In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.
“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.
Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.
In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.
So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.
|Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.
Within the “warming,” there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!
(As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)
The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”
Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things? And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?
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