How strong communities depend on shared information
Traditional rural communities depended on knowledge passed down through generations
Posted on: 11th April 2013
While we were developing our smallholding in Kent, I had many chances to reflect on how the sharing of information is absolutely crucial to any community or society.
In traditional rural communities, information on techniques for farming and living self-sufficiently was often passed down orally from generation to generation. The younger generation picks up the ideas either through being taught explicitly, or through a process of absorption and observation.
When we were developing our smallholding, we didn't have the benefit of this structure to help us learn the necessary techniques. We learned partly through trial and error, partly from the generous advice of friends and neighbours, and also, crucially, through books. We read books like Farming Ladder by George Henderson, The Fat of the Land and Self-sufficiency by John Seymour and his wife, and other similar works. I also made use of an excellent book on edible fungi which was produced by the Ministry of Agriculture during the war.
While such books were useful at times, we learned that we could not treat their advice as 'gospel'. At times it was simply impracticable for our situation. We realised that each smallholding operation involved a different and highly specific situation, and there were so many different factors involved that it was often impossible to generalise about the 'right' thing to do.
How knowledge is lost - and regained
I wrote in A Little Piece of England about how I was struck by the fact that valuable knowledge we had learned was being lost by communities in just a few generations. Using the example of wood ash, I remarked that there were probably few people who knew that wood ash can be used to help root crops and fruit trees. And probably even fewer who knew that straining water through wood ash made a liquor called lye, which could be boiled with fat to make soap.
However, since I wrote that book, we have a quite significant new cause for optimism: the internet. All it takes is for one person to post information online, anywhere in the world, and it can be read by someone else anywhere else in the world. A quick Google search, for example, reveals a whole host of information on creating soap from wood ash and fat. The same is true for edible fungi. It's an example of the way that the digital revolution is making it much easier to share information. I hope that it will also reverse the trend of knowledge being lost that I lamented in A Little Piece of England.