Friday, August 19, 2011

Lost Knowledge

I was homeschooled for a significant part of my education.  Not because my parents were religious and wanted to protect me from evolution, but because about two months into a semester, I would go to school, get "sick," and demand to come home.  Going to school, being in school, made me physically ill.

I remember in second grade I burst into tears when the teacher put yet -another- morning correct-the-errors-with-this-sentence on the blackboard.  She allowed me to do something else instead - I think I read the book I brought to school.  (I don't know when I learned to read.  My parents don't either.  At six I was reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos because the children's section bored me, and I can just barely remember him talking about possible lifeforms on Jupiter harvesting helium for lift.)

Because it was boring to the point of torture.  My mind was still raw then; small pains seemed great.  And the boredom and hopelessness of being forced to do mindless task after mindless task was physically painful.

But that's not the point of this post, although I think it would make an excellent post of its own.  The point of this post is what homeschooled entailed for me.

I read the Illiad, which sucked, and that sort of garbage.  I was assigned writing assignments, which I frequently ignored.

Most of my lessons from a young age came from college textbooks.  Chemistry was no exception, but my lessons were also hands-on.

A child was recently taken away from his parents because the father was instructing him in the making of bombs.  I learned to make gunpowder from scratch, smoke bombs, and thermite in my practical chemistry lessons; knowledge which is largely gone from the general population.  I also had rural metallurgy taught to me; I know how to use a river bend and charcoal to melt and form metals.  (In practice, we used a shop vacuum set on reverse combined with a sand and brick furnace, which works slightly better than the river bend and was less likely to get you in trouble during the frequent burn bans in our county.)

There was a lot of knowledge my father couldn't impart, either because its use is now illegal - techniques for river trolling and animal snares and traps for catching small and large game.  Old fishing and hunting tricks illegal now for no more reason than that they are -too- effective - tricks which were sometimes necessary to survival a hundred years ago, which my father's great uncles taught him.  His tracking skills were limited to finding commonly traveled paths of animals, which is substantially easier than what we typically think of as tracking.  (If your survivalist training includes following -particular- animals, leave.  That's not survival training, that's sports hunting and extreme camping training.)

Some of these tricks, he's the last in our region to know; in his youth, game wardens knew who to ask about that snare which was large enough to catch -them-, because he was the only one still making them.  When he dies, some of that specific knowledge may be lost entirely, although there are likely others in other parts of the  country which have recorded similar tricks.  (I say likely.  I'm not entirely certain; I've never been a fan of survivalist training stuff, in large part because everything I've ever seen has been complete and total garbage.  I'm assuming here there is survivalist literature out there written by people who actually know their stuff.)

We've tried convincing him to record this knowledge, but I don't know that that would work anyways; there is no arena in the modern world in which to use it, and there is a substantial difference between theory and practice.

What are the odds that we'll need such knowledge again, in this part of the world?  Remote.  But it still strikes me as sad that when I am an old man, nobody will know how to do it at all - and a generation or two from when I die, people will have forgotten that such things even existed.

I know many of the basics.  I've forgotten a lot, too - I can no longer recognize poison ivy.  (Partially because I've discovered I'm not particularly sensitive to it, and can't be arsed to care.  Fire ant bites itch a hell of a lot worse and a hell of a lot longer.)  And I have hints of a lot of the advanced survival techniques - I theoretically know how to build traps and snares to capture animals as large as wolves alive, provided I have access to prefashioned lumber, screws, and prefashioned ropes.  But I can't practice even that kind of knowledge, and I've forgotten many if not most of the specific details.  I can create a trot line - fishing for people who don't have time to muck about with a pole, illegal in many if not most places now - and I could go buy a seine and do basic trolling.  But these are the beginner's tricks of freshwater fishing, better than sport fishing for actually feeding you, but only the beginning.

A lot of his knowledge was too specific to be passed on.  It's not important anymore to know how to effectively demolish a beaver dam.  (His uncles taught him to use dynamite, incidentally, but it's more complicated than it sounds, because you want to keep the debris from clogging the stream back up a few hundreds yards down.)  A lot doesn't matter in our part of the country any more - fire ants changed a lot of things, such as the viability of sleeping on the ground.

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