Cold Comfort Farm

“Well,’ said Mrs Smiling, ‘it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean, it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”

-Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

I once went through this weird phase where I wanted to be a gentleman farmer. I spent countless hours researching heirloom crops to grow and obscure breeds of animals to raise. I romanticized the agrarian lifestyle; always picturing myself leaning on a fence looking out at a pasture of sheep or goats. I thought there was no better life of freedom or satisfaction – at the end of the day I could kiss Christina, eat apple pie, and read the Bible to my 10 children. In an attempt to test the waters of farming, I convinced my parents to put a garden in the backyard. To make the long story short, I dreaded watering and weeding the stupid thing and when something did finally grow, a wild beast ate it before I could gain any tangible satisfaction.

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After that failed attempt at farming, I put my rural dreams to the side and took up a much more suitable occupation – reading books and writing obscure blog posts. Every now and again the dream resurfaces of eating pie while staring at my goats but Christina usually squashes them with an impersonation of myself during the aforementioned gardening days…”(in an old man voice) Oh, my backkkkk, I fricking hate bending over, I need a chair to sit down to get these things out.” This precarious relationship with agriculture framed my mindset while reading the 1932 classic Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – a parody of the rural novels from 19th century England. Suffice it to say it motivated new Google searches for “how to garden in a wheelchair.”

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The title of Cold Comfort Farm is named after the main farm in the book and paints the picture of natural beauty while simultaneously highlighting the backwardness of rural England. The main character, Flora, comes to the farm to essentially mooch off her relatives with free room and board. Her relatives, the Strakadders, are best described as Sussex hillbillies who are superstitious, uneducated, and set in their ways – even though their ways make zero sense. Flora spends the book, in a quite hilarious manner, fixing the Strakadders problems, and facilitating them to lead better lives. At first, it is slow going, but with finesse and humor, Flora helps each member to truly blossom to their full potential.

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This novel is meant to show that no person is irredeemable and that the countryside not only has beautiful landscape but also beautiful people. England at the time was still quite pretentious when it came to class differences and Cold Comfort Farm is a direct attack on the negative attributes of the “stiff upper lip.”  It is not that Flora tries to change the Strakadders into pompous-city folk but rather helps them see their skills in a new light – leading them in the first steps towards their lifelong dreams. Many times we judge others who live differently and we try to change them to be reflections of ourselves; like a farmer trying to coerce me to weed when I am just more suited for Wikipedia.  In a world rife with division – Republican/Democrat, Rural/City, North/South, Black/White – we need to be reminded of this more than ever.

 

Old World vs. New World

One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the Image result for native american stereotypesearth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.

Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the Image result for incan empirelargest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.

Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Image result for Tenochtitlan sketchTenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?

One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history. Image result for native american disease and epidemics
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.

What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Image result for native american mound builders sketchAztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.

Native Americans Conquer the English! Why History Wasn’t Reversed-Part 1

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Why didn’t 16th century Native Americans sail to England, claim land for their queen, and nearly decimate the English race? Why did Francisco Pizarro conquer the entire Incan Empire instead of Atahuallpa sailing over to Spain and exerting his dominance? We all know the immediate answers to these questions: Europeans had guns, germs, and steel that made it easy to overcome their “savage” opponents. But the real question is why did Europeans develop guns, germs, and steel while so many other civilizations did not? What forces caused different groups of people to develop technology and innovations at different rates? Did civilizations advance differently because of superior genetics or environmental variables? Honestly, I never thought about these questions until I borrowed my friend’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. This is a must read and it actually won the Pulitzer Prize-the exorbitant detail in this book makes it an eye-opener that will change your perspective of the modern world. A common thought is that Europeans were more advanced then Africans/Indians/Insert Non-White Person because they worked harder and were generally smarter. This was the primary logic for most of history and is partly responsible for the mental foundation of slavery, racism, segregation, and general exploitation of non-white races.Today, scientists are trying to objectively answer the question of why societies advanced differently early on in history? The short answer to this big question is that genetics played no role in the differences, what mattered most was environmental luck.

So what is environmental luck? Environmental luck, in respects to civilization formation, entails three key components: available wild plants for domestication, available large mammals for domestication, and continent-axis orientations. 10,500 years ago agriculture began in the fertile crescent (modern day Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt); China would soon follow 1,000 years afterwards. Agriculture in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Amazonia independently began in 3500 B.C-the Eastern United States coming in last at 2500 B.C. Why was there such a big time disparity between these groups and plant domestication? One of the key reasons was that the Fertile Crescent and China were home to 33 large grass species: wheat, rice, barley, millet, etc. These wild grass species were abundant due to the vast land areas of Eurasia, numerous Mediterranean climates and large elevation changes. Early domestication was advantageous over hunter gathering in these two areas because these grass species provided easy nutrition (today the world gets 50% of its calories from grass plants). This cornucopia of seed plants in Eurasia is contrasted by the meek number available in the Americas-only 4 species in North America, 5 in Mesoamerica, and 2 in South America. Agriculture in Eurasia was further assisted by large mammals which were domesticated. Of all large mammals, Eurasia had 13 species (think cows, pigs, goats, sheep, camels, and horses) which were good candidates for domestication; a good domestication candidate needs to have a certain diet, growth rate, breeding behavior, disposition, and social structure. The Americas, Australia, and Africa only had 1 mammal that was suitable for domestication-dogs. These domesticated animals increased agricultural yield, provided food, and transferred germs to humans. Domesticated animals are the source of some of mankind’s most deadly diseases: Measles (cattle), Tuberculosis (cattle), Smallpox (cattle), Flu (pigs and ducks), Pertussis (pigs, dogs), Falciparum malaria (chickens and ducks), etc. This exposure to germs would eventually wipe out the majority of New World inhabitants and make it possible for Europeans to conquer native people throughout the world. The last key factor of environmental luck was the axis orientation of the continents. Eurasia’s axis stretches east to west with large spans of land on similar latitudes (Think England and China). The Americas and Africa axis’ stretch North to South with huge changes in latitudes (think Canada vs Chili). Similar latitudes meant similar day lengths and weather patterns which allowed for the rapid spread of agriculture across Eurasia. The wide range of latitudes in the Americas/Africa made the spread of agriculture difficult because of drastically different weather and seasons going north to south.

The environmental factors of Eurasia provided it with a lucky head start in respects to efficient agriculture. This head start wasn’t because of the people’s innovation but rather a host of key factors which included climate, plant availability, animal availability, and overall geography. Eurasia’s efficient agriculture (large seed plants and domesticated animals) would eventually lead to the first civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, China). Agriculture and domestication allowed individuals to specialize in jobs unrelated to food production: government officials, laborers, craftsmen, scribes, religious figures. The ability to have specialized positions provided groups of people to innovate and advance in technology. This progression of civilization in Eurasia was already full force before the America’s first signs of agriculture. The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Asia would soon spread through the continent and bring about metallurgy, alphabets, and organized warfare. The prerequisites of guns, germs, and steel were all based on the ability to efficiently grow food. And the prerequisites for growing food were a host of environmental factors that led to some lucky people being in the right place at the right time. To be continued.