Almost three years ago, my family and I moved to the country and started homesteading. Every day, it seems, we are learning new things— we are learning about raising and slaughtering, fermenting and curing, chopping and heating, planting and harvesting— all new things to us, but not to the world. These are old skills— and we aren’t the only ones interested in relearning them. Some people call this activity of learning old skills “prepping,” as in preparing for impending disaster and the breakdown of social and political systems. And the fear of such disaster makes sense, given our knowledge of human history. But we don’t learn old skills because there might be a disaster.
We learn them because there certainly will be a disaster.
What I mean is— the political and social structures will fail, in the end. Disaster will come, whether in the form of viruses or weather phenomena or the very end of the world, itself. Some “preppers” hope to survive these specific, scary occurrences. And this is a legitimate goal to have. But it cannot and should not be the main goal. The main goal of the “prepper” should not be to avoid death. It should be to actually prepare for it.
Old skills help us prepare for death. They humble and ground us (quite literally); they connect us to our humanity and what that looked like before technological conveniences, they connect us to each other, and they connect us to God. They remind us of the passing nature of the physical realm while simultaneously reminding us of the eternal nature of relationships, virtue, and love. Old skills require the commitment of both body and soul to labors which are direct and tangible and communal. And when old skills disappear entirely, as so many sci-fi stories assure us, the meaning of life becomes more difficult to grasp.
Of course, these old skills also have many temporal, practical benefits. Those who have them may indeed survive and thrive in certain crisis situations. Moreover, when we pass old skills on to our children we hopefully give them the security, confidence, and virtues necessary to survive and thrive in various situations. But, most importantly, old skills bring joy to those participating in them and their fruits.
The reason for having a pile of logs for the fire is not primarily and not simply because the power might go out. The reason for having a pile of logs for the fire is because central heating will never give off the same kind of heat, let alone the same kind of joy, as a wood fire does. Central heating is a passive, non-communal convenience that can mostly be forgotten about and under-appreciated until the bill comes in once a month. A wood-burning fire is a creative craft and labor of love that brings everyone together.
Of course, there are exceptions— times and places in which we can’t return to old skills or people who can’t take them on. But, like with exercise and sunshine and healthy foods, we can all benefit from more old skills. We can all benefit from more “prepping.”
Because prepping is part of what makes us human. (“The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Genesis 2:15). Even in the most outsourced, automated situations, most people are still tending or prepping something. Maybe it’s just their own outfit for the next day. Or maybe it’s the meal popped in the microwave. We prep for the new week and we prep for the new year. And the prepping, itself, brings almost as much joy as the thing we prepped. Like how Christmas Eve brings almost as much joy as Christmas.
Of course, Christmas is still better than Christmas Eve. Which gets to the point of why we prep, in a larger sense. We prep, most importantly, for the great disaster, which will inevitably give way to the great miracle. We prep for Death and Judgement and we prep for Heaven. We know that both are just around the corner and so we must try to live how we would if it that corner were right here, right now, just in front of us. Old skills (and their fruits) root us in faith and family, home and hearth, nature and God. Better to be rooted in that stuff, that eternal stuff, sooner, rather than later. If I knew today was my last day, I wouldn’t mind spending it around the wood stove with my family.