A CowThat was a phrase I heard a lot growing up in the (urban) wilds of the north of England. Mostly in the winter. This being the days before mod cons like double-glazing and central heating the warmest place was by the fireplace in the front room, the only source of heat in these houses. Unless it got really cold, that is, when an antiquated-looking appliance fuelled by paraffin was wheeled (literally) into service to take the chill off the back-kitchen.

On winter days, my Dad could often be found after dinner (aka lunch) by the hearth. It was his favoured spot for studying the horse-racing form in the sports’ pages. Vital data, as on his way back to work, he would be putting a (small) bet on. It was from this favoured spot that he would slightly chastise me for “letting all the the cold air in”. Once again I had not closed the door behind me after returning from a short (because freezing) trip to the ‘bathroom’ upstairs.

This memory of huddling round to keep warm came back to me as I read this passage about the veillees of nineteenth-century France in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State:

“The veillee, as its name implies, was a traditional pattern of gathering practiced by farm families during winter evenings, often in barns to take advantage of the warmth generated by the livestock and thus save on fuel…Given the fact that each member there possessed a lifetime of interested observation and practice (on successfully living off the land)… the veillee was an unheralded daily seminar on practical knowledge.”

Someone wondered aloud recently at one of our meetings: “how do you describe NET2 to people who’ve never been?”. Well, it’s like one of those gatherings of French agriculturalists. Just like them we “routinely exchange and preserve practical knowledge”. True, crops and produce are rarely mentioned but we are still, in a sense, talking about maintaining yields or getting better ones in our chosen settings. The big difference is that, if we own any, we leave our livestock at home. The warmth they’d provide is not needed as the rooms we meet in all have start-of-the-art heating and air-conditioning systems. So nobody minds if you don’t close the door behind you.


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