catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


The Little House life

My four-year-old son Sawyer and I have been reading through Laura Ingalls Wilder?s Little House on the Prairie series together during the past months. In our imaginations, we?ve traveled with the Ingalls family from Wisconsin to Indian Territory, then to Minnesota and west into the Dakotas.

I am struck by how difficult the lives of early settlers were. It seems that tasks such as gardening, cooking and sewing never ended. Laura was often up at dawn and working until the sun went down. If she and her family didn?t sew clothes, they would not have had clothes to wear. If they didn?t garden and farm, their diet would be very limited?probably all carbohydrates. If they didn?t cook, they would not have food to eat. Their situation is difficult to comprehend in our society of abundance and convenience (though it bears similarities to the plight of small scale farmers in developing countries).

I am also struck by the satisfaction that must have come from knowing how to do so many things. Laura and her sisters sewed their own clothes by hand, and knew how to prepare a freshly killed animal for dinner. Gifts were handmade, for the most part. Creativity found expression in their daily tasks.

Last month Sawyer and I paged through a book of crafts, toys and puppets that can be made with common household items. We ended up making little cars out of clothepins, straws, twist ties, and buttons. Granted, they didn?t drive very well when we were finished, but I enjoyed seeing the look of pride on Sawyer?s face when he showed his car to his dad later that day. On his own level he was experiencing the satisfaction of being creative and working with his hands.

Today it seems that skills like gardening, sewing, and cooking are becoming rare, largely because of the aforementioned abundance and convenience to which we are accustomed. My husband Edward and I keep some ?dying? skills alive through our hobbies, though we don?t do them for that reason. Take gardening, for example. Edward is passionate about gardening. Already in January he starts dreaming about planting seeds. He loves to see the tiny plants emerge from the ground in spring, and to harvest the fruits and vegetables in the summer and fall. For my part, I appreciate both the economic payoff and eating food that has been grown without chemicals. We eat much of our garden produce fresh, but we also freeze a lot of it. In olden days, canning or maybe drying would have been a more common method of preservation.

Baking and cooking are other skills that we practice. Again, my main motivation is to save money and to eat more healthfully. When I make something myself, I know exactly what kind and quality of ingredients are in it. I come from a family where baking and cooking (and eating the results of those activities) are central to memories of home. I know some of the satisfaction of tasting the result of my labor. I enjoy being creative when I cook or bake, substituting ingredients and adjusting recipes. But the tasks involved in baking now are less strenuous than they used to be. I do not grind grain into wheat before baking bread. Our bread bakes in a bread maker rather than a coal stove like the Ingalls would have used. Edward and I have tried baking cake in a wood-fired stove?we can attest that it is not easy to keep the temperature regulated!

Another skill I enjoy is sewing. I learned some basics of sewing in junior high, but didn?t have the patience then to really do a good job. My mom and my grandmother (a seamstress by trade) sewed outfits for my sister Rachel and I as we were growing up, and I always felt special wearing something that was one-of-a-kind (or sometimes two-of-a-kind, because Rachel and I would have matching outfits in different colors). When Edward and I were expecting our first child, I found an old sewing machine in a thrift store and went to work sewing cloth diapers. I had visions of sewing dozens of diapers, but only got through six before I decided that I had grander, more creative ideas for my sewing machine and I. I made maternity dresses (easy patterns, since we lived in Florida and nothing needed sleeves). After that I was unstoppable for a time; that same summer (when I was seven and a half months pregnant), my mom and I even made a bridesmaid dress for me, en route to the wedding at which I wore it. I have made up patterns and experienced the fun of watching an idea take shape in a garment. Of course, the kind of sewing that I do now is a far cry from the sewing done by Laura and her Ma and sisters. I use a sewing machine and have a serger to finish the seams. They sewed every seam by hand, and even knitted lace for the trim. I think that kind of fine handwork would make me want to scream!

Clearly, life is dramatically different now than it was in the late 1800s, when Laura and her family lived, even for do-it-yourself kinds of people. But is life today more or less enriching than it used to be?

Life is more enriching in certain ways. We don?t have to work so hard just to survive. Things like sewing, cooking and gardening, which used to be necessities, can now be hobbies. We don?t depend on our gardens, ovens and sewing needles for our food and clothing. Food for us in North America is cheap and abundant, and thrift store clothing can be bought inexpensively. We don?t have to spend every waking moment doing domestic chores, just to survive.

However, I think the way we choose to use our ?free? time helps to determine whether or not our lives are more or less enriching. If we spend hours daily in front of a television screen or computer game, I would say life is less enriching. Gone is the satisfaction of work well done and creativity exercised; lacking is a connection to the natural non-human environment. Time is wasted. On the other hand, if ?free? hours are spent being active, learning new skills, reading books, and engaging in other creative pursuits, life is rich indeed. For example, although I enjoy gardening, cooking and sewing, they cannot compete with my love affair with words. I am passionate about words?reading them, writing them, and stringing them together to give shape to thoughts. So I am profoundly grateful to live today, in a situation that allows for time spent with words.

When it comes to food and clothing, it is easy to see the dependence that Pa, Ma, Laura and her sisters had on the work of their hands. But we are dependent, too. We depend on electricity or gas for heat and ovens. We depend on complicated systems of transport and electricity for our food supply. I wonder, to what extent have we also made our creativity dependent on electricity and modern technology?

During a blackout a few summers ago, a clerk at a convenience store around the corner from us was reluctant to sell my husband a bag of ice, because the lack of electricity meant the cash register didn?t work (Edward finally convinced the clerk to take cash). Sometimes I wonder what would happen to us if our source of power were wiped out for a very long period of time. No longer would I pity the Ingalls for their daily dependence on the land and on the work of their own hands. In that case, we would be shown to be the truly dependent ones. We would struggle for our very existence?more than they did. And we would probably be far less adept at creatively fulfilling daily tasks. These thoughts are part of the reason that I gain satisfaction from activities that require the work of my own two hands.

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