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Jack of all trades, mistress of none

Well, if the typing here gets really poor, my advance apologies. At our local "Preservation of the Union 1865" celebration, friends of ours gave us a kitten they had need of a home for. The kitten finds my typing endlessly entertaining and is trying to eat my hands, which is a real speed reducer. We're still trying to find him a name - something Unionist and Civil War related seems appropriate. If only General Lafayette McLaws had been a northerner - "McLaws" really is a good cat name. Suggestions for relevant unionist (not necessarily military) figures are more than welcome.

The other night I was mulling over my need to acquire new skills. I want goats, and have to learn to milk them and trim hooves. The house needs some minor repairs that I could probably do myself with a little study. And I am trying, painfully, to become a good enough seamstress to actually make myself something I would be seen in public in. And I was struck by the sheer number of things I have to learn, and have learned to do, often in a quite half-assed way over the last few years.

This isn't wholly new territory to me. English Literature is one of those fields that steals a great deal from other sources. I once made a list - to study Early Modern Poetry I also studied Greek, Latin and French, took graduate courses in History, Philosophy, Economics, Art History, and Demographics, and picked up a fair amount of Sociology, Anthropology and Politics. And I came out of the process with a limited but functional ability to talk in each of those fields. Someone who really knew what they were doing would laugh at me, of course, but that was fine - what I had managed to achieve was the ability to synthesize.

And, of course, when I started writing about peak oil and environmental issues that meant more physics, geology, history, mathematics, biology, meterology and statistics. Again, no one would ever mistake me for an expert in any of the above fields, but I've gotten so that I mostly understand what real experts are talking about, and I can, again, synthesize it - I can bring together politics and physics, for example. And I don't mind being laughed at by the people who really know what they are talking about.

The funny thing is that almost everyone in the peak oil and climate change movements are operating outside their fields. Richard Heinberg, for example, studied politics and music, not depletion rates at school. Julian Darley used to write screenplays. Vandana Shiva studied physics before she became an environmental activist. James Kunstler is a journalist. Even people like Ken Deffeyes, who are experts in a particular area (petroleum geology) find themselves getting out of their fields and offering investment and political advice. It is the disease of new fields and new realities - everyone is stretching themselves out of their natural range. And in many cases, I think that's good. For all that deep expertise is valuable, there's also value in looking at things from an outside perspective.

Agriculture is the ultimately "jack of all trades" job - not only do you have to hold all the basic farm knowledge in your head, but there's mechanics (gotta fix the equipment when it breaks down), metal working (don't have that one yet), tree felling (I only do little ones, and I don't touch chainsaws), biology and chemistry (soil science, animal husbandry), botany (plants), dealing with what I'm producing (herbalism, fiber production, cooking, dyeing), and...you get the picture. Add to that the skill sets that go with frugality and dinner, and it is quite a range of things that I haven't even attempted to the ones I have. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming.

The good thing, however, lest one get overwhelmed, is this. In order to develop functional skills at something, you don't actually have to devote that much time or energy to it. You simply have to develop a very basic, functional knowledge. And once you've done that, you can improve upon your skills, or teach someone else so that they can do so. You don't have to be very good at these things.

For example, let's take knitting as a model. What's "good enough?" A good enough knitter knows a few basic stitches and techniques, and the rough outlines of garment constructure. He knows what tools he needs, and which one he doesn't, and he does it well enough to teach someone else how to knit. But the great thing for the person who doesn't like knitting that much, or hasn't very much time to do it, is that all he really has to do is be able to make a basic sweater, gloves or socks. It doesn't have to be a really pretty sweater, just keep someone warm without falling apart. Getting from 0 knitting knowledge to a basic sweater is a matter of months of spare-time work, weeks if you can take a class or get lessons from someone really knowledgeable. It doesn't take years. A couple of good books, and he's set for pretty much any purpose.

And let us say that our knitter likes knitting fine, but would rather cook. The good thing, is that he now has enough skill to teach the basics to his children or his spouse or his friends in his community. And with a good book, once the basics become muscle memory, his son can become an expert knitter, based on Daddy's teaching and self-teaching.

The same is true for almost any skill. I think people are often intimidated when they approach creating an even partly self-sufficient life by the sheer number of things they have to learn to do. Now it is true that if you live in comparative isolation, you have to do all those things to your own satisfaction - not necessarily well, but at least well enough to content you and not make your life more difficult. But if you are imagining a future of pulling together with other people, and those other people don't know it yet ;-), it is good to remember that the knowledge you need is actually pretty basic. You don't have to be a great talent at anything - just jack of all trades (or all the ones of use to you), and master of none.

Sharon

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