On knowing your place

Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.

John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

In British usage, at least, telling someone they should know their place is (or used to be) a rebuke. It meant knowing their place in the class hierarchy – with the not very subtle subtext that their place was a good deal lower than they supposed. In the words of the well-known hymn:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Cecil Frances Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

But that is not what I want to talk about in this essay. What I want to talk about is what the title says, knowing your place.

For most people in the industrialised world, this presents a problem. After all, many if not most of us don’t really have a place. For years I have struggled with the answer to the simple question: “Where are you from?” Am I really from anywhere? There’s the place I was born, which I haven’t visited for the thick end of twenty years; am I from there? There’s the place where I live now, but it seems utterly fraudulent to pretend that I’m from here; it’s too obviously not the case. There are the many places I have lived in between those two times, but I am certainly not from any of them.

So I am effectively from nowhere. There are many, many other people in the same boat. It is considered normal in our society to move around a good deal. You are born in place A, you go to university in place B, get a job at C, another in D, maybe you even emigrate to E… That’s just a career. It’s not even a particularly middle-class thing; think of the Cornish miners who went to Mexico, to take a random example.

What we easily forget is that this is quite counter to the human experience for the vast majority of our existence. I’m not just talking about agricultural societies either. Of course, if you have a farm you’re going to stay on it, but there’s a lot of nonsense said (and taught) about “sedentary” versus “nomadic” lifestyles, with the implication that before the Neolithic revolution and the widespread adoption of agriculture people used to wander about aimlessly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you’re going to live as a hunter-gatherer, as everyone did for most of human (pre)history and some people still do, you are heavily dependent on local knowledge, and I cannot stress that word “local” enough. You need to know what food plants grow where, and at what season you can harvest them. You need to know what game animals live where, and at what season you should hunt them and at what other seasons you should leave them alone. You need to know the spots where the edible fungi grow, and when you can expect to see them, and which ones look edible but aren’t. Any or all of these things may be different in the next valley along, and the further you go from your patch the less useful your local knowledge is likely to be.

Obviously people did make those transitions, but it took a while. Maybe you can venture into the next valley, and maybe it will work out. If it does, once you’ve figured out how to live in this valley, maybe you can try the next one. And so on. But you wouldn’t really do it if you didn’t have to. It’s difficult and also dangerous. Remember, we’re talking about access to food and water. Without those things, you and your family will die. This isn’t just about idle curiousity.

Living as a farmer is really a more confined version of the same thing. You are still dependent on the outputs of a particular area of land; it’s typically a much smaller area, but you have a bit more control over it. It is, however, a lot more work, and because you are dependent on a smaller set of foodstuffs it’s also more precarious. The archaeological evidence overwhelmingly suggests that farmers were less well-nourished and less healthy than their forebears. Controversy rages about why people adopted that lifestyle, but it certainly wasn’t because it made life easier.

But one effect of farming is that it creates a deeper attachment to that smaller area. Farms tend to be de facto inherited, even when the farmers are technically tenants:

There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

This has a number of effects. For one thing, the farmer has a commitment to the long-term well-being of his land. There is a saying that you plant a walnut tree for your grandchildren. Certainly, given that a walnut tree can easily have a productive life of three hundred years, you personally are not going to see most of the walnuts from a tree you plant today. If modern financial analysts had anything to do with it, walnuts would probably be extinct. Thankfully, they are not.

Secondly, the farmer has an intimate knowledge of his land. Let me here introduce a technical term from the ancient art of shepherding. (Sheep are thought the be one of the first domesticated animals, so it’s an art we’ve had quite a few millennia to perfect.) I speak here of the hefted flock.

Now sheep are mostly left to fend for themselves. Yes, they’re brought in for lambing, and even then some of the hardier breeds can cope well enough without human intervention. But the key is letting the same flock graze the same land over multiple generations. Of course it isn’t the same flock exactly: sheep are born, sheep die; it’s the old philosophical chestnut about the ship of Theseus, or, if you prefer, Trigger’s broom. But you know what I mean.

It turns out that sheep, like people, can hand down traditional knowledge. Sheep that know these particular hills will do well here. They know where the good grazing is, they know the sheltered places to give birth, in short they have the same sort of knowledge as the human hunter-gatherer does, but in a more sheep-oriented way. Sheep brought in from elsewhere will need to figure it all out, and in the short term will do less well. (In the long term, of course, they will have become sheep that know these particular hills, which is where we came in.) A flock that knows a particular patch of land is said to be hefted to that land.

I don’t think this is something that is unique to sheep. I think people need it too, or at least can derive huge benefit from it. Many of the ills we see today are due to the fact that the decisions which call them into being are all too often taken by someone on the other side of the world who presses a button, possibly while eating breakfast and reading a newspaper article about something completely unrelated. It would never occur to such a person to plant a walnut tree, which will just show up as a liability in next quarter’s figures.

Imagine instead a world in which the person making the decisions about a place actually lives in that place and knows that their children and grandchildren will also live in that place. This is the positive aspect of the NIMBY syndrome: if enough people don’t want a thing in their back yard, it won’t happen in anyone’s back yard, and frankly this is probably a good thing. After all, why should anyone have to send their kids to school next to a toxic waste dump? Come to that, why should there even be toxic waste in the first place? People who complain about NIMBYism are really saying that the NIMBYists ought to know their place, and not in the good sense.

Of course this goes against the prevailing ethic, which is that cosmopolitanism is the thing. This works pretty well for rich people who would prefer their tax affairs to be conducted in Bermuda and wish to be able to move their business to whichever place has the lowest wages and the fewest workers’ rights. It doesn’t work quite so well for the rest of us. And it won’t work at all when globalisation grinds to halt, dependent as it is on cheap transportation and compliant governments.

Wherever you live, I urge you to get hefted to your place. Learn how you can live there: the basics, of course – nutritious food, potable water, breathable air, a liveable community – but how you can live well. And if you can’t live there, for heaven’s sake find somewhere that you can, while you still have that luxury. Time is short.

For what it’s worth, I’ve taken my own advice. It isn’t necessarily the easiest path, but in the longer run – and I’m allowing here for grandchildren who haven’t even been considered, let alone conceived – it seems to me the best. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

One thought on “On knowing your place

  1. The schoolboy was as is the case with most of David’s stuff an absolutely stunning read but in real life John le Carré the spy had more Achilles heels than he had feet! Brilliant author but what of his Dad & the Kray Brothers? Did he upset Monty, Philby’s cousin? Were Pemberton’s People in MI6 in #TheBurlingtonFiles real friends or foes? See https://theburlingtonfiles.org/news_2022.10.31.php.


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