Helpless

I was raised vegetarian but about four years ago I started eating meat. The problem was I had no idea how to prepare it, so I spent some time watching videos about how to prepare various kinds of meat.  At one point I bought a whole fryer chicken to cut up and bake with lemon juice, olive oil and garlic, but first I watched a video on how to properly cut apart the whole bird into wings, thighs, drumsticks, breasts, and so on.  The video was just some country guy in his mid to late 50s on YouTube, and while he was demonstrating how to cut the bird apart, he noted, “‘Course, when I was young, we didn’t go down to Walmart and buy us a bird.  We jes’ went out and got ourselves a ‘yard bird’. That’s what we called chickens ’cause they was jes’ out in the yard.  So you’d go on out and get yourself a yard bird if you wanted fried chicken.”

That sounds pretty straightforward but stop and think for a moment – would you know how to just walk outside, catch, kill, butcher, pluck, clean, and fry a chicken right now in time for dinner?  If you are like most modern helpless people, including me, you would not.  When and why did we become so helpless?

I think the why is because specialization of labor is more efficient under capitalism and allows for the creation of greater wealth provided nothing goes wrong in the supply chain.  The when?  It’s been a slow process of increased helplessness since the Industrial Revolution, I think, but it really ramped up in the late 1980s in my observation as suburban sprawl took over a lot of previously rural land, including the area where I grew up (Caledonia, Michigan).

There is a serious problem with specialization that doesn’t seem to get talked about much by economists, namely the loss of functional skills within the community.  If the supply chain is interrupted, people do not have the necessary skills to survive and there is no one to learn them from.

Think about it for a moment if you are the average suburb dweller.  You get up, drive to work, where you may be for example a human resources specialist, you drive home, mow your grass, text your spouse about picking up a roasted chicken at Costco on his way home from work.  These are all perfectly fine activities and there is nothing wrong with them at all, but they are all superfluous to actual survival in the event of an emergency, like oh, say, a solar flare taking out the entire electrical grid for a year, which apparently is something our own government is worried about.

But even without the emergency situation, it is still sort of disconcerting how helpless we have all become.  Things people could do even a generation or two ago are largely forgotten skills now, and this loss of skill can happen in only one generation.  My husband’s extended family owns an amazing hunting camp in Northern Michigan – hundreds of acres of woods and fields – that has been in his family since his grandfather bought it as a young man.  When my father-in-law was alive, he told humorous stories about his days at Hunting Camp.  He hunted up until my husband was about three or four years old, then he stopped hunting.  Although my husband’s cousins were taken to hunting camp, he and his brothers were not, consequently he never learned this skill (though he’ll be learning it this fall when he goes hunting with the guy who plows our driveway in the winter).

This is why I find myself drawn to the writings of those who are trying to revive some of those olde tyme skills. I was recently reading a post at The Deliberate Agrarian about how to dispatch and butcher a chicken; the author’s 11-year-old son was able to do this job himself, and when Mr. Deliberate Agrarian mentioned that he could never have imagined being able to do this task at his son’s age, his son replied:

“I don’t want to grow up to be a helpless man.”

What a great comment from a fifth-grade kid!  His father writes:

I must say that I had a wonderful time processing chickens with my son James last Monday. Although he is only 11, he worked like a man. Not a helpless man, but like a capable man who knew exactly what he was doing.

I don’t know about you, but I would love to be a capable woman who knows what she is doing.  I don’t necessarily need to kill a chicken, but I would like to have more self-sufficiency skills than I have now.  If for no other reason, I’d like to be able to produce homegrown/raised food just so that these skills don’t get lost and I can teach them to our daughters.

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7 thoughts on “Helpless

  1. I remember the typical middle aged man of my youth. These were the scoutmasters of my scout troop. My buddies dads down the street.

    They could fix anything. They had a vast array of tools in their garage. Harmonic balancer pullers, punch sets, etc. They understood the basics plumbing, heating, A/C, carpentry, hunting, fishing, firearm ballistics, internal combustion…

    My dad was kind of like this, but not a super great teacher. He would get pretty frustrated at the things he just expected me to know.

    Where have all these guys gone, and why didn’t they teach it to their sons?

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  2. A first smart aleck comment sort of apropos to the subject: “Led Zeppelin” had an original name, the “New Yardbirds.” So not only did that name go over like a ….lead zeppelin, but it seems to have had some other hazards. :^)

    OK, to the subject, it’s worth noting that one big reason to be able to do a few vital skills for yourself is because industrial farming is vulnerable. To use poultry as an example, Minnesota is facing multiple outbreaks of avian flu affecting millions of birds already. Now if I should have a problem with a flock of a dozen or so chickens, yes, I’m out $100 or whatever, but I’m not destitute. I just eat pork, beef, whatever. Not so for the industrial chicken or turkey rancher.

    Along the same lines, it’s worth noting that the disease spreads mostly through manure–and I’ve got to wonder if the old barnyard, with its lower concentrations of manure, just might be less likely to enable disease transmission than a big operation. This is a central tenet of Joel Salatin’s rotation–that if you get animals out of their own manure, the diseases have a much lower likelihood of getting going.

    So being able to butcher an animal is a great skill, but I’m thinking that we might do well to rethink our doctrines of economy of scale. There is a lot of technology in today’s feedlots that simply wasn’t necessary in yesterday’s barnyard, and somehow it seems that the latter may actually be healthier for the animals and us, too.

    (and I’m an engineer–I love technology–but hopefully I am mature enough to love it for what it can do, and not for its own sake)

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  3. Pingback: Teach a man know-how and he’ll know how for the rest of his life. | The Sunshine Thiry Blog

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