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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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Tule Cradleboards and Steel Lunch Boxes: What Can History and Culture Teach Us About Limiting Our Consumption?

29 Aug 2020 10:48 AM | Deleted user
Illustration by Felipe Dávalos  

As I write, fires continue to encircle the Bay Area, consuming thousands of acres of open space and threatening homes and businesses. Last weekend, the forecast for more lightning motivated me to pack an emergency evacuation bag for the first time in my life. Underlying my procrastination has been resistance to being instructed to pack “essential” items. I look around my house and wonder which if any of my possessions is important, much less essential?

With all this existential angst rattling around my brain, I decided to ask my friends and former students about the items considered essential by their family members, either now or in past generations. I was especially curious to learn about cultural patterns…how have people in different countries created artifacts to address practical problems and to nurture their spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic cravings?

I paid particular attention to objects that sustain rather than damage the environment. As readers of the Notebook know, I am not a fan of the widespread use of plastic in contemporary society. The cost of the plastics revolution to our environment is very high. And we produce over 300 million pounds of it every year! So I wanted to think about essential items from our cultural communities that may offer alternatives to consuming plastic.

I heard from people who traced their cultural heritage to Egypt, Latvia, China, Japan, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Catalonia, Denmark, and India. Thanks very much to all of you for sharing your ideas with me. I learned so much! Let’s pick a few examples and see what lessons they hold for contemporary inhabitants of Marin County.

Back to Basics

Miwok tribal member with basket 


For thousands of years humans have made objects from natural materials. They have used soil and sand, plants and metal to create containers, fabric, and tools as well as art. Until recently, these objects were long lasting and environmentally sustainable.

  Cradle board made with tule

Here in the Marin and Sonoma area, the Coastal Miwok people lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. What were the items they considered essential and what were they made of? For the Miwok and other native tribal people in California, tule was a highly significant material for creating important objects. Once abundant along the margins of the bay, in the delta, and in the seasonal wetlands of the Central Valley, tule was used to make houses, clothing, mats, baskets, and tools. The Coastal Miwok also used tule to make rafts called tule balsas, or sákas.

Learning about the daily life of the Coastal Miwok people provides a valuable opportunity for reflection about the meaning and purpose of objects in our own lives and may prompt us to renew our dedication to reducing our own consumption.

  Meta! The god depicted on this Roman olla is himself holding an olla  

Egyptian ollas


Appreciating the Value of Mud

Until I conducted the research for this post, I never thought of storing and schlepping one’s stuff around as fundamental aspects of the human condition. But many of the objects we humans produce are designed to do just that. One such item is the olla, a clay vessel for storing water or food. The term “olla” was first used in ancient Rome, spread to various regions in Europe as well as the Middle East, and eventually made it to the Americas.

In Spain, ollas have been used since the Middle Ages to make stews such as olla podrida. In Catalonia a type of olla called a tupí was traditionally used as a container to make fermented cheese. The olla also has a long history in Egypt, where they were used mostly for water storage.

  Muddy fun

Present Day Use of Ollas

Clearly, ceramics are still very much in use for storing and serving food. Ollas themselves are not well suited to contemporary life as they are heavy, breakable, and hard to clean. However, I was surprised to learn that they are in use here in the US to irrigate plants. The olla is buried amidst the plants with the neck extending above the soil, and filled with water, which seeps out slowly through the clay walls.

And let’s not forget one of the most important features of mud – it is extremely fun to play in if you are a child. We can buy a plastic water table for children or we can give them access to some dirt or sand and a hose.

More Containers: Bamboo and Straw

For centuries, bamboo and straw baskets have been used in many countries for a wide range of purposes, including storage baskets, winnowing fans, eel and fish traps, bird cages, pack baskets, child carriers, and grain scoops, as well as many other other fishing, farming and household containers and tools. These products are not only useful but are often very beautiful as well.

Japanese decorative bamboo basket Carrying basket from Myanmar Korean farmer’s hat



Beyond the Basket: Bamboo as a Replacement for Plastic

Bamboo is unquestionably an important and effective alternative to plastic in terms of common household products. A glance at the internet reveals a vast array of useful bamboo products out there, from chopsticks to drinks trays and food steamers. You can even get sunglasses, watches, and “Q-tips” made from bamboo. Here’s one source of information about bamboo products: But don’t forget about reducing your overall consumption even if your purchases are “green.” I don’t need to get bamboo Q-tips just because they exist. 

The Metal Lunchbox: More than a Place to Store Food

Tiffin delivery service employee (dabbawalla)  

Metal isn’t the first thing to come to mind when I think about environmental sustainability, but I can see how it has a place. Its durability is a huge asset as long as the owner is willing to hang on to the item for the decades that it will continue to exist. One common household object constructed from metal is the lunch box. Perhaps the most iconic example is the tiffin box from India. Tiffin boxes feature multiple individual food compartments that are stacked on top of each other and secured with an outer clip.

In India, the popularity of tiffin boxes can be traced to the growing number of urban residents commuting from home to office at the end of the 19th century. Many did not have time to return home for lunch, nor were they interested in paying for restaurant meals. Their lunchtime problem was resolved in 1890, when a company began picking up tiffin boxes at workers’ homes and delivering them to the workplace. Tiffin delivery services remain very popular today. In Mumbai, for example, over 200,000 tiffins with home-cooked lunches are delivered every day. The tiffin box is an example of a tradition that remained relevant when it was adapted to contemporary needs.

  Schiscetta from Milan in 1950s   Contemporary metal schiscetta

As Milan was growing into an industrial center during the 1950s, factory workers also began bringing their lunches to work in metal containers. The lunch box, or schiscetta, was not used by white-collar employees at that time, and was somewhat stigmatized by its association with the humble worker. However, bringing one’s lunch to work has recently been reconceptualized as cool and trendy among young Italian professionals, and signals a person who is lively, health-oriented, and international-minded. Commenting on the recent appropriation of the traditional schiscetta by young urban professionals, one Italian writer mused, “macrobiotic food in place of fresh pasta in a schiscetta….It is as surreal as seeing a farmer out jogging.” Again, as we saw with the Indian tiffin box, sustainable practices can survive if they are adapted to features of the contemporary context.

Can Metal Replace Some Plastic Toys?

Making music without plastic
Understandably, toys made of metal have become relatively rare since the days of the lead or tin soldier. However, I get a little discouraged when I see the proliferation of plastic toys replacing those of wood, cloth, and ceramic. Plastic toys will occupy space in a landfill long after the babies who used them have become grandparents.

Many toys sold these days are marketed as educational or developmentally stimulating for children. As a developmental psychologist, I don’t think the activities afforded by elaborate plastic activity centers, for example, are more supportive of children’s learning than activities based on simple natural materials. For example, most toddlers like to bang with spoons on metal pots and pans because it gives them a chance to explore the basic principle of cause-and-effect. What is more exciting than realizing you can create a loud noise by smacking a mixing bowl with a spoon? Considering the health and environmental drawbacks of plastic toys, it is worth considering these old-fashioned alternatives.


What Else Can We Do?

  Indian Beach on Tomales Bay
As the extreme climate conditions and associated fire danger have reminded us during the past two weeks, the environmental health of our plant is deteriorating rapidly. Every item that is manufactured contributes to the production of green house gases and the warming of our planet.

This worldwide tour of common household objects reminds us that our “essential” items used to be made from renewable materials like straw and bamboo, or they were made from brass and aluminum and would last for decades. And it reminds us that some of our contemporary needs can be met by considering environmentally sustainable solutions developed in the past, especially if we find new ways to interpret and use them.

If you want to reconsider and reduce your consumption, here are a few ideas (other than the obvious one, which is to buy less stuff):

  1. Shop second hand. Did you know that you can buy used gear and clothing from REI and Patagonia? I didn’t, until I started researching this Notebook post. Also, consider frequenting stores like Georgi and Willow, a branch of the Goodwill in San Anselmo.
  2. Say “no” to disposable culture. Pack your salad in a container from home instead of buying one from the grocery store in a plastic clamshell container (talking to myself here).
  3. Buy for quality. With the money you saved on a home-made salad (see number 2), you can afford to purchase higher quality items that will last longer than cheap ones. For instance, fast fashion products may cost less, but the practice of wearing something three times and tossing it out is not environmentally sustainable.
  4. Support “Right to Repair” legislation. These are laws intended to fight against proprietary standards, closed systems and deliberately uninterchangeable parts (looking at you, Apple and Microsoft). Read here for an overview:
  5. To learn more about the art of weaving with tule, check out this interesting article and accompanying link to a one hour documentary called Tules: Weaving Baskets, Boats, Decoys, and Houses:
  6. Visit Indian Beach on Tomales Bay, inhabited by Coastal Miwoks for thousands of years. It’s beautiful, and you can follow the self-guided Indian Beach Nature Trail.

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at

Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at Visit to see more birds and other images.

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