Lessons for modern living?

July 17, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

Photo by KimWe’ve recently had LiveEarth and a raising of awareness around global warming. Seems green is the new black. But it might surprise us all to learn that the Welsh of the 17th Century were into sustainability and “green” practices way ahead of us. Coming from Welsh ancestry myself (with some Russian thrown in), I know the Welsh are pretty smart characters, not to mention good singers.

News from BBC tells us that five historians and archaeologists ditched 21st Century living for one year and adopted the farming life of the 1620s. Now I don’t need to remind you that no iPods or iTunes existed then; no TV; no mobile phones; no hairdryers; and darn, no lip gloss!

So these five people roughed it: they ate the food of 17th Century Wales (not sure what was on the menu); used the technology of the times and wore the fashions of the 1620s (not sure 17th Century Welsh farmers checked out the fashion of the catwalks, so the clothing was probably pretty boring in those days). But their experience offered key lessons for modern living that might help us live in closer harmony with the environment:

Know thy neighbour: I am sure it will be a shock to you if I suggest that contemporary society has lost that village notion – when neighbours knew neighbours and actually spoke with them and maybe shared a dinner or two or talked in the town square when they met. Increasingly, we live in McMansions or apartments that resemble monks’ cells and sometimes don’t even know who our neighbours are. And there’s a trend towards living on our own: “living loners” will account for about 9.9 million people by 2026.

But in 17th Century Wales, life was lived in a small square radius and people in the village possessed specialist skills that were shared among villagers. You were judged on good neighbourliness; if you were willing to help others, then people were more likely to help you in times of need.

Share the load: running a 1620s farm was no easy task and family members were multi-skilled and had to pitch in, particularly during harvesting time. Translating this into modern times, an organisation is full of specialists and multi-skilled people – sharing the knowledge and skill set makes running the organisation a whole lot smoother.

Less creature comforts: rather like people who advocate a simpler life and a return to the basics, the historians and archaeologists discovered some benefits to having fewer modern gadgets. With no electricity, the working day ended when the sun set and people had to (shock) converse or resort to social activities around the fire – dancing, singing, knitting. No carpets or fancy doona covers meant less dust mites and less asthma and allergies. People were more in touch with natural herbs and remedies and scattered herbs on the floors to get rid of insects and pests.

Eat what’s in season: contemporary society demands access to produce year-round. No waiting for the strawberries or peaches when you can use chemicals and artificial means to encourage fruit and veg to grow year round. But more often than not, it’s poor quality and pretty tasteless. Back in 1620s Wales, you ate what was in season and available. And because of this, tasty food tended to come in small batches. What was in season was tasty, such as particular cheeses, and once the season was over, so was the speciality food until next season.

Reuse and recycle: this is a mantra we hear today, but it was common practice back then. I remember my grandparents and mother kept scraps of everything – used wrapping paper, ribbon, used envelopes (great for shopping lists), left over vegetables to make into “bubble and squeak”. But it was the teensy weansy bits of soap that used to annoy the heck out of me – trying to fiddle with soap when I was growing up that had bits often falling off it was very annoying. Consequently, I have been guilty of being part of the “wasteful society” – chuck it out and buy a new one. But the old Welsh farmers and their families kept everything – from the dreaded bits of soap pressed together to make a new bar to old bed linen that was used as fire-lighters. It’s the bit about human waste that I’m not sure I could adopt – faeces was used as a fertilizer and urine was stored to make ammonia to remove laundry stains. But why not? No chemicals to mess with our immune systems.

Dress practically: the 17th Century had its own fashion styles: clothing was ruffed, puffed, starched, stuffed (hoops in ladies’ skirts) and lace went wild. I think after the 1620s if I remember my history, the fashion became less starched and softer, but I would suspect that Welsh farmers in the 1620s didn’t have time to worry about whether they were sporting the latest ruffed collar. Practical Welsh farmers stepped out in a linen shirt and woollen doublet; breeches helped to avoid the annoying wet trouser leg; and arms were covered to avoid insect stings, sunburn and scratches. Today of course we have a love of following whatever is in fashion regardless of impracticality and danger to health (I read somewhere that the shoe fashion of the moment is towering platforms reminiscent of the shoes of the 1970s).

In with corset, out with the bra: who invented the modern bra or brassiere? I’ve read of claims that it was invented in the 1880s and the 1930s, so the jury’s probably still out on this. Apparently, the 17th Century Welsh farming family couldn’t care less when it was invented as they preferred the corset – not the corset of the Victorian era, which caused many a lady to swoon from lack of air – but strong, practical corsets that supported a farmer’s back as he bent up and down gathering the harvest.

Biodiversity is a good insurance plan: the Irish suffered a disastrous potato famine in 1845 and in 2001 foot and mouth disease wreaked havoc on UK farms. The developed world tends to place all its eggs in the one produce basket and should a crop fail, disaster ensues. The Welsh farms of the 1620s had a variety of grains, fruit and vegetables and a range of animals, so if something failed, there was a back-up. Similarly, if oxen used to plough the fields succumbed to illness, implements were reshaped and horses were brought in to do the job instead. Modern society of course is a society of reliance on a dominant thing: reliance on fossil fuels for example. We rely on the oxen without having the horse as a back-up.

Ban the pesticides: Our produce is literally drowned by pesticides and in summer, we spray ourselves with insect repellent so we can enjoy our BBQ without those pesky flies and mosquitoes. I was reflecting just the other day on butterflies. When I was growing up, I remember lots of butterflies – white ones, black ones with yellow spots, boring coloured ones. I live in the bush where there’s lot of birds, but hardly any butterflies – I was thinking “where have the butterflies gone?”. Pesticides of course affect birds, insects and…butterflies. So back in the 1620s there was probably a richer ecosystem with birds and insects feasting on pests that dared to encroach on crops. Natural insecticides and not the poisons of today.

I’d like to think I could rough it for a year on some farm, living the simple life, even sans lip gloss. If you believe the notion that our current civilisation is heading for collapse, then the skill-set of 1620s Welsh farmers is knowledge that we’d better pick up pretty quickly!


Entry filed under: History, Sustainability.

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