Potpies and Woodsmoke

Illustration by Catalin Corrigan

Potpies and Woodsmoke

Sveum, Paul
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Author’s note: what follows may possibly be viewed as veering into the realm of the apocalyptic, conspiracy-theory-ranting lunatic. If it is taken that way, it is outside of the intent of the author—or maybe not.

Let’s say you love those frozen potpies. The ones that when microwaved, bubble over with goo, and beyond the limits of physics, heat up to near-nuclear levels. Every day you go to the store, plop a few in your basket, and call it a day. Although you know that they are not the best things for you—and you are becoming concerned that they may actually be bad for you—you keep eating them because it’s what you’ve always eaten and you know of no other way of satiating your hunger. 

This is exactly why traditional Earth skills, primitive technology*, and all ways of life that pre-date the modern agricultural revolution are so vitally important to our species.

Let me explain. Much like little Jimmy Potpie, our society is hooked on just one possibility for what life on Earth can look like—for right or wrong. This wildly simplified idea consists of exploration, totalitarian resource consumption, unchecked growth, and expansion. This plan works very well—just like noshing down a few potpies a day—but at some point it catches up with you, and for us that time is nearing. This is the time when the same science that got us to this point is starting to say, “Whoa horsey!”

Now, I’m not trying to say that one way of living on Earth, or eating for that matter, is better than another, but what is clear is that our species needs options. The hallmarks of our species are creativity, resourcefulness, and ingenuity. But in order to utilize those attributes, we need options—both historical options of what has worked well in the past, and possibilities of how to make life even better in the future. Just like with fashion—regrettably where 1980s style is cool again—history has proven over and over again that it repeats itself, but we can only repeat what we remember. After all, how many ways can you cook a potpie and come up with something other than a potpie?

As a people, we need to explore all ways of life—the old and the new. For my part, I will speak for the old ways because that is what I have dedicated much of my life to. We need to keep alive the working knowledge of the lifestyles, skills, and practices of the people we were before the laptop, the McBarfwich, and Monsanto.

This is where learning the old ways comes in. I do not proclaim that the old ways are how everyone should live, or that they represent a panacea to our current situation—but simply that we need to keep those traditional ways alive so that we might have more options for how to live on Earth. For instance, if the day comes when oil prices are too high for the average plastic-spoon factory to stay open, we can say, “No problem. I can carve a wooden spoon myself.” If we didn’t retain our cultural knowledge, we would be left hopelessly slurping soup with a fork and praying that science will figure things out before the soup gets cold. We need to start making an effort to keep our options open, so when things change—as they always do—we won’t be caught sitting on a pile of frozen potpies with no way of cooking them. 

Traditional Earth skills represent a way of life that, have proven to be sustainable in the truest sense of the word. After all, any way of life that existed for at least 50,000 years must have been fairly sustainable—they must have shopped at co-ops and driven Priuses! Now I know that not everyone is going to start carving figure-four deadfalls and lighting fires with hand drills, but what everyone can do is learn a little of the old ways and save them for later. There are many down-to-earth folks out there teaching traditional Earth skills, and many offer short weekend courses at a reasonable price so you don’t need to commit a load of time or money to helping retain the knowledge it took humans 250,000 years to perfect. We need to go into this future of ours with as many tools as we can carry. You can learn to make fire with sticks, and then post the picture on Instagram.

*The word “primitive” has been used derogatorily to refer to a people or a way of life that is somehow less, or under-developed. I use the word to mean first, original, and natural.

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