Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Heroes of Local Knowledge

By Joseph R. Conrad and Mary Anne Harmer Allen
Published in Oregon's Future, Fall 1998

We called him the Vegetable Man. His tomatoes, eggplant, and basil were sweet and beautiful -- the finest produce around. And without hesitation Frank shared these garden jewels with all his friends and neighbors, often offering advice as to the best way to prepare and cook them. He loved his vegetables and spent hours thinning, weeding and watering the lush growth. He often told us his success with vegetables was a result of his Italian heritage and the traditional skills of gardening passed down by his father in Southeast Portland that resulted in his superior produce. We knew it was that and much more. It was his passion for the earth, the simple gardening tools, the delicate seeds that made the difference. Frank cared about his garden -- treating each cucumber, radish and pea with respect and tenderness. He kept up on the latest trends in vegetable gardening, and somehow knew when and how to incorporate new methods with the traditional ways, blending the knowledge to create new innovations in gardening.

That Vegetable Man is retired now, and there is no one around who can come close to growing the quality of produce that Frank sold from his small fruit and vegetable market. Customers now purchase pale tomatoes wrapped in plastic year round from the nearest large supermarket. And, in thinking about Frank, one wonders not only about the traditional vegetable grower who for so many years successfully used local knowledge, but of other highly skilled professionals and craftsmen, also steeped in local knowledge, who have contributed so much. Has their local knowledge and expertise been passed on? Are these individuals valued today for the traditional foundation they bring to new knowledge and technology? Does anyone care? Does respecting local knowledge, passed on through generations while learning and adapting new techniques, represent true evolution and hope for a more authentic, healthier community? Should it not?

Each of us can identify warning signs in our own communities:
- Is the local logger still employed?
- What about the local fisherman?
- Is the local sawmill still running?
- How many cabinet shops and furniture builders are still around?
- Do the builders around town carry contracts, not tools, and attend meetings for permits, instead of working with their hands on the site?
- Does the tile setter know where or how tile is made, and do the roofers understand where shingles come from and the subtleties of each material with which they work?
- Do stone setters laying the steps of city buildings and putting up the walls of public structures know the origin of the stone they are using and how it got from the quarry to the worksite?

In considering these questions, it quickly becomes apparent that understanding and promoting the appropriate use of local knowledge -- that set of skills and information held by individuals in a given location or culture -- would be to learn from the heroes of local knowledge we meet each day in our communities.

These heroes of local knowledge are the keepers and tenders of an honorable garden of knowledge. In the past, this was a powerful and important role -- a role respected and appreciated. Today, however, we seem to value things, not how things are made. And so the keepers of this garden of knowledge swim upstream against a society that promotes consistency and mass production.

On the downside, local knowledge, because of its personal, slower, hands-on approach, is inconvenient to store, organize, and describe. It can be ambiguous and vague. On the upside, local technology brings with it years of emotions, feelings and sensitivities associated with a specific locality -- a special place identified by the people living there. It may not be as easily quantified, packaged and dispersed as more universal models, but it belongs to the community.

As a second generation stonecutter, I (Joseph Conrad) strongly feel that some elements of modern production, technology, and economies of scale have caused our industry to sacrifice local models. Technical knowledge, so easily accessible today from books, magazines, and the internet, can lead to a richness and expansion of knowledge; but it can also contribute to a dilution of local traditions and technologies. As a craftsman practicing a trade passed on for generations, I now learn through global technology to use standardized models. The resulting products, whether created or produced in my hometown in the Pacific Northwest, in Europe, or in New York soon take on a "common" look; everything looks the same.

As the local cabinet maker tells us, "Our customers demand the latest style or trend for our industry as seen in national or international magazines. They forget about the local creativity based on traditions and materials originating in our own backyard. It is important to remember that a sense of history provides the necessary connection to local material sources and traditional processes that can then be utilized to maximize the potential of new trends."

Perhaps, in the short term, standardized products are of value to business owners looking for savings reaped through consistency and mass production, however long-term we all may be paying a high price with this approach. As technology moves society toward the use of universal models there is a real loss of the creative diversity that reflects the local place and its traditions. If we don't use the expertise learned from our fathers and grandfathers, this knowledge will die with all of us. No one will be left to teach or pass on the skills that we learned from generations past. No one will be able to take the best of local knowledge and adapt it to new technologies."

Again and again, professionals and craftsmen using traditional methods communicate a sense of loss. Loss accompanied with a challenge, a hope that this trend can be reversed. Preserving local knowledge is becoming a common cry heard across many, many disciplines. It is a cry for survival -- for the continuation of the best of the past made better through the technology of the future.

When we do not honor, respect and acknowledge local knowledge, forsaking it completely for technological knowledge, we soon lose the human touch. The intimacy of daily personal relations is no longer needed.

The face-to-face interaction, that special bond between teacher and student, is replaced with instruction by impersonal methods such as the electronic transfer of knowledge.

Although the theory of a certain skill or technique can be communicated electronically or by a book or magazine, you certainly lose the small nuances of how to hold a saw or how to pick grapes at their peak flavor. This learning is best gained through observation, personal experience, and practice -- taught by someone with respect and passion for the trade.

As one thinks about how we make purchases as individuals or as businesses, one quickly understands the threat to survival for the local hero of knowledge. It happens as the corner pharmacy is put out of business by large drugstore chains, and as the local hardware stores, where the owner helped and encouraged us to slowly browse through the inventory on Saturday afternoons, is replaced by large self-serve hardware stores -- the fast and efficient way to sell home supplies and hardware. These are all signs that communities are slowly moving away from local knowledge. Rather than using it in conjunction with new technology, it is discounted all together.

It has become to easy for people to lose connection with their communities; they stop caring when people, products, and services become too distant. A local builder expresses it this way, "To accommodate more customers and enhance productivity, my services are not viewed uniquely, but 'limped' into common categories for ease and efficiency. Consequently, we use design principles that are considered universal with more legal codes and standards and construction regulations that will not accommodate exceptions. Finally, there are elaborate bureaucratic and operational procedures that reinforce mass production. Thus, an original idea or skill, with roots in local knowledge, is stretched, pulled, and forced to fit common standards. The result is the sacrifice of local knowledge and creativity. My structures are just not as unique as they used to be."

It is very difficult today to go against the tide. Practitioners of local knowledge know this, but we can make it easier for them. If the community -- if individuals -- will support them, they will utilize the advances of technology to further local knowledge. It is a win-win proposition. Practitioners of local knowledge will selectively capitalize on the advances of technology while staying connected to their tools and materials -- staying connected to the customer.

The cabinet maker, the fisherman, the stonecutter and so many other skilled professionals and craftsmen are the foundation of our communities. They bring creativity, sensitivity to the environment, and sound economic value to our cities and towns. They represent the synthesis of ideas, the tools or technology employed, and the material selected for use. The integration of all of these elements can only lead to more creativity.

Creativity does not operate as an independent vision; rather, it is within the holistic context of local and traditional tools and materials, accompanied by inspiration, that creativity, unique form, and innovation emerge.

This is the power, strength and ultimate hope of local knowledge. Nurturing this process and incorporating it into new technology is absolutely critical to our creativity, to our environment, to our economy. Local knowledge helps build healthy communities. If we do not use it, we lose it.

Joseph Conrad is a Northwest sculptor, second-generation stonecutter, and owner of an Oregon-based stone fabrication company currently practicing his art in Portland. Mary Anne Harmer Allen is a national consultant and director of the Healthy Communities Initiative in Portland.

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