Where there is a will there is a way

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Civilization and Barbarians

Read this, it's fascinating-- from a Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta 1920-40 by Bruce Low (found in a collection of biographies by Ann Jones called David Allan Watson and Lydia Tanner Watson: their biographies, descendents, and ancestors):

“This reservation/prairie served also as a type of vacant lot playground for the boys of the town. In the spring we would work like beavers, carrying water to pour down gopher holes to drown out the poor things, just for the satisfaction of killing them. The cruelty of the whole process never entered our minds, and the energy expended in the operation would have astonished our parents, who had to endure our daily lassitude regarding household chores. As spring faded into summer the sloughs dried up and with it our source of water, our strategy then changed and we used binder twine snares. How quiet and peaceful it was to lie on the prairie grass waiting for the gopher to pop its head up out of the hole to be snared. The meadowlarks were always singing, the gophers squeaking in their burrows, the breeze singing in the telephone wires, the ducks quacking in the lakes and sloughs, and with the pun-pun of the grain elevator engines in the background, all this softly combined to let small boys know that the earth was unrolling as it should, and it was good to be alive and secure in this, the best of all worlds. Again, the atavistic feeling of cruelty and killing was absent from our minds, leaving them blank for the sensual feeling of smug contentment... In the springtime the grass --prairie wool --would have a brief period of color when the anemones (crocuses) would bloom, spreading a splash of lavender over the flat areas. Later the gray-greenish tint of the grass slowly turned to the brownish-gray color of summer prairie land, as the sunshine matured and withered the stalks. In the gullies would grow buffalo beans, shooting stars, buttercups, wild roses, and wolf willow to give the lie to the thought that the prairie is always drab and colorless. Ground sparrows built their small cup-shaped nests on the ground in the open, and we always wondered how those small birds could ever find their nest again as they flew home with insects in their beaks to feed their brood. The same meadowlarks that perched on the tops of telephone poles or fence posts had nests in the tall grass, marvelously camouflaged as did also prairie chickens (sharp tailed grouse) which were very common in those times. High in the sky circled hawks soaring on the summer thermals, screaming their defiance and superiority to all and sundry down below. I used to think that if there was such a thing as reincarnation, I wanted to come back as a hawk...”

When I read that, my imagination was fired. I could really picture what it was like then, so much more open and free than now. While I don't love the killing part, I do feel that there is something that they had that we don't have now, that makes it so amazing to read about. Here is another quote from this story:

"People had to spend a good deal of time and energy on the mechanics of daily living. Every Monday morning after our breakfast of oatmeal, or cocoa and toast, we would heat a boilerful of water on the kitchen stove, cut up a bar of laundry soap into it, and add some lye. When it all began boiling, the scum from the hardness of the water was spooned off and the water was carried by bucket to the washing machine in the back room. About that time Dad would go to work, we kids would go to school, and Mother would be up to do the washing. At noon when we all assembled for our big meal of the day, I would empty the washer, bucket by bucket, and mop the floor in the back room before eating, while my sisters would hang up the clothes on the clothesline, where in the wintertime they would freeze solid. What a switch from today's automatic washers, completely undreamed of in 1930. Boys wore bib overalls or jeans (they weren't the height of fashion as they are today, rather a sign of poverty, not being able to afford real clothes) and home-knitted sweaters. Socks always had holes in thejn (nylon was still a number of years away, to be invented). Mothers were constantly darning them, putting them over old light globes to hold their shape while plying the darning needle. Clothing was constantly being made over and my mother was a whiz at it, using her treadle sewing machine. How she found/made time for all her projects I cannot to this day figure out. Bread was baked twice a week, garden vegetables were bottled every summer, 200-300 quarts, and that's a lot. Pickles, chokecherry jelly, peaches, pears, etc. for a family of six, were also bottled and stored away for the long hard winter that was sure to come, and always did. Peeling potatoes and carrots etc. for our noon dinner was done with a paring or butcher knife, which took five times as long as it does today, with our handy-dandy vegetable peelers, which hadn't been invented then. I can still remember our standard meal of fried hamburger or pork sausage (which we liked best) with milk gravy (a taste sensation that has nearly vanished today, what a pity) poured over mashed potatoes, together with creamed corn or creamed green beans, home baked bread, perhaps home made cottage cheese (we called it Dutch cheese) or pickles, and for dessert probably a half hour pudding or a dish of preserved saskatoons (we called them sarvis berries). In the summertime we ate radishes, which were usually wormy, and lettuce with our meals, especially at supper, which often was bread and milk eaten with a spoon, out of a drinking glass. Our supreme taste sensation was corn on the cob from our own garden, golden bantam or sunshine varieties."

Fascinating. And not even that much in the past, but so different than now. (You can read the whole story at http://www.scribd.com/doc/17592913/Portrait-of-Life-in-Southern-Alberta-192040040 )

I yearn for a life more like this. When I read this story, it started a history-craze. Not just this story, also reading some really old stories as well-- one of my ancestors may have married an Indian woman with viking blood (she had red hair, as she came from a tribe referred to as the "White Indians" due to previous intermarriage with Vikings).

The sense I got from this story was of the sense of freedom and independence that you had in a smaller community, while there were definitely down sides, people also always had a larger part to play in the community.

"The volunteer fire department typified the way in which pioneer communities functioned. Many people had their opportunity to serve on the town councils, school boards, agricultural committees, Scout committees, Church positions, etc. It was participatory democracy in action and it made people feel that they were important and that their opinion mattered. Furthermore, the cooperation thus enabled people to have conveniences they would otherwise have missed, e.g. rural telephones, irrigation schemes, beef rings, libraries, etc. Most homes had a large barn located at the bottom of the lot, in which they kept a cow or two, and a pig and some chickens. By the time fall arrived, several loads of prairie grass hay had been purchased from the local Indians at two dollars a load, delivered --just imagine. This hay had been pitched into the loft until filled, and the balance piled outside at the back of the barn in a large stack. Thus for a six to eight dollar outlay for cow feed, a family could be supplied with milk all winter These barns at the bottom of the lot were sometimes the leftover horse barn from the horse and buggy era (pre-1920) and sometimes it was a later structure built solely for a cow, with occasionally an enlargement or a lean-to on one side to be used as a chicken coop or pig pen. A family cow served two purposes: first, obviously, to furnish needed milk, cream and butter, and second, to give a job for the young boys of the town, to teach them responsibility and animal husbandry, and presumably to occupy their time such that they wouldn't be able to frequent the local pool hall... These animals belonged to a town herd in the summer time. Each morning after the cow was milked, I had to drive her to the edge of town to join about one hundred other animals, all of which were entrusted to the care of a local herdsman, who pastured them on the grass of the Blood Indian reservation adjacent to the town. At six o'clock in the evening they were driven into a large corral, from which the owners retrieved them, driving them home for the evening milking. In my mind's eye I can still see all these cows being distributed throughout the town in the hot, dusty summer evening sunshine. At least half of them had to be driven the length of main street to reach their barns. This was no great problem because all the stores shut down promptly at 6 p.m. Traffic was minimal by then (there wasn't too much traffic anytime, anyway) and to this day I cannot remember thinking there was anything unusual about it all. Didn't every town drive cows down their main street? Didn't all towns have cow pies splattered all over their roads to mix with the plentiful horse manure and dust and mud? The truth is that all towns of that era and area did. Overall it was then considered good husbandry and provident living. and an indication of a degree of prosperity. It was all of these, but it was also of a time and custom long gone. By the beginning of World War II it had vanished. Horses too, had practically disappeared by then. During the 1920s and the early 1930s (Great Depression time) they were still the mainstay of most of the farming of the area. They were also used in town dray service, delivering coal and wood. groceries and ice, gravel and lumber, and pulling the town hearse. They pulled wagons in the summer and sleighs in the winter, and were often more dependable than the Model Ts or Model A Fords, or Chevies or Stars, or McLaughlin Buicks, or Durants of that period. Our town had two harness shops, with the semisweet smell of oily leather mixed with the pungent acidy smell of horse sweat ever-present. There were three blacksmith shops also. where small boys would watch the smith rasp the horses hoofs, work the bellows on the forge. pound the metal horse shoes into the proper fit and nail them home onto the hooves of often skittish horses. The smell of the buming slack coal on the air-pumped forge. mixed with the always present perfume of horse manure gave a most distinctive "air" to the place. By 1939 all three blacksmith shops had gone, their workers had retired or died or joined the army to become welders and/or cannon fodder in the coming war. When the Palliser expedition was sent out by the Canadian goverrunent in the late 1850s it reported that, in effect, there was a large triangle (roughly, Edmonton. south to the border, east to Winnipeg, back to Edmonton) which was unsuitable for agriculture and settlement. Time has proven them only partly right. Most of this large area supports agricultural communities to the tune of several million people, thanks to better farming methods, machinery, seeds etc. The greatest physical problem is drought, although uncertain market prices are a perennial worry as well. During the 1930s when a major drought came hand in hand with a world wide depression, farmers in the western part of Alberta certainly had hard times. but were spared the calamity of total crop failure that occurred in areas farther east in the Great Plains region. Hard work and minimal rainfall enabled them to just keep their heads above water. My father worked in a town totally dependent on the farming trade, and so our family had hard times too. The strongest exterior influencing force on my life was the depression of the dirty thirty era. Hard as life became physically, it was even harder for people to maintain courage, hope and optimism. However, we were lucky to be living in a town containing many people who, by their influence, rallied and encouraged people to hang on. President Wood, our Church leader,spent his-life prevailing upon his many flocks to strive to lead honorable lives and to work hard and intelligently, promising us all that by so doing we would win in the end. His wise counsel constantly lifted spirits in those dark days. The calibre of men and women who taught me in grade and high school was also of the highest degree. As I have observed their lives over the past fifty years, I realize how fortunate I was to have been taught by them. From them I learned attitudes as well as facts. 33 A Portrait of Life in Southern Alberta The cultural events we had were surprising. both in numbers and quality. Due to the fact that we were cut off in a comer of the province. having poor roads and undependable transportation. we were forced to improvise on our own. There were quite a number of people who spent considerable time and energy promoting music. drama. dance. etc. Each year the community would sponsor and perform a different operetta. such as The Mikado or Once in a Blue Moon. or Once in a Pirate 's Lair. most of which are long forgotten now. They involved the efforts of fifty to one hundred people over several winter months. and were of a surprisingly high standard of performance. They were the highlight of our winter season. Church dances were held almost weekly. and thanks to a prepaid budget system. they were within the means of most people and provided much of their winter entertainment. School festivals taught the art of speaking in public, and at the very least furnished the opportunity for shy country kids to partly overcome their bashfulness."

Isn't that interesting? Don't you just crave this smaller world, where you can make a difference?

I do. I think it's wired into me on some deep level.

Ok, this is my thought-seed for this blog posting. I really notice that people seem to crave fame, especially young people. We want to be KNOWN. Everyone wants to be somebody in this world, and there is always this sort of cognitive dissonance when you grow up, and realize that you only have to power to play this tiny little part, as a bus-driver, or whatever it is that you are doing. Many of us desperately seek fame, only to often live unhappily at the intensity of fame once we have it. Why do we seek fame? I think our instincts are wired for these smaller communities where we play a guiding part-- and we feel like nobody when we can't change or have a say in our big huge world.

Modernism has brought us all this stuff we supposedly want-- but we haven't been able to change ourselves. We carry with us the same brain, and basic or primitive nature-- well, the same human nature. I believe we want to live in small, community oriented groups where we have a say and are somebody, and if we don't have that we feel lonely and unsuccessful.

We can change our society, but not what truly makes us happy.

Then I watched a documentary on Vikings, and also Goths. (History Channel Barbarian special that I got from the video store.) No, not the modern black wearing sub-culture, the real people called Goths, ordinary natural people who farmed and traded at the time of Roman conquests. I was sickened by the cruel Vikings, but drawn forever to the story of the Goths, a people who retained their ancient "pagan" traditions. They lived under chiefs, and lived happily until the Huns started attacking them from the East, killing , raiding, and terrorizing them. Finally they decided to leave in one group and seek Roman protectorship from the Emperor Valen. Anyways, it's a long story, but they become refugees, and are treated terribly for decades by the Romans, fighting back many times until they finally completely rebelled and sacked Rome, winning a proper territory for themselves-- although forever partly Romanized, and definitely Christianized.

I felt a real affinity to these people who, unlike the Romans, hadn't become violent for greed. They were stuck between a rock and a hard plac. You really got a sense of people naturally living somewhere together, but having the terrible possibility of another group coming down and destroying them. So the old days weren't all perfect either. You didn't live on each other's doorsteps, as we do now, with thousands of strangers in your largely populated area, which to me sounds lovely-- a small village of people working together-- heaven! But as a down side you could get totally wiped out. Perhaps this is what it's all for-- the civilization-- started by the Roman consolidation.

So, Western civilization has come directly from this Roman phase, consolidating all the barbarians-- against barbarians-- here is civilization. You are a part of it, or not. Bringing above all, security.

But living in this late incarnation of civilization, I ask-- what else might we have lost?


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Waking from a long sleep

People are waking up from a long sleep. After a few centuries of lying to ourselves, we are allowing ourselves to use the other half of our brain again; in public. The "left" side.

The return of craftiness. People are starting to get interested in crafts again. Although unecessary due to factory products, we are realizing that such work made us happy. To tune in to materials and become a craftsperson is an amazing gift.

Gardening. Garden centres are seeing record numbers of young people interested in food gardening. And learning the old arts of how to preserve the produce of their gardens into jam, into bottles, or cook with it.

The environment-- people have finally listened, and are thinking about their lifestyles, about what climate change means, and they are starting to change.

Television programming. I see an interest in "psychics", and spirit mediums, but for the first time this question is taken seriously. I have seen various programs gingerly begin a process of incorporating this level back into our society. How will this work? Maybe we do need to understand that which we cannot measure physically.

The world has begun communicating, so all of its countries, parts, are talking and becoming closer to being one. Humpty Dumpty is getting put back together. Catalyzed by the internet, organizationally there is alot of bridging and cross-cultural exchanges. I can see people who have written books from other countries being interviewed on popular talk shows, bridging financial schemes such as micro-investment, allowing money to travel from richer to poorer countries, or such as Childfund or Unicef, Intrepid volunteering transfers people over to help... We are grappling with the problem of creating a world culture, and we don't want some of the world's people to live in suffering or chaos.

That horrible and degrading show, the Flavour of Love "reality" show could exist, but a show called "Charm School" came up to battle the spiritual retardation.

Some people still strive to become ever-more-specialized and harder-bigger-better-longer-taller than ever before, but those who are starting to use that underused left side of the brain, the intuitive side which "puts it all together" are finding that our world's modern culture is like an "idiot-savante". We are very clever at certain tasks, but break down at doing basic functions. (We don't clear our wastes away, we gather pollution, etc. Hey that's more like a broken kidney. But the brain is still forming, and needs to include the function of a clean whole, because there is no dialysis available for the Earth...)

The awakening intuitive side of humanity asks, actually shouts, before now unheard: What is the point of building a tower higher and higher if doing so drains our source of strength of its nutrients, like a fetus that drains all the energy of the mother?

Why should I train in a super-specialized area, such as athletics, if most people grow increasingly unfit?

Why should I become the sole creative genius out of millions, if most people are too intimidated to ever write a poem or paint anything at all?

Or why should I become a super-specialized researcher that finds the secret of making people live even longer, when the world is already overpopulated?

I think we are wanting to have gardens.

To experience some wind and mud and pain.

I am.