One thing I’ve noticed with the fading of the COVID-19 crisis is the drastic decline in little boxes shuffling in and out of my life.
There was a time, not too many months ago, when a UPS, Fed-Ex or United States Postal Service truck briefly parked in front of our house nearly every day, sometimes twice or three times a day. A driver would come hustling up to the front porch, find a bare spot among the ash buckets and piles of kindling and stove wood, drop a brown carton of as-yet undetermined purpose and then hurry back to his or her vehicle, mission accomplished.
Most of the packages, I want to make clear, were not destined for me. The other person who lives here, and the dog she feeds and coddles, were the recipients and/or beneficiaries of nearly all the various packages.
The containers left for me weren’t even boxes, most of the time. They were usually padded envelopes filled with paper, plastic or aluminum packets of seeds, for everything from kale to zucchini. The stuff for me was going to be buried in the ground, the plan being to get a plethora of vegetative riches a few months later on the wall calendar.
But I should hasten to add that I didn’t mind the boxes. I’ve always been an aficionado of cardboard containers, amazed and impressed by the designers who could take a flat sheet of corrugated paper, put a few strategically placed creases and cuts in them, and — voila! — fold them into boxes that could deliver anything from a pair of eyeglasses to a lawn chair.
Who taught people how to do that? Did they go to college to learn the skill? Is there a University of Container Construction out there somewhere, maybe in Kansas or Alabama or Idaho, that I never heard of?
Is there a two-year program that covers basic square and rectangular shapes, a four-year course of study that includes circular and triangular works, and maybe a Ph.d program that covers all the little mini-boxes inside the big boxes that keep the contents from sliding around and breaking?
And where did all this start? According to what I’ve been able to learn noodling around on the internet, the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Indians were the first peoples to plot out the basic principles of geometry. It was the Greeks, however, who took it to a new level of systematic analysis and description.
Big-name guys like Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Euclid figured out all sorts of things, like the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and two straight lines that are perfectly parallel can go on forever without bumping into each other.
But who learned how to take two of those lines, fold them three times so that the beginnings meet the ends, and then connect them yet again to a second set of lines running at 90-degree angles to the first set, creating – Look at this, Zorba! — a hollow cube? A box!
Wikipedia says the first commercial paperboard box was probably the work of an English company called M. Treverton & Son in 1817. The French came along about 20 years later and developed a box to ship the Bombyx mori moth and its eggs to silk manufacturers. Then a couple of American brothers in Battle Creek, Michigan started distributing their corn flakes in cardboard cartons and — boom! — it was off to the races.
Boxes came tumbling out of factories across the globe, destined for other factories to fill and send along to porches in thousands of communities in hundreds of nations.
There’s obviously a whole lot more to this story, a tale that deserves a telling because modern civilization wouldn’t be what it is today if everything had to be transported in clay pots or grass baskets. But not everybody is as interested in this as I am — some folks are more fascinated by breakthroughs like Velcro, rubber bands and paper clips, for example, not to mention Scotch tapes.
So suffice it to say that I want to salute all those who labored over the past 200 years or so to bring boxes to my front porch, even if they didn’t contain something for me. I collected and saved them anyway, marveling at both their simplicity and their complexity. Who could throw away such fine examples of human ingenuity?
If only I had more stuff to fill them. Alas, so many boxes, so few things to store. For right now, my appreciation will have to do.
Dave Elliott is a vegetable farmer in Hedgesville, West Virginia, with spare boxes if anybody needs one.