But WHY?

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, NY. Chapters 4, 5, 6, & 8.

These four assigned chapters from Guns, Germs, and Steel make up the majority of Part II of the book, sensibly entitled The Rise and Spread of Food Production. And that is precisely what these chapters were regarding, with little to no stray from that. Aside from a quick little anecdotal story at the opening of Chapter 4 that was based upon Diamond’s teenage years working on a farm in Montana (which I enjoyed and thought was very important and fitting), Diamond remains rigidly adhered to presenting his information in a sequential, very essay-like format. Throughout each chapter, the author poses a question (or three), then proceeds to explain that he must ask and also answer another question (or three) before he can sufficiently answer the original question. It’s all about understanding!

Diamond covers a vast magnitude of material over the span of these four chapters. Chapter 4, as I already mentioned, begins with Diamond recalling a memory of his youth that, as is apparent, had a great effect on him. It was essentially a story of the first time he saw European colonization of the Americas and the displacement of the Natives to be something different from an amazing conquest. Diamond asks, “How did the farmers win out over the famous warriors?” This question sets the tone for subsequent chapters. As chapter 4 is essentially the opening chapter of Part II, the author uses it as an introductory summary for the rest of the second part. Diamond explores a multitude of questions regarding the origins of agriculture: What were the first plants (and animals) to be domesticated? Who exactly domesticated them? Why?  Was it ultimately the land or the people that facilitated farming? Were these the best plants for farming or did our ancestors miss out on the opportunity to domesticate some better lineage of ancestral flora? Why were some early humans farming millennia before others did? Why did some groups readily accept new crops and others did not? Is an agricultural society even that much better than a hunting and gathering one? Why? Why?

WHY?!

I was tempted to count how many times Diamond asked “Why?” and I will admit, I did find myself occasionally asking the same question to the little imaginary Lyn in my head forcing me to read on or else I will ultimately fail the course. Whyyyy?

I have many conflicting feelings about this book! A part of me dislikes it, but a larger part of me does not. Yes, it can be a little dry; an extremely long-winded, continuous information overload. And yes, the chapters are quite long and as a university student with no shortage of assigned readings, it did feel a little heavy. But on the other hand, I am in an academic awe of the amount of research that had to have been done by Diamond in order to write just this one part that makes up just a quarter of the book’s entirety! That in itself is a beautiful and often very underestimated feat and I feel that it makes this book more precious to behold. Diamond seamlessly blends a multitude of scientific disciplines into one holy grail of agricultural history. He expertly combines extensive historic and prehistoric archaeological data also with agricultural, anthropological, and plant and animal biological data. Who needs poetic language when there is an extremely organized plethora of information at my fingertips? I don’t think it is fair to compare and criticize this book against the other readings we have done for this course. There is absolutely no way to display this sheer amount of information in a fun, light-hearted way. Anything involving this much substantiated data needs to be orderly and concise. And this book is just that – because Jared Diamond is a scientist, not a poet.

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Connections

Pollan, M. 2002. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House. New York, NY. pp. xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, NY. pp. 113-130.

Following the suggestion raised in class, I shall bring you into my evening through a descriptive narrative of my current situation:

I sit here on the couch in my dark living room at over an hour past a semi-decent bedtime. I’m balancing my laptop on my aching legs, weary from an 11-hour day trudging around the slushy campus. I’m eating SweeTarts, by the way, and I can feel the cavities forming. And I also sit here not quite alone, but with a newly-formed, very sore, throbbing red lump on my lower eyelid. It hurts. A lot. Every time I blink. A stye, perhaps? I don’t know because I haven’t even had the time to Google my symptoms just yet (writing this blog post won’t be the only thing cutting into my sleep time tonight!) But strangely enough, I have actually been able to (somewhat) ignore the pain and discomfort for the past hour or so, not only because I have to hold it together in order to get my homework done, but also because I am now seriously preoccupied with the total trip of the hypothesis that plants could be (are?) exhibiting forms of artificial selection upon US.

Okay, I hope I’ve set the scene adequately. I do feel better after a little whining… Okay, I’ll start.

Both of the assigned readings are on the same general topic: the details regarding natural and artificial selection in plants, with a lot more focus on the latter. While the two readings share content, the two pieces display that content in entirely opposite tones. Pollan’s writing is in first-person, is very descriptive, and really quite beautiful, while Diamond’s chapter reads sort of like a textbook. But a really fun and interesting textbook that I would actually want to read, if that makes sense? It even included a table! Diamond’s chapter was a nonstop rapid-fire of facts, though still conveyed in a logical, cohesive order. This contrasts nicely with Pollan’s poetic question-raising style.

These two readings are completely connected. They both emphasize the deep-rooted significance (pun intended) of the domestication of plants by our ancestors. I enjoyed Diamond’s chapter because it compressed a ton of facts into a relatively compact piece of writing (from seeds germinating in feces to exploding pea pods to native plants!). More than this, though, I feel my understanding of the ancientness (wow, spell-check says that is a word!) of the plants-people relationship is much deeper after this reading. Pollan’s piece also emphasizes our deep connection with what grows from the earth, stating that humans and plants are participants in the phenomena of “coevolution,” that we are, as humans and plants, driving the evolution of each other.

It is now exactly two hours past my bedtime so this will have to do! I am (perpetually) disappointed in my time management skills because I really would have liked to spend more time discussing my favourite readings that we have done so far. Yes, I know I have said this in the closing paragraph of my two previous blog posts on the last two readings (and I’ve meant it each time!), BUT I am quite pumped to read the rest of The Botany of Desire. Pollan’s writing is my personal favourite so far!

Goodnight.

 

True Knowledge

Hanson, T. 2015.  The triumph of seeds.  Basic Books. New York. (Intro – Ch. 5)

The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson is a beautifully written ode to glorious seeds! The novel is organized into sections that are each titled by one specific aspect of seeds. These sections are further divided into chapters with very specific titles that explain (but do not entirely give away) the content that follows. The author does jump around in time a little bit but the story remains easy to follow. Though written in present tense with, Hanson also reminisces on his past experiences in the field as well as his home and family life.

I am really enjoying this book so far! Hanson absolutely had me at avocado! There is just so much to love: Hanson’s humour, descriptive imagery, and his personification of seeds and plants are absolutely delightful (some of these literally gave me goosebumps as I read!)… Aside from these great qualities, though, there are two other components of this novel that resonate with me even more than the beauty and humour! My favourite aspects of this novel most definitely have to be the concise way in which the author presents the hard facts, but also how the author and his expert colleagues and other professionals he meets along his journey readily admit when they really do not know certain things for sure. I have always greatly respected when those who are considered “experts” acknowledge and fully embrace that which they do not know… as Confucius said, “To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

This novel is packed full of hard facts with their accompanying data, but the way Hanson displays this information is fun and simplistic. Quite literally every paragraph in The Triumph of Seeds contains some interesting bit of information presented in a way that a textbook never, EVER could. The facts are intertwined seamlessly in Hanson’s writing.

I was stunned when Hanson admitted, straight-up, that he “still didn’t really understand how seeds worked” (Ch. 1). But this trend continued throughout the assigned reading, and I found this so entirely refreshing since, being a student, I rarely get the chance to learn about concepts from anything other than a textbook or lecture medium. When discussing the seed of an avocado, Carol the master seed biologist, admits, “We know a little bit about what’s happening in there, but not everything” (Ch.1) To be involved in the free discussion of biology, to sort of have a glimpse of what scholars might discuss when they aren’t teaching students the hard facts, is quite a treat for someone who holds interest in those disciplines. The same occurs with Derek Bewley, “god” of seeds (Ch. 3). Hanson asks him about the possible reasons for why the coconut seed evolved to hold such a plethora of energy. Bewley states that none of his doctoral students have provided a reasonable explanation. Again, in Ch. 4, we meet another expert, Bill DiMichele, who, with open arms, accepts the unknown! His ideology is contagious to me, and he has some great quotes:

“I used to go to the field expecting certain things,” he told me, explaining how textbook knowledge can burden the mind with preconceived notions. “Now I go to the field looking. I’ve found it’s more productive to just dig a hole and see what I find.”

&

“Never argue with a fool—an onlooker can’t tell the difference.”

I want Bill to write a book, too!

In The Triumph of Seeds, the questions asked and the questions that are still left unanswered plant the seed (lol) of curiosity in my mind as a reader and invoke a true sense of wonder! Again, as with the last reading, I am genuinely excited to continue following Hanson’s seedy journey. But in the meantime, I’m going to attempt to germinate some avocado seeds!

Stories Within a Story

Smith, A. and J.B. MacKinnon.  2007.  The 100-mile diet.  pp. 4 – 114. Vintage Canada. Toronto, Ontario.

This section of the book covers the first half of the two authors’ accounts of their journey of eating “local” (local being defined, as obviously suggested by the title of the novel, typically within 100 miles of their Vancouver-based home) for one year.  The novel is divided into chapters ordered by month and at the beginning of each, a recipe and relevant quote gives the reader hints as to the topics that follow. The novel is mostly written in an easy-to-digest first-person tense, and authors chose to alternate with each chapter rather than writing each chapter together (which I found interesting!).  The couple’s every struggle and triumph in their endeavour is chronicled, but this book holds so much more than that. The authors also include mini history and science lessons, personal stories of their pasts and childhoods, and documentation of the people they meet during their journey.

There is so much that I like about this book and I have actually learned a lot from it so far, even just from the first half (squash flowers are edible, whaaat?!). The aspect of this novel that I most enjoy (so far!) is the abundance of back stories incorporated into the main story. While the core subject matter (the abundance/lack of local foods) is important and interesting on its own, the addition of the back stories strengthens the novel’s effect entirely. The little bits of extra information about the authors’ lives and stories from the past caused me to reflect on my own knowledge and feelings about not only food, but the natural history of our province as well. I had two favourite instances of this.

The first backstory that was important to me occurs in the second chapter (Potato Amuse Bouche). In this chapter, Alisa reflects on her late grandmother, her mother, and how they both affected her relationship with food. Alisa also points out that it is not uncommon for women her age to not know how to work a kitchen, which is an entirely true and sad observation. This entire chapter caused internal reflection on myself – I thought about the maternal figures in my life and how they, too, have affected my relationship with food. Reading about Alisa’s family food history, I felt grateful to have had people in my life share with me at a young age the joy of cooking and feeding people! This chapter also made me feel proud to have learned the art of cooking a turkey dinner on my own by the age of 19, because it really does seem as though those skills are being lost on the younger generations.

The second backstory that affected me was in the sixth chapter, Poached Salmon with Wine Cream Sauce.  In this chapter, James discusses “environmental disasters” that have occurred, both in BC and other locations around the world. Although I would have been 15 at the time (definitely old enough to understand what’s on the news), I actually had no knowledge of the devastating CNR lye spill in the Cheakamus River. This chapter struck a chord with me because it shows just how removed we can be from our natural environment if we just don’t care or perhaps some of us simply don’t have the knowledge to fully understand the issues being faced. The third paragraph on page 103 was particularly relatable to me, especially its opening sentence:

“These specific, local losses, small extinctions, and lesser holocausts—we tend to set them aside out of fatigue or, worse, denial. At best we absorb them into a vague sadness over the state of the world.”

This is, sadly, too true. I think that people also brush off or ignore catastrophic environmental events due to simply feeling helpless to something so huge.

The 100-Mile Diet is not just a book about two people trying to local food. It is a story with stories embedded within it. The way that the authors display and organize the information being presented is just so seamless and I am amazed at the amount of thought the book has provoked in me in just 114 pages! Authors that can coax the reader to deeply consider the subject matter of the book but at the same time also get them to think, whether it be internal or external reflection, are very effective in creating a lasting impression. Alisa and James are masters at their craft and I look forward to the rest of this novel!