Country Living Series

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The death of knowledge

Here's a trivia question for you: What is a snath?

My faithful reader Bill can probably answer this, since he has taken the time to educate himself in the Old Ways.  I know what a snath is because we bought a device that included a snath back in the late 90's.  But for the vast, vast majority of people in the western world, a snath means nothing.

But a snath is a critical part of what used to be an essential piece of equipment.  It used to be that people could discuss snaths with great knowledge.  They recognized how a snath had to confirm to a user's size, they knew how it had to have certain weight and materials properties, and they knew the merits of ash versus hickory snaths.

Okay, okay... I'll stop teasing and answer the question.  A snath is the wood handle portion of a scythe.

And a scythe, of course, is a long hand-held blade that cuts down things like grasses, grains, or other farm crops.

Needless to say, scythes were used extensively on farms all over the world until the advent of tractors and harvesters and other modern equipment.  Now we've reached the point where few people know how to properly use (much less sharpen) a scythe.

The point of this introduction is to illustrate how far our nation has fallen from the days in which people were self-sufficient, or at least healthily dependent on each other in the local sense.

For 5000 years of civilization, mankind has honed hundreds of survival skills.  How to build a home from raw materials.  How to make a fire without matches.  How to hunt animals with only the most primitive of tools.  How to make those primitive tools.  How to raise crops, harvest them, and preserve them through the upcoming year.  The list of skills we've forgotten is endless.

And here's what bugs me: We've forgotten 5000 years' worth of skills in less than three generations.

Three generations ago, many of our forebears still lived on farms without electricity.  They knew how to get through a year without depending on (too many) external sources for their everyday needs.  If you ever read "Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you'll understand how a typical family got through a year and purchased very, very few "boughten" things.  They cut their own firewood, provided their own ice (throughout the year), wove their own cloth, butchered their own animals, harvested their own fields and gardens... the list goes on and on.

Can any of us do that any more?

If we consider the possibility of an EMP weapon taking out the power grid in this nation, it's scary to think of how many people - nearly all of us - would be left utterly helpless.  We would be helpless because we've gone soft.  We've allowed our lives to get too comfortable and too dependent on outside sources - notably electricity - so we no longer have to obtain life's necessities through our own personal efforts.  We would be hungry, thirsty, in the dark, and unable to use the toilet without electricity.

And we - meaning, the Lewis family - would be nearly as helpless as the next person despite the fact that we live where we live.  We, too, have gone soft.  We, too, depend far too much on outside sources for our basic necessities.

If you think nothing earth-shattering could ever interrupt our comfortable lives, think again.  If you study history, you'll see that wrenching change has happened over and over and over.  Endless great civilizations have been brought to their knees through endless numbers of disruptions - famines, invasions, natural disasters, diseases...  Yet we still have the arrogance to think it can't happen again.  Indeed, as my husband pointed out, the greatest conceit of mankind is, “It can’t happen to me.”

That's why the notion of recapturing some of the more "primitive" skills of our forebears holds such an appeal for me.  That's why I'm determined to can food, make cheese, grow wheat, raise meat, etc.  It's why we find ourselves driven to make our little homestead as self-sufficient as possible.

But it's an uphill battle.  Oh Lord, it's a struggle all the way.  The biggest thing we struggle against is our ignorance.  Everything we learn, we have to learn from scratch because there are so few people around to teach us.  We have to re-learn things that civilization has known for 5000 years, but has lost in 100.  It's a struggle full of heartbreak, frustration, mistakes, and an occasional brilliant success.

One thing we cannot forget is that our ancestors over the past 5000 years had one excellent motivator to make their struggles succeed: Death.  If their crops failed, they died.  If their weapons failed, they died.  If their medical knowledge was insufficient, they died.  Those that didn't die might be left maimed and utterly dependent on others.  Life was short, brutal, and harsh.

I do not want to return to those conditions.  But circumstances beyond our control may not give us any option.


  1. The following article talks about how there will be substancial changes in society from a basic economic and financial analysis of the times we currently live in:

  2. I can't help thinking that over the centuries government has been the culprit behind our "forgetting" all the things we used to know and do to survive. Government wants us to be totally dependent on IT and our leaders who always think they know best, not on ourselves. That's the best way for government to control us. Control. Always control. That's why we have more and more laws that make it harder and harder to fend for ourselves. It's all part of the plan. No matter our means, we're always just barely getting by. But we will win out in the end, because we're RIGHT and they're wrong. And more importantly, we have God on our side!

  3. Dougie Maclean has a song about working the scythe. It is a lovely gentle song. On the live version he talks about how his dad could do it and just amazed him. Can't buy the video "scythe in a day".

  4. Another good article - thanks. As usual I got distracted after sending the link to someone on another forum (GON) and found an interesting thread about canning sausage. Thought of your writeup on canning bacon. Anyway, one of the posters went into the old ways of potting meat. It is post #26 here:

    Oh, look - something shiney....


  5. Yes we will be rediscovering a number of the "old ways" in the future.

    Necessity breeds invention or in this case rediscovery. It would be best to prepare for this as as well.

  6. I am living this as I type...we had a severe storm here 2 days ago that blew down the main power lines that supply the entire island I live on (8500 people) We are on rolling blackouts with no end in sight as to when it will be fixed.

    So, every hour on the hour the power goes out whether anyone likes it or not. I am typing this quickly because I have 14 minutes and then no more computer or lights until it's my turn to have power again.

    A customer called me today in tears because she has been up every hour for the last 2 days moving her husband from one oxygen source to another as the power goes off. The first words out of her mouth when she called? Wait for it...

    I had no idea we were so dependent on electricity.

  7. Well, Thanks, Patrice! I do like old things. It helps a lot of you know the tune to "I was born 100,000 years ago" the lyrics of which are traditional, no ©:

    I was born a hundred thousand years ago
    And there isn't anything that I don’t know.
    There’s no place that I ain’t been
    Round the world and back again,
    And I’ll whup the man that says it isn’t so

    I knew Adam and Eve before they knew the score;
    It was I designed the fig leaves that they wore
    I's behind the bushes peeping
    At that apple they were eating
    And I'll swear that I'm the guy who ate the core

    Took a trip with Cleopatra down the Nile.
    Yes, we dated off and on for quite awhile.
    And for King Tut and his kiddies,
    I built all the pyramiddies,
    And I represented Caesar at his trial.

    Old Nero, he was a friend of mine.
    The way he played the fiddle was divine.
    I went by invitation
    To a Roman celebration,
    And ended up with ashes in my wine

    Queen Elizabeth, she fell in love with me,
    We were married secretly in Milwaukee
    Then I snuck around and shook her
    'Cause I went with General Hooker
    Just to fight mosquitoes down in Tennessee

    I saw Noah when he built his famous ark
    I slipped into it one night when it was dark
    I saw Jonah swallow the whale
    And I pulled the lion's tale
    Then I crossed the land of Canaan on a lark

    In the boudoir with dear Empress Josephine,
    When Napoleon was nowhere to be seen,
    It was then I played my part
    So much better than Bonaparte;
    Well, I guess you know exactly what I mean

    I was on the shore with Washington, I swear
    When he tossed a coin across the Delaware
    But nobody has believed it,
    when I tell 'em I retrieved it
    And I bought me boots, they cost a buck a pair

  8. Your husband is so right about the American attitude of "it can't happen to us". "It" has happened before, and, unless the world literally ends for us all, "it" will happen again. Sorry to burst their bubble, but being an American doesn't exempt us from the troubles the world is facing right now.

  9. I know what a snath and scythe are. I have one but it isn't fitted to me. I use it for cutting weeds in the pasture.

  10. Speaking of having to teach yourself skills that nobody seems to know anymore...

    This past week I butchered the first three of six roosters that I'm culling from my very small flock. I'm leaving myself with one rooster for my five hens. Now, you'd think that it wouldn't be that difficult to find someone to demonstrate how to butcher a chicken. You'd be wrong. Oh, sure, lots of folks around here know how to butcher a deer, and I've helped do that myself a few times. But how about a chicken? Nope. Nobody.

    So last Thursday I had to relearn a skill (with only modest success) that probably 99% of the population of the entire world from creation up to 100 years ago was expert at. Heck, probably the poorest 50% of the world still knows how to do this. It's just us "civilized" folks that have become so ignorant. Oh, and yes, I did find several useful videos on YouTube that helped quite a bit. But it's not the same as having someone SHOW you how to do it. Like, "No no, cut here instead, like this! See how this works?"

    And no, butchering an animal is not easy or fun. Perhaps I'm overly "sensitive," but as I thanked God for this food before killing each rooster, I really meant it and understood it in a way I never did before. But at the same time, it was oddly satisfying to know that in the U.S. at least I'm now part of that tiny fraction of 1% of the population that has raised livestock and personally killed, butchered, and eaten them. Yes, they were good, and yes, they tasted like chicken.

    But there are a lot of other skills that need to be learned. Next spring: honeybees!!

  11. I watch documentaries about the Roman empire, and think about how long it took humanity to again achieve running water and sewers again after their fall. And how Roman technology would be beyond the grasp of most of us.

  12. I always think on just how fast we have lost our knowledge. All those years of learning the hard way and we throw it all away in just 3 generations...sometimes it makes me want to cry.

    If the few that survive through the initial chaos know how to do anything at all or have the right tools for the jobs I think they'll be sought after. It'll be time to work yourself to the bone and teach others too.
    Every time I read/hear about someone learning old skills or putting away extra food or just being aware it gives me a little more hope for the future.

  13. In response to Mike in Virginia-- I went through the same thing last year. I needed to learn how to butcher a chicken and I thought I lived in an area that people would know how and asked nearly all my neighbors for help. Like you, they knew how to do deer, but no one did chickens. Lucky me, I happened to vent my frustrations to my uncle and he offered to show me!! I had forgotten that my dad and uncle grew up on a farm and raised their own rabbits and chickens and other animals for eating. It's been a long time since he butchered a chicken, but it was like riding a bicycle and I was able to understand better than those youtube videos show. Every one cautions about the rectum and sort of scared me about contamination, but my Uncle just laughed and showed me what to do. Easier than I thought it'd be and if anything, the hardest part, for me, was lopping off the head.

    Next for me is goats!

  14. I work at our local museum and we have an exhibit entitled, Reaping What We Sow: A Century of Change in Agriculture. We have a snath, a scythe and a cradle with wheat. You can see the exhibit at our website, and if you click on the grain panel image you can see it close up. Thank you for helping keep history alive Mrs. Lewis. I love your blog.

  15. Oh wow Tina - that's a great photo of the museum display! I'm especially interested in the cradle because that's next on my agenda to either find in an antique store, or somehow cobble together.

    - Patrice

  16. LOL...I can relate...we came here from Atlanta, GA 5 years ago, to basically, almost backwoods Idaho. We first had to learn how to manage a wood

    And, as time went on, I saw things coming that disturbed me more and more, and thought that it wouldn't be a bad idea to learn how do do things that would get us through the coming "dark times", that I firmly believe are on the way. We have stocked up on seeds, and have learned to grow things that aren't supposed to grow here.

    We've learned how to make our own ammo, butcher our own poultry, how to dehydrate, what to dehydrate, and how to lacto-ferment (I hate canning). We have purchased things that would operate without gas or electricity, like two man saws, meat grinders, grain grinders, and have learned, or at least purchased books on, things like brain tanning, seed saving, et al. Just in case.

    Quite frankly, the people that don't know how to do anything the "old way" are going to be screwed eventually.

    Anyone who thinks "this can't happen to us in America" is a moron.

  17. We're taking baby steps at my house--my husband has agreed to "power down" for one day this month, so that our family can get a taste of what life was like before, and what it may be like again soon. My great-granddad grew up one of thirteen children on a farm in Canada, he became a master carpenter and built entire houses without power tools--imagine!

    Sage~~I know I have a lot to learn, but I don't think I'll be adding "brain tanning" to the list anytime soon. :)

    Desert Bird

  18. Wow, does this bring back memories of boyhood days (and nights) on my grandpa's ranch in the sand hills of Nebraska... no electricity, heat from a wood stove, very cold bedrooms in winter, hauling ice from a river to a cave, then using that ice in August to crank out a batch of ice cream... and, yes, killing chickens for Sunday dinner. And, I still have pictures of grandpa's earlier house, made out of sod.

    Not fun, but it can be done. And, this nation was settled by people who were willing to take on the challenges. May their heirs come to the fore in what awaits.

  19. Patrice, this is one of my favorite posts. Thank you so much for putting it together.

    We've been so overwhelmed in the past 10 months since we moved to our homestead. It's frustrating trying to learn tasks that used to be simple everyday chores. I've struggled with learning things that a 6-year-old would've known how to do 100 years ago! One of the reasons we are altering our lifestyle is to prepare for the hard times that we believe are coming. However, another reason for our lifestyle is so that our children have these skills as second nature. I'd rather go through the trial and error of learning them myself and save my children that frustration. If we're fortunate enough to not need these skills in my lifetime, I will feel much more comfortable knowing that my children are self-sufficient as a second nature.

    I'm glad I started my blog before we moved to our homestead so that, hopefully, I can look back on it someday and have a laugh over how incapable we were at the beginning. I like to think we'll be able to have a chuckle over our many trials and errors that we've experienced along the way.

    Again, thanks for a really great post!

    Janice at SAHMville

  20. Janice, what's your blog url?

    - Patrice

  21. I had the wonderful privilege growing up around many folks who did things in a simpler way. In my early teens I worked alongside a local farmer who used horses to cut and gather hay, till ground and bring in hay in great mounds. He and his elderly sister lived alone and I helped him every summer. At the time I wasn't thinking so much about the process of doing these things as the fact that those huge horses were so beautiful. I loved being around them. I learned a lot though working with him side by side pitching hay and driving the horses, milking his only cow and caring for tools and such.

    My father was also a great teacher and I miss him very much. I was also surrounded with folks who braided rugs, made soap, raised cows, sheep, chickens, rabbits, goats, and even crickets and hamsters.

    The area I have problems with is more the technical stuff. I have taken some computer classes, but even though we like to raise our own food and all, it would be great if I knew more about construction, wiring a house, fixing my computer when it is not working right, etc. etc.

  22. Save the Canning JarsOctober 15, 2010 at 9:18 AM

    Since Patrice specifically mentioned EMP, I'd like to call to your attention an excellent book I just read called, "One Second After" by William Forstchen.

    This thriller describes what life would be like in America after an EMP is set off and all electricity is gone. The reader is allowed to see the day to day struggle and problem solving ideas that result. The book is fiction, however, the info it contains is from a congressional report on EMP. How many people are going to read a congressional report? Probably not many so good idea on the novel Professor Forstchen.

    Warning: This book contains language. I bought my own copy and marked out the bad words, instead writing, "Praise the Lord!" which has resulted in laughter from every person I've loaned the book to since. But that is the only laughter you'll get out of this book as it is sobering.

    Patrice is "right on" with trying to grow her own wheat. She understands sustainability. Good for some people who are awake enough to understand food reserve (since there are millions who are asleep to the thought that hard times could come), but what happens when reserves are gone? No one is coming with a big truck of supplies/relief. Learning to produce for future consumption is the right idea.

    With certainty, this book is not for the faint of heart. I challenge you to read it and read yourself into this situation and self-evaluate your level of readiness!

  23. Patrice, our family's blog can be found at

    I'd be thrilled for you to check it out as we can always use advice from those that are more ahead of the game than we are!

  24. It's odd that any American would think that "it can't happen here" considering it has happened here time and time again. However, I do realize there are probably about 300,000,000 Americans who still believe it could never happen here.

    I've lived my entire life in California, yet I have experienced earthquakes, a tsunami, huge forest fires, widespread floods, devastating droughts, rampant diseases, riots, chlorine gas leaks, windstorms, falling trees, massive landslides, no running water for days at a time, power outages for 8 days straight, and forced lockdowns. I'm sure there are tens of millions of Americans who can recite similar lists. So, it is frightening to realize that so many Americans could so soon forget about Hurricane Katrina or 9/11, to name just two crises. Those who have such short memories are going to be in a world of hurt when a major trauma affects them. They will either die or murder, and therein lies the real trouble to come. Panicky people do desperate things. Be sure to plan accordingly.

    Another great article, Patrice. These topics are why I read your blog each day. I must admit I'd miss electricity - if only for reading timely stuff online.

    Anonymous Patriot

  25. To Mike In Viginia I wanted to say, don't feel bad. You are not alone. While I haven't cleaned anything lately, I can still recall how repulsive it was to me way back when. I used to clean fish, rabbits and whatever to supplement a protein shy diet as a young boy. At the time it was a great adventure and fun. I have never forgotten how grossed out I got when you slice their belly and drag their guts out.

  26. To Anonymous 3:02 P. M. Yikes! you are a funny little fellow. You didn't have to waste everybody's life reading that long winded POC. You sound intelligent enough to grasp this little bit of advice from an ancient fool. Use some of that genious to make a living. Practice will not pay the bills.

  27. imagine how clutter free a kitchen could be without all the electric gadgets we have now..i could probably do with just one kitchen drawer and a basket to hold the necessaries like a rotary eggbeater/mixer, a regular can opener, a potato masher, an egg/cheese slicer, a pair of tongs....lots of wooden spoons of various sizes, a good old fashioned ladle...and so on. most of us don't even need the electric toaster- i simplified my life a number of years ago by getting rid of alot of stuff, but i think it is time for me to do it again with real purpose.