Looking for the Logos of Life X: a Friend in Need

Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Random House,304 pages (2020)

I read the Kindle edition, which seemed to be complete, and had links that made looking at the many references easy.

I used to teach a course in the general education curriculum at my institution called Animal and Human. We read and discussed the work of Jane Goodall (Through a Window, 1990) and Franz de Waal (Good Natured, 1996) among others, trying to understand the connections between ourselves and our closest relatives, the primates, including chimpanzees and bonobos.I found these readings compelling because of the questions they raise about the nature of our cognitive and emotional lives and how our peculiar combination of traits could be produced by Darwinian evolution.

This book provides a popular summary of much research on the same questions since the mid 1990s and brings in some studies, which while not so recent, contribute to understanding the recent results. I’m neither a primatologist nor an animal behaviorist nor a cognitive biologist, so much of this was new to me.

The first part of the book deals with the author’s view on how we humans became the highly intelligent beings that we are, living in large, technologically advanced societies. Put briefly, they believe that around 80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to undergo an evolutionary change they call “self domestication.” Slowly at first, but then rapidly after about 50,000 years ago, humans became more friendly, which enabled them to live together in larger groups, which in turn promoted technological and other cultural advances. This led in the end to modern humans supplanting all the other lineages of the Genus Homo, so now the only traces of these peoples are found in the DNA from occasional intercrossing (see my post on Ancient DNA).

The key behavioral change was the acquisition of the ability to be friendly to strangers. If we live in large groups, say, more than a few hundred individuals, we will not be able to become closely familiar with everyone. We will continually be encountering people we don’t know. Most animals that exhibit complex social behavior show a strong aversion to strangers. Chimpanzees, for instance, are very hostile to any chimpanzee they don’t recognize as a member of their group. When groups become large enough, they tend to split, as Jane Goodall describes in Through a Window. The group at Gombe she was studying broke up at one point. Shockingly, the males of one group began systematically hunting down and attacking members of the other group, until none remained. Likewise males were observed to attack stranger females and kill their infants.

Humans, say the authors, somehow were in a position where it became more advantageous in terms of reproductive fitness to welcome outsiders into the group and to coalesce into larger bands. Why this happened cannot be easily determined, but bonobos may provide a clue. Hare and Woods think that they, too, may have undergone self domestication. This explains why levels of aggression are much lower among bonobos than chimpanzees. The key, they think, was that resources in their habitat are much more stable and productive than in habitats occupied by chimpanzees. This led to less competition and more cohesion among females, who could then control the aggressive tendencies of males. Females no longer gave clear signs of when they were on oestrus, making it harder for males to be sure who was fertile. This further reduced the benefit of dominating both females and other males. More freedom to move among groups, greater sharing of resources and other advantages followed.

Hare and Woods think dogs also self domesticated in the presence of large hunter gatherer bands in the late paleolithic. By being friendlier and less fearful or aggressive towards humans, they were able to exploit the waste dumps that were a feature of camps. Closer relations gradually developed, and at some point, humans began to do some selecting of dogs they found useful.

Friendliness alone was not the only change: it turns out that the physiological underpinnings of friendliness are in the brain and especially the modifying effects of oxytocin, serotonin and testosterone. These are developmentally regulated by genes that are expressed in the neural crest in very early embryos. These cells differentiate and migrate to different parts of the developing individual and affect not only behavior, but also skull shape, snout length, coat and eye color, the curl of the tail and so on. The authors claim that this selection on friendliness they posit brought along all the changes we see in dogs versus their wolf ancestors. Similar changes are seen in bonobos and humans as well.

To support this thesis, they recount the work of Russian geneticists and breeders, who in a few generations, produced domesticated foxes, with many of the traits of domestic dogs, by selecting for friendliness alone. It seems almost unbelievable that merely choosing the foxes most willing to approach humans, would have so many distinct effects. Since, however, the number allowed to breed each generation is a tiny fraction of the whole population, the selection factor is extremely powerful. Furthermore, as noted above, the genes that affect willingness to approach strangers also have impacts on many parts of the organism.

The second part of the book turns to the dark side: being friendly to members of your group means being unfriendly to members of other groups. Oxytocin makes mother bears feel good when they see their cubs, but according to the authors, it makes them that much madder when they perceive a threat

Dogs bark at strangers; humans are suspicious of anyone who doesn’t appear to “belong.” It is easy to create situations where anything that can be used to identify someone as from a particular category that is seen as a threat. Skin color, language, dress, religious signs and symbols are only too familiar examples. Demagogues use this all the time to divide groups and unite them against one another. If you can get your followers afraid enough and angry enough at some group of “enemies,” they won’t notice what you are doing to them.

So how do we guard against such proclivities becoming fatal to our peace and tranquillity? Hare and Woods think that most efforts to eliminate existing fears and prejudices are as likely to backfire as to work. In other words, you can’t talk people out of these perceptions, and efforts to stigmatize them may only create distrust and resentment. They cite the example of the people from diverse backgrounds who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation: the single factor uniting them was some experience of a close, friendly relationship with a Jew at some time during their early life. Apparently this immunized them against the vilification served up by Hitler and his followers. Can we find ways to achieve the same sort of immunization in our contemporary global society? 

I think it would be difficult, given how valuable dividing people into categories is to politicians and marketers. It’s also hard to remedy historic wrongs without identifying the groups that have suffered them. Whatever self domestication achieved in the human species, it didn’t eradicate our impulse towards dominance and hierarchy entirely. We still have a need to feel superior to someone, even if it’s only Yankees fans. In a society where exploiting political, social and economic loyalties leads to wealth and power, it is very hard to get those with the most of both to kick the habit. Those less fortunate console themselves by feeling superior to those they fear and despise. As the old joke says: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Did Every Start Everything?

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson. River head Books – Penguin/Random House 2020.

Image: Pirate captain Henry Every is depicted on shore while his ship, the Fancy, engages an unidentified vessel (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Every.gif)

The voyage of Henry Every, British sailor turned mutineer and pirate, his crew and their ship, the Fancy, to seize the treasure ship of the Mughal Shah and molest the pilgrims, including the Shah’s relatives, homeward bound from Mecca in 1695 is billed as a turning point in world history. Johnson compares the taking of the Gunsway to the terrorist attacks of 9-11: a handful of men causing a massive shift in global history. According to his account, this act of piracy was the spark that lit the fuse for the takeover of India sixty years later by the British. It also provoked the British government’s shift from tolerating English pirates – he frequently mentions Sir Francis Drake – to eradicating them from the high seas. It also was a watershed moment for the popular press, as writers and ballad mongers poured out a stream of broadsides, news sheets and books recounting Every’s exploits.

The book is an entertaining one, though not as rich in the details of nautical daring do as in Treasure Island or Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There’s only one sea fight, and its outcome is revealed at the beginning. There are no detailed accounts of the long voyages across open ocean – no storms, near escapes and so on. We know nothing of the actual lives led by these men aside from a few court depositions. Most of the documentary evidence is from the archives of the three powers involved, two governments and one international trading company. These do, however, provide a fascinating account of the workings of institutions confronting a crisis.

Simply put, the problem presented by Every’s audacious theft and by the probable rape of the female pilgrims by the pirates was how to mollify the outraged Grand Mughal Aurangzeb, a deeply religious and fundamentalist Muslim, so that he would not expel the East India Company from their factory in Surat or their fortified headquarters in Bombay. The Company was already in trouble at home, with a falling stock price driven largely by growing resistance to the flood of Indian cotton goods harming the British woolen producers and merchants. Now, Aurangzeb’s investigators accused the Company of conniving with the pirates who infested the Red Sea pilgrimage and trade routes. His troops placed the factors at Surat under house arrest, clapping them in irons. The response from the Company and its friends in the government of King William was a ringing denunciation of the pirates, offers of reward for their capture and notices distributed to British authorities around the world to be on the lookout for the Fancy’s captain and crew and, if caught, to return them to London for trial.

Perhaps the most significant response was thought up by the imprisoned East India factor in Surat, Samuel Annesley, who proposed that the Company’s powerfully armed merchant vessels should undertake to escort the Shah’s trading ships between Surat and the Red Sea ports, becoming, in effect, the navy of the Mughal Empire. The Company would thus demonstrate that it was as opposed to piracy as were the Mughals. After some hesitation and deliberation on both sides, the plan was adopted, the factors at Surat were freed, and the Company was able to resume its profitable business. It took another few years before it could make good on its promise to rid the Arabian seas of English Pirates – one of its own captains, William Kidd, was among the last to be caught and taken to London for public execution, but eventually the pirates stopped coming and turned instead to the Caribbean. There, piracy flourished during the last Golden Age of buccaneers, until the British Navy could at last stamp them out. 

What they couldn’t eradicate, however, was the popular appeal of the pirate as free spirit and, perhaps more important, the image of pirate life as direct democracy in practice. At a time when the authority of oligarchic or monarchical governments was often directed against ordinary people and inequality of status and wealth were extreme, the pirates stood out as examples of liberty and equality. Johnson quotes from several of the “pirate constitutions,” the articles drawn up specifying the rights of the crews, the limits of the captain’s power, and the equitable sharing of the profits of their enterprise. The court proceedings confirm that the huge treasure taken from the Gunsway was parceled out according to shares, with Captain Every receiving just twice what the ordinary seamen got – Johnson notes the current ratio of CEO to average worker compensation to highlight the extraordinary egalitarianism of the pirates. In popular histories, it went even further: Every was supposed to have gone on to found a pirate kingdom in Madagascar, fancifully named Libertalia, where freedom and equality reigned.

The reality was much harder for some and simply unknown for the rest: after returning to the Atlantic Ocean, the crew began to drift away. A few elected to remain on Ascension Island, essentially marooning themselves in a place where it’s hard to think their share of treasure was of much use. Some chose to stay in the then tiny settlement of Nassau. Some went to the American colonies, where there were secondhand reports of them living more or less openly and even boasting of their exploit. Every and the rest made a perilous crossing to. Ireland in a single-masted boat and slipped back to England, bringing what they could of their loot. One pirate was quickly caught when a maid in an inn noticed how heavy his coat was and informed the authorities: they found it full of Turkish gold coins, hidden in the linings. He was persuaded to turn informer, and fairly soon another member of the crew did too. With the testimony to make a case, the government tried six of Every’s men who had been caught in various places in England, often with help from people eager to receive the rewards offered.

At first, it seemed the desire to make an example of these men might be frustrated: the first trial on charges of piracy related to the taking of the Gunsway ended in “not guilty” verdicts for all. Shocked, the prosecutors and judges (who were in no way impartial) decided to indict the same men for their role in the mutiny and seizure of their ship at the start. Without legal counsel and under unfriendly questioning from the judges, the four who pled innocent were unable to convince the jury that they had not gone along willingly. Despite the rule against double jeopardy, the judges and prosecution kept returning to the acts of piracy committed afterwards to pile on the guilt. All were convicted. Only the one who had pled guilty to both indictments was spared the death penalty. The five were hanged at the Thames dock. 

Every himself simply vanished. The last anyone ever heard of him was reported by one of the informers: shortly after he was arrested and agreed to testify, he met the wife of the Fancy’s quartermaster in London, who told him she was going to see Captain Every. After, that nothing, leaving his future to be imagined by the popular authors and ballad makers.

Why does the “making” of the modern world inspire so many writers of popular nonfiction? We have numerous books attributing its emergence to ethnic groups, to commodities, to inventions, to particular events, to various ideas. The rise of modernity is a major organizing theme in academic curricula, including the great books program at the college where I earned my BA. There, the emphasis was on mathematics, especially the work of Viete, Descartes, Galileo and the rest, who transformed ancient geometry and arithmetic into analytic sciences, culminating in the calculus of Newton and Leibniz. Much of this is discussed in Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebraby Jacob Klein. That’s pretty challenging reading though, and a “popular” account might not sell very well. Clocks and maps make better subjects, being more within the grasp of a large enough audience.

Likewise, the kind of detailed, heavily-documented histories produced by academic historians generally don’t provide the sharply focused, dramatic illuminations provided by books like this one. They take due note of the small events that trigger major ones, like the assassination that led to World War I, but concentrate more on the circumstances that allowed a minor event to spiral into a catastrophe. This is an important point: large institutions can easily grow by their own internal dynamic to the point where they are unstable. I recently read G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918, in which he shows how the growth of a precarious balance of military power in Europe produced a situation in which a major war was nearly inevitable. Johnson attempts to do the same in a more modest way, by including chapters on the origins of piracy (as far back as the late Bronze Age Sea Peoples) the rise of the Mughal Empire ( an Islamic dynasty, which ruled from Afghanistan to the south of India in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) and the growth of the East India Company (which really did eventually manage to trigger some truly global changes). The context that’s mostly missing, however, is the geopolitical situation in the late seventeenth century: the European conflicts, the internal revolutions and unrest in England and the effects of early industrialization, enclosure, colonialism and mercantilism. Considered against this background, the events described seem less earth shaking.

India probably was bound to come under colonial control, given the richness of the prize and the weakness of its government institutions and armies, compared to Europe’s. Annesley’s innovative idea to take over maritime security may have set a small precedent but was perhaps mostly symbolic. So was the war against pirates. Every had crossed a line: robbery on the high seas was no big deal unless it interfered with more powerful interests. Privateering continued to be official policy; the U.S. Constitution explicitly mentions Marque and Reprisal. For many years, the European powers paid tribute to the Barbary states as a cheaper way of dealing with the threat. Only when things got out of hand were naval forces employed and offenders made examples of. Today, we still glorify buccaneers in movies and find real pirates, like the Somalis, something less than “Enemies of All Mankind.” And honestly, the “global manhunt” for Every involved nothing like the seventeenth century equivalent of the resources devoted to finding Osama Bin Laden or even James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King. 

As with so many books in this “world changing” genre, the account is fascinating in its details and ultimately unconvincing in its claim of importance. 

Linguistic Exploration in Carolina

Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser. University of North Carolina Press. 2016.

I read the Kindle edition which has all the photos and links to audio and video samples.

North Carolina has as rich a diversity of dialects of English as any linguist could hope to find in the U.S. say Walt and Jeffrey, two linguistics professors at North Carolina State University. They ought to know, having conducted thousands of interviews all across the state from Matteo in the east to Murphy in the west, as part of the North Carolina Language and Life Project.

Their book aims to give those not trained in linguistics an idea of just how diverse Tarheel speech is and to show how history, geography and culture have shaped the way residents of the state talk. 

I grew up from age five to twenty-one in a college town in the Research Triangle within the North Carolina Piedmont. In that time, I was exposed to a large sample of the various regional dialects, from the local kids around town and the ones from further out in the country, who attended to schools in town. I ran into more diversity traveling from the mountains to the coast, with my family, my friends, their families and the Boy Scouts. Later, I worked summers with a variety of custodians, construction laborers, mailmen and others, black and white, old and young. As upper middle-class southerners, my family employed African American maids and babysitters, as did my grandparents and my friends’ parents. This was the era just before full integration of North Carolina’s public schools, so I had only token contact with African American speech there. 

My first significant contact with Spanish speakers was when I went to college for two years in New Mexico. North Carolina had only a tiny population of Hispanics then. That changed rapidly in the 1990s, and it profoundly affected the area where my father grew up, and where I still own a piece of the family land. The explosive growth of the hog farming and pork packing industry brought hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans to the little tiny town that I had known since I was a child: besides the farms and packing plants, a world-famous garment factory employed Hispanic women for their sewing skills. Spanish stores, a pool room and restaurants reoccupied the increasingly deserted main street. On the corner near our land, a derelict country store was made into a very authentic Mexican restaurant, an oasis in what had become essentially a food desert.

My father’s family is from the southeastern corner of the state. My mother’s family, though, is from Ohio, and I lived from ages two through four in Minnesota, so my earliest linguistic influences from family and playmates were only partly “southern.” Thus, most people I meet don’t recognize me as a southerner by my speech. Interestingly, of my four younger siblings, my two sisters show the most pronounced North Carolina accents, and both have a greater tendency to use such characteristic expressions as “you all.” All of them learned to talk while living in N.C. and they are ordered brother – sister – brother – sister, so it’s not a matter of age. It seems perhaps to be a question of peer interactions, but I’m not sure why it worked out like that. 

There’s more to this as well: my father had only moderate traces of his rural southern upbringing in his speech, although his five siblings (one brother, four sisters) all had stronger accents. My paternal grandfather (born 1869, died 1965) also lacked very strong rural North Carolina speech, although his wife, who was from Virginia, certainly sounded “southern.” Perhaps education was a factor: both father and grandfather attended the University of North Carolina, as well as other schools. Class was also a factor, perhaps, both were medical doctors. 

One trace of regional speech that I noticed in my father and grandfather was a slight broadening of certain vowel sounds. This was more memorably apparent to me in my great uncle, whom I saw often while growing up. He was college educated also, but he attended NC State College (as it was then called). Fans of the teams of other schools referred to it as Moo U. This may have reflected a perceived, possibly real, difference in social class from those who went to Duke and UNC. At any rate, when my great uncle pronounced the word “pond,” it came out as “pawned.” I have wondered whether this was a feature carried over from the speech of my great great great grandfather, who came from Orkney, Scotland, to North Carolina in the 1760’s. He was a late participant in the migration of Scots to North Carolina, and I don’t think that Orkney speech was exactly like that of the Scots-Irish or the Highland Scots who came earlier. My ancestors came to Orkney, probably from the Black Isle on the southern edge of the Highlands, as early as the fifteenth century.

I picked up over the years a couple of other curious tidbits that suggest the persistence of early ancestral immigration: one was my grandfather telling us that, “If it rains on Saint Swithen’s day, it will rain for forty days.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swithun) The other is the use of the name “didapple,” pronounced “die-dapple,” for a pied billed grebe. I heard this from the son of one of my father’s childhood friends, as we stood beside their large millpond, looking at various birds. This appears to be a variant of the name dive-dapper, used by Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis.

Talkin Tarheel is a rich tapestry of similar history, culture, and personal stories, all showing how people came to talk as they do and how those distinct dialects are evolving in the twenty-first century. As the authors are constantly emphasizing, no language is ever static, least of all one in a place undergoing rapid demographic and economic change. Old ways of living and speaking are disappearing, such those of the “hoi toiders,” from the Outer Banks and of the mountain folks, like the last of the old-time moonshiners. These dialects are in danger of being lost as living speech. Both these groups feature in several sound and video clips from the Language and Life Project. 

Other groups are very unlikely to lose their distinctive forms of speech, although they to are changing in response to growing urbanization, mass communication and other factors. I first heard of the Lumbee Indians back in 1958, when I saw the headlines about the battle they fought against the KKK at Maxton (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hayes_Pond) This story is rightfully excluded from a book that tries to include and value all North Carolinians (not the Klan as such, of course, but the rural whites, who might be unfairly associated with that detestable group). I was very happy to read that the Lumbee are doing well, and that they maintain their own dialect of English proudly. At 55,000 enrolled members, they are the largest population of Native Americans East of the Mississippi, though they have yet to receive the federal recognition they deserve. It is unfortunate that almost no trace of their original language can be found, unlike the much smaller Cherokee tribe, who still live in the western mountains and who are working hard to keep their language, famously given written form by Sequoia, alive.

There are many stories of African American history to accompany the discussion of their dialect (or dialects, as there is an increasing urban vs rural difference). Freedom Hill, on the Tar River, was incorporated as Princeville, making it the first African American town in the U.S. There is a wonderful clip telling of the struggles of Princeville to survive in the face of floods from recent hurricanes. Even if, like me, you don’t like to see rebuilding in flood prone areas, it’s impossible not to admire Princeville’s community spirit. Likewise, there is an interesting account of the Freedman’s Colony on Roanoke Island, the place of Lost Colony fame. When I go there again, I must visit the museum display that tells its story. 

Talkin Tarheel is full of fascinating linguistic detail, showing how much the application of painstaking scientific techniques can illuminate even very subtle distinctions among dialects, such as the tendency of Hispanics to retain the syllable timed pattern of Spanish when speaking their dialect of English, unlike the stress timed pattern used by most English speakers. 

The authors conclude with a celebration of the diversity of dialects in North Carolina and express the hope that through efforts like the North Carolina Language and Life Project, linguistics can help erase the stigma and prejudice that distinctive speech too often evokes and instead appreciate the variety of ways of Talkin Tarheel.

This post is dedicated to the late, much missed, MEB, who loved language and loved teaching and defending the interests of her young, immigrant Hispanic students in Alamance County.

Looking for the Logos of Life IX: Entangled Life

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House, 2020, 368 pp. Kindle Edition.

Image: Agaricus bisporus mycelium. Rob Hille. 9 December 2011 from Wikimedia Commons
I would describe this as a tantalizing book. Merlin Sheldrake writes in the mode so common to current popular science books, breathlessly exclaiming that these discoveries change how we think about everything. Boiled down, his message is that fungi created the world we know and continue to underpin its foundations. The case he makes is no better and no worse than most such claims, which I suspect every editor for publishers of nonfiction books tries to attach to every work that crosses his or her desk. Much of what Sheldrake describes is new looks at well known phenomena: the section on psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, for instance. It offers glimpses of a deeper understanding of what the chemicals fungi do to animal nervous systems, but reaches no firm conclusions.

It offers a lot of new information and speculation on the myriad roles that fungi have come to play in the biosphere, and a bunch of interesting potential applications to human problems (you can make, among many other things besides antibiotics, beer, wine and bread, fungal dog biscuits (Mutt-rooms)  and packing foam) He also discusses mycoplasma-remediation as a solution to contaminated sites from oil spills to herbicides. They will even break down discarded cigarette filters.

Interesting as these things are, they are not, in my view going to fundamentally alter our view of life.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable book. Sheldrake knows his fungi from intimate experience, and he writes well, except for the occasional hyperbolic outburst or awkward analogy. He explains a lot of exciting new research using DNA sequencing, tracer analysis and ingenious lab experiments to understand the role that fungi play in terrestrial ecosystems as decomposes, parasites and symbiotic partners with plants and each other. He spent many hours himself, doing down and dirty work in the forests of Panama, following the roots of a tiny mycoheterotrophic plant and the mycelial network of its fungal associate. He also talked to a wide range of fungus researchers in fields like anthropology as well as biology and shares their insights into the roles fungi play in nature and culture. Some of the most interesting characters are the fungal enthusiasts – mushroom freaks, one might say, truffle hunters and entrepreneurs working to create products from fungus ranging from ersatz leather to bricks. I like this better than 3D printing, with its inputs of resins, metals etc. Also I doubt you can make a fungal firearm at home.

I wish he had been even more comprehensive: for instance he says little about fungi and human illness. His discussions of fungi and food omit such important staples as tempeh. He talks a little about his own work on mycotrophy, but doesn’t mention the possibility that plants may be able to survive mycotrophically when competitions squeeze them out of the struggle for light. How else is it possible for plants in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, like turkey beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) pine barrens reed grass (Calamovilfa brevipilis) pine barrens gentian (Gentiana autumnal) and maybe even scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolis) to appear so quickly after fire, after a long interval since the last fire and no individuals could be seen in the unburned forest? Do their mycorrhizal root systems simply live off their fungal partners until a burn clears the space for them to send up shoots, leaves, flowers and fruits?

What do fungi tell us about life in general, if anything? His theme is interconnectedness. The title echoes Darwin’s image of the “entangled bank.” He frequently repeats the view that life is less about individuals than about networks of interaction and exchange, some mutually beneficial, some exploitative, some switching back and forth depending on circumstances. Like like Lynn Margulis, discoverer of the symbiotic origins of cellular organelles and the authors I discussed in my previous post Looking for the Logos of Life VIII: Organism and Superorganism, Sheldrake questions the reality of individuals.

Why the determination to shatter us into fragments? Whatever I mean by “I” doesn’t include the microbes indigenous to my body. I am not them, and it’s arguable whether I am even the parts of my body that are the result of the form encoded in the DNA I got from my parents. When I think of the Pythagorean theorem, it isn’t a soggy collection of bacteria doing that, or sharing in the contemplation. [??] The scientists want to abolish me entirely or reduce me to an aggregation of trillions of cells, of diverse descent. Meanwhile the social theorists would reduce me to nothing but culturally determined categories: white, male, middle class, straight, cis gendered, etc. But what I think about I’m free to select from a vast web of tradition both ancient and up to the minute, delivered to me in multiple modes. That’s the most relevant entanglement: the mycelium of ideas. It’s in the tangled network that is my brain, but it is there because I chose to attend to those ideas as they came to me and because I made the effort, sometimes racked my brain, to connect them to what was already there. 

Anyway, fungi are amazing enough in their own right: in their chief domain, the soil, they are virtually sovereign, with allies like bacteria and the numerous arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, etc, that shred and stir the vast amounts of dead plant material that enter their realm every year. Constantly grazed by animals, they regenerate at phenomenal rates in every cubic centimeter of dirt. Without them, dead plant material would pile up, as it does in bogs, where lack of oxygen excludes them. Carbon would be locked away and CO2 levels would fall to the point of global cooling, as they did in the  Permian ice ages, which followed the Carboniferous age of coal formation.

In his ecological classic, The Biosphere, V. I. Vernadsky talked about the speed of life – the rate of expansion of a disk of cells, imagined as multiplying to cover the earth. Sheldrake makes an even more startling calculation: according to his reckoning, if all the fungal hyphae that have been produced were laid end to end, they would extend further than the limit of the visible universe, i.e. they would have expanded faster than the speed of light. Even though this is a bit like saying that if one airplane can fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours, two can make it in two and a half hours, it’s still a remarkable image. It gives some hint just how ubiquitous and prolific fungi are in our world.

 

Deep History

Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon. Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1991.

This book is deep history of a single locality, Chase County Kansas, a thinly populated, largely rural part of the Flint Hills and the great North American grasslands. The book’s coverage extends far into the geologic past and up to the early 1990s. By then, as in much of rural America a peak of population and development had been passed, and its farms, ranches, villages and towns were becoming depopulated. Heat-Moon spent many months driving and walking about the county, systematically taking up one by one the grid of USGS topographic maps (twelve central ones and thirteen more that cover the edges) that include Chase County. He talked with a great many of the residents and others with connections to the land, the people and the history. He also read extensively, prefacing each of the twelve sections (one for each central topo map) with a series of excerpts from his commonplace book, relating to the themes he follows in that section. The quotations come from hundreds of books, newspapers, journals.

Geology, botany, zoology occupy almost as much of the six hundred pages as the people. A Native American himself, he devotes much space to the aboriginal people, the Kaw, also sometimes called the Kansa (among a host of other names that he cites) By the time he wrote, the few remaining members of that tribe resided on Oklahoma, to which they had been “removed” in the 1870s.

Summarizing this remarkable work of observation, listening and reflection is not possible. I was deeply impressed both by how fascinating a seemingly backwater place can be and by how deeply Heat-Moon engaged with the land and people. Despite often being seen as an eccentric outsider, he showed great respect for the locals and was able to win the confidence of many. His self reflections are often profound and often extremely amusing. The best travel writers often are like that: I think of Bill Bryson.

What I realized reading Prairie Erth was how much I am interested in the deep history of the places I have lived. I think that’s why I am captivated by books that lay out the events that shaped the landscapes I am most familiar with. If you have seen my earlier posts, New World History, Forgotten but not Gone, Ecosystem Lost and Found?, The Journeys of Holling C. Holling, and even Amphibious Reflections, you will have encountered my interest.

I live in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, on land once part of Gloucester Plantation, which was centered on Gloucester Furnace, an iron foundry. It can be fairly said that the Pine Barrens were one of the industrial centers of the early United States, although now, many people describe them as a “pristine wilderness.” This sort of blindness to the past seems endemic among us, as amply demonstrated in Forgotten Grasslands of the South and Looking for Longleaf.

Fortunately, there have always been some more inquiring minds, who have sought out the past and tried to preserve or at least document it. For my area, there are many books, like Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, that record these past landscapes and communities. Many individuals like Jean Soderland, are researching the history of indigenous people. There is now a periodical devoted to all aspects of the regions history, SoJourn.

I have had at least five colleagues who dedicated their research to understanding the geological and cultural history of the region: a hydrologist, a geographer, a historian, an archaeologist and a geologist. The geologist started out in horticulture, but became so interested in the natural landscapes of the Pine Barrens that he took a PhD in geology to further his collaborations with a noted glacial geologist. He has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the ways that the Ice Ages shaped the topography of the Pine Barrens and indeed the entire North American coastal plain.

The North American Coastal Plain consists of marine of riverine sands and gravels accumulated on the edge of the ocean. From these soils develop that drain rapidly and are prone to severe drought. Fire has been a force in the landscape for millions of years, varying in frequency and intensity with climate and, since a few thousand years ago, with human activity. Groundwater saturates these porous sediments, often nearly to or above the surface. Upland vegetation historically burned often, the extensive lowlands only in severe droughts. 

 The ice age climate was dry, cold and ferociously windy as frigid air flowed off the ice sheets only a short way north. The landscape that developed as the climate warmed included wide but very shallow river channels, with streams too small for their valleys. These were created by melting permafrost. There are numerous shallow ponds in depressions, some nearly circular, created by powerful winds during full glacial periods, others long, winding and narrow, created by blowing sand blocking stream courses. Low, sandy ridges are the remains of ancient fields of dunes created by the same winds that blew out the depressions. 

Early European settlers cut the trees, dammed the streams and began creating mills, cranberry bogs and crop fields. They started many iron plantations in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, utilizing the local bog iron, the pine forests (for charcoal) and the shell maddens left by the aboriginal inhabitants, the Lenape, to produce iron. As iron industry moved west, paper and glassmaking took over the old water powered mill sites.

Today, the former Gloucester Plantation tract has been through several phases of settlement and resettlement. The land was promoted in a real estate endeavor that became Egg Harbor City. A town was laid out, at first facing Landing Creek and the Mullica River, then reoriented to the railroad that was built in the 1850s from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The hinterlands were sold as farms, mainly to German-speaking immigrants, most of whom left eastern cities to escape the anti-immigrant Know-nothings (see Before the Storm and Politics and War) Egg Harbor City thrived as an agricultural and small manufacturing town and then gradually faded until the advent of the FAA Technical Center, Stockton College (now University) and the Atlantic City Casinos. These brought in new residents, but not much new commerce, which developed mostly in the central and eastern parts of Atlantic County. The establishment of the Pinelands National Reserve in 1979 restricted commercial and industrial development and even residential development over much of the Gloucester tract.

 Farming continues, mainly commercial blueberries (a crop developed in the Pine Barrens) and, more recently, community supported agriculture. Much of the land, however, reverted to forest. Not the open woodlands of the years before fire suppression became the policy in New Jersey, but dense, closed canopy oak and pine forests, with thick understory of huckleberries. This lowered the groundwater table, drying up ponds and headwater streams. It also caused the native herbaceous plants to become much less frequent and with them their associated insects, especially butterflies and moths. Many are now only found in a few well managed preserves and, ironically, in utility line corridors and airports, which are kept open by mowing in the dormant season.  

The region’s roadsides, once a haven for native herbs, have been converted by mowing and addition of cool season grass, to monotonous and sterile strips. Unpaved roads, trails and open areas are now the domain of off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who flood the Pine Barrens on weekends, destroying habitat. The worst are the “mudders,” who have wiped out hundreds of localities for rare and endangered wetland plants. Species not native to the Pine Barrens are increasingly taking over, especially on recently abandoned cleared land. I am in continual struggle with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Asian barberry, and Eurasian bittersweet.

I pin my hopes on the position of the New Jersey Coastal Plain as the northernmost (excepting Long Island and Cape Cod) part of the great North American Coastal Plain biodiversity hotspot.  As climate change pushes populations northward and sea level rise shrinks the Coastal Plain, southern New Jersey may be a critical refuge for southern species. But who can tell? It could just as well succumb to rampant deregulation and competing interests, like the infernal off-roaders. 

Change over millions of years shaped the landscape and the evolution of the Pine Barrens’ characteristic flora and fauna. I tried to impress this on my students in the years I taught ecology. The processes that operate in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere – energy flow, nutrient cycling, population dynamics, evolution and cultural change – shape what we see around us. And every development leaves traces on the land and in the living organisms that inhabit it. Without an understanding of the history of the place you are in, you cannot understand its present or future.

History of my Times

Grand Expectations: the United States, 1945-1974. The Oxford History of the United States. By James T. Patterson. Narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Edition. Originally published by Oxford University Press 1996.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. The Oxford History of the United States. By James T. Patterson. Narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Edition. Originally published by Oxford University Press 2005.

I’m a baby boomer. These two books encompass the period from just before I was born to the beginning of the Bush II era at the start of the new millennium. For the most part what I learned about from these books was not unfamiliar persons and events. At least from the early fifties on I was aware of the cultural trends and the major political events happening around me. Presidential elections, fears of “the bomb” and the Cuban Missile Crisis, rock ‘n’ roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Society, Vietnam, hippies, Earth Day, Watergate, and more were the stuff of my growing up. My adult life was shaped by the environmental movement, and I experienced the hopes and disappointments of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years. I was interviewed by Al Gore for a placement as a science fellow in his congressional office, and I saw him chairing hearings on the conduct of Reagan’s appointees to the EPA, where I has previously worked for a summer as a fellow.

Many aspects of this period are covered thoroughly and well in these two books: the postwar recovery and economic boom, the Cold War and red scare, the struggles over civil rights, the war on poverty, Vietnam, the environmental movement, Watergate and the numerous scandals that followed, mostly also called “…gate.” What I missed in these books that I felt was present in some of the earlier volumes of the Oxford history was the perspective that time gives. Events seem too fresh to me to assess their significance.

I personally feel that Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” of courting conservative white voters in the Democrat-dominated South by subtle appeals to racial prejudice was one of the most important shifts, perhaps inevitable, given the history of the region, but still much to be regretted. Even more important, I think was Ronald Reagan’s ability to hold the loyalty of conservative whites, while simultaneously attacking the tax structure, labor rights and Federal programs that promoted and protected their economic well being. A mixture of anti-communism, dog whistle racism,  anti-tax, anti-welfare talk, and feel good rhetoric about American exceptionalism counted for more than economic realities.

I know the Democratic Party failed again and again to protect many working Americans’ economic gains, especially under Clinton, who paid lip service to labor and the environment, but who never seemed to get around to doing anything concrete. All along the way, the changes being wrought in Federal programs and an increasingly pro-business Judiciary insured that inequality would rise rapidly after its near miraculous decline in the postwar years (see my post on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). Coming generations were not going to enjoy the continuing economic growth that had lifted so many people into the middle class and led to those “grand expectations,” from 1945 until the 1970s. Those hard realities fueled the growing, unfocused anger and fear that gives the final volume its title.

Fear, anger and the aging of the Baby Boom generation helped conservative candidates. There has been a sharp turn to the right in Congress, and Republicans have gained control in many state capitals. These gains have been cemented in place by increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering of state and federal election districts and systematic voter suppression, and coupled with the inherently unrepresentative character of the Senate and the Electoral College, have allowed absolute minorities of the electorate to control government at many levels since the 1980s.

I doubt whether the sequel to these volumes will be published in my lifetime, although it will have been another thirty-five years in 2035. Patterson does say a good bit at the end about the threat of terrorism directed at the United States. Still, very few people in January 2001 foresaw the impact of 9-11 or the global conflicts that it led us into. Nobody then, I think, foresaw the great recession of 2008, the rise of Donald Trump and the extremist right and our failure to deal with the clear danger of climate change. Nobody expected we’d be devastated by a pandemic in 2020.  The hope that blossomed when the United States elected its first black President proved evanescent. When the next installment of the Oxford History of the United States comes out, if I’m here to read it, I’m not sure I’ll be able to bear it.

Revolutionary Hopes

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763 -1789. The Oxford History of the United States. By Robert Middlekauff, narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Books. Originally published by Oxford University Press. 1962, 2005 second ed.

Image: The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard (source Wikimedia commons)

This volume in the Oxford History of the United States covers the beginnings of the conflict between the American colonies and Great Britain, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, up to the ratification of the Constitution and the beginning of the new government in 1789. The conflicts between Whigs and Torys or Loyalists and Rebels, the Revolutionary War and the struggles over the new government highlight the hopes of Americans for a new beginning.

The men and women caught up in pursuit of the Glorious Cause at first viewed themselves as simply demanding the rights that the people of England were guaranteed and that were supposed to be defended by Parliament. The early political splits largely fell along the lines between those who benefited from English policies towards the colonies and those that did not. If the taxes imposed by Parliament did not impact them too severely, many viewed it as reasonable to pay the cost of administration and defense. Some objected that while the taxes were justified, as subjects of the English Crown, they had the right to decide how those taxes would be applied. However, some began to believe that they would be better off under a government of their own choosing. It is especially interesting to learn that many of these fault lines among the politically engaged citizens long predated the conflict with the mother country. ”All politics is local,” as the saying goes. Each colony with its unique history and different mix of classes, ethnicities and faiths, as well as different economic bases, divided differently. The deeper the original divisions, the more contentious the struggle in most cases. Massachusetts was especially violent, with mob actions directed against the public authorities and those who sided with them, much of it incited and even led by their political opponents. After reading this account, it is a lot easier to understand why soldiers had to be dispatched to Boston to keep order and protect property.

Once the conflict erupted into violence at Lexington and Concord, the choice became more stark: many began to feel that it was victory or death. Still, hope for reconciliation persisted. The most remarkable aspect of the early phases of the war to me was the ability of the separate colonies to organize themselves into an effectively united body, largely through the Continental Congress. The early sessions achieved remarkable things, given that prior to this, the colonies had had little or no formal relationships. In school, I mostly learned about the military campaigns and the Declaration of Independence, but what made these possible was the ability of a representative body to agree on a plan of action, find men to put it into action and to come together to take the fateful step of breaking away from England. Throughout our history, the United States have been fortunate in having effective representative government in times of crisis, like the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The general narrative of the war, the peace and the difficulty of establishing a solid foundation for the future are amply described, and I enjoyed all of it. Likewise the account of the making of the Constitution in 1787 and the successful struggle to have it ratified. These are too well described and also treated in much greater detail in a plethora of other books, that I think I’ll not try top summarize. The book upholds the high standards of the series.

Politics and War

Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2017. Kindle edition.

All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2019. Audible edition. 

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America by Fergus M. Bordewich, Knopf, 2020.

Image: Lincoln Inauguration 1861 (source Wikipedia)

The first two books listed continue the story started in A Self Made Man, which closed with the end of Lincoln’s one term in Congress. They show the development of his political thinking during the tumultuous years described in The Impending Crisis. Lincoln played little direct part in doings on the national scene, but he never withdrew from politics, remaining an active supporter of the Whig Party until its final demise in the mid 1850s. By then his opposition to the expansion of slavery and his desire that it should eventually end because it was incompatible with the basic principles of democracy, were firm. He had seen the overthrow of moderate Whigs in Kentucky, including Henry Clay and several close relations of his wife, Mary Todd, by a conspiracy of slave dealers and others. He had a growing sense that there was no limit to the greed and ambition of the “slave power,” as it came to be called. He expressed opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but he bowed out of the 1856 race for Senator from Illinois in order to ensure the election of an anti slavery Democrat. 

Lincoln had always opposed the Democrats in Illinois. The challenge he faced was to deal with the three way struggle between the old Whigs, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings and the nascent Republican Party. The Know Nothings mattered greatly in Illinois, because Chicago had become a huge city, with a large population of German immigrants. Lincoln saw that a party that could capture their support had the best chance of dominating Illinois politics. He joined in formally establishing the Illinois Republican Party and tried to assure that it did not take anti immigrant positions, while still bringing some former Know Nothings to its side.

In 1856 he was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate but was passed over. He began to attract wide attention with reports of his debates with Stephen Douglas in the Senate race of 1858 and his famous speech at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860. Thanks to strong political organizing in Illinois and his growing reputation as a moderate but firm anti slavery man, he was able to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Interlaced with this central narrative is the story of the increasing rancor between north and south and the unraveling of attempts to establish a lasting compromise, as I already described in my post on The Impending Crisis. Here though, there is a much more specific focus on the rise and fall of Stephen Douglas, who was Lincoln’s persistent opponent. Douglas, who saw himself as a pragmatist and a great compromiser like Henry Clay, was as ambitious as Lincoln. He thought he could work with the powerful southerners like Senator Jefferson Davis, heir to John C. Calhoun, to forge an alliance that would propel him to the presidency. He thought his concept of popular sovereignty and his success in forcing through the Kansas-Nebraska Act would assure their support. By then however, the southern Democrats had become determined to expand slavery far beyond the limits northerners could live with. The aristocratic ally minded southerners rejected Douglas, whom they regarded as vulgar as the nominee in 1860. Instead, they chose their own candidate and left Douglas with only northern Democrats to face Lincoln and the Republicans. Defeated, in the end he remained loyal to the Union, but his alcoholism was out of control and he died in 1862.

I picked up Bordewich’s book on Congress in the Civil War partly as a complement to the Lincoln story, partly because I served a year as a Congressional Science Fellow in the House of Representatives during Ronald Reagan’s first term and partly because I saw the movie Lincoln and wanted to know about the real lives and characters of the men depicted in it, like Thaddeus Stevens (memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones)

This is a fascinating account. After the election of Lincoln and Republican majorities in both houses, southern members left as their states seceded. Northern members of the Democratic Party remained. Some were staunchly unionist “war Democrats,” but others favored peace with the succeeded states, even at the cost of splitting the country. These “copperheads” bedeviled the Republicans throughout the Civil War. Bordewich describes vividly the battles that took place within the US Congress to save the Union and then to legally abolish slavery. Many members were accomplished orators, so much of the struggle was verbal, trying to rally colleagues and win public support. But sometimes the struggles turned to violence, though not as terrible as the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by a South Carolina Representative in the 1850s.

Given the enormous problem of winning a civil war that few had expected before 1861, with the unending demands for men and supplies, one might expect congressmen and senators had little time for other things. Members of Congress had no offices or staffs in those days (The Representative’s office I was in in 1982-83 had seven permanent staff, offices in the home district and separate staff for the committees and subcommittees. There were six huge Congressional office buildings, besides the Capitol and the two large buildings that housed the Library of Congress). Nevertheless, members were constantly besieged by men seeking government jobs, contracts, etc. Most got little sleep while in session, particularly in the hectic days before adjournment, except at their desks or on couches in the respective chambers. Many drank heavily, like Douglas.

Despite this, by 1862, the Republican Congress, freed of the obstructionist southerners, had already passed a backlog of bills that would revolutionize the country and the role of the federal government: the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad, the Morrill Land grant colleges act and the Department of Agriculture. Together these would lead to the development of the prairies, the spread of science based farming and greatly expand higher education and would tie the west coast more tightly to the rest of the nation. They also, through their efforts to finance the war, put the system of currency and banking on a new national footing. (To get a sense of what happened after, see my post on The Republic for Which it Stands)

The financial aspects were managed by Thaddeus Stevens on the House side and Pitt Fessenden of Maine in the Senate, together with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and opportunistic financiers like Jay Cooke. There was never a question that there was enough gold and silver in the ground in the western states and territories to eventually restore hard money, but in the immediate emergency, the problem was to have enough cash to pay the costs of the war. Gold and silver coin, the only legal tender, were tightly hoarded as war came, and federal tax revenue, largely from tariffs, was never going to be enough. At first, paper notes redeemable in gold and silver on demand were issued to pay soldiers and contractors, but hundreds of millions more in currency were needed. The first legal tender notes that were not backed by gold or silver were issued in 1862, the “greenbacks.” 

Then Congress passed legislation to establish federally chartered banks that could issue “National Currency,” backed by bonds the banks bought from the Treasury and deposited there. These replaced, eventually, the vast amounts of private bank notes, usually not accepted beyond a local area (and sometimes not at all) with notes that were valid all over the country. Still the price of gold, driven by speculators, fluctuated in relation to the paper notes, especially with the varying fortunes of the war. It took tremendous skill and good fortune on the battlefield to keep the country financially afloat. One smart move was to make the greenbacks not legal tender for tariff duties. This insured a flow of gold and silver to the treasury and kept the redeemable notes in circulation. 

To maintain the flow of funds to the government, a host of new taxes had to be enacted covering a wide range of commodities, legal documents and transactions as well as incomes. These were, naturally, unpopular, and contributed to the Republicans losses to Democrats in 1862. The military draft also fueled popular rage. With the growing impetus behind freeing slaves in the occupied succeeded states and enlisting blacks, including escaped slaves from the south, there was a backlash in the north – not only the well known draft riots in New York, but also violent resistance throughout the Midwest, where racist sentiment was strong. I was astonished by the amount of murder (including many federal marshals) and destruction, some of it abetted by opposition politicians as well as out Confederate sympathizers and agents, especially in states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It makes today’s brawls between white supremacists and anti-fa look quite tame, and let’s hope it stays that way. Those were bad old days. 

Lincoln had early on suspended habaeus corpus to enable the military to deal with civil resistance and desertion. Congress eventually passed legislation legalizing this,  but not without strong misgivings. The growth of the surveillance and enforcement powers of the Federal government is one of the equivocal legacies of the crisis.

After Republican losses in the 1862 elections, there was real fear at all levels, up to Lincoln himself, that the “Copperhead” Democrats would win in 1864. The main reasons it didn’t happen seem to have been the improving fortunes of the war and a growing recognition that the free blacks that joined the Union forces, far from being cowardly, lazy, stupid, etc. were as courageous and disciplined as any other men under arms.

For this to have happened took the Herculean efforts of Congress at overseeing the conduct of the war. This fell to Senator Ben Wade, Chair of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, supported by both capable Republicans and some solidly pro war Democrats. Meticulously examining and documenting the successes and glaring failures of the army and its leaders, like George McClellan, was exhausting but invaluable, both to the government and the public. Few recognize how important the oversight functions of Congress are, despite the fact that such investigations invariably have a political tinge, as I saw many times during my year as a House staffer.

The final part of the story covers the struggle to pass the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery through the lame duck Congress in 1864 and the development of a policy on dealing with the defeated south and the freed slaves. In those years the newly elected Congress did not begin meeting until more than a year after the vote. This left many “lame ducks,” defeated members who had nothing to gain from loyalty to their party and often desperately needing help to get on with their lives. Thus, enough Democrats and previously reluctant Republicans could be convinced to support abolition by suitable offers of government jobs, etc. Though the amendment passed, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, the assassination of the president and the inability of the Radical Republicans to overcome northern apathy and southern resistance eventually led to the failure of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. As my father, a lifelong North Carolinian and a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, repeatedly told me, the slaves were set free only to be put into bondage again. Much of this, I talked about in my post on The Republic for which it Stands, covering Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Another book on that topic, which I might post something about, is Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by Davis Zucchino. This details the only coup d’etat in U.S. history, the 1898 overthrow of the biracially elected government of Wilmington N.C. by white supremacists. 

I’m looking forward now to Blumenthal’s account of Lincoln’s presidency. Even his staunchest Republican supporters in Congress frequently took a dim view of his ability and resolution. I want to know how things looked from the White House.

Aldo Leopold: The Ecologist and the Story of Job

Aldo Leopold. A Sand county Almanac and Essays on Conservation from Round River. Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz. Oxford University Press. 1966.

Image from Maxpixels.net

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

 – Aldo Leopold, Round River

Reading Aldo Leopold’s ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac, with my college classmates at our 50th reunion this fall, I made an unexpected connection to a much older story that also concerns humans’ relation to the wilderness. In an earlier blog post (https://nearctictraveller.blog/2019/06/26/the-book-of-job-traveler-in-a-strange-land/), I compared Job’s comforters’ understandings and Job’s understanding of God’s creation. Their conventional wisdom cannot satisfy Job, who has directly experienced disaster that he is certain cannot be punishment for any transgressions on his part. Misfortune pushed Job beyond the boundaries of human society, into “the place of the jackal.” When the voice from the whirlwind opens his eyes, Job sees that the world which God’s created works in ways that defy his and his friends’ concepts of right and wrong. 

Aldo Leopold also was forced to give up the comfortable sense humans know best what is right in the natural world and that all is manageable for human benefit. Leopold began his career as an ardent proponent of controlling wildlife for what he viewed as human interest, but also with an openness to a deeper experience of wild things. His revelation came on a mountain, far from human society. As he describes it, the fading of the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying she wolf revealed that his understanding had been too simple. In “Thinking like a Mountain,” he acknowledges that although he once sought to exterminate them, he came to recognize that wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, like Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, have a place in the world.  

Unlike the Job of the story’s ending, Leopold is not able to recover what he has lost. On the other hand, his suffering is neither so physical nor so personal. Instead, suffering comes from a growing recognition that the world’s wealth of ecological communities are being lost to human progress.

In the essay on cutting down an old dead oak tree for firewood, he uses the saw’s progress through the annual rings of the tree to recount all that has been destroyed over the century and more since the tree first grew. It’s a history of extirpation of many species, of vast changes in the landscape and of a few uncertain steps to save some of the remainder.

Like Job, Leopold wants to rebuild our human life on a new foundation of knowledge: the way the world works is deeply counter to our conventional wisdom. He makes this especially clear in his essay, “The Land Ethic,” where he calls for a new standard for judging our actions in relation to the ecological community. In the Old Testament, the voice out of the whirlwind commands Job to consider behemoth, “whom I made as I made you.” Behemoth and the other beasts described in that passage are as much a part of the world as Job and his friends. As he came to understand ecology, Leopold was similarly convinced that we are not a separate, privileged species, above the rest of the ecological community, but ordinary members and citizens of it. In other words, we are all in this together. 

Like all living things, we must live by exploiting other lives, at least to some extent. Unlike others, we can ask ourselves whether there are limits to exploiting the natural community beyond which we will be less just and less happy as a human community. Leopold cannot say for certain what those limits should be, though he can see plenty of examples of wanton and careless destruction that we do too little to prevent. What he feels sure of is that we ought to preserve at least some of all the components that make up the ecological community and that we ought to regard ourselves as part of it, not its masters.

The Book of Job wraps up the story neatly, I would say a bit too neatly, in the end. Is that because as some think, the redacted version has been made to fit into a conventional framework of religious piety, however bizarre that seems to make God’s actions? In any case, Leopold can have no such replacements for his losses, because they are not his alone, and it will take generations to stop the losses and begin to recover. For instance, the United States passed The Endangered Species Act, on paper one of our strongest environmental laws. Implementing it, however, has been an uphill battle against both lack of scientific understanding and determined resistance by those who must forego immediate gains. Even as we make incremental progress, habitat destruction, climate change and pollution are endangering ever more species.

The sentiment expressed in Round River is as true today as when Leopold wrote. To learn ecology is to come to realize how extensive the world’s wounds are. Let us hope that they can be healed.

The Book of Job, Traveler in a Strange Land

The Book of Job: a New Translation with In-Depth Commentary by Robert D. Sacks. Kafir Yaroq Books. Green Lion Press. 2016.

Robert D. Sacks’s new translation of and commentary on the Book of Job is a wonderful contribution to our understanding of this deeply strange and interesting book. In my notes, I want to highlight just a few particularly fascinating points:

The translation includes many extended glosses on words that are used in unfamiliar ways, to unravel the difficult ideas that the poet is trying to convey. For example, Sachs makes an extended comment on the familiar biblical passage(s) about future generations being responsible for the sins of their fathers. He says the word translated as“sins” or ”iniquity” is actually better rendered in English as something like perversion,and he cites several other places where this word appears that make this clearer. Then he refers to a couple modern examples of the sorts of wrongs he thinks are meant to be understood, one of which is slavery in the United States. I find that makes a lot of sense; the whole problem of slavery and its aftermath is a perversion of which Americans are often unconscious or in denial. Furthermore, one can assume this burden simply by becoming a citizen of this country; even recent immigrants, by joining American society, acquire the responsibility. The same, Sacks says, applies to the debt we owe Native Americans. [See my post on Exiles of Florida ]

 A second point, central to the story, is the contrast between Job’s friends’ understanding of his sufferings and his own sense of injustice. The friends connect what has happened to the received wisdom of the tradition, which assures them that a good man cannot be made to suffer unjustly. Job is convinced that he has done no wrong. He has begun to see a world that is, in its workings, quite likely to inflict misery and loss on even those who have done nothing wrong by the traditional standards, and even on those whose conduct has been exemplary. He begins to think that for his suffering to make any kind of sense, he has to exile himself beyond the boundaries set by the tradition of orderly, civilized human life. Beyond lies a wild place, the “place of the jackal” or the “shadow of death.” The fourth speaker, Elihu, urges him not to venture there, because no human can face the raw power of God; Job must simply submit and hide himself from such terrors. Still, Job insists he wants to know what it is he has failed to grasp.

Job gets his answer from the voice out of whirlwind: the marvelous chapters 38-41 lay before him the sublime beauty and terror of the world before and beyond the human. Central to this wonder is the revelation that God caused all this to come to be by allowing things to develop according to their own generating, birthing and nurturing principles. Sacks points out that while there is some reference to God making and measuring out boundaries, there is much more emphasis on things developing by their own internal causes. He says that here we get the idea of nature, working autonomously, giving birth to a vast range of beings that do not conform to man’s needs or sense of what is right, but exist free and for their own ends. Some are untamed versions of domestic animals like asses and oxen; some are wild and fierce even when used by man, like the war horse; some appear to be laughably foolish, like the ostrich, and some, behemoth and leviathan, are simply beyond human power. What is revealed by the voice is a world beyond the human, one that man can never tame and whose sublimity means it would be unjust to do so even if it were possible. In this, Sacks argues for the sacred character of wild nature. We can and must learn from it, but we can’t control it. The poet of Job is the quintessential ecologist.

[As an aside, I have always liked the Revised Standard Version’s identification of Behemoth and Levithan with the hippopotamus and crocodile. Both existed in Israel, the hippo until the Iron Age (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005316) and the crocodile until the 20th century, so it seems reasonable to think that they were known to the Job poet. I think that ties in well to the idea that although some these beasts (including the ostrich, according to Sachs) are tamed by humans, there is much that is beyond what humans can manage. Somehow, it seems better to end with something palpably real, if exotic, rather than mythical, as behemoth and leviathan are often depicted. It is surely wrong to imagine leviathan as a whale: whales aren’t covered in plates or scales and don’t sprawl in the mud except if dead or helpless.]

Sachs makes another point here: leviathan, “king over all the sons of pride,” although utterly awe-inspiring, is closed up in his impenetrable armor – nothing gets through to him. He rules this realm by the shear weight of his power. Job is the opposite: he is open and can see and absorb the wonder of the natural. By being open to the beauty and terror, Job comes to understand both the other and himself. He can operate in his human realm through love and understanding. In the end then, Job returns to the human world, where he helps his friends atone for their ignorant advice. He is able to receive condolences for the loss of his children and his suffering, and he can rebuild his fortunes.

Sacks ends by pointing out that Job’s acceptance of the importance of the birthing and nurturing power of the womb, expressed in many of the images from chapters 38 to 40, produces a change in how he treats his daughters.  He gives the three an inheritance alongside his sons, in contrast to the prevailing custom that daughters get only dowries. This, I think, is an example of what Sacks means by saying that the voice from the whirlwind has revealed to Job a realm that operates by laws unlike the received human tradition, and Job must remember those lessons as he rebuilds his life in the human world. I like his observation that Job has become aware of a realm in which he is utterly insignificant, which, however, contains possibilities for “love and laughter” that can inform the world in which Job matters very much.