Friday, February 7, 2014

In Praise of Electricity and Internet and Some Much Older Things

We’ve had an ice storm followed a couple of days later by a blizzard in Kansas City, one that shut the city down for two days—and we’re a city that’s used to ice and snow in winter. Our neighborhood has lots of old trees, and we lost power, phone, and internet, as often happens to us. Once the snow stopped falling, the temperatures plummeted to -15°.

Fortunately, we live in an old house with a fireplace and stuffed to the rafters with yarn, wool and other fibers, sweaters, afghans, handmade blankets, and quilts. (My quilting fabric stash, knitting/weaving yarn stash, and spinning fiber/fleece stash probably goes a long way to insulate our interior against the polar temps.) With our wool socks, alpaca scarves and hats, and cashmere/silk shawls, no one was going to freeze to death in this house, except possibly the dog, who is a short-haired Southern breed but refuses to allow anything on his body besides his collar, even just a blanket.

Cooking was an issue since we have an electric stove. But fortunately, we had sandwich makings and potato chips, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and cookies, so we didn’t starve, either. (Though for my ultra-picky son, it may have felt like it.) Late today, everything came back on, a blessing because it’s dropping way below zero again tonight—and because we really wanted a hot meal and a hot cup of tea. It left me thinking about the past and the future.

I’m hardly some kind of survivalist with five years of food stashed in my underground bunker—witness our pathetic diet during this time—but I like to know how to do the things our grandparents and great-grandparents had to do to stay alive. 

I’ve never sheared a sheep, but I can take that sheared fleece, skirt it, wash it, card or comb it, dye it, and spin it into yarn and thread that I can weave, knit, sew into items to keep us warm and covered—and I can do the same process with cotton straight off the boll. I can (and have) made bread and yeast, yogurt and a variety of cheeses, butter, soap, candles, and baskets from vines outside. I’ve raised chickens, collected eggs, killed and cleaned roosters, milked cows, picked cotton, and threshed and winnowed wheat. And I collect books on how to do other basic survival skills that I’ve never had a chance to put into practice, like how to build a log cabin, an outhouse, a barn, a chicken coop, a horse-drawn plow or wagon, how to slaughter and butcher hogs, how to raise milk goats and honeybees, and many other skills that have been forgotten by most people in the United States today. I always tell my friends that, if one of those dystopian disasters takes place, they want to be close to me.

It’s not that I expect doomsday at any point in my lifetime, but I don’t think those important skills should be so quickly forgotten. It took humanity millennia to learn to do these things to make life easier, even possible, and more millennia to refine them. We’ve forgotten them in less than a century—at least, in the United States. No one needs to be able to do these things any longer, but the day may well come when these old skills are necessary once again, only no one will know how to do them any longer. I don’t expect to see that day in my lifetime, but I collect the skills and teach them to everyone I can. I think it’s important to keep them alive so someone knows how to do these things if the time comes that they’re needed again.

We only lost power for two and a half days, so I didn’t have to dig out my cast-iron Dutch oven and start cooking meals in the fireplace—but I could have if I’d needed to. I can feel my grandmothers watching and nodding in satisfaction from the spirit world. They were survivors and taught me many of the skills I have. They knew the value of having skills that help you keep your family fed and clothed and warm and sheltered. Don’t get me wrong. I missed the internet almost as much as electricity. I’m not someone who scorns the conveniences of the modern world. I’d rather not kill and clean my own chickens or make my own soap. But if I had to, I could, and my friends and family would benefit from that knowledge.

Do you have some old skills that used to be necessary to decent daily life? Do you wish you did, or do you think they’re all better off forgotten?


  1. I think there should be classes in high school on how to survive a loss of electricity, to find pleasures in life that are not tied to a smart phone. To read, to do things by hand, and yes, some survival skills. We need to prepare our kids for hard times, since the weather is so strange now. I guess I do believe in being prepared, at least a little.