high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A bountiful harvest of drivel

This past weekend brought with it one of those splendid annual opportunities to get outdoors, see some fall foliage, and engage in some "back to basics" endeavors, courtesy of a traditional autumn harvest festival.  At these festivals there is a standard array of activities regardless of where you go.  Some of the classics are basket-making, metal-working, and whittling in one form or another.  Basically, the festivals provide an opportunity for certain individuals in society to show that they, unlike you, could still survive on the frontier if need be, and you are reminded that you ought to respect these people and learn from them, as some day you may find yourself in a situation where "the old skills" are relevant once again.  All of this is quickly forgotten as you move on to the booth selling country-style pies, and the sound of gleeful mastication punctuates the certainty of your doom should you ever get stuck in the wilderness for more than three hours.

Is that real anger on the face of the pioneer? If so, it's probably
because he knows there is a pretender in his midst.
The activity I was most looking forward to at the harvest festival was apple butter stirring, not because I'd ever done it before or developed some great fondness for it, but because it had been awhile since I'd gone to one of these festivals, and the activity that stuck out in my mind and that I associated with festivals of the past was people standing around a bubbling cauldron, stirring apple butter with a giant wooden paddle.  The festival we attended did not disappoint, and we not only found the apple butter stirring station and sampled its product, but also participated in the stirring.  While the few minutes of stirring that we performed was enjoyable enough, and accompanied by much fanfare and pomp, I did not envy the poor sap (who was inexplicably not at the maple syrup station - ha!) whose job it was to watch over the apple butter cauldron for the better part of the day.  Because here's the thing about the olde skills like apple butter stirring: While they may require a knowledge that is now rare, and may bring a high amount of personal satisfaction when you've completed your task at the end of the day, they are not what you would call "mind-blowingly exciting."  In the case of apple butter stirring, imagine standing at your stove for 11 hours, stirring a pot, and occasionally throwing in some spices.  Now imagine that the pot is much bigger, and it's over a fire rather than sitting on the stove.  Now imagine that you're wearing a big floppy pioneer hat, and yea...you've pretty much got it.  This is probably why the festivals that exhibit apple butter stirring only occur once per year.

Knowledge in a jar.  Better recognize.
While taking my turn at the paddle, I was asking the pioneery guy about how he makes the apple butter, the ingredients he uses, and proper stirring technique.  He listed the basic ingredients for me, and I can name them for you (cinnamon, sugar, cloves - a pretty short list), but the truth is that my questions were more for the sake of small talk than they were for the purpose of truly learning something.  Well, I take that back, because I did want to learn something.  However, I can't say that I was truly in a "learning mindset," as I was more focused on this glorified image of myself stirring apple butter than I was on listening to the list of ingredients or the other information being passed on.  And here's why: the internet.  When asking questions and listening to this guy, I knew that it wasn't vital for me to be totally attentive to gain the information, because I could always just go home and look it up on the internet.  In fact, I probably tuned out to some extent because I knew it was likely that I'd forget something and just need to consult the internet later on anyway.  It struck me that in the past, when the internet did not exist, festivals like this were probably very important sources of information for people.  You didn't go to the festival just to eat some smoked sausage; you went to learn some tips and tricks that would aid you in your daily existence.  You would listen to the apple butter guy, because you may be making apple butter yourself later on, and you wouldn't be able to get the instructions from a convenient log-cabin laptop.  Festivals weren't just about having fun; they were about sharing knowledge so that communities could progress.

Now, I haven't done extensive research on the history of harvest festivals, so I'm just making some guesses here.  It's entirely possible that back in the day harvest festivals were just about wolfing down some flap jacks and peanut brittle, and this notion of "knowledge sharing" is some idealistic but entirely false portrayal I've created.  But truly, the internet has created a culture of easy answers.  Arguments over points of trivia are short-lived, because someone in the argument is bound to have a mobile device at hand with 24-hour connectivity, and the answer can be obtained in mere seconds from multiple sources.  Jeb and Clem aren't going to be standing around the cauldron debating whether it was 6 or 16 cinnamon cloves that went in the pot last year, because Clem is going to pull his Blackberry out of the front pocket of his overalls and put the answer right in front of Jeb's eyes.  The apple butter will taste right, but there's no possibility of a funny story for later years about the time that the apple butter was way over-spiced.

The original, and still the best.
So what to do?  Do you neglect the powers of the internet to supply answers and act like you really have to figure it out by trial and error even though there is an alternative to guessing?  Or do you accept the internet as part of life now and embrace the measure of fail-proofing it provides?  Do you acknowledge the value of the internet in allowing us to live in a different way that lets us see and do more than we ever could before?  Or do you just wing it in life, not consulting the information at your fingertips, and potentially dying in the process but feeling like you "really lived?"  I don't know.  But I bet the internet has a recommendation for how to handle this dilemma.

Actually, it is possible to try out the internet-free life, because there are places in the world that are not online to the same extent that we are in the United States.  In fact, our country is vast enough that there may even be some such places right here at home.  But to enter into such a place, and particularly a community of people, you need to have some skill to share by which you can prove your value.  If I were to undertake such a venture, it would necessitate learning something from scratch, because currently all I've got to offer is an able body capable of basic manual labor, and that's easily replaced.  Of course, I could simply go online at any point and learn a skill like apple butter making, but it seems more in keeping with the whole idea if I learn from the real deal.  That means waiting a year, until harvest festival time next year, when there will be another opportunity to go into the faux wilderness and learn a skill from a guy in a floppy hat.  In the meantime, please pass the peanut brittle.

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