What have you done today to lower your impact?

We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Old things

I like old, well used, lovingly cared for things. This may sound weird but it is almost as if these things take on some sort of spirit of the time and use in which they were. This is reminiscent of Shinto, where inanimate natural objects possess a sacred spirit. Certainly these very human, decidedly unnatural objects would not likely fit into the category of sacred but most have some connection with natural materials; steel, stone, wool, and wood. I don't delude myself that I have somehow gotten in touch with some innate natural lifeforce, rather I think my own consciousness has imbued them with significance related to my own interpretation of their history.

Some of my most cherished memories are of rummaging through my grandfathers old cigar boxes of stuff; screws, nuts, washers, pencils and pens with names of long gone local businesses on, cigarette lighters, and my favorite, knives. The ones I've kept through the years are those well built and maintained, and personally passed down. I have a jackknife that has been sharpened so many times that the blade is thin and worn away, a completely different shape from when it was made. It was given to me by my grandfather. I have tools my father owned, a wonderful set of maple handled nut drivers that sits in it's own custom stand, a simple pair of pliers he kept in his marine toolbox, the tool boxes themselves. I have a brace and bit my great uncle Charles owned, an old timber saw that hung, never used, in our garage during my entire growing up years. My wife has the gardening shears that belonged to her favorite brother, who died young in a fall from a tree. I’ve recently been given a set of hair cutting tools, all steel, hand powered, and dating from my mother in law’s grandparents day. Her grandparents lived in the oldest cottage in Formby,  cob built, thatched roof, and dating to the 1600’s. Anything that she owns that is “from
the cottage” has taken on almost mythical status with me and I am very pleased to own tools from that era. I also have her father’s work knife from his days on the docks of Liverpool.

Almost all of my old things are useful, but some have special significance in that they tie me to a particular time in my life. When I worked in the leather industry during my teens I bought a washita sharpening stone. It came in a cedar box which it sits in to this day. That was over 30 years ago and I still carry that stone from country to country, wherever I may live. It connects me to my past in a way that pictures and documents cannot, like the knife my grandfather carried in his pocket, something used and treasured over the years that helped me do the kinds of work I value most.

Just this past week I lost one of my treasured old things. Nothing fancy, just an old woolen flat cap, the kind worn by northern English yeoman farmers and labourers. I've had that cap for as long as I can remember, I seem to always have had it. Before I moved to England I lived in Bermuda and taught in a school populated by many Brits. One rare chilly day I wore my flat cap to school. Nothing strange about that except I also wore shorts, sandals and socks! I got no end of shtick for that. In fact, I've been reminded of that day many times. It seems to have stuck in folks minds for some reason.

The strange thing is that since I've lived in northern England that cap has taken on something of a totemic quality with me. A genuine piece of local, practical fashion, worn with pride. This past week it somehow ended up in a hot wash. Of course my fine woolen flat cap shrunk to unusable proportions. If find it odd that this happened just a few weeks before I will be leaving northern England, almost as if to break the connection I have with the northern countryside, the enjoyment of the northern accent my nephews are developing, and my life here in the north.

I gave my shrunken flat cap to a dear friend with a small head. She lives in Ackworth, West Yorkshire, a place where I truly came to appreciate the diversity of northern dialects. I am pleased it has found a home in the North.

Though it may no seem so from my waxing lyrical, there is a limit to my attachment to these old things. As with the flat cap, if at some point they become clearly useless, other than as a reminder of my past they eventually get cast aside due to my transient lifestyle. It simply becomes pointless to continue to drag them around. This happened recently with a shirt, a very ornate tapestry of a shirt, given to me by my best friend when I was 16 or so. He was about to go to a correctional training facility for the merchant marine as part of a deal to keep him out of jail. He and I, and another lad I didn't know all that well, were in his room very late one night as he prepared his things to go. He held up this shirt, one I had always associated with him, and said "who wants it?" I was the first to pipe up and I ended up with the shirt. For many years it fit me well and I fancy even looked good on me but then the 70's became the 80's and it was so far out of fashion I no longer wore it. By the end of the 80's everyone but myself who was in that room that night was dead. The shirt took on a sacred status as the only thing I owned that my friend had worn. I kept it. In the 90's I discovered it no longer fit very well, still I kept it.   Not long ago as I sorted clothing for yet another move I finally let it go. It was strangely difficult but I decided that this level of attachment was impractical.

Now as we prepare to settle into an existence based in our own home, a first for me, and centered around the skills of self reliance and it's attendant tools, I am learning to re-evaluate my "things". I am looking at them afresh. Will they further my aims of self reliance either by being irreplaceable, which very few things are these days, or by being just so useful and well made that it doesn't make sense to let them go. Practicality is the order of the day, with just a hint of sentimentality. Somehow I still ended up with 9 boxes to ship to America.

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