The Pleasure of Apprenticeship

I grew up with handy parents, and I learned some things from them - cooking, chopping wood, making do, but there were still things I missed out on. Even though my step-mother is a talented woodworker, I never learned. Even though she does plumbing repair, I didn't pay attention when I could have. My father hunted, but I wasn't interested when he might have taken me and taught me to be a better shot than I am. My grandmother and aunt were remarkably talented at knitting, sewing and crocheting - I've had to painfully learn those skills over myself without them. Can I just say how badly I'd like to have my adolescence and early adulthood back, so I could PAY ATTENTION when people showed me useful things? I think in that respect I'm not alone.

Almost all of us need to learn new/old skill sets - even if we already cook, we have to learn food preservation. Even if we already can and dehydrate, we need to learn lactofermentation and winemaking. Even if we already build things, we may have to learn to do them with hand tools, rather than power tools. And in some areas, we're starting from the beginning. What is timber framing, anyway? What's the difference between straw and hay, and which one do I want to mulch my garden with? Which one should I feed my livestock with? How do you make a pickle? How do you make a running stitch, and will that fix that hole in my jeans? What's greywater? How do you run a pipe from the washer to the garden? How do you inoculate mushroom logs? Do a hive check? Make cheese? Bring down that tree? Install solar panels? Clean a chimney? Upholster a chair? Weave a basket? Graft a fruit tree?

It can seem utterly overwhelming - so many things to do, so little time. Why even start? You'll never get it all, right? And yet, in the last decade I've learned to do quite a few of those things (still have quite a few I need to work on too!).

Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is while I'm a big fan of enriching your neighbors, and we do hire out for a number of projects, the truth is that sometimes, things just need to get done - now, by you. The second is that many of us may not always have the money to pay someone else, or the option of hiring out in tough times. Finally, even if you don't want to do something yourself, knowing the basics of how it works means that you don't have to get taken by someone you hire. Even if you can't do the big job, you may be able to do some of the small ones - or at least make sure they are done right.

The funny thing is that most of us know someone - maybe are connected to them by community, friendship, blood or the internet - who can do almost all the things you want to learn to do. The list of skills to learn above may seem overwhelming - but if you list off what your family, friends and neighbors know, you'll often find an astonishing mix of skills to draw on - and it is possible to view this as an opportunity to learn.

The thing is not to get overwhelmed. Just go ahead, and figure out what you need to know, and find a teacher. It isn't necessary to take a class in most cases - instead, you get to engage in the most wonderful of human relationships, apprenticeship. Find someone who knows how to do this, who needs to do the thing you want to learn and ask if you can help them. You can do the scut work, bring them a meal, do them a favor as well, but ask them to show you. Ask them to teach you for Christmas or Chanukah. Ask a friend if they know anyone who would teach you in exchange for some help. Most of what you want to learn is out there, waiting to be taught, I've found.

It can be hard to ask. It can be hard, once you've watched on, to get started, and you expect to make some stupid mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes and the frustration prevent us from going forward. Accept that it will take a good long while before this is as natural to you as it was to people who learned it from childhood - but that it will come. I'm not a patient woman, and the part where you sort of know how to do something but it takes six times as long as it takes a skillful person, you keep messing up and every step is painful is *NOT* my favorite part of anything. I get frustrated easily, and I just want to skip ahead to being a natural. But it doesn't work that way. You have to suck at things for a while first. Accepting that part of life can be challenging, but it is worth it.

The best way to learn anything is to call up your neighbor the bow hunter, your grandma the canner, your uncle Al who builds boats, and say "I want to learn what you know - can I come hang around and help you?" This is both flattering and useful, and most people will really like it.

Books are good too - they can tell you the basics, and you can really learn a lot from good books - my favorite books for hands on type skills are books written for kids - they tend to be very, very clear in their directions, while books written for adults aren't always. The internet is obviously a powerful tool too - video, for example, is wonderful. Taking classes can be great - but the absence of any of these things shouldn't keep us from starting, nor should our fear of asking to learn stop us from the best of all learning tools - a friend to ask questions of. Books and videos can take you some of the way, but someday you'll have to ask someone to help you sort out a problem.

And eventually, your job is just to dive in. Never baked bread before? Well, there are some bad, horrible things you can do with baking break (a college roommate of mine somehow managed to make a loaf of bread that had the density of a collapsed star and the smell of newly made vodka - I still don't know how he did that), but if worst comes to worst, your compost pile will happily eat them. When you screw up, laugh and try again. And most of the time, things will come out fine.

So get a piece of cloth, and start cutting out quilt squares. Get a hammer, some nails and a saw, and build something. Got a broken appliance? Take it apart - maybe you'll fix it. At least you'll start to know what the inside of a toaster or a radio looks like.

The thing is, you probably will make messes, and horrible mistakes. But you'll also learn a lot - including some things that no one can tell you. No one, for example, can tell you whether you really do need a spinning wheel or if you can make do with a drop spindle until you know how much spinning you'll do and how you like to do it. No one can tell you whether you'll want a chainsaw or if you can be content with a bucksaw until you've tried. And once you've established some basic competence, you know whether you are going to like this enough to need an expert's equipment or if the cheap version will do you fine.

And then it is on to the next thing - read, research, apply, and while you keep applying, once you have some fluency and mastery, on you go to the next project. Feeling incompetent regularly makes you humble and a better person ;-). And getting competent regularly makes you proud.

So instead of lamenting what your Dad knew that you don't, just try it. Follow Dad around for a while. Imitate. Make mistakes. Repeat. Pretty soon you'll be calling up Dad and asking to borrow his adze, his rotary cutter or his wine locks.


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I really want to learn how to scythe. NOBODY I know has this experience. Anyone know of someone in the UK who might be willing to take on an apprentice???

By Kerri in AK (not verified) on 27 Nov 2011 #permalink

Another excellent post! The wording of your title is important. There is SUCH pleasure in learning and acquiring skills for me. In fact, I sort of get disappointed when I run out of cool things to learn within a given subject. Some subjects are so vast that this basically never happens, such as cooking. But in other areas there's a definite plateau after the learning curve. Learning is fun, but learning skill especially so, because the pleasure of learning is followed by the deep satisfaction of mastery. Or at least something approaching mastery, say, competence.

Another scythe resource:

I know a wonderful woman who, with an eleventh grade education, taught herself to take apart and fix normally quite expensive electronics. Desktop computers, then laptops, then i Pods and i Phones and now i Pads too. She makes a small sideline buying broken devices on the internet, fixing them, and resaling them--in the meantime keeping toxic junk out of landfills and money out of the pockets of the most profitable electronics corporation in the world. She learned how to do this by applying an insatiable curiosity about what makes things work, dogged persistence, and the help of thousands of people on the internet who do the same thing and post tutorials that are available to anyone with some Google fu. It may not be very useful in the apocalypse, but in the transition it's keeping me, her mechanically unskilled son, supplied with a computer which I otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.

By cavanaugh (not verified) on 28 Nov 2011 #permalink

@ Kerri,

I got a scythe from a friend several years ago. I toyed at using it on weeds, until the last year or so. There are a couple of YouTube videos, mostly showing the "Austrian" scythe with the straight snath (the frame that holds the blade and handles). Mine is the traditional American curved sort, and it doesn't seem to work the way I expected. Plus all I have is a brush blade that seems fairly well suited to the heavy stuff I get into.

I suspect part of my issue is only attacking weeds and coarse grass -- I haven't tried a ripened grain field. It takes a certain amount of stiffness in the stem to work, at least for me.

I ended up gathering a bunch of Johnson grass -- a modern prairie type grass developed for cattle hay and pasture, before it went feral and is now considered a persistent weed and stacking bundles in the barn this year. Where I went looking was how to build a hay stack. I ended up using my hay ring for a base, laying some boards across for a grid platform, and a plastic tarp over the top. Strangely, my skittish Hackney pony decided that was an excellent place, under that blue flappy tarp, to munch hay. He is gaining weight on the same Johnson grass that I cut, mostly, from his pasture.

But I still want to know how to build a hay stack.

And the scythe? What made the thing really come together for me, was watching that scything video with the girl pulling out her stone and touching up the blade -- and ordering one from That stone and figuring out the angles made a world of difference to me. I use a fold of denim to wrap the stone and stick it in a pocket; the tradition is to use a "holster" or belt pouch, they sell both sturdy leather or cloth or metal. The fold of denim works because the stone grabs cloth -- but folded up the cloth next to the stone doesn't move, and shields my clothes from the abrasive stone.

Blessed be!

Ha! I used to cringe when people called me "competent". There is something about growing up with hippie parents on a farm in the middle of nowhere that teaches you skills your friends will make fun of you for. And the lack of a TV, horrors.

And now I shake my head at those in my generation attempting to re-learn these skills when they made fun of me all those years for "saving" my own food. Hrmph. ;)

It is the identification of and education on the sorts of skills you list in your post that I am looking to support through my site It is important that each of us figures out what core set of skills we can develop, and then to build a community of folks you can draw on for the other skills.