Crazy Useful started as a question: What is gum arabic, and where does it come from? By itself, it was a pretty easy question to answer: I just looked it up on Wikipedia. But as soon as I did that, I realized that I had a whole bunch of other questions to go along with it. Questions like:
What did people eat in Europe, before they were introduced to the potatoes, corn, beans, coffee, chocolate and vanilla from the Americas?
How many bugs are edible?
Do gemstones have a use, beyond just being pretty?
Are there any important food crops that are not domesticated?
Where does ink come from?
What did people do before there was plastic?
What will we do after petroleum?
How much stuff like gum arabic is out there, that I don’t even know about?
The answer to that last question, as you probably guessed, is a lot.
Once I started looking for answers to questions like that, the next thing I realized is that somebody has to have the know-how to turn all those raw natural products into something useful.
For example: How do you extract cashew nuts from their highly allergenic fruit? How do you make elderberries non-toxic enough to eat? And how did people make stuff like dyes, fabrics, wheels, adhesives, varnishes, glazes, cosmetics, pottery, paper, ink, detergents, hammers, ropes, and compasses before there were synthetics, laboratories, and factories?
Many of these skills and trades have carried forward — many have not. Many trades that were once a vital part of life and the economy have fallen into disuse, while others live on as hobby or boutique skills, and some have more or less been forgotten altogether. Which ones are worth keeping or reviving, and are there some that are better to let go?
At the bottom of all of this is a question that is, to me, the most important one:
What knowledge can we gather from the past and present that will take us into a pleasant and meaningful future?
The answer is, naturally, a continual work in progress, and no one person can answer it. This blog is, more than anything, an invitation to you to join the quest. I hope it will inspire you to ask question and seek answers, and to explore and build your own relationship with the world around you.
With love and hope for the future —
Featured photo credit: Gum arabic, by Tarig A. Eltom courtesy of Wikimedia Commons