July 2018 books read

  • Hobberdy Dick – Katherine Briggs, 1955 – re-read of a childhood favorite that holds up. It was made into an obscure anime also! I watched a little bit on Youtube but it didn’t have English subtitles.
  • Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year – Carlo Levi (translated by Frances Frenaye), 1945
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century – Fred Pearce, 2006
  • Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence through Simple Living – Elizabeth Willard Thames, 2018 – I love the blog and this was a good companion piece/mostly memoir.
  • The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath, 1963 – quotes pulled, review tdb
  • 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think – Laura Vanderkam, 2010 – Not bad, not great, but it is good to think about how I want to focus my time.
  • Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler, 1993 – Hampshire College Common Read. For how much I’ve been looking forward to reading it, I was a little disappointed; it’s flatter than I expected, and the Earthseed ideas aren’t exciting enough to make up for how depressing it is. So prescient and relevant, though–its 2025 is completely believable.
  • The Host – Stephenie Meyer, 2008. Re-read because despite how not-good the writing is, the story is compelling and the viewpoint original.
  • The Book of Unknown Americans – Cristina Henriquez, 2014 – Mount Holyoke College Common Read. Page-turning, heartbreaking, but a good novel, not a fantastic one.

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century – Fred Pearce, 2006

Alas, the Nature and Environment book group didn’t think much of this book. There’s a revised edition coming out soon (August 2018), but unless it’s completely rewritten and restructured, it’s going to have some of the same failings; its age was only part of the problem.

I learned a lot of interesting but somewhat disconnected things. No notes! No bibliography!

Like many books about water, there’s a lot of focus on waste. At the end of chapter 26 Pearce finally addresses what happens if everyone “saves” water: “…in many river basins, most of the ‘wasted’ water would actually have moved on through the water cycle, either returning to rivers, from where someone downstream would capture it, or percolating underground, from where the same farmer or his neighbor might later pump it back to the surface.” Nothing on fracking, unfortunately.

In this book I learned

  • “Salt cedar, also known as tamarisk, is a nasty and extremely tough shrub, able to withstand fire and drought, flood and searing desert heat. A single plant can drink more than 265 gallons of water a day.”
  • Treaties and laws can “allocate more water than actually exists”
  • Green revolution crops need more water (kind of makes sense!)
  • Mining fossil water described as “farming water” (see quote about Tirupur, below) – classic tragedy of the commons
  • dairy “white revolution” in Gujarat: “two districts alone are exporting from the state 1.2 million acre-feet of virtual water a year in the form of milk”
  • Libya’s “Great Manmade River
  • arsenic and fluoride (naturally occurring) can make groundwater poisonous
  • dams are incredibly inefficient, turning fertile floodplains into dust bowls
  • Naga fireballs in the Mekong
  • Qanats and ab-anbars – amazing! I want to visit one!
  • The history of the Salton Sea encapsulates many of the mistakes people make in trying to control water
  • “[The Bon Om Touk] festival has taken place since the twelfth century, always at the full moon in late October or early November. It is a celebration of one extraordinary fact about the river on which it takes place. The Tonle Sap is one of the few rivers in the world that reverses its flow. It does it every year, right in front of the palace.” (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
  • Sussex dew ponds: they use a ‘secret process’ to insulate the clay bottom. “The straw insulated the clay, keeping it colder than the soil beneath at night. The stones, which shed heat quickly at night, lowered the temperature further. Once a successful dew pond was created, it would, in effect, generate its own water from the air.”
  • “On a cool, still night, the air can be so saturated with moisture that even modest air movements, such as sound waves, can condense the moisture and produce raindrops. In the mountains of Yunan in southern China, villagers have a tradition of yelling loudly in the hope that it will stimulate rain. The louder they shout, it is said, the more it rains.”
  • Stenocara gracilipes: “In Namibia … a beetle in the desert [was discovered] that has evolved a bobbled upper surface to its body with a pattern that is supremely efficient at capturing moisture from passing fogs. The hexagonal pattern of tiny peaks and troughs appears to push tiny droplets together to form larger droplets, which then roll off the beetle’s back and into its mouth.”
  • Raj-Samadhiyala, a village in Gujarat where water conservation is a top priority: “…On the paths there were thousands of fruit trees, where most villages are treeless. Under their shade were piles of mangoes and watermelons. And out among the small fields growing wheat and vegetables and groundnuts, there were the ponds—lots of them. … Nobody is allowed to take water directly from the ponds, and farmers are banned from growing the thirstiest crops, like sugarcane.”

Short quotes

  • Tirupur: “These villagers in this toxic wilderness were buying their water, at the price of a rupee per pot, from the people who sucked dry the precious underground reserves of Mandaba. The same people who were keeping the dye factories in business, producing the effluent that poisoned their fields and wells for miles around, were making a further tidy profit out of the misery caused by their pollution. The tragedy of Tamil Nadu’s disappearing water supplies was complete.”
  • “The Colorado is both legally and hydrologically one of the most regulated rivers in the world. But it is becoming clear that the legal and the hydrological no longer mesh.”
  • “By trying to turn the complex hydrology of rivers into the simple mechanics of a water pipe, engineers have often created danger where they promised safety and intensified the floods they intended to prevent.”
  • “The Six-Day War was… the first modern water war. … Israel today uses far more water than falls on its territory, and it has been able to do so because of its occupation of the West Bank, which gives it control of the western aquifer, and the Golan Heights, which gives it control of the Jordan River.”
  •  Africa described as “a continent of haphazard boundaries largely created in the days of imperial rule and maintained because anything else would bring chaos”
  • About the notion of sending waters from the north-flowing Ob and Yenisei to water cotton and maybe revive the Aral Sea: “you cannot keep a bad megaproject down”
  • “Money thrown at problems often produces the wrong solution.”
  • “Attempts to tame [the Rhine] began in earnest in the nineteenth century, with ‘rectification’ works undertaken by the German engineer Johanna Tulla. …Tulla forced the river into a single, well-defined, permanent channel. ‘As a rule,’ he declared, ‘no stream or river needs more than one bed.’ Nature never intended that this should be so, but Tulla’s maxim has become the rule that almost every river engineer follows.”
  • “The good news is that we never destroy water. .. [S]omewhere, sometime, it will return, purged and fresh, in rain clouds over India or Africa or the rolling hills of Europe. … Water is the ultimate renewable resource.”

About dams

  • “Water, as they say in the American West, flows uphill to money.”
  • “If nothing else, dams have proved an exceptionally effective technology for turning the unruly flow of rivers into private or state property.”
  • “On rivers like the Colorado, the Volta in West Africa, and the Nile, the big dams can hold two or three times the actual annual flow. And yet they remain an essentially experimental technology. Their hydrological, ecological, and social effects have been huge. But for many years their status as symbols of modernism insulated them from serious appraisal. … Only since the late 1990s have serious steps been taken internationally to establish whether their benefits outweigh the environmental, social, and economic costs.”
  • There are few “untamed rivers” left, primarily in empty areas.
  • Hydroelectric dam in the Amazon: “The rotting vegetation in the flooded forest is producing huge amounts of methane… The reservoir was created in the 1980s to provide pollution-free electricity for the capital of the Amazon, but by Fearnside’s calculations, it produces methane with eight times the greenhouse effect of a coal-fired power station with a similar generating capacity.”
  • “Most dams are built with the promise that they will capture floodwaters from the rivers they barricade. But one of the secrets of dams is how often they make floods. This happens because of the contradictory hydrological requirements of the different uses to which dams are put.”

Water in China

  • “Controlling [the Yellow River] floods has always been the single most important activity of Chinese governments. Many historians argue that it is the single most important reason for the creation and survival over the millennia of the vast Chinese state with its draconian powers. The Chinese sum up the relationship in a word: zhi, which means both ‘to regulate water’ and ‘to rule.’”
  • “In ancient times, if the river shifted ground, the emperor was thought to have lost the mandate of heaven and could no longer rule.”
  • Karl Wittfogel is quoted as calling it a “hydraulic civilization.”
  • “The [Loess Plateau] is the source of 90 percent of the silt in the world’s siltiest river. Nowhere on earth loses as much to erosion. This is because the Loess Plateau is not a proper mountain range at all. There is no underlying geology. It is just a huge pile of loose sand, several hundred yards thick and covering an area five times the size of Louisiana.
    The sand blew here from a distant desert thousands of years ago and has been left out in the rain ever since.”
  • “The Chinese, brought up on the wisdom of managing the Yellow River, sensibly have an idiom, ‘when the river runs clear.’ It means ‘never.’”

Longer quote

It is too easy to see communities that depend on natural wild resources and the vagaries of untamed rivers as somehow left behind by progress. The truth, quite often, is the opposite. It is they who have unlocked the truth about how to make the maximum use of natural resources. It is the urban sophisticates with their engineering degrees who haven’t got a clue.  … When the rivers run dry, it does not need to be a disaster, provided societies can adapt to cope with it. And the traditional attributes of flexibility associated with communities living on wetlands serve remarkably well. One of the ironies is that we have grown disturbingly good at disrupting river flows while losing our capacity for coping with, let alone prospering from, the consequences.

Christ Stopped at Eboli – Carlo Levi, 1945

Relatively rare for a Second Monday selection: non-fiction. I’d heard of this book but probably had it confused with The Last Temptation of Christ – it’s actually a memoir, or almost a collection of essays/short stories. And/or I conflated it with Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which I read as a teenager. The most bizarre anecdote was about a group of men who emigrate to America and get together on Sundays to take a crap together outdoors under a tree, as kind of a bonding ritual and/or way to return to their southern Italian roots.

In this book I learned

  • Lucus a non lucendo” — although Levi is describing bare woodlands, so that’s the exact opposite of what the Latin pun means (a grove where there is no light, which has come to mean a nonsensical explanation)
  • gnomes that can’t live without their red hood – “These gnomes are the spirits or ghosts of children who have died without being baptized; they are numerous in these parts because the peasants often put off the baptism of their offspring for years.” I tried to find more information about the hood but only came up with this not-authoritative-looking site.

Short quotes

  • Bread “spiced occasionally with a carefully crushed raw tomato, or a little garlic and oil, or a Spanish pepper”
  • “Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history.”
  • “an obese, heavy, deaf old man, greedy and grasping like an enormous silk-worm”
  • “A unifying web, not only of family ties (a first cousin was often as close as a brother), but of the acquired and symbolic kinship called comparaggio, ran throughout the village.”
  • “Before the chickens had roosted on it he must have had the library of a cultivated and enlightened priest.”
  • Instead of “how are you?” people ask “What did you have to eat today?”
  • “The only women who could come to work in my house were those in some way exempt from the general rule, who had many children of unidentified fathers, who, although they had not embraced prostitution (no such trade existed in the village), displayed a tendency to be free and easy, and who were concerned with all that pertained to love, above all the means of obtaining it. In a word, witches.”
  • Italian war in Africa: “[The peasants] had no faith in a promised land which had first to be taken away from those to whom it belonged; instinct told them that this was wrong and could only bring ill luck.”
  • “At dusk three angels come down from the sky to every house. One stands at the door, another sits at the table, and the third watches over the bed. They look after the house and protect it. Neither wolves nor evil spirits can enter the whole night long. If I threw the sweepings outside the door they might land on the face of the angel, whom we can’t see; the angel might take offense and never come back.”

Longer quotes

This passive brotherliness, this sympathy in the original sense of the word, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in common, a bond made by nature rather than by religion. They do not and can not have what is called political awareness, because they are literally pagani, “pagans,” or countrymen, as distinguished from city-dwellers. The deities of the State and the city can find no worshipers here on the land, where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below. They can not have even an awareness of themselves as individuals, here where all things are held together by acting upon one another and each one is a power unto itself, working imperceptibly, where there is no barrier that can not be broken down by magic. They live submerged in a world that rolls on independent of their will, where man is in no way separate from his sun, his beast, his malaria, where there can be neither happiness, as literary devotees of the land conceive it, nor hope, because these two are adjuncts of personality and here there is only the grim passivity of a sorrowful Nature. But they have a lively human feeling for the common fate of mankind and its common acceptance. This is strictly a feeling rather than an act of will; they do not express it in words but they carry it with them at every moment and in every motion of their lives, through all the unbroken days that pass over these wastes.

There are many strange creatures at Gagliano who have a dual nature. A middle-aged peasant woman, married and having children, with nothing out of the ordinary about her appearance, was the daughter of a cow. So the village said, and she herself confirmed it. The older people clearly remembered her cow mother, who followed her everywhere when she was a child, mooing to her and licking her with a rough tongue. This did not alter the fact that she had also had a human mother, who had been dead for many years. No one saw any contradiction in this dual birth, and the woman herself, whom I knew personally, lived quietly and happily, like both her mothers, for all her animal heredity.

To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion-baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But our feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants’ world there is no room for reason, religion, and history. There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinities of the village.

… but the black-faced Madonna remained impassive, pitiless and deaf to all appeals, like indifferent Nature. Homage was paid to her in abundance, but it was rather the homage due to power than that offered to charity. The Black Madonna was like the earth; it was in her power to raise up and to destroy, but she was no respecter of persons, and appointed the seasons according to an inscrutable plan of her own. To the peasants the Black Madonna was beyond good and evil. She dried up the crops and let them wither away, but at the same time she dispensed food and protection and demanded worship. In every household, tacked up on the wall above the bed, the image of the Black Madonna of Viggiano looked on with expressionless eyes at all the acts of daily life.

Under the bed slept the animals, and so the room was divided into three layers: animals on the floor, people in the bed, and infants in the air. When I bent over a bed to listen to a patient’s heart or to give an injection to a woman whose teeth were chattering with fever or who was burning up with malaria, my head touched the hanging cradles, while frightened pigs and chickens darted between my legs.
But what never failed to strike me most of all and by now I had been in almost every house were the eyes of the two inseparable guardian angels that looked at me from the wall over the bed. On one side was the black, scowling face, with its large, inhuman eyes, of the Madonna of Viggiano; on the other a colored print of the sparkling eyes, behind gleaming glasses, and the hearty grin of President Roosevelt.

Yes, New York, rather than Rome or Naples, would be the real capital of the peasants of Lucania, If these men without a country could have a capital at all. And it is their capital, in the only way it can be for them, that is as a myth. As a place to work, it is indifferent to them; they live there as they would live anywhere else, like animals harnessed to a wagon, heedless of the street where they must pull it.

The other word that recurs most often among them is “crai” from the Latin cras, tomorrow. Everything that they are waiting for, that is due to come, that should be remedied or attended to is “crai.” But “crai” means never.

In this timeless land the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai every day in the future had a name of its own. Crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, marufto, maruflone; the seventh day was maruflicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.

I had indeed become a master of magic and its applications to medicine.

I respected the [abracadabra pyramid] amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origin and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy. The peasants were grateful for my respect, and perhaps the abracadabra really did them some good. Anyhow, magic as it was practiced in Gagliano was harmless enough and the peasants considered it in no way in conflict with official medicine. The custom of prescribing some medicine for every illness, even when it is not necessary, is equivalent to magic, anyhow, especially when the prescription is written, as it once was, in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting. Most prescriptions would be just as effective if they were not taken to the druggist, but were simply hung on a string around the patient’s neck like an abracadabra.

I preferred to prescribe newer drugs, more powerful and possessed of greater magic, such as atabrine and plasmochin. These were doubly effective, both because of their chemical composition and the sway they exerted over the imagination.