I was watching one of the PBS programs on Crafts last weekend--it included segments on basket-making and pottery, two fundamental crafts that allowed people to carry materials from place to place (solids mostly, for baskets, and solids or liquids, for pottery) and to organize their possessions more easily. (Leather or woven sacks are another method, but weren't covered in this program.)
What struck me was the person-to-person transmission of knowledge that's entirely (or almost) necessary in crafts. There's a lot of knowledge that's not easily written up--that requires, at the least, pictures and text both. I knew this from cooking (it's easier to teach a student directly how to make bread--how to feel when the dough is 'ready' than for someone to learn from a book's verbal description) but it's true of all the basic crafts, be it wood-working, metal-working, pottery-marking, weaving, basketry, knitting & crochet, or any other hand craft.
For instance: we recently started knocking back the iris in the lily pond by cutting off the tops so we could get at the rhizomes and roots more easily. This created a pile of long, slender iris leaves. Inside the leaves are long fibers, like heavy thread. This looks useful...but how? Using plant fibers to twist string, or weave into mats or baskets, requires preparation of the plant materials...and it's not the same for every plant. Our less mechanized forefathers knew which trees were good for which purpose--what season to harvest the wood--how and how long to dry it--how best to cut it. The women making baskets clearly knew which plants to harvest for the purpose, and again--how to prepare them, how to use them, etc. Their children (who were learning alongside the experienced elders) did not have to figure it all out in each generation--they could see it. I will bet that somewhere in this country some person of Native American descent knows (or the previous generation knew) how to best use iris leaves (do you split them? Into strips how wide? Or do you use the fibers inside, and if so how do you prepare them? Are they best as woven mats or baskets, or as strings made from the twisted fibers--and how do you twist fibers into string? Are they any good for lacing things together?)
Pottery, another very old craft, starts with just clay, water, and a fire. Most of us have seen (either in a demo or on TV or in a movie) potters at work. Most of us have a sort-of-idea how it's done. Yet how many of us would recognize the right kind of clay...would know when the clay had been worked enough--even how much water to add--how hot the fire should be--and for better pottery, how to build and fuel a simple kiln? I don't. I've seen a lot of pottery demos over the years and I'm just as ignorant as after the first one. I would have to sit by a potter for awhile, and feel it in my own hands, to have a clue whether the clay around here is any good for pottery or not.
Just as we're losing languages (have been for two centuries or more, with the dominant cultures trying to insist on "more efficient" communication in their own language--and it is more efficient) we are also losing the knowledge base that sustained humans through the previous hundred thousand years, knowledge that would cost us to regain. This is not a plea for everyone to drop modern life and return to subsistence farming and basic crafts...but it is a gentle suggestion that maybe more of us should learn one (just one) of the basic crafts so that if it becomes necessary we can pass it on to someone else. I'm now intent on finding out what can be done with iris leaves (paper? thread? string? woven baskets? mats? thatch?) and relearning knitting and crochet (which I used to do a fair amount of.)