Last year, friends gave us an overgrown cucumber from their home garden. I peeled and cored (!) the thing and composted the seeds. Last month, unasked, the heap produced two cukes. It’s trivial to pickle in the refrigerator. Just peel and slice a vegetable, set it in a glass storage dish, and dress with vinegar and spices. For these cukes, I’ll use ground black pepper and white cider vinegar, and let them sit overnight. That’s all there is to it.
The Sixties saw a relentless contest between traditional etiquette and comfortable expedience. It’s hardly news that a couple of generations have grown up innocent of the table manners that were so familiar and so important to our grandparents. Years of executing calligraphic social commissions left me well read in etiquette books current and vintage. When I’m performing a basic housekeeping function like setting the table, I have time to consider the merit of the habits of hundreds of years. Our table manners emerged from the rigid etiquette of a crowded extended medieval household, where behavioral choreography kept people productive and out of each other’s hair.
Last week-end’s unintentional outing into grizzly territory set the wisdom of table manners and good kitchen practice in neon. Rule after printed rule posted on the pillar of a campsite cooking shelter reiterated the importance of separating a person from any odor of food. A childhood spent reading books about animals, nature, and hunting opened my eyes to the importance of scent in communication. Viet Nam taught American troops the folly of smoking or wearing aftershave in the field. The US Forest Service carries the message to Everyhiker: do not sleep in the shirt you cooked in, sleep at least a hundred feet uphill from the cooking site, and puhleaze store food in the car or secured overhead from the animals. The sign didn’t mention rule number one: stay out of the field when menstruating. Extrapolating from the sign, I realized the wisdom of wearing an apron or chef’s jacket and hat while putting a meal together.
Every time I go into the woods, I gain new appreciation for Pilates’ emphasis on core strength. The upright posture that Pilates produces keeps food off the front of my shirt when I’m eating. Until corsets went out of fashion around 1910, a self-respecting woman did not let her back touch the upright part of a chair. In the eighteenth century, young women were trained using a “back board” set under a corset. Before the invention of the automobile, persons of advantage rode horses. That fosters upright posture and a focus in real time. Any Hollywood film or television horse opera will document the relationship between body language and character. The early technical advisors, like painter Charlie Russel, were recruited from ranches and the actors experienced horsemen.
The great social divide in the West is between the equestrian and other classes. Posture and marksmanship are at the core of the distinction. After the recent outing, it seems clear that having the fine motor skills to keep food scents off one’s person and being organized for personal cleanliness are key factors in the Darwinian contest.
Our annual group camping exercise took place in a new location this year. The scout cruised the site from the road, but failed to notice two large signs posted on the cooking shelter. Several hundred words detailed the best practices for ensuring a night free of visits from local grizzlies.
When the garbage can is fabricated from half-inch iron plate, prudence dictates considering the wisdom of sleeping zipped into featherweight nylon like a tasty snack in cellophane. Nylon is stronger than steel of an equal dimension but vulnerable to sharp things, meaning sleepy I would have a hard time getting out while claws and teeth would have an easy time getting in. Several hundred morning words of my own convinced my companion of the best practice for managing a field situation for which we were unprepared and untrained. The short version was, “Bug out.” Not for the first time, we learned the kit can be thrown into the car in less than ten minutes.
When large local carnivores began to recover from near-extinction, I assumed that something would be different on the trails that had hosted many an unarmed, lighthearted romp through various weathers. A third-generation senior Peninsula woodsman helped a cyclist fight off a juvenile cougar and refused ever again to get out of his truck when he drove up the Elwha. His father had made his living hunting the cats. No doubt Donald had inherited field wisdom that informed his caution, as I had added personal experience of bears to several generations of stories from my elders.
A friend decided she hated office work and enrolled in a field science course at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Part of the curriculum was two-weeks' training in bear management. Sally said the first day after the course ended, a single mother of two toddlers dropped a charging female grizzly with one shot from the hip. Presumably the University of Alaska stocks large-caliber handguns in their bookstore along with textbooks and dissecting kits.
One of the several hunters who use our annual outing to tune up their gear for the fall season twitted me about the wilderness getting to me. Yes, indeed. I’m not willing to cede the initiative to a large carnivore that’s faster than I. One night’s sleep is all it gets. Should I decide that bear country holds something of interest, I’ll do the homework and get out there. Meantime, there’s wilderness enough in town and internationally to keep me on my toes.
The annual rustic week-end with a group of field scientists hove into view Friday morning. After last year’s gathering, I had stuffed our small mountain of mummy bags and down garments into four square pillow shams. We lounged all winter on soft storage containers. When it was time to load the car this year, all I had to do was double-check the contents of the shams and set them in the back seat.
Having imprinted on an early edition of the Sierra Club’s Going Light With Backpack Or Burro, I like a tidy-looking load. There was a chapter on how to tie a diamond hitch so the donkey looks stylish. It’s not folly: organizing a righteous burden takes best advantage of the power that’s going to move the thing, be it biological or mechanical. All it takes is a few minutes on the trail with a badly loaded pack to get the message.
Five generations' keeping house in Western Washington know how to get the job done. Deft Home is the fruit of thirty years’ independent research with casual scholarship, deep-time experience, and no ties to commerce.
Deft home is about doing things the easy way, doing things you won’t get tired of, doing things in little specks of time, and doing things effectively so you won’t have to do them again. It’s also about working with things you already have or have scrounged, about respecting tradition and family legacies, and about making time to enjoy your living quarters. It’s about dignity, self-reliance, and innovation. Especially, Deft Home is about respecting the basics and the labor it takes to keep them right. Hope you enjoy the site as much as I enjoy developing the material.