Many a mickle makes a muckle is an old Scottish saying which means that a lot of little things can create one big thing. Like pennies saved in a jar over time that add up to a sizeable amount when the jar is full.
The saying speaks of the Scottish love for thrift (or meanness, depending on who you talk to). But there’s surely something in it, especially when resources are scarce. If you have a karmic frame of mind, perhaps being careful in small ways creates a bigger generosity in the world. And frankly, why throw something away if it can be re-used? In the past people kept everything from odd bits of string to old paper bags. Do we do this anymore? What’s the point of saving rubber bands when you can buy a bag of them for next-to-nothing at the dollar shop if you need one? Few things are made to last. Do people repair broken kettles or toasters? We seem to have accepted a world of planned obsolescence.
When I look at the demolition of old houses in my area, making way for new development, I notice that they have one thing in common – nothing is set aside to be re-used. The old buildings are flattened and the rubble carted away in huge trucks to landfill sites elsewhere. Trees are cut down, established gardens are destroyed, and a blank canvas of bare earth is left for the builders. When the first colonisers arrived in Australia in the late 1700s, the land was described as Terra Nullius, a land of nothing, that conveniently ignored the cultures that had been thriving there for 60,000 years. In many suburbs of today’s Australian cities, it’s Terra Nullius every day. And that feels rather bleak. Surely we can use at least some of the mickles of the past when we create the muckle future?
I’m certainly no model of thrift. I’ve chucked out clothes I hardly remember buying. I get seduced by the idea of the latest gizmos even although my current gizmos are working just fine. As for a carbon footprint, mine is huge. I fly vast distances just for the simple pleasure of feeling Alpine grass underfoot. I buy French wine and Danish butter and Italian prosciutto instead of the local varieties. And so I try to compensate in other ‘mickle’ ways.
Like when we renovated. We were told it would be much simpler to demolish the whole place and start afresh but we saw nothing wrong with the old house and its sturdy brick walls. We wanted more space and so it made sense to add another floor. The old roof tiles were kept to be used as edging in the garden. The hardwood roof timbers were used as framing for a new deck. The doors to the new upstairs rooms were fitted with reclaimed handles that match the originals downstairs. Similarly, when we rebuilt the old milking shed in the country, all of the hundred-year old timbers were used in the new structure. The windows were a second-hand job lot from a salvage company: the corrugated iron for the roof and outside walls came from a neighbour who had demolished a barn: the bathroom fixtures were all second-hand. Only the interior walls were lined with new material – timber from locally grown hoop pine. There was a real pleasure in re-using old things that still had life in them. And when I say life, I mean things that retained the spirit of the old. Old timbers have character and feel like they belong. And so do old light fittings and even old sinks. It felt good not trashing what we already had.
It’s one of the things that I liked about Mr Austerity himself, Le Corbusier. In the Cabanon he built as a sixtieth birthday present for his wife Yvonne at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, he used simple materials – wood framing, bark cladding, a fibre-cement roof. The single light fitting is fashioned from wire he found on the nearby beach and the table is surrounded by stools made from upturned whisky crates from the next door café. He used them in his own studio nearby, too. Today, of course, you can buy beautifully crafted copies of them in polished oak with no splinters. Much as I like them, they lack the cheery make-do-and-mend quality of the originals.
Re-using things costs money and takes time and thought. Old timbers are often warped and have hidden nails that blunt tools. The variables make it less appealing to builders. But most of us understand the importance of using resources we already have. Many people enjoy re-purposing old furniture to create stylish new pieces from things that might otherwise be thrown out. The shabby chic style that evolved in the 1980s showed how much we like the look of the old and the worn and yet we still buy new pieces that have been artfully distressed to look old because it’s easier. The line between authenticity and sham is often blurred in the wonderful world of interiors.
Recently, I passed The Beehive, the newly completed office for an architectural firm famous for buildings that relish shape and texture, and it really made me smile. The façade above the concrete ground floor is made up of old terracotta roof tiles, laid in a way that creates privacy and shade and visual interest. It’s the work of the architect Raffaello Rosselli, who, along with his architect father Luigi, has produced something that is truly out of the ordinary. In both senses of the phrase, as the Wunderlich tiles were used in thousands of ordinary Australian houses in the first half of the twentieth century, including my own. Raffaello came to prominence with his design for a tiny house built in a back lane of central Sydney that used rusty old corrugated iron on the outside. He sees potential in old things but creates something new that suits today’s needs.
The two main Australian supermarkets have just banned single-use plastic bags (yes, really, my European readers, it’s taken us until now to do that.) And what a kerfuffle there has been. Many people see it as an irritation rather than an ecological step forward. And so it gladdens my thrifty heart whenever I see the appreciation for things that have a longer and more useful life. Perhaps architecture can help set more inspiring examples. As usual, what is happening in the centre of the city will flow out to the suburbs and the demolition of future buildings might be more mindfully done, if done at all. Those in the country, of course, have long understood the necessity to re-use what you already have so there are few lessons to be learned there.
I’m certain a more beautiful muckle can be achieved if we know exactly what to do with our mickles.
Are you a re-user?