Monday, February 24, 2014

Living inside "the warming"




In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.

“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.

Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.

In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.

So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.

Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.

Within the "warming," there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!

 (As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)

The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”

Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things?  And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A meditation on historiography—Alfred Crosby and Alvin Josephy




Commenting on my last blog, in which I played that major Josephy song about Indians being omitted from the standard American historical narrative, retired history prof Steve Evans said that he would ask students what American history would look like without considering the progressive movement—or George Washington.

Fiction writer and social commentator John Rember (Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Stories from the Lycra Archipeligo),wrote from his perch in Standley, Idaho that he is “realizing that true history may be an oxymoron, due to the distorting lenses through which we all view the past.”

I apologized for using the word “true,” excusing myself somewhat lamely with the fact that I used “truer” rather than the absolute. And brought out another old song—I don’t remember when or where I first heard it—about history telling us more about the time it is written in than it does the time it is written about.

On the other hand, our persistent attempts to explore the past and to chronicle events of the present for presentation in the future keep many working away at retrieving, chronicling, and explaining. As even casual readers of this blog must realize, my touchstones on this over the last couple of years have been Charles Mann and Alfred Crosby. Here, in an October 2011 interview in the Smithsonian Magazine, Crosby explains how he came on the idea of the "Columbian Exchange," and how historians too are creatures of habit.

The interviewer asks “What made you want to write this book?” And Crosby replies:

I was a young American historian teaching undergraduates. I tell you, after about ten years of muttering about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you really need some invigoration from other sources. Then, I fell upon it, starting with smallpox.
Smallpox was enormously important until quite modern times, until the middle of the 20th century at the latest. So I was chasing it down, and I found myself reading the original accounts of the European settlements in Mexico, Peru or Cuba in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I kept coming across smallpox just blowing people away. So I thought there must be something else going on here, and there was—and I suppose still is.

History from an ecological perspective was a new idea, the interviewer  says, and asks why.

Sometimes the more obvious a thing is the more difficult it is to see it. I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didn’t figure into history courses even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.

And how did Crosby go about his research?

It was really quite easy. You just have to be prepared somehow or other to notice the obvious. You don’t have to read the original accounts in Spanish or Portuguese. There are excellent English translations dating back for generations. Practically all of them will get into a page or two or ten about the decimation of American Indians, or a page about how important maize is when all European crops fail, and things like that. I really didn’t realize that I was starting a revolution in historiography when I got into this subject.

I( recall Alvin saying that writing a history of the Civil War in the American West was a matter of sifting and putting together the numerous well documented  accounts of what was happening across the West in the run-up to and during the War. A recent US Park Service bibliography of Civil War in the West material runs 24 pages, and lists Josephy’s 1991 book as the best and most complete general treatment of the subject. I’d wager few college Civil War classes use it.

And, although Crosby’s work and Charles Mann’s popularization of it in 1491 and 1493 have certainly opened eyes to a different way of looking at history and the Europeanization of the New World, Indians IN American history are still crawling up from Indian studies departments into the mainstream.

I like Steve Evans approach: Imagine American History without George Washington, or Cortez or Pizarro—and then imagine it without Tecumseh, the Inca emperors, the Iriquois Confederacy, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It is a different history.

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