Today’s guest blog is by Geoffrey Guy who lectures at Reaseheath College. Geoff is the Director of Education for Bushcraft Education Ltd, and the founder of the Bushcraft Education blog:
Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom (TEKW) from the British Isles
Bushcraft skills were once more than recreation, without knowledge of plants people would once have been without food, medicine and material for construction. Without a knowledge of the behaviour and ecology of birds and animals people would not have been able to efficiently hunt and trap and would have gone without food, clothing, bone for making tools, sinew for strong cord and hoof and hide for glue. Nowadays though these skills are largely forgotten.
Perhaps they are preserved amongst first nations for their cultural and social value as part of the history of those people. In a few isolated cases perhaps they are still an essential part of everyday life, but even those cultures which still live using some of the ‘primitive skills’ of their ancestors have adopted modern technology and modern materials to some extent: The Sami reindeer herders of Scandinavia for example who long ago adopted snow mobiles, or the Amazonian Indians who rely on matches for fire. Perhaps due to improvements in technology, and therefore less demand on young people to learn traditional skills, the number of people in these areas who have well developed practical ‘bushcraft’ skills is declining. Particularly, according to a study of the Transmission of Environmental Knowledge and Land Skills among Inuit Men in Ulukhakatok, in specialist areas such Polar Bear Hunting (Pearce, et al., 2011), making skin clothing (Kritsch & Wright-Frazer, 2002), Fur preparation, hunting, fishing and trapping (Ohmagari & Berkes, 1997). More often than not though this traditional skill and knowledge is nothing more than the subject of engaging television documentaries, books or the choice of recreational activity for those who choose to practice bushcraft.
Modern technology may have made many hand tools and traditional skills less efficient than modern methods but by no means have they become obsolete. For example in many parts of the world subsistence agriculture relies solely on the traditional knowledge and skills of the farmers (Beckford & Barker, 2007) (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1990) and researchers agree that TEKW is valuable and valid even when you consider the availability of modern farming methods and improved scientific knowledge of agriculture (Agrawal, 1995) (Colorado & Collins , 1987) (Posey, 1990) (Schultes,1988) (Hunn, 1993).
Today we are far removed from the ancient skills that would once have been used by native peoples living in the British Isles; the hunter gatherer societies of the Maesolithic (10,000-5,500 years ago) were the last people in the British Isles to operate without agriculture (Darvill, 2010) and would have used bushcraft as their means of survival. In other parts of the world primitive survival and bushcraft skills have been used by native peoples in living memory and in some parts of the world is still a way of life (Wescott, 2001). As Pearce et al (2011), Kritsch & Wright-Frazer (2002) and Ohmagari & Berkes (1997) explain, the successful transmission of these skills is a vital part of preserving the skills, traditions and way of life of surviving native peoples. Formal schools have been set up in some parts of the world to ensure these skills can be taught to younger generations such as the Samernas Utbildningscentrum (The Sami’s Training Centre) in Jokkmokk, Sweden, the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Hawaii, and the TePuia Maori Arts and Crafts institute in Rotoroa, New Zealand.
While some nations still have access to ‘first nation’ people, Native Americans in North America, Inuit in Canada and Aboriginal people in Australia for example here in the UK we have no first nation people left and no oral histories of their skills so we can really only speculate as to the skills they used, and the knowledge they possessed. We can be guided in part by archaeological discoveries such as those at Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, Grimes Graves in Norfolk or Oakbank Crannog on Loch Tay and the work of experimental archaeologists but we can’t talk to or be taught by those people.
This doesn’t mean we have no traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom in the UK, it just means that ours is a bit newer. We do still have a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge through the anecdotes and experience of those who have worked the land for decades in professions such as forestry, game keeping, agriculture and perhaps, although as a game keeper and deer stalker by trade I hate to admit it, the old poachers knew a thing or two as well. So although we don’t really talk about traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom in the UK it is there.
A lot of the knowledge I rely on when working in the countryside wasn’t learned at university or in books but by listening to my father or grandfathers, for example being able to recognise a well worn animal run around one specific bush as a ‘roe ring’ where a roe buck has chased a roe doe during the mating season. Or realising that brown hares aren’t all that bright and will sit for ages watching your hat or coat if you hang it on a fence post allowing you to sneak really close from behind. Beyond my own personal experience the skills of the old time foresters, keepers and farmers are still largely valid:
The fact that we use a chainsaw and a harvester nowadays doesn’t take away from the fact that many hundreds of years ago people worked out the best woods to use for which tasks and that still today wood is the material of choice for the manufacture of certain pieces of sporting equipment or tools; ash for Hurley sticks in Ireland or for baseball bats, sweet chestnut for fencing, willow for charcoal and cricket bats and oak for structural framing and furniture. We might know more about the mechanical properties of these timbers and have been able to measure their percentage moisture content, their tensile strength or their load bearing characteristics and have measured and quantified them in a lab but all that’s added is a few numbers and units of measurement to knowledge that stretches back further than most of us know our genealogy.
Another example would be flint knapping, often assumed to be a purely pre-historic skill used to manufacture arrow heads or tools to scrape animal hides but Brandon in Suffolk was once the flint knapping capital of the world, not thousands of years ago but as recently as the early 1800’s. With the invention of flint lock firearms, flint knapping was re-invented with no reference to prehistoric artefacts and while flint lock firearms have long since won their place in museums rather than the firearms cabinets of nowadays and the manufacture of gun flints is relegated to a cottage industry this is still an example of traditional knowledge.
So we still have plenty of traditional ecological knowledge to access and use in the UK and perhaps it’s time to try and re-learn some of the even older skills that have been lost too.
A note on the word bushcraft;
I have used the word bushcraft in this post several times but it’s not really a satisfactory word to describe the skills of ancient and first nation peoples. It is however a word in common usage that provides a blanket term for outdoor living skills, it may include skills as diverse as hunting, fishing, botany, tracking, craft etc.
Geoff can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org . He makes regular contributions to the NAEE blog and you can find previous contributions from him by searching for “Geoff”.
Agrawal, A., 1995. Dismantling the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge. Development Change , Volume 26, pp. 413-439.
Beckford, C. & Barker, D., 2007. The role and value of local knowledge in Jamaican agriculture; adaptation and change in small scale farming. The Geographical Journal,173(2), pp. 118-128.
Colorado, P. & Collins , D., 1987. Western scientific colonialism and the re-emergence of native Science.. Practice: Journal of Politics, Economics, Psychology, Sociology and Culture , Volume Winter , pp. 50-65.
Darvill, T., 2010. Prehistoric Britain. 2nd ed. London: Routledge .
Hunn, E. N., 1993. What is traditional ecological knowledge?. In: N. M. Williams & G. Baines , eds. Traditional Ecological Knowledge; wisdom for sustainable development.Canberra: Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, pp. 13-15.
Kritsch, I. & Wright-Frazer, K., 2002. The Gwich’in Traditional Caribou Skin Clothing Project; Repatriating Traditional Knowledge and Skills. Arctic, 55(2), pp. 205-213.
Ohmagari, K. & Berkes, F., 1997. Transmission of Indigenous Knowledge and Bush Skills among Western James Bay Cree Women of Subarctic Canada. Human Ecology, 25(2), pp. 197-222.
Pearce, T. et al., 2011. Transmission of Environmental Knowledge and Land Skills among Inuit Men in Ulukhatok, Northwest Territories, Canada. Human Ecology, Volume 39, pp. 271-288.
Posey, D. A., 1990. The Sience of the Mebengokre. Orion, 9(3), pp. 16-21.
Reichel-Dolmatoff,G., 1990. The Forest Within; World-viewof the Tukano Amazonian Indians. s.l.:Themispublishing.
Schultes , R. E., 1988. Primitive Plant Lore and Modern Conservation. Orion, 7(3 ), pp. 8-15.
Wescott, D., 2001. Introduction. In: D. Wescott, ed. Primitive Technology II; Ancestral Skills. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith.