you don’t know what you’ve got…

View Ladies of the Canyon by Joni Mitchell product details at AmazonBack in 1970, Joni Mitchell released the Ladies of the Canyon album. One of the classic songs (initially released as a single and then incorporated into the album) was the Big Yellow Taxi. It became something of an anthem for the army of environmentalists beginning to awake and arise. According to wikipedia, Mitchell was inspired by the tropical landscape on view from the window of her Hawaiian hotel, and then noticed the paved parking lot at the foot of the hotel. The tree museum relates to the Foster Botanical Garden in Waikiki – home to a number of rare and endangered species. It’s still a great song.

View In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander product details at AmazonA few months back I wrote about the impact of technology, and how in the book In the Absence of the Sacred Mander outlines the impact that technology, specifically television has had on the oral traditions of the Inuit people in north Canada. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that Mander is just one of these whine-y luddite-type people complaining about tv. In other words, someone not unlike myself. Was it true – were the Inuit missing anything real by watching tv?

Inuuqatigiit, The Curriculum from the Inuit Perspective,

Traditionally, Inuit did not have a written language. All of Inuit history, knowledge, values and beliefs were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. The information was contained in both songs and stories, repeated to children by their parents and grandparents as they grew.

Knowledge, traditions, stories, legends, myths, songs, beliefs and history were passed on. Often, a family camp would have an Elder who was the historian and storyteller. There were also others within the camp who told stories. Stories and songs were shared at special celebrations or during storms, but were also told every day as a way to get children to sleep or behave, or to give instruction in hunting or sewing skills. The storyteller often started by saying, “I will tell it as it was told to me, I will not alter it….” There would often be chants and songs in the story which the listeners got involved with through facial expressions, body language, murmurs of wonder and a great deal of enjoyment.

Abe Okpik observes in What Does It Mean to Be an Eskimo?

It is up to the Eskimos of today to use their Eskimo strength of word and thought. It is up to the young people. If they don’t learn and use the language and the stories and songs, they will have nothing special to give to their children. It’s no good looking like an Eskimo if you can’t speak like one.

There are only very few Eskimos, but millions of whites, just like mosquitoes. It is something very special and wonderful to be an Eskimo – they are like snow geese. If an Eskimo forgets his language and Eskimo ways, he will be nothing but just another mosquito.

Alexina Kublu and Mick Mallon explain why:

Two factors chip away at the stronghold of a minority language such as Inuktitut. One is that by the time parents realize its use is disappearing, it is already too late. The second factor is the overwhelming power of English, a power felt today across the world. It’s not just that English is the language of Shakespeare, and Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood. It is also the language of Coca-Cola, and the Apollo program, and Bill Gates, and Michael Jackson, and Disney World. English is the language of power, and of glitter. Parents use English to link their children to the source of power.

OK, so it is possible to see the loss of knowledge through the loss of language. But this is all about indigenous knowledge – how to hunt walrus (although interesting in itself) really doesn’t have a lot of meaning to me. The nearest walruses in my world are the codgers at the Karori Bowling Club.
image from http://www.karorihistory.org.nz/ via Photographer Charles Sorrell - KHS Collection - Alexander Turnbull Library Ref P-AC-5277-00001-03
Image: karorihistory.org.nz – photographer Charles Sorrell – KHS Collection
Alexander Turnbull Library Ref P-AC-5277-00001-03

It is possible these ‘walruses’ might have had a very real meaning to me and my, we and our, lives. ‘Indigenous’ knowledge is not just the province of small tribes of people living in isolated communities, it affects – it is affecting – us as well. For those of us who speak English, the issue is not one of losing the words, it’s the technology that is being lost. It sounds strange that we are losing technology, given that in our house we have superior computing technology than was used to send people into space in the Apollo program (although I still retain a slide rule, log tables, and an abacus in case the power goes off). It is unlikely that we will enter into the space race any time soon however.

So what indigenous knowledge or technology did the walruses probably hold that is being lost? Three words. Home food production. Far more insidious than the loss of language (for us) is the gentle globalisation and specialisation of food. Sure, we can go to the supermarket and be bombarded by the stupefying selection of foodstuffs. I recently counted over a dozen different varieties of beetroot offerings. Not sizes of can, varieties of ingredients. The big issue is, odds are it will be based on the one variety of beetroot. With the eleven secret herbs and spices added…

The techniques of food production gardening, including the diversity of food species is diminishing. Right here, right now. In the fertile soils and encouraging climate of New Zealand, land of the number 8 wire, do it yourself approach to life, the knowledge of how to produce food at home is diminishing daily. Why? Because the people with the practical knowledge and experience gained over the seasons are dying or retiring to old folks home and the information is not being passed on. Further, the seeds that previously provided diversity of variety (and resistance to disease and pests) are also being lost simply because people don’t bother to use them. More convenient to go to the supermarket and buy the produce ready prepared – or if you are a keen gardener, you can buy your seeds there too. Rarely will they be anything other than the mass produced species – grown more for their consistent production than food or flavour or cultural or resistance values.

I can’t substantiate my claims using New Zealand figures, but I believe the USA figures are at the very least indicative. I’ve made the graph from an excel sheet available at the Economic Research Service of the USA Department of Agriculture Briefing Room, Food CPI, Prices and Expenditures: Food at Home. I noted the link from Kitchen Gardeners International, who note home food production is in freefall (production declined by 20% from 2004 to 2005); following a link from Bifurcated Carrots – Patrick’s writing on Gardening Trends.

home food production graphTaking a look at the graph, it took 56 years (1890-1945) to drop from the peak of 38% to 20% (prior to 1890 the figures were calculated in ten year blocks, not annually). From 1946-1958 (13 years) the percentage went from 19% to 10%; with the 1% figure finally reached in 2001. From 1968-1979 the percentage was a steady 5% – perhaps as result of the environmental movement, hippies, and who knows what else would have steadying influence. Joni, was that you?

It could be considered from the numbers that in 1890, 3-4 households in 10 were producing their own food. I suspect in New Zealand it would be rather higher, as there were fewer industrial or commercial centres. By 1946 approximately 2 in 10. By 1958, 1 in 10. By 2001, 1 in 100. I would guess in the suburb I live in, where the walruses play bowls, the numbers are much the same. I regularly stroll around the streets – it’s rare to see a backyard with much more than a superficial nudge towards a vegetable garden. I’ve had cause recently to visit a number of ‘gardens’ – you might see a couple of herbs, or a random cabbage, silver beet, tomato, or, on occasion, a potato. Mostly in isolation. In fact, if anyone grew all of those they’d be seen as fairly hard core horticulturalists.

In the time that the graph covers from 1946-2005, 60 years have elapsed – many of the people old enough to have understood the subtleties of gardening and subsequent food production (and only a percentage actually did have the knowledge) in 1946 have, of course, died. The loss of the technology built on oral traditions in our own culture is immeasurable, and probably irreplaceable.

This is not the kind of information that is preserved in books. Books – from any age – capture the highlights, but they cannot ever replace the hands-on experience, nor answer the spontaneous questions. Anyone writing down instructions for another will quickly discover the gaps between their accumulated tacit knowledge and the voids of the other person. I have rung my Mum for recipes and the recipes are often – “put some flour in” or “add milk” – and then when the recipe doesn’t work quite as well I find the milk should be warm (not hot, mind), and the flour needs to be mixed with some water first. Mum knows exactly how to make the food, and it simply doesn’t occur to her that my food making vocabulary doesn’t match hers exactly.

It’s also about the raw materials. To be able to replant a food garden you have to have seeds that are viable. Many of the supermarket seeds are F2 hybrids – fantastic first year crops, but the seeds are unstable and even if you bothered to save the seeds they will not produce the same crop next year. Patrick notes:

It’s been estimated that since WWII 70% of fruit and vegetable varieties have been lost, simply because people stopped growing them and no one saved the seeds.

And this is quite apart from the political and financial interests of plant patents, and the outright illegality of selling heirloom seeds (as they’re called) in some countries.

This is a problem without a solution. The knowledge is diminishing, much is lost forever. It’s about the interaction of species. Humans preserving plants – not for the plant’s sake, although that is valid in itself – rather for the consumption of food variety. There are indications about how indigenous knowledge – and this is now applicable to any one, any where – can begin to be preserved – the World Bank has produced a kit relating to a Community Knowledge Exchange, entitled Capitalising on Local Knowledge – A toolkit for the preparation, implementation and evaluation of community-to-community knowledge and learning exchanges.

I feel it’s almost becoming like something out of Ray Bradbury – instead of people being books, we might need to meet up with others and be able to say something like (in my own case): “Hello, I am string onions on a rope, take leaders out of tomatoes, grow herbs and bok choi.”

Joni was right, back in 1970. She’s still right today.

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please!
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

One thought on “you don’t know what you’ve got…

  1. Pingback: Tea Garden » Blog Archive » you do know what you’ve got…

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