Friday, February 9, 2018

The Forgiveness of Nature



I grew up in the battered remains of a once vast hardwood forest in Michigan.  I was lucky to spend my childhood wandering in a small surviving remnant.  My forest was a sacred place.  To me, the western plains felt dry, empty, bleak.  But my oldest ancestors evolved on the arid savannahs of Mother Africa — grassland with scattered brush and trees.  Grassland was where the big game hung out, and they were good to eat.  Recently, I studied horse history, and learned a lot about the vast steppe grasslands of Eurasia.  They were also home to big game and nomadic hunters.

I began to get curious about grass.  There are maybe 12,000 species of grass, and they inhabit climates between the arctic and equator.  More than half of the calories consumed by humankind come from three grasses: rice, wheat, and corn (maize).  Others include oats, barley, millet, sorghum, sugar cane, and bamboo.

Clive Ponting noted that in the last 300 years, the world’s grassland has increased 680 percent.  The forests of the U.S. Midwest were destroyed to grow corn, wheat, and livestock.  The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed to create cattle pasture.  So were the rainforests of Britain and Ireland.  The list is incredibly long.  I discovered that a British grass worshipper, Graham Harvey, had written a passionate book, The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass. 

Nature “forgives” humankind’s tireless vandalism — deserted roads, villages, and battlefields are eventually covered with a healthy carpet of greenery.  “Like the horse and hyena, Homo sapiens is first and foremost a creature of the grass,” wrote Harvey.  The Bible says “All flesh is grass,” because all flesh is mortal: green today, brown tomorrow; but God is eternal.  In 1872, John James Ingalls of Kansas offered a different interpretation.  “The primary form of food is grass.  Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.”

Harvey described the heartbreaking story of the American prairies.  Farmers first arrived during an unusually rainy period.  They plowed under lots of turf, tapped the fantastic fertility of the rich black soil, and had fantastic harvests for a while, until drought returned, and the Dust Bowl blew away millions of tons of degraded soil.  Within 50 years, the party was over.  Farming continues today, with significant yields, but the heavily diminished soil is kept on life support by fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, and fossil fuel.

Native Americans enjoyed the abundance of the prairie for free, hunting herds of 50 million bison.  Observers described one herd that was 50 miles (80 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide, maybe 480,000 animals.  American colonists now use the prairie to raise 45 million cattle, in a capital intensive, fossil fuel powered enterprise that degrades the grassland.  Bison evolved on the plains; they grazed and then moved on, allowing the grass to recover.  Cattle moved too little, and they were heavily overstocked.  Regions of the once-rich ancient turf were “grazed practically to dirt.”

Montana writer Richard Manning summed it up.  “Seventy per cent of the grain crop of American agriculture goes to the livestock that replaced the bison that ate no grain, and one wonders, what is agriculture for?”  Cattle don’t need grain, but farmers are subsidized to grow enormous surpluses.  Harvey lamented the rape of the prairie, “It was a biological powerhouse, rich in wildlife and with a productivity no modern farming system could match.  Yet Americans waged a ceaseless war on this priceless asset, and now it has all but disappeared, its life snatched by the quick cut of steel or slowly sapped by overgrazing.” 

Harvey carefully described the many ways in which evolution ingeniously created grasslands that could survive almost any challenge — except civilization.  They created soil-building humus, which retained moisture and accumulated nutrients.  Many plants have very deep roots, up to 32 feet (10 m), which bring up nutrients.  They can tolerate fire, drought, and grazing.  In fact, they need grazing, to nip off the first shoots of woody shrubs and trees that would compete for sunlight.

Back in the good old days, on the steppe and prairies, the bison and other grazers manicured the turf, and the wooly mammoths controlled the woody plants.  With the mammoths and mastodons gone, and elephants fading, humans in many regions around the world have adapted “firestick farming” to expand grassland area, control woody vegetation, improve the vitality of the forage, and attract game.  Burning off the dry grasses eliminates hiding places for game, and provides a banquet of roasted grasshoppers and other delicacies.

Grasslands are arid, receiving just 10 to 30 inches (25-76 cm) of rain per year.  In wetter prairies, grass can grow tall enough to hide a horse.  Lands getting less than 10 inches are desert.  More than 30 enables forest.  Britain is wet, not arid.  Its grasslands are manmade.  The land was once largely a rainforest.  Over the centuries, nomadic pastoralists gradually cleared trees to expand meadows for their cattle, sheep, and pigs.

In Harvey’s mind, this was the golden age, an era of wonderful freedom and easy living — before the arrival of farming, drudgery, serfdom, and oppressive nobility.  It doesn’t occur to him that wild Britain was even freer, when the ancient forest thrived, home to red deer, wild boar, wolves, and aurochs, and the Thames was loaded with salmon.  Tragically, agriculture displaced the nomadic herders, “setting Britain on its momentous path to ownership and exclusion, enclosure and dispossession, industrialization and urban living, to factory farming and genetically modified foods.”  Harvey screams “Why?” 

Sheep sped the Brits down the road to ruin, a sheepwreck.  The climate was ideal for producing wool of exceptional quality, which became a major industry, and made many people very rich.  This led to the enclosure movement, during which peasant farmers were evicted from the land, so their fields could be converted into valuable sheep pasture.  The wool gold rush generated much of the capital needed to launch the industrial revolution. 

Many of the evicted farmers migrated into rapidly growing urban slums that were crowded, filthy, and disease ridden.  They were joined by hordes of desperate refugees from the Irish Famine.  This generated widespread discontent that could not by soothed in gin palaces.  The fat cats got nervous, fearing unrest and revolution.  Grass came to the rescue.  Liverpool, New York, and other cities began building parks, providing islands of green sanity amidst the industrial nightmare world.

Delirious from perpetual growth fever, Brits joined the Americans in racing down the dead-end road of industrial agriculture — synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, big machines, fossil fuel, monocultures, feedlots, mega-farms.  Maximum yields were the goal, <bleep> the topsoil, the ecosystem, the grandchildren.  This explosion of pure idiocy drove poor Harvey bonkers.  He goes to great lengths to enthusiastically educate readers on the magnificence of healthy topsoil, and the many ways that spectacularly stupid people foolishly destroy it.

His grand vision is a wise transition to organic mixed farming, a three-year rotation of winter grain, spring grain, and a fallow of grasses and red clover — combined with regular application of all available manure.  While this is better than the current norm, there are some important drawbacks.  Every trainload of wheat shipped away to London includes essential nonrenewable nutrients that will never be returned to the farm.  The soil nutrients sent to London stay in London, where they are mixed into toxic sludge.  Anything less than 100 percent nutrient recycling is an enterprise with an expiration date.

Britain usually has gentle rains, so less soil is washed away than in the U.S., where torrential downpours are common, and soil erosion is a huge problem.  Harvey asserts that mixed farming can heal the wrecked soil, rebuild the humus, and restore the millions of tiny creatures that thrive in healthy soil.  If people did this everywhere, enough carbon could be sequestered in the soil to snuff climate change.  Listen to this: “A return to sound husbandry in agriculture would end global warming without the need for motoring cuts.”  Oy!

 When my Norwegian ancestors settled in Iowa in 1879, folks were astonished by the coal black topsoil that could be up to 12 feet (3.6 m) deep.  This super-fertile soil was created by thousands of years of healthy tall grass prairie.  Today, this treasure is nearly gone.  Plows are turning up yellow patches of subsoil.  A wise elder once concluded that the plow has caused more harm to future generations than the sword.

Harvey explores many other subjects.  His book is easy to read, and out of print.  It will inspire you to psychoanalyze the suburbanites who spend thousands of dollars obsessively maintaining spooky freakshow lawns that look as natural as Astroturf.  They must spend their nights having sweet dreams of chasing antelopes across the endless prairies.

Harvey, Graham, The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass, Random House, London, 2001.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Children of the Sun



All life requires energy to survive, and our primary source of energy is the sun, a fireball of nuclear fusion.  On Earth, the plant people absorb this energy and convert it into simple carbohydrates.  Humans and other animals extract these nutrients from edible plants, and/or from the flesh of plant eating animals.

Alfred Crosby’s book, Children of the Sun, presents a history of how humans access energy.  It’s a good companion to his earlier book, Throwing Fire, a history of projectile use, spanning from thrown stones to nuclear weapons.  Both discuss the rapid acceleration of innovation, population, and ecological impacts.  This growing instability over the centuries is largely off the radar in our day-to-day lives.  Most of our brain cycles are engaged in the here and now, a pushbutton wonderland of nonstop magic.

Crosby reminds readers of the obvious fact that fossil energy is finite, and the large, high quality deposits are approaching their finish lines.  We are making little effort to wrap our heads around the notion that our high-impact energy-guzzling lifestyle has an expiration date.  Instead, we pretend — with all our might — that the here and now is perfectly “normal,” and everything is excellent.

When the spirits of our wild ancestors observe today’s “normal” they see a nightmarish insane asylum.  Powerful historians like Crosby can vaporize the walls of our madhouse, and allow us to perceive the hundreds of centuries of turbulent cultural evolution that preceded our birth.  We can observe the spirit of progress transition from an occasional draft, to a strong wind, and the full-scale hurricane of today.

In the 200,000 years since the first Homo sapiens punched in at the time clock, almost all generations have been wild nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in a manner that was far simpler, and much closer to sustainable.  For almost the entire human saga, this slower, gentler mode was the long term “normal.”  But it wasn’t normal.

Some scholars have speculated that if space aliens had visited 100,000 years ago, humans would have appeared to be ordinary animals of no significance.  Wrong!  We were roasting steaks with domesticated fire, a spooky trick never performed by ordinary animals.  Fire was domesticated prior to Homo sapiens, maybe 500,000 years ago, maybe a million, nobody knows.

When our ancestors burned biomass like wood, they were utilizing the solar energy stored by the tree.  Fire provided some benefits.  It intimidated hungry predators.  It enabled our ancestors to survive in regions outside the tropics.  It made cooking possible, a huge advance.  Cooking partially predigests foods, making it easier for our guts to extract more nutrients from them.  It also transforms a number of inedible substances into edible sources of nutrition.  Chimps spend six hours a day chewing raw foods.  Of course, progress is never free — fire making eventually led to huge unintended consequences, like megafauna extinctions, industrial civilization, the population explosion, and an unstable climate. 

It’s fun to play “what if…”  What if that first fire starter, who learned how to make sparks with friction, had been ripped to shreds by hyenas prior to his or her discovery?  Without fire, furless hominids could not have survived in chilly non-tropical regions.  The snow monkeys of Japan solved this challenge by evolving heavy winter coats.  Would Homo sapiens have ever evolved at all, limited to a raw food diet?  Would the Americas and Europe of today still be human-free wildernesses, home to healthy populations of mammoths, bison, and sabertooth cats?

Over time, our ancestors got better at hunting and basic survival.  When some groups moved out of the tropics, they encountered conditions for which evolution had not fine-tuned them.  They needed tighter shelters, warm clothing, and food storage for the lean seasons.  Clever innovations could increase the odds for survival, and the cleverer we got, the better.  Over the millennia, our addiction to innovation snowballed.  Like an arms race, the groups possessing the most powerful juju were likely to displace or erase the bubbas with inferior juju.

And so, the clever ones spread around the globe.  Growing numbers eventually ran out of uninhabited lands to colonize, leading to growing friction.  Too much cleverness eventually led to what Ronald Wright called “the perfection of hunting.”  By killing megafauna a bit faster than they could recover over the centuries, big game gradually got scarce.  Our menu shifted toward small game, and then to aquatic edibles.

The domestication of plants and animals was another Earth-shaking innovation.  We could now exploit solar energy more efficiently.  More people could live on less land.  Never before had we controlled so much energy.  Population grew, spurring instability.  The enslavement of animals like horses and oxen provided us with pack animals to carry stuff, and traction animals to pull stuff.  No longer was the work in human communities performed solely by human muscle power.  Enslaved animals could be exploited in many ways.

By A.D. 1000, clever ones had learned how to capture more energy with waterwheels, windmills, and sailing ships, but muscle power was still the primary energy.  We were drifting toward the limits of utilizing solar energy via agriculture and burning wood.  As forests disappeared, the clever ones began burning coal.  Eventually, mineshafts reached the water table, and muscle powered gizmos were unable to remove the water fast enough.  So, brilliant lads invented steam engines that could pump water and keep the mines dry.

Until maybe 1700, human society ran primarily on the muscle power of humans and animals.  The steam engine, like the domestication of plants, animals, and fire, was a major advance with horrendous unintended consequences.  The speed of innovation became a constantly accelerating whirlwind — locomotives, steamships, and multiple-spindle spinning machines.  Lighting switched from the flickering hearth fire, to candles, then whale oil lamps, then coal gas, then kerosene, then electric lights.

Steam engines were pushed to the sidelines by internal combustion engines, which were used to power automobiles, tractors, trucks, locomotives, ships, and many other machines.  Gasoline couldn’t run a sewing machine 100 miles away, but electricity could.  We invented generators, installed power grids, built hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power plants.  We invented telegraphs, telephones, radio, television.  The herd grew explosively from one billion to two, three, four, five, six, seven…  Zoom, zoom, zoom…

For a while, the Peak Oil doomsters made us nervous, with their predictions that the production of conventional oil would likely peak around 2005, which it did.  But we got distracted by the growing production unconventional oil from oil shale (fracking) and tar sands, and returned to pretending that we have no limits.  Let’s go shopping!

Thankfully, Crosby provides readers with an embarrassing birds-and-bees talk about EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested).  In the 1930s, the EROEI of oil production was 100:1 — it took one unit of energy to extract 100 units from the underground reserves.  When he was writing in 2006, it had dropped to 17:1.  Today, it’s less.  Low EROEI means that lots of oil will be left in the ground forever, regardless of how high the price eventually rises.  Imagine having a job that paid $100 per day, but the bridge toll to get there was $105.

Crosby offers us no silver bullet solutions.  “Winning streaks are rarely permanent.”  The easiest approach to our challenges is to continue living foolishly and hope for miracles.  The smartest response would be sanity — limit population, cut consumption, live lightly, and abandon nuclear and fossil energy.  “We have every reason to believe that we are capable of environmental sanity; but first we have to accept that the way we live now is new, abnormal, and unsustainable.”  

It’s a short book, and very easy to read — no charts, graphs, or techno-jargon.  Crosby describes the uncomfortable facts of life in a calm and non-hysterical way.  I have zero complaints about it.  It’s an excellent intro to energy.  He briefly discusses the limitations of alternative energy sources.  The limits are more thoroughly discussed in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  The huge downside of nuclear energy is better addressed in Too Hot to Touch.  Other energy-related books include Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise, Cadillac Desert, The Big Flatline, The End of Growth, Techno-Fix, and Afterburn.

Crosby, Alfred W., Children of the Sun — A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2006.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Horse in Human History



Our ancestors evolved on the savannahs of tropical Africa, arid grasslands home to herds of large herbivores.  Later, some ancestors migrated out of Africa, into non-tropical Eurasia, a cooler climate for which evolution and experience had not carefully prepared them.  They discovered northern grasslands, called steppes, home to herds of gazelles, argali sheep, saiga antelope, reindeer, and wild horses.  These shortgrass prairies extended 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Hungary to Manchuria.  The struggle to survive on the steppes encouraged innovation (warm clothing, tighter shelters, food storage, etc.).  Groups that developed better stuff were less likely to become buzzard food.

The first species of the horse genus (Equus) emerged in North America about 4.5 million years ago.  Some migrated to South America, and others crossed the land bridge to Eurasia, and spread as far as Western Europe.  Maybe 15,000 years ago, hunters from Siberia discovered America.  Over the following centuries, a surge of megafauna extinctions occurred.  The last horse in the Americas died in Patagonia about 7000 B.C.  In 1493, Spaniards brought domesticated horses back to America, and by 1550, there were 10,000 roaming the golden plains.

In Pleistocene Europe, humans loved to hunt horses.  At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the bones of up to 100,000 horses, with dates ranging from 37,000 to 10,000 years ago.  During seasonal migrations, horses were trapped, butchered, and smoked.  By the sixth millennium B.C., the once plentiful wild horses of Western and Central Europe’s river valleys were apparently eliminated by overhunting.  To the east, large numbers of wild horses managed to survive on the vast open steppes, where they were less vulnerable to traps.  Hunters on foot were much slower than speedy critters so, prior to horse domestication, few humans could survive in the steppe ecosystem.

Cattle, goats, and sheep were domesticated in the Middle East, but horses were domesticated much later (4000 B.C.), on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, which spans from the Ukraine to western Kazakhstan, along the north coasts of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.  Wild horses were big, strong, fast, intelligent, and aggressive.  When spooked, they attack, and swift kicks can be fatal.  They were not easy to domesticate.  Zebras, their Equus cousins, have never been tamed — the older they get, the meaner.

Prior to the enslavement of horses, society was powered by human muscles.  The addition of horse power was a tremendous boost.  They could move much larger loads.  On horseback, humans could move rapidly, and travel long distances.  The Horse in Human History, by anthropologist Pita Kelekna, is a mind-altering book.  It describes our turbulent 6,000 year relationship with domesticated horses.

Few readers were raised in tribes of nomadic pastoralists.  Our civilized world teaches us grand stories of magnificent empires, and their ongoing conflicts with scruffy bloodthirsty barbarians.  Kelekna reveals the missing half of the story that our culture has bleeped out — the tremendous impact these nomadic horsemen have had in shaping the world of today.  As they grew in scale, both the sedentary farmers and nomadic horsemen caused injuries to the ecosystem.  The earlier hunter-gatherers of the steppe caused far less disturbance.

At first, domesticated horses were kept for meat, milk, and hides.  Compared to other livestock, horses were more tolerant of snowy conditions, better able to survive on low quality forage, and required less pampering.  Because horses were highly mobile, and could go up to four days without water, herders could utilize grasslands farther from rivers, and maintain larger herds.  Nomadic life was an ongoing quest to move hungry herds to greener pastures, so agriculture was rarely an option.  They learned to survive largely on milk, milk products, and wild foods.

Eventually, folks figured out how to utilize horse power for hauling packs, and for pulling carts, wagons, chariots, and plows.  By and by, they transported trade goods, technologies, religions, ideas, and infectious diseases over long distances.  Bridle, saddle, and stirrup innovations eventually enabled humans to ride horses, at high speed, while effectively using deadly weapons.

One herder on foot could oversee 150 to 200 sheep, but a mounted herder could manage 500.  Horse domestication promoted the expansion of farming and herding, spurring population growth and conflict.  Mounted prospectors were better able to explore remote regions, and horse power was a tremendous asset for labor intensive mining operations.  This set the stage for the emergence of the Iron Age on the Anatolian steppe (Turkey).  Iron was history-altering big juju.

Warning!  Before you sit down with this book, be sure to have an inflatable raft nearby, because you’ll soon be up to your neck in blood.  Kelekna thoroughly documents how horsepower led to “bloodshed, massacres, deportations, enslavement, amputation, beheadings, torture, incineration, rape, castration, famine, pestilence, and destruction.”

Old fashioned warriors on foot became sitting ducks for speeding war chariots.  Later came mounted cavalry, which was even more deadly.  Then, armored knights on armored horses.  Then, infantry soldiers got halberds, pikes, and crossbows, which reduced knights to wolf chow.  Then, cannons.  And so on.  In an endless arms race, every brilliant innovation was inevitably trumped by something even more deadly.  Societies that did not maintain cutting edge capabilities were doomed to be dismembered by the cutting edge.

Readers learn about the Mongol blitzkrieg that rapidly created the largest contiguous land empire in history, spanning the steppes from the Baltic to the Pacific.  It survived for a few centuries until the Ottomans stomped them.  The spread of Islam spilled oceans of blood, as did the Christian Crusades.  Kelekna’s tireless recital of bloodbath after bloodbath, the rise and fall of countless cocky gangbangers, is stunning, and before long, absurd.

The words you are reading right now are English, another inheritance from the steppe nomads.  English is one of many Indo-European languages that branched off from the nomads’ ancient mother tongue, proto Indo-European (PIE).  Around 3000 B.C., PIE split into two language families, as people zoomed off in many directions in their new horse drawn carts.  The satem group includes Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, Iranian, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Nepali.  The centum group includes Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Greek, Anatolian, and Tocharian.  Today, the first language of more than a third of humankind is one of the Indo-European offshoots.

Multinational religions absorbed spiritual beliefs of the steppe nomads.  Zoroastrianism originated among Iranian tribes.  Their beliefs included one supreme god, a seven day creation, angels and demons, a coming savior, virgin birth, heaven and hell, and judgment day — which influenced Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.  These four religions emerged between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 1000, the era of equestrian empires.  Today, their believers include 72 percent of humankind.

To better appreciate the impact of horses in the Old World, it’s interesting to look at the horseless Americas.  Llamas and alpacas were the only two large animals domesticated, and neither were suitable for riding.  Incas had no wheels, so they had no carts or wagons, and no need for smooth roads.  They did build bridges, dig tunnels, and cut steps up steep hillsides.  “Without the horse, the central steppes of the Americas — the prairies and pampas — remained undeveloped for agriculture and largely uninhabited.”

Pack trains of llamas could travel up to 12 miles per day (19 km), with each animal carrying up to 101 pounds (46 kg).  Horses, donkeys, and mules were far better pack animals.  Speedy long-distance communication was provided by messages relayed from one Inca runner to the next.  This was much slower than Genghis Khan’s pony express system, which could move messages 248 miles (400 km) per day.

Up north in Mesoamerica, they had wheels, but they were only used on tiny clay toys.  Northern pack animals had two legs.  On a good day, a healthy lad might carry 50 pounds (23 kg) for 13 to 17 miles (21 to 28 km).  Without carts or pack animals, Mesoamericans could not create vast sprawling empires like Rome.  While the Mayans built some roads, hiking in Mexico was via dirt paths, where they existed.

Military activities were restricted.  Each soldier had to carry his own provisions, which limited load size and distance travelled.  Thus, if supplies could not be snagged from villagers along the way, adventures would have been limited to round trips of eight days or so.  In Eurasia, huge Mongol cavalries could zoom across the steppe at 68 miles (110 km) per day.

Ideas also moved slowly in a horseless world, if they moved at all.  The brilliant mathematical achievement of the Mayans was the invention of the zero — 500 years before the Hindus.  In the Old World, the extremely useful idea of zero spread fast and far, while the Mayan zero never left home.  The voyage of Columbus depended on the existence of countless tools, resources, and skills, none of which were invented in Spain.  Some came from as far away as China, like gunpowder, forged steel, paper, and printing.  Imagine what today would look like if the concept of gunpowder had never left China.

Bottom line, if horses had never been domesticated, the world of today would be unimaginably different, and far less trashed — maybe.  In fact, big bloody civilizations did emerge in horse free America, develop productive agriculture, and feed growing mobs.  In South America, they were making bronze tools, and ornaments of silver and gold.  When Cortes first arrived, the Valley of Mexico had two million residents, and Tenochtitlan was a city of 200,000 — twice the size of Paris at that time.

By 1705, on the buffalo rich plains of Texas, the Comanche acquired horses.  “Like the Eurasian steppes, before the horse, the prairie had few human inhabitants.  Tough sod discouraged farming, and hunting speedy large mammals on foot in open country was not easy.”  Comanche horsemen could now ride faster than buffalo, and kill as many as they wanted.  Many more people could be fed.  Other tribes got into the game, and grew in size.  Like any ecosystem, grasslands have limited carrying capacity — growth is the mother of conflict.

The domestication of plants and animals, especially the horse, radically altered the human saga.  Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, non-hierarchical.  Personal belongings were minimal, and sharing was the key to survival.  For pastoralists, domesticated horses were perceived to be personal property, and status symbols.  A new, toxic, and highly contagious belief was born — you are what you own.  Stealing horses became a get-rich-quick scheme.  Raiding led to counter raids, blood was often spilled, and an era of intertribal warfare emerged, in both the Old World and New.  Today, the insatiable and idiotic hunger for status is pounding the planet to pieces.

I’ve only scratched the surface here.  Kelekna did an outstanding job of giving us a long, powerful, and sobering look in the mirror.  Thankfully, she does not visit the fairy pool of magical solutions, fill the obligatory slop bucket, and dump it over our heads.  The traditional path of endless escalating growth and conflict isn’t taking us anywhere good.  She suggests that contemplation, communication, and cooperation might provide an antidote for the urge to self-destruct.  We haven’t tried that.  Hey!

Kelekna, Pita, The Horse in Human History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009.

Today, horse power has been replaced with machines powered by fossil energy, a nonrenewable resource that does not have a long and rosy future.  Can seven-point-something billion humans return to horses?  By 1900, modern cities had become horrid smelly nightmares.  Read this:  From Horse Power to Horsepower.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Inner Life of Animals



In his bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben revealed the fascinating magic and mystery of trees.  He spent his childhood close to nature, where he was fascinated by the family of life.  In his adult years, he has been a forest manager in Germany, continually striving to nurture the health of the land, and minimize harms.  He has spent much of his life outdoors.  Consequently, he has developed a perception of reality that is quite different from the herd.

In his new book, The Inner Life of Animals, he directs his attention to animal life, which is also little understood by mainstream society — the folks who spend most of their lives in climate controlled compartments.  For them, the natural world is often just a meaningless blur of scenery along the freeway, and wildlife sightings are mostly on glowing screens.  The new book is a pleasant voyage into a kinder and gentler mindset.  Readers are served a banquet of interesting ideas, mostly.

Wohlleben is a caring man who wishes that humans would cause far less damage and suffering in the world.  That’s his message.  At his home in the woods, he keeps goats, horses, rabbits, dogs, and chickens.  He apparently treats them with kindness until they drop dead from old age, or become terminally ill.  He confesses to drinking goat milk and making cheese, but says not a peep about meat (a touchy subject these days).  He detests factory farms, hunters, and industrial forest miners.

He has a deep appreciation for the coherence of wild ecosystems, and the remarkable relationships that coevolution has produced.  A primary focus of his book is to confront the cult of human supremacy.  Like patriarchy, and get-rich-quick fever, human supremacist beliefs intensify the madness of modern society.  The cult asserts that anything non-human is below us.  It’s perfectly OK to cram 20,000 chickens, shoulder to shoulder, inside a metal shed, without guilt or shame.  They are mindless machines that can feel no pain, organisms incapable of thoughts or feelings.

Supremacism has left a boot print on the English language.  Throughout the book, there are two categories of critters, “humans” and “animals,” implying that humans are not animals.  Of course, that’s not true.  Take off your clothes and look in a mirror, and you will see an animal that looks a lot like a chimp or bonobo, our closest living relatives.

In the mirror you will see a furless tropical primate that evolved an upright bipedal stance fine-tuned for long distance running.  This enabled us to survive via persistence hunting — chasing animals across the savannah for hours, until they collapsed from exhaustion.  Louis Liebenberg wrote about this.  Our ancestors have been hunters for several million years, long before we became Homo sapiens.  As every gardener knows, our bodies are poorly designed for gathering seeds, nuts, melons, and berries — too much bending and backaches.

Wohlleben hates hunting, which in its current form is “no longer appropriate.”  During the season, the woods are crowded with hunters, hiding close to bait piles, with high-powered rifles.  Bullets are whizzing all over the place, and up to 650,000 wild boars die every year.  Some animals are merely wounded, and suffer agonizing deaths.  He doesn’t describe what “appropriate” hunting would be.  Society has vigorously exterminated wild carnivores, whilst growing staggering amounts of boar food.  Is boar overpopulation appropriate?

Wohlleben owns a number of domesticated animals, and they spend their days in locations enclosed by electric fences.  They cannot go where they please, and the fences discourage the indigenous wild lynx from dining on his exotic invasive critters.  This disturbs him a bit.  “Nature didn’t intend for goats and horses to spend their whole lives as prisoners behind a fence.  Let’s not pretend: these animals would hightail it in a heartbeat if they could.”  (Did nature intend the existence of domesticated animals?)  The best he can do is treat them respectfully.

He lives in the twenty-first century, when many people own domesticated animals, a source of wealth and status.  For these folks, wild predators are evil.  Chickens are fox food, and foxes are demonic anti-capitalist anarchists.  Many also plant large fields of boar food, and get quite upset when boars come to enjoy their generous offering.  Some farmers surround their corn fields with electric fences to keep them out.  In the good old days, before domestication, nobody owned the large game and edible plants.  Nobody got upset when wild predators consumed wild herbivores, because nobody’s status was diminished.  In egalitarian societies, all people were equal, and status consciousness was totally inappropriate.

In The Others, Paul Shepard brilliantly described how important it is for all humans to spend their entire lives in healthy wild ecosystems, surrounded by many species of wild animals.  He also explained the many ugly consequences of capturing, confining, and domesticating “goofies” and “hooved locusts.”  Civilized primates are seriously deformed and traumatized by spending their lives in isolation from their wild relatives.

It’s easy to gobble a Big Mac when you have been taught that animals are like rutabagas, dumb organisms.  Now, we’re learning how sensitive and intelligent animals are.  To complicate matters, in his tree book, Wohlleben revealed that plants are also not dumb machines.  How can we feed ourselves in a morally acceptable manner?  Chimps and bonobos happily beat small animals to death, eat them raw, with no guilt at all.  A robin eating a worm is not evil.  We all feed one another.

Wohlleben is a fountain of stories.  Foxes lie down, tongues out, and play dead to attract hungry crows.  Goats move away from the herd when it’s time for them to die, because their corpse will attract predators.  Hives of bees with insufficient honey for the winter will attack weaker hives, kill defenders, and swipe their stash.  Swifts rarely stand on the ground, they sleep while soaring.  The book is loaded with hundreds of anecdotes like these.  I shall let you discover them on your own.

According to the human supremacist myths, animals do not have consciousness, self-awareness, or emotions.  They cannot feel pain, communicate, remember events, grieve, express gratitude, or recognize individual humans.  Today, the core of the controversy over animal intelligence is whether or not they are capable of thinking. 

Humans, of course, can think like crazy.  In our brains, the neocortex is the engine of self-awareness, consciousness, and thinking — and humans have the greatest neocortex of all.  Oddly, while most of the book is dedicated to challenging human supremacy, Wohlleben refers to our neocortex as the “crowning achievement of creation.”  Indeed, no other species is capable of experiencing so much cognitive dissonance.

Folks who understand environmental history and ecological sustainability, and have learned how to engage in critical thinking, can readily detect enormous flaws in the core myths of our culture.  The view from their mountaintop, far above the thick smog of dodgy beliefs, perceives that thinking is at least as much of a curse as a blessing.  We can live without glowing screens, but we can’t live in a toxic wasteland, with a hostile climate.  Supremacist myths trump common sense.  You can lead the herd to the pool of knowledge, but you can’t make them think.

“Mommy?”  “Yes, dear?”  “What is intelligence?”  “Sweetheart, intelligence is turning old growth forests into money, destabilizing the climate, acidifying the oceans, driving many species to extinction — and not caring.  Intelligence is speeding across the land in motorized wheelchairs, dumping trash on the moon, creating vast coastal dead zones, and developing miracle cures for the infectious and degenerative diseases that emerged with the birth of civilization.”  “Mommy?”  “Yes, dear?”  “I don’t want to be intelligent.  Can I be wild, free, and happy?”

Wohlleben, Peter, The Inner Life of Animals, Greystone Books, Berkeley, 2017.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Kitchi-Gami



In the Ojibway language, Kitchi-Gami means Lake Superior.  Johann Georg Kohl (1808-1878) was a German travel writer, geographer, and ethnologist.  In 1855, he spent six months visiting trading posts and missions in Ojibway country near Kitchi-Gami, mostly at the Apostle Islands off the north coast of Wisconsin, and at the settlements at the base of Keweenaw Bay, in northern Michigan.

Kohl’s book, Kitchi-Gami, was published in 1860.  It presents a different perspective from John Tanner’s 1830 book, The Falcon.  Tanner was a white man, kidnapped as a boy, who spent 30 years among the Ojibway, had a hard life, and described his many struggles.  Kohl was a visitor from outer space who was fascinated by the Ojibway.  He interviewed many, learned a lot about their culture, and discussed numerous subjects not mentioned by Tanner.

Kohl was eager to record as much as possible about the Ojibway, because it looked like Native Americans were rapidly dying off, and would soon be gone.  At the same time, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were working to preserve remnants of the traditional culture of Germany, because the rustic folks who still remembered bits of it were also dying off.

Both the Ojibway and wild Germans were cultures that inhabited vast ancient forests, sacred places of magic, mystery, hungry wolves, and mystical little people (fairies).  Kohl noted that the folktales of both had similar themes and lessons.  Ojibway birch bark wigwams were of comparable quality to the huts of poor peasants in Lithuania, Ireland, or Polish Jews.  Like Scandinavians, the Ojibway fished at night using torches.  Germany had witches or sorcerers who could cause others harm by curses, charms, or spells.  The Ojibway had Windigos, men or women possessed by evil spirits who were terribly common.

Kohl’s gift to us is a remembrance of the closing days of the wild frontier, when Ojibway country was relatively unmolested, except for its furbearing animals.  The St. Mary’s River was the eastern outlet for Kitchi-Gami.  Bears crossed it during seasonal migrations.  In 1811, the migration lasted all summer, and 6,000 bears were killed, as many as 100 per night.  Before Kohl arrived, the greedy fur mining industry in the region had peaked, sharply declined, and moved westward.

Near the St. Mary’s River was a settlement named Rivière au Désert, because it was a ghastly, hideous eyesore in the wilderness — scruffy patches of oats or barley planted amidst stumps.  “Nature is here, at the outset, a pleasing wild forest garden; but when civilized man breaks into it, his axe and his fire produce a desert of half-carbonized tree stumps and skeletons.”  French Canadians call these patches of cultivation “un désert.”

Kohl was fascinated by the spiritual life of the Ojibway.  In Germany, the black robes commonly taught that the world is a hellish nightmare of demons, wickedness, and abominations.  The Ojibway, on the other hand, loved their sacred land, and cared for it.  Their culture was not fixated on the soul’s path in the afterlife.  They had a vibrant spiritual connection to life in the here and now.

Unfortunately, the here and now was sharply different from the good old days.  Kohl chatted with an old woman whose name meant “dawn.”  He called her Aurora.  The blitzkrieg of civilization had pushed the Sioux out of their forest homeland, and westward onto the prairie.  Tribal warfare intensified.  People no longer felt safe.  Aurora had lost three brothers, and ten other close relatives.  She said that the Ojibway were far weaker since the Long-knives arrived.  They used to be healthier and stronger, able to go ten days without food and not complain.  Their traditional culture was withering.

He was amazed to learn about the Ojibway vision quests, which were part of their rites of passage into adulthood.  Nowhere in Europe did young boys or girls courageously “fast for days on behalf of a higher motive, retire to the most remote forests, defy all the claims of nature, and fix their minds so exclusively on celestial matters, that they fell into convulsions, and attained an increased power of perception, which they did not possess in ordinary life.”  Sometimes it took ten days of fasting to have important dreams.

In Germany, Christian preachers taught their flocks to give away their wealth, and live a life of unconditional love.  Native Americans were perplexed to observe that the teachings of the black robes often had no association with their behaviors.  The aliens seemed to be possessed with a frantic desire to seize and hoard as much wealth as possible.  They were arrogant, domineering, and impressively dishonest — the opposite of loving.

The Ojibway actually practiced what the Christians preached.  “As a universal rule, next to the liar, no one is so despised by the Indians as the narrow-hearted egotist and greedy miser.”  Voyageurs and traders regularly travelled through Indian country with valuable goods and full purses.  There were no police or soldiers in the wilderness, but it was very rare for a trader to be attacked for the sole purpose of robbery.  But the two big fur trading companies “often plundered each other’s posts, and employed the Indians for that purpose.”

Kohl was impressed by the charity of the Ojibway.  “There are no rich men among them.”  An Indian will not hesitate to share his last meal with a hungry stranger.  The principle is “that a man must first share with others and then think of himself.”  He was also impressed by their egalitarian society.  No man, not even a cripple, considered another Indian to be his superior.

Kohl was not a hunter-gatherer in Germany, and he was not raised in an egalitarian society.  He did not understand that hunting abilities varied greatly.  In The Art of Tracking, Louis Liebenberg noted that among the San hunters aged 15 to 38, “70 percent of all the kudu kills were made by only 17 percent of the hunters, while almost half the hunters made no kudu kills at all.”

The “communist” Ojibway annoyed him with their absolute commitment to generosity.  The poor hunter “is forced to give all his spoil away, industry is never rewarded, and the hard-working man toils for the lazy.  A man often has to support others, without complaining.  So, all are fed, and none ever get prosperous.”  The heathens were more Christian than the Christians.

Liebenberg wrote a lot about persistence hunting — running after game until they collapsed from exhaustion (a practice that led to our ancestors becoming bipedal).  Kohl noted that the Ojibway also did this.  Horses were not ideal for hunting in a forest.  Running down elk was easiest in the deep snows of winter, when the hunter travelled on snowshoes.  Sometimes bears were chased down.

One day, when Kohl was in the Apostle Islands, “A warlike maiden suddenly appeared, who boasted of having taken a Sioux scalp, and she was led in triumph from lodge to lodge.  I was told that a supernatural female had appeared to this girl, who was now nineteen, during the period of her great fasts and dreams of life, who prophesied to her that she would become the greatest runner of her tribe, and thus gain the mightiest warrior for husband.”

Women were healers, prophets, and enchanters.  “It may be easily supposed that these squaws, owing to their performing all the work of joiners, carpenters, and masons, have corned and blistered hands. In fact, their hands are much harder to the touch than those of the men; and, indeed, their entire muscular system is far more developed, and they are proportionately stronger in the arm, for the men do not do much to bring out the muscle.”

Raised in rigidly strict Germany, Kohl was amazed by how loving Ojibway parents were.  “Indians have an ape-like affection for their children.  Even fathers are very kind to their sons, and never treat them with severity.”  Europeans often exposed (abandoned) unwanted children, but the Ojibway never did.  But when the elderly could no longer keep up with the band, they were left behind.

In Kitchi-Gami country, there were numerous locations named Lac du Flambeau (Torch Lake).  In summer, when vast clouds of mosquitoes made life miserable, the deer waded into lakes and ponds, just keeping their heads above water.  Hunters in canoes quietly moved toward them from downwind, with birch bark torches burning.  The deer calmly stared at the light, and were easily killed.

So, dearest reader, there’s a sampler.  Kohl also described their wigwams, canoes, diet, food preservation, sugar making, fishing, clothing, revenge killing, warfare, spells and magic, medicine, vision quests, dreams, ceremonies, stories, reverence for copper, symbolic drawings on birch bark paper, and on and on.

Kohl, Johann Georg, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1860, Reprint, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1985.

NOTE: Early editions of this book refer to the Ojibway as Ojibbeway.  These people are also known as the Chippewa and Anishinabe, in a variety of spellings.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Northern Antiquities



Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807) was a Swiss historian who had a fondness for the Teutonic (Germanic and Scandinavian) tribes of northern Europe.  Their strength, ferocity, and devotion to total liberty eventually enabled them to reduce the Roman Empire into a bloody blotch of road kill.  Mallet had no fondness whatsoever for the corpulent, decadent, oppressive Romans <spit!> and their legions of slaves.  The Teutonic tribes enjoyed a life of magnificent freedom.  Listen:

“They were free because they inhabited an uncultivated country, rude forests and mountains; and liberty is the sole treasure of an indigent people; …and he who possesses little defends it easily.  They were free because they were ignorant of those pleasures, often so dearly bought, which render the protection of a powerful master necessary.  They were free because hunters and shepherds, who wander about in woods through inclination or necessity, are not so easily oppressed as the timorous inhabitants of enclosed towns… and because a wandering people, if deprived of their liberty in one place, easily find it in another, as well as their sustenance.  Lastly, they were free because, knowing not the use of money, there could not be employed against them that instrument of slavery and corruption, which enables the ambitious to collect and distribute at will the signs of riches.”

The second great achievement of the Teutonic tribes, according to Mallet, was eventually abandoning their demonic indigenous spirituality and converting to the one, and only, non-demonic religion, that was dedicated to the worship of a volatile Middle Eastern sky deity.  In Northern Antiquities, Mallet tried to sum up what was known about these tribes prior to conversion.  It provided a window between the early Roman observers, Julius Caesar (51 B.C.) and Caius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 98), and the later Christian historians, like Adam of Bremen (1076), Saxo Grammaticus (born about 1150), and Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).  He also cited a number of less famous sources, now obscure, which help make his book unique, but not flawless.

Twenty centuries ago, Tacitus described the wholesome, old fashioned animism of the German tribes.  “They conceive it unworthy of the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.”  In the pagan era, northern Europe was still largely covered with a vast primordial forest.  If you wanted to travel, you used a boat.

Unlike modern multinational religions, in Teutonic spirituality, female deities played prominent roles, and the living natural world was sacred.  Odin’s companions were ravens and wolves.  Mallet wrote, “The earth, the water, the fire, the air, the sun, moon, and stars had each their respective divinity.  The trees, forests, rivers, mountains, rocks, winds, thunder and tempests had the same; and merited on that score a religious worship, which, at first, could not be directed to the visible object, but to the intelligence with which it was animated.”

A thousand years later, near the end of the pagan era, their deities had become humanized — wise, crazy, loving, gullible, brutal, lusty, fickle, and so on.  The pantheon of deities was patriarchal, headed by Odin, the All Father.  By now, the Indo-European influences were unmistakable.  Indo-Europeans were a culture from eastern lands that spread across the west, leaving a pattern of closely related patriarchal pantheons.  They spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).  Half of humankind today speaks Indo-European languages, including almost all modern European languages.

Tuesday is Tyr’s day, honoring the war god.  Wednesday is Odin’s day (Wotan’s day), dedicated to the shaman, poet, magician, singer, and chief war god.  His wife Frigga was Mother Earth; the Saxons called her Ostara (Easter).  Thursday is Thor’s day, for the red haired, skull crushing thunder god.  Friday is the day of Freyja, the goddess of love.  The winter solstice was the shortest day of the year, Mother Night.  This was the time of the Jul feast (Yule), a celebration of Frey, the sun, with hope that the coming year would be bountiful.  Today Yule time has become a surreal marketing holiday.

In Denmark, every nine years, a ceremony was held in January.  “The Danes flock together in crowds, and offer to their gods ninety-nine men, as many horses, dogs, and cocks, with the certain hope of appeasing the gods by these victims.”  A similar ceremony was held in Uppsala, Sweden.  After the sacrificial humans and animals were killed, and their blood drained, their bodies were hung from trees in a nearby sacred grove dedicated to Odin.

From the perspective of ecological sustainability, the humanization of deities activates flashing red warning lights – it is not a characteristic of sustainable cultures.  Human supremacy is a standard symptom of self-destructive societies (see Jensen and Livingston).  Notions of superiority were also inspired by the domestication of plants and animals, which radically reconfigured ecosystems solely for the benefit of humans (see Scott and Diamond).  Finally, the northern tribes waged war with iron weapons and, as every school child knows, metal-making consumes nonrenewable resources, a habit that often leads to addiction and overdose.

In what is now France, the Gauls were farmers living in permanent villages and towns.  They were heavily dependent on domesticated plants.  To the east, across the Rhine, were the Germanic tribes, who were primarily hunters and nomadic herders, raising domesticated cattle and sheep in a wilderness of forests and wetlands.  When threats approached, they packed up and moved.  Their livestock was self-propelled, and capable of feeding themselves.  The Gauls were helpless sitting ducks who could not move their stuff away from danger.  Their granaries were not mobile, and their towns were quite flammable.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  The Berber proverb is: “Raiding is our agriculture.”  Tacitus said this about the Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Mallet added the master key to understanding all human history — “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.”  Today, liberals piss and moan about the horrors of capitalism, but capitalists are merely recycling the ancient tactics of nomadic herders, like the Mongols and Huns.  Consumers are their weak and vulnerable prey.

Thus, the Teutonic tribes were warriors, and war was their source of honor, riches, and safety.  It was essential that warriors die a violent death, with their arms in their hands, ideally laughing with their final breath.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  Courageous fighters were sent to the premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking.  Yippee!

Dying in bed was totally shameful.  Iceland and Sweden had ancestral cliffs (ättestup), where the sick and aged plunged to a violent death, to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

In the Teutonic tribes, women were considered to be equals and companions.  Society could not survive without their hard work.  Germans admitted them to their councils, and consulted with them on the business of the state.  In the north, it was common to meet women who delivered oracular information, cured the worst maladies, assumed whatever shape they wished, raised storms, chained the winds, travelled through the air, and performed every function of the fairy art.  There were ten prophetesses for each prophet.

The book concludes with a happy ending.  Once the freedom loving Teutonic people had finished rubbishing Rome, liberty was restored to Europe, and the victors leaped on the escalator to modernity.  As Mallet was writing in 1750, life was grand.  People and their belongings were now safe and secure.  Fields were filled with laborers.  Numerous cities flourished in peace and prosperity.  Paganism went extinct, and everyone flocked to the new religion, in which believers were promised an eternity in paradise as long as they did not kill, or lie, or steal, or fornicate, or judge others, or hate their enemies, or think blasphemous thoughts, or accumulate wealth.

Mallet, Paul Henri, Northern Antiquities, 1770, Reprint, AMS Press, New York, 1968.

Other sources:

Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1076, Reprint, Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.

Anderson, Rasmus Björn, Norse Mythology: Or the Religion of Our Forefathers..., 1875, Reprint, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, 1884.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  DOWNLOAD

Grammaticus, Saxo, The First Nine Books of Danish History, 1514, Reprint, David Nutt, London, 1894.  DOWNLOAD

Grimm, Jakob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.  This book provides the most information on Teutonic myth and folklore, but it is difficult to read.  All four volumes can be read at Google Books.

Metzner, Ralph, The Well of Remembrance, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1994. 

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  This volume includes Germania.  DOWNLOAD