The Loss of Common Knowledge

I’ve been writing about mushrooms lately. Ok, so you’ve probably noticed that, and you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “Not mushrooms AGAIN!”, but I’ve noticed something in the research that is applicable to many areas of life, including farming, childrearing, home medical care, backyard mechanics, harvesting and use of wild herbs, etc.

When you start investigating wild mushrooms, if you live in Oklahoma, you notice something weird. Oklahoma seems, at first glance, to be devoid of edible mushrooms! That isn’t actually true, but information available online is very discouraging. While the state of Missouri (and many others) publish guides on mushroom hunting, giving some easy to recognize types and showing you how to tell them from similar inedible varieties, the state of Oklahoma simply says, “Don’t do it! It is too dangerous!”. Statistically, the number of people who become ill from eating mushrooms each year in Oklahoma are around 1. Huge risk, right? You might get a belly ache. Numbers in states that encourage it are similarly low.

So why is Oklahoma so paranoid when the states around are not? I believe it has to do with the Native American relocations. This is a people who handed down traditional gathering skills, generation to generation, for hundreds of years. They knew the area they lived in, and the edibles there. They were taught to harvest and recognize them from an early age.

When they were dislocated, all of that but a small amount was lost. It was NOT a “relocation”, it was a “dislocation”, because they could not just pick up as they had been living and continue on, the climate and land here is totally different than the land back east.

Oklahoma seems to be fine with Morel hunting, but not much else. I think that the dislocation of the people lost their collective body of knowledge in that area (and with herbs, but to a lesser extent because herbs are generally easier to identify). When other people moved in, they came from other countries in large concentrations as well, and their knowledge did not translate well to Oklahoma either.

Mushrooms are very difficult to identify if you do not look at every part of them – each feature means something. Color, shading of color, texture of each bit, centers of caps, edges of caps, type of spore dispersion (gills, pores, tubes, false gills, etc), spacement and size and shape of spore dispersal mechanisms, stem length, width, color, shape, texture, gradiations of colors, and microscopic differences in spore shape, structure, color, size, etc.

This means you can’t get careless about identifying mushrooms. One thing is different, and it could be something very different – or a different species of the same genus, a different variety of the same species. There are only a few groupings of mushrooms where all of the mushrooms within the genus are edible, or at least not harmful. The more popular edibles all come from groups where some are edible, some are not. Most will just give you a belly ache. A few are deadly. But only a few. Death being a permanent state though, it isn’t a risk you want to take trying to decide whether this Amanita is a choice edible, or a deadly dose that will leave you writhing in agony through a protracted death for which there is no cure!

Ok, drama aside… When you grow up distinguishing a young Volvariella from a young Amanita, you know the one or two differences between them that REALLY mean you have the right one. When trying to tell the difference between two, there may be 5 or 6 differences between them, but 3-4 of those 5 may be ambiguous – difficult to tell at certain growth stages, in certain lighting, or when growing in unusual situations. But one or two is usually a true distinguishing factor – for example, a Chanterelle has false gills, and one of the deadly mushrooms that looks similar has true gills. Now, their color and shape is also slightly different, but those could be mistaken in certain lighting, or lacking two comparative samples. But the gills – those are unmistakeable. That kind of knowledge is precisely what a mother teaches her children when she works with them in the garden, or in the woods, gathering food together. And that kind of common knowledge is precisely what has been lost. The practical day to day knowledge that takes a complex subject and simplifies it to make it usable in day to day life, in a way that makes life better.

It isn’t only the natives to whom this has happened. In recent years, we’ve become an entire society of dislocated people. We are now disconnected with the land, and disconnected with the place we grew up in most cases. We don’t know a helpful herb from a harmful one, or a tasty mushroom from a nasty one. And there is no one to teach us – our mothers are not bringing us with them while they gather herbs, berries, mushrooms, roots, and leaves anymore. We are in school, and our mothers are at work, and the woods are only a distant thought now and again on a hot day when we wish for the cool shade and mossy groves of the forest.

This has lead to a change in society. This change has affected many things beyond just our relationship with nature. Many areas of what used to be common knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, have become specialties, studied only by a few. The knowledge in these fields is now concentrated with a small group of elites who take it further and further from practical use by non-professionals. What used to be simple enough for anyone to grasp through progressive training, has now become a specialty which is “too dangerous” for the average person to indulge in.

We are now locked into commercial food, commercial medicine, and commercial education. They decide what we need to eat, how we need to heal our bodies, and what we need to learn – and they all have motive for not truly empowering us to make our own choices, but to make the choices THEY want us to make instead. We don’t grow anything ourselves, animals have become cute little luxuries to fawn over instead of useful members of a functioning livelihood, and nature is something to look at in pictures from our office cubical or city apartment.

I don’t know that there is any way to get back what we have lost – not completely anyway. Once lost, there is no mother who KNOWS it, to teach it to her child. And the specialists generally WON’T. I do think there is  away to get back a piece of it though, and a way to own a bit of it.

If we identify herbs, berries, roots, and mushrooms that we can use and enjoy, even if we have to have the initial verification done by a professional, and then intentionally cultivate them, they again become available for use. Each person who cultivates a single item, or two or three specialty items, then has those to share with their neighbors, who may be cultivating something different. The benefits and uses come back into play – in a different way than originally. We cultivate them ourselves rather than gathering from the wild, but through cooperative sharing and cultivating, we regain the body of useful elements that have been lost.

Over time, we may even begin to regain some of the lost collective knowledge. Once you cultivate a plant, you recognize it even when it is next to a lookalike. You notice the small differences. You learn to see how it is different than imposters because you have to weed it and care for it. You become the expert on the thing you grew. Your neighbor becomes an expert on the thing he grew. You share the expertise – you help him identify which is weed and which is herb, he helps you eliminate the inedible white fungus from your garden and replace it with something delicious instead. Your children play at your feet and ask what you are doing, and learn to help with the weeding and with the propagation of the new fungus, and they grow up with the knowledge of both things.

If we CAN get it back, this may be the only way. If we are to become reconnected with nature, we must take the piece of earth that we have – whether that piece of earth is an acre, a city lot, an apartment balcony with a tray or pot, or a tray of wheatgrass on our kitchen counter – and we must cultivate that earth, keep chickens or rabbits, and bring forth food in cooperation with Mother Nature. We must pray over our crops and fields, and practice daily goodness so the Lord can bless us with abundance. We need to reconnect with the forces of life in an elemental way.

We cannot depend upon the “experts” for specialized knowledge, without losing independence. When we no longer understand enough to know whether they are telling us the truth or not, we become manipulated, and we are gradually taken into bondage. We need that knowledge of growing things, preserving things, raising animals and being part of the stewardship over growing, living things. We need to see God’s hand in it, and experience His blessings in the effort.

All it takes is for each person to pick one little thing (one herb, one mushroom, one vegetable, one fruit, one animal to raise, etc) that they can develop their own expertise in growing, and be willing to share and help others. It isn’t too complicated – the “experts” want you to think it is, so they can sell you their class, their supplement, their version, their method. But it is much simpler than that. Keep it simple, and just do it. Learn all you can about how to do it – not just what you are told, but experiment and see if they are right or not. Learn what they DON’T tell you.

We can break free, and come back to the rightful partnership with God and Nature that people are supposed to have. And we can have a whole lot of fun doing it!

Go On to Part 2 of The Loss of Common Knowledge

One Response to The Loss of Common Knowledge

  • Jess says:

    It takes guts to do something that doesn’t have the stamp of approval from “them.” Whether the government, the corporation, or even the city. I like your idea of having each person pick one thing to be an expert on and help each other. If we do that and teach our kids (who hopefully are with us as we are out doing those things) then slowly we can get it back. I have definitely benefitted from the locals where I live, who tell me when is a good time to pick my pears, protecting sprouts from birds using strawberry trays, and other useful tidbits.

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