I was one of those boys who spent a lot of my time roaming around the farm. When I wasn’t in school or doing chores, I was usually in the woods or along (or in) the streams, or examining the earth to see what I could find. Since there was evidence of the human occupation of that land for at least 3,000 years or so, there was plenty to find. Rocks of all kinds sat in the landscape, many on the surface, especially around the streams, mostly because the land had been covered by glaciers that had deposited that variety of rocks from a vast distance.

Rocks with special shapes captured my attention. From sandstone to granite, heavy large rocks that had bowls shaped into their surface often served as grinding stones for grains and nuts that were gathered or grown. Hand-sized round rocks with grooves or indentations had a useful life as anything from hammers to shaft-sharpeners. Worked flint came in the form of knives, projectile points, and hide scrapers. Broken shards of pottery showed the workmanship that had once shaped a vessel or an ornament. Rarely did I walk across the land and not find something that had been used by someone long ago.

Where clusters of tools showed up in one place the earth itself often showed the marks of human occupation with berms of soil shaped into circles and rectangles where lodgings had once stood. These remains clustered in three areas, each where a spring still kept the soil moist through summer seasons, even though farmers had for eighty years stripped the land of trees, cultivated, and shaped grass waterways into the middle of those fields, where once those springs had bubbled to the surface.

It impressed me that where my parents, two brothers, and I lived, many hundreds of people had lived for uncounted generations, leaving their marks. Where had they all gone? For only a few years heavy machinery had plowed and prepared those fields, and large barns, cribs, and a house or two had stood, providing a livelihood for a handful of people. For hundreds of years that same land had fed, sheltered, and provided for hundreds, using only what they found there, living simply “off the land.” They had to understand a lot in order to accomplish what they did.

Modern civilization depends on a complexity of specialized and diversified tasks, with a comparatively small number of people providing food for a multitude. Living off the land now means leaving the land behind, but by doing that, we know less and less about what sustains our lives, and more and more about the tiny components of our own specializations. Where is the progress in that?