Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Old Europe: God Speed the Plough


The question being, when did Americans decide that "going down in the river to pray" was a Christian thing? We don't know. Here's a source to very tentatively suggest that it might have "American Indian" roots.

Well, duh. How do we make sense of Pontiac's Rebellion "facing east from Indian country?' Gregory Evan Dowd even has his warrior going down to the river. To pray?

He suggests that we take seriously all those dream visions of warriors diving into the river and coming out at the lodge of the Master of Life. Dow also thinks that it is important that we are getting these anecdotes through intermediaries linked to Connecticut's New Light movement. I agree. My problem is only that Dowd follows the unfortunate trend to make these things strange, "in order to recapture the Indian's poiunt of view," where I would suggest just listening to Alison Krause and encountering the numinous. That the New Light influenced the divers of Pontiac's rebellion is obvious. That the connection is syncretism in the sense spelled out by Richard White is clear. I'm just asking that we understand that dult full-immersion baptism in the running waters of the local creek is not a weird thing born of the weird American proclivity to break up into small sects. It's whispers reaching across two continents coming down from Aztlan, of the sacredness of corn hoed from the thick river soil, and of paths through the bramble, cleared by fire, that lead the buffalo onto the prairie. I ask for that because this morning at dawn, the sachem came out of the sky house on the top of the pyramid, blew smoke to the four directions, and told us to celebrate the Green Corn. 

I choose archaic terms. In no way is the President a sachem, and in no way is the pyramid on the Great Seal a reference to the great mounds. Summer idylls are not the Green Corn festival. To be sure, a comb drawn down a cob of (Chilliwack) corn will draw milky white, and everyone who has the time will go away to the lake. The point is that we will then float over deep waters like a historian over history.

That's an analogy I like. History is down there in the blue water, in the weeds. But the historians slide over the surface, going where they list, from wharf to the shore buoy to the beach and back. The weeds obsess us. Harmless as they are, they are frightening, reaching up to brush our legs no matter where we are. In our imaginations, anyway. The point is that we don't have to be above the weeds to imagine that they're there. The historical fact of the weeds can slip between the ages as easily as we slide across the surface of the water. It means what we need it to mean.

Now, I mark a different agricultural calendar here on the western shore of North American than in Old Europe. There, matters are a bit different. Wheat is a spring crop, not a summer one. The wheat is long since gathered in, and the great work of summer is ploughing. The ploughshare will turn the dark Earth up as many times as there is labour to do it.

 It is something that people have been doing . . . . a long time. As long as there's been worked iron, maybe? That iron ploughshare was like a patch of weeds at the bottom of the lake, wherever you need it to be as you swim across the surface. Or we could take it seriously. It should be a big deal, if you take the idea that you build history from the bottom up seriously. The first iron ploughs. Ought they not have changed everything? According to another of those awesome studies coming out of the flowering of the Turkish academy, on the Upper Tigris about 3500 years ago, it did. (For those who read Turkish, or Google Translate gibberish.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: Sicily, Or, The Beginning of the End

When northern Italians face south towards Sicily, Africa gets in their eye.

Palermo, looking north:

Seventy years ago today, Commando Supremo sat down to digest the situation reports from the day before, and learned that the war was over. Action orders for the Italian air force this day are to evacuate airfields in Sicily and Calabria. The air war over Sicily is over. Why?

Combat aircraft sorties by Axis power*

11 July: 198 Italian sorties, 283 German
12 July: 171 Italian sorties, 202 German
13 197 Italian, 164 German
14 88 Italian, 156 German
15 76 Italian, 85 German

The air war over Sicily is already over. Wikipedia helpfully adds that the Italians have lost 150 aircraft over 5 days. Which, looking at loss rates in, say, the Battle of Britain, might lead one to suggest that the Italians need to suck it up.

Only here's some perspective on this, shamelessly copied from the tireless work of Richard Overy:**

Number of Aircraft


Italy's military aircraft production, over the whole war, was less than Japan's in the single year of 1943. Yes, Italy had a population of 43 million to Japan's 73, and 2.7% of world manufacturing share to Japan's 3.5.  And the United Kingdom had 48 million people and 9.2% of world manufacturing, at least by the statistical synthesis used by Overy, which I do not mean to unreservedly endorse here. "Produce" is not the same thing as "manufacture." A forged chromium steel angle is not a cast Bessemer steel bar. 

So this is my point here: We're looking south from Napoli at Palermo.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gather the Bones, XVIII: God Speed the Plow! Grame Barker on the Origins of Agriculture

In the summer heat, raise a pint and toast the plow, turning up dark earth and the white bones of ancient battles.

Not so much with the summer heat:


Some context:

Here's the Google Maps screenshot of Enon, Ohio, home to "Ohio's second largest conical Indian burial mound." I've left the advertising layer on and pulled back far enough for you to see just how close the mound is to Brandie's Hair & Tanning Salon, which judging from the website, is a great deal classier than the name would immediately suggest. While our slightly creeping peek-over-the-backyard-fence view of Enon might suggest that it is just another of semi-rural North America's half-finished communities, in fact it boasts a corporate headquarters, a healthy median income, virtually no poor people, and a 96.6% White population. (The largest minority is Asian, at 1.4%.)

The "back yard" comment is a call-back to my post on Gnadenhutten. Enon is organised around the Dayton-Springfield Road, renamed Main Street as it passes through town one block northwest of the Mound, which is surrounded by a ring road (and a no-trespassing fence, as we've seen) that is connected to East Main by, amongst other, Green Valley Drive and Countryside Drive. If there's some slight, American Gods-level sense of religious dread and fascination coming off the mound, it is not without reason. As far as archaeology can tell, it is Adena-era, thus more than two-thousand years old. Adena is a precursor to the Hopewell Horizon, allowing us to infer (the mound has never been excavated) that it is a built-up structure composed of layers of "secondary burials," in which human remains recovered from other processes are housed in "mortuary structures" that were then set on fire before being buried with a level of carefully-selected soil. At 28 feet high and 110 feet in diameter, that's a great many "secondary burials"  over a very long time.

One last thing about this whole "aura of superstitious dread." The story of the Gnadenhutten massacre is that the Pennsylvania militia penned 96 Moravian Indians into a hall on an edge of the property, killed them by first stunning them with blows to the head and then scalping them, and then set fire to the hall. At a later date, a mound of earth was erected over the remains. To quote Wikipedia's summary of the formal archaeological report on the excavation of the northwest mound at Aztalan State Park, Wisconsin, which was probably erected around around 1300AD:

The northwestern mound, used for formal burial, was also built in three stages. A special structure, approximately 4 metres (13 ft) by 2 metres (6.6 ft), with its long axis towards the northeast/southwest, was built on the west side of the mound. Its doorway was in its southwest corner, and the structure was covered with a mixture of clay, willow branches, and grass. The floor was covered with a mat of what may have been cattails. The bodies of ten people were placed side by side on this, with their heads toward the doorway. The bones of another person were bundled together with cord and placed near them. Once this construction was complete, and the bodies were inside, the building was burned.

It seems tolerably likely that ritual murder by blunt trauma to the head accompanied with scalping is not just a common Neolithic practice that shows up well osteologically. It is a ritually significant form of murder for Eastern Woodland Indians in the peri-contact phases of the Southern Ceremonial Complex and subsequent  "the rise of local traditions." The Gnadenhutten massacre, notwithstanding being committed by ostensibly Euro-American militiamen, is a call back to a form of publicly enacted violence that we see in its "pristine" form at places such as Aztalan. 

Now, I am not saying that the Enon Mound conceals a prehistoric massacre. On the contrary, I am suggesting that the modern enactments, both at Aztalan, Wisconsin and Gnadenhutten were reappropriations of older practices that, while probably not all sunshine and rainbows, were also probably not acts of ostentatious public violence.  Adena monuments could, and, in the case of Eron, are used as signifiers of community by subsequent populations. So what better a way to reframe reality and create a new community than by appropriating this technique of immanentising the idea of community, with a salutary dose of public violence to render it unquestionable?  Creating new "conical burial mounds" was a method of ideological fashioning, in other words, and invites us to think about fixed versus migratory lifestyles and the relationship between human and settlement hierarchies.

Which is a long way of getting to my point in today's posting, which is not in my 'ostensibly Euro-American' throwaway phrase, for a change, but rather a book report on "Books that I like because I thought they were good:" Graeme Barker's The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers? Short answer: for ideological reasons, in some defensible version of the Marxian sense.  If you want a longer answer that tries to get more seriously scholarly by bringing in a few more points of view, stick around after the cut. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Postblogging 1939, June, I: God Speed the Plows!


(In the future, when the National Grid runs the country with electric railways, electric lights, electric machine tools, and electric-who-knows-what, the noisy, inefficient tractor will give way to the stationary plough. 

Sometimes, the future happens at the smallest community-run ski hills. That's not the worst kind of future.)


My Dearest "Mrs. C.:"

Dearest sister, I write to you to express my fullest satisfaction with your husband's recent decision to take the waters. His return from the Rockies will not be long delayed. Until then, I am at your disposal. Enclosed is Reggie's regular newsletter, and a photograph of the person who will meet your son's train in San Francisco.

I am afraid, however, that although Reggie is becoming more alert to his affliction, some of the concerns you relay must derive from incipient mania. You certainly have nothing to fear from the evil machinations of the  peer mentioned. As a matter of fact, he has been dead for almost two hundred years! He may live on in family history as the man whose power in the ministry prevented the Founder's legitimation, but the Founder's father could only have married who he married, and provide for his son and his son's mother, in the way that he did. There was enough risk in securing the Founder his commission! It is only our good luck that the father was then able to secure his private and public posterity at Canton by the same adventurous means that he arranged his own. O U O S V A V V!

His illness goes, in my opinion, to the mysterious faces Reggie has seen lurking about, but Grandfather does not agree, and has sent his chop to Vancouver. You will be acquiring two cooks in the next week who are very good with knives.

[One Photograph and three enclosures]

My Dear Reggie: