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Get back to neighbor helping neighbor

December 16, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

Nostalgia is an interesting thing. It is defined as a longing for the past, often in idealized form. It is the idealized part that makes nostalgia interesting.

Last spring, I went to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Conference in Kansas City, Mo. Two colleagues and I were standing in Union Station in awe of its beauty and architecture. As we stood there in admiration, our thoughts drifted back to that idealized time. I then mentioned how different it would have actually been in this station had we been magically transported back to the late 1800s.

The place would have been packed with thousands of people rather than the less than 100 that were there on that day. The noise level would have been high and the smell not just of the people who bathed two or three times a month but of the coal smoke. The station was set over 12 tracks each of which would have had at least one coal-fired steam locomotive belching smoke, soot and fire while its hundreds of passengers made their way on board.


My one colleague then continued to imagine the smoky haze from the cigars and cigarettes that would have been smoked by the waiting passengers as well as the clerks, baggage handlers and railroaders. All of a sudden, our idyllic view came crashing down.

Many of us are guilty of harkening back, at least in our minds, to a simpler time. What we forget is the reality of the situation. What we really need to do is take the good aspects of days gone by and apply them today.

One of those aspects is the sense of community. We have seen the complete opposite of that when a man gets trampled by shoppers. The shoppers are asked to leave the premises because it is now a crime scene and some are overheard saying, "I can't believe I have to leave, do they realize how long I was standing in line." Instead of being appalled that a man lost his life, shoppers wanted a television at a bargain price.

The culture part of agriculture has always been about cooperation and collaboration. My father talks about moving from farm to farm to thresh. He speaks warmly of the people and the good food while forgetting the heat and back breaking work of those July days.

I remember reading an editorial a few years ago by the editor of the Draft Horse Journal. It had a picture of a farm family sitting on their porch looking out at their new Allis-Chamblers tractor. The premise of the editorial was that the tractor didn't replace their horse, it replaced their neighbor, and to a great extent it did. With mechanization of agriculture, we have replaced farmers and farm hands. The Amish don't shun technology because they fear it; they selectively choose to adapt technology with an eye on how it will impact their community's interdependency.

Again, I am not foregoing back to hoeing and hand milking but I am foregoing back to neighbor helping neighbor and the barter system. Our current economic downturn may force this upon us but I would rather see us choose it.

What has sparked this train of thought is twofold: the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays always make us feel nostalgic; and I was reading an article in a Midwestern newspaper titled "Life before refrigeration." In the article the author talks about the changing of the seasons and how that affected the activity of rural communities.

One such example that I can readily identify with was the fall butchering and how folks would plan for their hogs to be fattened and ready for butchering as the weather turned cold. The cold air was nature's refrigeration. While some readers have developed a blank stare, others' minds are harkening back to going to Uncle Roy's for the family Thanksgiving butchering.

In my family this was not only a work event, it was a social event. There were as many neighbors and friends as there were relatives and everyone had their job. Youngsters and newbies were lard cutters; by the time our family sadly aged out of butchering on a large scale, I had moved up the task ladder to gutting. Today we have moved to a biennial butchering and there are more kettle warmers than helpers. A kettle warmer, by the way, is someone who stands by the kettle and is warmed by the fire.

At any rate, feel nostalgic this holiday season, but make a New Year's resolution to practice some of the good things of days gone by and build a better community in the process.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

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