Crazy Useful Things

Every useful thing begins with nature.

From an apple to methylated paraben to steel to nylon, everything we eat, wear, burn, and build has its origin somewhere in nature. What it takes to make it useful to humans, is a matter of degree. Can we pluck it straight from the tree and eat it? Do we have to heat it and shape it? Or do we have to take it apart molecule by molecule, and put it back together as something else?

Botanical drawing of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
A botanical drawing of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).

There was a time, not very long ago, when everything that humans needed and wanted was made by skilled artisans working in small shops, using techniques, tools, and materials that were, for the most part, within the reach of the average person. This is cottage industry.

Then, as now, raw materials were collected or cultivated, dried, ground, beaten, melted, mixed, subjected to any number of chemical processes, spun, stretched, sometimes even buried for long periods of time. These processes, though sometimes complicated, and often the result of hard-won knowledge, were still within the reach of almost anyone willing to learn them.

Today, things are different. In the modern household, the materials and processes that make up most of what we own are a mystery to us. But they don’t have to be. Cottage industry connects you to your stuff, and to the people who make it, and the natural world that it comes from. Crazy Useful is on a mission to help you spark your own personal cottage industry revolution.

There are three pillars to cottage industry. This page, Crazy Useful Things, addresses the first pillar: the raw materials of the natural world. No matter where you fit in the circle of cottage industry, whether you are (or want to be) a supplier of raw material, a skilled artisan, or an appreciative consumer, understanding more about the resources found in the natural world is indispensable and enriching.

Have you ever found yourself asking 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 useful stuff is out there, that I don’t even know about?

I did, and this is where it led me. The entire concept behind Crazy Useful started with one simple question: What is gum arabic? Where does it come from, and what is it used for? Little did I know that by asking that question, I was putting one foot out over a very deep, unimaginably crazy rabbit hole. That’s where this journey can take you.

So, where to start?

Well, you start here: The Natural Resources Categorized by Use. The purpose of this page is not so much to give you facts about individual things (although it does do that), it’s more about highlighting the patterns that occur within the world of natural resources. It is also intended to spark your curiosity, and to give you the means to follow that curiosity to wherever it might lead. With that goal in mind, there are two important things to note about this page:

  • It is not comprehensive. The goal here is to highlight patterns, and I believe that to try to catalog the entire world of natural resources in this format would be confusing, unsuccessful, and simply obscure those patterns. I have, however, tried to be thorough in illustrating those patterns.
  • It is a continual work in progress. I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about this subject. As I learn new things, I will share them with you.

Also, let me introduce you to some of my closest friends.

When I was writing the book Crazy Useful Things: A Dictionary of Natural Resources and Their Products, I used many, many different resources to find information. But these fellows listed below were my boon companions, and I can’t recommend them highly enough — if you really want a thorough overview of the world of natural resources.

World Economic Plants: A Standard Reference (2nd Ed.), by John Wiersema and Blanca Leon. At 1336 pages and with 12,000 entries, it is as comprehensive a list of useful plants as you could ever want. It does have a couple of shortcomings. Mainly, that it is organized only alphabetically by scientific name (i.e,. binomial name). I would have loved to see them produce an alternative categorization by use. But then the book would have been 3000 pages long, so maybe I can understand why they didn’t do that…

Concise Encyclopedia of Mineral Resources, by Donald D. Carr and Norman Herz (Ed.). This is actually one of a series of books that is a joint project of Cambridge University’s Pergamon Press and the MIT Press. The series is composed of the monolithic Encyclopedia of Materials Science and Engineering (later called Advances in Materials Science and Engineering), and several supplementary “Concise” encyclopedias, like this one. I used this and the Wood and Wood-Based materials encyclopedia the most. They are thorough and easily searchable by resource and by use (e.g. “Abrasives”).

Strangely, I have been unable to find an equivalent singular resource that covers the topic of raw materials that we get from animals and insects. But if I ever do, I will happily post it on this page.

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