A world made by hand

Only a few generations ago we made many things by hand.  Over the last 50 years store bought products have replaced handmade goods.  Few people still work with their hands, and I often wonder what we have lost in this process?  What have we lost when we no longer enjoy or even know how to make things with our hands?

Human prehistory is described by the tools and artifacts left behind.  Tools were both functional as well as art.  I love handling a kitchen tool that belonged to my grandmother.  Human development is attributed to our opposable thumb and ability to make and use tools.  So how have we changed now that we seldom use hand tools, and our hands are most often busy using a computer or phone? Are these the same kind of tools as a wood lathe, a knife and cutting board, or a needle and thread?

I love making pottery, bread, and cooking from scratch.  My grandmother taught me to knit and sew and I’ve made several articles of clothes and scarves.  I taught myself to carve wooden spoons and often think I should spend more time doing that…but don’t.   Like many people in their 50’s I often think, I’ll do that after I retire.  We are drawn to the beauty of artisan crafts and desire to explore making them ourselves, but don’t.  Perhaps life is too busy, it would take too much time to make things by hand.

In a world that has less energy available, a world that cannot afford to burn more fossil fuels, we need to move away from machines and back towards things made by hand.  That probably seems unimaginable if you didn’t grow up with a parent or grandparent that made things by hand.  But I think the reality of living like this will be more satisfying than you can imagine.

Many years ago I stopped using a clothes dryer and instead hung clothes out to dry as my grandmother did, as my mother did until she could afford the modern convenience of a dryer.  I enjoy hanging clothes outside to dry.  I like the excuse to go outside, to pay closer attention to the weather.  Is it going to be sunny and dry today?  Is it a good day to wash clothes or does it look like rain?  And while I am outside I become aware of outdoor sounds… birds, insects, the wind rustling the leaves.  It makes me feel lighthearted, less weary of things I can’t control.  I notice how the air smells and how it changes with time of day or season.  Early morning smells different than afternoon, and afternoon different from evening.  There is the smell of spring blooming flowers or bushes, freshly mowed grass in summer, or wood smoke in fall.  I also noticed the fresh smell of line dried clothes; fresh, clean, and sunny.  Did you know sunny has a smell?  And of course, I slow down.

The same thing happens when I cook using fresh food, especially from the garden.  I pay attention to what is ripening in the garden and plan a meal around what’s available.  The garden food changes over the year, cool season crops in spring and fall, and hot season crops in summer.  Did you know you can dig carrots in winter?  We have gotten used to shopping for food in grocery stores with their abundant types of food available, shipped from all over the world.  In-season and climate zones have lost their meaning.  In the process the food has also lost much of its flavor, freshness, and nutrition.  Food picked before it’s ripened and shipped across the world doesn’t contain the same nutrition as food picked fresh from the garden at the peak of ripeness.  Garden fresh food tastes better and makes me feel better eating it.

Chopping vegetables for a pot of soup takes time.  People call it Slow Food.  Food processors are not nearly as enjoyable to use as a good knife and familiar cutting board.   Making soup is a creative process.  There is the usual onion, maybe celery, potatoes, or carrots, but where to go from there, meat or beans, tomatoes or cream base?  What spices or herbs will I use; Asian curry, Italian, or Mexican?  Herbs add so much flavor there is little need to add much salt.   And herbs are easy to grow making me feel more self-sufficient.  Some come back year after year and some gladly reseed themselves.  An herb garden is a beautiful, carefree kind of place.  Butterflies and bees love to visit the blossoms, and when I’m gathering herbs I can’t help but feel connected to the life with which I share my garden.

I also enjoy making bread by hand, something I learned from my mother.  I got into artisan bread and bought a stone for my oven.  Eventually I purchased a hand cranked flour mill to make truly fresh whole grain bread.  It takes longer, but the rewards are worth it; the smell of the freshly ground flour, the yeasty dough, and the bread as it is baking.  Then there is the reward of seeing my family’s smiles as they walk through the door and smell fresh bread and soup for dinner.  One Sunday morning I brought fresh bread and homemade pesto for snacks after church service.  A man came up to me and said “Thank you for your hospitality!”  And I realized that is exactly what makes sharing food so enjoyable, hospitality.  How often do we have time to entertain guests anymore?

I know that few people have the luxury of working at home.  And perhaps your idea of craft making is different from mine.  But I think it’s too bad that we have given up this experience in the name of progress or modern convenience.    What was the convenience for?  Oh yeah,  so we’d have more time to do things we enjoy.

Too often people work because they need to earn a living, not because their job is their career.  I think people would like to have more time to be at home, enjoying time spent at a slower pace, enjoying more leisure time to be with their family, in the garden, kitchen, or workshop.  I think it may even be a deep seated need within us, to make something with our hands.  Unfortunately, this need gets suppressed by the demands of earning a living.  This need is ignored when we spend our leisure time staring at a phone or computer screen, trying to relax and tune out the pain we feel from the modern, convenient lifestyle we live.

A world made by hand isn’t going to happen by itself.  We need to find ways to turn off the machines, tune out the digital media, and let our hands be busy instead of our brain captured by a computer.  We need to learn to fix something that is broken rather than throw it away and replace it.  We need to find ways to express our longing for making art, crafts, food, laughter, and lightheartedness.  Hands that are busy pushing keys on a device do little to challenge our mind.  Remember that thing we call eye-to-hand coordination?  I’m convinced there is something developmentally necessary for our brains when we learn to do something with our hands.  The experience we get from spending hours staring at the computer or phone screen is not very life affirming.  Humans became human because we made the world by hand.  Will the world really be enriched if a robot can make pottery?  Will we still call it  “hand” made?

8 Replies to “A world made by hand”

  1. Great post Jody!
    Your post really captures the sensual delights in slowing down and making something by hand. That is something we seem to have lost and which we might regain in a lower energy future – the joys of craftsmanship and of manual labor done outside. Also the deep satisfaction and self-esteem that comes from practicing skillful craftsmanship. It was really a very short time ago in our history that we had these joys and satisfactions. It is a relatively new thing to be so dis-engaged.

  2. Jody, your post reminded me of something in Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, where he writes how modern technology has deprived us of much of the kind of work we enjoy most – “creative, useful work with hands and brains” – and given us instead plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which we do not enjoy at all. I too feel that the pleasure of hand-eye coordination is intrinsic to who and what we are. My hands take particular delight in skipping stones across the river, and finely chopping an onion – with that particular knife that has come to fit in the palm more snugly than any other.

  3. I agree Chris, Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is a wonderful book that gave me inspiration to think this way about how I live.

  4. Your comment about drying clothes really hit home. We used to live in a cottage with a clothes line out back, and I really enjoyed that ritual of hanging clothes outdoors. For family reasons, we moved, and now live in a second-story apartment, with no opportunity to hang out our clothes. One way or another we’ll get another cottage — and install a clothes line!

    At least we can still cook from scratch (barely) in our pokey apartment kitchen.

    Lastly, a thanks to James Howard Kunstler, who’s A World Made By Hand popularized that phrase.

    1. Ric,
      I hope you find that cottage someday, but while you are in a small apartment find a way to enjoy it. Life is too short to be wishing we were someplace else!

      Thanks for reminding me about James Howard Kunstler’s book. He has written so many good books. And you are correct, he first popularized this phrase in a tittle of his book. As I was writing this post I changed the tittle several times. I suppose the final tittle seemed right because it resonated with me. In reality, it’s a small world and there is nothing new under the sun! We rarely come up with something entirely original!

  5. Loved the article. Perhaps OT, but reminded me of something I read long ago about how managers who were hired directly from college, with the prized MBA, were not as effective as those who’d come up from the ranks, having done the work that they’ll be managing.

    1. Isn’t that the truth! Book learning only goes so far. There is nothing like experience. I have also found that teaching others is a great way to really learn the information myself. Our brain’s process information in different ways. We can learn by reading. We can learn by listening. We can learn by teaching. We can learn by doing. And everyone learns better by some methods better than others.
      Nothing more irritating that someone put in charge that knows less than the workers!

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