My son, just turned seven last week, came to me yesterday asking “Is it true that in the old days people would make pens from bird feathers?” When I told him that it was, he immediately wanted to run out to the chicken coop and collect a feather so he could do it. I told him we’d have to do a little research first, to learn how to do it.
Thinking about it today, I realized that the next conversation we have about it will go something like this:
Do we want to make ink, too?
How about what we will write on? Do we want to make paper, or write on a hide?
Do we want to prepare that hide ourselves? Does that mean we have to skin the animal ourselves, too? Do we have to make the knife that we use to skin the animal? Do we raise the animal or hunt the animal ourselves?
And thus I will lead my son down the rabbithole of authenticity.
He has seen me slowly sink down that rabbithole from time to time. I have done it to some extent with cooking, as my definition of “from scratch” has changed. Cooking from scratch can mean buying eggs, flour, milk, baking soda, and sugar and making a cake. Or it can mean getting eggs from your chickens, grinding grain into flour, milking a cow or goat, harvesting honey… you see where this is going. I have chickens for the eggs and I have started grinding wheat berries into flour. But I live in town where I can’t have a rooster so I have to buy my chicks from a hatchery. I purchase commercial layer pellets to feed my chickens (and supplement that with kitchen scraps). I buy the wheat berries from the bulk bin of a local store rather than growing the wheat. Maybe those things will change when we have land someday. And then my definition of “from scratch” can change as well. I did prepare one meal last summer that involved killing a chicken in the morning, digging up potatoes and carrots, chopping garlic and rosemary grown in our yard, and cooking it all in a solar oven.
Similarly with my weaving hobby. I used to buy yarn and weave on a store-bought loom. Now I weave on a warp-weighted loom that my husband made using hand tools in our shop. I have worked my way slowly backward toward the sheep – first purchasing yarn, then purchasing roving to spin on a homemade spindle, then purchasing washed fleece and preparing it myself for spinning. Living where we do, with a small yard and lots of neighbors, I can not back up any more in the process – washing raw fleece is a stinky, space-intensive process and will have to wait until we have land.
So anyway, it will be interesting to see where my son wants to go from his simple question about quill pens. It turns out that his father has a hide from a deer that he shot and skinned, and he also has some of the necessary materials for making different kinds of ink. This could turn into little Alex’s first Arts & Sciences entry at a local Society for Creative Anachronism event.
And why is this important for my son’s life? Thinking about this project today, I realized that it was a good introduction into the kinds of projects one might get involved in with the Boy Scouts. I used to have a negative reaction to the idea of my son in Boy Scouts, simply because of the religious-ness of the organization. But that is changing slowly with time, and also I’m sure the religious aspects of the Scouts vary depending on where you are in the country – as my son went to preschool and attends after school care at the local YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) and there has been no religious teaching there, but I have been told that in other places there is. My son wants to be a game warden. He’s been quite adamant about this for about a year and a half now. His older half-brother told him that a good way to prepare for being a game warden would be to join the Scouts. He said that if you can get to be an Eagle Scout, it will really help you get your foot in the door as a game warden, because you will have life skills and character references and a network of support.
I was very impressed to hear a 13-year-old giving this advice to his 6-year-old brother. And I realized that he’s probably quite right. It’s never too early to think about your future, and not in the overly-simplified “stay in school” and “go to college” way… those things are good, but there is so much more to becoming a well-rounded and successful person than just staying in school and obtaining a Bachelor’s degree. Things like thinking creatively, being curious, being willing to sweat and deal with discomfort and dirt and stench to accomplish a goal, looking at things from other than a modern-day California perspective, taking pride in personal accomplishments, taking pleasure in basic physical activities, and having the simple understanding that “things are made from things” and not just sprouted out of the Dollar Store bins.
Good gracious, how did a question about a quill pen lead to all this?