Late last year, my parents and I got together to butcher a lamb. While some of us were familiar with processing game and small livestock, none of us really knew exactly how to approach this little farm-raised yearling. In that moment, we lamented the fact that my late grandfather wasn’t there. He had a garage filled with tools, made his own wine, grew vegetables, raised rabbits, and prepared specialty meats that would cure in the cold cellar of his basement. To my mother, her dad was the trailblazer in the family who mastered many practical skills. “He would know what to do,” she said.
So in his absence we consulted YouTube, which has become an invaluable bank of recorded knowledge for people like us, who were without a physical mentor.
We found a very helpful video featuring Justin Williams of the New York-based butcher shop, Harlem Shambles. As he broke down the main cuts of the animal, we learned about its anatomy and some of the more complex techniques, like Frenching a rack of lamb. Our results weren’t perfect, but we got the job done. As the afternoon wore on, our work pace became more fluid; we grew confident in our roles and bonded as a team.
There have been many instances throughout the course of my learning that I have sought someone, be it in person or otherwise, outside of my immediate social circle to learn a basic life skill. Some people I know share similar stories.
One friend is, like me, someone who doesn’t come from a lineage of hunters. She’s extremely passionate about fly fishing, but as for hunting wild game, she’s had to start from scratch.
“I need someone I can shadow hunt for a while,” she told me, feeling discouraged in her first season. Her words carried a tone of desperate resolve: “I’m thinking of just paying a guide.”
Fifty years ago, the idea of paying a guide to hunt in northwestern Ontario would have probably been unheard of. But when it comes to learning land-based survival skills today, my friend’s statement speaks to our modern, urbanized times.
You could spend hours scrolling through the Internet researching outdoor survival schools and programs around the world (I know I have), especially in the United States, where access to life in the wilderness is at a premium. More recently, I found an instructor who runs a mentorship program in Washington State called Path of the Hunter.
“At Earthwalk Northwest, we recognize that, more and more, people do not have the opportunity to learn from their elders. Because of this, we have felt a need to offer a program emphasizing these traditions,” reads a statement from its website.
Elders, synonymous with wisdom, are the guiding light within a culture. They tell stories that carry valuable life lessons and speak from experience. But at some point, in Western society, younger generations seem to have stopped listening to what they had to say.
So, millennials like me tend to be missing something. Having been raised in a smaller city, it was acceptable, if not encouraged, for me to move away from home to seek out a higher education during my formative years.
The concept of leaving home for the lofty promises of wealth and prosperity is further amplified in the writings of Wade Davis, the anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence who delivered the CBC Massey Lectures across Canada in 2009. He is a passionate advocate for a better understanding of traditional cultures and how they interpret life on our planet. For all of Western society’s technological sophistication, we seem to have lost our way.
In The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, he begins by stating that of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world at that time, fully half are not being passed down to younger generations—are not being “whispered into the ears of infants,” he so lamentingly phrased it. Different ways of navigating the world are being lost, as Davis bears witness:
“One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst those who have not forgotten the Old Ways. Who still feel their past in the wind…taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. The world into which you were born does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality…All of these peoples teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and orienteering yourself in social and spiritual space; other ways of interacting with the Earth itself.”
Along with the decline of linguistic diversity, many of the world’s cultures are endangered as they become absorbed into post-colonial society. In May 2018, the United Nations announced that it projects 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.
With this month’s issue being devoted to community, it has me thinking about intergenerational relationships, and who we have around us to enrich our lives and offer us mutual purpose. What can happen when we start listening to the stories of our elders again?
The question reminds me of when my grandmother took me shopping before I left home for university in another province. She didn’t buy me new shoes or a new coffeemaker for my apartment. Instead, we went to the fabric store and put together a sewing kit. She also gave me my great grandmother’s handmade pincushion, and her denim laundry bag. My grandmother’s actions never escaped an element of practicality, as if she were saying, “Now, there’s no need to buy something new when you can fix the one you have.” As it happens, I used my sewing kit to stitch a new strap to that laundry bag when the old one wore out.
In a culture that celebrates fast and shiny and new, it’s worth spending some time to mend the parts that are wearing thin. We would be better for it, and in a position to be a stronger support for future generations.