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When the Spanish arrived in what is now New Mexico and Arizona they found the Pueblo people farming corn, squash, and beans on the dry land. These native people built villages made up of interconnected multi-storied adobe buildings. Although different Pueblo groups shared cultural affinity in terms of lifestyle, the languages of different groups and the religious beliefs–were so dissimilar that the Pueblos probably came from diverse backgrounds.
One group, the Keresan Puebloes, believed that all people come originally from Shipap, a realm beneath the ground ruled by the benevolent goddess Iyatiku, who is an underworld goddess, a mother goddess, and a corn goddess all at once. People emerge from this structured underworld when they are born and they then make their way through the hard arid world. To help her children through mortal life, Iyatiku annually rips out her own heart and tears it into four pieces which she scatters to the north, south, east, and west where the fragments grow into maize. Despite Iyatiku’s sacrifice and her care, people do not last in this world: they are murdered or starved or broken. They grow old and die. When this happens, they return once more to Iyatiku’s arms in the Shipap, the realm beneath the world where they wait to someday be born again.
Our nation is being invaded! The intruders number in the millions. They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires. Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small: each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches). In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.
The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana. They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!). Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals. They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.
For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics. Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos. If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers). Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario. These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).
Kombu (Laminaria japonica) is a sort of edible brown algae. This kelp grows from 2 to 5 meters long (6 to 15 feet) but in perfect conditions it can grow to be 10 meters (30 feet) in length. Kombu is native to the coasts of Japan and it has been eaten there since the Jōmon era (a prehistoric era when Japan was inhabited by hunter-gatherers). The seaweed is famous for its rich umami flavor and it is nutritionally valuable as a source of protein, fat, fiber, and minerals.
During the 1920s, Kombu was exported to China where it is known as Haidai—it is particularly popular in northern China (where green vegetables are scarce in winter). The seaweed has also been traded extensively to Korea.
Kombu was originally harvested wild from cold rich coastal ocean waters where it attaches to sub-littoral rocks but the 2 year growing season was frustrating to consumers. Today Kombu is grown in immense industrial scale on aquaculture plantations around China, Korea, and Japan. Brown algae cultivation involves sophisticated manipulation of alternation of generations (the metagenetic reproductive cycle of plants).
There is a dark chartreuse (yellow-green) color, Kombu green which takes its name from the beloved kelp.
The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”). This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated. In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans. Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely. It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.
Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though. Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers. Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change. There are two versions of the story. In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails. Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem. The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur. Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.
A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior. In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth. In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops. After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging. The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur. These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.
Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.
One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees. In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s. There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America. The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey). These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.
The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true. In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil. A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis). The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy). The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees. The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent. Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!
Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing. The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies. Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts. Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive. This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid. The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.
The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication. Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs. If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened. Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them. The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population. Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.
People love citrus fruit! What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons? This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees. Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions! The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets. All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas. It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.
The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid). Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times). Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them. Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.
In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual. The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills. Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims. In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).
Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).
Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade. In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange. I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing. I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you. In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?
Most painters find a particular subject and they stick with it their whole life. The themes which dominate an artist’s oeuvre can be all sorts of things: doomed warriors, Christ’s love, dark beauty, prime numbers, death-in-life, imperious aristocrats,monstrous pride, melancholy flowers, unruly goddesses…you name it. In the case of Adolf Lins the great subject to which he devoted his life work was…well, it was domestic poultry. Lins was truly great at painting ducks, geese, and chickens. He demonstrates that maybe not every artist has to concentrate on the ineluctable nature of time or the chasm between desire and reality. His poultry paintings are still well loved (although he is not the subject of long biographies like many of his peers).
Lins studied at the Academy of Arts in Kassel. He later followed some fellow artists to Düsseldorf where it seems he fell in love with the gentle agrarian rhythms of the fertile farms by the Rhine. He lived from 1856 to 1927–and though Germany changed again and again in that time, he kept his eyes on the modest glory of the local ponds and fields.
Lins had a talent for painting verdant Rhine foliage and glittering pools. He was also proficient at painting apple-cheeked farm children and lissome goose-girls, but his real skills and interests lay in the depiction of the individual fowl which are the focal points of his paintings. Each bird has its own personality and is busied with its own pursuits. Cantankerous geese squawk and bicker about flock politics (while other disinterested geese preen themselves or nap). Mallards in a forest pool gather around a white domestic duck with a lambent yellow bill. Two roosters fluff out their feathers and lower their heads as they prepare to battle to the death for possession of the flock behind them. Lins’ works may not concern the massive ebb and flow of historical or philosophical concerns in the human world, but he deftly captures the very real struggles and delights of the lives of domesticated farm birds. The feathers and mud and beaks seem real–and so does the liveliness of flock life a century ago. Any contemporary poultry farmer can instantly recognize what is going on in a Lins painting and share a quiet smile with small stock owners across the gulf of time.
One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world. If one writes about the many sad or perplexing issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world? I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled. Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party. Sigh….
All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats. Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus. Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent. If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble
The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome. Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America. Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators). As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces. The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state. The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.
Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves). Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact. European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion. Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died. As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected. Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west. Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus). Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies. Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.
I personally love bats. I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits). Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat). A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.
This attitude is a big mistake.
Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening. Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests. Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.
Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine. Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests). Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.
An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss). So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money! Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus. Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this). Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone. Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry: the effect of a bat die off could be worse. But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us. If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.
The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys. However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory. Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall. The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries). The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere. Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.
The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse). As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food. The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting. They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages. Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries” (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).
Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is. The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink. Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color. The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye. Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.