Ten years ago

Today is roughly the tenth anniversary of this weblog. The posts from then are long gone; I’ve moved the weblog from platform to platform over the years, and because of that I’m surprised the archives go back as far as they do. But I do recall that it was the end of March 2000, since we were packing up the Austin house for our move to Colorado, and I had just bought a digital camera because I was amazed at the vividness of the digital pictures I was seeing on these weblog things I had recently discovered, and I’m pretty sure the first post I made contained pictures of stacks and stacks of packed boxes. For the name of the blog I used our street address, which Debbie quickly enough pointed out wasn’t one of my better ideas, so I remembered that the dry creek that crossed through our new property was called Dry Creek, and decided that was good enough.

Back then I didn’t have a clear idea what my reason for blogging would be, and my focus has shifted over the years, but the reason which emerged has stayed pretty steady—to improve my thinking, a process I’ve never been able to separate from writing. Too many times I’ve thought I knew something, only to have it evaporate on me when I tried to set it down in words. And often enough I’ve learned important things in the course of setting down my thoughts, as the gaps become apparent and I’m forced to adjust or elaborate my arguments in order to come up with something coherent.

Most important, I’m grateful for the opportunity to do my thinking in public. Just knowing that someone might read what I write has kept me from writing many a foolish thing, has pushed me to be clear and direct, and has in particular challenged me to marshall evidence and examples that support whatever I claim. To those of you who have watched over my shoulder as I’ve wrestled different ideas to the ground, I appreciate your attention more than you can know. Thanks.

Describing a kind of music

Up until now Chris and I have largely let musical work come in search of us, but now I’m thinking that it’s time to decide whether we’ll ever go in search of work ourselves, and facing up to that question has raised lots of questions for us about what we do and why, and whether there’s any methodical way of communicating that to someone else so that they can decide whether or not they’d like to hear us perform.

Recently I came across a free ebook full of advice for musicians trying to get somewhere in the music business, by a fellow named Derek Sivers. I’ve known about Sivers for many years, he being the founder of CD Baby (which he sold a few years ago), but I didn’t know about his book until now. There is some shockingly good advice in it. The one that hit me between the eyes was this:

When describing your music, PLEASE don’t be a musician. Don’t say, “Wonderful harmonies and intricate arrangements. A tight rhythm section and introspective lyrics!”

Real people don’t even understand what that means. That’s musician speak.

Wow. So blindingly obvious. And yet that sort of language afflicts just about every musical bio out there (including our own). In fact, since then I’ve spent a week looking at many, many musicians’ descriptions of their music, and they uniformly focus on technical aspects of musical excellence. None of them speak to a normal person.

Chris and I know from experience that our music has a direct, visceral appeal to listeners. Many times people have told us something to the effect of, “I don’t like bluegrass/old-time/gospel, but I really liked that!” Most of our songs are grabbers, using a pulse or a bluesy chord progression or a mysterious melody or a spine-chilling harmony or a deceptively sketchy storyline or stunning images. It strikes me as very, very different from what you tend to expect from an acoustic duo. (What I expect from an acoustic duo: breathiness, delicacy, lack of drive, three times as many words as we use, almost exclusively love songs.)

So, is there some sensibility underpinning our music that makes it cohere, and if so can it be summed up and communicated to normal people in normal language—or, at least, the kind of people who might be interested in coming out to hear an acoustic duo perform? That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with this week, and though I don’t yet have an answer I’ve been exploring some avenues that seem promising.

We like a song for its ability to slip past your rational defenses, sneaking past your brain and lodging itself in your heart—or gut, perhaps. If you look at the words of the songs we sing, they barely even tell a story—but the sketchier the story, the more suggestive. I don’t know exactly where this power derives from, but I think it was what T.S. Eliot was getting at when he wrote this:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog.

And I think it has something to do with this well-known observation by C.S. Lewis:

For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.

Clyde Kilby, who wrote a book about C.S. Lewis’s thinking in this area, stated it slightly differently: “The brain is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of reality.” Given that, I think our songs speak not to the intellect but to the imagination, and as a result they do not so much tell a story as evoke the real world directly—not the ghost world that we have analyzed into being, but the world as it really is.

Because of this, these songs are chock-full of mysterious, unaccountable elements. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” These songs bombard you with images and sensations you aren’t at all sure what to do with—but which delight you anyway, maybe especially because your philosophy doesn’t know how to handle them.

A book I’ve found helpful in understanding this is Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic, which is nominally about Bob Dylan’s basement tape recordings but really about the uncanny and otherworldly qualities of traditional music. I disagree with Marcus on one fundamental point—he thinks that the world evoked by traditional music is imaginary and idealized, an America that never was, while I think it tells us things about the world as it really is rather than the way we wish it was and act like it is. But we agree that the music evokes another world, and he has some helpful words on that subject. Here are the excerpts I noted which point to that:

"There’s something in the gospel blues," she [Sister Rosetta Tharpe] would say years later, "that’s so deep the world can’t stand it." (p 4)

As Bob Dylan sang—like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or any of hundreds of other folk singers, but more powerfully, and more nakedly—or as he was heard, he embodied a yearning for peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener’s heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South, a strange and foreign place to most who were now listening—music that seemed the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people—the people—people one could embrace and, perhaps, become. It was the sound of another country—a country that, once glimpsed from afar, could be felt within oneself. That was the folk revival. (p 21)

… allusions to barely described characters and unspoken motives drifting into dark hollows and disappearing into the woods’ surround. (p 22)

"[Traditional music is] a confrontation with another culture, or another view of the world, that might include arcane, or unknown, or unfamiliar views of the world, hidden within these words, melodies, and harmonies—it was like field recordings from the Amazon, or Africa, but it’s here, in the United States." (p 95)

He [Harry Smith] might have heard what people have always heard in strange music: the call of another life. (p 101)

Now, all that is high-flown verbiage that is probably even less helpful that the musician-speak that Sivers was warning about. But it is helping me to develop a clearer, more focused understanding of something which up until now I only suspected, and vaguely. And I think that once I have a better handle on it, the pithy descriptive phrases will come. Something like “We sing songs that slip past your defenses and grab you by the throat,” or “We sing songs about tell about things the world is working hard to forget,” or some other short description that conveys a truth unusual enough to grab one’s attention and sketchy enough to leave the listener wanting to know more.

Oh, and if you’ve listened to our music and can think of a way to convey what you like about it to some other non-musician, I’d love to hear it.

Learning from supermarkets

When it comes to food issues these days there are as many points of view as there are participants, all overlapping in various ways, and clear lines have yet to be drawn which distinguish between basic philosophical differences. Many food idologues would like to claim Joel Salatin as their own, but things he says and writes often drives them to distraction. I don’t think it is due to inconsistency on his part, though. I find his writings over the past twenty years to be of a piece, but in important ways he is still revealing what he really thinks—or maybe even discovering what he really thinks as he continues to farm.

Here’s a very good short article by Salatin which did two things for me. First, it spelled out a significant weakness in the current approach to providing alternatives to industrial food, one that needs to be understood by anyone thinking about pursuing it as a living:

When we compare their features to those of farmers markets and CSAs, I think we can begin to see why truly local food is not purchased more widely. And perhaps rather than start more farmers markets, we need to channel our efforts elsewhere.

Farmers markets are destination places. Normally, customers have to make a special trip within a narrow window of time to patronize them. CSAs require that consumers plan ahead, take produce they may not like, and drive out to a pickup place. And seldom do either of these venues offer a complete menu: They typically lack dairy, meat, poultry, and processed items like noodles, soups, and heat-n-eat convenience foods. And both of these venues require additional trips (read: precious time away from the farm) for farmers to attend the venue.

Compare that to a Kroger or Giant store. They are open 24/7 so shoppers can shop at their convenience. They have a huge diversity of both raw and processed product, including dairy and meat. Farmers don’t have to make a special trip to take their wares there because their products enter the food system from centralized pickup points, whether it be a grain elevator, livestock sale barn, or processing facility. In the case of processors like Tyson and Smithfield, farmers under contract don’t have to go anywhere because the company comes and picks up the chickens or hogs. And the store’s cashiers are always busy, which helps justify the overhead spent on them.

I think the point about CSAs is particularly important. The CSA model depends largely on its feel-good aspect, the idea of developing a “relationship” with a farmer. But it’s an open question whether this can trump the basic limitation of the model, namely that the customer is unable to select just what he wants at a time he wants it. I’ve heard many stories of CSA customers fading away after a season or two, and those who have probed into the reasons find it is because the customer finally got tired of throwing out a bounty of uneaten vegetables. Some CSAs advise limiting the amount of certain produce that is given in the weekly box, exactly to avoid this problem; they also quietly supplement their boxes with produce obtained from other local farms in order to provide customers with a decent variety. And I’m curious about the average life of a CSA farm; I’ve seen several which I thought were successful suddenly pop up for sale after five or six years.

These weaknesses aren’t problems for a farmers’ market, so it is significant that Salatin lumps them together. Apparently supermarket-level convenience is an overwhelming factor in selling to the average city dweller, and needs to be weighed carefully.

Salatin goes on to propose some low-tech centralization by an intermediary that would ameliorate some of the problems he identifies, and his proposals make sense. In fact, I can easily see the demand for locally sourced food leading to exactly the sort of innovations he mentions. Which brings me to the second thing Salatin cleared up for me, namely that the local food movement is not particularly agrarian in spirit.

The one-stop shop model works. We just need to figure out what a truly transparent, localized one-stop shop looks like.

Once we figure that out, heritage-based food can penetrate much farther and deeper into the marketplace. As wonderful as farmers markets and CSAs are—and as crucial as it is that consumers have the opportunity to meet the people growing their food—I don’t think they will ever yield the kind of marketplace penetration needed to fundamentally change our food system. We have to make it easier for people to buy local, not harder. The future can’t be the limited options of either extreme: farmers markets and CSAs or Walmart.

From this it’s pretty clear that Salatin’s goal is to provide an urbanized population with better food, not to change its buying or eating patterns. In fact, I think he would be happy if the existing system was simply decentralized but otherwise stayed more or less intact. I have no problem with that, but I can’t get very excited about it either.

The debilitating effect of democracy

Here’s something I didn’t know about Alexis de Tocqueville’s view of democracy, from Patrick Deneen’s weblog:

Many readers of Democracy in America—and doubtless more with only passing acquaintance—know that Tocqueville warns against the rise of a centralized, bureaucratic, “tutelary” government, the “soft despotism” of the centralized Nanny State. It is these passages of Tocqueville that have always been the most admired by conservatives. But most readers fail to see that Tocqueville understood the rise of the centralized tutelary State not to be result of a coup by centralizing despots, but rather, the consequence of our ever-greater tendency to embrace a Lockean form of individualism. Throughout Democracy in America he wrote of the ways in which associational life strengthen citizens, giving them the tools and capacities and talents for finding together the means of achieving the particular good within their communities, and providing for them a familiarity with, and love for, civic freedom. The tendency for democracies, over time, toward separation, solipsism, individualism—suspicious of groups and people that make claims upon individuals, more tempted by private than public concerns, increasingly understanding freedom to be doing as one wants—renders democratic people ripe for the rise of the tutelary State.

Tocqueville over and over describes such people as “weak,” shorn of the resources that provide an avenue toward a true form of freedom. And so, he writes toward the conclusion of Democracy in America that the individual freedom claiming to do what we want will lead to the most debased form of modern tyranny, willing subjects to a tutelary State.

This is what bothers me about the modern obsession with politics and political action, even by those who claim to be in favor of limited government. The reality is that government, both of the state and of the church, hardly intrudes into the everyday life of an average person, and not at all into the most important areas of that life. It would be easy enough for most people to treat such government with complete indifference, merely avoiding activity that is likely to bring about conflict with it, and getting on with the business of living. But instead we cultivate our sense of indignation over the difference between how things ought to be and how things actually are.

And, in doing so, we end up conveying huge amounts of power to governmental institutions, simply by putting our faith in them. A requirement for maintaining high levels of outrage about how things are being done at the moment is a fundamental confidence that, if only things were done right, then all would be well. But if we have little or no faith in the efficacy of governmental institutions—a lack of faith that has always and everywhere been borne out by the facts—then the only response required by the latest bit of state or church foolishness is to chuckle knowingly and move on.

Move on to what? Community life, where one can conduct nearly all one’s affairs without coming into contact with government; study the example of the Old Order plain people to see that this is true. Deneen ends his post with a painful illustration of how the modern idea of community has become an instrument of doublethink, a concept whose warm, fuzzy associations are used to encourage behavior that will in fact destroy community.

In perfect confirmation of Tocqueville’s fears, take a minute to watch this video, courtesy of the U.S. Government in its efforts to promote the Census:

The commercial – entitled “A March to the Mailbox” – portrays an ordinary Joe getting off his couch (in a bathrobe) and marching out of his house – picket-fenced – where suddenly the streets fill with neighbors and friends, the names of whom he knows entirely. He states that by filling out the Census form, he’s helping Pete’s school and roads for his neighbors car pool and Risa’s health-care and so that—I quote—“we can get our fair share of Federal Funding.”

As I watched it (in growing horror), I saw it as the perverse fulfillment of Tocqueville’s analysis—that the very community spirit being portrayed in that commercial would itself obviate the need for that sort of ad. The ad portrayed a vibrant community of people who know each other and genuinely wish each other’s good, but in fact the need for the commercial at all was born of the widespread absence of any such reality. Rather, the reality is that each person is to fill out this form in the privacy of their own home in order to be relieved of the obligation to do anything further to help fellow citizens that are increasingly unknown to them. Having won the Cold War, our government is now producing and airing commercials that portray what can’t be described in any other way other than our very own Potemkin village. [Emphasis added]

Current and upcoming reading

Right now I’m reading a very good book by David Shi called The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. It was in the stack of books I tracked down and bought for a study on the voluntary simplicity movement, most of which are still waiting on the shelf. But I happened to pick this one up, and am savoring it, so much so that it may be awhile before I’m done and ready to review it.

As the subtitle implies, it is a history of how Americans have approached the idea of simple living. That is one reason I am enjoying it so much; I know enough American history now that I get a lot of satisfaction from a book that attempts to trace a single thread through it. Good examples would be Summer For the Gods by Edward Larson, or The New Agrarian Mind by Allan Carlson, or the recently mentioned Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg.

So far I’ve read through Shi’s first chapter on the Puritans, and half of his second chapter on the Quakers. Although the book is not written from a Christian viewpoint, Shi does not shy away from extensively quoting Puritan and Quaker writers, and I don’t imagine an explicitly Christian writer would have been any more perceptive. I’m reading with pencil in hand, and find myself marking three or four passages per page, a pretty high percentage for me.

Also, it’s time to take back books to the UK library this weekend, and pick up a few more. Here are the books that I will be reading on this next go-round.

bookjacket

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson

“In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container’s creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.

“Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.

“But the container didn’t just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean’s success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container’s potential.

“Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world’s workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.”

book cover

The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby

“The unlikely development of a potent historical force, told with grace, insight, and authority by one of our best historians.

“With its deep roots and global scope, the capitalist system provides the framework for our lives. It is a framework of constant change, sometimes measured and predictable, sometimes drastic and out of control. Yet what is now ubiquitous was not always so. Capitalism took shape centuries ago, starting with a handful of isolated changes in farming, trade, and manufacturing, clustered in early-modern England. Astute observers began to notice these changes and consider their effects. Those in power began to harness these new practices to the state, enhancing both. A system generating wealth, power, and new ideas arose to reshape societies in a constant surge of change.

“The centuries-long history of capitalism is rich and eventful. Approaching capitalism as a culture, as important for its ideas and values as for its inventions and systems, Joyce Appleby gives us a fascinating introduction to this most potent creation of mankind from its origins to now.”

Cover: A Secular Age

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor

“What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that we–in the West, at least–largely do. And clearly the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries. In what will be a defining book for our time, Charles Taylor takes up the question of what these changes mean–of what, precisely, happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is only one human possibility among others.

“Taylor, long one of our most insightful thinkers on such questions, offers a historical perspective. He examines the development in "Western Christendom" of those aspects of modernity which we call secular. What he describes is in fact not a single, continuous transformation, but a series of new departures, in which earlier forms of religious life have been dissolved or destabilized and new ones have been created. As we see here, today’s secular world is characterized not by an absence of religion–although in some societies religious belief and practice have markedly declined–but rather by the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize on in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.

“What this means for the world–including the new forms of collective religious life it encourages, with their tendency to a mass mobilization that breeds violence–is what Charles Taylor grapples with, in a book as timely as it is timeless.”

(And here’s a fourth book that I want to read but has just barely arrived at the library, and likely won’t be available to check out.)

Paul Among the People

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, by Sarah Ruden

“It is a common—and fundamental—misconception that Paul told people how to live. Apart from forbidding certain abusive practices, he never gives any precise instructions for living. It would have violated his two main social principles: human freedom and dignity, and the need for people to love one another.

“Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, originally named Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, who made a living from tent making or leatherworking. He called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles” and was the most important of the early Christian evangelists.

“Paul is not easy to understand. The Greeks and Romans themselves probably misunderstood him or skimmed the surface of his arguments when he used terms such as “law” (referring to the complex system of Jewish religious law in which he himself was trained). But they did share a language—Greek—and a cosmopolitan urban culture, that of the Roman Empire. Paul considered evangelizing the Greeks and Romans to be his special mission.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“The idea of love as the only rule was current among Jewish thinkers of his time, but the idea of freedom being available to anyone was revolutionary.

“Paul, regarded by Christians as the greatest interpreter of Jesus’ mission, was the first person to explain how Christ’s life and death fit into the larger scheme of salvation, from the creation of Adam to the end of time. Preaching spiritual equality and God’s infinite love, he crusaded for the Jewish Messiah to be accepted as the friend and deliverer of all humankind.

“In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden explores the meanings of his words and shows how they might have affected readers in his own time and culture. She describes as well how his writings represented the new church as an alternative to old ways of thinking, feeling, and living.

“Ruden translates passages from ancient Greek and Roman literature, from Aristophanes to Seneca, setting them beside famous and controversial passages of Paul and their key modern interpretations. She writes about Augustine; about George Bernard Shaw’s misguided notion of Paul as “the eternal enemy of Women”; and about the misuse of Paul in the English Puritan Richard Baxter’s strictures against “flesh-pleasing.” Ruden makes clear that Paul’s ethics, in contrast to later distortions, were humane, open, and responsible.”

Words that are merely “little balloons of bright sound”

Although I love good writing and think that it is better to learn by studying a model than from a set of explicit rules, I’m not very good at taking a model and extracting a useful lesson from it—mostly I’m left in wondering admiration.

So it’s a precious thing to find a well-written passage that not only spells out something about good writing but demonstrates the way out of the problem it identifies. A good place to go in search of such passages is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s one example I found quoted in a recent article:

The world of criticism has a modest pouch of special words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall. Of these critical words, Wolcott Gibbs once wrote: ‘…they are detached from the language and inflated like little balloons.’ The young writer should learn to spot them — words that at first glance seem freighted with delicious meaning but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.

What I like about this passage is that it is itself filled with delicious, bright-sounding words, but every one of those words is carefully placed and doing important work.

The article itself is worth reading, a discussion of book reviews and the little balloons of bright sound that regularly appear in them. I found it linked on Alan Jacobs’s Text Patterns blog, a reliable source of well written commentary.

Down to Earth, by Ted Steinberg

Worldviews are good because they help us filter, organize, and comprehend the relentless flood of information that threatens to drown us. (Sometimes I wonder if pre-modern man was able to do without a worldview, simply because his world was narrow and local and the information available to him was limited.)

Worldviews are bad because they enable us to filter out, misfile, mischaracterize, misunderstand, and selectively ignore those parts of the information flow that are inconsistent with our worldview. Douglas Wilson is currently reading through Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book I have also read—but as I read his notes on it I wonder sometimes if we read the same book. For example, in his post “Let Us Not Inquire About the Chitlins” he simply dismisses Pollan’s portrayal of the cattle feedlot system as an unhealthy, inhumane, unnatural mechanism for putting cheap meat on American tables by saying this [emphasis added]:

The bulk of this chapter depends on a truth that has nothing to do with the advent of industrial farming. The manufacture and preparation of food can be . . . well, unappetizing. I can easily imagine following my food chain back upstream in 13th century Milan, 19th century New York, or 10th century Rome, and discovering at some point that I was not nearly as hungry as I was before. As Bismarck famously put it, "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." It is probably wise to not inquire too closely into how chitlins come to be either.

Now, to someone like Wilson who has a strong conviction that modern living is fundamentally good and has adequate safeguards in place to insure his well-being, there is actually little to be gained from inquiring closely into such things; why spend time reconciling difficult facts to a conclusion that is already embraced? But to those who are less confident that private vices really do combine to create public virtues, who worry instead that food purveyors are all too adept at evading the safeguards that cut into their profits, then a close inquiry into the unappetizing details of how a pound of supermarket beef is produced will have a profound effect in shaping their own worldview.

I’ve suffered plenty from the complacency that a strongly held worldview can induce, and in recent years I’ve tried to be diligent about examining my assumptions and discarding those which don’t fit comfortably with everyday reality. I’ve also cultivated a reluctance to replace discarded assumptions with new ones, no matter how much explanatory power they seem to contain; once bitten, twice shy. And, strangely enough, it’s not all that difficult to get along in life without strong convictions about how to fix the economy, or health care, or the family, or the church, or the weather. And it turns out that the lack of strong convictions on a topic make it much, much easier to notice important things that would have otherwise been quickly filtered out or explained away.

Of all the things I have completely missed seeing over the years, the biggest one is probably the role of nature in history. I don’t feel too awfully stupid about this, because it is a topic that has largely gone unexamined. But I do clearly recall several times when I ran across a Big Important Fact that pointed to the topic, and proceeded to ignore it. For example, years ago I was reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which has a chapter on the settling of the Texas Hill Country where Johnson was raised (and where I lived at the time). Caro noted that since the first settlers came it had been subject to a boom-and-bust cycle that was tied to the weather.

That part of Texas is just on the edge of being arid; a hundred miles to the east the land is lush, while a hundred miles to the west the land is desert. The average rainfall is just barely enough to allow for crops. However, that average is actually the centerpoint of a fifteen-year cycle, where during the seven fat years there is more than enough rain to sustain crops while during the seven lean ones crops will not grow. The settlers came in during the wet years, planted with abandon, thrived for awhile but then were destroyed when the dry years came. Seven years later the cycles began again, both for the rain and for the settlers.

That fact impressed me when I first read it, and I’ve told it to many others over the years, but mostly as a curiosity that explains something about why the Hill Country is how it is. And I’ve read similar things over the years, but somehow they always remained one-off curiosities in my mind and never led me to the deeper realization that weather is not simply a static backdrop to the activities of man but in fact an active and continually present factor. Fortunately I’ve come across several books recently that have broken new ground in explaining how nature (climate, topography, fertility, resources) has had a significant and ongoing role in shaping civilization.

Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History is a fine, fine book. It is a work of geography, or maybe ecological history, very much like two other excellent books that I discovered recently, Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Decay and William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The books by Brechin and Cronon are probably better, being efforts to thoroughly understand the history of a particular place. Steinberg’s book sacrifices detail and subtlety, but makes up for it sevenfold in breadth of vision. By tackling American history, he is able to look at the interactions of man and nature over the course of four hundred years during which society evolved at a rapid pace, in a context where patterns for those interactions were being freshly developed. The overall story gives a fairly clear picture of both the extents and the limits of man’s ability to subdue the natural world.

Steinberg’s writing is clear, and the ground he uncovers is so unfamiliar that the rapid pace at which he surveys American history never seems superficial. He assumes that his reader is familiar with the political history of the country, and focuses on episodes which highlight the fact that various political developments did not spring fully formed from the minds of men, but were often a direct response to ecological circumstances that are generally ignored by conventional histories. Each chapter confronts the reader with many, many neglected facts which are simple and obvious but at the same time quite difficult to integrate into the conventional man-centered view of social progress.

The tales told in this book are entertaining as well as informative, and it is tempting to quote passage after passage. But I’ll resist, and try to convey the flavor of Steinberg’s presentation by looking at a single short section, an example of how New England colonists first went about taming the region, which begins with this paragraph:

Long before water became a commodity for powering New England’s factories, before the dams and canals produced energy, farmers relied on rivers and streams to provide food for the family economy. In the spring, when winter stores ran low, the colonists went fishing for shade, alewives, and salmon, species of fish that return from the ocean to freshwater streams to reproduce. Salon were so plentiful during the colonial period that as late as 1700 they sold for only one cent a pound. Shad were even more copious, so much so that some felt embarrassed to be caught eating them. As one observer recalled, “it was discreditable for those who had a competency to eat shad.” One New Hampshire farmer visited a fishing place on the Merrimack River for six straight days in June 1772 and returned with a remarkable 551 shad for his efforts. The spring profusion of fish brought farmers descending on the region’s rivers, turning the most productive fishing spots into veritable carnivals, replete with drinking and card playing. Securing an important supply of dietary protein at precisely the point in the seasonal cycle when they needed it most, farmers may have also turned to fishing to relieve feelings of loneliness brought on by a long, hard winter.

It’s hard to imagine now that only two hundred years ago that a large portion of one’s wealth could consist of a natural bounty that was free to anyone for the work of harvesting it—and that such an arrangement could be stable. But two things put an end to that circumstance. The first was the advent of mills run by water power, which required dams and produced turbulence, both of which put an end to the annual upstream migration of the fish. But not just the presence of mills—grain mills had long existed on the rivers, and happily co-existed because they operated during the fall harvest months and were able to leave the river undisturbed during the spring spawning season. What put an end to the arrangement was the use of water to power textile factories, a year-round operation.

Was this one of those episodes where the effects of a well-meant technological innovation went undetected until it was too late? Not at all. Farmers and mill operators both knew full well from the beginning that the mills were depleting the rivers of fish, and farmers tried (unsuccessfully) to assert that their rights to the fish were being infringed upon. Even more, the laws as they existed tended to side with the farmers against the mill operators. But, unsurprisingly, mill owners arranged for the laws to be changed.

The second factor, not so important in the case of New England fishing but increasingly important as the settlement of America proceeded, was the new understanding of natural resources as commodities that could be bought and sold. Steinberg explains this in an early chapter, which concludes:

The passenger pigeon’s decline [due to being hunted to extinction for commercial sale] was simply one example of the power of industrial capitalism to systematically rearrange the components of an ecosystem, packaging them up and delivering them to where demand was greatest. In the process, resources such as common cloth, pigeon meat, and lumber lost binding ties with their place of origin and the human and natural processes responsible for their existence. When the cotton cloth produced at Lowell found its way into a shirt, who, aside from perhaps a mill agent or disgusted fisherman, would ever think to inquire about the true costs of the energy that went into the item, the water that was literally drained away from farmers in one state and made to flow according to a production schedule dreamed up by industrialists in another? Who would possibly see in a roofing shingle the complex set of processes—the federal government’s land subsidies, the fires that plagued the land—bound up in this small but essential piece of wood?

Conceiving of things as commodities allowed people to reduce all that was complex and unique, whether pigeon meat, lumber, apples, or oranges, to a single common denominator: price. In a world moving toward such a state, where something as elusive as water could be owned and sold, where grain did not even exist yet could be purchased, where so many aspects of the natural world were being rendered equal before the almighty dollar, it was easy to overlook what separated one thing from another. Commodities have a special ability to hide from view not just the work, the sweat and blood that went into making them, but also the natural capital, the soil, water, and trees, without which they would not exist. Money, to quote nineteenth-century German sociologist Georg Simmel, had become the “frightful leveler,” reducing the uniqueness and incomparability of objects to a state of “unconditional interchangeability.”

The development of America is critically bound up with the question not only of who owns what, but the question of to what extent an owner can exploit what he owns. For example, hydraulic mining in the California hills devastated the rivers that flowed from those hills, and the farming that depended on those rivers, raising their beds sixteen feet (!) in some places, before legal action finally brought the mining to a halt (but without requiring restitution).

How do we judge this particular episode? Did the system bring about a just resolution? Were the mine owners unfairly inhibited in exploiting their land? Should they have been allowed to proceed as long as they compensated those downstream? Should such activity simply have been prohibited in the first place? Practical considerations give us very little guidance in how to proceed, and the modern church is a long way from being able to make even tentative comments on what is right and wrong here.

My own suspicion is that early on we mistook rapaciousness for industry, proceeded to build a society that catered to rapaciousness, and have finally come to a place where we are proud for having stripped the landscape bare. When Chris was reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, he would read me portions of the story of Easter Island, whose society collapsed due to the overexploitation of natural resources. He was particularly struck by the idea that the island was completely deforested, and wondered what that fellow was thinking as he chopped down the island’s last tree. I told him it was something along the lines of “I’m glad I got here before that fellow coming over the hill.” And I suppose if he was a dominion-taking Christian he probably thought “I can’t wait to see in what marvelous new ways God will be providing for our needs!”

I should point out here that, even though there are hints of a viewpoint in the above two paragraphs (“industrial capitalism,” “almighty dollar”), this is about as close as Steinberg comes to advocacy—and it is pretty tame. Mostly Steinberg lets circumstances speak for themselves, and even occasionally takes the opportunity to counter some lazy assumptions the reader might make about an ecologically-centered history—there is a chapter which looks at the conservation movement which began in the early 1900s, spurred on by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, and Steinberg ends up taking a dismal view of it all.

Although I enthusiastically recommend Down to Earth, it’s hard for me to judge how others will react to it, particularly those who are comfortable with modern industrial society. I loved the book because it covered a lot of material I had already encountered, tied it together by applying some important basic concepts (e.g. commodification), and then showed how those ideas explained many, many other episodes in American history. I was ready for Steinberg’s interpretation of events, but only because I had already been questioning the official party line in these areas.