Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Good Ole' Days (?)

Given my ripe old age of 44, and the current state of the world, I am prone at times to casting my mind back to earlier times and feeling a certain nostalgia, and a feeling often comes over me that leads me to think that some things were better back then. I know I'm not alone in this habit.

Take the environment. While there seem to be folks out there who deny that humans have anything to do with climate change (and I am not among that group of deniers), regardless of whether humans have impact or not, the climate is definitely changing from my own personal observations, and, not for the better. Not in most places. In fact, I'm currently reading Jame's Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and our Last Chance to Save Humanity, to see what the world's leading climatologist, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for space Studies has to say about the situation. I can report back, at this point, that things are not looking too good. It's not what you might call an inspiring or cheery piece of reading. One of the points he mentions that I thought was interesting was that the ascent of man, so to speak, and his rise to inhabit and dominate every corner of the planet was made possible by a period in the paleo-climatological record where sea levels were very stable and temperatures and rainfall patterns were relatively consistent. That allowed the rise of agriculture, the bounty of the seas, and so forth, which has allowed human population to reach however many billion we are at now. with the balance point shifting into a period of instability, well, the situation is becoming a tad less favorable for humans.

I don't need Hansen however to tell me that the environmental quality is moving in an unsavory direction. I well remember my youth, growing up in south-eastern British Columbia, and exploring the backcountry and byways of the place, on foot, on bicycle, and on the ocean by various craft. As a young boy, I was interested in exploring the natural world, and loved to crawl around the tidal pools to see what creatures lived there, to turn over rocks and see what scrabbled out, and so forth. When I was 10~12 years old, I remember visiting many of the off-laying Gulf Islands by boat with my parents, and seeing beaches covered with oysters and large schools of fish swimming about just under the dock. One time I pulled up a rope that went down into the water to see what might be found on the end, and was startled to find a huge spider crab clinging to the end as I pulled it up. That sort of thing doesn't happen much anymore, at least not in those same places.

That was then. In recent times, as an adult (and I use that term loosely) I lived for 5 years on one of those Gulf Islands, and a couple of those years I was living right on the water. Let me tell you, it ain't the clean un-spoilt paradise of my youth. The beaches aren't covered with oysters, and if they were, they wouldn't be safe to eat. The Red Tide warnings seem semi-permanent of late. The tidal pools are not nearly as teaming with life anymore, and if you flip over a rock, fewer critters seem to live there. It's a noticeably deader environment. The water isn't quite as clear as I remember it once being, the vitality seems somewhat sapped away. It's clearly perceptible. I think that in order to find a comparably 'pristine' coastal environment, one would have to travel half way up the B.C. coastline to find it, and I'm not ever sure about that anymore.

In the ninth grade I went on a few school ski trips up to Whistler and remember the snow being 1 meter deep for the last 25 minutes of the drive up the highway to the resort. That simply doesn't happen anymore. Some years, the ski village gets more rain than snow.

Some places seem to be heading in different directions, like the place I live in now, Massachusetts, which is chock-a-block with trees. It wasn't this way 100 years ago. I live at the the base of one of the many 'Chestnut Hills' to be found in Massachusetts, though the chestnuts are long gone and may never come back due to the Chestnut blight which ravaged them. The blight that humans introduced I should say. Across the road from me is an water-powered sawmill, and the sound of the water pouring over the spillway is ever-present. The mill is non-operational and exists as an historical artifact, though when I think about the raw amount of 'free' energy that is cascading over that spillway day and night and that we put no use to it - in fact it might be illegal to do so - I think we live in a truly insane society. Even without that fact, I sometimes think we live in a truly inane society at the very least. What are we all trying to achieve here? What is the current generations contribution to history going to be?

I was over at the old mill the other day, actually in the house on the other side of the Sawmill River from it, and saw a picture of the mill from about 100 years back, looking from behind the mill towards my current domicile. I was started to see the view of the Chestnut Hill I now live at the base of - not a tree in sight. The whole hillside was shaved clean of trees as far as one could see and I presume the grasslands supported hay production or some such thing. Apparently the soil wasn't good for much in this area. Now it's a dense forest, with 100' trees, which I must say I prefer immensely.

I guess most of Massachusetts was once a wonderful primeval forest with towering trees. According to what I have read, the native Indians intensively managed the forests on the Eastern seaboard, planting nut trees and having controlled burns on a regular basis to keep the understory down and encourage deer to come to feed on the new growth, which they then hunted. When the first whiteys appeared on the scene, they were struck by how 'park like' the forest was, not realizing or even being able to conceptualize the fact that the natives had brought that about deliberately. That was the native mode of resource management. The white settlers of course had other ideas about resource management, and yes, in time they did manage to cut down most of the trees and managed to dam most of the rivers and plough most of the ground up. As I mountain bike through the local forests and come across all the old stone walls and think of the incredible hours of backbreaking labor to move all those rocks, and for what?

The settlers also brought with them diseases which ravaged the native populations to an astounding level, and that factor, more than any other, facilitated the takeover of this continent. This effect was so rapid and devastating that settlers arriving 20 years after the first groups noted the forest to be dark, impenetrable, and foreboding. What happened to the 'park like' setting? After 80~90% of the natives had died off and were no longer doing those controlled burns, and the understory had grown back in.

If you want to read more about the above issue, a book I highly recommend is 1491: New Revelations about America before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann (2005). It really turns most of what we were taught in school, most of the mythology in other words, absolutely on it's head. And I will add that if you're one of those who doesn't like his/her world view disturbed very much, don't read it.

I really wish I could have seen this place in which I now live before the white man came here. I would have loved to have seen the Chestnut trees and other old growth flora. It would have been amazing to walk the seashore on the Atlantic coast. I know it would have been awesome by extrapolation from seeing similar things: back in B.C. there are still a few patches, here and there, of old growth forest and I have had the opportunity to spend time in some of those enclaves. I'm not a religious person in any orthodox sense, however walking in the primeval forest with towering trees, lush mosses and ferns, clean-running brooks -it's just so beautiful that I can't help but feel a spiritual reverence for such spots. And spots they are - to get to most of them entails long depressing drives through clear-cut logging slashes. most of Vancouver Island is clear-cut, virtually a moonscape. I'm not exaggerating. This is stuff you can see from space I'm sure. This slash and re-slash strategy has benefited some few people in the short term, in terms of employment at the very least, but the real wealth we had, well, where has it gone and to what use has it been put? What long term benefits have been realized? Billions of board feet of lumber has been shipped out and many loggers in B.C. are still out of work today and communities in the resource extraction zones still appear to be largely impoverished, crumbling.

And studying history, looking at old photos and so forth, of really any place one goes or lives, it becomes obvious just how much has been obliterated in the name of progress. If that is what progress entails, I don't want it. I'd give up the internet, the disposable shaving blades, the factory produced clothing, the salad ingredients trucked 2000 miles, the Pimp My Ride TV shows and Hollywood disaster mega-movies, the orange and yellow terror alerts, the growing meth lab industry, the strip malls and the cruise ship getaways -all of it - to have that Eden back again. What we gained is not nearly enough for what we lost.

I've traveled a fair bit, especially in Australasia and south East Asia, and have seen similar progress at work there. Almost every place I have been I find myself wishing I could have seen it 100 years ago or more. I dream of having the chance to visit Japan before Commodore Perry got there (it would have helped to be invisible too :^)). I imagine it - anyplace - must have been better, at least in terms of the environment, back then. Of course, that's not always the case. I imagine some spots might not have looked too good after a massive volcanic eruption, for instance. But all in all, these birds I live with tend to foul this nest over time and devour anything in their way.

I think the same can be said of Carpentry and woodworking - that it often looks like what we do nowadays is a degrade from some former glory, that great traditions have been lost, that the old masters had lots of stuff figured out that we will never learn. Well, in the follow up to this post, I intend to take a look at those good ole' days to see what truth might be teased out. To do that, I'll turn to some books written 100 years or more ago to see what they were saying in regards to craft and technical standards.

Until next time then.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts Chris. So much of what you said echoes what haunts me from time to time. I question what we are focused on as humans and where we are headed. Technology has brought about great advances but at great, almost immeasurable cost. How many people that pass by you in daily life are actually aware of you or their surroundings. How many people can't wait to escape to some artificial reality while ignoring or missing what is all around them? If they were more rooted in what is substantive and important I think it would change the way choices are being made. Choices are made with some thought to the future but little regard or heed to the past. I would gladly trade the plethora of frivolous electronica and the singular focus of Paparazzi-esque media for a shift in values and the return of public consciousness.

    Recently, I heard a term that resonated greatly with me. A person said they were trying to live with a depression-era mentality. In other words: if you didn't need something, you didn't buy it. If something was broke, you fixed it, repurposed it or held on to it for someone that could use it or fix it. When almost anything in our house breaks, I can fix it. Sometimes parts are hard to find or I have to make a part in my shop but I try my best not to contribute to the landfills and teach my kids some lessons about thrift.

  2. Marc,

    it sounds like you're on the right track with your DIY ethic and reduced consumption ideals. Speaking of a 'depression-era mentality, have you ever looked at photo collections of people and places form the Great Depression? People used donkeys to pull cars around, stuff like that.... It's a great way to gain some perspective on modern times.



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