It was my friend’s fault.
And the invitation of blank white walls.
And the case of not being able to see the trees for the apples.
If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have answered the call of the blue wren. I wouldn’t have seen how one bag of apples can feed a whole community.
I would have kept walking, and life would have been a little bit less because of it.
This is a post about our differences. But also about our kinship. It’s about craftsmanship and why it’s important.
It started as a story of blue wrens and apples and turned into a tale of what it means to be human.
I had already begun making notes for this article when Etsy launched their Difference Makes Us campaign and invited me to be part of it. The campaign fit right in with what I was already writing (which almost never happens).
Difference Makes Us…Human
There was no sign, but I knew where I was.
White everywhere. White floors, white walls, white tables.
And white devices.
I was an outsider looking in; they were inside looking down.
Humans have distinct traits: we can innovate, problem solve, create. The foundation of this inherent creativity is diversity. It’s the coming together of two unrelated ideas to form a completely new idea.
Our differences – our individual uniqueness – foster creativity and has been the spark that’s fired innovation for tens of thousands of years. Isn’t it ironic that one man who epitomises modern innovation has created one of the most homogenised brands in the world?
What’s this got to do with handmade goods?
Unique, hand-crafted items are the manifestation of an individual’s skill. We’re toolmakers and handmade goods are the ultimate expression of our humanness.
No two items are alike, just as no two artists are alike. They are the opposite of homogenous, mass-produced consumer goods.
Not only are hand-crafted items the result of an individual’s creativity, they are also the expression of the buyer’s individuality. 7.5 billion people on the planet and no-one has a necklace quite like that one. And you picked it because it’s a reflection of your individuality.
I heard Tim Winton say recently that we’re no longer a society, we’re an economy.
And if you listen to the news, we’re not citizens anymore, we’re consumers.
When we buy handmade, we’re dealing with a person (even online), the person who crafted the item, not a corporation. It’s much easier to be a fellow citizen when your fellows have a face and a name and story.
Difference Makes Us…Community
In total contrast to the starkness of the Apple store is the farmer’s markets.
We got there early. The air had a cold bite, but the clear skies promised a warm day.
As we wandered from homemade preserves to artisan sour dough – still warm – a spruiker promised to sell us the ‘best sausages in the state’ and the smell of them sizzling on the BBQ convinced they would fulfil that promise.
When an apple seller said g’day, I realised I had met him the day before.
My mother had asked me to help out at their local food bank and despite being on holiday, I couldn’t say no.
The food bank works somewhat like a buying co-operative for low-income earners. You pay a set amount of money each week and you can choose from a selection of groceries. The money that comes in that week goes towards buying the groceries for the next week and the members benefit from the buying power of a larger group.
It was at the food bank I’d met this apple seller.
There’s no doubt that shopping your local farmer’s market gives you a warm fuzzy feel-good vibe. But the bigger picture struck me for the first time.
By purchasing my produce here, I realised the money would likely be spent at the food co-operative next week. The flow-on affect means that dozens of local families would benefit via the collective buying power of the food co-op. It’s a win-win situation, one that allows people to keep their dignity in the face of hardship.
The money would stay in the community and touch a lot more people than just the stall owner.
“Money works like blood – it needs to circulate around the local economy if it is going to keep it alive.” David Boyle [source]
Local businesses tend not to make huge profits, which means they are spending their income on stock, wages and other expenses within the community. Money keeps flowing and everyone benefits.
Unlike big box stores, where large profits are the goal. Rather than circulating, the profits pay for exorbitant CEO salaries and shareholder dividends. Money flows out like a wound and congeals in the pockets of the few, widening the gap between rich and poor and reinforcing structural inequality.
There are good aspects to globalisation and big box stores (I love IKEA as much as the next person). But a balance between local and global is essential for a healthy community.
What’s more, in times of high unemployment (and increasingly, as big box stores and manufacturers replace us with self-serve machines and robots), it’s the old skills that provide us with employment and income. And being in direct, personal contact with your local community, you can adjust your offering to their needs.
Ever go shopping for clothes to find that what’s on offer is totally wrong for your local climate? Like Winter jackets in Northern Queensland. And the salesperson tells you that head office buys for every store in Australia?
Contrast that with a local producer, who uses local raw materials to make items that are just perfect for the needs of the local community.
Difference Makes Us…Whole
It was my friend’s fault because she bought a house.
Unlike Apple, her blank white walls were less of a statement and more an invitation. And she answered the invitation with carefully selected art pieces that expressed her unique personality and turned her house into an inviting home.
Having never bought art and being thus inspired, I started searching, paying more attention, developing my own tastes.
And I discovered I’m partial to watercolour botanical illustrations.
My walls called for apples. And trees. And the birds that nest in the trees.
A pair of blue wrens answered the call from a quiet corner of the markets.
I would have walked past them if it wasn’t for my friend.
Blue wrens are a childhood favourite and these particular birds were beautifully illustrated in pencil and watercolour and I’m still in rapture over them.
What’s more, I’d seen a Botanical Illustration exhibition and the Museum of Sydney just a few days before and a video of one of the artist’s process showed she spent around 200 hours on a single, amazing painting. So I was primed to appreciate the skill involved.
We are at a point where traditional skills that have been passed down for centuries are in danger of being lost.
“So what?” you might say. Who needs handmade wooden beer barrels anymore? No one mourns the loss of not being able to make stone age tools.
While it’s true that the world changes and there are plenty of new skills in our technologically advanced world, the problem is they don’t involve our hands.
They involve interfacing with screens.
Simon Sinek, in this amazing video (watch this – despite just disparaging screens – I’m totally in love) made the comment that we’re legacy machines. The world is changing rapidly, but our bodies are still essentially adapted for hunting and gathering.
We are meant to be physical and work with our hands. The act of creating – in the very tactile sense – is who we are.
We are happier when we work with our hands, particularly with natural materials. We suffer less depression. We suffer less illness. Less stress.
Handiwork gives us a sense of pride and satisfaction. It keeps us in touch with our heritage and our humanity.
Every community has assets in its people and their skills, even if the market economy doesn’t recognise them. [source]
Despite how easy and inexpensive it is to pick up just about anything you want in a big box store, there’s still an important place for handmade goods in our community. By choosing to buy handmade and local (and you can filter the online Etsy store to shop just in Australia if you wish), you’re supporting artists, families and whole communities and keeping traditional skills alive that will have a place well into the technological future.