Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ana Maria Spagna: Against Helplessness

Learning a “slow skill” is more than just a source of pleasure. It could also be the best way to prepare for an uncertain future.

Skill #79: Shelter building. Illustration © Brian Cronin, excerpted from 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It)
When the subject of 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It) comes up in conversation, people tend to fall into one camp or the other. The first group are people who possess an astonishing number of the skills I included in my book. These are people like my neighbors across the river who garden and save seeds, build shelters and tap maple trees, mend clothes and handle horses, all while raising four small children and a couple of cows.

The second much larger group consists of people who claim to have none of the skills they might need for the end of the world (which is hard to believe considering the list in my book includes skills like laughing, listening, walking, and sleeping). The people in this group think they’d be helpless without a smartphone. They look askance at people like my neighbors and conclude that they’re from another era, one in the distant — and somewhat distasteful — past.

Me? I’m not buying it. While it’s true that many skills on my list were more common in the century before last, it’s also true that many are still practiced and enjoyed today, all over the world.

Take my friend Larry, who was raised in El Paso, far from the water, but now builds sailboats. Or Tom, a recent college graduate who left his job on the West Coast to become a cheese maker in upstate New York. Carolyne, a poet by training, digs up cedar seedlings from road cuts in Seattle and transplants them where they’ll have better chance (see Skill #45: Growing Urban, in the book). Kathy, a physical therapist, knits socks and sweaters in Brooklyn bars.

And that’s just the people I know.

Look around the world and you’ll see unplugged skills everywhere. The Germans make a mean fletching jig. There’s a vibrant wood carving culture in Japan. Stone work thrives in Scotland and in Peru. Home childbirth, worldwide, is more norm than exception. And God knows firefighting is in high demand everywhere from Arizona to Australia.

Here’s the thing: the world as we know it gives us opportunities to learn and practice new skills wherever we are. You can join a dowsing club in Kansas City, take a grafting primer at a nursery in Fort Collins, Colorado, or a blacksmithing class from a historical society in Greater Toronto. You can learn to play guitar (see Skill #64: Music Making) or to sharpen a pocketknives or straight razors (see Skill #2: Barbering) on YouTube.
Skill #2: Barbering. Illustration © Brian Cronin, excerpted from 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It)
Who knows what the end of the world might look like? True, we might not have smartphones or fast cars, but that doesn’t mean we’d be lost. Anyone who’s lived through a power outage knows how it goes. Some tasks might take longer, but the ones we need most can still be achieved (with a little patience). Slow tasks — from collecting water to canning, from gleaning to gliding, from patching to paddling — offer unexpected pleasures. Not the least of which is the satisfaction of self-sufficiency.

You’re not helpless. None of us are. Pick a skill, any skill. Practice it now.

Illustrations © Brian Cronin, excerpted from 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It). All rights reserved.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington, a remote community in the North Cascades. She's the author of three books, and after 15 years working on backcountry trail crews, she now teaches creative nonfiction in the Whidbey Writers Workshop low-residency MFA program. Her writing on nature, work, and life in a small community appears regularly in High Country News, Mountain Gazette, Oregon Quarterly, Orion, and elsewhere. Her book 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It) was published in 2015.

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