It’s cheap, it’s plastic, but for half a century, the little 21-drawer storage chest has been serving its purpose. It and everything in it could very well have been tossed long ago, but I keep it on a shelf in my shop above the workbench. Good thing I do, too, because more than once, it has saved me a 26-mile round trip to the hardware store. This summer, for instance, I needed to inflate two rafts for the grandchildren to use on the pond. I started to blow them up with my own lungpower, but I wasn’t sure I would live long enough to complete the task. I have a handy compressor in the truck for emergency tire repairs, but it needed an adapter. A trip through the drawers and – presto – I found the one I needed.
My father gave me that no-account storage unit (contents included) 20 years ago, and he’d been filling it up for decades. The same year my wife and I were building our house, my parents were moving out of theirs into an apartment. My father, a dedicated pack rat, was reluctantly divesting of all sorts of treasures, and since the new apartment had no room for a workbench, Dad would no longer need access to his collection of bolts, washers, crazy glue, rubber cement, gap tools, golf tees, molly bolts, and keys that fit who knows what lock. So all these treasures became mine.
Some of the clear plastic drawers are labeled, some not. There is a drawer for nuts, one for washers, one for bolts, another for faucet washers. The one that I avoid is the one labeled “nails.” In it are common nails, finish nails, and box nails, but no roofing nails. Those are in a different drawer.
The reason I avoid the nail drawer is because nearly every nail in it is bent – each nail long ago was pulled out of a board and deposited in the drawer for later straightening. Some of the nails just have a slight bow to them, others are more crooked than a question mark. As a child, I was taught to straighten nails: place it hump up on a block of wood, anchor it with one finger, and tap the hump out of it. Roll it on the board to see how straight it had become, repeat. The nails in the drawer need straightening, and I don’t do that any more.
My father was one of six children. His father would have had difficulty staying employed even if it weren’t in the midst of the Depression. “He was always smarter than his boss,” is the way my father characterized his own father’s employment history. At an early age, my dad and his brothers and sisters learned the value of work and, more specifically, wages. In doing so, they helped keep the household going.
That’s why my father saved bent nails. We never built anything new, we just rebuilt what needed fixing. We could always scrounge something to shore up the sagging tool shed or replace a piece of siding on the porch.
When the dock at our camp in the Adirondacks started to deteriorate, we didn’t build a new one, we just made a smaller one out of the pieces that were still good. As far as I know, my father never once purchased a 2x4 or a sheet of plywood. It wasn’t until I had a summer job working as a handyman that I learned that behind the hardware store was a lumberyard. That summer, I also found out that most people purchased their nails, which is when I started to resent having to straighten them.
At the same time I was learning frugality at home, I was learning about the wonderful resources available to humans around the globe. There was a world map on the wall in my Social Studies class, covered with symbols representing each country or region’s natural resources. I liked the symbols – crossed picks (for iron), oil pumps, spruce trees – and I was intrigued by some of the items that made the list, like bauxite and molybdenum.
But it wasn’t until later that I understood the great significance of those two words in combination: natural resources. Natural resources are the building blocks of everything we own, the sum of what we have to work with. No matter what it is – a chair, a television, a storage chest – it is fashioned from one or more of our natural resources.
In some cases, the resource is not processed much: field stone that was in the way of an 18th Century plow was piled up and became a stone wall. In other cases, you’d need a background in biochemistry or a fantastic imagination to figure out the raw materials inherent in an object. A computer is made from, among other things, oil, silica, and copper. Forget the distinction between natural and synthetic – even synthetic materials start with building blocks from this earth, just highly processed.
Some natural resources are beautiful and precious, some are merely useful, and some are so plentiful we can’t imagine there ever being a shortage. Take gravel, for instance, a combination of sand and rocks we use for roads, because it holds up well both to precipitation and to traffic. Abundant local sources of gravel have been important for road building throughout our history, but local veins do run out, and it’s expensive to truck in from afar. There was a time when road crews facing shortages looked to river beds and stream banks as a ready source of gravel, reasoning that there was plenty more where that came from and that the trout would benefit from deeper holes in which to hide. That practice of mining streams for gravel has been outlawed everywhere as we’ve understood more about river dynamics and habitats, but not before tremendous damage was done.
You don’t get something from nothing. There’s a cost and a loss associated with everything that we use. Transfer gravel from a gravel pit and build a road with it, remove a mountaintop full of coal and generate electricity from it, pump oil from the ground and make plastic bags out of it. In each case, we’re filling a human need. In each case, there is a quantifiable reduction in a finite supply. We’re extracting something that was deposited or formed in a long-gone epoch. It’s all mining.
But with trees, it’s different. They are a renewable resource. Unlike oil and coal, or gold and granite, trees grow back. And we can manipulate their growth by changing the circumstances in which they live. That’s the essence of silviculture, and the techniques associated with it provide room for serious and thoughtful debate.
How often do you cut, and what gets removed? Cutting trees, especially if the leaves, twigs, and branches end up in the chipper, takes nutrients from the soil. Yes, trees will grow back, but the soil will have lost some growing potential. You are removing something from the system – how do you minimize the loss?
It turns out we can mine forests and farmland, too. So even with renewable trees, we need to humbly recognize that a forest’s future capacity has a lot to do with how well we treat its soil.
Over the years, we’ve become remarkably good at extracting resources, and not just timber. We’ve developed sophisticated systems for turning them into products. We’ve even learned to make some products more durable than ever before. Cars in the 1970s rarely reached 100,000 miles; today, only a lemon doesn’t make it that far.
Where we have made little progress is in understanding the consequences of our extractions. We live in a throwaway age. I shudder to think how many computers I’ve gone through in the 20 or so years I’ve owned one. I recycle the old one when replacing it, but I wish I could avoid being sucked up into the thinking that faster is essential and yesterday’s is obsolete. It’s undeniably exciting that technology is expanding so quickly, so powerfully, but why does every advance mean replacing the whole system? How many power cords and keyboards do we need?
It’s not the overflowing landfills that worry me. I’m concerned about the unused value of what gets discarded, and what that says about a culture and economy that depends on ever-expanding consumption of consumer goods. We have made a cultural institution of wastefulness.
Scarcity, unless experienced personally, is really hard to understand. We cannot fathom scarcity on a global level; it’s as if we have no more information than what was depicted on the map in Social Studies class. We might know what resources are where, but we haven’t a clue how to gauge whether there’s enough for a globe whose population is expanding exponentially.
Only now, with prices at the gas pump ringing an alarm and an acknowledgment that China and India and a parade of nations behind them want to consume as much as we Americans do, have we started to think about our consumption. Fuel prices have caught our attention, but where we focus that attention will determine what our future will bring.
My father’s penchant for holding onto everything came from his experience of scarcity as a young man. Not an anomaly, he’s emblematic of a generation that responded by being frugal, by conserving resources. How expensive do our goods need to be before there’s a cultural shift?
This summer, I found a use for a small 3-sided shed that we’d torn down when we stopped raising sheep four years ago. We’d kept as much as we could intact – after taking the roof off, we separated the three walls from each other and stored them under cover. My friend John came over to help me build a shed, but when he saw that this was a reassembly project, I thought the eyes were going to roll out of his head. Leveling the old railroad ties on cement blocks, fitting together sections of walls, trying to figure out what ratty old 2x4 went where was more than he could handle.
“We could build a new one in the time it takes to put this thing back together,” he said. “And it would look a lot better than this shack.”
In his words, I heard echoes of my own voice back in the day when I’d first learned that most people went to the lumberyard when they needed boards. But my father passed the pack rat gene on to me, along with the impulse to wring the last bit of use out of any material. I’m happy to say that the old building is back up and serving its purpose, and the only new lumber it required was one 2x8 and a couple of pieces of shiplap siding. And to be honest, not all the nails are new, either.