You Can Hardly Remember a Time

Before the rain

Forty-eight hours after I walked the frozen stream a heavy rain began. It rained hard all that night and by morning the water had risen and reopened, pushing sheets of ice onto the banks and into the surrounding forest, pieces of a strange and unsolvable puzzle.

It is hard for me to grapple with the calendar; hard to believe it is almost March. All told, we’ve had maybe a month’s worth of true winter weather, and it feels as if spring is coming too fast, too soon. This does not make it unwelcome, but part of me is disappointed to be cheated out of the sense of a accomplishment a good, hard winter brings. You make it through a real northern winter – a winter like we had last year, or even the one before that, when we burned every last scrap of firewood in the shed and even dipped into the sugaring wood – and you can’t help but feel a little pleased with yourself. Not quite proud, just… satisfied, I guess. There’s not much satisfaction in a winter like this one.

The conversation of late has been about craft and competence and learning, in no particular order. Partly this is because my family just returned from spending a long week with a group of people who have devoted their lives to their relationship with the physical world, in the process elevating many of their skills to the realm of craft. “I wish I’d known it was possible to live like that when I was 20,” Penny said, or something like it, and I recalled something our friend Nate told me once (he being one of those my family spent time with in Minnesota, and one who long ago crossed the threshold from competence to craft in most of his handwork): “There came a point when I realized I didn’t know anything that really mattered.” This was after college, after embarking on something that looked vaguely career-like, after his 30th birthday had come and gone. This was two birch bark canoes, a couple pairs of snowshoes, many axe heads and beaver tail knife sheaths and nights under the stars and lord knows what else ago.

Concurrently, someone mentioned to me that she feels “competence shame” when she reads my work in this space, and I wanted to laugh (but didn’t, because – and this may surprise you – I’m actually a pretty sensitive guy), because of course I feel it, too. Every time I work with Michael, whose building skills are greater than mine will ever be, I feel it. Every time I have to call my friend Paul to help me puzzle through something or another, usually plumbing or electrical related, I feel it. When Luke comes and gets the sawmill running in 23 minutes flat, after I’d already fiddled with the loutish contraption for three infuriating and futile hours, I feel it. There’s more, of course. Actually, I could go on like this for quite some time.

Concurrently again, someone sent me a link to this movie, which I haven’t yet been able to watch in full, but enough to know is about the ways in which western-style education is insidiously eradicating the traditional land based culture in Ladakh. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that of course the exact same thing happened here; it’s just not so noticeable, because our own land-based culture didn’t last terribly long, perhaps in part because it was itself founded on the eradication of land-based cultures that had thrived here for millennia. Maybe we believed we were always destined for something better. Manifest destiny, and all that.

So. What of my reader’s competence shame? What of mine? What of Penny’s wish that she’d known of certain possibilities almost three decades ago? What of our friend Nate’s realization, the one that spurred him to shift the trajectory of his life in profound ways? These are all, on some level or another, an outgrowth of a cultural meme, one in which our children’s formative years are defined by an educational system that feeds economy first and foremost. Job creator, employee maker, profit taker. Competence as defined by numbers, not by a piece of wood taking shape in the hands. Not a shelter finding its form. Or even something as simple as a meal cooked over fire.

It’s intimidating to consider everything we don’t know, all the ways in which we lack competence, to say nothing of craftsmanship. It is for me, anyway. I know it is for Penny. Certainly for my reader. I bet it was for Nate, even, and might still be at times, despite all he does and does so well. Truly, it can be discouraging, particularly in the inevitable event of comparison with one who has elevated competence to craft. On the drive home from the Davy Knowles concert last month, Fin, an avid guitarist, said “I’m not sure whether to be inspired or depressed.” I thought of all the truly great writers I know of, the ones whose words flow as fluidly as Davy’s notes. I knew exactly, immediately what my son meant.

I guess this is what I want to say – to my reader, to my son, to my wife, to myself, even: The comparisons are inevitable. It’s human nature. There will always be someone whose skills are greater, whose experience is deeper, who has elevated incompetence to competence and then to craft and now seems destined for something even grander. Who plain and simple knows more about the things we wished we knew more about ourselves. If you don’t accept that, it’ll drive you mad. Or worse yet, make you want to give up.

If this is the way you feel, I really think there’s only one thing to do, although there are probably many versions of how to do it. For what it’s worth, here’s mine: Go outside and build yourself a little fire. Pull up a stump or just sit on the ground. Put a chunk of meat on stick or, if you don’t eat meat, one of those gawdawful “notdogs.” Sit there and cook whatever you’re cooking and think about a couple of things.

For one, maybe cooking a meal over a fire you built yourself is enough to make you feel better. I know it works for me.

For another, it’s sure as hell not your fault you were raised in a culture that is doing its level best to eradicate human competence in the physical, non-human world.

Finally, while there is an inherent reward in competence (and presumably craft, though I have little-to-no experience in this realm), there is even greater reward in the process of achieving competence, the slow evolution of skill that stubbornly, lurchingly blossoms under repetition. What I’m saying, I guess, is that competence is not a prerequisite for gratification.

And if you stick with it long enough, remembering to be buoyed along the way by the small satisfactions of process, one day, just maybe, you’ll realize you can hardly remember a time you didn’t know how.

71 thoughts on “You Can Hardly Remember a Time”

  1. Do you know Helena Norberg Hodge’s book Ancient Futures:Learning from Ladakh? Wonderful book. She is in the movie Schooling the World. I am reading about the Arctic this winter – same story. I think as the Changes progress, skills that matter will be more and more sought after. I just saw Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. Eye-opener on how other countries deal with compassionate prisons, real food in schools and play-time for kids, prison terms for wall-street style crooks, well-being and paid vacation-time for workers and new moms, etc. Not radical stuff- just not the usual in USA. I recommend seeing it.

  2. “competence is not a prerequisite for gratification” – I need to tattoo that somewhere I’ll be forced to see it everyday…thank you!

  3. Too much thinking is always problematic. Too much thinking leads to this kind of stuff where people feel they need to justify their buckskin hat as not another sign of white appropriation and cultural supremacy. Best to just stare at the fire and let the thoughts go.

    1. Yes to learning to build a fire and warming a bit of bacon. Yes to learning what a hammer is. Yes to knowing west from east. But yes, too, to T.S. Eliot and poetry and thinking and ideas and the life of the mind. Let’s everyone live a full life, which is to say, a life of the hand AND a life of the mind.

      1. what you say a life of the mind is that thinking sprining from quiet, the bud break, the beaver splash, the leaf lets go what could be like death from the mind is that thinking sprining from worry, grasping for never enough, comparison except with the sun, and holding on to the dear.. so it could be distinguished… or go to cambridge and sit in the meeing house and listen to how quiet the life of the mind is.. but when it speaks.. such love… so choose to follow your thoughts or let them burn in the fire choose to stand and speak or keep your seat and be still.. but to say just life of the mind is dangerous sure.. best to balance with the life of the hand so the thoughts don’t go too far..and the hammer hits the thumb… ah, the good old days. life of the hand life of the mind life of the mind…

  4. This is not just about measuring ourselves against others. That’s human nature. This is about wondering whether the skills we have are the right ones. Competence has come to mean mastering a specialized discipline. Meanwhile the skills we’ve lost (probably for good) are the ones everybody used to have. What does that mean? I don’t know, but it makes me apprehensive.

    1. “This is about wondering whether the skills we have are the right ones.”

      That’s a very interesting point… and right on the mark.


    2. Dan, true, I agree with your point, however, it also makes me think that skills say my grandparents who lived simple self-sustenance lives had were not all that fancy (I bet all readers of this blog could imitate that lifestyle). There was very little to compare against, just the nextdoor neighbors. Without TV or computer, there was little worry that someone else some place makes a better basket or plays better music. The availability of comparisons these days perhaps makes it easier to learn new things, but also gives us this endless need to do more and more and better and better. The need itself often just paralyzes people with fear.

      1. Not too long ago I read somewhere (and I really wish I could remember where) about how it used to be commonplace for people to sing – all the time, wherever they were, alone, together, you name it. Singing was just something everyone did and was a common entertainment when people got together. Once radio came along, people were exposed to the best singers in the world and suddenly people were either “singers” or they weren’t. The comparisons began and it changed people’s behavior. Somehow, people felt they shouldn’t be singing (where anyone could hear them, anyway) unless they could do it well. I agree comparison seems to be rooted in our nature but it is what we do afterward that is the interesting part to me. When we look at the world through the lens of competition, comparisons will either make us feel badly about ourselves or puff us up with pride. If we are on a journey of experience, that’s where I think you can find the inspiration that changes the course of your life for the better. When my children were born and I was reading so much “new parent” stuff, I found it interesting (and kind of sad) that so many parenting “experts” felt the need to strongly encourage parents to sing to their babies and young children. I grew up in a musical household and know enough to carry a tune (within my very limited range) but I cannot imagine not singing to my children (or my animals or the sink full of dishes, etc.) Based on these kind of articles, comparison has created a whole generation of parents who are reluctant to sing to their children. Something that I imagine is so human, we’ve been doing it since before we had words as we know them is now a cause for embarrassment and discomfort. Comparison certainly can be the “thief of joy.” I suppose the real lesson is how to turn this human tendency toward the inspirational path instead.

      2. Thank you, Dawn, yes now that you mentioned I remember seeing those thoughts too. As it has been discussed on Ben’s blog many times, and I just watched Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” in which he states the same: “Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another – our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves – anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better..”

        And yet some of this delegation is quite subtle. We are engulfed in it like fish in water so much, that we do not even notice. Some of that delegation in a way, I think, also takes a form of competition / comparing our abilities against others – the way we give up our authentic true power to someone else, be it an expert of parenting, or an expert of some ideology, or our mom who says: you are bad at singing, or a very skilled craftsman in the woods whose skill we would love to have. I have been talking to my kids about that a lot: when you worry about what someone else is doing, you completely give up your own beautiful power to create.

        As far as competition being a natural human condition… It may be that the so called “Selfing”, building of the “self” through seeking approval from outside is more of a nature. Many elements of competition then are added on to that through societal nurture. I know when we attended Waldorf school, although it was still an institutional environment, the level of competition among the students was a great deal lower than your typical public school.

      3. Very true, Bee. But when the fruit of your skills isn’t right in front of you–when it has more to do with how your company or your non-profit or your whatever is doing in Arkansas or in China–it’s easier to wonder “What’s the point of this?” Then it’s your score against the next person’s. Whereas if you’re growing your own food or carving a spoon to eat it with, it’s pretty obvious what the point is. No need to check it out on TV. So yeah, you’re not going to drive away the impulse to compare yourself, but at least there are some tangible reassurances handy. (One reason I guess it helps not to have a TV.)

      4. One of the things I love most about not having TV is not even being aware of the things some people I know compare themselves to. Thanks for your comments.

  5. I always try to imagine what a one-year-old would do when he sees a five year old running. One-year-old probably does not sit there and think: “man, I wished I knew it was possible to run like this when I was six months old. I gotta outrun this guy. If I cannot run like this, I will be depressed”. I am not sure what one-year-old thinks if anything at all, but I bet it is more in lines with: “wow, this looks like fun, let me try and have some fun.”

    God Bless all the people who are so good at whatever unique roads they take, what a rich learning world this becomes. Let’s celebrate each others skill, competence, light, honor, trying, instead of wasting time on shame and regret.

  6. ….not sure of its source but I like it, – “One of the main differences between a master and the beginner is that the master’s made thousands of mistakes.” I think a heart-connection for what you are doing is kind of self propelling toward a ‘more-than-competence’

  7. I’m just so grateful that there are others who value these skills enough to want to achieve competence. As Dan above said, these are the skills everyone used to have. Part of providing for our basic needs as human beings. Today most believe computer skills to be a basic skill and not building a fire or chopping wood. Hell, most people can’t prepare a basic meal. Even though I will most likely retain my “master of none” status in most areas, I will always try to add to and enhance my knowledge of providing for my basic needs from the earth. It’s all part of the journey. Glad to know there are others concerned about losing this connection as earth beings, not only human beings.

    1. That’s as realistic as anything. I like your distinction between earth beings and human beings. We’re pulled both ways (Ben, you, me, everybody). We know there’s something right about retaining those earth skills, but humanity is still “our” species, no matter where it’s headed. Going it alone is not an option if we want to remain members. Our connection to the earth, our connection to each other–both far too deep to alter.

    2. Kim, you are right. Most people lack basic lifeskills and mos tend to value our children’s computer skills over important skills like preparing a decent meal or gardening or chopping wood.
      However, in our lifetime, there will be a point where our educational qualification become less important (old age) but we still will have to rely on our most fundamental survival skills which transcend all social/class boundaries.

  8. I stand in awe of people with certain competences and hope that over time there have been those who appreciated my competences. So rather than feeling shame or envy, I say we celebrate each person for their unique competence.

  9. I think I’ll put this aside to read the next time my head plays the old familiar tune called If Only I Had Done This Years Ago. It really gets in the way of accomplishing anything, which I begin to suspect is the point. My mammal brain loves to try and make me give up before I’ve even begun. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  10. I’ve been keeping a journal of inspiring (there’s that word again!) quotes related to learning, living, and relationships with others. I’m hoping that a framework for our family-centered life-long learning adventure will emerge from these words. So far, lots of John Muir, Rachel Carson, Emma Wheeler Wilcox, CS Lewis, Wendell Berry, and Ben Hewitt. I will be adding this post to my journal as it sums up so much of what I want for our family. Thank you for continuing to inspire!
    PS – And I like to think you sing to your cows at least every once in a while. 🙂

  11. There is much made of the increase in knowledge these days, and yet I think about all the knowledge we are losing. A good friend says, we will have fossil fuels just long enough that we will forget how to live without them. Sames goes for the things you mentioned; competence and craft. One small example of something more mundane. I was helping set up for one of the local free will dinners. A woman was there with some middle school girls–a peewee hockey team. I asked them to set the table–fork and napkin left, and spoon and knife right–the woman interrupted me to say, “We don’t set the table at home.”. I was a bit surprised and didn’t say so. This may not be on the same level as cooking a meal over a fire, and yet are important as building blocks for other activities.

  12. “Finally, while there is an inherent reward in competence (and presumably craft, though I have little-to-no experience in this realm)”

    I beg to differ. There are few writers today that have mastered “the craft of writing” as you have.

  13. Interesting thoughts on singing ncfarmchick! Amazing how repressed things can get and we don’t even see it. There’s a guy in our small city who I call, “the bicycle singer”, rides his bike all over town singing at the top of his lungs. Sometimes he’ll dance while waiting for lights to change and cars will honk, which prompts him to sing and dance louder. I love this guy! He shows us that repression very well.

    I think it’s human/natural to compare yourself too, but if you subscribe to the belief in hierarchy, which is ingrained in society, in nearly everything, seems like it would create more of a struggle. The more I distance myself from that idiotic belief the more I could give a rat’s ass if I ‘measure up’.

  14. Hey Ben!

    What class did you all go to in Minnesota? Would love to know so maybe we can plan to go with Ken’s boys. Oh, btw, are you two planning any workshops this summer? Would love to plan Ken and the boys’ trip around one, if we can work it in.

    I will be out that way starting next week for about a month or so – any chance to see the new digs? Melvin told me it was getting a little too busy for you guys in Cabot. You are reminding me more and more of ‘Jeremiah Johnson’. I agree with Penny – sure wish I had learned a whole lot more when I was still young and viable enough to make the most of it all!

    Hope to see you this trip – but understand if not. Life is what it is – only so much time in a day.

    Take care – Wendy

    On Mon, Feb 29, 2016 at 1:11 PM, Ben Hewitt wrote:

    > Ben Hewitt posted: ” Forty-eight hours after I walked the frozen stream a > heavy rain began. It rained hard all that night and by morning the water > had risen and reopened, pushing sheets of ice onto the banks and into the > surrounding forest, pieces of a strange and unsolvabl” >

  15. Timely words, Ben, thank you for your reflections and especially the optimistic final graf. Until we all reach that “one day,” I’m trying to use Neil Gaiman’s advice: “pretend you’re good at it.” 😉

    1. I was just thinking the other day that in my 20’s i wish i had known you could live in a tent in winter to save some money to buy some land and work that land and not have to be so much a part of this educational and capitalist system. But life had turned into something different for me and so i want to let my kids know that there is this other way of living life. I knew it a bit, so i did it a bit and thought that was ok, but if i had my time over i’d have lived that way more fully and sooner. And so it is that we have to find some way of being content with those choices and living our life as it actually is.

      1. I so agree, Joy. I wasn’t brave enough to turn my back on the common path I saw growing up and, while I can’t complain too much, I do wish circumstances had either forced me to rely on myself a bit more at a younger age or that I would have had the courage to take the less-well-trod path about 15 years earlier than I did. Thank goodness it really never is too late, though, especially if our children can gain something from our experiences.

  16. When i read a post like this i get writing competence shame. The kind that makes me wonder if i’ll ever be able to write like you. Yes, im enjoying the process but i know how Fin feels. You write “word sex”.

  17. This is a wonderful article! I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I discover all of the things that I put off doing while working away for corporations. I also read an interesting article on BBC futures called “The Man who studies the spread of ignorance” which ties to some of the concepts here. People are losing their ability to make up their own minds. Your article will make some good dinner debate, thank you!

  18. What a timely read for me. Captures so many of my feelings at the moment.
    A reminder to live in the present, take a step back to appreciate the true reality.

    Thanks for your words!

  19. I think you’re really getting into the things that frustrate me about the current generation. And I think that we all, to some degree, miss that sense of accomplishment. Thanks for your openness and sensitivity to the topic.

  20. I, too, like to feel competence that I can survive at least a while without modern conveniences. Having a well means, when there is a power outage, we must make do without running water or heatl; yet we always manage to keep warm, cook and brush our teeth. Even better is camping. I love living outdoors, even though I now camp in a trailer, I can and have camp without modern conveniences. Making my own fire, bringing water, cooking, sleeping etc. Thank you. NatureGirl

  21. This article has just made me want to take my little dog on a really long walk today and I may not even take me phone with me!!
    My (almost) husband is very much into bushcraft and survival and he is always reminding me to live in the moment and to make sure I know how to look afar myself if the conveniences of our current lives were to disappear. I think the two of you would have a lot to talk about! Take a look at my blog as it grows and you might agree – his interests but through my eyes…

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