All the Things a Lifetime is Not Long Enough to Learn

Running fence for the cows the other day I was reminded somehow of the first time I ran fence. This would have been a dozen years ago now, and because I did not know what I was doing – how to space the posts, at what height to run the wire, and so on – I snuck over the hill to Melvin’s land. There I paced his lines, counting my steps and multiplying by the requisite three feet, stopping every so often to measure the height of the wire against my hip, noting how he’d looped the fencing where insulators had gone missing.

I often think about all the good and necessary knowledge that’s slowly disappearing, and not just the complicated stuff, the celebrated stuff, but also all the little things. How to run fence right, the way wood splits best when it’s below zero, what the West wind means for the sap run, to look at a balsam sawlog and know how many board feet it might yield. A person can spend a lifetime accumulating this knowledge, and still go the grave in ignorance of all the things a lifetime is not long enough to learn. Which is really for the best, I suppose, if only because it’s actually kind of nice to keep being surprised along the way.

Also: I’m a big fan of Rebecca Solnit, and I’m really enjoying this interview. I bet some of you might like it, too.

18 thoughts on “All the Things a Lifetime is Not Long Enough to Learn”

  1. Thank you for this post, Ben. This resonates with me on so many levels. The loss of accumulated knowledge hits me when I look at Chuck Moore’s ukuleles http://www.moorebettahukes.com. He is a master ukulele builder as you can see & I really hope he’s guiding someone to follow in his footsteps. It would be tragic to lose treasures like these uses.

    A little background on the next part. I’m collecting the obituaries for classmates who have died for my 50th high school reunion in September. I’m absolutely gobsmacked by how difficult it has been to find information on some folks. There is no recorded obit, very little info on ancestry.com, and often, not even a photo of a headstone or grave marker on findagrave.com (yes, there is such a web site). Even finding records for life’s big events (birth, marriage, divorce, death, military service, etc) are not available. I guess–but certainly don’t know–if it’s because these digital records are not made available to the public. And there may be privacy concerns too. Public records are still available–for a price. It was much easier to find info on relatives from the 1850’s than classmates born in 1948.

    And now we all die & then go & get ourselves cremated & have our ashes scattered. The record of our existence is lost or at least diminished. It’s almost as if we weren’t here, which is really very ironic in this digital age. Those great old obits that chronicle a person’s life from birth to death are gone. Obits are expensive now or they’re condensed (you pay by the word), & often, not even done.

    Before I took on this task (which has not been a burden but a gift), I was a cremate/scatter fan. I’m rethinking all of that now. Maybe I’ll have my ashes planted with a tree–yeah, that’s a big thing now. My Mom has decided to have her & my Dad’s ashes mixed & placed in a columbarium in the little town they grew up in. I like that–I’d love to have my ashes mixed with my sweet husband’s. And Mom’s obit is going to be nice & long, just like Dad’s.Sorry about this long, pretty off-topic ramble. I’m happy I learned all this now.

    1. Hey Dawn, right there with ya. I remember the profound impact visiting a graveyard in Wales had on me. The grave stones were 600 years old. I thought who were these people? They have disappeared except for their name and dates of birth and death. It showed me right then and there that our legacy has almost no meaning and that living strongly right, here right now is all there is.

  2. Where, o, where is Eliot Wigginton and his bunch when we need them? If they’ve morphed into different people would they please step forward and identify themselves? Seems like we’re needing another round of Foxfire about now.

    Love these short posts, Ben. Thank you!

  3. The most difficult part of accumulating a lifetime of knowledge is two-fold: 1) being at peace with the amount of knowledge you learn that you don’t know (and don’t care to know) and 2) being at peace with the loss of the grave.

  4. It’s always interesting seeing what knowledge does and does not survive an age. My children and I have really enjoyed this series :

    “Tales From The Green Valley
    In this BBC documentary series we get to follow a small group of historians and archeologists as they recreate farm life from the age of the Stuarts. They wear the clothes, eat the food and use the tools, skills and technology of the 1620’s for one year. ”

    1. I loved watching all these BBC series. Such a wealth of information, and stuff you’d not find, like why they used a fine tooth comb for their hair.

      My husband bemoans the loss of many building skills, the latest being how to do surveying without electronic gadgets.

  5. This topic is a little bit depressing, because there was no community or family to give me such skills, and I wasted most of my life ‘doing nothing’, numbing myself, while not acquiring many skills. Now, at middle age, I’m out of my frickin’ mind trying to ‘catch up’ (if that’s even possible), going wild trying to learn as much as I can, while trying to put the halt on the interference of well intention-ed family/society on my daughter, to keep the cycle of consumption and entertainment at the forefront, and ‘skills’ as a waste of time. Ummmm, can I just say: Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ?????

  6. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that everyone goes to the grave ignorant of far more than they have gained knowledge of. Being at peace with that means we can enjoy acquiring the knowledge we care to pursue, without stressing about how little it actually is in the grand scheme of things.

    Making peace with our own ignorance helps us to appreciate community, too. I once traded a pair of hand-knit socks for a quilt binding, to finish a quilt my mother made. I don’t quilt, and don’t really want to (most days), but I can appreciate the depth of knowledge it takes and recognize the value of the skill others have gained, based on my own experience gaining the knowledge that I have pursued.

    Seems to me that the biggest problem with people who know everything is thinking there is no value in the skill or knowledge of others. We miss so much when we don’t have anything to learn from the people around us!

    1. “Making peace with our own ignorance helps us to appreciate community.” Wonderful sentence.

      1. That one jumped out at me, too. Seems one of the best ways to build community is to let someone who has skills you admire know it and ask that they share them with you.

  7. I’ve been following this blog for a while, and never felt the need to comment yet. I identify strongly with this one. When we started our little farm I was surprised, and continue to be, at the wisdom that my neighbours have to offer. much of it would certainly have been lost had I not happened upon it.

  8. Thanks Ben, I’m a fan of Rebecca Solnit too. And Krista Tippit’s show, though it’s hard to catch regularly.

  9. The word that comes to mind for me which ties in the interview with Solnit and your thoughts on learning, Ben, is ENTHUSIASM. Call it whatever: curiosity, love, passion for life, inspiration, dedication, motivation. I think as long as we have Enthusiasm to live=learn one thing or millions of things, it will overshadow that fear that maybe we are not learning enough.
    While in Europe now I had been looking at some work of European proponents of alternative learning, like Fee Czisch and André Stern, and was enthusiastically inspired by the story and the thoughts of André Stern: https://youtu.be/bb6V6ztxK4s

      1. What a wonderful gift Andre shared with all of us! Thank YOU for sharing, BeeHappee!

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