Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Plantation of the Atlantic, XX: A Crisis of Growth?

So, today, because I did not realise that I had missed the 75th anniversary of the foundation of 100 Group RAF last Saturday (looks like your card is going to be about a month late. I blame Canada Post) during my enormously restful vacation, we will be talking about Alex's challenge.* Why did things get better after Rome fell?

"So perhaps you've got a Marxist explanation here: the social relations of production, i.e. the Roman political economy, are holding back the material relations of production, i.e. the productive potential of the Roman periphery, by forcing it to produce grain inefficiently to serve the interests of the elite, when it could be doing something more like classic British mixed farming or just a shit load of livestock. As a dialectical materialist, the Marxist would say that the material forces of technology always prevail in the end. And then a revolution happens. This is basically a Latin American dependencia historian's view.

There's a passage somewhere, about how in the summer the young folk of the village would go up to the high places, the boys to shepherd the cattle, the girls to milk them and make the cheese (gender essentialism!), about how the milkmaids would have skin like the Milky Way, and that they  would lie out under the stars on a summer night, their elders a thousand feet below.

...As it turns out, "sexy milkmaid" is not a very useful Google search.

Anyway, Heidi Klum, everybody. (Important safety note: Do not wear open-toes around cows.) Also, The Silencers.

There's a passage somewhere, about how in the summer the young folk of the village would go up to the high places, the boys to shepherd the cattle, the girls to milk them and make the cheese (gender essentialism!), about how the milkmaids would have skin like the Milky Way, and that they  would lie out under the stars on a summer night, their elders a thousand feet below.

...As it turns out, "sexy milkmaid" is not a very useful Google search.

Anyway, Heidi Klum, everybody. (Important safety note: Do not wear open-toes around cows.) Also, The Silencers.

I call this an investigation, by the way, because I want to hang a great, big epistemic caution on it. A blog post is not the place for a turgid, thesis-style "historiography and methods" chapter, but this is a subject that calls forth grand explanatory structures that float well clear of the facts.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Fall of Rome, VI: Under the Green Cover


Cold buckwheat noodle soup is the number one summertime dish in Korea, per aeriskitchen.com. I'm sure it's better than it looks, and that Koreans have fond childhood memories.

But. . .

How to make sausages eggplant and buckwheat "sandwiches."
Words fail me. 

One of the ways that we write about technology in an "I never thought of that" vein is to conjure up existential crises out of our dinner plates. Supposedly, in an era where in much of the world the total cultivated acreage is in decline, we are on the verge of a subsistence crisis by virtue of running out of inputs such as water or artificially fixed nitrogen, as though in two hundred thousand years of experimentation with landscape curation the human race has not developed a pretty extensive set of solutions to those problems, that the real problem is the very limited amount of buckwheat (and peas, vetch, millet, etc) that people can be persuaded to eat. 

As I have blogged before, Fagopyrum esculentum, is one of three species collectively known as "buckwheat" in genus Fagopyrum of family Polygonaceae which also contains sorrel, rhubarb and sea grape, as well as some of the nastiest and most persistent field weeds, such as the various knotweeds. With a short growing season, the heat-tolerant buckwheat fits into a larger family of plants that the poet tells us that we should sow on the wheat fields in June, "when all hope is gone."

 In other words, it is a food crop that you can plant after it is clear that your wheat or barley has failed. By the end of August, the field will be covered by purple flowers overshadowing black seed clusters. While harvesting a crop of buckwheat risks establishing it in the soil as a weed, buckwheat is tolerant of high nitrogen content, while using little of it or of residual soil moisture. It draws up other ions into the soil. In the tradition, it grows on "the moors," or is grown by "Moors," which in this context I take to be dirty poor folk on the fringes of civilised life in a parish-ordered Early Modern Europe. Buckwheat may not pay the tax bills of highly-capitalised farmers, but having food, however awful it looks, is better than not.

The complication here is that buckwheat's attributes also make it a good "green cover" crop. "Green cover," like "green manure," is one of those complications of agriculture-as-it-is-actually done that make our simple stories about it so unhelpful. Basically, if you sow buckwheat on a ruined field in June, you might be intending to take a food crop off it. If you are the landlord of tenants who do this, you might reasonably be concerned about that because of the whole establishing-a-field-weed-that-makes-bad-hay thing. However, you might also intend to plough the buckwheat right back into the soil. The point of planting the buckwheat in the first place was to conserve the soil moisture, vegetable fibre and nitrogenous material that would be lost otherwise. A vain crop of buckwheat this year means far more market grain next. 

Again, I am focussing on buckwheat because it is Heidenkorn, and I am playing to the whole "Moor" angle where it is (very arguably) the crop of the marginalised and the illegible. There are plenty of plantings that will do what buckwheat does, and it is quite possible that if I actually were an off-the-grid peasant in late medieval Europe trying to eat without drawing attention to myself, I would plant one of them. Buckwheat is not a good "green manure." You want vetch for that. If the soil is already nitrogen rich, you might want a better haying crop. Pearl millet is recommended by the Australian Northern Territory Government website. Interestingly,  I learned this by following up on the traditional recipe for couscous. This signature North African staple used to be made of pearl millet before semolina took its place. This at least suggests that if the original Moors needed a crop that was illegible to the state, they looked to pearl millet rather than buckwheat. The angle that I am aiming for, obviously, is the metaphor. How better to concretise this analogy than with the image of someone pulling a green cover over the landscape, and what better crop than Heidenkorn? And with that I am going to leave off making fun of earnest foodies. In the post-Apocalyptic future, we may all be eating buckwheat groats.

So. On to the green cover I have detected this week. 376, the Emperor Valens was defeated at Adrianople by an army of Goths. After a brief interregnum, the Spanish general Theodosius supplanted the dynasty of Valentinian and Valens, marrying into the family to heal wounds, fought a civil war, had the first recorded Canossa moment with Augustine's patron, Ambrose of Milan, and died, leaving two boys, Honorius and Arcadius, to be imperial colleagues. Arcadius died young in 408 in Istanbul, while Honorius made it to 423, pepetuating his dynasty. In a moment of turmoil during the reign of Honorius, there was a mass barbarian invasion, famously crossing the frozen Rhine at Main on New Year's Even, 405. From this eruption we trace the ultimate establishment of the "successor" kingdoms: Vandals in Africa, Visigoths in Spain; Burgundians in . . . Burgundy, Franks in France, Ostrogoths in Italy, Isaurians in Anatolia.

I throw that last one in as a bit of a joke. Attentive readers will already know that the Goths, Burgundians and Franks did not cross the frozen Rhine in 405, and once we reach the point of discussing an alleged barbarian invasion that originates in the Hittite heartland, we see that, in the famous words of every academic historian everywhere and in every time, "something more complicated is going on."

One attempt to solve this mystery has focussed, amazingly enough, on what the Romans said about it, which was that the barbarian armies were, in general, welcomed as, or subjected to, the status of foederati and settled on abandoned land. This has been formulated as everything from barbarians seizing land to farm to a version of "quartering" troops to, most controversially in the writings of Walter Goffart, to the pure allocation of tax farms to the support of units of the Roman army. 

Obviously, I intend my prolonged discussion of green cover and green manure crops to problematise the idea of "abandoned land." You may suspect by  now that I am likely to bring back horses. And, of course, I am going to make a big deal of The Amazing Thing I Learned On Wikipedia This Week. After the break, of course.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Postblogging October 1943: An Artificially Aged Technological Appendix

It turns out that I'm not the first person of our Modern Intertubes Era to be struck by the Bohn Aluminium and Brass Company's futuristic ads of the 1940s. Jim Edwards, of Business Insider, pointed out back in 2010 that "These Magnificent Paintings Of 'The Future' From 70 Years Ago Got Everything Hopelessly Wrong." That might be a little snarky. Lawnmowers are made of aluminum these days, and it's not the biggest mistake in the world to imagine them designed with an art deco touch back when art deco was still cool. 

Edwards should have substituted the aluminum high rise with button-adjustable room sizes for the lawnmower. Again, the vision is  not completely wrong, in that aluminum houses many North Americans today, and they are fairly modular and easily adjusted. As a young high school dropout at my employer pointed out the day that she was qualified as a cake decorator, "Now I can afford some class and get a double-wide." Which was not her exact phrasing, and, believe me, ex-con boyfriend, fake fingernails and all, she still had her tongue in cheek. No-one is so confused as to think that trailer parks are classy. As temporary housing, the old building codes here in British Columbia used to let you build them on the flood plains on the far side of the dykes. Hint hint, insert tornado joke here. Aluminum may have been cool once, but, like plastics, it has been "deglamorized."

After the jump, though, back with plane porn!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Postblogging Technological History: October, 1943: Labour at the Limit: Martha's Burden Is Lightened By Speed

Welcome to Yorkshire!

My Dearest Wing Commander:

Congratulations on your promotion, Reggie! As you will suspect from the arrival of the familiar courier and the heft of the package, this correspondence is a response to the Earl's anxious inquiries. Resuming my practice from the spring of 1939, I provide commentary at the head before financials in the hopes that this will help him understand the choices we have made with the money he dare not own. 

As I look back at the older letters, I marvel at how much has changed in four short years. Then, you were lying low in Vancouver in disgrace. Now you are back in RCAF uniform in dear old Blighty, putting your experience to the benefit of Brittania. Or Canadia? It does not quite seem to roll off the tongue, and I remain in exile amongst the orange groves of Santa Clara County, under standing invitation from Scotland Yard to assist them in inquiries. 

Being that your son now wears his Captain's rings, and can expect his broad pennant in due time (although not, alas, the Vice-Admiralship, thanks in no small part to his just-ended South Pacific 'exile'), it stands to reason that the family that you disgraced so long ago is no longer inclined to press the issue.  Meanwhile, so long as our cousin refuses correspondence with his daughter, I stand suspect of the most lurid imaginable crimes. You will find enclosed, by the way, another package from Chungking with photographs of the grandchildren.  Now that you and he are near-colleagues in war billets, I can even dream of you somehow persuading him to look at them. If not, film footage might be more compelling. It is expected, although unfortunately not soon, for our courier has chosen to reach civilisation via the wilds of Central Asia. What the Red Fort and the NKVD do not know, cannot hurt us.  

Speaking of your son, he arrived on the West Coast at the beginning of the month. One may infer goings-on at Scapa Flow if his services are no longer required in New Caledonia. I will be his host while he pokes about some nooks and crannies for the Admiralty. Amusingly, your boy, who currently rejoices in his after-school status as a Navy dispatch rider, picked him up at the wharf. I was in Seattle at the time, and somehow, someone (and by this I mean Grandfather, who at 103 has not entirely lost his sense of humour) got the idea that a man who had just flown across the Pacific in a PBY might enjoy being harried through the streets of San Francisco like Dundee's bonnet by a seventeen year old on his monstrous American motorcyle. Although, diplomatically, "Captain (E)  J. C." only emphasises that he enjoyed his first opportunity to meet his half-brother.  Had he only been delayed another day, and I could probably have arranged for his wife to do so in something more closely approaching a satisfactory number of wheels, but she was on a train somewhere west of Denver due to bad flying weather in the Rockies. 

Borrowed from Bucksindian.com/Buck's_bikes
Having, at least obliquely, reintroduced our familiar cast from 1939 (yes, it is Fat Chow who is trying to move those documents from Kashgar to Kabul right now), I should close this ramble and get on with . . . Well, my only slightly more on-topic ramble. Forgive me, I am aging, and garrulous.