February 2018 books read

  • City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament – Peter Dickinson, 1980 – Interesting re-tellings in various forms.
  • Two Little Pilgrim’s Progress: A Story of the City Beautiful – Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1895 – A new-to-me Burnett (she’s one of the authors I’m completist about), set at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (the “White City” of Devil in the White City and of a huge contemporaneous tattered photo book I used to own but can’t identify right now). Not great but it did re-awaken my time travel desire to experience it myself.
  • The Pilgrim’s Regress – C.S. Lewis, 1933 – If I had read this before I don’t remember it. I found it very annoying initially, featuring the most insufferable aspects of Lewis (sexuality as “brown girls”), but it had some interesting aspects later on.
  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Charles Mann, 2011
  • The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan, 1989 – re-read for Great Books but I couldn’t be there (midterm)! I liked it fine but didn’t mark any passages.
  • Captains Courageous – Rudyard Kipling, 1897 – Multiple multiple re-read, one of my all-time favorites. I think Moby-Dick triggered my desire to go back to it, even though  “CC in space” would be a great plot; why doesn’t it exist?

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Charles C. Mann, 2011

After reading 1491 in 2017, the Nature and Environment book group decided 1493 was a definite for 2018, and we pretty much all loved it, some even more than 1491.

The opening and closing frame is Mann in his garden, thinking about how it feels like home and yet it’s full of species from all over the globe: “Rather than being a locus of stability and tradition, my garden is a biological record of past human wanderings and exchange.” He argues that globalization began with Columbus. “Newspapers usually describe globalization in purely economic terms, but it is also a biological phenomenon; indeed, from a long-term perspective it may be primarily a biological phenomenon.”

One of the joys of reading Mann is historical tidbits that sometimes seem obvious in retrospect but which I’d never realized or thought about: “Fun, exciting, and wildly addictive, tobacco was an instant hit around the globe—the first time people in every continent simultaneously became enraptured by a novelty. N. tabacum was the leading edge of the Columbian Exchange.”

Although the potato raised farm production overall, its greater benefit was to make that production more reliable. Before S. tuberosum, summer was usually a hungry time, with stored grain supplies running low before the fall harvest. Potatoes, which mature in as little as three months, could be planted in April and dug up during the thin months of July and August. And because they were gathered early, they were unlikely to be affected by an unseasonable fall—the kind of weather that ruined wheat harvests. In war-torn areas, potatoes could be left in the ground for months, making them harder to steal by foraging soldiers. (Armies in those days did not march with rations but took their food, usually by force, from local farmers.)

There are plenty of tidbits that are just fun or interesting or both. Such a long list I’ll just bullet it:

  • the Hakka ethnic group in China and their toulou fortresses
  • the Chinese practiced smallpox inoculation as early as the 10th century
  • the pre-Malthus Hong Liangji who predicted overpopulation and said “Heaven-and-earth’s way of making adjustments lies in flood, drought, and plagues”
  • the description of the Andean potato as “less a single identifiable species than a bubbling stew of many related genetic identities,” complete with an amazing photo of potato variety. “The effects of [the introduction of potatoes] were so striking that any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S. tuberosum should be ignored.”
  • “…at least thirty-seven of the seventy worst insect pests in the United States were recent imports… The late nineteenth century was, in consequence, a time of insect plagues.”
  • the importance of rubber. Mann quotes Susanna Hecht, a geographer at UCLA: “Three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution. Steel, fossil fuels, and rubber.”
  • casta paintings (which I’ve now seen at the MFA and the Met)
  • Talavera pottery: “More than likely, Puebla’s fake Chinese pottery was created in part by real Chinese potters. If so, they did a splendid job: talavera ware, as it is known today, is now so highly prized that when I visited Puebla shopkeepers complained that the country was fighting an invasion of counterfeits from China—a Chinese imitation of a Chinese-made Mexican imitation of a Chinese original.”
  • the huge influence of the sweet potato, with populations “using sweet potato’s high yields and tolerance of bad soil to move into highland areas that had been lightly settled before. New Guinea was so transformed that some archaeologists speak of an ‘Ipomoean revolution.'”
  • the history of the Ifugao terraces, which have been assumed to be millenia in the making, but turn out to be just a few hundred years old, and the growing popularity of landrace rice “As growing numbers of Ifugao farmers flock to join the project, a rising percentage of the area’s harvest—a precious cultural artifact—is being sent out of the country to affluent foreign food snobs. Worse, the cooperatives, standardization, and mechanized processing are dramatically changing Ifugao culture—all for the benefit (as one scientist put it) of faraway people who want to pat themselves on the back for their enlightenment as they click the link to order fancy multicolored rice.”
  • the history of Muslims in China’s Fujian province: “Fujianese imams, most of whom did not speak Arabic, memorized the original text, declaiming it phonetically in the mosques. As memories faded, the services descended into gibberish, meaningless recitations before uncomprehending audiences. In one way, though, this remote outpost of Islam preserved tradition most faithfully: Zaytun’s Muslim families, old and new alike, were split into quarrelsome factions, Sunni, Shi’ite, and Sufi.”

I didn’t know that some Spaniards found the actions of the conquistadors disturbing and outrageous. And how successfully the slaves often revolted:

Exactly as Adam Smith would have predicted, they were dreadful employees. Faking sickness, working with deliberate lassitude, losing supplies, sabotaging equipment, pilfering valuables, maiming the animals that hauled the cane, purposefully ruining the finished sugar—all were part of the furniture of plantation slavery. “Weapons of the weak,” political scientist James Scott called them in a classic study of the same name. The slaves were not so weak when they escaped to the heights. Hidden by the forest from European eyes, they made it their business to wreck the industry that had enchained them. For more than a century, African irregulars ranged unhindered over most of Hispaniola, funding their activities by covertly exchanging gold panned from mountain rivers with Spanish merchants for clothing, liquor, and iron (ex-slave blacksmiths made arrow points and swords).

and formed maroon communities:

Thousands of fugitive communities dotted Brazil, much of the rest of South America, most of the Caribbean and Central America, and even parts of North America—more than fifty existed in the United States. Some covered huge areas and fought colonial governments for decades. Others hid in wet forests in the lower Amazon, central Mexico, and the U.S. Southeast. All were scrambling to create free domains for themselves—“inventing liberty,” in the phrase of the Brazilian historian João José Reis. They have been called by a host of names: quilombos, yes, but also mocambos, palenques, and cumbes. In English they are usually called “maroon” communities—the term apparently comes, poignantly, from símaran, the Taino word for the flight of an arrow.
American history is often described in terms of Europeans entering a nearly empty wilderness. For centuries, though, most of the newcomers were African and the land was not empty, but filled with millions of indigenous people. Much of the great encounter between the two separate halves of the world thus was less a meeting of Europe and America than a meeting of Africans and Indians—a relationship forged both in the cage of slavery and in the uprisings against it. Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between red and black is a hidden history that researchers are only now beginning to unravel.

And others which were complete surprises, like that malaria was widespread in England in the 17th century. It wasn’t very long ago that I even knew that malaria continually undergoes change. In turn that explains, per Mann, one of the reasons for the African slave trade: the imported slaves were more likely to be resistant to the malaria that found a home in the Americas, which debilitated the indigenous peoples: “adult West and Central Africans were and are less susceptible to malaria than anyone else on earth.”

Biology enters history when one realizes that almost all of the slaves ferried to the Americas came from West and Central Africa. In vivax-ridden Virginia and Carolina, they were more likely to survive and produce children than English colonists. Biologically speaking, they were fitter, which is another way of saying that in these places they were—loaded words!—genetically superior.
Racial theorists of the last century claimed that genetic superiority led to social superiority. What happened to Africans illustrates, if nothing else, the pitfalls of this glib argument. Rather than gaining an edge from their biological assets, West Africans saw them converted through greed and callousness into social deficits. Their immunity became a wellspring for their enslavement.

Malaria did not cause slavery. Rather, it strengthened the economic case for it, counterbalancing the impediments identified by Adam Smith.

Then there’s a huge lesson to be learned about money. I had no idea that China’s currency was unstable for so long. Mann vividly depicts the uncertainty and risk when an new emperor could unilaterally decree that the previous regime’s money was worthless, an explains the attraction of silver. A footnote explains “To those accustomed to metal coins, the idea of using shells for money may seem primitive. But they had a signal advantage: unlike the era’s coins, which were often debased or faked, shells could not readily be altered or counterfeited.”

Needing something to pay with, merchants and their customers would use old coins from earlier reigns until the new emperor’s money arrived; given the lack of copper and dynastic inefficiency, this frequently took years, even decades. Then they would use the new coins until the government suddenly banned them. The result, according to the Taiwanese historian Quan Hansheng, was a constant game of financial hot-potato, with everyone trying to use their coins until just before they lost all value—at which point they would try to unload them onto some hapless sucker.

Then silver comes along and “as if in a libertarian fantasy, the money supply was effectively privatized.”

Mann tells the story of “the man known variously as Esteban, Estevan, Estevanico, or Estebanico de Dorantes, an Arabic-speaking Muslim/Christian raised in Azemmour, Morocco,”  and ends with a powerfully-creepy version of his death I can’t find elsewhere:

The Zuni themselves have a different story—stories, I should say, because many have been recounted. In one version told to me, Esteban is not refused entry, but welcomed into Hawikuh. The people have heard of this man and his extraordinary journey. They want to keep him there—want this very badly, at least in the story. He is a man like no other they have encountered, an incredible physical specimen with his skin and hair, a man whose spirit holds a great wealth of knowledge and perhaps more, a valuable possession they have no desire to lose.
To prevent his departure, they cut off his lower legs, lay him gently on his back, and bathe themselves in his supernatural presence. Esteban lives in this way for many years, the story goes, always treated with the respect due to such uncommon figures, always on his back, legs stretched out, with the wrappings on his stumps carefully tended.

All versions of his end are based on stories that people have told to themselves. His actual fate may never be known with certainty. What seems clear is that in the end this man who crossed so many bridges fell into the same delusion that possessed so many Spaniards. He thought that he understood the shook-up world he was creating and that he was in control. He forgot that under bridges is only air.

The book closes in a way that echoes Mann in his garden at the opening: he reflects on a Tagalog song, “Bahay Cumbo,” about an idealized Filipino garden, and reflects on the human relationship to the environment.

Like my own tomato patch, the garden extolled in “Bahay Kubo” is an exotic modern object. Far from being an exemplar of age-old custom, it is a polyglot, cosmopolitan, thoroughly contemporary artifact.

Smart phones, aerodynamic sneakers, beige faux-leather living-room sets—people desire these things. Absent catastrophe, they will get them. Or their children will.
On the other hand, the same people who want to satisfy their desires also resist the consequences of satisfaction. They want to have what everyone else has, but still be aggressively themselves—a contradictory enterprise. Floating in the capitalist stream, they reach down with their feet, looking for solid ground. To be a good place to stand, it must be their own, not somebody else’s place. As human desires bring the Homogenocene into existence, billions of people marching through increasingly identical landscapes, that special place becomes ever harder to find.

Gardeners work in partnership, more or less successfully, with what nature provides. They experiment all the time, fiddling with this, trying out that. People take seeds and stick them in the ground to see what happens—that’s how Ifugao villagers bred hundreds of types of rice in a few centuries. An essential factor is that gardeners experience the consequences of their own actions. They make decisions and expend labor; a few months later they discover what they have wrought. Externalities are rare. Gardens are places of constant change, but the changes are owned by the gardener—which is why they feel like home.

Finally, I loved this pithy statement from Appendix A, “Fighting Words,” about his approach to terminology: “the two definitions of race, genetic and social, are only loosely connected—one reason that discussions of race are so often dialogues of the deaf.”