My mother had intended to get rid of the old pillows. Taking them out her back door one summer day, she walked with them to the middle of the woods on her farm in the mountains of North Carolina. Finding an open spot, she shook the pillow tickings, dumping the feathers into a pile on the ground, and then she squatted down to examine them. To outside eyes she must have looked strange—a 70-year-old woman looking at a pile of feathers. But having released the feathers, she could not walk away, for she realized that she remembered them. The pillows had been stuffed years earlier by my grandmother when my mother was still a child.
In those days, her father bought baby chicks in the spring, trying a different variety each year to add to their small flock. Now, 60 years later, she reached a hand into the mound of feathers and picked up a yellowish feather that was from the Yellow Buff chickens that fed in the yard one summer. She saw black and white speckled ones from the smaller Anconias. She found some half-grown rooster feathers and remembered her mother plucking the young roosters to fry on Sundays in the little white clapboard house where she grew up. She recalled her mother soaking the feathers in soapy water to clean them, then spreading them out in the sun to dry. She remembered the big washtub of feathers waiting in the barn until there were enough to fill a pillow.
But all these years later, the pillows were old and had been kept in the basement for ages. In a fit of cleaning, she had decided to let the swallows have the feathers to line their nests. But after sitting with the feathers and the memories they brought back to her, she ended up putting most of them back into the pillow ticking and taking them home with her. She couldn’t bear to get rid of them just yet.
Living a long way from that farm where I grew up, it would never occur to me to look inside my pillows. Today my pillows come from a bin at the department store with a little tag that says "Made in China" or some other place half a world away. Somehow I don’t want to know what’s inside these pillows. I don’t want to know too much about my pillows or the clothes I wear or the food I eat.
How have we gotten so far from the days when we slept on pillows made by our own hands? It has been only a generation or two since our relatives made their own goods and grew their own food. When I was growing up on that mountain farm, my family carefully husbanded all the provisions that came our way. "Don’t waste that honey," my mother would say, as I cut into some newly gathered honeycomb. "Think of how many bees it took to carry that much honey back to the hive."
For thousands of years, our ancestors were a part of this cycle of life, following the sunshine as it warmed the fields, blessing the rains, and cherishing the harvests. It is only most recently that the great mass of us have moved away from this life that always sustained us. Led by the promise of Adam Smith’s "invisible hand," we moved away from the harvest cycle, trusting that if each of us pursues our own good, then as if by magic, the good of society will be attained. What a wonderful life that has given us as individuals. As we specialize, each of us can give our best effort to the things that we are best capable of doing, letting go of the chores that we dislike. We can be artists or plumbers or therapists and let others worry about hoeing the carrots.
It is so easy to live without a thought for the means of production. Money buys food, clothes, sofas, or whatever we need, and money pays for the garbage trucks to whisk it away when we are done with it. We need no knowledge of how or where something is produced—if we want it and have the money, we can have it. The smiling girl on the box of raisins assures us that the world is all right. When we hear about a problem in some other place, we can donate a few dollars and trust that someone else will take care of the problem for us.
Before the money economy took over, we did things the hard way. My grandfather collected barrels of used nails that he hammered until they were straight enough to use again. He watched the trees to see which ones needed to be cut, only cutting them when they could be used. "Why doesn’t Grandpa chop down that old dead tree?" I would ask. "He doesn’t need it now," was the reply. "He’s saving it until he needs more firewood."
Today I have no trees saved until I need them. Few of us even raise our own food, except for an occasional tomato plant or backyard garden. I remember my grandmother’s frail hands endlessly paring down knobby little apples with an old knife resharpened until its blade cupped in like a scythe. She saved every apple that fell, treating it as a gift from God. Each quart she canned held hundreds of tiny slivers of salvaged apple. Each quart was a prayer. This year my neighbors cut down their only apple tree for no reason other than it was too messy. Apples are easier bought from the store.
Somehow, before we drift too completely away from our knowledge of where things come from, we need to make sure that all is truly being taken care of. In our haste to trust the system, have we made sure there are enough people dedicated to studying the best use of the land, the forests, the oceans? Worry creeps into our minds when we make our purchases. How can we make sure we are not feeding into an evil system? A recent advertisement for a coffee cooperative summed up my feelings well. "Excuse me," says the lady in the cartoon to the waiter: "There’s the blood and misery of a thousand small farmers in my coffee."
It gets harder with each new innovation to pay attention to the greater picture. However, we cannot long continue to let ourselves believe that invisible hands will cure society’s ills. Each of us needs to live with attention to the details, buying food locally, supporting renewable production methods, buying used goods. In every way we should seek to make our impact small on Earth. The Quaker adage to "live simply" isn’t just about avoiding the vanity of ownership; it has become a necessity to protect the future of Earth.
We must pay attention to the life of every item we use, from the gasoline that invisibly flows into our cars, to the plastic bubble that surrounds our new toothbrush. It sounds silly to think of holding in the Light our paper towels, but how else are we going to replace the use-and-throw-away mentality? Can we resist the lure of "new" and "improved," and find value in "old" and "threadbare"? The future must reverse the hundred-year slide away from sustainability or the future will be short indeed.
I bring here the story of my mother and her feather pillows to remind us of how far we have gotten away from the days when we ate, wore, and slept on the fruit of our own hands. Let us take our security less from some "invisible hand" of an economy run by desire for profits and more from the fruits of our own hands.