, and he is likely to be well-versed in the legends, tales, and proverbs of his people." Diamond goes on to say, "The average primitive . . . is more accomplished, in the literal sense of that term, than are most civilized individuals. He participates more fully and directly in the cultural possibilities open to him, not as a consumer and not vicariously but as an actively engaged, complete person." Frances Harwood learned about such participation during her field work in the Solomon Islands in the early 1960s. One day, she relates, an assemblage of villagers paid a visit to her hut. They sat down on grass mats on the floor and said to her, "Ever since you came here, you have been asking us a lot of questions. Now we would like to ask you a question." Harwood perked up in attention. "Please . . ." pleaded one tribesman as he picked up the glass she had brought with her. "How do you make this?" "Oh yes, well . . ." she sputtered, trying to bring together the right native words to communicate the process. "It's quite simple. You take sand and you heat it up with fire, and then you mould the glass." "Ah-ha!" the islanders responded, enthusiastically nodding their heads and passing the glass around the circle. "Then we'll meet you down at the beach tomorrow at dawn--and you'll show us how to make a glass." Already struggling to communicate in a language she had barely mastered, Harwood now flailed as she attempted to describe such labyrinthine phenomena as industrial process, factory manufacturing, and division of labor. Her guests grasped none of what she said. They did, however, grasp her refusal to meet them on the beach. Thereafter, they let it be known among the villagers that Harwood's real purpose in coming to the islands had been revealed: she had been sent because she was an incompetent, incapable of doing the simplest things in her own culture. - My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization by Chellis Glendinning p. 38

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