Aeon & The Rise Of Maize In Asia

On the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, 6 November 2006. Photo by stringer/Reuters

Aeon was a regular source of excellent ideas and information during our first few years, and we are happy to see it again:

Maize is arguably the single most important crop in the world and is rivalled only by soybeans in terms of versatility. That said, it is, along with sugar cane and palm oil, among the most controversial crops, proving particularly so to critics of industrial agriculture. Although maize is usually associated with the Western world, it has played a prominent role in Asia for a long time, and, in recent decades, its importance in Asia has soared. For better or worse, or more likely for better and worse, its role in Asia seems to be following the Western script. Continue reading

Icelandic Elf-Curious Attitudes

Toni Demuro

In a world that is full of climate denial nonsense, where responsibilities to nature are abandoned by many, what harm could possibly come from Icelanders believing their own peculiar sort of nonsense? We will take any help we can get if it helps us and helps our protection of nature:

In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” Nancy Marie Brown makes a strong case for everyday wonder.

For 70 summers, children have boated to an island in the Adirondack wilderness to seek out a cluster of tiny wooden houses and leave messages for the fairies who are said to live there. Sometimes the fairies write back — on slips of birch bark, tucked into the crevice of a log for children to find and exult over. The adult go-betweens behind the letters can’t resist feeding the children’s faith that the natural world reciprocates their interest.

Of course, they don’t believe in fairies themselves. In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” the cultural historian Nancy Marie Brown asks: Why not? “Why should disbelief be our default? Why should we deride our sense of wonder? Why do we allow our world to be disenchanted?” Continue reading

India’s Zero Sum Game

When Pradip Krishen began creating Jaipur’s Kishan Bagh Desert Park, it was a wasteland of dunes and bald hillocks, strewn with trash. Looking at the landscape, he said, “Now, this is something I’d love to work on. ”Photographs by Bharat Sikka for The New Yorker

If I had to bet, based on our period living in India from 2010 to 2017, I would bet on the prime minister winning. That implies the country making less progress on conservation, if any, and more on development. As Dorothy Wickenden‘s article implies, it may be a zero sum game:

The Promise and the Politics of Rewilding India

Ecologists are trying to undo environmental damage in rain forests, deserts, and cities. Can their efforts succeed even as Narendra Modi pushes for rapid development?

Krishen’s first major restoration job was reclaiming the landscape around Mehrangarh Fort, in the Thar Desert.

On May 12, 1459, the Rajput warrior ruler Rao Jodha laid the first foundation stone of an impregnable fort, atop a jagged cliff of volcanic rock in the Thar Desert of Marwar. He called the citadel Mehrangarh, or “fort of the sun”—and, legend has it, he insured a propitious future by ordering a man buried alive on its grounds. Over time, as the royal clan secured its power, the compound grew to colossal proportions, with soaring battlements, ornately furnished palaces, and grand courtyards enclosed by intricate sandstone latticework. Four hundred feet below, the capital city of Jodhpur became a flourishing trade center. Continue reading

Climate Science Is Getting Old

Scientist Roger Revelle, an adviser who warned Lyndon Johnson about climate change in 1965, greets the president in the Oval Office. Roger Revelle papers/Special Collections Archives/UC San Diego

In keeping with a theme–that the science of climate risk has been around for a couple generations now–we have linked to each time there are new revelations:

What Big Oil Knew About Its Products’ Climate Risks—and When

A long-forgotten report sheds light on a high-stakes liability question.

Carroll Muffett began wondering in 2008 when the world’s biggest oil companies had first understood the science of climate change and their product’s role in causing it. Continue reading

The Invention Of Books

We are happy to have reason to return to our love of books, reading, as well as the history and importance of libraries.

Our thanks to Kathryn Hughes at the Guardian for giving us a look into the most recent work of Irene Vallejo:

Papyrus by Irene Vallejo review – how books built the world

From Alexandria to Oxford, a kaleidoscopic history of the written word

Reading between the lines … Tianjin Binhai Library in China.

What do you give the queen who has everything? When Mark Antony was wondering how to impress Cleopatra in the run-up to the battle of Actium in 31BC, he knew that jewellery would hardly cut it. The queen of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt had recently dissolved a giant pearl in vinegar and then proceeded to drink it, just because she could. In the face of such exhausted materialism, the Roman general knew that he would have to pull out the stops if he was to win over the woman with whom he was madly in love. So he arrived bearing 200,000 scrolls for the great library at Alexandria. Continue reading

Huxley’s Extra Effort

A family of scientist-writers recast religion and ethics in light of evolution. Illustration by Melinda Beck

We are all fortunate that the Huxley family produced no slouches:

How the Huxleys Electrified Evolution

Defending Darwinism from both clerical and scientific opponents, T. H. Huxley and his grandson Julian shaped how we think about the past and future of our species.

Thomas Henry Huxley almost skipped the showdown of his life. It was the fourth day of the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He was tired. Continue reading

Giving A Bread Its Due Honor

President Emmanuel Macron of France described the baguette as “250 grams of magic and perfection in our daily lives.” Eric Gaillard/Reuters

When the baguette was a daily part of our family’s life, we were fortunate to have a personal connection to the best guide, whose photo in the story below is as fitting as the photo above:

Steven Kaplan, perhaps the baguette’s most dedicated historian, says the bread has “little sites of memories” that “testify to a sensuality.” Daniel Janin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A Slice of France, the Baguette Is Granted World Heritage Status

More than six billion baguettes are sold every year in France. But the bread is under threat, with bakeries vanishing in rural areas.

PARIS— It is more French than, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower or the Seine. It is carried home by millions each day under arms or strapped to the back of bicycles. It is the baguette, the bread that has set the pace for life in France for decades and has become an essential part of French identity.

On Wednesday, UNESCO, the United Nations heritage agency, named the baguette something worthy of humanity’s preservation, adding it to its exalted “intangible cultural heritage” list. Continue reading

Understanding & Reviving Games From Other Places, And Times Before

Leaving aside the question of why so many of the world’s most important historical artifacts are in London, rather than where they originated, the curator in the video above is charming. And the man in the photo just below to the right is his counterpart in the place where this particular artifact originated.  My interest in board games is much less well informed, but like Mr. Mofaq I have an interest in their revival, so Deb Amlen’s article in the New York Times is appreciated:

Hoshmand Mofaq, an Iraqi artist, pondered his next move on one of the Royal Game of Ur boards he designed. Mr. Mofaq is part of a group who hope to popularize and return the game to the Iraqi people as part of their cultural heritage. Shwan Mohammed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For 4,600 years, a mysterious game slept in the dust of southern Iraq, largely forgotten. The passion of a museum curator and the hunger of young Iraqis for their cultural history may bring it back.

It is the end of a long, hot day of selling your wares in a market in ancient Mesopotamia, around 2,400 B.C., and you are looking for a way to unwind.

Netflix will not be invented for another four and a half millenniums, but as luck would have it, a pub lies ahead in the distance. A beer and a round of the Middle East’s favorite game is just the thing to pick you up. The thrill of the game is irresistible: It is impossible to predict who will win in this race to get your pieces to the end of the board, even in the last few moves.

One of the boards of the Royal Game of Ur excavated in the 1920s, on display at the British Museum. The British Museum, via Commons.wikimedia.org

You sit down across from your opponent, who offers you the first turn. You pick up the four-sided dice and shake them in your fist. Maybe this time the rumored fortunetelling aspect of the game will bless you with a spate of good luck and prosperity. Continue reading

Victors’ History Reconsidered

Yesterday, in a post about one type of spoils of victory, we shared some reading about responsibilities. Today, in a discussion of the book Indigenous Continent, we consider a different type of spoil of victory.

The accepted wisdom that history is written by the victors is contestable, and David Treuer seems the perfect person to walk us through this book’s attempt at doing so with regard to the indigenous peoples of what is now called North America:

Do We Have the History of Native Americans Backward?

They dominated far longer than they were dominated, and, a new book contends, shaped the United States in profound ways.

A portrait of Thayendanegea, painted in London, in 1785, by Gilbert Stuart. Art work by Gilbert Charles Stuart / British Museum

I remember when I first encountered what must be the best-selling book of Native American history ever published, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown. I was twenty years old, and had made my way from the Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota, where I grew up, to Princeton, in a part of New Jersey that seemed to have no Indians at all. Since “Bury My Heart” appeared, in 1970, it has been translated into seventeen languages, and sold millions of copies. In the opening pages, Brown wrote, “The greatest concentration of recorded experience and observation came out of the thirty-year span between 1860 and 1890—the period covered by this book. It was an incredible era of violence, greed, audacity, sentimentality, undirected exuberance, and an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it. During that time the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” Continue reading

Coffee, History & Literature

Adam Gopnik, one of our favorite essayists, wrote an excellent essay on this topic; and Michael Pollan, among others, wrote a book.

There is still plenty to say about the history of coffee, as far as we are concerned, and Ed Simon demonstrates it in this essay from The Millions, an online magazine:

Coffee, the Great Literary Stimulant

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” –T.S Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

Maronite priest Antonio Fausto Naironi once claimed that the greatest of miracles happened in ninth-century Ethiopia. It was then and there, in the province of Oromia, that a young shepherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats were prone to running, leaping, and dancing after they had eaten blood-red berries from a mysterious bush. Continue reading

Birds, Us, Past & Future

Our daily photo feature has been a long-running privilege for us to share from our various bird photographer friends who travel the world, and clearly a reason for some visitors to stay tuned here. We do what we can to ensure those birds are there for future generations to appreciate. The book featured above is likely to be of interest to many of those visitors. The author, seen only once before in our pages more than ten years ago, Tim Birkhead offers historical perspective that is well-reviewed and his publisher has this to say:

Since the dawn of human history, birds have stirred our imagination, inspiring and challenging our ideas about science, faith, art, and philosophy. Continue reading

The 150 Most Consequential Years

Amanda Northrop/Vox; Getty Images

Our thanks to Vox for this conversation with one of the great economic historians of our time:

Humanity was stagnant for millennia — then something big changed 150 years ago

Why the years from 1870 to 2010 were humanity’s most important.

“The 140 years from 1870 to 2010 of the long twentieth century were, I strongly believe, the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries.”

So argues Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, the new magnum opus from UC Berkeley professor Brad DeLong. It’s a bold claim. Homo sapiens has been around for at least 300,000 years; the “long twentieth century” represents 0.05 percent of that history.

But to DeLong, who beyond his academic work is known for his widely read blog on economics, something incredible happened in that sliver of time that eluded our species for the other 99.95 percent of our history. Continue reading

McKibben With 2022 Perspective

If Timothy Egan thinks that one day Bill McKibben may win a Nobel prize, do not bet against it–only ask whether it will be for his contribution to literature or instead to world peace:

In his writings, his many speeches and bullhorn exhortations, Bill McKibben comes across as one of the least cynical people on the battlefield of public opinion. He’s passionate about solving problems others have given up on, about building a better world and particularly about climate change, the issue that has made him the Paul Revere of alarm about our fevered planet. Continue reading

Resistance Is Futile

Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

We do not have time for the patience required for proving the futility of resistance, but this historical perspective is valuable nonetheless:

When Coal First Arrived, Americans Said ‘No Thanks’

Back in the 19th century, coal was the nation’s newfangled fuel source—and it faced the same resistance as wind and solar today

Steven Preister’s house in Washington, D.C. is a piece of American history, a gorgeous 110-year-old colonial with wooden columns and a front porch, perfect for relaxing in the summer. Continue reading

The Parthenon Marbles, Back Where They Belong

The Parthenon in 1875.

The Parthenon in 1875. Interfoto/Alamy

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era.

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era. Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive, via Alamy

The original Parthenon marbles belong back in Athens, in the museum built for them. With all due respect to my British friends, my opinion is informed partly by my mother being from Greece, but mostly by an impartial logic.

That logic is expressed in the article below, which also happens to lay out an interesting sideshow:

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Robots at the Marmi di Carra marble workshop in Italy carved a replica of a horse head, the original of which sits in the British Museum in London.

Few cultural disputes inflame British passions more than the disposition of the Parthenon Marbles. Public debate about the statuary has raged since the early 1800s, when the sculptures and bas-reliefs, which date from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C., were stripped from the Parthenon and other Classical Greek temples on the Acropolis of Athens by agents of Thomas Bruce, a Scottish statesman and seventh earl of Elgin. The marbles were purchased — some say looted — by Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the occupying power; they have resided in the British Museum since 1817. Continue reading

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