Wisdom beneath those wrinkles

6th August 1999 at 01:00
In the second of his two-part series on lifelong learning TES columnist Adrian Mourby benefits from a fish trap lesson

I MET a wonderful woman recently. She lives seven time zones away but I'd like to grow old with her. Meta Gage is Canadian, she lives in what her people regard as Athpaskan and Tlingit territory but you and I call "The Yukon". Meta is my age. Her grandmother is a lot older.

When I visited Meta she had just built a trap for catching fish. These devices are wonderfully clever. They are built of nothing more than twigs and caribou twine and they are the relics of a technology that crossed the Beringa land-bridge from Siberia to North America thousands of years ago. Powered only by water they rotate and deliver fish effortlessly into a cage while leaving enough young ones in the river to maintain stocks. The simple genius of these devices made me laugh with delight.

"First I asked my grandmother how to build a fish trap," Meta explained when I called at her camp. "She described it to me and I went away and built my trap - but it did not work. So I went to see my grandmother again and she told more. After I had visited her five times my fish trap worked."

Meta is in her 30s and she has a PhD. She belongs to the sophisticated cyberwise generation of Canadians. But in the Yukon she was coming up against an oral tradition in which everything is imparted and nothing downloaded.

Meta's visits to her grandmother taught her two things. "Yes it is important to know how to build a fish trap and to understand how it works," she says. "But it's even more important to value the old."

Grandma Gage drew no diagrams. She imparted only as much as she thought her gran-daughter would understand at one sitting. By making five visits Meta learned not only how she might teach her own children hos to build a fish trap one day but also that old people have a role to play as the repositories of knowledge and wisdom.

Sadly, in the west we tend to associate the young with knowledgability because their minds possess the single-mindedness required of a quick-fire computer nerd. We prize know-how over wisdom and yet to be wise is a much deeper thing. It can take a lifetime to achieve. While visiting Grandma Gage, Meta came to value the wrinkles of her elderly relative. They are wisdom's calling card.

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