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“And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming”*…

 

lost city

Remnants of the ancient city of Cahokia, in what’s now southern Illinois

 

Not far from my grandmother’s house is a ghost city. At Angel Mounds on the Ohio river about eight miles southeast of Evansville, there are a few visible earthworks and a reconstructed wattle-and-daub barrier. There is almost nothing left of the people who build these mounds; in a final insulting erasure, the site is now named after the white settler family who most recently farmed the land.

There are traces of other dead villages along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, mounds scattered from present-day Indiana to Arkansas and Alabama. In southern Illinois, a few miles from the Missouri border, hidden among empty corn and soy fields, is the center of that dead civilization’s gravity: the lost city of Cahokia.

Cahokia was larger than London, centrally planned, the Manhattan of its day. Most people there would have come from somewhere else. There were defensive foundations, playing fields, and a magnificent temple. There would have been sacred ceremonies and salacious gossip. It must have been a very exciting place to live.

And then, relatively abruptly, it ceased to exist. We know of the city only because of the physical traces left behind. Few stories of Cahokia have survived; it disappeared from oral tradition, as if whatever happened to it is best forgotten. The archaeological record shows traces of the desperation and bloodshed that almost always accompany great upheavals: skeletons with bound hands, pits full of strangled young women.

The North American Drought Atlas, a historical record of climate conditions pieced together from the rings of old trees, provides a hint of what might have happened. The tenth century CE, when the Cahokia civilization would have developed, marked a distinct shift in the regional climate from persistent drought to rainier conditions more suitable for agriculture, centralization, and civilization.

But the good times were not to last…

Some people say “the climate has changed before,” as though that should be reassuring. It’s not: “Lost Cities and Climate Change.”

See also:  “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises” and “What kind of climate change coverage do you read in the news? It depends on whether you live in a rich country or a poor one.”

* “Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans — vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.”
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (a powerful novel)

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As we face facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Ticknor & Fields published transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

220px-Walden_Thoreau source

 

Written by LW

August 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself”*…

 

Go Back

 

So … what if everyone went back where they came from?

The always-illuminating Nathan Yau, of Flowing Data, demonstrates that in the U.S., almost everyone comes from somewhere else.  See his explanation at “If We All Left to ‘Go Back Where We Came From’.”

* Maya Angelou

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As we contemplate commonality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1648 that Mehmed IV became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire… at the age of 6 (as a result of his father’s overthrow).  He went on to become the second longest reigning sultan in Ottoman history (after Suleiman the Magnificent).  Under his reign the empire reached the height of its territorial expansion in Europe.

OttomanEmpireMain

The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in Europe, under Sultan Mehmed IV in the late 17th century

 source (and larger version)

220px-Sultan_Mehmed_IV_(2) source

 

Written by LW

August 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”*…

 

the_man_who_tried_to_claim_the_grand_canyon_1050x700

 

“I have always said that I would make more money out of the Grand Canyon than any other man.” Ralph H. Cameron, an entrepreneur in both business and politics, desired nothing less than a fortune from the canyon, and did not mind misusing laws—or his influence—to obtain it. From the time he arrived in Arizona in 1883, until he left under a cloud of disapproval after his single term in the Senate ended in 1927, Cameron used mining laws for many purposes other than mining.

Although Cameron began his work in the Grand Canyon legitimately, he drifted away from lawful practices, seeking more power and more money. Cameron wandered from early mines at the Grand Canyon to early tourist trails and eventually to Congress. But his routes repeatedly crossed opponents, from railroad companies to the federal government. He masked personal interests as public-mindedness, a charade hard to conceal forever. Seeing how Cameron bilked the public and opposed federal conservation efforts offers a window to the ways such questionable ethics undermined the public good to feed simple greed…

Ralph H. Cameron staked mining claims around the Grand Canyon, seeking to privatize it. When the federal government fought back, he ran for Senate. The cautionary tale of “The Man Who Tried to Claim the Grand Canyon.”

* Wallace Stegner

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As we contemplate the commons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that the Cape Cod National Seashore was created.  Encompassing 43,607 acres– and 40 miles of seashore– on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, it includes ponds, woods and beachfront in the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecoregion in and around the towns of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans and Chatham.

321px-CCNS_Sign source

 

Written by LW

August 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I lit a thin green candle to make you jealous of me, but the room just filled up with mosquitoes”*…

 

NewYorker_Mosquito_Vertical_v5

 

It turns out that, if you’re looking for them, the words “mosquitoes,” “fever,” “ague,” and “death” are repeated to the point of nausea throughout human history. (And before: … when the asteroid hit, dinosaurs were already in decline from mosquito-borne diseases.) Malaria laid waste to prehistoric Africa to such a degree that people evolved sickle-shaped red blood cells to survive it. The disease killed the ancient Greeks and Romans—as well as the peoples who tried to conquer them—by the hundreds of thousands, playing a major role in the outcomes of their wars. Hippocrates associated malaria’s late-summer surge with the Dog Star, calling the sickly time the “dog days of summer.” In 94 B.C., the Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote, “In the area south of the Yangtze the land is low and the climate humid; adult males die young.” In the third century, malaria epidemics helped drive people to a small, much persecuted faith that emphasized healing and care of the sick, propelling Christianity into a world-altering religion…

In total… mosquitoes have killed more people than any other single cause—fifty-two billion of us, nearly half of all humans who have ever lived. [They are] “our apex predator,” “the destroyer of worlds,” and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”…

They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history– and they’re not finished with us yet: “How Mosquitoes Changed Everything.”

* Leonard Cohen

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As we nestle under our nets, we might spare a thought for Girolamo Fracastoro; he died on this date in 1553.  A physician, poet, and scholar of mathematics, geography, and astronomy, he he proposed (in 1546) that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable tiny particles or “spores” that could transmit infection by direct or indirect contact or even without contact over long distances; he called these infectious agents fomes, from the Latin, meaning tinder.  His theory was influential for three centuries, until it was sufficiently refined and extended to become modern germ theory, which superseded Fracastoro’s model.

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Girolamo Fracastoro, by Titian c. 1528

source

 

Written by LW

August 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore”*…

 

money

 

The instruments of trade and finance are inventions, in the same way that creations of art and discoveries of science are inventions—products of the human imagination. Paper money, backed by the authority of the state, was an astonishing innovation, one that reshaped the world. That’s hard to remember: we grow used to the ways we pay our bills and are paid for our work, to the dance of numbers in our bank balances and credit-card statements. It’s only at moments when the system buckles that we start to wonder why these things are worth what they seem to be worth. The credit crunch in 2008 triggered a panic when people throughout the financial system wondered whether the numbers on balance sheets meant what they were supposed to mean. As a direct response to the crisis, in October, 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever he or she or they might be, published the white paper that outlined the idea of Bitcoin, a new form of money based on nothing but the power of cryptography.

The quest for new forms of money hasn’t gone away. In June of this year, Facebook unveiled Libra, global currency that draws on the architecture of Bitcoin. The idea is that the value of the new money is derived not from the imprimatur of any state but from a combination of mathematics, global connectedness, and the trust that resides in the world’s biggest social network. That’s the plan, anyway. How safe is it? How do we know what libras or bitcoins are worth, or whether they’re worth anything? Satoshi Nakamoto’s acolytes would immediately turn those questions around and ask, How do you know what the cash in your pocket is worth?

The present moment in financial invention therefore has some similarities with the period when money in the form we currently understand it—a paper currency backed by state guarantees—was first created. The hero of that origin story is the nation-state. In all good stories, the hero wants something but faces an obstacle. In the case of the nation-state, what it wants to do is wage war, and the obstacle it faces is how to pay for it…

The ever-illuminating John Lanchester explains how, over three centuries, the heresies of two bankers became the basis of our modern economy: “The Invention of Money.”

[Lanchester’s latest novel, The Wall, was just long-listed for the Booker.]

* Yogi Berra

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As we learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1861 that the U.S. government, in anticipation of the expense of the looming Civil War, levied its first income tax as part of the Revenue Act of 1861.  It assessed 3% of all incomes over $800, but included no enforcement mechanism, and so generated very little revenue.  It was revised in 1862 in a more effective form, then rescinded in 1872.

The first peace-time income tax was established in 1894, but was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (the 10th amendment forbade any powers not expressed in the US Constitution, and the Constitution provided no power to impose any other than a direct tax by apportionment).  It was in 1913, with the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that income tax became a permanent fixture in the U.S. tax system.

HR54_Revenue_Act source

 

Written by LW

August 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Home’s where you go when you run out of homes”*…

 

home

 

When we imagine the homes of the future, we can’t just think about the technologies that could alter our domestic lives. We also need to think about the changing ways that people relate to their habitats.

For the past five years, Ikea has been on a mission to better understand people’s relationships with their homes by doing in-depth sociological studies of its consumers. The company publishes its finding in its annual Life at Home report, which began in 2014. Last year’s report involved visiting the houses and apartments of 22,000 people across 22 countries to better understand what everyday living looks like in today’s world.

What Ikea found was that our fundamental notions of home and family are experiencing a transformation. Plenty of demographic research suggests that major changes in where and how we live could be afoot: For instance, people who marry later may spend more years living with roommates. If couples delay having children—or choose to remain child-free—they may choose to live longer in smaller apartments. As people live longer, we might find more multigenerational homes, as parents, children, and grandchildren all cohabit under one roof.In addition to those demographic shifts, Ikea’s research uncovered something else: Many of the people in its large study were not particularly satisfied with their domestic life. For one thing, they’re increasingly struggling to feel a sense of home in the places they live; 29% of people surveyed around the world felt more at home in other places than the space where they live every day. A full 35% of people in cities felt this way.

Ikea surveyed 22,000 people in 22 countries, and came up with six visions for the future of our homes: “See Ikea’s 6 visions for how we’ll live in the future.”

* John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

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As we settle in, we might send pointed birthday greeting to Nicolas-Jacques Conté; he was born on this date in 1755.  A painter, balloonist, and army officer, he is best remembered as the inventor of the modern pencil.  At a time when the French Republic was at that time under economic blockade and unable to import graphite from Great Britain, its main source of the material, Conté was asked by Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot to create an alternative.  Conté mixed powdered graphite with clay and pressed the material between two half-cylinders of wood– forming the first the modern pencil. He received a patent for the invention in 1795, and formed la Société Conté to make them.  He also invented the conté crayon (named after him), a hard pastel stick used by artists.

220px-Nicolas-Jacques_Conté source

 

 

Written by LW

August 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Sopping, and with no sign of stopping, either- then a breather. Warm again, storm again- what is the norm, again? It’s fine, it’s not, it’s suddenly hot: Boom, crash, lightning flash!”*…

 

Farmers Alamanac

 

Americans are highly dependent on weather forecasts. Today, most of us rely on modern technology for predictions about the weather—forecasts based on readings of countless measuring tools, fed into computer models, then analyzed and broadcast or sent straight to our smartphones. But I had other tools of weather prediction, small enough to fit in my backpack: two farmers almanacs. They’ve been around hundreds of years, since before the Civil War, and have survived the advent of modern technology.

Almanacs occupy a special place in the history of weather prediction. In the 1700s and 1800s, scores of publishers printed almanacs, and they were trusted widely enough as a source that Abraham Lincoln once won a murder trial using an almanac as evidence. Today, though, there are easier, more modern, and more scientific—simply, better—ways to tell the weather. Yet The Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, is among the longest-running continuously published periodicals in the United States. The Farmers’ Almanac, which began publishing in 1818, is not far behind it. Which led me to wonder: Who still reads farmers almanacs?

As it turns out, a lot of people. The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s editors say it prints and distributes around 3 million copies a year, selling them at retail locations across the U.S. and in Canada. Its parent company, Yankee Publishing Inc., which also publishes Yankee and New Hampshire magazines, and several forms of Almanac-adjacent products like calendars and versions for kids, is profitable, according to its editors. In October, The Old Farmer’s Almanac topped the Boston Globe’s regional bestseller list in paperback nonfiction…

Modern media is a mess and weather prediction remains a crap shoot, but the only kind of publication that combines both—almanacs—are not only surviving, but thriving in the 21st century: “The Surprising Success of America’s Oldest Living Magazine.”

* The Old Farmer’s Almanac

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As we turn the page, we might send cultivated birthday greetings to Sir Joseph Paxton; he was born on this date in 1803.  In 1826, Paxton, a young gardener, began work as Head Gardener to William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, possessor of one of England’s premier gardens on his estate, Chatsworth.

Paxton settled into his job and became the Duke’s right-hand man for projects on the estate.  Paxton noticed the need of a conservatory, so designed and built one: The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth.  Paxton took advantage of the then-recent introduction of the sheet glass method into Britain by Chance Brothers to construct what was, at the time, the largest glass structure in England.  It was lit with twelve thousand lamps when Queen Victoria was driven through it in 1842, and she noted in her diary: “It is the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable.”

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So, when Prince Albert hatched plans for The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations– or the Great Exhibition, as it was more familiarly known– to be held in 1851, Paxton was recruited to design its central building: The Crystal Palace.

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Paxton was knighted, and went on to cultivate the Cavendish banana, the most consumed banana in the Western world, and to serve as a Member of Parliament.

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