Search This Blog

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Applied Bushcraft; Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom

This article used to appear as a separate page on this blog but has been updated somewhat to appear now as part of our Applied bushcraft series and provide a bit of added context to what we consider to be applied bushcraft.



Bushcraft skills were once more than recreation, without knowledge of plants people would have been without food, medicine and material for construction. Without a knowledge of animal ecology and behaviour 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. While a knowledge of ecology is still important in many modern professions there may seem to be less use for the traditional skills and knowledge which can also be applied in the countryside and which we might choose to call bushcraft. 

An Australian Aborigonee encampment depicted in a 19th Century engraving, first nation peoples like these are often credited with having a wealth of TEKW which is what puts them miles ahead, in terms of their familiarity with the natural world and the things that live and grow in it, of those of us more reliant on modern conveniences and technology.
Public Domain, Link

In the UK we have no first nations people left to pass on their skills and can really only speculate as to the skills they used, guided perhaps in part by archaeological discoveries such as those at Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens and the work of experimental archaeologists. 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. 

There is an awful lot of literature on TEKW from other countries though, a lot of it is about the importance of preserving and passing on that knowledge for cultural reasons and to preserve the identity and culture of the first nations people who have that knowledge and practice the skills related to it. 

While the traditional skills of first nations people would once have been taught to their children just as children in modern schools in the UK learn history, maths and phonics now those skills are in much less demand, the person in this picture is Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (c. 1842 – 4 July 1886), better known as Poundmaker, and was a Plains Cree chief known for his skill at using buffalo 'pounds' or corrals. These skills are now for the most part lost and if it wasn't for the efforts of remaining first nations peoples there would be very little attempt to teach these skills to a new generation at all.
Image by; By Prof. Buell, O.B. - Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, Link   

In some parts of the world traditional skills are still very much in everyday use but with 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). 

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 all (Transmission of Environmental Knowledge and Land Skills among Inuit Men in Ulukhatok, Northwest Territories, Canada, 2011), Kritsch& amp; 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, and the TePuia in Rotoroa, New Zealand.

Craftsmen at Te Puia, Maori Arts and Crafts institute in Rotoroa New Zealand where the traditions of carving and weaving are kept alive and strong.

These types of skills have already been lost, or at least only practised by a very small minority, in the UK and to teach them now is to re-introduce them rather than to preserve them. But they can be relevant in a range of applications, from developing social skills, to influencing environmental decision making (Ellis, 2005) and, conservation (Berkes, Gadgil, & Folke, 1993) (Richards , 1997) (Schultes,1988) (Ellis, 2005). 

TEKW related literature (including references from above);

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.

Berkes, F., Gadgil, M. & Folke, C., 1993. Indigenous knowledge for biodiversity conservation. Ambio, 22(2-3), pp. 151-156.

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 .

Ellis, S. C., 2005. Meaning ful Consideration? A review of Traditional Knowledge in Environmental Dcision Making. Arctic, 58(1), pp. 66-77.

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.

Richards , R. T., 1997. What the natives know: wild mushrooms and forest health. Journal of Forestry, Volume September , pp. 5-10.

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.

Bushcraft Education Videos