*No Substitute for Experience*
By: Tailgunner
01 May 2004

We are experiencing a global knowledge/experience drain every time one of our elders passes away. In our country’s early years every family practiced self-sufficiency. We had to, there was no corner store to run to if you were out of milk. Delis were not invented yet and you could not just pick-up dinner on the way home. People had to grow gardens, raise animals for food and clothing, as well as, build and repair their own homes. There was hunting and fishing as well, but they were not done so much for fun as for need. Power outages would not have hampered their activities nor would it have been a real difficulty. After all most lighting was still by kerosene lamps or candles, and Saturday Night was used to prepare for the Sabath not wasted watching idiotic characters on a TV screen.

Sometime around the turn of the century (1900) we were involved in the industrial revolution and as people moved more toward cities they began to be more specialized in their trades or occupation and consequently less and less self-reliant. Many still retained some traditional skills like gardening. During the Great Depression many people got by with small gardens to supplement their meager incomes while some others literally survived because of them. Anyone who had a little dirt to grow things did so. Even if they could only grow some vegetables in window boxes. Those who had land to farm were able to feed their families. My father remembers the Depression as a time when there was little extra, he still gardens to this day (not because he has to, but because he remembers) and he is in his 80s. He has encouraged me to garden wherever I was assigned over the years, including asking me how my garden was growing and he would offer many suggestions from time to time to help in my learning and experimentation. One suggestion that he had for me as a young boy was to learn as much as I could about everything and work to gain every skill I could. Because, he said, one day you will only have your skills to keep you and your family alive.

Skills that were considered basic a hundred or even as little as fifty years ago are not taught or practiced much anymore. Things like basic mechanics, construction, basic concrete, fencing, simple plumbing and electrical wiring are important to at least know a little about. But also many skills in animal husbandry and gardening may become vitally important. Some of the self-help books are handy to teach the principles or explain a procedure. But there is no substitute for experience or actually doing it. I remember the first time I read a book about making jelly and then tried to make a batch of raspberry jelly. I had made jelly as a youth (not from a book) so I relied on my memory and the instructions that I followed to the letter...or so I thought. I poured the result into a bowl and let it set in the refrigerator over night. When I tried to get some out to taste it the next morning, I could not even cut it out with a table knife. It resulted in a solid mass that we had to throw away. After sharing notes with my Dad and some local people I knew, my next batch turned out perfect and I was able to make beautiful and tasty jellies after that. Some people learn easily from books, some learn well from others, but, there is no substitute for doing. When in the Army they taught us to first tell our students about a procedure, then help them do it, then recap what you have taught them, then expect and watch them teach someone else. There is no substitute for experience and practice and then having to teach someone else. It works!

Where I grew up we had a small farm of 10 acres. On it we had a large garden of about an acre, a large chicken pen with about a dozen layers and a bunch of pullets that we would raise from fertilized eggs we bought at a local chicken/egg farm yearly for meat. A pasture for a couple cows and a couple calves. We would raise the calves until they hit 900 to 1000lbs and then butcher them. I learned much and enjoyed my youth. But, later when I wanted to remember some arcane skill from back then, you would think I could.....NOT!! Some things may not change in our memory, like how to butcher chickens and cattle. But other subjects like pulling a calf, or what to do when your laying hens start losing all their feathers, or your eggs have no shell you could forget a step or important ingredient or procedure. I realize now that I have forgotten much over the years because I have not been in practice..

Some things are or at least seem simple like using fresh animal manure as fertilizer (byproduct benefit of raising animals), but it can be too hot (chicken droppings especially) or have too much nitrogen for some plants. However, mixing it with lawn clippings, old leaves, garden refuse and kitchen scraps and a little aging can produce a wonderfully balanced composted fertilizer for your garden. Composting is not difficult but it needs to be aged for a while (some old-timers want at least a year, others say a couple months is good...I think it depends on your average yearly temperature), depending on where you live. You should check in with your county agriculture agent for specifics or other farmers in your area. The liquid runoff from a compost pile can be collected as “Compost tea” and used for fertilizing plants as well. One little thing, but what have I forgotten? I don't know, I haven’t had a real compost pile that I “tended” since childhood. Time to do it again.

The bottom line in this is that we are losing a lot of experience and knowledge every time one of our seniors pass (don't look at me, I am not a senior yet!). I have found a wealth of knowledge from my elders, one is an old trapper/hunter who has taught me a lot about back woods survival in Alaska, another is an older couple well into their 80s, who homesteaded their part of Alaska and lived on what they could grow, gather and hunt since WWII. They have helped me considerably in my gardening successes. I have an extensive library of different trades and skills, I have used them numerous times to help me in repairing things or building what I needed. But some things are best learned from someone who has done it, then you doing it. There really is no substitute for experience. Time to get started...don’t wait till you NEED to do it.

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