Sunday, November 29, 2009

primitive does not mean crappy

"primitive does not mean crappy." frank sherwood drops a lot of gold nuggets while instructing classes but i think thats my favorite so far.

since starting a primitive skills apprenticeship the word "primitive" has taken on new qualities. im not sure i even know what it means anymore. what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word primitive? if you would have asked me this question a year ago i would have come up with something similar to what you find in part of the miriam webster definition: "crude, rudimentary"

the more i learn about primitive skills the harder it is for me to see any of it as being crude or rudimentary. certainly not in the way of something that is inferior.

i thought a lot about how i could describe how elegant and highly refined in design primitive tech can be, how perfectly it melds form and function, how very much it is NOT crappy

but that is all very obvious to anyone who choses to look closely with an open mind. the examples are many and varied and i think there is something more subtle behind the statement "primitive does not mean crappy"

there are three necessities that all life needs in order to continue: shelter(as in any form of protection from the elements be it a coat of fur or a condo), food and reproduction. all technological achievements since the dawn of man have stemmed from the desire to make the acquisition of those three things easier and more efficient. there have been some pretty amazing achievements in that regard and we tend to think of ourselves as pretty advanced as a result of all the flashy whiz bang we find ourselves surrounded by. but there is a word in all of that which bothers me to no end: "we"

first of all how many of us are actually benefiting from these amazing achievements? there are a great many people on this planet living in conditions that push the lowest examples of the definition of inferior, who would answer that question by saying: not too many. there is another, comparably large group of people who are not living in squalor but for whatever reason have not embraced or been over-run by modern technological advances and are living much closer to their primitive roots than they are to any sort of technological utopia. that leaves a very small number of people who are living in the whiz bang techno dream.

now heres the kicker.

most of them, most of "we", myself included, have no idea how any of it works. take the simplest piece of technology in your own house and ask yourself if you know how it works. me, i thought of my toilet. i have a very vague idea of how it works and i know how to make the tank stop releasing water into the bowl. anything beyond that, i have to call a plumber. there may be a few other examples of other things i could fix around the house but they are all equally...wait for it...rudimentary. the minute we hit the kitchen and start talking about things like microwaves and blenders, forget about it. even people that are good at fixing microwaves and blenders have people they call to fix things. even a rocket scientist probably has to call a plumber and the whole field of people who work in some "fix it" capacity is a tiny fraction of us here in the modern whiz bang techno world. an even smaller group of people are those who actually create something truly innovative. some idea or some trick of engineering which pushes the whole whiz bang ride a little further forward. if there where only 100 people alive in the world how many of them would be this type of person? one? if we are lucky. more likely we have to go through a few generations to get a really good one.

luckily those bright and shiny few have figured out a way to make the fruits of their labor accessible to the rest of us. a few others, sharing another type of genius whos merits are debatable, figure out how to turn it into a buck. you see where i am going with this? the rest of us are operating with the most crude, the most rudimentary knowledge of how anything works.

we are primitive.

we have no real understanding of the technologies that support and drive our societies. we really are like monkeys in a rocket. weve been strapped in, taught a few simple commands for button pushing and then launched into space. the complexities and inner workings of the machine that carries us are so far beyond our scope of understanding they are not even remote considerations. we do nothing more than gaze at the flashing lights in front of us, watery eyed and dazed. every so often muscle memory causes us to push a button when we hear the voice of our trainers prodding us on.

but then when it comes to talking about how great all of this whiz bang is suddenly "we" are all due credit. the human race is instantly united in this glorious awards ceremony and we are all winners. then, suddenly our bic lighter stops working and the whole f-ing world comes unglued because we cant light our cigarette.

wait, thats just me.

there is a very good book by kurt vonnegut called player piano where all technology is destroyed because everyone gets this idea that technology and capitalism is evil and has corrupted humanity. without giving too much away, one of the final scenes is a group of people standing around an automatic juice dispenser, kicking and punching it, trying to make the juice come out.

"we" are not due any credit and i think we would be well off to remember that the word "we" is very often riddled with false pride. being proud of something infers some personal achievement. but what have i achieved that has elevated the human race to such admirable heights? stripped of modern convenience most of us would, very simply, die.

there is another part to the definition of primitive: "not derived. assumed as a basis". to me this speaks to that which is most fundamental. all of this "we" aside, what am I when i am stripped of everything but my own two hands?

recently during earthwalks survival techniques weekend course i learned one of the most primitive of primitive skills, making friction fire using the bow drill method. i wont go into the mechanics of it, there are a truck load of you tube videos dedicated to the subject but i will say this: the thrill you will experience from making fire with no modern technology never gets old. no drug will get you that high, that consistently. everytime you do it you tap in directly to what exactly is so great about being human and you feel immense pride.

but for now im just happy i can light my cigarette even if my lighter stops working.

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