The Technology of our Ancestors

Another recumbent rider who also blogs on WordPress recently wrote about the pros and cons of using ancient technology in preference to modern.  He makes a good point, and he was careful to moderate it with the phrase “a rule of thumb.”  He wrote, “I have developed a rule of thumb when evaluating if a health claim is true or not; If early humans did it, then it is good, otherwise it is bad.”

I didn’t want to instigate a long, drawn-out argument on his blog about this – mostly because I have no real argument – but I believe the subject does beg discussion, and this blog has been cooking in my mind for a couple of days now.

I have some of the same philosophies about life, though the rules are more complex.  I make every effort to buy local organic produce, for instance, and there are lots of farms here about, but coffee doesn’t grow in northern California, so there’s an exception right there.  And we aren’t giving up our computers.

Some of you know that I’m active in the Society for Creative Anachronisms, and that I have long studied the arts of the sword and the bow.  However, if a crazed rapist were to break into the house, you know I’d reach for the Smith & Wesson.  Even the most enthusiastic SCA-er will remind you that it’s “The middle ages as they should have been.”  Like, no Plague, we wear eye-glasses, and if you try to take away women’s suffrage, we’ll kill you with your own sword.

And, of course, there are some of us who simply wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for 21st Century medicine.

So, can we agree that some modern solutions are better than bronze age ones?

Let’s take a closer look at some ancestral solutions, though.   The first question we have to ask is, “Which ancestors?”  The ones from pre-electric 19th century, or shall we go back as far as Australopithecus?  I’m not running around naked on the African savannah for anybody.  The original blog was about shoes, and the earliest known shoes are from bronze-age Mesopotamia.  That’s still a long ways to go back.

Difficult to pick, huh?

There is a popular television show on NBC called Revolution, and the major premise is that the entire world has been plunged into a permanent black out because all of the electricity has been turned off.  Remember that scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still? (The superb 1951 version, not the bastardized 2008 one.)  Well, it’s not 1951 anymore, and the consequences are even more dire.  Suddenly, we’re back to 19th Century agrarian communities.

Revolution is escapist post-apocalypse fantasy, though certainly not as much so as the book Dies the Fire (one of my absolute fave books, by the way!) Have you ever worked a farm using 19th Century technology?  I have.  It’s fun for about a week.  After that it’s just hard work, and lots of it.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe the current world’s population could be fed that way.

So, where do I stand on this issue?  Well, like almost everything else, it depends on the details.

More musings on this at another time.


Down on the Farm

Beth and I have this fantasy of leaving corporate America behind and buying a hundred acre farm.  We’re going to start off with two milk goats, three chickens, a pair of ducks, a large garden and a small orchard.  Then we’re going to invite some unemployed friends to joins to become an intentional community and increase the livestock.

Like I said, this is a fantasy.  I’m well aware of all the practical problems involved.  But evidently, we are not alone.

According to the people who are in charge of keeping track of these things, the five-year farm census in 2007 indicates almost 300 thousand start-up farms since 2002, most of them small, and a huge proportion of them are owned by women.

It would seem that the United States is backwards from other industrialized nations.  While the populations of other countries is moving from the farm to the cities, the United States is moving back to the farm.


Taking advantage of this trend, Rick and Lora Lea Misterly have started a farm school at their spread in eastern Washington State called Quillisascut Farm.  The class is Intro to Farming and gives an overview of small, organic and sustainable farming, aiming to expose all us urban gardeners who have romanticized farming to the harsh realities of agribusiness.

Learning about grafting

Being the kind of people who eschew vacations spent on cruise ships, ski slopes and haute spots, Beth and I plunked down $695 each for tuition, room and board and traveled by air from San Francisco to Spokane.  We rented a car and drove two hours north along US Hwy 395 (somehow resisting the nearly overwhelming urge to stop in at the archery store in Chewelah) to a place in the world where people are few.  We then spent five days working on the farm and listening to people talk about farming.

We woke up before sunrise, which is really early this time of year that far north.  We milked goats, tended the garden, did morning chores, and sat down for breakfast.  After breakfast, it was cheese making, and more garden chores, and lectures on topics like tools, irrigation and fencing.  The afternoon found us traveling to other farms to learn about orchards, bees and mulching.  Then back to Qullisascut for dinner and a post meal lecture by yet another farmer on the topics of budgets, rabbits (did you know that the American Chinchilla is a rabbit? I had no idea), and botanical herbs.  We finally got to bed by 9:30 and were grateful for it.

The first thing we noticed is that everybody we met started their farm while still working full time for somebody else, and years later, some of them still are.  The second thing we noticed was their passion for this way of life.

Learning about bees

There were 12 students, ten of us from California, one from Hawaii and one from Seattle. There were 11 women.  Working, eating and bunking together, we all became fast friends.  Thus the third thing we noticed was that we were all of a certain socio-economic and racial background — white, middle class, mostly liberal and predominantly middle aged.   The question was finally asked, “Did previous classes have any more diversity?”

“Well, er, no.”

I will leave it as a homework problem for the ready to figure out why not.  I tried some guesses, but there were all just WAG’s.  Certainly poor people can’t afford the class or the travel, and rich people aren’t in the market for small, labor intensive enterprises, especially when the CEO needs to milk goats and tend the garden before breakfast.  Liberal because the focus was on organic, sustainable farming.  But white?  Perhaps because Idaho, a mere long bowshot away, has taken on a reputation as the last bastion of white male supremacists in the United States, though that didn’t stop the four lesbians in the class.  I refuse to openly speculate on the female aspect of the student body, fearing to sound sexist.

For more pictures, go here.