Skills, knowledge and consumerism

Three or four hours spent tying knots in the garden this weekend gave me time to reflect on the relationship between skills, knowledge and consumerism.

The knots in question are known as square lashing. You start with a clove hitch, then three lashing turns followed by three frapping turns, finishing up with a second clove hitch. The cause of all this activity was my decision to try out ‘square foot gardening’, an engineer-designed method of vegetable gardening that involves dividing raised beds into a grid of squares with sides one foot long, and planting different crops in each square. Having a surplus of bamboo canes, these seemed a good solution for constructing a grid to divide each of my five-foot square beds. I just needed something to hold the canes firmly in place where they crossed. My first thought was to look for something in the garden centre that would hold the canes securely, but then, in a book on knots, I discovered ‘square lashing’, a knot that is used to hold two poles at right angles to each other, and is ideal for trellises and similar structures.

Reflecting as I tied my knots (48 in total), I remembered when I first set up house and went to the supermarket for carpet cleaner, sink cleaner, furniture polish, floor cleaner, oven cleaner, window cleaner, and so on. The conveniently labelled bottles made it clear which product to use for which task, so no knowledge was required on my part. Since then I have learned more about the properties of basic materials and now do all my household tasks with lemon, vinegar, salt, bicarbonate of soda, linseed oil and beeswax.

Our grandparents had an inherited knowledge of simple household products, but with the advent of commercially-produced, tailored cleaning solutions, we were able to neglect this traditional expertise. But relying on these ‘scientifically proven’ formulations with their clearly printed instructions, we gradually lose the skills and wisdom accumulated over generations, creating an ever-increasing dependence on commercial products.

Yes, tying those 48 knots was time-consuming. But at the end of the task I not only had the grids I needed for my square foot garden; I had also gained a skill, together with the knowledge that a wide variety of knots are available to assist with many tasks in the garden and in the home. I wouldn’t have got that from the garden centre!

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