Old skills and gratitude

In the hills north of Montpelier, Vermont a small group of folks (some of them are herbalists too, studying at our school) are teaching skills humans have possessed for a long, long time. The Roots School instructors have been mastering tracking, tool-making, weapon-crafting, fire-summoning, fiber-spinning, hide-tanning and more (see it all here: http://www.rootsvt.com/skills).

Many people are interested in these traditional approaches to meet the basic needs of life. Why is this? Does learning this stuff have any inherent value?

First off, taking the example of stone knives and spears, it would seem that we've had these skills for a very, very long time. Most recently, Jayne Wilkins of the University of Toronto dated spear tips from South Africa to 500,000 years ago. Along with running (I'm biased) and cooking (so reliant on fire-making magic), these skills might actually be a defining element of what makes us human.

Stone knife - ROOTS School

Stone-tipped spears, South Africa. Photo: Jayne Wilkins

While these technologies are definitely more environmentally conscious, it is not a given that they don't have consequences on our ecology. Take, for instance, the plight of the woolly mammoths and their feelings about these spears. Or look at Ireland - humans deforested the island, and may also have created a fossil fuel reserve - peat - thereby. So I don't think we can clearly state that these skills are somehow valuable because they don't "adversely" impact the world around us. Very often, they do - and this impact can locally rival that of our modern technologies.

So maybe a clear line can't be drawn: technology is simply technology. Or is it?

Before getting a litter deeper into the value of primitive technologies, it's worth thinking about why, at the very least, we shouldn't abandon them completely. There is obvious historical and anthropological value to retaining some of these abilities - it would be a shame, for instance, if we forgot how to track animals through the wilderness (even though, ostensibly, we don't actually need to do that anymore). But beyond this, there is another reasons why institutions such as the Roots School are useful: primarily, the tools work. Pants made from tanned leather last a really long time and protect really well. Stone knives are super-sharp and useful for a variety of jobs. Bows make excellent hunting and fishing tools. Additionally, all these crafts are not somehow less "sophisticated" than gore-tex, metal carbide, or rifles. It often takes more skill and know-how to make a really excellent primitive tool than it does a modern one, and it can take a lifetime to learn all the intricacies. An expert flint-knapper has spent more time on her craft than a Ph.D. has spent on theoretical physics. So at the very least, I am grateful that someone has gone to the trouble to preserve these skills for us as a species.

But I'd have to go further, and say that traditional skills have their own inherent value as stand-alone disciplines, not simply as historical artifacts. It's interesting to me that this older tech uses an interface between our human "wetware" and its surrounding ecology that is straightforward, minimally processed, and manual-labor-intensive. That is to say, primitive skills rely on natural materials and human hands, and are based (by necessity) on a broad understanding of the ecology and its patterns to be successful. Modern technologies often rely on refined materials transported over long distances and the use of intermediate machinery. So the big difference, I think, is the degree to which the tools we use are abstracted from our daily experience: children quickly grasp how a stone knife is made (though actually making it is a lot tougher), whereas understanding a circular saw is trickier. Again, this doesn't mean the knife is less sophisticated. It simply has a more direct story. Its complexity lies in skill depth, rather than theoretical specificity. I am very grateful that someone still knows how to take a simple process and spend a long, long time exploring it with their hands and bodies.

If you compare a martial art and a gun, the distinction becomes unarguably clear. They are both complicated tools, but in very different ways. Both can kill - but it takes a lot longer to learn how by studying a martial art than it does by studying firearms. This is the tradeoff. What you sacrifice in time to learn the skill you gain in ethos, which is part of depth. It seems that we value technology differently when it is directly understandable, minimally processed, and labor-intensive. That different valuation connects to greater involvement, empowerment, and responsibility. We stop doing things by proxy. The process associated with the use of a technology becomes as important as the tool it creates, or the outcome it engenders. It's about the journey, not the destination. It's about how you play the game.
Herbalism, of course, represents the primitive skill of medicine. It has all the qualities we've explored: it's something a child can quickly understand, uses crude natural materials, and relies on individual labor (even if you're using ready-made tinctures or teas, the process of choosing them takes a long time. And the client has to do a lot of work to use them - relatively speaking). It changes our environmental ethos (shifting the perception of what to do with weeds, for instance). It is focused on process at all levels, though it still provides useful outcomes. For all these reasons, it is a valuable technology in the context of human health and, as with other primitive skills, cannot be dismissed as obsolete. I am most grateful to be a part of the tribe that has held and cultivated herbal medicine, and that I get to use this skill in my life every day. What a blessing.

Ultimately, old tech is different, and for some interesting (though not immediately obvious) reasons. When dealing directly with the messy, organic system of the human being and her surrounding environment, old tech might actually still be the better choice. When considering abstraction, verbal communication, neocortex-intensive-applications (which are by definition a bit more removed from the wet organic mess around and inside us), modern tech seems to shine. But when we approach old processes, like the workings of vital organs, the key to optimal, meaningful function is turned by old tech. Musicians (and vinyl enthusiasts) know this. Stonemasons know this. Many visual artists do as well. I am hopeful that our culture will take the lessons of primitive skills, including herbal medicine, as directions on our trail towards the future, towards progress. And I am grateful that any such trail will most likely be lined with dandelions.