Hunter-Gatherers VS Farmers

Diamond, J., 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

Let me begin by saying that I love Diamond’s chapter titles. He really pulls you in with his simplistic but intriguing headers. This is important when your novel is going to be jam packed with wordy paragraphs with fact after fact. At least he could draw me in one way or another!

Over the course of the few chapters I read this week, Diamond takes me on a journey to understanding the relationship between hunter-gatherers, farmers, and food production. From the beginning of this course, I always just said “Plants and People.” I never thought to differentiate even further. Go deeper. What different types of people used plants? When in history? Why did these people use their resources different than others? Diamond has the answers!

 

Diamond did a great job in differentiating hunter-gatherers and farmers, and explaining major differences in lifestyles, the problems each faced, what worked and what didn’t.

I liked the idea that hunter-gatherers are seen as just as productive as farmers in some ways. We often think of them as being pretty useless most of the time, prehistoric and old-fashioned. A waste of time. But Diamond brings up a good point when he mentions how farmers spend all day raising food, doing physical work, sometimes to not even get a great result. They are both equally as hard and pressing but in different ways.

Oh how odd it is to think in a different light.

Diamond’s explanation of radiocarbon dating was extremely detailed, hard to follow sometimes, but very thorough. A very important issue he brings up that I never thought to question was that the atmospheric ratio of carbon 14/carbon 12 is not a constant, but fluctuates, so often our calculations can be off. It was fascinating when he explains how this dilemma can be fixed through the reading of tree rings. Although it wasn’t my favourite part of this reading, he definitely made learning these facts truly interesting.

 

Diamond mentions how food production is neither a discover not an invention, but an “evolution as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences”pg 101. He says, “we must consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies competing with each other.”pg 105. So here, slowly the scale began to tip, and farming with took up the majority of food production.

What were the factors that made such a change in food production?

One of the biggest factors that I read about was technology(duh)! Whether it be basket weaving, carving knives, to modern day mills and assembly lines. Technology over time has made food production the easiest options for us to survive.

Diamond surfaced so many questions stirring around in my head. I hope to delve into these matters further, and continue to question the things that surround me.

Keep curious, folks!

“Did a rise in human population density force people to turn to food production, or did food production permit a rise in human population density?”pg 107

~Anisha

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Who’s In Charge? Plants or People?

Pollan, M., 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House, New York.

Diamond, J., 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

Both Botany of Desire, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, are informative books that talk about plants and their interactions with humans. Botany of Desire emphasizes the idea of the plants immense influence on animals, rather than the other way around. Guns, Germs, and Steel uses more of a historical approach in order to convey our relationship with plants over time.

Diamond’s writing style was very informative, yet bland during some points. I found myself really wanting to engage in his ideas, but struggled with his words. Although his chapter took me some time to read due to our differences in literacy preferences, I appreciate his book and all the facts it had to offer. Just as in Triumph of Seeds, I was relived to see some figures and tables in Diamond’s novel.

Diamond delves on the idea of domestication and how ancient species became domesticated and turned into crops. He talks about the reasons why humans chose to domesticate species, and what influenced those decisions such as sweetness, size, fleshiness, fibre length, etc.

Guns, Germs, and Steel explains how many of the crops we have today are due to mutant seeds. Much of the time, wild plants produce fruit and vegetables that are not big enough for us, not sweet enough, not soft enough. But, once in a blue moon a mutant seed may deliver the perfect tasting plant that we happened to stumble upon and cherish the seeds. This would be the first step to domestication. I thought this was very interesting because I never realized how many wild plants were dangerous to us, such as the almond.

Diamond also mentions how humans have spent a lifetime to perfect agriculture and crop growth. It is now a science. He says how universities have departments devoted to the genetics of crops such as apples and grapes, and even wine. Send me there, please!

I found Pollan’s writing very fluent and captivating. His words were mesmerizing and I was thoroughly impressed with his ability to convey his idea so beautifully. He used so many great examples to get his ideas across, which is very helpful to a new botanist. I found myself easily explaining his introduction chapter to my peers(who were very impressed by my new found knowledge). I am very excited to read more of Botany of Desire, as Pollan takes us on a journey using social history, natural history, science, journalism, biography, mythology, philosophy, memoir.

Pollen’s main topic in his introduction is the notion, who is in charge? Plants or People? He has this amazing idea that plants are very conscious in their decisions to make us animals want to pick them and plant them. Just as humans, plants are interested in making copies of itself and allowing its species to be abundant during future generations. I have never thought of it in this light; I was quite blown away by the idea. I recently realized how many aspects of our lives that plants rule, but now thinking that maybe it is because they are the driving force, not us? It was interesting but almost eerie when Pollan said that plants are “the species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories” BOD pg xvi.

Pollan also touches on the topic of domestication of species. We humans often find such beauty and mystery in wild species, yet we forget to marvel at the impressive domesticated species who have somehow managed to lure us into coevolving with them and allowed them to be abundantly populated. Pollan has a great example of this when he says, “the wolf is somehow more impressive to us than the dog” BOD pg xvi. This is so true! People! Get it together!

Another fact I found intriguing was when Pollan mentioned how the domestication of plant species over history can tell us about the people living at that time. The values they cherished, what they desired. He puts it perfectly when he says, “it has something to tell us about that age’s idea of beauty.”BOD pg xvii.

Botany of Desire sparked another notion that humans are so quick to take credit for most complex species. We think we are superior due to our ability to communicate, make tools and our sense of consciousness. Plants are extremely advanced based on their own standards. Pollan explains it as “plants are so unlike people that it’s very difficult for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophistication”BOD pg xix.

Both Botany of Desire, and Guns, Germs, and Steel were intriguing and eye opening. I greatly look forward to reading more of both novels, and immersing myself in the world of plants and animals, and how we coexist on this planet that we call home.

“For a great many species today “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force”

-Botany of Desire, Page xxii

-Anisha Parekh

Seeds Nourish. Seeds Unite. Seeds Endure. Seeds Defend. Seeds Travel.

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. Basic Books, New York, NY.

In The Triumph of Seeds, Thor Hanson takes readers on a  journey of the history of seeds, as he stresses their importance in the past, present, and future. He combines passages of historical references as well as personal experiences in order to relay the central message of his novel; seeds are life.

Thor is definitely a skilled writer and story teller. This is clear from the get go, as he begins the introduction of the novel with memories of his son and smoothly makes a connection to his story of seeds. I found it pleasing how he could spend the span of a chapter(roughly 15 pages) narrating the germination process of a seed so eloquently. He also used beautiful imagery that forced me to look at seeds in a new light.  A great example of Thor’s imaginative words are; “a dark stem arched downward into the soil, and above it two seed leaves had begun to unfurl. They looked impossibly green and tender, a rich meal for the pale shoot just visible between them.”pg 38. Another example that i thoroughly enjoyed was, “There the spores practically glowed, tucked into speckled golden pouches at the base of each leaf.”pg 136. Just wow.

Throughout the novel, Thor does a fantastic job of explaining concepts through comparisons. This is important to me, because as a fairly new botanist dabbler, I sometimes struggle with grasping simple concepts. He explains the basics of a seed by writing, “a seed contains three basic elements: the embryo of a plant (the baby), a seed coat (the box), and some kind of nutritive tissue (the lunch). ”pg 46. He later continues to expand on this idea when he says, “a seed may be a baby in a box with its lunch, but plants have come up with countless ways to play out those roles. It’s like a symphony orchestra.”pg 57.

I really appreciated the inclusion of images and diagrams throughout the novel. It gave my eyes and mind a quick rest, and allowed me to really visualize some of the key concepts that Thor attempts to explain. Even if it was as simple as a drawing of a split avocado seed, it made me push my thought process to another level.

This novel got me thinking of how crucial seeds are to life, and how silently abundant they are. I came to the abrupt realization that seeds are everywhere. They are in every meal we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicine we use, even most products we buy are somehow linked to seeds. Thor makes a good point when he mentions how humans are the most accomplished animal in seed use. He puts it quite perfectly when he says that “they transcend that imaginary boundary we erect between the natural world and the human world, appearing so regularly in our daily lives, in so many forms, that we hardly recognize how utterly dependent we are upon them.” pg 17.

Although the majority of the human population tends to ignore seeds, somebody clearly acknowledged their importance, as Thor made an excellent point that “A forest, after all, is named for its trees and not for the monkeys or birds that leap and flutter within it. And everyone knows to call the famed Serengeti a grassland—not a zebra-land with grass.”pg 26. So, humanity does have some hope.

This novel is a phenomenal introduction to the vast world of seeds. If you weren’t interested in them before, Thor will definitely beckon you closer with one simple sentence; “what lies inside those neat packages just waiting for the spark to build a new plant?”pg 41.

“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.
—George Bernard Shaw,
The Vegetarian Diet According to Shaw (1918)”pg22

– Anisha

Food For Thought

MacKinnon, J.B., Smith, Alisa. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Pg 1-149.

At first glance at this book, my eyes did an automatic roll as I foreshadowed much boredom from a typical university class read. Although I immediately proved myself wrong as I began to read this fascinating journal of Alisa and James, and their journey through a year of local eating.

Both journalists successfully document their trials and triumphs of their year long challenge, as well as adding several statistics and historical data in an interesting and possessing manner. I found this book easy to read from the first page, as though I was reading a story instead of absorbing all of this important information that Alisa and James sneakily fit in-between the lines.

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating touches on several important topics revolving around community culture, agriculture, the economy of the food industry, etc. While reading, I found myself resurfacing thoughts from deep inside my mind about health, local eating and the challenges it possesses, the state that our natural earth is in, and so many more dire topics that we seem to not think about quite enough these days.

I found it quite interesting and refreshing that James mentioned the fact that local eating is indeed expensive. It is unfortunate that if one wants to do do good for their body and reduce mass market food with chemicals, eat organic and locally, as well as help the local business, it is sometimes not feasible due to the price.

This book made me aware of how far food can travel. It is something we never give a second thought to, but when you hear the numbers, it is rather alarming. Alisa and James find out that the “typical distance from farm to plate at more like 2,500 miles… in other words, worlds apart.” pg 30. It is even more alarming to hear that is number is increasing.

Alisa mentions how eating locally means sometimes you eat a lot more of one type of food, maybe a lot of potatoes or apples, depending on your area. This is a challenge that I would not have though of before starting the 100-Mile Diet. I am so used to eating whatever I feel like at that moment. Picking up any ingredient from the Superstore down my street. Do I feel like Mexican? No problem, Señor Froggy is five minutes away. We are so used to having a diverse palette at our disposal, and local eating would not allow for such a degree of range in meal choice.

Although local eating consists of more frequent use a smaller range of ingredients, you find yourself immersing yourself in the world of diversity for these ingredients. James and Alisa come to a realization that there is a seemingly countless number of variations in one ingredient, for example, all the different types of tomatoes. I found this very enlightening and felt a beckoning call for a challenge. It made me want to experience more variations of the ingredients I use, and perhaps become an expert on one. Perhaps honey? Hot peppers? Tomatoes? Wine is a given.

This book also made me ponder the meaning of the word homemade. I often pride myself for my above-average( I like to think, anyways) cooking and baking skills. I boast about my delicacies being homemade, and think about how in this day and age, this is impressive. So many people are buying their lunches at work and school, ordering dinner, and shopping in the frozen isle. It has become a notable skill if you can make a homemade meal. Throughout the book, Alisa and James talk about skills such as canning your own food, hunting your own meat. Aren’t these the real impressive skills? Sure makes cooking a homemade quinoa salad sound easy.

As I was reading, I came to the realization that food and memories are so closely linked together. Food truly creates memories. James mentions how his relationship with Alisa basically blossomed over a meal of pizza. Food brings people together. When you have more contact from the very beggining with the ingredients that make up your dinner plate, you are creating memories there too. You are meeting the people who grow your food, making life long connections. You are spending quality time with your loved ones, picking out the perfect ingredients in the field or at the local market. So as I mentioned earlier, yes, you may be eating a less diverse variety of foods when opting a local diet, but you are gaining memories and experiences. You are choosing to be a little more connected in a world where most people have a screen in front of their face, waiting for their frozen meal to heat up in the microwave. Alisa and James’ friend Ruben put it in perfect words when he said, “if grocery shopping were always like this, it wouldn’t be a chore.” pg 60.

I noticed that James makes a point to mention that even if you are eating locally, you may still not be fully aware of what your ingredients are going through. Perhaps if you buy from a market, you still do not have a true connection with your ingredients. Someone else is putting love and care into the cultivation of your food. The history of your ingredients has vanished.

Although many people would claim that the history of their ingredients is important, this notion seems to vanish when it comes to meat. As a vegetarian, this irks me. James puts it simply as,”the anonymity is in part a comfort: plastic wrapped ground beef does little to remind you of the carcass of a cow.” pg 48. I found this statement very truthful. When it comes to the meat people eat, people tend to be blind. How can you be so concerned about the pesticides in your veggies, yet eat KFC for lunch, or go buy the cheapest cut of meat at the grocery store without second thought? As James says,”packaged and processed foods share few of their secrets.” pg 48.

As well as all the previous topics i mentioned that this book covers, Alisa and James also touch on some other very important subjects that I found interesting. How meat production uses an abundance of resources just to produce one pound of meat. Statistics on illnesses related to food, how much food is available to us and how much we waste. Where to the draw the line when eating locally. Is it really local if the livestock is feeding on non-local feed? Veggies grown in manure from local cows that ate non-local feed? I could literally go on forever on the eye opening topics and concepts that this book pulls together.

So far, this book is great. I am learning so much, as well as rethinking the way I live my life.

~”It’s no secret that we, as a society, have been losing the traceability not only of our food, but every aspect of our lives.” pg 55.~

-Anisha