A chicken crosses the road

May 31, 2013
Chickens in Nyanga

Chickens in Nyanga, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Becker

“In spite of my grandmother’s careful tutelage, I have long forgotten how to tat, and to that skill loss, I say good riddance. There is a reason that the French word for tatting is derived from frivolite. But how far down this road of incapableness am I willing to travel?”

-Sandra Steingraber, ORION Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

There was an exhibition called “Vital Skills” at the Watrous Gallery in Madison that probed this question. I found myself returning to walk through the collection several times and then thinking about what skills I personally value, and possess. What seems most crucial for my children to learn, either from me or others? It’s not hard to imagine a world they might live in as adults, but it’s bound to be different than I could ever predict.

Often on travels outside the U.S. I am struck by the fact that people seem, by nature or necessity, more resourceful than I am. It’s not that I don’t have some talents, but as a 21st century American, I honestly count knowing how to tie shoes as a skill I intend to pass on to my daughters. I’ll have to be deliberate about it! Velcro and crocs¬†are sending the old bow-knot the way of lace-making and chicken-butchering.

Years back, after a trip to Cuba, where chickens run free and many were killed expressly for me to eat, I felt particularly inept. The urban-chicken movement was taking off and I jumped on the bandwagon. I bought four teenage layers from a farm outside of the city and tried to acclimate them to an urban setting. My neighbors, a sales and repair shop for lawn mowers, were loud and made the birds skittish. The birds themselves made me skittish—I never got good at catching them with my hands—and more than once I wished I’d had more of a 4-h education.

My dad, who grew up on a farm, came to visit and helped me chase chickens that had escaped and were trying to cross the road. He took me to private language lessons and coached my baseball team but didn’t teach me much about poultry.

Man with chickens in India

Man with his chickens in India. Photo by Jessica Becker

Eventually I decided to have the chickens butchered as I wasn’t getting many eggs. The entire experiment was celebrated with a closing feast of chicken tortilla soup.

That was not even ten years ago. Backyard chickens were the gateway drug and now neighbors and friends are trying out bees, goats, and more. These are folks with no personal background with farm life, just the idea that they want to know how to do stuff. I think it’s because we want to feel resourceful.

Ultimately, I don’t think the details matter as much as the attitude. Thinking again of the exhibition of beautiful hand-made brooms and skillfully designed blown glass, I suspect that teaching my kids to tie their shoes might be more about slowing down to learn a skill rather than because tied shoes are going to serve them better than slip-ons in the future.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council

Vital Skills was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.