Weaving and fermentation are called folk skills these days, as though from a bygone era. As though, in their dissolving into industrial manufacturing they’ve disappeared entirely, instead of only retreated from sight, outsourced and specialized. Yet while they may seem distant, fermentation and weaving are parts of everyday life. Many drink coffee, beer and wine, use vinegar and soy sauce, and eat cheese, chocolate, and salami, all products of fermentation, as well as have woven clothing, curtains, and rugs. We are just disconnected from their source.
Homer Folk School brings together creative minds to respond to this disconnect.
Joining a boon of folk schools popping up all around the country, Homer Folk School has made a name for itself the past two years through its kayak and gardening classes. Past classes have included cider pressing, easy ferments, wild edible and medicinal plants, home brewing, beginning beekeeping, permaculture, traditional qayaq building, and mask making, to name a few. Classes are for all ages — people from seven to 70 have enrolled, and they’re looking for more students and teachers.
That’s why they’re having a foundational membership drive. They kick-off with a First Friday event, “Homer Folk School Rocks,” at 5 p.m. April 6 at the Compass Rose Building, 165 E. Bunnell Ave. The folk school said it hopes to enroll 100 members at $100 each to raise money for the organization. There will be refreshments and beverages, and a gallery with painted rocks by a local artist. Along with membership perks, each member will get to choose a folk rock. Members will also get 10 percent off all classes. Upcoming classes include keeping a family milk cow, animal feed and forage, water catchment, and spoon carving.
All about celebrating the tangible feel of real life, of handmade objects and home cooked food, folk schools teach simple skills. It may be a kickback to our digital lives that folk schools are resurfacing around the country, from Fairbanks to the Ozarks to Appalachia. Learning a folk skill can feel like stepping out of virtual reality into a 3D world. It’s a way of life where you must interact with your environment; wrestling with nature, with fungi and wood and fiber and soil, to create the things you use, be it a kayak or kimchi. Crafting your life. At the folk school, they’re recreating this possibility.
A recent twined rug class was so popular there was a long waiting list. Why so popular?
“I think it has something to do with this idea of recycling materials and turning them into something really useful,” said Executive Director Saskia Esslinger. “Rugs can be expensive, so it’s neat to learn to provide for yourself something that you used to have to buy. It’s not a huge commitment, but you make a rug and leave with something tangible, opting out of consumer society. It’s something people value in Homer.”
Esslinger joined the Folk School this past fall with an extensive background in permaculture design and education. A lifelong Alaskan, she had been traveling extensively and running an online business, www.teachgardening.com, when she connected with Homer local Robin McAllister. A fellow permaculture designer, McAllister recruited her to join the folk school team. With the support of Ageya Wilderness Foundation and a talented board of directors including Nancy Lee Evans, Neil Wagner, Nancy Schrag, Catkin Kilcher and Lasse Holmes, Homer Folk School recently struck out on its own as a nonprofit.
Believers in life-long learning and in keeping people active and connected, many of the classes Homer Folks School offers are in life skills. Aware of the risk that the more we get drawn into our computers the more fragmented we become, their mission emphasizes the importance of bringing the community together.
In a dynamic process, they pair the teacher’s skills with community’s interests to offer classes that hone self-sufficiency and creativity. They are always looking for people that have skills to share. Do you, or someone you know, have a useful skill to share? Sign up to teach a class. It often could be a skill you don’t even think of as a skill, like patching a tear on jeans.
“Homer is so full of really amazing people and artists who have really unique skills, and many of these skills are not being passed on to other people. We want to give people the venue to do that.” Esslinger explained.
Based on a fee share model, teachers get 60 percent and the school 40 percent. For students, classes come out to about $10 per class hour, the national cost average for workshops. They want to make it worthwhile for teachers to spend energy to pass on skills, as well as keeping it affordable to the community — a fine balance to strike. They’re also experimenting with financial assistance for certain classes that are particularly useful to low-income folks, like “Cooking for Survival,” to make sure there is no cost barrier. They’re emphasizing the mission that they are by the community, for the community, and they want the people of Homer to feel like they have a stake in the school.
One class Esslinger is particularly excited about is her extensive Green Thumb Gardening course, which she spent years perfecting.
“It’s an awesome course that I’ve spent years developing, and I want people to know about it. Growing our own food is so important,” she said. “People think it’s just putting seeds in ground but it’s so much more complex. There is composting, intensive techniques for small spaces, soil science. I teach all about growing quality food in a small space specifically for our climate.”
Growing vegetables, weaving rugs, beekeeping, composting, milking cows, carving wooden spoons. Why, one might logically wonder, spend time doing things that have already been done efficiently, on a mass scale, and brought back to you in a cheap and convenient package?
For the empowering feeling of doing it yourself. To know that you can bake your own bread, grow your own veggies, and milk your own cow is to take back some power. You can alchemize value from the land. It shifts you out of an acceptance that your food or clothes will come from a store, and into an awareness of where it truly arises: out of soil, from plants, from our fellow creatures, and out of the labor of people.
This awareness has largely fallen out of national consciousness since industrial and chemical industries have taken over the food supply and the manufacture of most basic goods. Mechanization and industrialization free us from a life of subsistence toil, but they have a tendency to focus purely on mass efficiency, to judge cost only through the prism of one system. Nature’s Quickbooks shows different calculations. The Folk School ethos asks: where does it comes from, and where does it go?
“The wastefulness of modern life just astounds. Folks schools are a kickback against wastefulness,” Esslinger said. “Paper is something we use everyday and we don’t even think about how it’s made or what it means to make a piece of paper or a book. Once you learn how to do it yourself you can see objects in a completely different light. There is a total disconnect. We’re asking, is this a good thing to be doing right now?”
Esslinger described how one class on bookbinding gave rise to contemplation.
“Bookbinding put skills into common people’s hands,” she said. “You can just imagine how empowering that was — you could now learn to read and write and didn’t have to rely on church to tell them what was right or wrong. They didn’t need anyone to teach them things. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to make your own book?”
Not only about the hard skills, it’s also about shifts in perspective, being less unthinkingly reliant on systems to provide our every need. The ethos asks you to examine a little more closely the effects of our daily living: what we’re using, consuming, and disposing of. To look at the whole cycle, the big picture. Be a conscious consumer, an ethical skeptic.
“People are really searching for more meaning in their lives, and that meaning can come from all different places, even from simple things like connections with textures and feelings, and from learning to be with your environment.” she said.
Whether it’s sautéing wild foraged greens or fermenting your local barley crop to make beer, like a torch relay, families passed along the skills of the place they lived, the ecological knowledge of how to thrive in their environment. Mushroom hunting is still a fall tradition in Russia: whole trains fill up with people who rush to the hills to forage for wild-borne, succulent morels. It’s a national holiday. Whether they have a place today, folk traditions were there for a reason; holding meaning, cementing group bonds and surviving through generations. The food you eat, the clothes you wear, how you interact with your environment. It is in the small, cumulative ways, in the traditions that make us sit around a kitchen table or a loom together, that make up our very cultures.
“The folk school is a kickback from virtual world to something that’s extremely real, these skills that were traditionally passed on from grandparents through families have been lost.” Esslinger said. “In the 50s, no one wanted to preserve those skills because they didn’t have to. Now, people are discovering that there is joy in them. They’re tired of all cheap China made products that don’t add anything and are just disposable — they want things that have more meaning to them. I really think that’s why folk schools are becoming more popular. The richness that they add to your life is special, it’s something that can’t be bought.”
If you usually sip your morning coffee out of an unremarkable, mass produced white ceramic mug, you might toss it away unthinkingly. Envision sipping out of a mug you’ve formed from clay and water with your own hands and fired in a kiln yourself. Imagine if you even knew ground the clay came from. Imagine if you drank water from the spring used to call forth pottery from the clay dust. Laboring with its fibers and textures, you begin to know the Earth intimately. This knowingness weaves you a little deeper and more tightly into the web of life. It becomes a story – closer to the true cost and more reflective of ecological reality.
“Someone put love into it, it’s not made by a machine,” Esslinger said. “It’s just a different feeling.”
The value of a handmade life isn’t measured easily, it measures itself in intangibles; in the feel and the texture and the aesthetic pleasure we derive from what surrounds us. The flavor of the jams or pickles in jars — each jar a memory of the forage, suffused with the terroir of that very day. Whether it was storming or sunny, whether you were troubled or peaceful, it’s in those jars. In a kickback against the homogeneous uniformity of industrial branding, it’s choosing to calculate value a little differently; appreciating the ways in which you and your environment are woven and linked.
“It’s not that we all need to go back to the Little House on the Prairie days, but we can rediscover joy in learning to make things for ourselves,” Esslinger said. “There’s a sense of accomplishment to that, there’s a real connection there.”
You don’t have to be ready to tend to your own flock of sheep; just buy some Alaskan wool and learn to spin.