Wisdom in theory and practice

January 30, 2023

You can achieve wisdom in three ways. The first way is meditation. This is the most noble way. The second way is the way of imitation. This is the easiest and least satisfying way. Thirdly, there is the way of experience. This is the most difficult way.
— Confucius (Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom for 29 January)

Wisdom in Theory?

I think quite a lot on meaning. We English-speakers have such an overloaded language, and yet it remains nearly invisible to us unless we put forth much effort to peel away the layers of history to understand what we are truly saying. I’m reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams right now. There will be more on that later, but for today I will say that it is emphasizing my natural tendency to question this vehicle we’ve chosen for sharing our interior worlds. It is underlining the difficulties in sharing a world that does not align with the culture that created the language — or, more properly, with the elites of that culture.

How do we speak of the primacy of care and love when those words do not mean what we who care and love actually experience? How do we speak of nature when that word is quite literally divorced from humanity? And yet… it means “birth”.

Consider the quote from Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom above. I don’t know how much of this is Confucius, how much is Tolstoy, and how much is translating Russian to English. I can’t find a Confucian quote in my own books nor online that matches it well, but that doesn’t mean much. Who knows how much of Confucius is lost in translation? And I can’t read Old Chinese. In fact, those who speak Cantonese or Mandarin would find it difficult to read and comprehend Confucius in the original, much like a modern English-speaker trying to understand the story of Beowulf as it was composed in Old English (which might, more properly, be named Anglo-Saxon, so far is it from any other form of English).

It’s not just the words and funny letters; it’s the difference in conceptual reality. To take just one example, Confucius and the anonymous author of Beowulf lived in an animist world — that is, everything had interiority, had desires and will, had dreams. Everything had feelings and emotions. Everything was alive in exactly the same sense as humanity. Indeed, humanity was viewed as the distinctly ignorant younger cousin whose main purpose in life was to learn from older and wiser beings — which did not speak human languages… Just think how different that world would be from our own. Ours is not even possible in that frame of reference. Nor is it easy to describe that world in our languages. And that is just one of many foundational differences.

(Another problematic difference is the nature of “meditation” in Confucius’ world. It was not in pursuit of knowledge, but of an emptying of the mind of all the small human “known” things which are considered intrinsically flawed. For thousands of years, Eastern forms of meditation have been seeking a dissolution of the mind/self. Sort of the opposite of what Tolstoy, much less the English-speaking world, considers “wisdom”.)

But still consider. I suspect the adjectives come from Tolstoy, since modern Chinese languages don’t much use them as such and I would assume the lack was even more pronounced in Confucian time. Chinese is an inflected world view. Verbs and nouns and so on all pull more than their own weight, becoming descriptive or active depending on placement, tone, and many other factors. A Chinese sentence is more than the sum of its parts. It is emergent. And, to be honest, there isn’t much active… it’s mostly variations on observed states of being. So “noble” catches the attention, being foreign to the context — and then, creating rank, even more so than the ordinal numbering in this quote.

I’ll be frank. I disagree with what is meant here, though not with other possible meanings of the chosen words. “Meditation is the most noble.” I somewhat disagree with wisdom flowing from sitting inside your own head, and with the distinction between what you find there and what is imitative. What you find there is almost all imitative, learned from elsewhere — unless it flows from the third path, experience. But “noble”? Is meditation “higher born” than other forms of acquiring wisdom?

As an illustrative aside, though noble acquired connotations of native status almost from the beginning of the use of its root words, that root meant “knowledge” or “things known”. In other words, wisdom, from whatever path, is noble by definition. The etymology of noble also reveals a somewhat nasty practice of elites throughout history — gatekeeping knowledge, hoarding and controlling information, keeping secrets so that only they can benefit from what is known. And in that sense also, meditation is “noble”. The wisdom of meditation is found only inside the head; and, unless it is shared (becoming “imitation”), it is of benefit only to the head that contains it.

For those in the modern world, meditation is also “noble” in the sense that only those who have the substantial privilege of not needing to tend to their own needs directly have time to practice it in our market-based social systems. I suspect this last meaning is exactly why this quote reads as it does in English. Tolstoy was an elite. Whoever translated Tolstoy was also an elite. They had ideas about status and types of knowledge and the sort of people who could acquire that knowledge. Nobility is largely a function of release from the labor of tending to the body in EuroWestern cultures, and that time freed for leisure makes meditation a “noble” practice.

So I agree with the words. Meditation is noble. I do not agree with the meaning. It is not innately superior. Nor is it much different from the second and “least satisfying” method of acquiring wisdom. Because consider innate. That means “inherited”. Whatever is inside your head is at least acquired from parentage, and most strongly from the person that serves as the primary and primal care-giver. Native wisdom is not intrinsic and unique to the self; it is derived. And where wisdom is not directly implanted into a newborn brain (if that happens, which may or may not be empirically true), it is derived from imitation — unless it is derived from the third, “most difficult” path, experience.

The thing that diminishes the utility of both meditation and imitation is that there are few checks. You can think anything. Our brains are not limited by reality. So thoughts and beliefs that are untested in practicality are so much air. Meaningless. Not wise. Meditation can create erroneous knowledge — witness the entire “Enlightenment”! — that is then propagated, enlarged and solidified by our educational systems, which are simply imitation of those who are considered “noble”. These errors can become “fact” and, as such, are never examined for truth.

Truth is only learned through application in a real setting, not in a book (however much it pains me to write that) and not in any single person’s head (however erudite). Truth is experience. It is constancy, empirically observed and broadly lived. Truth is a practice, a done thing, a real way of being. Truth actually means “faithfulness”. And wisdom, whatever else it may be, must be based on truth. Wise, itself, means “a way of proceeding”. That is, wise is a path, a doing, a verb, a physical-reality-based undertaking (and note that there are no hierarchical qualifiers to that path; my wise is no better nor worse than yours). Wisdom is not wise if it is not experienced truth.

(Does your head hurt yet? I know when I talk about these things with others, a glazed look comes into their eyes long before I get this far into the etymological weed patch.)

So the third way… I wonder if the Clinton Democrats knew that there might be another way of looking at the name they embraced and that it might actually denote the practicality that they nominally held so dear. Probably not. For one thing, Tolstoy’s version of Confucian wisdom was not in English translation until the last years of the 20th century and was not readily available even in Russian before that. For another, the Clinton Democrats were firm defenders of Tolstoy’s first path, that of elite control on wisdom. All things wise flowed from their noble heads, not from broadly embodied truth. Their idea of “practicality” was merely “things that benefit us”, no matter the efficacy nor even the possibility and practicability of those things. As to faithfulness? Constancy? Yeah, not so much, eh?

Anyway, consider experience. This is the most difficult path to wisdom. It is also the most reliable. Because it is lived. If you want a good-sized circular logic headache, here’s this: experience is the most difficult and the most reliable because it is the most experienced. (Like those job applications for entry-level positions that require 3-4 years experience… on the job…) It is difficult because it takes time. You have to live it. It is difficult because you will make mistakes and suffer the consequences. Or suffer the consequences of not making mistakes… You have to live with those consequences and, often, the knowledge that you had some hand in causing them. It is difficult because it almost always includes turning back and starting over, wasting time and resources on what turns out to not be wisdom — but it is, nevertheless, the experience that creates wisdom.

All experience, good and bad in experienced effects, leads to wisdom. It may even be necessary, all of it, even the bad, maybe especially the bad. Because we don’t examine the good experiences the way we do the bad. We don’t consider what we are doing when it is not harming us or anything else in our vicinity. We do not think hard on our good fortunes. Often we don’t even notice them. However, we do think hard on our misfortunes. Those are the experiences we most learn from. This is very difficult.

It is also the most reliable. It is the most reliable way to acquire any knowledge and the most reliable way to acquire true knowledge, factual data, information that will lead us to a beneficial “way of proceeding”. Wisdom.

This is why we turn to the past. It’s not nostalgia to look for ways of being that endured for generations. It is not sentimentality to seek out the paths that worked for centuries. We may not be able to incorporate that knowing wholesale into our present lives, but we can get good ideas that will work for us — without having to relive that experience. Someone already did the difficult stuff. We get to benefit from it. The only downside is separating out what does not fit into our present world. So we don’t get out of all the hard work of experiencing life, but we may save ourselves a lot of painful difficulty.

This is why I have quite a lot of problems with people who suggest that what is in the past is all wrong, all darkness and superstition, all bad. Yes, the past did lead us here — which most of us will agree is not ideal. So we do have to figure out where in that timeline we got off the path of experience-based wisdom. Many writers and thinkers today like to point their fingers at farming and the supposedly backwards-thinking, regressive, conservative, provincial, cousin-marrying ninnies who refuse to live in cities and usually take up with food production, ie farmers. I say “Now, wait a minute, guys! If it weren’t for farmers, we couldn’t eat. We would not exist… Surely, that’s not wisdom!”

So you really can’t claim that farming is intrinsically and invariably bad. And farmers are sort of necessary to farming. Moreover, we know that farming works. For humans and for many other species. It is experience-based wisdom. Ants have been intensively farming for millions of years, though we are only just beginning to name their activities as such. And many of the corvids are engaged in a low-effort form of controlling their own food supply over the long term. Not just storing it, mind you, but propagating it. What else to you call a jay that spends time and energy intentionally shoving more piñon seeds into the ground than she will ever dig up and eat? Especially when you consider that she chooses her plots rather carefully, planting far more frequently than random chance can explain in places where that seed has a substantial chance of turning into a tree — and does turn into a tree! How many other “instincts” of other species can more properly be named “farming”? Truthfully, every animal, microbes of all classes, plants, fungi, perhaps even some viruses (though, I’ll be honest, I don’t understand how the pathogenic path to regeneration works): all are constantly engaged in intentional acts that ensure there will be a continuous food supply. Farming is how living beings stay alive when there is not food available on the bush — which is a substantial and deadly amount of time in most lives.

Yes, even in tropical regions where things are growing all the time. There might be animals and plants year-round, but are they the animals and plants that can be reliably turned into nourishment? Not necessarily. For example, most fruiting forms of plants have distinctly poisonous foliage and bark. This is not accidental. The plant doesn’t want its life-sustaining parts to be chewed off and destroyed. It doesn’t even particularly care that its fruits are nourishing. It is making fruit so that mobile things will eat the fruit and transport the contained seeds — the new generations of plants — elsewhere. (This is also farming, by the way… the tree is ensuring that its children are not competing with itself for scarce resources — food.) Similarly, there may be gazelles all year long, but only in the rainy season are there young ones that can easily be caught, without expending more energy on the chase than can be gained from eating it. A leopard might be able to take down an aging and sick gazelle any time of the year, but is that really nourishing? (I don’t actually know the answer to that… but leopards do eat a whole lot more in the rainy season, storing up lots of fat for the dry time.) Point being, we all do intentional things to regulate the food supply. If we don’t, then huge, unsurvivable gaps develop…

Farming is the experienced wisdom of all living beings, all of whom need a continuous supply of food — energy and nutrients — to stay alive.

So, if not farming, where did we get off the wise path? I think we all intuitively know the answer to this. And it’s not farming. It’s not even controlling our environment. It is when we began taking more from the world than we needed in order to use that surplus to generate wealth and status for a very few of “us”. It is not farming; it’s greed. And in particular it is the avarice born of maintaining synthetic hierarchy when there really is no distinction between any of us. It is the creation and maintenance of nobility. It is the sustenance of ranked divisions in privilege. It is, most of all, the greed that enables — and excuses! — some people from having to tend to the needs of their own bodies. It is anti-farming. Which, I think, explains why there is such animosity towards both farming as a system and farmers as a class.

These people do not want to engage in the messy and difficult care of the body. They want to meditate.

Ok, let me pull back on that… there is no “they” in this culture. It is all of us. It is the culture. We all contribute to its maintenance and dominance. We police ourselves to stay within its bonds and bounds more viciously than any wealthy twit with hired guns. Have you ever noticed the particularly vehement venom that is heaped upon those who are not native to farming, but choose it? This comes not just from those who spend the majority of their time in the lap of luxury. Even other farmers tend to sneer. “Back to the landers”. “Stoner hippies.” “Airy-fairy organic tree-huggers.” And my favorite: “Lazy free-loaders.” (I mean, really! This from people who sit on their ass for a living… if they have to “work” at all…) This incoherent, spluttering nastiness is not born from some notion of farming as an ecologically destructive act. Such vague ideas do not generate this much anger. This, I think, is a reaction to betrayal — the betrayal of an entire cultural system and all of its values — by those who once most benefitted.

Those who choose to farm almost exclusively come from privilege. Well, they have to… You can’t obtain land without privilege these days. First-time farmers also must have a cushion of wealth to sustain them for the many years that farming will not do so. They must be able to take and survive the substantial risks inherent in food production. The entry barriers to farming these days are so high only the wealthy can jump that bar. These are people who were the nobility — and they turned away from that to become laborers. That turning away is both a repudiation and a tacit condemnation of their own privilege and, by extension, both the system that created that privilege and others who still embrace that privilege. The very fact of their existence as erstwhile aristocracy now grubbing in the dirt (organic or otherwise) is a visible damnation on our culture — and all who support it… Meaning, all of us.

(I have a bit of experience with this… I am not native to food production nor any form of “menial” care work. I was born to and still hold substantial “noble” privilege. In fact, if there is an aristocracy in this country, not a few of my progenitors and relatives are right up there at the crowned heights. But I do not choose to use that privilege to avoid working to tend to my own body’s needs. I don’t feel morally right making someone else work harder so that their surplus labor can support my leisure. I am a repudiation of this culture. And boy howdy! Do I get to hear about it!)

So let me return to experience and wisdom. If we want to find ways of being that work without spending all our time and resources just in the discovery process, if we want to avoid at least some of the difficulties of the difficult path, the best place to look is to where that path was — and is — trodden.

In “The Future Is Rural“, Jason Bradford doesn’t actually prove that point. He does, however, show that the future is very likely to include far more people directly involved in food production. And he shows the places that are most amenable to food production and the systems that will do that sustainably enough that there is a future to be X, Y, or Z in population distribution. He painstakingly supplies data — experiential lived knowledge — to substantiate his ideas. The future is not necessarily going to be rural — though that is a catchy title to get folks to read his paper… or just piss folks off… — but it will very likely be one in which farming dominates our lives. As it has for most of our existence. Maybe all of our existence if you accept my theories on what farming actually is… In fact, I think he shows that the future will be exactly like our past — not completely rural but probably largely so. Large parts of the population will be spread out over the countryside and fewer people will be concentrated in towns and very small cities. His experience, his data, match what we see in the past. This is the experiential path to wisdom. This is wisdom.

(Jason, by the way, is another who chose to be a farmer… and maybe all that implies…)

One of the things he concentrates on is food storage. This is unusual among prognosticators, or even among those who think a lot about our present food system. This is partly because our present food system is not designed to produce actual food, stuff to be eaten and therefore stuff that must be preserved in an edible state between harvest and consumption. Our present food system is focused on raising money, not food. So what happens after the sale of the harvest is of very little concern — except to a few extension agencies at the big agricultural colleges. (For the record, that “sale of the harvest” normally happens well before there is an actual harvest and quite independent of it. Futures can sell even before there is a planting… This is how disjointed our food system is. We are not even selling anything. We’re growing money on just ideas about what may happen…)

A point Bradford makes is that food production, the path to our survival, is absolutely dependent upon storage capacity — and storage is place-based. To even choose what type of farming to engage in, if you are growing food, you need to know your place. You need to know what will grow, what will produce food you can eat, and most importantly what you can produce to ensure a continuous supply of food. In other words, you need to know what stores well in your climate. You need the “wisdom that sits in places“.

(By the way, this need of a storage process is why I think he doesn’t quite show that all of us will be living in the boonies. There will be a need for people who are engaged in tasks that are not easily done in isolation and with minimal access to specialized tools. We have always had concentrated population centers for people who make pots and such like… This, too, is experiential wisdom.)

One thing he briefly touches upon — and this the actual inspiration for all this waffling at this particular point of the year — is that storage is not necessarily, nor even most efficiently managed in containers. In many climates, food is stored, not in silos or jars, but in animals. If there is seasonality to plant life — in cold climates, in desert climates, in any climate with substantial variability that affects the growth cycle (meaning every climate going deeper into climate chaos) — then the most energetically efficient means of storing your future food supply is in a living animal.

This is also experiential wisdom. This is what has worked in the past and will likely continue to work in the future to promote the most abundant life. And this is exactly the opposite of where many plans for paths into the future are headed. This is probably cause for concern…

In any case, I figured that one out a while ago. Because while it is, in fact, very difficult to have locally produced food still in the larder in March in a cold climate if there is no animal component to your diet, it is nearly impossible to maintain soil fertility and suppress pests of all kinds without either spending many resources on the transportation of very bulky stuff — often toxic — or going into partnership with domestic animals. My experience came at this wisdom through the front door, you could say. Bradford came at it from the back. But both of us learned from experience — not from books or other products of the mind, but actually lived bodily reality. In our places, and in many places similar to ours, farming includes keeping and therefore at least occasionally killing animals. Again, not a very popular fact in social thinking circles… One that is easily batted away if you are not doing the work, but one that will not be avoided or overcome when you are.

So why am I talking about all this right now? Because this is the season of Imbolg. Our ancestors in cold climates learned through likely very painful experience that this is when storage of plant-based food stuffs is starting to dwindle or go off. This is when they increasingly turned to the animals. This is the season of lambs, of flowing milk. This is a future “in the belly”, not merely abstractly — as in “Spring is gestating in the Earth” — but in hard, inexorable terms — edible food flowing from the belly of a ewe.

In places like mine, in places that were home to nearly all of my ancestors, this is how food was produced. This was the experienced knowledge of sustenance gained with much difficulty over millennia of trial, error and then success. This is how a future that includes me was created. This, place-based farming, is wisdom. And, I suspect that, in places like mine, this is the only path that can lead to another future millennium.

So while I do not eat meat myself, I am unabashedly in favor of careful and loving farming with animals wherever it is necessary. And I wholly embrace the milky, cheesy season of Imbolg!

Because that — tradition — is wisdom…

Soak ink stains in milk to remove them. It’s like magic!

Where my cultural and biological roots come from and where I live now, this is the season of milk. The foods that I eat at this time of year include stews with yogurt bases, creamy soups, porridge (well, that happens all year long…). As you know, I make my own yogurt from local milk, sourced from cows that I know are treated well and that are not fed diets that will harm them, me or my yogurt culture.

I also make cheese, though only soft cheese for now. I would like to learn more about aging cheeses because this is how you really extend your food storage in cold climates. Often by months worth of time and thousands of kilocalories in energy. Jelly comes close to supplying the same nutrition for the same duration, albeit with a rather unhealthy dose of sugar (which is neither good for us nor for this planet, measured in any objective terms). A good hard parmesan will keep for months, years, in fact, considering that it takes at least half a year just to make it.

That is my problem right now. I don’t have a place that has constant levels of humidity and temperature over such a long stretch of time. I need a cave…

But for now, here is my cheese-making process.

1/2 gallon whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
8 tbs distilled vinegar
2 tsp salt

This makes a plain cheese. You can also add flavorings. For example, to make lemon ricotta for ravioli filling, replace all or part of the vinegar with fresh squeezed lemon juice. (Strain the pulp out of the lemon.) I’ve also put fresh ground nutmeg in a few batches for a divine pastry filling. There really isn’t much that doesn’t complement this basic cheese.

I experimented with various vinegars. I find that distilled works best for me. You might like a different curd texture though. I want a largish curd. If you want a finer texture, you might have good luck with white wine vinegar which also lends the cheese a lovely flavor.

I don’t want to suggest that you use bad milk, however, it will curdle easier if the milk is not fresh. This recipe does not use rennet. So to get large curds I tend to use the milk that is on its last day. I’ve even gone past by a day or two. As long as there is no bad smell, I consider it acceptable.


Pour the milk and cream into a heavy bottomed pan (an apple-butter pan works well) and heat over medium heat. Don’t let it scald, but also don’t stir it too much.

Watch the temperature. When the milk gets to about 185°, add the vinegar. It will start to curdle the milk immediately, so you want to get as much milk exposed to the vinegar as possible right away. I dump each tablespoon into the milk at a different point around the pan, then gently stir it into the milk.

Turn down the heat to medium low and let the curds develop. This will not take more than a couple minutes.

When the curds are close to the size you want, add the salt. Gently stir it in.

Watch the whey. When it is yellowish and mostly clear, then the cheese is done cooking. Take it off the heat and let it stand 30 minutes.

While the cheese rests in the pan, I set up the strainer. I use a colander in a large bowl with a damp thin towel in the colander. You can use cheese cloth, except you need several layers. And towels are easier to wash.

After the cheese rests, pour it into the strainer. Be aware that this is where mess will happen.

Let the cheese strain for up to an hour on the counter. If you want a drier cheese, you can put the whole business into the fridge for several hours or overnight. When the cheese is the texture you want, transfer the curds to a storage container. Retain the whey for soup base.

Both curds and whey can be frozen. If you don’t freeze them, use within 10 days.


Teaser photo credit: Swiss Brown cattle grazing on alpage pastures. By Andres Passwirth – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37086630

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all,... Read more.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, Placemaking, urban-rural connections, wisdom