When I was young, the farmers in our small Vermont town still mowed hay with a team of horses, corn was harvested with a corn binder pulled by a team of mules, and small fields were often hayed with a pitchfork and wagon. Fields were planted with grain drills-- wooden horse-drawn seeders, each with a row of metal cones that made furrows in the soil for the seeds. The outhouse was in use until 1969, most cooking was done on a wood Kalamazoo stove, and wells were dug only after a dowser had located the best spot, using a forked stick made from apple wood, the divining rod moving sharply downward in the presence of underground water.
I am only one generation removed from a time when every family farm was its own factory, churning out butter and cream, provisioning a root cellar, spinning wool, rendering lard, putting up preserves, making dandelion wine, boiling maple sap into syrup, collecting honey, and the like. In those days, farms were full of wood and metal machines, the labor-saving devices of the nineteenth century, which carried over well into the twentieth. There were milk aerators and churns, yarn winders and corn graders, shredders and binders, root cutters and cheese presses, Felloe saws (used for cutting rounds of wood for wheels) and beetles (large mallets), hog hooks and marking gauges, barn scrapers, metal swing churns, cream separators, and the all-purpose Superior stainless milk pails. In the winter ice was sawed, put onto sleds, and then moved by teams of horses to large ice houses where engine-powered conveyors lifted the heavy blocks to the houses' upper levels. The blocks were then packed with sawdust and the ice houses closed; the heavy 21-inch blocks would last well into summer.
Now, every August, we visit local fairs that often have museums or barns full of old equipment. I dutifully take each of my children past the dog treadmills and the summer hearses (winter hearses had runners), the mailman's buggy with the built-in stove, the snow rollers (five-foot-high wooden rollers pulled by horses to pack down the snow), nickel-plated wood stoves, phaetons and surreys, spinning wheels and yarn winders, and displays showing old kitchens or children's bedrooms or the toolshed built onto the side of a barn. I eagerly enter the "What Is It?" contests or look hard at the old photos, hoping to see one of the old-timers I used to know or what the abandoned train station looked like in 1910, when it was prosperous, an artery pumping the lifeblood of commerce into a small New England town.
I often wonder if along with the fence tighteners and the ice tongs we have also lost a bit of self-reliance and a connection to how beginnings turn into endings. A well-made tool in knowledgeable hands is a wonderful thing; wood is cut and split, cream is churned into butter, a field is mowed in the afternoon sun, swallows swooping low, looking for bugs that have lost their hidey-holes. Farmers have necessarily been men and women of many trades: planters and cultivators, veterinarians and blacksmiths, carpenters and cooks, bakers and weathermen. They could judge a horse or use an Eddy plough or dig a well. They could also teach their sons and daughters, passing along experience to the next generation. In that world, I think, parents loomed large, for their skills were readily apparent. A man who can grow corn to feed pigs or a woman who can put up tomatoes and beans demonstrates his or her usefulness daily, the kids spectators to the accumulation and value of experience. Today, most parents have diminished roles, their expertise narrow and rarely seen, appreciated only by a small number of coworkers.
So in an age of specialists, perhaps we ought to take the time to be generalists. Let's learn to fix what is broken, master the shovel and the hoe, and become experts on planting and pruning. Each of us should know something about the soil, about compost and lime, about pH levels and organic matter, and about how to get rid of potato bugs. We should know the difference between the bark and leaves of elm and ash and recognize fiddlehead ferns and wild watercress when we see them.
And, in the kitchen, we should know the chuck from the round, a braise from a stew, and a torte from a tart. To sauté, roast, and bake should be second nature, and a whisk ought to be held with casual confidence. Good cooks are masters of many things, improvising and substituting to achieve modest ends. We should stand firm in front of the stove, feet planted in knowledge and experience, not as tourists surrounded by the unfamiliar. Like farmers, we should take the time to learn how to raise a healthy crop, cultivating our children like heirloom seedlings started in a warm, sunny corner of a country kitchen.