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Forgotten skills

Fifty years ago, there was usually at least one person in every family that could bake bread. Someone could mend clothes, knit jumpers, fix broken bikes, cars or other mechanical things, woodwork, and grow a garden. Preserving the harvest from your garden was the normal thing to do. So was knowing how to build and stoke a fire. In your street, you could find someone who could help fix the plumbing, lay bricks, who fished or hunted, sewed special clothes or cut hair.

In most households, these skills were divided by a rigid gender line. Women could mend, sew and knit, preserved the food and baked the bread. Men chopped wood and fixed everything that was broken. Many were forced into skills that they had no interest in because they were considered essential knowledge.

Nowadays we rely on industrial food, new clothes or things, and paid tradie services for the smallest of jobs. Essential skills of providing for ourselves have largely been lost. As these skills often thrived outside the monetary economy, they weren’t given much value.

My mother was denied tertiary education because she was female. She knows how to cook, bake, sew, mend, knit, crochet and generally be self-reliant in many ways. She hasn’t been to the hairdresser in 50 years, because her best friend cuts her hair. She never forced me to learn these skills, because she wanted me to have a better life than her. I am grateful I could go to university, grateful to have been able to choose my passions. But I wish now that I had more practical skills and could do the fantastic things she can do.

Have we thrown the child out with the bathwater? Have we, in our pursuit of careers, money and an easier lifestyle, forgotten how to take care of us and our families? What would happen to us if the conveniences of modern lifestyle were stripped away by changing times? Would we still be able to live a comfortable life?

I, for one, am trying to make up for lost time, learning as many skills that will help me in harder times as I can. Since I believe in community-, not self-sufficiency, I focus on the ones that come naturally to me and I find easy. I don’t think that everyone has to be able to do everything, but everyone has to be able to do something that benefits a more self-reliant society. *

For me, that means I can cook, bake and preserve in any way imaginable – with solar, fire or modern appliances. I can ferment and brew, keep, kill and dress small animals. I know some basics of sewing, but this will never be my area of expertise. Neither will be growing most the food I process and eat, though I do try hard and succeed with some things. I will always need someone else to help me fix things, especially if they are electrical. But I can weave you a basic basket, make you new toothpaste or deodorant, and set up low-tech watering systems for you.

I still believe in specialisation and all of us having time for art, music and exercise for fun. Trying to do it all would take that away. But I’ve made learning (basic) new skills a hobby, because I believe in this being not only fun, but potentially necessary for our future.

Participating in a permaculture course is for many a first step into this arena. Students walk away with new skills, but even more so with an appreciation of their usefulness and the confidence to give things a go.

What new skills are you going to learn this year?

*If you want to know why I don’t talk about self-sufficiency, fellow permaculturist Meg McGowan has very eloquently put into words what I believe in. You can read her blog post here.

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