I love the Little House on the Prairie books. I remember reading them as a child and thinking how basic life was for Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura: a stick of candy and an orange in the Christmas stocking was a thing to get excited about, to be giddy about. They got candy and oranges once per year. As a child, I had access to candy and oranges every day. I liked the thought of appreciating such a simple thing.
In our house, we currently have at least 13 large glass windows and walls that lets in no drafts. We have four kinds of sugar (white, brown, powdered, turbinado) and at least four types of flour (white, wheat, corn, semolina). We keep all of these on hand at all times, and when we’re almost out, we make a quick run to the market to replace them. We also have bread, bagels, 2 types of breakfast cereal, quick oats, instant oatmeal, 4 boxes of pasta, frozen waffles, and at least 3 types of crackers, including cheddar Goldfish. And that’s just a sampling of the flour-based products in our cupboard.
In Little House on the Prairie, though, when the family moves from the big woods of Wisconsin to the unsettled grasslands of Kansas, they eat corn meal and whatever game Pa hunts. They have no milk, cheese, sugar, flour, Pop Tarts, bread, eggs, cereal, waffles, pasta, cheddar Goldfish crackers. None of that. They have none of it. And they have no way to get it. They live in a wagon. They build a cabin out of logs from trees they cut by the stream they settle near. They cut holes in the walls for windows. Holes. As in, open gaps. No glass.
For almost a year they did not visit a store. If they wanted sweetener, Pa found a bee hive. One of my favorite scenes, aside from the passages about the prairie grasses as far as the eye could see, was when Pa returned from the four-day journey to the store and presented his family with a small paper sack.
Ma opened it and Mary and Laura looked at the sparkling whiteness of that beautiful sugar, and they each had a taste of it from a spoon. Then Ma tied it carefully up. They would have white sugar when company came.
What appeals to me about these books is the specialness of the very simple things that are so easy in my life: sugar, flour, “eight small squares of window glass.” I am numb to the sparkling beauty of the sugar in our cupboard. I don’t have to work that hard for it, and so I don’t notice it. I’d like to appreciate it more.
Writing helps with appreciating things. It makes me notice them, makes me roll them around through my senses. Reading does the same thing.
Pioneer books are among my favorites. Little House on the Prairie. The Snow Child. O Pioneers! Pioneer living is hard, endless work. Food, shelter, the basics necessities for life — all are hard won. Nothing is easy. Very little is bought in a store. Almos everything is made by hand.
I know I romanticize the life, the simplicity of it. I would probably hate it. I’d be tired all the time. But the closeness to the earth appeals to me. The minimalism. The gratitude.