Worldbuilding: Folk Wisdom Counts

I managed to snag Foxfire 3 out of a local library. It has a significant section on ginseng in the Appalachians, both hunting it wild and growing it. The consensus by those interviewed was that cultivated ginseng might grow larger, especially if fertilized and tended, but it wasn’t as good or potent as wild ginseng. On top of that cultivated ginseng tended to be vulnerable to molds, moles, rats, and other predators on seeds and tubers. And the most reasonable compromise was to find tiny ones in the wild, replant them in more likely spots, and then leave them alone.

I found this interesting particularly because I’ve read modern agroforestry books (2010 or later) on cultivating woodland herbs, ginseng in particular, and the modern info on molds, predators, and root sizes agrees with the accumulated folk knowledge of these articles written down in 1973-1974. More, modern medical analyses agree. Whatever medical effects ginseng may have are produced by ginsenosides, and those compounds only build up in the plant over years. And since they’re likely produced by the plant to fend off some kind of infection or predation, a pampered, fertilized plant has much lower concentrations in the root. The best cultivated ginseng is, effectively, cultivated as little as possible. Growers get their seeds, spread them in their shaded woodland areas, put a little leaf litter on top, and then wait.

…Sometimes with shotguns. People will poach ginseng even off private property. The prices are that enticing – and one night raid can ruin years of work. Poaching goes on even in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park; there’s at least one botanist whose job is to find ginseng in the park, dig it up, dye the roots, and then replant it. Dealers know the dyed roots won’t sell.

So. Accumulated folk wisdom of a plant, proven out by modern research. Folk wisdom also advises packing wounds with sphagnum moss, coating them with honey, or binding them with cobwebs. Anyone visiting this blog will likely not be surprised that all of these have good reasons behind them. Sphagnum moss is absorptive and extremely acidic, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and fungi. Honey in its natural form has plenty of hydrogen peroxide that kills infections, and the sugar in it sucks moisture away from invading organisms, killing more. And spiderwebs have various kinds of “webicillin”, meant to keep bacteria from eating the prey the spider hasn’t gotten to yet.

Granted, there’s a lot of folk wisdom out there that is just plain wrong. (Check out the doctrine of signatures for using plants on diseases, and hollow horn disease, if you want some facepalms.) But the vast majority of information passed along culturally survives because it matters.

Meaning the average person in your world should have a similar bundle of information on things that work and don’t work to handle wounds, illness, ghosts, monsters, and so forth. They may not always believe the rarer things; see Aragorn defending the wisdom of old women who still use athelas, when it’s needed to save those struck down by the Black Riders. But they should at least have heard of it.

…Though some of the rare things may only be known in certain books or villages. Which gives your Bad Guys some obvious targets to wipe out, if they plan to Conquer the World!

Give your world folk wisdom. It’ll take the story places you never would have imagined.


8 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Folk Wisdom Counts

  1. My usual objection, how do the dispensers of concentrated folks wisdom in the stories work?

    What does it imply about the information storage and collection?

    Some times it implies that the dispensers live in a low population density area, live lives of normal length, and pass down information with ordinary means.

    When this overlaps with an implied body of knowledge (obscure diseases with very specific, esoteric treatments) that would have required working on a large population to generate, and we don’t see a communication mechanism with bandwidth to carry that information…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That gets into the “statistics lie, and the first lie is that something with a small chance of happening only happens a small number of times”. Yes, if you have something with a 0.0001% chance of happening, and you have 1,000,000 people, you expect only 1 of them to have it happen to them. But it can happen to _any one_ of those million people. So even if you only have 10 people, any one of them may be that “one in a million” that has the thing happen to them. Yes, that might make the locals think the odds are significantly higher than they really are in the grand scheme of things, but it can still happen. And that’s before we even get into questions of “ok, that’s the _basic_ odds over _all sets of circumstances and the entire population_, but what about conditions that make it more likely or populations with predispositions towards it?”

      In fact, this is one area where some research is suggesting that the modern “gather _all_ the data” approach may actually in some ways make it harder for us to figure things out (look at the study comparing “good doctors”, “average doctors”, “bad doctors”, and “computerized expert systems” diagnosis proceedures, for example, where the computer fell between the average doctors and the good doctors, primarily because the good doctors had the experience of “oh yeah, this is the only actually relevant data”, the average doctors didn’t have enough data, and the expert systems had to brute force it and too much of the data could easily have been multiple things). Also, every time a serious study (one that isn’t starting from the premise of “let’s look at all the reasons these poor backward savages aren’t as enlightened as us, and their techniques are inherently inferior”) has been done on oral traditions, it’s been discovered that they are remarkably good at passing on the “key concept”, even if the details around the edges get a bit distorted (and even there, the data is that it’s about on par with written traditions for longterm consistency, except in cases where both exist simultaneously).

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Also, a side note on real life and obscure diseases with esoteric treatments… yes, a lot of cases may simply end up being “and someone died, and no one knew why, or how to stop it”, but there were many cases where “and they knew they were doomed anyway, so they tried random stuff. And hey, they got lucky, and now we ritually perform the same random stuff whenever someone shows the same symptoms… and half of them even survive!” So there’s a bit of survivorship bias to the data, but only because it really does happen sometimes.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Strange logic, and lots of stuff not written down, come into play as well– like the folks who were trying out… Balder’s eye salve? That sounds right… and declared it was nonsense.

    Then someone was poking around and said, basically, “Wait, if this had copper in it, it would stop that effect– what kind of cooking ware were they using, they totally weren’t using glass lab ware!”

    Copper cauldrons. 😀

    For weird logic, I suspect some of it is not actually the original logic. It’s how people got others to remember which plant to use.
    “K, they got gut problems? See how this part of the plant looks like a sheep gut? Make tea from that.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fun thing on honey, some veterinarian offices keep it stocked (it might be most) for use on large swathes of open wounds/burn areas because as mentioned above it’s really good at preventing infections. It’s messy even bandaging it up, but it worked really well.

    Liked by 1 person

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