Skills for life

Last night I was watching parts of the movie “Cold Mountain”.    If you are unfamiliar with the story, it takes place during the Civil War and is set, primarily, in a place called Cold Mountain, North Carolina.    Ada Monroe and her father come to Cold Mountain just before North Carolina secedes.   He is the new preacher.   She is his daughter – a ‘real’ lady from Charleston.   The war begins and she and her father set their slaves free, leaving no one to work their farm.   All the young men, including one with whom Ada has fallen in love, are off to war.   Her father dies, Ada is left alone on the farm and nearly starves to death, saved only by the charity and kindness of neighbors.   She has no practical life skills, having been taught only how to play piano, embroider, sing, speak Latin and French, arrange flowers, etc.    Enter Ruby Thewes (played brilliantly in the film by Renee Zellweger), who has no book learning at all but who knows everything about life and taking care of herself.

The scene that I love is one in which Ruby and Ada are repairing a fence, and Ruby is quizzing Ada.  “What’s this wood?”  she says of the logs they are lifting into place.  “I don’t know. Locust?” says Ada.   “Pine,” says Ruby.  “Which way is North?”   Ada doesn’t know and Ruby just points.   “Name three herbs that grow wild on this farm.”     At this point Ada says, “I don’t know!   I can talk about farming in Latin.   I can read French.  I can lace up a corset, God knows.  I can name the principle rivers in Europe but don’t ask me to name a single stream in this county!  I can embroider but I can’t darn.  I can arrange cut flowers but I can’t grow them.   If a thing has a function, if I might do something with it then it wasn’t considered suitable.”

Watching that scene last night I was struck by how, in some ways, very little has changed since then.   The more ‘educated’ people are, the less life and practical skills they often have.   What good does it do you to be able to recite poems at length, quote Shakespeare and speak several languages if you can’t change a flat tire or cook a meal or sew on a button?    In our arrogance we might think, “Well, I’ll always have someone else around to do those things.”   But what if you don’t?   Who is more useful in an emergency situation – the guy who can do advanced math theorems all day or the guy who knows how to repair a car engine or start a fire or forage food?

Practical skills like mechanics, carpentry and such are looked down upon.     Very few people encourage their children to learn the basics of mechanics or electrical wiring or plumbing.   Even fewer would have their children enter in to the trades as a profession.   Auto mechanics are often derided (the term ‘grease monkey’ is not a compliment), but if our car breaks down we are desperate to find a good one.

Life learning cannot happen if the only learning is the theoretical kind you find in textbooks and classrooms.  Life is not a theory.   Stuff breaks.   We get lost.  Food needs to be cooked.   What kind of life doesn’t prepare you to deal with any of that?

In the movie Cold Mountain, there is no doubt who the hero – or heroine – is.  Not Ada, but Ruby, whose no-nonsense demeanor, life skills and tough-love empathy for others is the saving grace for herself and everyone she meets.

Not a bad example of a life well-learned.

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