E+E Column: Lost Knowledge

On the BBC Devon Sunday gardening show this weekend, the very experienced guest gardener was talking about unconventional gardening tips (such as using custard powder when taking shoots) and what he called ‘moon gardening’ (I think he was referring to the principles of what we now know as permaculture). It got me thinking about all the knowledge that may not be in textbooks but is passed informally from one generation to the next through families and friends and of so called old wives tales. Are these merely superstitions or unreliable archaic bits of advice or is there more substance to them? If so, why don’t they get recognised for the worth they possess?

From mild weather not killing off bugs to only picking sloe berries after the first frost to the full moon affecting children’s behaviour, there are words of wisdom and catchphrases for nearly every situation that you can think of. But, how accurate are they? I’ve always been wary of things like holding a wedding ring over a pregnant tummy to determine the gender of the unborn child but it turns out that ‘red sky at night, shepherds delight’ actually does make sense scientifically speaking – it’s all to do with the concentration of dust particles that the sun is shining through and how this correlates to the type of pressure system present.

In fact, a bit of investigation seems to indicate that a lot of the old wives tales have some basis in science when research has been done. A little bit like thorough information on foraging and eating wild plants, the information and studies proving these things as correct is out there but just not at the forefront of the public domain. So why are we still so derogatory about these ancient forms of knowledge when it turns out that a lot of them hold true? I’m not sure of the answer to that. Perhaps it is an inherent disinclination to believe what our parents or doddery grandparents tell us, a stubborn belief that we know best. Perhaps, folk would rather follow what seems like a more sensible, commercial approach rather than dabbling in folk remedies. The gardener who started me off on this rambling spoke about commercial products overshadowing cheaper and just as effective remedies that can be found in our cupboards. Are we so sucked into the consumerist market driven atmosphere that big business creates that we can’t break free?

Whatever the reason, I feel that is important that this knowledge doesn’t get lost permanently as the generations pass. So whilst I’m not advocating believing everything you’re told at face value, I do think it’s worth listening to the advice of those older and wiser than ourselves, to do a bit of research before we choose the path we take. One day we’ll be the old wives and I can only imagine the endless frustration at being ignored by the younger generation and written off as foolish when trying to dispense some information that we know will help them in whatever situation it is that they are facing. Let’s embrace the colloquial knowledge and (yes, sometimes with a pinch of salt or some fact checking) pass it on and keep it alive.


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