books, link-ups

The Shortcut

the shortcut

Ok, so first off I want to acknowledge that I’m bending the #pfmessages rules a tiny bit here. I had suggested that we all analyze the money-related messages in novels or other fictional works, but for my own contribution I’ve decided to talk about a series of memoirs: the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That being said, I would also argue that memoirs are by nature a form of creative non-fiction—that the landscape of memory is vast and messy, and choices must be made about what to play up or down in order to present a coherent narrative.

So with that in mind, here is my #pfmessages contribution about the Ingalls family and what they taught me about the utter weirdness of money.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, as you probably know, wrote a series of books about her experiences growing up with her parents and sisters in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota in the mid-late 19th century. Laura’s family are homesteaders—pioneers—and they move around a lot. Whenever they move, Laura’s father, Pa, builds a new house for the family and makes furniture to fill it. Pa and Ma grow and water and harvest crops and raise animals for food, and Pa hunts for more food. Ma cooks and preserves the food, sews clothing and linens, and cleans and takes care of the house. These jobs take all day, and Pa and Ma (and Laura) work extremely hard, on every day of the week except Sundays.

This was absolutely fascinating to me as a child because I grew up, as many of us did, in a home where everything we needed in order to survive (as well as some things that we didn’t necessarily need) was procured through money. To read about a little girl whose family made, found, built, and grew many of the necessities of daily life, with relatively few money transactions involved, was an unfamiliar and highly intriguing idea to me. (To be sure, Pa does take on short-term jobs at different points, and his earnings are used to buy things like sugar and flour, and seeds to plant, and fabric for making clothing, but whenever the family can make or grow or raise or cut down or hunt or build something themselves, they do so. It’s a true DIY kind of lifestyle.)

So let’s compare the Ingalls family to a typical modern middle-class family in the Western world. What do these two families have in common? Well, if we strip everything down to the absolute basics, I’d say that both families have the same basic goal: they need food, clothing, and shelter. And both families work all day in order to ensure that they will have these things.

However, the two families reach this end goal in very different ways. I like graphs and figures, so let’s look at this visually. Here’s how you achieve those goals if you’re part of a modern, middle-class family:

indirect route

Rather indirect, isn’t it?

Here’s how you would achieve those same goals if you lived like the Ingalls family:

direct route

In both cases the family spends all day working, and in both cases the end result is the same.

The difference, one could say, is that Ingalls family takes a sort of shortcut.

It’s funny, isn’t it? How removed most of our jobs seem to be from the underlying goals of working, I mean. The original reason people worked all day was because that was how long it took to procure food with adequate caloric value to get through the day and ensure that other basic needs were met. Very few modern jobs, on the other hand, are directly related to where the workers are going to personally sleep that night, or personally have for dinner; rather, they’re several giant steps removed.

I suppose the key difference is that the Ingalls family, for whatever reason(s), was not participating in the larger economy in the way the most of us do today. When you have a large number of people sharing a system of capital, different jobs can be claimed by different people (theoretically according to our skills and talents), and that way each person can learn one specific job really well, and no one has to learn how to do everything. And the result is that some of us take care of farming and building houses and making clothing, while others of us have jobs that have nothing to do with any of that. I know zilch about economic theory, so I can’t explain to you how this actually works—or how it is that many of us are able to make double or triple or quadruple what we technically need in order to survive from day to day—but I’m pretty sure that’s the general idea.

My goal here is not to make a value judgment about homesteading vs. modern jobs. Some people might say that homesteading is purer than a modern consumer lifestyle and therefore something to aspire to, while others might point out that a homesteading lifestyle can be precarious and stressful and does not allow for furthering one’s education or saving or retiring or achieving financial independence. I certainly don’t want to romanticize homesteading, as it involves a huge amount of work, and in some cases it could involve feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, and/or worried about where the next few meals are coming from.

I do, however, want to suggest that it could be a valuable exercise to take a moment, once in a while, to pause and reflect and marvel at the strange, strange, world we live in, a world in which a day spent pressing keys on a keyboard, or performing calculations, or talking to people on the phone, or preparing documents, or painting, or teaching, or selling things to people, somehow magically transforms itself into clothes on our backs and food on the table and a warm bed to sleep in, among other things.

That’s what Laura Ingalls Wilder taught me about money.

Just something to think about.

Addendum: For a list of links to other cool #pfmessages posts by other people, click here.

What do you think about all of this? Did you get anything similar (or different) out of the Little House books? Do you know more about economic theory than I do and want to explain why our modern route to feeding ourselves is so indirect? Go for it!

28 Comments on “The Shortcut

  1. As always Sarah, you bring up some incredibly fantastic points! I never thought of the indirect and direct relationship of homesteading/modern day workforce and the outcomes. What’s fascinating to me is that there are people who also successfully incorporate the two (working in a modern day workforce, while incorporating elements of making their own clothes, growing their own food, etc.). I can’t say I have read The Little House books (I know, I need to do so!) but it’s striking the influence they still have to this day when it seems consumer culture & the indirect route of working to providing is fairly prevalent. I love how you challenge people to marvel at the world, that their work & energy provides them with their shelter, food, clothing, etc. I definitely think about this often, where I take a look at a company/product of a company and realize that X amount of employees can take care of themselves & their families because of the final result of their efforts. Very incredible!

    1. Oh, the Little House books are so worth it, Alyssa! My favorite was always The Long Winter — actually, it could be fun to read during wintertime if you’re looking for reading material these days. 🙂

      That’s such a good point that a lot of people combine a money-based lifestyle with a DIY lifestyle — I feel like that sort of choice is becoming more common these days. I wish I had more pioneering skills, but it’s tough when you live in a city. :/

      Glad you liked the post! 🙂

  2. I don’t think anyone is begrudging you for bending the #pfmessages rule! It was your brainchild!

    We indeed live in a strange and modern world! We live in a world where it feels like people can get paid for ANYTHING (as long as it’s marketed properly – snuggies are backwards robes after all 🙂 ) It is pretty amazing how we as a society work together to make all the products and grow the foods that we purchase on a daily basis.

    I don’t think I would survive a homesteading lifestyle! I need my current technology and I don’t want to have to make my own clothes! I can barely cook anything more than some eggs and a sandwich! 🙂

    1. Yeah, I’m with you, Vic! I actually was reading an article in the New Yorker a while back about this guy who is building a new society in the desert in preparation for the apocalypse, and he was talking about how all the writers and lawyers and artists will basically be totally useless because they have no idea how to make tools or grow tomatoes. So, yep, that’s me! At least I’m in good company. 🙂 Someday when I have a yard I would love to learn to garden; maybe that could be my one useful skill.

  3. I was a huge Little House fan growing up and now we are reading them to my son so I’ve definitely been thinking about this very topic! I really want to research how we got from homesteading/farming to desk jobs, and back to homesteading becoming popular again. Maybe I won’t discover anything that isn’t obvious, but there has to be some good principles in that history.

    1. Oh cool, Kalie, that’s great that you’re reading them to your son! I think they’re such great books for anyone, but people so often assume that they’re “girls’ books” — I’m glad you’re not buying into that! Honestly, I have the urge to reread them again as an adult — I think there is a lot of wisdom in them about hard work and resourcefulness and courage. I’d be interested to hear what you discover about the homesteading-office-homesteading progression!

      1. Also, for the record, the Little House books originally classified as fiction despite being based closely on her experience, so you’re following the rule! There is a fascinating new book out with the original manuscript of her actual memoirs, the story of how she shaped this into the Little House series, and lots of detailed annotations. MIght be a fun way to re-read them. I found it at the library:

        1. Oh, no way! That is so interesting. I did read somewhere that she changed a lot of facts, but I don’t think I was aware of the extent of the changes. I am so going to check this out — thanks!

    2. Yes, I would also be interested to know how our desire to go “back to the land” has ebbed and flowed over generations, and for what reasons. I know I romanticized Laura Ingalls because I romanticize creating useful things– being on the production end of the world instead of the consumer end. It’s amazing how satisfied I can be with little basil and rosemary window plants, or imperfect sewing projects. But I also know that going the direct route all the time seems just laborious and uncomfortable instead of social and exciting.
      I love this lense of books and movies on personal finance and gender roles !

      1. Ah, interesting — the concept of creation vs. consuming. I think you’re right that that is a major theme here, though I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way before. I do remember romanticizing the Little House books as a kid, but I have to confess it was borne more out of a misplaced sense that it would be somehow romantic to not know if you had enough food to make it through the winter (ugh, what an inappropriate thing to romanticize).
        But creating things…I like that. And there are a lot of ways to create things that don’t necessarily have to do with homesteading. I wonder how making art ties in with the homesteading type of creating, if at all?

  4. I’m pretty glad I don’t have to be a homesteader, since my gardening and sewing skills are just sad.
    I’m not even sure you have to go back a whole century to feel modern useless. I was reading the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, and even surviving regular WWII rationing (much less what the Channel Islanders went through) sounds like it would take more resourcefulness than I can manage.

    But self-reliance and subsistence farming is the state of most of humanity through most of history. That we are so far from it now is actually a little scary. We lost power for a couple of days last year during a snow storm. A day without power, and I had to leave my house for my inlaw’s because it was cold, had no running water and most of all, no coffee.

    1. I think I’ve heard of the book you mention, and now I’m interested to go look it up. I know basically nothing about the Channel Islanders but am definitely interested in WWII-era history.

      Yeah, you’re totally right; we modern-day people are definitely the weirdos here. 🙂 I too would be totally useless in any type of natural disaster or breakdown of society type situation. I would probably get assigned to weeding the fields or carrying rocks from place to place. Sigh. And a lack of coffee would not be a good situation for me either!

    2. Hi, Enancejivden – I loved the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, too! An excellent book that I’ve loaned out about eight times and always gotten it back to rave reviews. You had to admire their resourcefulness and their stamina (mental and physical) being occupied and cut-off for such a long time. I agree that it brings home the fact we are pretty reliant on stocked store shelves and running utilities – but no coffee is a screaming emergency!! 🙂

      1. Wow, multiple recommendations! I really need to read this as soon as I’ve finished my current stack of books! 🙂

  5. I loved all the Little House books and have read them several times during my life. Interestingly, I read that many of our modern day anxieties and phobias appeared when we transitioned from an agrarian society to an industrialized one. With that came the need to interact with more people and all the accompanying problems. I’m sure Laura Ingalls greatly romanticized her growing-up life. It must have been tough, really. Can you imagine trying to wash and dry diapers for a baby in a dugout in the middle of winter?

    In spite of the complexities of modern day life, I embrace all our conveniences, My grandmother had a pump in the kitchen of her childhood farmhouse and never wanted to go back to that! Our society is so interdependent now, and don’t forget, our population is much greater now. Returning to an agrarian society would be quite impossible.

    1. Yes, that’s such a good point, Isabella, I have read something similar about our modern day anxieties. And it’s definitely true that there’s no going back — we can’t just collectively decide as a society to return to an agrarian way of life (I’m pretty sure there would be more than a few people who would not be up for that…) 🙂 And with good reason — things like indoor plumbing and washing machines and central heating make a really huge difference in our quality of life today. I do think it’s important not to romanticize that type of lifestyle; there may have been really beautiful, wonderful things about it, but I’m sure it was a very difficult life in many other ways. I’m actually interested in rereading one of these books now as an adult, as I imagine I might have a very different perspective on it.

      1. Yes, in addition, all those conveniences make our lives more efficient too! It was indeed backbreaking to simply put some food on the table and heat a home. Children were also considered part of the labor force, and many did not have a real childhood. I don’t believe there would be enough land to go around if we returned to an agrarian lifestyle!

        1. Yes, absolutely! Child labor was definitely tied in to that whole lifestyle. Not a good thing at all. We really are very fortunate — a good thing to remember as we’re starting a new year. 🙂

  6. I often ponder what a lost art so many things are. I watched my grandma preserve food, bake from scratch, sew, and my grandpa build things in his wood shop that he created, and garden. I suck at all of those things. It’s not that I want to live a homestead life, but we do take for granted how incredibly easy we have it now, and how we can get instant access to so many things that people had to work so hard for generations before us. So I think even if we step back and have moments of gratitude and appreciation, we might not be so tempted to spend so much money on things that don’t matter.

    1. Yes, absolutely, Tonya, I am definitely in the same boat with you in terms of my lack of baking, sewing, building, and gardening skills. If society collapsed, I would be pretty much useless! And we do have int incredibly easy — these days I think very often about how simple it is for me to get warm in the winter. I can get hot water, or even hot air, with the flip of a switch or the press of a button. I’m reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy, in which people need to have the basic necessities fulfilled in order to focus on more philosophical, higher-level things, or even on trying to chase happiness. If you can’t get yourself warm or fed, it’s hard to devote much energy to anything else.
      So yes, I agree that gratitude is key here! Something I’d like to focus on more in the New Year. 🙂

  7. The modern economy evolved because even Pa couldn’t make ‘necessities’ like a smartphone, Xbox console, regular trips to Disneyland, and plasma televisions. 🙂

    1. Hahahahaha, yeah, I think that must be it. How did we ever live without these things?? (Full disclosure: I don’t fully understand what an Xbox is, but I hear they’re pretty popular.)

  8. This is a fascinating article on a classic series. I’ve always been interested in the DIY way and have tried to learn more skills. The older I get, the more value I place in skills and experience than owning new things.

    Although our current indirect route is bizarre from a historical perspective, the incredible specialization we now have has enabled tremendous technological advance. Unfortunately it hasn’t seemed to translate into any lifestyle advance—people are working more now than ever. Hunter-gatherers “worked” only ~30 hours a week. But they also died of appendicitis. Still, it seems like a better balance should exist today. Perhaps a sea change will occur when technology truly frees humanity from working incredibly hard solely to satisfy the basic needs.

    Thanks again for a great post. I look forward to reading more of what you write.

    1. Thanks, Mortimer, glad you liked the post. 🙂 Yes, I agree that the key to our current lifestyle is largely due to extreme specialization. And we do have amazing advances in medicine and communication, among other things…too bad we don’t have much free time, as you say.

      Your comment about technology freeing humanity from having to take care of basic needs reminds me a tiny bit of that book “The Singularity is Near” — which I actually haven’t read yet, but should, because I hear it referenced so often. I believe it’s about the potential future fusion of humans and technology (which actually sounds pretty scary!).

      1. Yeah, it is pretty reminiscent of the singularity idea! Not sure who wrote that particular book but a guy named Ray Kurzweil has been a big proponent of the convergence of humans with their technology. Like you, I am skeptical about it, and what it might eventually mean.

        1. Yup, Ray Kurzweil, that’s the author! I really need to look into this, since I really know next to nothing about it. It sounds like science fiction, but a lot of very smart people seem to think it’s a viable theory, so I feel obligated to at least check it out!

  9. Haven’t read the book / s however get the gist of the message :)!
    My thoughts are that yeah it doesn’t actually make sense to do it indirectly although it’s a dominant theme to live this way, which doesn’t make it the “right” way but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless

    Thought provoking here Sarah, good job!

    1. Thanks, yes, it’s an interesting concept to consider — and even today, there are people going both routes.

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