Warden, IL. The 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature went to Norwegian author Knut Hamsun for his novel Growth of the Soil. It is the story of Isak, who builds a farm and a life for himself out of a tract of wilderness and little else. Isak is one durable tradesman. He makes his beginning as a SHEPHERD and then spends a few pages meandering through FARMING, GARDENING, WOODWORKING, and CARPENTRY to find himself in need of a MIDWIFE. He and Inger, the woman who arrives to provide the various forms of help he needs, finish their first chapter as approved workmen: “They had done well, these builders in the waste: ay, ‘twas a wonder and a marvel to themselves.”

A marvel to us as well. We who have built our lives out of . . . what? Structures we accepted as part of the landscape, forces that blew us through school after school, expectations that didn’t seem to have much wrong with them beyond not having any other ideas. We look at Isak and Inger and wonder how they did it, and why, if they did, we can’t. Rory Groves wonders harder. How does one leave the herd? What are the mechanisms by which one could exit a machine owned and operated by someone else? What are the Durable Trades, and how does one sign up for them?

The durable trades, Groves says, are “types of businesses [that] have been least affected by external factors throughout history, place, governments, economic cycles, invention, and social upheaval.” They have “endured for centuries and still exist today,” are “family-centric,” and “still provide a living.” Groves proposes five criteria for identifying a durable trade: historical stability, resiliency, family-centeredness, income, ease of entry. He then uses these criteria to rank trades that have thrived on both sides of the Industrial Revolution. Finally, he studies the contemporary manifestation of each trade.

Work in the durable trades does not seek radical self-reliance. The use of the world’s resources is too broad and complex for one household to handle internally. If the contemporary world differs from earlier times on this point, it is a difference of degree and not of kind. Back in Growth of the Soil, Isak, despite his variety of skills, must seek out a METALSMITH, a MINISTER, a JUDGE, and many others. Moreover, his earliest and greatest concern is to find “any woman hereabouts to help.” There are tasks he cannot do even if he had the time.

Isak and Inger demonstrate Groves’ observation that “the most successful family economies over history involved a mix of trades rather than just one.” Their early marriage is built on mutual admiration and praise of the other’s work. Inger tells Isak continually that he is working too hard. Isak ponders the strange tools of Inger’s trades (spinning wheel, carding combs), and her equally mysterious resourcefulness and knowledge, so different from his own. Each is spurred by the other’s productivity. Their prosperity is driven by a desire not to underperform next to a beloved whose work is so plainly valuable. It’s a far cry from a household in which neither spouse has any idea what the other really does all day, and the value of any work is nothing more than the size of the direct deposit it generates.

Groves identifies the trades carefully. Their antique names mark them not as archaic, but timeless. Understanding them calls for a long view of history that includes the present. For example, Groves itemizes WOODWORKER, CARPENTER, and SAWYER separately. The reason can be given by anyone who counts one or more of these trades as his own. They require different tools, different training, and different skills. Making LOGGERs’ work into something is a multistep process, one inwhich every step may be reasonably carried out by an individual today. This is not true of all resources. One can FARM cotton or SHEPHERD wool; one may TAILOR cotton fabric or wool yarn into clothing; but spinner, weaver, and fuller do not appear among Groves’ durable trades. The world has gotten weird. FARRIER is a durable trade; shoemaker is not. MILLWRIGHT sounds old timey, but is a term in regular use in industries little known to the book-learned. Durable Trades goes to the trouble of figuring this out. The goal is not to become a historical reenactor, but to know what has worked and still works. The durable trades embrace the wisdom of the past without becoming entangled in nostalgic or distorted idealism.

Furthermore, some trades are so durable that they are difficult to recognize as trades under another circumstance Groves cites: “many viable trades today were merely domestic functions in colonial America.” This observation has not entirely expired. In households in which one spouse practices a durable trade, it’s likely that the other is unofficially trading as COOK and BAKER; NANNY, TUTOR, and/or SCHOOLTEACHER; COACHMAN and COURIER. With the notable exception of MIDWIFE, women interested in durable trades find that many traditionally female trades currently exist only as hobbies for people who are able to buy fabrics manufactured by machines Over There, at $10+/yard. Quilting used to be an act of thrift. Now the thrifty are priced out of participation.

Not to worry. Groves acknowledges that there are many viable and useful trades that simply haven’t had a full 230 years to prove themselves. He lists electrician and plumber among these. For today’s daughters of Inger, we might add thrifting and upcycling to the list of newer trades that have arisen as older ones have passed to robots and sweatshops. Keeping this in the front of one’s mind is advisable for a reading of Durable Trades that withstands discouragement. Those who find Groves’ concept promising might deflate when the trade he ranks highest is SHEPHERD. The number of people who are able to relocate to suitable premises, acquire animals, absorb losses born of accident and multiplied by inexperience, and secure a master willing to take on a green apprentice is already low. Then we must subtract out everybody who doesn’t like sheep. The durable trade-minded, for all their concern for practical solutions, tend to bring a great deal of Wendell Berry. Inviting Dave Ramsey and Mike Rowe along too might be helpful. Buried in the COOK, the INNKEEPER, and the MERCHANT is a reliable trade that goes by the uncottagey name of “franchisee.” Groves’ provision of resources relating to each trade is useful to readers whose interest is not strictly spiritual.

One more sticky point. Isak steps warily around Inger’s “trouble” whenever a child is expected. Inger scrutinizes Isak for signs of injury or weakening. They are wise. A BUTCHER in my family, for example, found his trade more durable than himself. Blood infections were a chronic condition in his life of a thousand cuts, as was carpal tunnel syndrome. A lifetime of standing all day on concrete floors culminated in a bilateral case of avascular necrosis in the man’s knees. He was happy to take a job checking in pre-cut and packaged meats at an acknowledgedly wicked Walmart Supercenter, because it meant he could sit down for part of his workday. He was married to a talented TAILOR, whose specializations included dressmaking, pattern design, and upholstering. She fantasized about giving it up to become a lowly draper. Her neck and back might recover some function behind a counter at Joann’s Fabrics that they never would in her sewing room, hunched over cutting table and machine.

Neither of these durable tradesmen got into it to find greater purpose. Neither had college degrees, and both developed their skills into a profound knowledge no YouTube tutorial can approach. Their facility in their trades can only be gained over decades, but the character of work sounds less than sublime when described by Granddaddy and Grandma. Groves knows this. “The work is real,” he says. “It’s dirty, smelly, and tremendously physical. . . . There are easier ways to acquire food. Cleaner ways. Cheaper ways. But that’s not why we do it.” Still, the freedom neo-tradesmen enjoy not to “mind the sweat and dirt or the inefficient methods of production” in the interest of building relationships and shaping souls is not traditional.

Groves is right to recognize that our children are not well served when they only see food come out of boxes, and when they work no harder than to take out the staggering amount of trash one family generates in a week. He is also right when he opines for a time when “the elderly were a wellspring of wisdom.” That time can be now for anyone who wishes it. It is imprudent to reflexively dismiss Grandma when she asks why on earth anyone would want to own a cow. She grew up with them and is more qualified to speak to the subject than someone who made a clinical decision that the white jugs at the store were ungood. Moreover, it is unlikely that the absence of an older generation in Isak and Inger’s hut means the grands retired to Florida. A grandpa who is available to run chickens through killing cones on the weekend is not only being generous to a son-in-law who takes up the task as a hobby. He’s also the grandpa who didn’t die from trade-borne sepsis.

This is not to say that hard use of the body is unacceptable. But it’s one thing to be tired and achy, and another to be broken halfway through one’s 40s. When the more finely built of Isak and Inger’s sons is offered a place in an engineer’s office, they suffer no pangs over his leaving the land. Again, a diversity of trades is recommended. This diversity appears covertly in case studies Groves provides for many trades. We often meet a tradesmen whose wife takes care of the business end. Might we call her a TREASURER or MERCHANT? (We should also acknowledge here the wisdom of Ben Franklin, who argued that women would do better to be more trained in bookkeeping than in music or dance.) Even those trades Groves sees as being less family-centric in the task itself (EMBALMER, COUNSELOR, ARTIST, ATHLETE) can be a household enterprise if another member handles the housekeeping for that trade. Isak gets a sawmill. Inger gets a sewing machine. Their oldest kid learns to read, write, and figure. It’s a great system.

Spoiler alert: Isak becomes a margrave (landed proprietor—there’s a durable trade!). On the other hand, he misses his chance to become a MINER when a STATESMAN/TAX COLLECTOR sells his mineral rights out from under him. The durable trades do not make a man an island, neither do they make a society just. In the same breath of reverence for the elderly, Groves invokes the Scriptural injunction to view children as gifts from God. Another caution of Isak and Inger’s fictional study of life among the durable trades is the several cases of infanticide that haunt their story. No amount of external wholesomeness can remove society’s greatest problem: that it is built of sinners.

And yet. We can’t not notice that workism and wage-slavery in hyper-specialized pursuits that atomize families correlates historically with families shrinking, disintegrating, or failing to form at all. Cooperative participation in durable trades does not inoculate against domestic problems, but it builds an infrastructure of trust and mutual interest that makes those problems more survivable.

Isak and Inger’s greatest trial comes when Inger is separated from the family for several years. Her absence is spent in town, and includes training in “weaving, household work, dyeing, cutting out”—that is to say, things she already knew, or were skills adjacent to those she already had. This changes her perspective on her trades. Having been properly trained, she no longer sees her skills as being oriented toward the use of her own family. She petitions Isak for a servant so she will have more time for sewing: “She had a profession now.” The household is disjointed and Isak is confounded.

But the durable trades do their work. The foundation of Isak and Inger’s household is one they built together not in some feel-good metaphor, but out of the physical ground. Their habit of building, the contrapuntal nature of their cooperation, their mutual commitment to their children, and their history of responding to the other’s labor in kind rescues the scrambled harmony. When the conflict between them escalates to crisis, Inger has a place to go: her old ways, her old work. In returning to these things, she has a way to demonstrate her willingness to repair things, and that her love is alive.

Groves weighs “family-centeredness” most heavily in ranking the durable trades. Working together is not just good when things are good. It is also a reason and a way to come back home. “It is at work where our faith is most on display,” Groves says. Included in that faith are repentance, and hope, and love. Grandma quietly mends the work aprons after a misunderstanding. Dad invites you to join him in the woods, no matter how many times you’ve turned him down. A lost son comes back by way of the shed where he knows his tools will be. Who would spare any expense of wealth or comfort for this kind of security? “Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all,” knows Isak. How much more the growth of a family, which, God willing, will outlast any one person’s career. And how providential that the one need not always be traded for the other.

This review will be published in the forthcoming special issue on Education in The Natural Family: An International Journal of Research and Policy. It appears here with permission.

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  1. Very interesting. I haven’t read any of these books, but will certainly check them out.
    About the point of physical exhaustion and sickness brought upon by the trades, I have to agree that this is certainly a considerable aspect when making the decision on the lifestyle. But I also wonder if it would alleviated in a household economy where one person would perform different trades at varying lengths of time and according to seasonal work. Obs still taxing, but perhaps less likely to trigger things like carpal tunnel syndrome as the person wouldn’t be performing virtually the same movements almost every day for decades.

    I agree that to us it is a choice, unlike for our ancestors and like the point that the kind of family we wish to build eventually plays the major role in this decision.
    Thank you for your common sense approach.

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