Skills we’ve lost along the way

A while back, I read an article called “8 Skills Our Parents Had That We Don’t.”   It’s not a list of obsolescent techniques, it’s a list of things that once most people could manage, which are still around, and with  today’s “convenience” society, the younger people no longer seem to be able to do.   It struck me, not just because it made me feel old, but I realized that just how many of those things I know how to do along with other things that I see the younger generation unable to do.   I’m not talking about something like “fixing a television set by replacing a vacuum tube,” or build a crystal radio set, which, yes, I once did in my youth and most people wouldn’t see any need for it.  It’s the other things the younger generation has lost along the way.

Finding and picking berries, nuts, and fruit. One of the joys I remember from my childhood was going out and picking berries.  It was one of the ways our parents got us out of their hair for a while.  We were handed buckets and told to go fill them with whatever berry happened to be ripe at the time.   Wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc., you name it, we knew what they were and were experts at finding and cleaning out various patches.  The same thing held true for nut and fruit trees.  Apples, cherries, black walnuts, beechnuts and others were something we knew where one grew and were available for harvest and snacking.   On a list of “healthy things” we did back then, that probably  ranks right up there.  Not only were we getting exercise, we were eating things that most dietitians are saying kids should eat more of, in addition to having a lot of fun.    Today?  Well, I’m saddened that kids will walk right by them, and their parents aren’t sure whether they’re “safe.”   While I appreciate availability of a loaded berry bush, it’s stunning to see a bunch of kids running by it without even giving it a glance.  I’ve even had people look right at an apple tree, and wonder if it was “safe to eat those.”  Umm… yeah, they’re apples!

Reading a map. I’m not talking about “here’s a topographic map with grid coordinates and a compass” sort of map reading.  I’m talking about simple road maps.  With the advent of GPS navigation, people’s ability to read a road map (or follow verbal directions) seems to have vanished.   I’ve had the experience, and I’ve heard it from a lot of others, of people who can’t quite seem to grasp the concept that sometimes, a GPS isn’t the be-all and end-all, and that you really need to look at a map.

Build a fire.  Not “flint and steel” or “bow and drill” fire starting, but just building a simple campfire.   It’s amazing having watched people struggle, or just not bother,  to build a simple fire using matches or a lighter.  It’s something that most of the people my age learned early on, and it’s really not that hard.

Be disconnected. I’m a techie.  I’ve been a computer geek for decades, and I spend a lot of time on the Internet.  I blog, I tweet, I e-mail, I do any number of things with technology over the course of the day.  But, I’m perfectly able to not be “connected” at times.   No cell phones, no e-mail, no instant messages, etc.   I don’t get withdrawal symptoms, and I actually have a good time reading a book or sitting around with friends talking.   Too many of the younger people I see these days have absolute conniption fits if they’re not in constant electronic contact.

Do arithmetic without a calculator. I’m showing my age again, but when I went to school, calculators didn’t exist.  We had to (horror!) memorize multiplication tables, and do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division by hand, using pencil and paper.  For simple things, we could even do it in our head.  No, it wasn’t fun to get through it.   Even after calculators became common and cheap, many states didn’t allow them to be used in the classroom until the mid to late ’80’s.   Here’s the thing:  If my younger co-workers don’t have a calculator to hand, they’re lost.  I appreciate having one, and yes, I do use them, but I don’t need it.  If one isn’t available, I do it by hand.

That’s just a short list of things I thought of after reading that article.  They’re simple things, that most of us in our late 40’s or older could  – and still can – do quite easily.  They’re not even obsolete, but it’s rather sad to see so many of the younger generation unable to do them.



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18 responses to “Skills we’ve lost along the way

  1. Aquagranny911

    Great diary! Loved the first one. We children thought “fast food” was grabbing some fruit off a tree or foraging in Granny’s garden. I think I have eaten just about every vegetable raw while on the run. This might nauseate some people but we would sometimes poke a hole in a new laid egg and suck out the raw contents when we were kiddos.

    My own children did much the same things in my gardens and they are raising my grandchildren the same way so all is not lost to this new generation.

    I had an amusing thing happen recently with new neighbors that moved in next door. Their two children climbed and were looking over my wall while I was working in my gardens. They ask me what I was doing and I told them. I also asked them if they liked tomatoes. They both said yes and I gave them each a big fat ripe one I had just picked. A few days later the children knocked on my door and asked if they could have more. I put them to work weeding and picking and sent them home with more produce. Their mother came over to “apologize” for them “bothering “me. We had a nice chat and the result is that I will be helping and advising them this fall in planting their own garden. Small seeds do get sown….

    • Exactly. I did pretty much the same thing as a kid, except for the eggs. 🙂 But what I remember is that every one of us knew what a raspberry, blueberry, or blackberry bush looked like, and so on. I’ve given more than a few impromptu lessons on “this is what this is, and yes, you can eat them” over the past few years, but the fact that I have not only teach the kids, but also their parents, is sort of sad. From an economy standpoint, why would I pay major money for fresh fruit from a store when it’s free for the picking right in front of me?

  2. Alan Scott


    I’m curious . What is your favorite sure fire method for building a camp fire ?

    • Depending on what’s available, but generally some crumpled newspaper at the center of a pyramid of small sticks. Have a good supply of additional small dry sticks, as well as small (thin) pieces of wood available. Light the paper, and as the sticks catch fire and burn, gradually add more small sticks, then build up to large pieces as it goes, finally graduating to split wood – after that catches, you can pretty much chuck anything on. It doesn’t take that long to get a fire going. If I’m in a hurry, I can also use a firestarter stick – you can even make your own in an empty egg carton with sawdust and canning wax.

      • Aquagranny911

        ♥ Norbrook! Start small and then build bigger.

        Sometimes people try to make the fire too big at the beginning. A great thing for starting a fire is pine cones or pine straw if that is available. Anything with pine resin burns easy, quick and strong.

        • That’s the usual mistake. I’ve seen people with an enormous amount of wood in their fire pits or fireplaces, and wondering why they can’t get the fire lit. If they took out 90% of what they had in there, and started from there, they’d have had one. 🙄

  3. I know how to read maps. In fact I love reading maps. Whenever I find a geographic location I have not heard of , I look it up. When it is in my own state, I look it up and plot how I would get there.

    But I am a geek.

    This is a good list, by the way.

    • Thanks. What caused me to realize that people can’t seem to read a map anymore has been the number of occasions when I’ve felt like reaching through the phone lines and smacking someone upside the head. There’s nothing like telling someone to meet you at some point, have them ask you “what’s the GPS address?” to which the answer is “it doesn’t have one. It’s on state route X, about Z miles past Y town.” “Well, how do I get to Y?” “For Christ’s sake, get a damn map!”

    • Aquagranny911

      Me too. I love maps. I have maps from every State I ever visited or lived in. I have maps from Mexico and Africa and a totally great one from Madrid with all the coolest places marked.

      I’m old and I hate the stupid GPS. Map Quest here recently sent some poor old woman right into a canal when they said “turn left” but they should have said “turn right” oops. I’ve seen ads for new cars where GPS pops up on the dash board. Something like that would have me driving right off the road.

      I like maps, thank you so very much. I will plot my own trip!

      • I don’t mind them, but they have limitations. As I point out to a number of people who are coming into this area, even if you happen to have a 911 or GPS address, it doesn’t necessarily mean the GPS is going to get you to where you need to be, and most of the places I’m telling people to go don’t have an address in the first place. Shockingly, no one bothers to put trail head parking lots, boat launches, or backwoods road camping areas into the databases. They are on a map, though.

  4. Aquagranny911

    Now, I will leave you with only one more comment. My Grandkiddos think I’m a human calculator because I can still add, subtract, multiply and divide in my own poor old head. I think I am becoming one of those museum fossils.

    • Same here. Personally, I’d prefer it if they just banned calculators in classrooms until the students hit 7’th grade. All they’re really teaching kids to do is to push a series of numbers in sequence, and trust the result.

  5. Alan Scott

    Norbrook ,

    Back in the eighties we used to do a lot of kayak and canoe trips down our local river . We had beer picnics on one of the little islands in the river with hot dogs .

    Sometimes the wood on the island would be wet and not easily lit . My favorite fire starter was of course paper . I also always tried to have two small bic lighters . In case one did not work . But the real secret was a small candle . You melt wax over your paper and it will burn longer and hotter, which will get even damp sticks going . Candles do not take up much room in a kayak .

    • True. One of the “homemade” firestarters that doesn’t take much time is to take a cardboard egg carton, fill slots with sawdust, then pour melted wax over it and let it set. Cut it up, and you have some very nice little homemade firestarters that don’t weigh much and will start a fire under most circumstances. Spruce or fir branches with the needles on work great too – they go up in a hurry. 😉 Then again, just to show how old-fashioned I am, I routinely carry two knives with me when I’m in the woods. They’re very handy sometimes.

  6. Alan Scott


    I watch those Surviver man and man verses wild TV shows where they show you how to survive in the remote chance you get stranded in Africa or God forbid the North American woods . These guys either rub two sticks together or have one of those magnesium fire starters or some other primitive device . Then they struggle . I almost always have two little lighters on me . I am not likely to be stranded long enough that they will fail me .

    The egg carton with wax and sawdust sounds right . I am constantly shutting down and relighting my coal stove this time of year . I am always scrounging twigs. Anthracite coal is not easy to ignite when your stove doesn’t have a blower . I melt wax over newspaper to get the twigs going, throw 4 charcoal briquettes on and then throw a little coal on with the ash door wide open .

    • I actually have tried the magnesium firestarters, and while they work, they’re a pain in the butt to get going. The commercial firestarter sticks or the firelogs are just that – wood chips/sawdust and paraffin. The egg cartons make a nice convenient-sized (and easily portable) version that’s significantly cheaper.

      I do enjoy those shows, and one of the things I know from long experience is just what plants I can and can’t eat. As I was explaining to a group one time, it’s not something where I’m going to go off into the woods and live off of nature, but it’s something that, if I get lost, would keep me alive long enough to be found. Of course, the local forest ranger who was next up had to ruin that point by saying “Yeah, but you’re smart enough not to get lost in the first place.” 😆

  7. Alan Scott


    ” Apples, cherries, black walnuts, beechnuts and others were something we knew where one grew and were available for harvest and snacking. ”

    I wish I knew where I could find those in eastern Pa . I know where there is a black walnut tree but I’ve never eaten one . I used to have a big butternut tree that I had to cut down and I did not care for them . Not that any survived the mighty gray squirrels which I have been in a losing battle with for a quarter century . I could send you some live ones if you don’t have any there in New York . They breed like rats .

    We used to find choke cherries and elderberries around here, but the area has been ‘ housed ‘ so badly that those are scarce .

    When I was a kid in Philadelphia, our section still had remnants of it’s agricultural past . Being delinquents we used to steal apples from the not quite abandoned orchard behind our elementary school . We also had wild red raspberries in secret patches where only a few of us knew about .

    I am interested in beechnuts you mentioned . Never had any and have no idea what they look like .

    • If you find a beech tree, at least one that’s still healthy (they’re getting harder to find), in the fall they have nuts. It looks like this there are some photos of beech trees here. Black walnuts are much better as a substitute for regular walnuts or other nuts in cooking than eaten straight, in my opinion. Not to mention the staining capability of the fruit. 🙄