11 Dec 2009, 10:55pm

i read

i’m reading this awesome book right now: 1491: new revelations of the americas before columbus, by charles c. mann. i picked it up after i read the author’s earlier article for the atlantic monthly, which i linked to a couple entries back, i think. here’s a paragraph i read today:

In his view, the Amazon’s first inhabitants laboriously cleared small plots with their stone axes. But rather than simply planting manioc and other annual crops in their gardens until the forest took them over, they planted selected tree crops along with the manioc and managed the transition. Of the 138 known domesticated plant species in the Amazon, more than half are trees. (Depending on the definition of “domesticated,” the figure could be as high as 80 percent.) Sapodilla, calabash, and tucumá; babaçu, açai, and wild pineapple; cocopalm, American-oil palm, and Panama-hat palm–the Amazon’s wealth of fruits, nuts, and palms is justly celebrated. Visitors are always amazed that you can walk in the forest here and constantly pick fruit from trees,” [athropological botanist Charles R.] Clement said. “That’s because people planted them. They’re walking through old orchards.”

there is lots of other fascinating information in this book, too. but i am really into the whole amazon rainforest = giant food forest thing. to paraphrase from 1491: it’s contrary to the long-held idea of the amazon as pristine untouched wilderness, as put forward in one of the most influential books on the subject, written in 1971 by archeologist betty meggers. that book and its thesis were embraced by the burgeoning environmentalist movement, and meggers’ proponents are afraid that if the anthropogenic amazon idea gets popular, it’ll be carte blanche for humans to do whatever they like to the forest–after all, we made it in the first place. i really just got started on the section about the amazon in this book (300 pages in), but mann wrote a lot about it in his atlantic monthly article (which you should really read. ok, here’s the link again), so i am getting a little ahead of myself.

forest gardening/food forestry is a really important concept in permaculture, which is all about creating low- to no-input systems for maximum yield. no-input means closing loops, i.e. creating and nurturing ecosystems. industrial farming as we know it creates monocultures requiring huge amounts of human input (and non-renewable resources). i am just so awed by the idea that humans created this expansive, famously diverse, beautiful, and evocative ecosystem that fed many people (one of mann’s main theses is that the population of the americas pre-european-settlement was much, much bigger than has been generally assumed by history textbooks and the like) and has thrived for thousands of years. LET’S DO IT AGAIN! it is a really powerful idea… “Amazonians typically do not make the distinction between ‘cultivated’ and ‘wild’ landscapes common in the West; instead they simply classify landscapes into scores of varieties, depending on the types of species in each.” if we attempt to defeat “wilderness” we will defeat ourselves; there is no battle to be had, really. OF COURSE amazonians’ success at creating or modifying the rainforest to suit their purposes does not justify modern humans doing anything they please to the land; instead, it encourages us to understand how to adapt the land to us as we adapt to it… truly sustainably. the rainforest also suits the purposes of an astonishing array of flora and fauna (and fungi and bacteria and so on), to create a closed-loop ecosystem.

i am pretty excited to keep reading and learn more. and, generally, to learn more. when i graduated from college, i remember being afraid that i would just stop learning things. whatEVER.

i am also reading the world without us, by alan weisman, albeit more slowly and with a little less enthusiasm. i was amused to read a section in that book about pre-columbian americans as well, and more amused to read summaries of some of the arguments that mann was critiquing in his own book… though both books are pretty good about avoiding definitive statements. it was a nice reminder that there is no definitive knowledge about the past (and certainly not about the future). there are lessons to be learned, of course, but no past determines our future. something like that, anyway.

for kicks, i also read the world made by hand, a post-peak-oil apocalypse novel by james howard kunstler, this week. don’t bother; it is pretty awful (and misogynist, classist, and racist). i should have stopped reading when i got to page 101 and read this:

All the trustees [of the town] were men, no women and no plain laborers. As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we’d thought we obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town. A plain majority of the townspeople were laborers now, whatever in life they had been before. Nobody called them peasants, but in effect that’s what they’d become. That’s just the way things were.

oh please. ugh.

here’s a couple more interesting things i’ve read recently:

an article about friendship and its changing definition,
dave eggers on selling out,
this title of an imaginary self-help book by Jill of I Blame the Patriarchy: Fuck the Dominant Paradigm: Stop Viewing Yourself in Terms of Dudes, Politics, Religion, Culture, Celebrities, Porn, and Internet Feminists, and Just Do Whatever Funky Shit You Like.

and also: check out this kid playing the ukulele.

hoping to find some time to write soon about: winter, cycles, ontogenesis, stories & processing, fidelity… thinkin’ thinkin’ thinkin’. winter (+quilts+tea+warm purring cat) is good for that. i’ve been home sick with a cold for a couple days; time to curl up and work on sleeping it off. weekend #4 of my permaculture course starts tomorrow–speaking of things i ought to write about!

I really enjoyed 1491 when I read it a few years ago. Strange how his whole thesis has been attacked politically by both environmentalists and anti-environmentalist reactionaries. Even stuff like the number of pre-Colombian inhabitants of the Americas is weirdly political. High numbers piss off the right cause they attribute an even greater original sin to the European settlers, and they piss off the left cuz it means pre-1492 America can’t be the idyllic pre-development Eden of their dreams.


I thought this was a cool article on how the idea of the “wilderness” has changed through history, from Puritanical horror to the Muir-style sublime fascination w/ the American frontier. Good read.

What a fascinating article. Thanks for the link!



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