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One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society.  In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era.   Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.

 

Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items.  At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.

The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm.  Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.

Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops.  The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society.    The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros.  Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…

Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things.  In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.

Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful.  Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?

Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much.  But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?

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Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

I was going to write a post about the dwarf planet Ceres–which is currently being explored by the NASA New Horizons robot probe. The more we learn about the failed planetary fragment, the more enigmatic it becomes (the little exploded world seems to be covered with giant pyramid-shaped mountains and weird super reflective craters). However I decided to wait to write this Ceres post until August when New Horizons dips closer to the dwarf planet and we get some clear answers (or at least some better photos). Fortunately, as I researched the mysteries of Ceres, I came across the above statue of the goddess Ceres, and it immediately became one of my favorite artworks from classical antiquity (which is saying quite a lot).

The statue is Roman from the Augustan period. I assume the figure is Ceres (Demeter) but it is possible that it may be her daughter Proserpine (Persephone). Ceres is portrayed as the gentle and munificent goddess of agriculture who is friend to humankind. She is clad in the flowing raiment of a goddess and she holds the bounty of Earth, but her eyes are sad and full of wisdom. Her hands flow with full heads of wheat, but mixed in are the addictive poppies that soothe pain. Beside her two snakes whisper the secrets of the underworld. Agriculture gave us our knowledge and our power, but it also made our world of masters and slaves, and it looks like the goddess recognizes this in her ancient eyes.

 

The Wichita State University muscle-bound bundle of wheat

The Wichita State University muscle-bound bundle of wheat

It seems like it has been a particularly long week, so how about we unwind for the weekend with some humorously bad mascots.  Ferrebeekeeper already presented a post on farmer mascots (of which there were a surfeit in this great breadbasket land of ours).  Today we concentrate instead on characters who literally are agricultural products: these mascots are just straight up agricultural commodities.  This seems like a weak concept for a dancin’ frolickin’ becostumed embodiment of team spirit, yet, once again, the rich imagination of bored small-town teams does not disappoint.   Check out these strange beings:

Captain Cornelius of ISU

Captain Cornelius of ISU

Bennie the Bean, the mascot for the Indiana Soybean Alliance

Bennie the Bean, the mascot for the Indiana Soybean Alliance

Custom Handmade Chinese Cabbage Mascot (in case you want to advocate Bok Choy)

Custom Handmade Chinese Cabbage Mascot (in case you want to advocate Bok Choy)

This sunflower mascot is from a hospice...so I have no idea what to make of that :(

This sunflower mascot is from a hospice…so I have no idea what to make of that…

The famous Idaho potato

The famous Idaho potato

The Delta State University Fighting Okra is naturally from Mississippi

The Delta State University Fighting Okra is naturally from Mississippi

The Hillsboro Hops

The Hillsboro Hops

This angry ear of corn is from Concordia College in Minnesota

This angry ear of corn is from Concordia College in Minnesota

Most of the rice mascots I found were...problematic, but, since it is my favorite staple food, here is the Miami Rice Pudding Mascot (?)

Most of the rice mascots I found were racially problematic, but, since it is my favorite staple food, here is the Miami Rice Pudding Mascot (?)

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts doesn't actually have any sports teams, but they do have a Fighting Pickle.

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts doesn’t actually have any sports teams, but they do have a Fighting Pickle.

Yeesh, those are some rough symbols to rally around.  I’ll do some hard thinking this weekend and see you back here on Monday.  In the meantime here is an anonymous corn to see you off.

[Presented without comment]

[Presented without further comment]

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My roommate and I were talking about the history of the United States and the subject of times when states printed their own money came up. One of these times was during the era from 1777 to 1789 when the new nation was governed by the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (the not-very-successful precursor to the constitution which left the new states plunged in debt and squabbling with each other). Another time when the states printed their own money was during the civil war when the southern states each printed wads of increasingly useless paper money to hold up the faltering southern economy. Sadly I could not find any pretty samples of the former online, but I did discover some images of North Carolina paper money from the Civil War.

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The notes are surprisingly lovely with Roman and agrarian symbolism and hand-written copperpoint calligraphy. A the top of this post is a ten-cent note (coins were expensive to make and metals were needed for the war—although soon rampant inflation did away with sub-dollar bills). The hornet’s nest symbolizes anti-Union defiance and military puissance. The second note down is a seventy-five cent note which features the allegorical figure of commerce surrounded by hives of industrious bees which represent prosperity and fruitful labor.  Thhe note below is a twenty-five cent note which features a very Roman looking (and bare-breasted!) imager of the goddess Ceres, the kind mother of agriculture—which was the root and mainstay of the southern economy. Such money became worthless even before the war was lost: money printed with hymenopteran insects and naked ladies must have seemed like a good idea, but apparently it did not hold up the same way as bills with dead presidents and creepy Masonic images!

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April 7th is national beer day. While this blog would certainly never popularize an intoxicating beverage (even if that beverage were delicious, omnipresent, and held in universal esteem), it is our scholarly duty to note the importance which beer held in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Around seven thousand years ago the first known human civilizations sprang up between the Tigris and the Euphrates river valleys.  These civilizations  were beholden to beer as an economic and cultural staple. Indeed, many archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that beer is the fundamental reason that agriculture and cities were invented to begin with: the hunter gatherer lifestyle offered greater freedom and greater leisure, but civilization offered beer (albeit at the terrible price of always having grotty kingpriests and bureaucrats yelling at you—a trend which continues to this day).

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Of course agriculture brought other benefits as well—famine became less of a problem, populations could grow larger, and humans were able to settle in one place. Yet the fundamental importance which the inhabitants of Eridu, Ur, and Sumer placed on beer can be seen by looking at the pantheon of ancient Mesopotamian deities. The most important child or Eridu, the lord of the watery abzu and grand old man of the gods was Ninkasi, the goddess of beer also known as “the lady who fills the mouth” (which seems to support the archaeologists who believe that the invention of beer and agriculture were related).

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

The worship of Ninkasi will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a beer can. She was born in “pure sparkling water” and her sigil was the barley spade. Worshippers and supplicants would beg her to “satisfy the desire” and “sate the heart”. During a divine ordeal her father Enki the ancient received eight terrible wounds, and it was Ninkasi who cured the most painful one. In Eridu and Sumer, beer was stored in great earthenware vessels and sipped with long ornamental drinking straws. Many ancient artworks depict this activity, and I always wonder if Ninkasi is the woman behind the drinker concerned about how her brew came out.  Sadly there are no known images of Ninkasi from ancient sources (although I am half tempted to get out my brushes and paint her as an act of devotion, um I mean educational interest).

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the “Great Death Pit” in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Among the earliest human writings is a beautiful hymn to Ninkasi which was written in Sumerian in the nineteenth century BC. It is a lovely panegyric to agriculture, civilization, and the benign blessings of loving gods, but it is also a recipe. Warning: attempting to mimic the actions described in this ancient religious tablet may result in an alcoholic beverage! Beer makers of the modern world were inspired by the ancient recipe and set out to create an ancient Sumerian beer. The beer, made with date honey and thick loaves of an ancient multi-grain bread was less alcoholic than most modern beers (having an alcohol content of 3.5 percent—as opposed to Bud Light which has an alcohol content of 4.2) but it was apparently quite potable.

Time to celebrate spring!

Time to celebrate spring!

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Sad news from America’s apiculturists: nearly a third of domestic bees in the United States did not survive the winter of 2012/2013.  Before 2005 the winter loss rate was between 5% and 10%, but after that year, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious affliction which caused domestic bees to fly away and never return, ravaged the poor honeybees. Losses of 30% became common.  Beekeepers were somewhat hopeful that the worst of the scourge was passing after the winter of 2011/2012 (when losses fell to 22%) however apparently that year was anomalous.  At least it seems that this winter’s losses were not the result of classic colony collapse disorder–rather than flying away to nowhere the bees stayed put in their hives. Yet the insects they were sadly weakened and diminished and the attenuated hives proved unable to start new broods in the spring and just withered away.

WHY? (No seriously--why?)

WHY? (No seriously–why?)

This is a huge and perplexing problem.  At least a third of our food supply is dependent on the hard-working yellow and black pollinators.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake—as are our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This past year a number of studies indicated that neonicotinoid insecticides were partly to blame for bee losses (along with vampiric varroa mites, a decline of wild flowering plants, greedy beekeepers who overextend their hives, and a bacterial disease horrifyingly named “European foulbrood”) but the compounds are non-toxic to other animals and immensely lucrative to big chemical companies.  In Europe the compounds were banned this year, so comparing European bee hives with American ones in coming years should at least help us understand the problem.

Some scientists have also suggested that a lack of genetic diversity in domestic bee populations is also contributing to the problem.  Maybe we need to go online and find some new life partners from around the globe for our hymenopteran friends.  The infamous Africanized killer bees seem like they have some immunity to some of the issues behind bee die-offs.  Maybe we need to come up with a better name for those guys and see what they are up to this summer.

Sigh...so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Sigh…so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Wild Cranberry Bog (by Chris Seufert)

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.

A group of men harvesting cranberries in Wisconsin.

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.

Cranberries in a flooded man-made bog awaiting harvesting.

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.

Yarn dyed with Cranberries (from godeysknitsof1860)

 

The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance.  It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products.   In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey).  The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.

According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus.   In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her.   In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood.  From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis.  He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food.  In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn.  There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon.  It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains.  In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal).  Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent.  The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity.  I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.

Ancient Egyptian bee Hieroglyph

In prehistoric times there was no sugar.  Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees).  The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative.  The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.

But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities.  One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping.  The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt.  An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb.  The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC.  Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt.  It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious.  Wax tablets were used for writing.  Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent.  Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints.  Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions.  Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting.  By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.

According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth.  Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king).  The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt

Honeybee on a Cherry Blossom by digiphotolover

Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees.  Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented.  Worldwide bee populations crashed.  Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees.  An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight.  For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom.  For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).

A truck of bee hives to ensure that food crops are pollinated

As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples.  Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come.  “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”

Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else.  The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic).  So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.

An extremely cool illustration of Imidacloprid acting on insect nerves from Bayer (the original inventor/patent holder of the compound)

Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides.  The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives.  The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem.  Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.

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