Friday, 6 May 2011

The Nature of Knowledge

Dolors, our lovely 70 year old neighbour told me last week that she had a problem with low blood pressure. “So I made up a tea with some herbs from round here, including ivy.”

“Ivy,” I said, “but that’s poisonous!”

“Yes of course it’s poisonous. But that means it has properties that can help you too – if you take it in small amounts. Think of digitalis!”

She’s right, of course. Digitalis purpurea, foxglove, contains digitoxin, used to treat heart failure.

Dolors has a lifetime of knowledge about the plants that grow in our area (like many older people here she has rarely travelled further than the county town, 25km away.) She has both types of knowledge – explicit knowledge, in part from her extensive library of books on herbal medicines, and tacit knowledge, the secret knowledge that it is hard to explain to others. Why she makes a specific mixture, why she picks plants from one area rather than another… there is knowledge behind these choices, but it’s hard to explain.

Dolors strolls around the countryside in her housecoat collecting plants and talking about this and that. It takes time and patience to learn from her.

And she is the antithesis of what we think of knowledge. We have come to believe that (a) it’s all in the internet and (b) that the man in the white laboratory coat is a reliable source.

Dolors is a reminder of the true nature of knowledge – a secret substance that it takes time, patience and empathy to find. 

The nature of knowledge. Like the knowledge of nature.

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