Adriatic, The Experience & The Book

When I first set foot in Croatia more than two decades ago it was for a project to assist the country in defending the coastal areas from the pressures of mass tourism development. Within a couple of years I was doing similar work in Montenegro. Before too long we were enough in love with the region to make it our family’s home for a year.

So seeing this book about the future importance of the region, by an eminent scholar, is both heartwarming and concerning:

“[An] elegantly layered exploration of Europe’s past and future . . . a multifaceted masterpiece.”—The Wall Street Journal

“A lovely, personal journey around the Adriatic, in which Robert Kaplan revisits places and peoples he first encountered decades ago.”—Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

In this insightful travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan, geopolitical expert and bestselling author of Balkan Ghosts and The Revenge of Geography, turns his perceptive eye to a region that for centuries has been a meeting point of cultures, trade, and ideas. Continue reading

Library!

The Long Room is at the heart of a $95 million conservation project at Trinity College Dublin’s Old Library. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

The exclamation point in this post’s title signifies enthusiastic appreciation for a pleasant surprise. A story about libraries to take the mind off all that other news, and point it to lasting treasures. Our thanks to Ed O’Loughlin for the story, Paulo Nunes dos Santos for the photos, and The New York Times for the publication:

An Irish National Treasure Gets Set for a Long-Needed Restoration

The majestic Old Library at Trinity College Dublin, where some of Ireland’s most ancient and valuable books are stored, is a popular tourist attraction.

A librarian walking along the corridors in the upper gallery. Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

DUBLIN — The Long Room, with its imposing oak ceiling and two levels of bookshelves laden with some of Ireland’s most ancient and valuable volumes, is the oldest part of the library in Trinity College Dublin, in constant use since 1732.

But that remarkable record is about to be disrupted, as engineers, architects and conservation experts embark on a 90 million euro, or $95 million, program to restore and upgrade the college’s Old Library building, of which the Long Room is the main part. Continue reading

Camping, The Book Review

A recent book by the historian Phoebe S. K. Young explores what, exactly, camping is, and how the pursuit intersects with protest culture, homelessness, and identity. Illustration by Sally Deng

We have not featured much on camping recently, but some old favorites come to mind when reading this book review titled The Confounding Politics of Camping in America by Dan Piepenbring:

For centuries, sleeping outside has been embraced or condemned, depending on who’s doing it.

By the eighteen-seventies, the society pages of Scribner’s Monthly could no longer hide it: the “American pleasure-seeking public” had run out of places to seek their pleasure. Summer after summer, vacationers resigned themselves to “broiling in a roadside farm-house” among the “odor of piggery and soap-suds.” Or they visited costly resort towns, finding “more anxious swarming crowds than those left behind.” Continue reading

Indigenous Knowhow & Conservation

Prof Ian McNevin said ‘the scale of Indigenous oyster harvesting is extraordinary’, and compared it to contemporary commercial oyster farms. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag/Corbis/Getty Images

Some of us writing in these pages have been fans of oysters primarily for their culinary value (living in France, and then later in Croatia, could create such bias). But we have posted more frequently about the resiliency that oysters have come to represent in the search for protection against climate impact. Here is some more on that topic, intersecting with another theme we pay frequent attention to:

Precolonial First Nations oyster fisheries sustained millennia of intense harvests, study shows

Researchers in Australia and North America say management of oyster reefs should incorporate Indigenous knowledge

Oyster fisheries in Australia and North America survived for up to 10,000 years prior to colonisation, sustaining First Nations communities even under intense harvest, according to new research. Continue reading

Writing About The Banda Islands & Nutmeg & Us

Around the time we shared a book review of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent work he gave a lecture about the Banda Islands, explaining the relationship between nutmeg and our current challenges related to climate change. It includes conversation with his host, a professor of creative writing, who draws out of Ghosh on his writing process.

The best part of the lecture is about half way through, when Ghosh talks about the agency of botanicals, a topic that many of us first encountered in the writings of Michael Pollan. Thanks to Rhoda Feng for giving Ghosh’s book another review, which led me to find the video above:

A SMALL BUT INCREDIBLY VALUABLE NUT

At the end of Amitav Ghosh’s SEA OF POPPIES (2008), a character reflects on how her life has been governed not by the sign of Saturn but by the poppy seed. Offering a seed to her lover, she says: ‘Here, taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.’ SEA OF POPPIES is part of the Ibis trilogy by Ghosh – followed by RIVER OF SMOKE (2011) and FLOOD OF FIRE (2015) – about the nineteenth-century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In London

Museum number: BP.1079
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Do you have the inclination of switching from city life to rural? I, for one, made the switch and have no inclination to ever live in a city again. Occasional visits are fine. But as the theme song from a tv show of my youth had it “…keep Manhattan, just give me that country life…”.

My reason for thinking about this today is related to the book on the right. Whether or not you are a fan of her books, you might find the case of Beatrix Potter’s life choices worthy of consideration. Rizzoli has published this book to accompany an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Our appreciation to Anna Russell for describing both, and adding plenty of detail about the author’s life, in this article:

The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

A new book and an exhibition on Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” use letters, sketches, and a coded journal to capture an author who delighted in the detail and humor of the natural world.

Many teen-agers will go to great lengths to keep their diaries private—I kept a little key for mine in a wooden jewelry box, which I guarded jealously—but the children’s book author Beatrix Potter took it to an extreme. Continue reading

Frederick Law Olmsted At 200

Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted (detail), 1895, by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); The Artchives/Alamy Stock Photo.

From Hedgehog Review, a bit of scholarly reflection on a man whose impact on the landscape of cityscapes is still worthy of consideration:

The Man Who Built Forward Better

On Frederick Law Olmsted’s Bicentennial

Witold Rybczynski

What would Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) make of his works today, in the bicentennial year of his birth? No doubt he would be delighted by the survival and continued popularity of so many of his big-city parks, particularly Central Park and Prospect Park, but also parks in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal, as well as Buffalo, Detroit, Rochester, and Louisville. He might be surprised by the bewildering range of activities these parks now accommodate—not only boating and ice-skating, as in his day, but exercising, jogging, picnicking, and games, as well as popular theatrical and musical events. I don’t think this variety would displease him. After all, it was he who introduced free band concerts in Central Park, over the objections of many of his strait-laced colleagues. He would be pleased by the banning of automobiles; his winding carriage drives were never intended for fast—and noisy—traffic. Continue reading

Less Beef Is Better, No Beef Is Best

A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Martin Bourne

The photo to the left might have appealed to me last year or earlier. But having tried giving up beef for so long, and finally prevailing, now it has no appeal. It does not disgust me, but I expect to get there.

Ligaya Mishan’s article What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self? has excellent photography by Kyoko Hamada.

My highest compliment is reserved for the stylist Martin Bourne, for making the photos just slightly creepy, matching my current emotional response to looking at beef.

Strip steaks alongside a piece of sirloin tip. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Martin Bourne

When it comes to America’s legacy of Manifest Destiny, there’s perhaps no meal more symbolic than a bleeding steak. So who are we now that we’re consuming less red meat?

MEAT IS PRIMAL, or so some of us think: that humans have always eaten it; that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the consumption of beef per capita worldwide has declined for 15 years. Nearly a fourth of Americans claimed to have eaten less meat in 2019, according to a Gallup poll. The recipe site Epicurious, which reaches an audience of 10 million, phased out beef as an ingredient in new recipes in 2020. Continue reading

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Land acquisition, for the purpose of conservation, is a subject that we touch upon from time to time. The bigger arc of land acquisition’s history, as well as its future, helps with perspective. The book to the right (linked to an independent bookseller’s website), potentially important for such perspective, is reviewed by Francisco Cantú in Human History and the Hunger for Land, as excerpted below (you can listen to the review by clicking the start button here):

From Bronze Age farmers to New World colonialists, the stories of struggle to claim more ground have shaped where and how we live.

Territorial expansion once meant conquest, but other modes are being explored. Illustration by Vincent Mahé

The final piece of terrain to be incorporated into the contiguous United States was an oddly shaped strip stretching from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Yuma, Arizona. Known as the Gadsden Purchase, the area was obtained from Mexico in 1854 for ten million dollars, adding nearly thirty thousand square miles to a nation still drunk with Manifest Destiny expansionism. The motivations for acquiring the land were many—it contained huge deposits of ore and precious metals, held vast agricultural potential in the soils of its fertile river valleys, and, most important, had an arid climate that could allow a rail route to connect the coasts while remaining free from snowpack year-round. Continue reading

Postscript On Leaky

Over the decades, Leakey inspired countless scientists and activists through his books and talks. Photograph by William Campbell / Getty

We do not normally link to obituaries, but since I felt compelled to recently, this one seems a must also. Nearly two years ago we linked to a profile of Richard Leakey and the author of that profile has written a moving postscript:

On the night of January 2nd, I got a text from Paula Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist. “Dear friends, sad news,” she wrote. “Richard Leakey just passed away at his home in Kona Baridi.” Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and wildlife conservationist, had been her mentor—a mercurial, controversial advocate for African wildlife, whose tumultuous career was central to Kenya’s history in the past half century. Continue reading

Something In The Air For Onetime Mining Communities

The Shoshone Museum documents the town’s scrappy past as a mining community.

When Alex Ross, a music critic, wanders from criticism to commentary or into especially unexpected territory, it is always for good reason. He clearly has a love of desert ecosystems. His most recent publication intersects desert ecosystem with a deserted mining community. It reaches me just after yesterday’s link to a model for improving the prospects of a coal extraction community, so there is something in the air:

The Queen of the Desert

How Susan Sorrells transformed a Death Valley mining village into a model of ecologically conscious tourism.

For mile after mile along California State Route 127, a two-lane desert road, there are no services, no homes.

Next services 57 miles” reads a sign at the southern end of California State Route 127, which goes from the Mojave Desert town of Baker up to the Nevada border, skirting the edge of Death Valley National Park. It’s one of those two-lane desert roads that slices across the landscape like a never-ending airport runway. There’s an extended stretch that consists of a long downward slope followed by an equally long ascent. If you’re driving at night, the headlights of cars coming in the opposite direction float above one another in midair, like planes waiting to land. But cars are infrequent. For mile after mile, there are no services, no homes. Continue reading

Arctic Heroes

The book is not new, but it is new to us. Ben Taub has brought to our attention this stunning portraiture that, like most great photography, makes you wonder how the artist got the composition just so:

Ragnar Axelsson

The Fading Ways of Indigenous Arctic Hunters

Ragnar Axelsson

Ragnar Axelsson’s portraits from Greenland reveal the effects of climate change on ice floes, sled dogs, and a traditional culture.

During springtime in the far, far north—when the sun breaches the horizon, after months of total darkness—indigenous Greenlandic hunters head out to frozen inlets and get lost in ice and time. By day, the hunters might move miles in one direction, while the ice under their feet floats gently in another. Continue reading

Historians As Climate Sleuths

The Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, China, a relic of the Tang dynasty, which collapsed in 907 A.D. amid changes in the climate. ZHONG ZHENBIN / ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Jacques Leslie

Climate Clues from the Past Prompt a New Look at History

A fragment from a sculpted stele, an artifact of the Akkadian Empire, which collapsed in the 22nd century B.C. amid a severe drought. MBZT VIA WIKIPEDIA

As scientists rapidly improve their ability to decipher past climate upheaval through ice cores and other “proxies,” historians are re-examining previous political and social turmoil and linking it to volcanic eruptions, prolonged droughts, and other disturbances in the natural world.

Joseph Manning, a Yale University professor of ancient history, likes to recall the moment when he was shown an advance copy of a scholarly paper that pinpointed the timing of major volcanic eruptions over the last 2,500 years. As he read the paper, “I literally fell off my chair,” he said recently.

Roman coins dating to 82 B.C. Lead from smelting such coins has been found in faraway ice cores, offering clues about Roman history. CARLOMORINO VIA WIKIPEDIA

Relying on new geochemical techniques for analyzing ice core sediment to determine the dates of ancient volcanic activity down to the year or even season, the paper, published in Nature in 2015, showed that major eruptions worldwide caused precipitous, up-to-a-decade-long drops in global temperatures. Continue reading

Tamil Nadu, Rice, Identity

In the early days of our posting here south Indian rice was a staple in our meals, and we knew that this now global foodstuff had a long history in other cultures. But it looks like the state neighboring where we lived may have found a clue to how much longer they have had rice in their diet:

An ancient rice bowl complicates the story of civilisation in India

In Tamil Nadu, archaeology is part of a contest over history and identity

Rarely can a spoonful of rice have caused such a stir. When M.K. Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, addressed the south Indian state’s legislature on September 9th, he celebrated a musty sample of the country’s humble staple. Carbon dating by an American laboratory, he said, had just proved that the rice, found in a small clay offering bowl—itself tucked inside a burial urn outside the village of Sivakalai, near the southernmost tip of India—was some 3,200 years old. This made it the earliest evidence yet found of civilisation in Tamil Nadu. The top duty of his government, the chief minister triumphantly declared, was to establish that the history of India “begins from the landscape of the Tamils”. Continue reading

Rehabilitation Of Antitrust Law

Starting seven years ago I have been paying attention to monopoly power mostly in the context of Amazon. One of the clearest articles on the topic focused on a young person’s breakthrough idea. So I was very happy to read about Lina Khan’s Battle to Rein in Big Tech by rehabilitating antitrust law:

As monopolies and other large companies gain increasing control of our daily lives, Khan is Joe Biden’s pick to do something about it.

In the spring of 2011, a recent Williams College graduate named Lina Khan interviewed for a job at the Open Markets Program, in Washington, D.C. Open Markets, which was part of the New America think tank, was dedicated to the study of monopolies and the ways in which concentration in the American economy was suppressing innovation, depressing wages, and fuelling inequality. Continue reading

Glass Origins

This glass fish was found in a fairly modest private house in Amarna, buried under a plaster floor along with a few other objects. It may once have contained ointment. The Trustees of the British Museum

We have featured stories about artisanal glass in the previous posts but this time the story is about the origins of the substance:

A Brief Scientific History of Glass

Featuring ingots, shipwrecks and an international trade in colors, the material’s rich past is being traced using modern archaeology and materials science

Blue glass ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck. Panegyrics of Granovetter / Flickr

Today, glass is ordinary, on-the-kitchen-shelf stuff. But early in its history, glass was bling for kings.

Thousands of years ago, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt surrounded themselves with the stuff, even in death, leaving stunning specimens for archaeologists to uncover. King Tutankhamen’s tomb housed a decorative writing palette and two blue-hued headrests made of solid glass that may once have supported the head of sleeping royals. His funerary mask sports blue glass inlays that alternate with gold to frame the king’s face. Continue reading

Sign Up For McKibben

James Watt, at work in the small University of Glasgow workshop where he basically invented the fossil fuel era

I am trying to imagine getting tired of reading Bill McKibben’s constant flow of commentary and news, even though most of it is dismal. It would be like getting tired of paying attention to the environment, especially climate issues. Yesterday’s observations from Glasgow are particularly rewarding, and I hope you will consider subscribing to his newsletter:

Glasgow: where climate wreckage began

And where it’s definitely not going to end

I spent part of the morning wandering the gorgeous Victorian courtyards of the University of Glasgow (they would seem familiar to you—it’s where they shot the exteriors for the Harry Potter films), trying to find the university chapel where I was supposed to give a lecture. Instead of that august sanctuary, I stumbled across the James Watt building—and with it a poignant set of reminders about just how quickly we’ve managed to bring the world to the edge of ruin. Continue reading

Humanity & Melting History

A mask belonging to the Yup’ik people of Alaska emerging from the permafrost. It is one of more than 100,000 artifacts retrieved from Nunalleq, the site of a village that was attacked by rivals 350 years ago. University of Aberdeen

When I posted about this book yesterday I had the long arc of history on my mind all day, and now this:

As Earth Warms, Human History Is Melting Away

Climate change is revealing long-frozen artifacts and animals to archaeologists. But the window for study is slender and shrinking.

The Langfonne ice patch in Norway. Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council

For the past few centuries, the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska have told gruesome tales of a massacre that occurred during the Bow and Arrow War Days, a series of long and often brutal battles across the Bering Sea coast and the Yukon. According to one account, the carnage started when one village sent a war party to raid another. But the residents had been tipped off and set an ambush, wiping out the marauders. The victors then attacked the undefended town, torching it and slaughtering its inhabitants. No one was spared. Continue reading

The Dawn Of Everything

Occupy Wall Street never showed up in these pages until now, which is maybe too late. I recall visiting Zuccotti Park in late 2011, to observe more than to occupy. I remember a box of books, many young people and some my own age, and a palpable sense of purpose combined with a pretty straightforward logic. Also, tranquil. That ballerina meant something. But I could not stay. I was in New York on a very brief visit. I have the opposite of anarchist beliefs and my understanding at the time was that the animating philosophy had something to do with anarchy.

I shared views with Occupy Wall Street in opposition to historic inequalities that I could see as a ticking time bomb. But my time that day was limited. I had to leave. No regrets. Until now, perhaps. Maybe I should have stayed. This book, which I have now read several reviews of, gives me reason to wonder. That protest was the brainchild of someone who then spent a decade producing a book to offer a very different view of human history:

…The Big History best-sellers by Harari, Diamond and others have their differences. But they rest, Graeber and Wengrow argue, on a similar narrative of linear progress (or, depending on your point of view, decline). Continue reading

Myths Need Bad, So Dragons Were Drawn That Way

During the Middle Ages, dragons more often figured in accounts about the lives of saints and religious figures than stories of heists and adventures. Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons and British Library under public domain

Dragon flies had a run in our pages, and we have featured some real life reptilian dragons, as well as a fruity dragon, but the mythical type never found its way here until now. As a cultural phenomenon it is as interesting as any other kind of dragon:

Why Dragons Dominated the Landscape of Medieval Monsters

The mythical beasts were often cast as agents of the devil or demons in disguise

David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele

Illuminated manuscript featuring Saint Marina and the dragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The dragon resting on its golden hoard. The gallant knight charging to rescue the maiden from the scaly beast. These are images long associated with the European Middle Ages, yet most (all) medieval people went their whole lives without meeting even a single winged, fire-breathing behemoth. Dragons and other monsters, nights dark and full of terror, lurked largely in the domain of stories—tales, filtered through the intervening centuries and our own interests, that remain with us today.

As Halloween approaches, we’re naturally thinking about scary stories. Continue reading