Ritual of Oak

"Be humble for you are made of earth, be noble for you are made of stars." – Serbian Proverb

Month: January, 2016

Converts to the Way of Grain

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Chapters 4,5,6 and 8. Norton, New York, United States.

Jared Diamond opens part two of Guns, Germs, and Steel with a personal anecdote that I think helps ease the reader into his explanation of “the rise and spread of food production” (pg 83). One of the complaints I heard in class about Diamond’s writing style was that it felt impersonal and hard to relate to. Hopefully with this introduction readers will be able to absorb more of the discussion Diamond is trying to facilitate.

While I really appreciate Diamond’s writing style I found it very difficult to pick out specific sentences to analyse. I found that his dialogue held it’s weight not based on one strong sentence but on the cumulative strength of his paragraphs. I found that his writing style worked less on the principle of building up to a climactic end, but instead like the plodding construction of a pyramid. Facts building on facts that then build into well supported thoughts.

From chapter 4 to 8, Diamond describes the process by which humanity switched from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to one of more agricultural leanings. The take home lesson boils down to that as the density of humans rose, the natural abundance of the earth was depleted to the point that a new food source needed to be used to maintain the growing population. While this points towards a conscious decision to switch to agriculture Diamond explains that it is more likely that “…Food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences.” (pg 106). This is a concept that we discussed last week after reading chapter seven of Guns, Germs, and Steel. As food production increased, density too would increase. Diamond describes this as an “autocatalytic process – one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started.” (pg 111) This is an intuitive process and is very obvious in the modern world.

From there the dominance of agriculture expanded as a result of the resources it offered the converts to the way of grain. Technology (guns), a standing military (steel), and the advantage of unintentional biological warfare (germs). All three were made available by the time that was permitted to certain members of the civilizations that grew around agricultural hubs. Artisans, scientists, and farmers. These things have all had a very visible effect on the world, and it is very easy to see the dominance they’ve had. All from the accidental advent of agriculture.

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“A Concatenation of Accidents”

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. xxiii-xxv. Random House, Toronto, Canada.

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. pg 114-130. Norton, New York, United States.

It is a most peculiar experience whenever I am forced to acknowledge my anthropocentric view of the world. What better class to do it in than one that highlights the effect that plants have made on humans over the course of our brief history. One step back and a vast cycle of life forms adjusting each other for their own fitness comes into focus. For every corn plant humans have selected and cultivated, the argument can be made that corn has also selected us to propagate their seeds. By improving the ability for humans to survive, and thereby procreate, corn has given us cause to increase our production of corn greatly since the first corn plant was discovered as a food source. This relationship is one of mutual dependency where both parties are required in order to see either continue to prosper. Michael Pollan humourously puts the impetus on corn in his book The Botany of Desire by saying “that’s why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.” (pg xxi). If we continue to put a human voice to corn it would be easy to say that corn is doing quite well in it’s war on the trees.

Jared Diamond explains how it could be that plants, or more appropriately natural selection as a cosmic force, use humans to select for beneficial traits in the seventh chapter of his book Guns, Germ, and Steel. He says that “as far as plants are concerned, we’re just one of thousands of animal species that unconsciously ‘domesticate’ plants.” (pg 115) an observation that when taken one step back reveals natural selection as the culprit in nearly every interaction. Diamond then points to the politely described latrine sites where many seeds would have collected over the course of a humans lifetime. (pg 117). As a person collects strawberries for consumption in the wild it is more likely that they will grab big strawberries. A reasonable assumption is that the seeds of big strawberries will produce strawberry bushes that will produce more big strawberries in kind. When the person notices the correlation between these events it is also reasonable to assume that they might try to plant some more of these seeds somewhere they can easily retrieve the fruits from. Voila, a very watered down example of an animal accidentally domesticating a plant. Following this domestication, we see the fitness of the strawberry improve drastically. Genetic information is passed down constantly as humans continue to increase demand for the sweet fruit. Pretty clever trick on the part of the strawberry.

Ok, so what? Why does it matter that plants are respectively domesticating us? We perform a service to them that increases their fitness while they do the same for us. What’s the big deal? I think the answer to that lies in the unwillingness humans have towards the idea that we AREN’T the center of the universe. It’s a big deal because by not accepting that we as a species are just another aspect of nature performing its ultimate task I think we find ourselves ignorantly pushing forward a system that is unsustainable only for ourselves. The penalty for this ignorance is a short species lifespan. While we might drag other life into oblivion with us on our short 1 million year trip into the dumpster it is very likely that life will find a way to carry on without us. As the years go on the situation becomes more and more a shape up or ship out scenario.

“All aboard the HMCS Extinction! Lieutenant are all of the humans accounted for?”

“Aye Captain! They’re all safe below deck. Funny thing is they still seem confused about what’s happening. Sir, I don’t think they know that they’re going extinct.”

“Yes Lieutenant, that is unfortunately the case. For some reason they spent their twilight years arguing over the safety of vaccines, and hollering about the lives of celebrities instead of doing anything about climate change. Well, hopefully the lizard people will be better stewards of the planet.”

“We can only hope so, Sir.”

“HEED!”

Hanson, Thor.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  pg. xix-80.  Basic Books, New York, United States of America.

I got a little carried away reading The Triumph of Seeds. xix turned into 67 before it occurred to me that pages had likely been assigned and I had almost certainly gone beyond that point. I had been wrapped up and whisked away on an extended lesson about the intricacies of seeds, and the people who have devoted their lives to their study. I am, like many of my contemporaries, at best passingly knowledgeable about seeds. A year ago I would have had to have been convinced that a bean is a seed. A little embarrassing perhaps, but that is the emphasis put on seeds in our modern western culture. Considering the importance of the little bundles of life it would seem that the common knowledge is disproportionately small.

I sat down to read The Triumph of Seeds with a coffee. Black, brewed confusingly through an espresso machine as a little middle finger to connoisseurs everywhere. Not even a thought to the magnitude of preparing one of the most popular seeds in the world before I sat down to consume Hanson’s exuberant love letter to the little lunch boxes. By the end of the introduction I realized that I’d played unwittingly into his hands. There I sat, already forced to marvel at the ubiquity of seeds in my life. It only got better from there.

In chapter four, Hanson goes on a field expedition to New Mexico to investigate a coal bed with a conference of paleontologists. The impression Hanson gives of the group is electric. A flurry of activity and discovery. “Around me, the paleontologists worked and talked excitedly. Where my eyes saw only dust and confusion, I knew theirs were reconstructing an ancient world.” (pg. 58) Hanson remarks on what I would guess is a scene only all too familiar to him. The passionate goings on of professionals in the field. This scene resonated with me because at the end of April 2015 I experienced that feeling for the first time, and was dragged into the world of botany by the excitement of my enthusiastic peers. I felt the same way, lost and confused, but so intrigued by what could elicit such response. A new world had opened up to me that had been hidden from view only by my unwillingness to look.

On page 56, Bill DiMichele, a Smithsonian paleontologist quips something to Hanson in reference to new evidence showing that seed plants might have begun their triumph of Earth long before the previous evidence had shown. He says, “I used to go to the field expecting certain things… now I go to the field looking.” which might be the most scientifically important sentence in the entire book. It is the embodiment of the most important part of the scientific method. The indisputable fact that facts are only as strong as the evidence that supports them, and that the evidence is always subject to change. New evidence is always waiting to be discovered, and that’s the best part! Heck, the most exciting part of being a scientist should be finding evidence that we were wrong. Everyone, not just scientists, should spend more of their time looking rather than expecting.

Selfish selflessness; or an exercise in ambiguous social conciousness

MacKinnon JB, Smith A. 2007.  The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. pg. 1-149.  Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

The first half of The 100-Mile Diet explains how MacKinnon and Smith came up with the idea to take on the challenge of narrowing their diet to a 100-mile radius, and then follows through to show how they were able to thrive within these self imposed restrictions. The first few chapters emphasize the couples growing distaste with the globalization of food sources among other things. They refer to statistics showing that the way that North Americans eat is unsustainable and decide to attempt to do something about it at least on a personal level. The remaining first half of the book contains the musings of the couple as they continue to discover a rich and vibrant world just outside their proverbial back door, and the anecdotal explanations of how they overcame the unique obstacles such a diet would come with.

There are a few things that stood out to me as I pored over MacKinnon and Smith’s experience. The first is that for every moment that I found myself excited over the clever simplicity of eating locally; I couldn’t help but find myself remembering that these were the experiences of a seemingly very privileged couple. A pairing that had the time to go far out of their way to make the their diet possible. Nearly daily trips to different food sources are a reasonable expectation of the process, but to do so in a normal 9-5 job experience seems difficult if not impossible. Reading the 100-Mile Diet continually left me at a loss on how I actually felt. Excited that it was possible to eat within such a globally small region (if I lower my inflated expectations of what will be available), or distaste over what ultimately feels like another footnote in a generation increasingly known for slacktivism. I can’t and won’t deny that publishing their experience helps prevent a clean slacktivism argument, but just as with any “be the change you want to see in the world” experience it ultimately rings hollow. The inequity within that 100-mile radius speaks louder than the potential good of such an ultimately self-serving goal.

A bit harsh, maybe.

Honestly I think my issue with 100-Mile Diet is the same issue that MacKinnon and Smith had at the beginning of their book. I think I’m exhausted by the perverse way that humans as a global entity interact with the world. So exhausted that at this point, like many others, I find myself apathetic to the state of the global community. Unfortunately I find this leaves me more disgruntled with people that are trying their hardest to affect positive change. I hear a snappy little voice in the back of my head that says,

“ONE PERSON CAN’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHY BOTHER”.

Ugh. The capitalist devil.

With all that said, my protestations of activism on a personal level ring significantly hollower. This year I too plan on attempting to eat more locally. Finding food in the Kamloops area and cultivating it for myself and others in an attempt to bring myself closer to my home. I may not be taking the extreme route of dedicating to a strict 100-mile radius, but I will be trying my best to narrow down my field of consumption. A little more positivity in the world can’t hurt.

In addition to my moral fisticuffs above there is a repeated phrase in The 100-Mile Diet that I’ve seen before, and have grown to love more with each passing day. The phrase resonates with me in a way that few others have through my life. It is very likely that it is appealing to the biologist in me. The burgeoning naturalist and storyteller.

“Say the names.”

I feel it bouncing off the memory of another phrase. “Plant blindness”. Give the plants their names back. Give them their story back. Point and show and awe and the exuberance of life comes rushing back in. There is discovery in every day life. You just need to know how to look. Without rehashing what has been said already, say the names. To yourself, to anyone willing to listen, and give the plants their place in our hearts back.