Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Archive for June, 2008

Amazonian Harvest

Posted by Gerald on June 29, 2008

I’ve just finshed a a very interesting article about agriculture in the Amazon (“Amazonian Harvest” by Mara Hvistendahl, Archaeology, July/August 2008.  You can see some of it here.)  Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated by what archaeologists have been finding in the Amazon rain forest.  Starting in the 1950s a group of anthropologists and archaeologists started to challenge a prevailing idea that the Amazon was an impossible area for dense human settlement without slash-and-burn agriculture and the resulting deforestation.  There are extensive earthworks and pottery remnants as well as documentary evidence going back to the 17th century that indicates there was once extensive settlement in the region.  Research has started to suggest that the people there found ways to manage water and the forest that allowed for a dense population without the destruction that became common with the Spanish strategy of “Cut it, fell it, burn it, and farm it.”

This article discusses some work in the Bolivian Amazon as well as the way it is being used to promote the idea of a more sustainable model of agriculture for the region.  This is part of a tradition of “action archaeology” meant to use discoveries of the past to create positive change.  This idea dates back to the 1950s as well where it was first used in areas of the Near East.  Archaeologists discovered methods dating from the Byzantine Empire that had been used to farm areas that were considered unfarmable desert at that time.  Agricultural experts and local farmers were able to adapt the historical methods to grow food and commercial crops in the region.  Local farmers and activists are promoting a similar model in the Amazon.

As a student of history, I’m as intrigued by the question of why as I am by the question of how these people farmed the way they did.  One thing that jumped out at me while reading this was that slash-and-burn methods weren’t used in this part of the Americas until the Spanish came with iron and steel.  The introduction of iron also transformed African agriculture.  Some theories suggest that several cereal crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa couldn’t be grown until iron hoes and knives were available.  What interests me in the Amazonian case is the idea that perhaps the very lack of “advanced” metallurgy might have been the thing that led local people to develop superior farming methods for that environment.  My theory would be that these methods were then lost when the region was formally subdued and organized under the mission system.  This led – as always – to a huge demographic disaster.  As the Amazonian Indians were dying off from newly introduced diseases, they were also forced to adopt European farming methods.  The result was the loss of the earlier methods and a legacy of unsustainable agriculture that were part and parcel of the story of imperialism in the region.  All of the stuff in this paragraph is just my take, but I think it makes sense.

Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Good things this week

Posted by Gerald on June 27, 2008

I drank a cold glass of home-brewed beer with a good friend.

I wrote my new rubric for grading essays and used it to get my student’s assignments back in a timely manner.

I didn’t go into the office before noon even once (I am NOT a morning person).

I turned off the tube when there wasn’t anything on I really wanted to see and read and listened to music (I was raised with a constant TV presence and have been battling that addiction ever since).

I had a dinner with good friends then went to see a surprisingly entertaining movie.

When one of those friends got into what I felt was an unnecessary confrontation over disruptive behavior in the theater, I didn’t have to get into a fight to back him up even though I had decided to do so.

I went to a fun lunch with the members of my department to celebrate some one’s birthday (we haven’t all gotten together in awhile).

Not bad.

Posted in Personal | Leave a Comment »

A Public Resolution

Posted by Gerald on June 26, 2008

I’ve really slacked off on the blog posts in recent months.  I think writing this is good for me – I won’t speak for any of you – and I want to re-dedicate myself to it.  My plan is to post something at least every other day.  I’m hoping putting this out here will help me keep to this resolution.  We’ll see…

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Thermopylae and the Alamo

Posted by Gerald on June 26, 2008

At long last, I’ve finished reading Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.  I really enjoyed the book, but I kept starting it and stopping it.  Part of the reason was that it seemed that every few pages were giving me things I wanted to figure out how to add into my class lectures.  I also found myself rereading several chapters each time I came back to the book.

Holland has a great prose style and, like his book Rubicon, feels almost like a novel.  From a purely scholarly viewpoint, there are some minor problems.  He uses a novelist’s touch when discussing motivations.  What give the account such immediacy is his willingness to get inside a historical figure’s head.  The problem for me as a sort-of-historian reading it is that I know the sources won’t bear that weight.  It is rare that we know what any specific historical figure actually thought, unless we are lucky enough to have things like private journals or letters.  We have no such sources for the war between Persia and the Greek poleis.  Most of what we have is Herodotus, who was willing to make conjectures that would get a modern monograph rejected out of hand.  I’m reminded of the whole debate over Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.  She took heat for moving beyond the sources.  I think that sort of thing is an absolute necessity at times, depending on audience.  At times the historian must be a social scientist – answerable to strict analysis and logic.  But I think the historian also needs to be an artist sometimes, moving beyond strict data to bring the past in touch with the reader through prose.

Holland does that well.  This book was well researched.  He was upfront about when he was departing from more traditional views of events and used his endnotes to point the reader in the direction of both sides of a given scholarly debate.  This isn’t a work of new scholarship, but it is a well-written work of synthesis.  Holland is also very good a bringing the subject matter to life.  He uses his own travels to the locations he is discussing as well as archaeological work to engage all of the reader’s senses – the heat of the day at Marathon, the stench of the corpses at Thermopylae, the thirst of the Greeks at Plataea.

Looming over this book is Herodotus.  This is inevitable in that his historia is our major written source about the war as well as being the generally acknowledged foundation of western historical study.  More than this, there is a similarity of structure.  Like Herodotus, Holland places the war in a context of the meeting of Asia and Europe.  Also like Herodotus, Holland begins his account among the Persians.  This was the most interesting part of the book for me and it set up what I see as one of its strengths.  Given the lack of Persian literature from this period (we’ve got inscriptions on walls and that’s about it) every account I’ve ever read of this battle has been inevitably hellenocentric.  Holland’s book keeps moving from one side to the other.  I’ve left the work with a deep desire to learn more about the Persians.  In fact, I’m planning on using them extensively in the World Civilizations course I’m starting in the fall.  His account of the Greeks is also refreshingly honest, both in their strengths and in their weaknesses.

I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in a work for a general audience.  I also think it should be required of anyone who saw the movie 300.  My next foray into this subject will be Paul Cartledge’s recent book on Thermopylae.

As I read Persian Fire I kept thinking about mythology.  Not classical mythology, but the mythology surrounding Thermopylae itself.  The fact is, we don’t know WHY the battle happened the way it did.  I know that when I first learned about it, the battle was described by my teacher in terms of another great moment of myth-making – The battle of the Alamo.  There is a myth that has the Spartans standing alone and holding the pass in order to win precious time for the rest of Greece to prepare in defense of “freedom”.  This is nonsense.  Whatever they hoped for, there were no preparations going on.  Several major poleis were openly supporting the Persians and others were firmly on the fence.  Both Spartan helots and Athenian slaves (and any Greek woman) could comment on the whole “freedom” thing.  Also, the Spartans weren’t alone – they brought helots, periokoi, and hoplites from other poleis.  Almost forgotten is the simultaneous naval engagements by the Greek fleets.  Still, there has been this romantic vision of the Last Stand of Leonidas.

Again, I see all of these echoes of the Alamo myth (and I’m sure I’m not the first – if anyone reading this could point me in the direction of folks who’ve written about this similarity, I’d appreciate it.)  This same vision of a desperate last stand in defense of freedom.  This has to be part of a broad pattern.  It is obviously about the west and its sense of identity, and in particular the American variety.  We Americans do seem to love a last stand – Alamo, Little Big Horn, Corregidor, and lots more if you include the narrowly won victories alongside the sacrificial stands.  I’ve got to think that when accounts of the Alamo first appeared in the US that there were references to Thermopylae (or maybe Livy, given the early republic’s love affair with the Romans).  I wonder if the accounts of these battles were twisted around each other and fed back into each other into a grand narrative of dying for freedom.  Then comes Custer and that painting – the messiah of the West.  All of this seems to me part of the ongoing rhetoric in America about the justification for military adventurism and the cultural sense that real men become Marines.*

Thomas Pakenham wrote in his introduction to The Boer War about how every upper class Victorian home had a painting of the Last Stand and how every young man took his commission waiting for that moment.  He then contrasted that with the failure of the Jameson Raid, but I wonder if there isn’t a bigger point here about cultural identity (maybe gender?) in imperialistic societies like the US and Britain in the 19th century?

Somebody has got to have already written this up.  Can anyone point me to work about this?

* To be honest I should confess that I’ve been indulging my addiction to military porn – i.e., JAG, NCIS, etc… – as of late; my perceptions might have been altered.  Bellesario as LSD.

Posted in American history, History, reviews | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Battlestar Galactica mid-season finale

Posted by Gerald on June 13, 2008

Like with the Sopranos finale, I find myself forced to write an immediate reaction.

My first reactions are:

Again, it is proven there is no such thing as a good day aboard the Galactica.  This is the most depressing thing I’ve seen on TV since “The Day After.”


It was perfect.

After the “Adama and Roslyn realize their love” and the “this is what makes us worth saving” stuff last week and then the great rapprochement this week we were all set up for the happy day.  They make the realization, the make the jump, they find the planet, they kiss and hug and cry…

…and then they go down to the planet.

…and we all get punched in the gut.

It was perfect… and sooo dark.


Posted in Battlestar Galactica, science fiction, Television | 4 Comments »