What Would Ma Ingalls Do?

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The real Pa and Ma Ingalls -- Charles and Caroline.

If your experience with Laura Ingalls and her family is limited to the 1970’s TV show, then you might miss the meaning of my title. The TV show focused on relationships and people, but left out a lot of the richness and difficulties the real Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her life on the frontier.

In the books Laura writes about what their family does to survive. It chronicles how they live, get their food, worship, deal with hardships and more. In the books Ma is making bread, doing laundry by hand, making cheese from rennet made fresh from a slaughtered calf, sewing by hand, making do with what she has because the closest store is an overnight trip, and so much more.

The more I think about how we get things and even how we do things to gain a simpler life, the more I realize how dependent we are on manufactured goods. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing. Manufacturing is productivity and it is what keeps our economy strong. I like having the convenience of tools and ingredients that make life easier and more interesting.

I also see things from another perspective. In July 2006, St. Louis had a weather event that spawned many low level cyclonic winds called gustnadoes. A large part of St. Louis was without power. Many areas were without power for several weeks. For us it was 3 days with the heat index around 115 degrees each day.

Those three days taught me a lot. I realized that it was relaxing to shut off the electronics for a while. I ended up getting a lot done around the house. I was even canning watermelon rind pickles. I had them soaking prior to the outage and needed to get them canned. I used  a flash light to see if they had reached transparency.

I also learned that freezing produce from your garden makes it more vulnerable. We had lots of fruit and vegetables in the deep freezer and eventually they started to thaw.  It was at that point I decided to switch from freezing to canning.

A few years later I started to think about canning. Canning requires you to buy lids. What if lids become unavailable?  How will I preserve my food. Because of this realization I started exploring other food preservation methods such as fermenting and dehydrating. I still haven’t really incorporated these techniques. I’ve just been reading up. I plan to dehydrate a lot of food this year. I’m going to experiment with the electric dehydrator, in the oven and sun drying.

When I think about what Ma Ingalls would do, I think of what I would do if some breakdown in our system prevented me from getting what I needed. This can be a manufactured item or a food item that is not available locally. 

For example, what if I can’t get yeast to make my bread. Commercial yeast is a fairly new invention, after all. How did people do it before? They either used a starter or they didn’t make that type of bread. Thinking on these things colors my decisions. I’m not going to quit using store bought yeast, and I’m not going to ditch my bread machine. I’m just going to make sure I have the knowledge, skills, and enough experience to make a change if necessary.

I think most Americans take for granted as necessities things that most people didn’t have access to 100 years ago–electricity, hot water, air conditioning, bananas, citrus fruits, individual communion cups, refrigerators, washing machines, fresh vegetables during the winter, olive oil, shampoo, toilet paper or even indoor toilets. The list can go on and on.

Thinking about these types of things has made me see other vulnerabilities like the fact that the Wal-Mart store near our house sells 65% of its inventory everyday and that we live near a major fault line-the New Madrid fault. Our city had laws requiring buildings made of brick because of devastating fires in the 19th century.  It’s the completely wrong building material to if you are going to be hit by earthquakes.  I’m not being a Chicken Little, it is just realistic to look at the fact that people go through hard things and they can happen suddenly.

It’s not just the vulnerabilities, but the desire to have more simplicity and to find creative ways to use what I have around me. It is more work, but it is the kind of work that energizes me.

I’m not giving up the world of modern conveniences, I’m just looking at things differently with an eye toward the past. When I think of what Ma Ingalls would do, I also think of how my grandparents lived. They didn’t have a lot of these things either.  As I ponder these things I am finding a richness in remembering them and in finding a slower way of living.

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