On some days the complexities of our global world seem so overwhelming that it’s tempting to find answers by turning back the clock to a simpler time, one that seems romantic in some ways and …
On some days the complexities of our global world seem so overwhelming that it’s tempting to find answers by turning back the clock to a simpler time, one that seems romantic in some ways and better and greater in retrospect.
My mom always looked to the past for solutions to whatever — from mixing a cake with a handheld rotary beater to lessons for international relations. She fluffed cake batter the old way, deplored big government, hated regulations and wanted to pay a dead minimum of taxes while knowing exactly where her money went. Like her, I feel “cut from the same cloth” as our ancestors whose muscle-power connected with food preparation, enjoyed small government, few regulations and low taxes.
To some degree, I think most of us in Wyoming would agree. We love the myth of the West and buy into it a bit while recognizing it is a myth. We tell people to “cowboy up.” We admire the “rugged individualists” around us.
But when tempted to look back for simple answers to new and complex issues, I take a deep breath and remember.
Back in the day ... that is, back in the period when our area was settled and the West wasn’t a myth, when people only survived if they cowboyed up and employed rugged individualism, everything was a lot different. We were a lot different.
We even looked different. If you disagree, get out your old albums or watch old movies and documentaries and compare the people you see with ones in similar films of the present. For better or worse, we’re beefier and bulkier, our bodies carry more flesh and are generally taller.
Part of that has to do with food. Or lack thereof. Everyday survival — just finding edibles (killing or harvesting) and preparing them — was what people did once. “Putting bread on the table,” was the focus and purpose of work; an all-absorbing dawn to dusk job.
Those bodies were a long way from buff. Our ancestors worked injured. No one spends much time hunting or farming without getting hurt. The lucky ones weren’t hurt often or bad. Still, in pain or not, chores had to be done. Livestock had to be fed. Cows had to be milked, grain swathed, hay piled, chicken necks wrung, firewood chopped, and ....
Every household had its home remedies and most people could turn their hands to emergency first aid — setting a bone, making a wound dressing, tying a tourniquet. If you didn’t know, you learned “on the job,” so as to speak, and there’s probably more than a few graves around as proof that there’s better ways of learning.
Regarding graves, you didn’t expect to live long — no doubt hoping to be surprised. A simple cut or an epidemic could get you. The list of fatal diseases filled thick books and, if you escaped them, something like arthritis would leave you hobbling around with bent back and twisted fingers, waiting for the grim reaper who appeared for American men in 1900 at age 47. (A century later that age was 78.)
And well or sick, they hacked. Coughed and spat. And not just from cook stove smoke or dust in the fields. They smoked, too.
Tobacco smoke gave the amygdala a series of pleasant and cheap jolts. A cigarette meant, “done.” A cigarette meant leisure and time to talk, meant relaxation and gossip or a card game, a tall tale, or gossip ... and another killer.
Brutality was not a stranger to our ancestors. We’ll probably never know the incidence of abuse in pioneering families, but we can assume that severe use of a razor strap or whip on bare bottoms or backs was more or less normal among people brought up with public executions and with fists and gun fights the accepted way to settle problems ... plus being forms of entertainment.
Those folks, they did for themselves, and they did for their neighbors: a potluck here; a barn-raising there; a church social, a dance, a pie competition. They parted with their nickels when needed and shared their labor to “help out.” Their expectations weren’t high — a roof over their heads and some place to sleep at night, at least one good meal a day, companionship, fellowship, love of God whatever their faith, maybe a spouse and a couple of kids, reasonable health ... that about did it. The rest, whatever it might be, was frosting on the cake.
Social programs included “poor houses,” orphanages or workhouses and insane asylums. Jails were for punishment. Hangings or electrocution got rid of the “bad elements” while making public spectacles for everyone else.
Less than a century and a half has passed since the first of our ancestors rolled through the Pryor Gap or down from Red Lodge in their wagons. It’s been much less since the last homesteaders began dying, but almost everything except the mountains has changed.
You don’t need me to tell you the thousand ways that we’re different from our pioneering ancestors. Our bodies, our values, our ethics and ideals, our lifespans and lifestyles and potentials have changed. We may be “cut from the same cloth,” but that bolt of fabric has been refined over the past 100 years; has been woven with patterns, textures, and colors of amazing richness.
As I look at the issues confronting us, from gun control to the right to choose, from coal mining to global warming, from taxes to land ownership, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenge of coming up with new solutions. One thing I’m not (after this little look at our simpler past) is tempted to turn back the clock and reinstitute the policies and practices that formed the warp and woof, the patterns and colors of our ancestors’ much shorter and infinitely harder lives.