Friday, April 3, 2020

Free Brain Food

If this might be useful in your neighborhood:


I see that Eugene Weekly is concerned about the wellbeing of local bookstores.  For folks who can painlessly spend $30 for a cool book, go for it!  Buy two!  For folks who have little or no income and savings, it’s a different story — abundant time, pennies in the piggy bank, merciless boredom, and a very hungry mind.

My specialty is learning and writing about ecological sustainability and environmental history.  I’m currently working on my fourth book, Wild, Free, & Happy, and for 20 months I’ve been sharing new segments of the rough draft on my blog as I write it, at no cost to readers.  It’s about 170 pages so far.  To learn about the objective of the book, and my bouncy sassy writing style, take a peek at the Introduction.

My mission is to help people learn.  As screwed up as the world is today, I don’t want this knowledge to remain private for another year or two — whilst the planet is being ravaged every day by a pandemic of ignorance, magical thinking, and naughty behavior.  My blog has had 442,684 page views.  Lately I’m getting about 400 views per day, and 13,000 per month, from readers on six continents.  In addition to stuff from my new book, my blog also contains reviews of 203 books, and a few dozen rants.

For the folks living in sprawling trophy homes, my first three books can be ordered via local bookstores.  They are the perfect gift for birthdays, weddings, graduations, baby showers, solstice presents, impeachments, and the collapse of civilization.

Full Blog Contents (Samples, Rants, 203 Reviews)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 01 (Introduction)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 02 (Early Days)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 03 (Primate Relatives)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 04 (Primate Lifestyles)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 05 (Early Hominins)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 06 (Bipedal Hominins)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 07 (Fire: Big Juju)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 08 (Fire Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 09 (Neanderthals & Humans)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 10 (Genes vs. Culture)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 11 (Social Structure)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 12 (Techno Innovation)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 13 (Communication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 14 (Out of Africa)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 15 (Smashing Limits)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 16 (Great Leap Forward)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 17 (Communal Hunting)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 18 (Extinction Spasms)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 19 (Climate Shifts)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 20 (Imperceptible Overkill)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 21 (Perfection of Hunting)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 22 (Grassland)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 23 (Super Grass)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 24 (Manmade Grassland)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 25 (Sacred Forests)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 26 (Animal Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 27 (Pigs & Cattle)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 28 (Sheep)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 29 (Goats)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 30 (Horse)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 31 (Dog)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 32 (Plant Domestication)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 33 (Eco-History Heroes)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 34 (Corn)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 35 (Soil Molesters)

Wild, Free, & Happy sample 36 (Erosion)

All the best!

Richard Adrian Reese

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 36

[Note: This is the thirty-sixth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 203 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Aztec Erosion

M. Lourdes González-Arqueros and team studied soil erosion in the Teotihuacán Valley, northeast of Mexico City.  Mexico’s soils have taken a beating over the centuries, and the blame is commonly directed to the settlers from the Old World who arrived in the 1500s.  They imported many destructive practices, pathogens, and hooved locusts (goats and sheep).  Research done by the study concluded that the indigenous people were already reputable soil molesters when the white folks arrived.  They analyzed erosion patterns during three different periods of time:

(1) In the Teotihuacán period (A.D. 1-650), forests still grew on summits, hill slopes, and foot slopes.  This restricted some soil erosion.  Organic corn was grown by no-tillage methods (picks and spades) on the lower ground. 

(2) In the Aztec period (1325-1521), forest area in the valley was drastically reduced as population increased, and agriculture expanded up the hillsides.  During this period, much of the landscape was devoted to agriculture.  When sloped land is deforested, increased erosion is an expected consequence.  In the Aztec period, rates of soil loss were much higher, compared to rates in both the earlier Teotihuacán period, and the later modern period.

(3) In the modern period (after 1970), forest area has recovered a bit.  A large portion of cropland is now planted with prickly pear, a perennial plant that is fast growing, rapidly rooting, and usually has deep roots.  Soil destruction was lower than during the Aztec period, but the study did not give modern practices the Sustainable Agriculture™ seal of approval.  Too many people continue living too hard.

The team concluded that land use and soil management were prime factors in the erosion, more so than precipitation and topography.  I wish their study hadn’t skipped around the years between 1521 and 1970.  Anyway, before the Spaniards, the land was gradually being beaten to death.  Then, the colonists launched a full scale war on forests, while flocks of their imported sheep and goats prevented forest recovery, and their overgrazing accelerated erosion. 

Then, around the 1960s, the Green Revolution rolled in, with mechanization, water mining, synthetic fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and trainloads of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides.  Around the world, population continues soaring, while staggering amounts of soil run away from home.  In the modern mindset, unborn generations, ecosystems, and the atmosphere are seen as disposable — cosmic litter, like plastic water bottles or cigarette butts.  Our education system is completely lost in a soft, warm, foggy dream world of full blown dementia (perpetual growth, electric cars, voyages to Mars). 

Oh!  Speaking of Mars, he was the Roman god of war in his glory days.  Earlier in his career, he was a deity of virility, fertility, springtime, and a guardian of agriculture.  Farmers hated nature, because wildness refused to behave like an obedient servant.  It was hard work clearing forests, stripping away the wild vegetation, exterminating the wildlife, and pulverizing the soil.

Nature was a mortal enemy of the Roman Empire, because it was a persistent threat to their food supply.  Trees, brush, grass, and critters constantly invaded the wheat fields.  Every day, Big Mama Nature worked hard to restore health to badly injured ecosystems.  She used all her tricks to rubbish the hideous fields — droughts, deluges, hail storms, frosts, heat waves, howling winds, wildfires, locusts, blights, birds, deer, boars, and on and on.

She also used pandemics.  One of my ancestral homes was in Gran, Hadeland, Norway.  The Black Death hammered the population, many farms were abandoned, and joyful forests reclaimed their fields.  My kin told me that one day, many years ago, a lad was hunting in the woods.  He shot an arrow, and it struck a bell.  He was surprised to discover an old church concealed in the dense forest.  Nobody among the living knew anything about the mysterious church, or the community it had served before the plague.

Mixtec Erosion

The Mixtec culture of southern Mexico is ancient.  Their homeland is mostly located in the state of Oaxaca which, long ago, was one of the most advanced regions in the Americas.  The Mixtec people managed to avoid being absorbed by the Aztec empire, and their writings are much older than those of the Aztecs or Incas.  Some believe that the Mixtecs were the ones who originally conjured domesticated corn out of wild teosinte.

In the good old days, prior to agriculture, their homeland was largely forest.  Today, regions of the treeless highlands have become a desert that not even thorns can grow in.  Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and a third of its people have moved away.  Photographer Matt Black happened to meet some Mixtecs in California, where they were accumulating vast fortunes by doing backbreaking farm labor for $40 a day.  They chose this path because their homeland had become a disaster area.  Many of them are illiterate, and most speak only their native language, Mixteco.

In 2011, Black got curious about them and decided to visit their homeland, Mixtecapan (the place of the Cloud People), one of the world’s oldest farming cultures.  Wow!  Some places have lost up to 16 feet (5 m) of topsoil.  A number of villages are half-deserted, and some of their fields have eroded to bare bedrock.  More than a million acres are so severely damaged that the U.N. now calls the region one of the most heavily eroded landscapes in the world.

Most stunning of all, Black described the disintegrating village of Santiago Mitlatongo.  One day, a cliff above town fell apart, dumping stones as large as houses on the village below.  Whole cornfields disappeared into sinkholes.  Homes sank into the ground and vanished.  Eventually, the whole village broke away from the surrounding land, like a calving iceberg — homes, fields, churches, stores — an area of about two square miles (5 km2) was in motion.  Writing in 2012, Black noted that it was still sliding, a few feet per day, a half mile (804 m) away from its original location. 

Corn Blight

H. Arnold Bruns wrote about a serious corn blight that hit the U.S. in 1970-71.  The southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) destroyed 15 percent of the corn crop.  It was enabled by innovative plant breeding that focused on maximizing yield ($$) by designing highly productive hybrid seeds that had very little genetic diversity.  These hybrids reliably generated big money for farmers, who eagerly bought the magic seeds.

On the downside, when conditions were optimal, up to 85 percent of the corn in a field was highly vulnerable to SCLB fungus.  The winter and spring of 1970 were wetter than usual, providing ideal conditions for disaster.  Some farmers lost 80 to 100 percent of their crop.  In the Corn Belt, some clusters of counties had average losses of 35 to 50 percent.  Across all of the state of Mississippi, losses were 30 to 40 percent.  This inspired big fear.  Would the entire U.S. crop be lost?  What would we use to feed livestock and poultry?  No more whiskey?  Gulp!

Before 1930, almost all corn was allowed to pollinate naturally, which resulted in high genetic diversity that reduced the possibility of catastrophic blights.  Then came the hybrids which, in theory, were more vulnerable to crop failure, but they almost always provided far higher yields and profits.  Today, in the major corn growing nations, 97 percent of the corn planted is hybrids.

The amount of food energy lost because of the SCLB blight was greater than the lost food due to the potato blight of Ireland in the 1840s, during which the Brits made little effort to feed the starving.  The message of both blights is that there is great danger in growing monocultures of extremely uniform crop plants.

Today, Brun worries that the new GMO fad is busy creating ideal conditions for bigger and better disasters — billions of herbicide resistant seeds having dangerous genetic uniformity.  What could possibly go wrong?  Right now, a blight is working hard to drive a stake into the heart of the banana industry — and winning.  The entire crop is genetically identical clones.

Wild Free and Happy Sample 35

[Note: This is the thirty-fifth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 203 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

The Curse of the Soil Molesters

If you are a lucky one, and your high school education provided you with a competent understanding of environmental history, you would probably be bored out of your mind by now, reading my tiresome jabber about stuff that every teen should know.  But, if you have been institutionalized for years in a more typical school system, there’s a chance that you’re stumbling through some uncharted territory here.  If so, it’s time we had an embarrassing “birds and bees” talk about soil molesters — the naughty things they do in their fields, and how their actions harm the region, the nation, the generations yet to be born, and the long term health of the planet’s ecosystem.

The birds and bees talk I got at age 15 had to do with boys, girls, sex, and reproduction.  The primary objective was to help kids avoid unintended and unwanted pregnancies.  With regard to my relationship with soil, I never got a similar talk, I had to figure it out on my own.  If we want to avoid ignorantly creating unwanted wastelands, the safe and effective prevention is abstinence — never, never, never engage in invasive and abusive forms of intercourse with highly fertile ecosystems.  Remember how our wild ancestors lived.  Think!

At the dawn of agriculture in Mesoamerica, folks majored in growing corn, beans, and squash.  They used techniques that were similar to other regions of the world where plant domestication emerged.  Their farm equipment was digging sticks and hoes, so the first places they molested were often along shorelines, rivers, wetlands, and flood plains, where the soils were soft and moist.  When the planters first rammed their digging tools into fertile virgin soil, the initial harvests could be impressive.  But with every year, when a field was replanted, the nutrients in the soil were a bit more diminished, and the harvest was a bit smaller. 

Depending on soil quality, a field could produce decent autumn harvests for up to maybe six years.  When “evil spirits” (nutrient depletion) eventually reduced yields, the field was abandoned, and a new one was cleared.  The abandoned field might be given a rest for maybe 10 or 20 years, to recharge its soil a bit.  Then, it might be cleared again, and returned to production for a while.  This cycle might be repeated a few times, sometimes for several generations, but not forever.  There is no free lunch.  Long term agriculture is a progressive and terminal pathology.

In Mesoamerica, this was called the milpa system, in other regions similar practices were called slash and burn, swidden, or shifting agriculture (milpa means corn field).  Milpa is the opposite of wild and free.  Big Mama Nature adores healthy soil, and strives to protect it.  Where rainfall is generous, she clothes the land with forest.  Where rain is more modest, she covers the soil with grassland.  Wild and free has three huge benefits.

(1) Protected soil retains moisture better than bare naked soil that is exposed to the sun and wind.  Consequently, wetter soil encourages a wetter ecosystem, promoting the existence of springs, streams, ponds, wetlands, and a greater abundance of many forms of life.  Magnificent swamps are home to far more biodiversity than deserts.  Both forests and wild grasslands send roots deep into the ground, so they can better retrieve nutrients and water, hold the soil in place, and continuously improve soil health and fertility with each passing century. 

In the milpa system, the primary crops are annuals, plants that live just one season and then die.  Trees and many grassland plants are perennials, plants that have longer lifespans.  Annuals have to be replanted every year, after the farmer first pulverizes the soil surface.  This disturbance encourages some of the precious carbon stored in the soil to be released into the atmosphere.  It also encourages the moisture in the soil to evaporate, which makes annuals more vulnerable to drought.

(2) Protected soil is held in place by the green blanket of vegetation, which prevents it from being blown away by the wind, or washed away by rain or snowmelt.  Bare naked sloped land is especially prone to water erosion, which can rip deep gullies into hillsides over time.  Earlier, I mentioned the catastrophic erosion in the Yellow River watershed that created gullies 600 feet deep (183 m).  Paul Shepard noted that massive erosion in the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers dumped so much soil into the Persian Gulf that 35,000 square miles (90,650 km2) of salt marsh was created.

Once upon a time, on a lovely Sunday in June, Wes Jackson was driving through Mennonite country in Kansas.  He stopped to observe a Mennonite’s field, which had recently been planted.  During the previous night, a hard rain had dumped up to five inches (12 cm) in some places, a normal event in that region.  Mennonites devote extra effort to being good stewards of the land.  Compared to industrial agriculture, their methods have lower impact.  Looking at the field, Jackson observed that the rain had washed the seeds away, and the ditches were clogged with rich black mud.  It was a wipeout. 

Then, Jackson went to inspect a prairie not far away.  It was not damaged at all.  In fact, it had been invigorated by the refreshing rain, and none of its soil had run away.  Prairies can absorb 14 times more moisture than tilled cropland.  Forests and prairies can be fairly eternal, but cropland has an expiration date.  Sooner or later, the soil is depleted, and the cropland becomes wasteland.  This can take many generations, it’s not an immediate house-on-fire threat, so it’s easy to pretend that all is good.  But the damage caused is cumulative and almost always irreparable.

Richard Manning noted that a healthy wild prairie can absorb 5 to 7 inches (13-18 cm) of rain in an hour with no runoff.  A field of corn or soybeans can absorb 0.5 to 1.5 inches (1.3-3.8 cm) in an hour, and the excess water runs off almost as fast as from a parking lot.  This difference explains the catastrophic 2008 floods in the U.S., following several days of generous rainfall.

(3) Protected soil is often an ongoing miracle of continuous improvement.  Several thousand years ago, as the glaciers melted, Iowa’s soil was exposed to warm sunbeams for the first time in ages.  Vegetation recovered and, with each passing century, the happy prairie created an ever growing layer of tremendously fertile black topsoil.  Before settlers arrived in the nineteenth century, the soil was remarkably deep in places.  Because the sod layer was so healthy, thick, and rugged, native people with corn seeds could not rip it open with digging sticks or hoes — much to the delight of the prairie, and Big Mama.

The Iowa Association of Naturalists became freaked out by soil erosion in Iowa.  In 1999, the state was losing 240 million tons of its “black gold” every year.  This incredible treasure of soil had been created over thousands of years by a thriving tallgrass prairie.  Half of it had been lost since 1848, as the settlers launched a full-scale war on the soil, armed with the insanely destructive steel moldboard plows manufactured by a demon-possessed madman named John Deere.

Jared Diamond once visited Iowa, and observed a church in corn country that was more than 100 years old.  He said that the churchyard was like a table, a plateau elevated ten feet (3 m) above the surrounding fields, which had been savagely molested by the radicalized fanatics of the Deere cult.

Geologist Walter Youngquist noted that half of Iowa’s topsoil had been flushed down the Mississippi River, and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.  On some Iowa hills, streaks of the ancient tan and gray marine clays, which had long been buried under the black gold, were beginning to see the light of day once again.  He wrote, “The great enemy of soil and, therefore, civilization, is civilization itself as we know it — the human-induced accelerated rate of erosion.”  From a human timescale, topsoil is a finite nonrenewable resource.  Destroying it is foolish.

The Danse Macabre

The emergence of plant domestication in both the Old World and the Americas typically triggered a devastating chain reaction of consequences — increased food production, deforestation, soil destruction, ballooning population, technological innovation, social stratification, bloody warfare, patriarchy, empire building, civilization, megalomania, ridiculous decadence, collapse, and ruins.  Then, if anything was left of the ecosystem, folks dusted themselves off, regrouped, and repeated the same mistakes, again and again, until the land was absolutely and permanently wrecked.

The transition to domestication, in multiple regions, was an extreme shift away from maybe two million years of the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.  Our wild ancestors rocked the boat far, far less.  They were lucky to enjoy a very long era of wild, free, and happy — the calm before the storm (or the wellbeing before the epidemic).

William McNeill wrote that both plants and animals can become hosts to diseases.  Some microparasites simply enjoy an ongoing free ride on their hosts, snatching some nutrients, but not too many.  Others seriously weaken their hosts and kill them.  McNeill imagined that, in addition to plants and animals, there was a third category of hosts — ecosystems.  Over time, some human societies became foolishly clever, and mutated into macroparasite (large predator) roles, attacking and degrading healthy ecosystems.  McNeill thought that the relationship between these rogue societies and the family of life came to resemble “an acute epidemic disease.” 

When agriculture escaped from Pandora’s Box of powerful evils, it created something like a devastating infection in the family of life.  This reminded me of a meme from the era of bubonic plague epidemics: the dance of death.  Everyone was sick and dying, especially the priests, who visited the sick.  Why didn’t God even protect his own special agents?  Hello?  Many lost their faith.

Johannes Nohl reported that during plague years, a number of communities in Europe engaged in country dances, in order to dispel depression.  In 1424, a Scottish lad named Maccaber arrived in Paris.  Folks believed he had supernatural powers.  He initiated an ecclesiastic procession, the Maccaber Dance (Danse Macabre) — the Dance of Death.  Every day, for months, crowds of men and women danced in the cemetery.  Folks wore scary masks to drive away the evil spirits.

The notion of a dance of death is sort of a fitting description for how ecosystems were impacted by the emergence and expansion of agriculture.  Let’s sketch out a generic pattern for how agriculture triggered its own whirlwind of evil spirits.  The horror began with clearing and planting in soft moist soils.  This led to more food, more people, and tired soil.  This led communities to gradually expand the size of the milpa, until it reached the limits of prime locations to deflower.  Then, planting began to move up slopes.  If forests covered the slopes, as they often did, the tree people were chopped down.  This led to more food, more people, more soil depletion, and more erosion and gullying.

As communities expanded their realms, at some point they were likely to bump into other communities, and generate some friction and sparks.  The survival of each settlement required folks to protect their stores of corn and beans — precious treasures that opponents were eager to swipe or destroy.  Consequently, many Native Americans surrounded their communities with tall and sturdy wooden palisades.  Dean Snow wrote that corn spread into Iroquois country around 1350 to 1400.  Population grew, villages got larger, longhouses got longer, and most villages had double or triple palisades.  This defensive strategy was similar to the Old World practice of building fortifications, moats, and walled cities.

In the conflict game, the cardinal rule is strength in numbers.  At first, a village might be managed by a tribal chief.  Then, multiple villages would unite, and live under the protection of a warlord.  Later, these alliances merged together into kingdoms or empires.  Communities that prepared for conflict were more likely to survive than communities that attempted to avoid the mother of conflict via family planning — reproductive taboos.  By and by, civilizations appeared, and initiated full-scale warfare on ecosystems.

Big shots in lofty power centers got very big headed and heavy handed.  Their minds floated in a giddy dream world, soaring with grandiose infantile visions of full dose megalomania.  One day, in an online encyclopedia, I was looking at a discussion of pre-Columbian (before 1492) civilizations in the New World.  I was suddenly walloped by a mind expanding dope slap.  SMACK! 

My eyes scanned a series of photos of ancient Mesoamerican ruins.  They were strangely similar in many ways — huge pyramids, elevated temple platforms, sculptures, palaces, streets, and plazas.  It was spooky how these New World images resembled the ruins created by the early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean basin.  Civilizations around the world, totally isolated from each other, clearly exhibited symptoms of the same acute disease — the curse of cleverness, domination, patriarchy, and self-glorification.

Why were so many people forced to spend their lives engaged in monumental construction projects that survived centuries longer than the brief explosion of decadence and egomania that created them?  What could be more ridiculous?  Well, (blush!) today’s industrial civilization has succeeded in boosting human foolishness and mindless destruction to levels never before believed to be possible.  No generation has created more and bigger ruins than the voracious mob alive today.

Beginning around 1200 B.C., a series of New World civilizations appeared here and there, aggressively devoured their resource base, enjoyed a giddy orgasm of debauchery, and then plummeted into oblivion.   The parade included the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Oaxacans Incas, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and so on.  This pattern of growth and collapse was also the norm in many regions of the Old World — Uruk, Babylon, Phoenicia, etc.  Like fireflies, they blink on for a moment, then off.  In unsustainable cultures, what goes up must come down, no exceptions.

Old World civilizations were fuelled by junior grade propellants like wheat, barley, and rice.  New World civilizations were turbocharged by two highly potent propellants of all: corn and potatoes.  Clive Ponting noted that in A.D. 600, wheat powered Rome was home to 50,000.  At that time, in the Valley of Mexico, corn powered Teotihuacán was home to 100,000 (others say 150,000).  It is located about 18 miles (30 km) northeast of Mexico City. 

The Old World had many powerful things that Mesoamerica did not — livestock, horses, wheels, ships, and advanced metallurgy.  Maybe the Romans were handicapped by their inferior food, or by the persistent barbarian attacks, or by the waves of infectious diseases nurtured by animal domestication, or by their soils depleted by several centuries of wheat farming, or by their lead pipe water distribution system.

In 600, hungry dirty Europeans were struggling to survive in what we now call the Dark Ages, while Teotihuacán was a state of the art masterpiece of monumental architecture (look at online images).  There was the Street of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.  Aztecs ominously referred to Teotihuacán as “the place where men became gods.”  The society was destroyed in about 650, and everything flammable was burned.  By 900, it was an abandoned ghost town.

Much later, in 1521, when Spaniards arrived, the Aztec civilization of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000 (some say 250,000), which was five times larger than London.  The invaders were amazed to see a big city in which the streets were not stinky and slippery with deep horse shit.  Aztecs are also known as the Mexica.

In an effort to recycle soil nutrients, the Aztecs fertilized their fields with human poop.  Imagine how much poop 200,000 people can plop every day.  Imagine continuously moving that poop out to the cornfields — without the benefit of wheeled carts or (nonhuman) beasts of burden.  Despite challenges, their population was soaring to new heights — until Old World diseases rumbled into town like a mega-death steamroller.

Several of the Spanish invaders wrote down accounts of what they observed, including the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice.  Prisoners were taken to the top of the temple-pyramid, where they were cut open, their beating heart removed and offered to the sun, and their corpse kicked down the steps.  Several Spaniards estimated that the number of folks sacrificed was maybe 20,000 per year.  On one especially sacred occasion in 1487, according to Aztec sources, the dedication of the main pyramid in Tenochtitlán was even bloodier, possibly more than 80,000.

Michael Harner focused his attention on the human sacrifices.  What was their purpose?  He noted that scholars tended to consider the practice shocking, but sacrifices were not unique to Mesoamerica.  Old World cultures had their own tradition of bloody mass murders that were inspired by periodic outbursts of holy hysteria and rabid intolerance.

Harner contemplated the notion that there was more to the rituals than good old fashioned religion.  Long before the rise of the Aztec culture, the deer in central Mexico had been hunted to scarcity.  Tenochtitlán was built on a manmade island on the western shore of Lake Texcoco.  The lake was too shallow and salty for fish to live in, so the meat department majored in domesticated turkeys and hairless dogs (Chihuahuas).

In the Andes, the Incas also performed sacrifices, but on a much smaller scale.  Their meat department was more generous, including llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs.  Because long distance travel was extremely difficult, the people of the Andes didn’t acquire turkeys or Chihuahuas from Mexico, but they did get corn.  On the other end, Mesoamerica did not acquire llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, or potatoes from the Andes.

While it’s possible to be fairly well nourished on a diet majoring in corn and beans, it takes some luck.  Both have to be consumed during the same meal, in adequate portions, in order to assemble essential proteins.  Adding some meat to their diet could help compensate their protein requirements.

John Reader noted that fat is essential for the absorption, transport, and storage of vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Growing children especially need two types of fat.  Arctic folks can enjoy excellent health on a diet of blubber and raw meat, but Aborigines would abandon a kangaroo that had too little fat.

Reader noted that we need to consume 40 to 50 nutrients, including carbs, fat, protein, 14 vitamins, and 15 minerals.  The building blocks of proteins are 22 types of amino acids.  From the food we eat, we can assemble 12 types of amino acids.  We cannot assemble the other 10 types, they must be consumed readymade.  These are called “essential” amino acids.  All 10 are present in plant foods, but not in the ideal proportions.  When our diet is missing just one essential amino acid, protein assembly ceases. 

It is possible to get by on a combo of cereals and beans, but this option was not practical until the era of agriculture.  For non-farmers, meat is an essential component of a healthy diet.  Different types of animal foods provide proteins, but we need to reassemble them into forms that our bodies need.  Reader said that the one and only animal food that provides the exact mix of required proteins readymade is human meat.  Full scale cannibal cultures are impossible, because the rate of consumption would far exceed the rate of reproduction.

Harner proposed the theory that the Aztec sacrifices had two roles, one was religious, and the other was about reducing malnutrition.  Aztecs often raided their neighbors, and brought back prisoners.  They did not annex their land, but they left behind survivors to breed replacements that could be captured during future raids.  Prisoners who were not eaten on the battlefield were taken back home, where they were kept in sturdy wooden cages, in which they were fattened up for an upcoming sacrifice.

Bernal Díaz was a Spaniard who was an eyewitness to sacrifices.  He wrote:  “Moreover every day they sacrificed before our eyes three, four, or five Indians, whose hearts were offered to those idols and whose blood was plastered on the walls.  The feet, arms, and legs of their victims were cut off and eaten, just as we eat beef from the butcher’s in our country.”

In the sacrifice process, the heads were also removed.  In Tenochtitlán, their skulls were displayed on a rack near the temple.  Two soldiers were assigned the job of estimating the number of skulls on the rack.  They concluded about 136,000 skulls (not including the ones on the towers).  Sacrifices were also normal events in other Aztec cities.

As school children, we were taught that civilization was an outstanding achievement, a great leap forward.  We also learned that our wild ancestors, who had far less eco-impact, were primitive, stupid, and pitiable.  Their lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” 

Wild Free and Happy Sample 34

[Note: This is the thirty-fourth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 203 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 


Corn is a jumbo-sized tropical grass that can grow 10 feet (3 m) tall.  Some exotic strains can grow to 43 feet.  In many countries outside the U.S., “corn” means any type of grain, and “maize” is specific to the plant Zea mays (mays/maize).  Somewhere around 8000 B.C., corn was domesticated in Mesoamerica (the region spanning from central Mexico to Nicaragua).  Experts have many different opinions about when, where, and how it happened.  Over centuries, the wee, humble, mild-mannered wild grass was transformed into an amazing Super Plant — and a time bomb.

Domesticated corn, cattle, sheep, and wolves (dogs), are ecologically hobbled.  These mutants have little ability to survive outside the human sphere.  With corn, the rugged husks securely hold the kernels on the cob, inhibiting their ability to fall to the ground and produce the next generation.  If a field of mature corn is abandoned, the corn plants are likely to go extinct within two years or so. 

Even the corn of colonial America was phenomenally productive.  Paul Weatherwax wrote that typically, for each seed planted in Indian farming, folks could harvest 300, far better than Old World grains.  When conditions were perfect, it could yield up to 2,000 seeds.  Today, 33 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used for animal feed.  North American tribes had no livestock to feed, and turkeys were good at foraging.  Thus, essentially the entire harvest was food for humans, minus some seeds set aside for sowing next year’s crop.  After the seeds were stripped off, the cobs made excellent tailpipe cleaners (tree-friendly predecessors of toilet paper).

Corn began migrating into the eastern U.S. around maybe A.D. 200, but the heat loving tropical grass did not enjoy the shorter summers and cooler climate.  By 900, it had adapted to the temperate climate, and its use expanded.  By 1200, the corn culture had spread from Florida to Ontario.  In South America, corn expanded into regions of Peru and Chile.

Alfred Crosby noted that early white settlers in America were amazed by corn.  Sowing a bushel of wheat might yield 12 to 20 bushels at harvest time.  A bushel of corn might yield 200 bushels or more.  Corn was a fairly reliable producer that could be grown using simple tools and unskilled labor.  It could do OK on marginal soils, required minimal weeding, and could survive several frosts.  It also stored well.  Husks discouraged losses to birds.  When mature, ears could be left on the stalk and harvested later, without risk of spoilage.

In America, both settlers and Indians were far better nourished than the feeble porridge eating commoners of Europe.  Most folks in the future U.S. lived in rural areas, in low density, which discouraged epidemics.  Well-fed settlers bred like roaches and many of their kiddies survived to adulthood.  Folks had access to abundant land for expansion.  By 1775, the U.S. population was doubling every 25 years.  In 1790, half of Americans were younger than 16 years old.

Colonists brought with them a collection of Old World diseases.  Those pathogens had been created by combining dense crowds of malnourished people, with dense crowds of non-human animals, all living together in conditions terrible hygiene, filthy water, streets filled with garbage and excrement, and millions of fleas, lice, and rats.  Native Americans had no immunity to the deadly pathogens.  Clive Ponting wrote that up to 90 percent of them died from disease.  The death toll during the sixteenth century may have been close to 100 million. 

Among the Indians who survived the epidemics, the corn-growing tribes were the most vulnerable.  European colonists aggressively destroyed their fields and stored grain.  Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes were not chained to a place by their food supply, so they could disappear into the forest, and kill settlers when they had the strategic advantage, when they were in the mood for rough justice.  But, for good reason, they often avoided contact with white folks, because the settlers were walking reservoirs of highly contagious deadly diseases. 

Hominins were nomadic for four million years.  More recently, humans have discovered that sedentary living provides some benefits, but they come at high cost to their health, security, sanity, their children, the environment, and so on.  Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating essay on the emergence of domestication.  It had a catchy title, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race.”  He noted, “In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” 

Diamond mentioned the research done by George Armelagos, who studied the skeletons of 800 Native Americans found at the Dickson Mounds site in Illinois.  The upper level (newer) skeletons were farmers, and those found lower (older) were hunter-gatherers.  At birth, a hunter had a life expectancy of 26 years, and a farmer was 19 years. 

Hunters enjoyed a high quality diet of wild foods.  Farmers got adequate calories from starchy foods, but their corn-based diet lacked some amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.  Farmers lived in greater density, which was better for sharing diseases and parasites.

Farmers had almost 50 percent more tooth enamel defects, four times more iron-deficiency anemia, three times more bone lesions, and more spinal damage, probably from hard physical labor.  James Scott mentioned that women who regularly ground corn while squatting on their knees had deformed toes.

Forty years after Diamond’s heretical essay, Peter Ungar published a book that included newer research on changes in bones and teeth over the centuries.  He noted that in the New World, the average caries rate (tooth decay) for corn eaters was five times higher than for hunter-gatherers.  Also, corn eaters had far more caries than folks who ate Old World grains.

Importantly, Ungar did not forget to mention that even corn eating Indians had far better teeth than modern Americans who, for no good reason, consume staggering quantities of a devilish health-thrashing substance known as sugar.  It helps bacteria stick to the teeth, making it easier for them to colonize, accumulate, and produce lactic acid.  Sugar took away my mother’s teeth before I was born, and later gave her diabetes (which I got too).

And then, the choir sat down, and Michael Pollan stepped up to the pulpit, and proceeded to deliver a ferocious hellfire and brimstone attack on the Devil’s food — sugar.  Americans are getting as fat as heck, and their kiddies are likely to have a lower life expectancy than their mommies and daddies.  The old proverb says, you are what you eat.  Thus, literally, what Americans mostly are is processed corn.

Most of the excess calories we consume are made of corn.  Traditional table sugar (sucrose) is made from sugar cane or sugar beets.  In 1970s, the new kid on the block appeared — high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  A bushel of corn (35 l) can produce 33 pounds (15 kg) of HFCS.  Junk food made with HFCS is extremely cheap, one dollar can buy 1,200 calories of body rotting garbage.  HFCS is commonly used in making processed foods, breakfast cereals, and soft drinks.  By 1999, the average American was annually devouring 37.5 pounds (17 kg) of HFCS, in addition to table sugar.  In 2018, we consumed 62.4 pounds of sugar (both HFCS and table sugar).

Of the world’s primary grains, corn has the most nutrient deficiencies.  In unprocessed corn kernels, the niacin is not in a free form, so your body can’t utilize it.  Niacin (vitamin B3) is an essential nutrient.  Also, corn has some protein shortcomings — too little tryptophan or lysine (important amino acids).  Native Americans eventually figured out how to address these two challenges.

For the niacin issue, the solution is called nixtamalization, which is a happy bouncy word for the process of treating corn with an alkaline solution — lime or wood ash, plus water.  The corn is soaked and cooked in the solution.  This softens the kernels, loosens their hulls, and transforms the niacin into a free form that your body can use.  Hooray!

After the processed kernels are washed, their hulls are removed.  The softened kernels (hominy) are easier to grind.  Ground hominy is called masa, which can be made into a dough, unlike ground corn that has not been processed.  Masa is used to make products like tortillas, tamales, and tortilla chips.

As non-Native Americans became corn eaters, many did not know about the niacin quirk.  Poor folks whose diet majored in cheap untreated corn meal often got pellagra.  In the 1880s, 100,000 poor Italians suffered from it.  In 1916, 100,000 Americans had pellagra, and the disease killed 7,500 every year, mostly poor southerners.  It affected twice as many women as men.  Without treatment, folks with pellagra can die in four or five years.  The way to prevent pellagra is also the way to cure it — shift to a diet that is at least slightly better (added milk, eggs, meat, legumes, greens, etc.).

For the protein issue, beans came to the rescue.  Beans provide amino acids missing in corn.  Eating corn and beans together can provide higher protein content.  One source recommended a blend of three parts beans to seven parts corn.  Also, squash seeds can contain 30 percent protein.  A popular Native American delicacy was succotash, a mixture of corn, beans, dog meat, and bear grease.

On a side note, Lynn White mentioned that folks in Europe also discovered magic beans (peas, lentils, beans).  Prior to beans, the diet of commoners majored in carbs from cereals, and was deficient in protein.  By the tenth century, the addition of beans to the crappy traditional diet spurred a surge in the growth of population and cities.  Wheat provided an adequate source of niacin.  Nutrition is big juju!  Nutrient deficiency diseases like pellagra, beriberi, scurvy, kwashiorkor, and so on, are essentially unknown among hunter-gatherers.

Holy Shit!

Big Mama Nature does a wonderful job of nurturing optimal stability in the family of life.  She does this over the passage of countless millennia, guiding ecosystems to find ways of adapting to ever changing conditions.  On the other hand, cultures of tropical primates that participate in domestication-based cultures have a habit of being as clumsy as a mob of hyperactive two year olds. 

All life depends, directly or indirectly, on essentials like sunlight, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and so on.  In a healthy wild ecosystem, these essentials are continuously recycled by plants, animals, and the billions of wee folk who work on the composting team.  It’s a beautiful celebration of life that can happily continue until the sun burns out.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is known as sustainability, in its genuine and sacred form (prior to the era overhunting, overbreeding, extinctions, etc.).

In domestication-based cultures, some essentials are depleted, at various rates, which weakens the health of the ecosystem.  Phosphorus depletion is likely to reach crisis stage ahead of the others, since the output of global phosphate mining peaked in 1989, and what remains is of declining quality.  Phosphorus is transferred from the soil to the corn, from the corn to the hog, from the hog to the human, flushed down the toilet and sent to the sea, lost forever.

Poop is precious.  Remember that.  In 1588, Anzelm Gostomski, a Polish gentleman, once proclaimed an eternal truth: “Manure is worth more than a man with a doctorate” (a great slogan for a snarky tattoo).  In the modern world, every trainload, boatload, and planeload of food that moves from the countryside to consumer land is carrying away essential soil nutrients on a one-way ride to a sewage treatment plant, or to the nearest body of water.  This is a pattern that has no long term future.

In the Old World, in the era of low tech, muscle-powered, organic agriculture, every farm and village had livestock, poultry, and tropical primates that were highly skilled at producing generous amounts of excellent homemade fertilizer.  Everyone religiously returned the nutrient rich treasure to the soil, because this was more fun than depleting the soil and starving.  Farming and grazing also injured the land in other ways, which makes the sweet dream of sustainable agriculture very close to impossible in the long run, no matter how much hopium we snort.  Wild hominins lived happily for several million years, and it never occurred to them to chop down the forests and wreck the soil — so they didn’t.

Even modest sized cities could indulge in holy shit rituals.  In 1909, Franklin Hiram King visited Kyoto, Japan.  While traveling down a road one lovely morning, he observed a long caravan of men pulling cartloads of fresh night soil from town.  They were in the process of returning the treasure to the fields that fed them.  Each cart carried six 10-gallon (38 l) covered containers of aromatic plant food.  King noted that he passed 52 of these carts.  Then, on the return trip, he passed another 61 carts.  Other caravans moved down other roads.  He estimated that 90 tons of waste were hauled out of town on that morning.  I wonder if this was a daily routine.

Over in the New World, in better times, there used to be millions of large herbivores, some of which (like horses) may have been suitable for domestication.  Sadly, many of them had gone extinct by maybe 12,000 years ago.  Consequently, most corn farmers owned zero livestock.  In the Andes, some folks owned domesticated llamas and alpacas.  They were beasts of burden, and meat animals.  Nobody rode them or milked them.  One source asserted that these two animals were not kept in large numbers.  Another source mentioned one herder who alone owned 50,000.  When I worked at a technical writing business, there was a slogan on the bulletin board, “Remember: If it’s in writing, it’s true!”

Similarly, in grade school I was taught that Native Americans buried two or three herring or alewives in each mound that corn was planted in, for fertilizer.  James Axtell wrote that this was semi-fake news.  Indians didn’t traditionally do this.  Squanto, a Pawtuxet woman, had previously been kidnapped by terrorists and taken to Spain.  She learned the fish fertilizer trick in Europe.

She managed to escape and return home, where she taught the Cape Cod Pilgrims how to plant corn.  For no good reason, Pilgrims chained themselves to specific plots of private property, and then proceeded to deplete the soil.  New England colonists were delighted to learn that one or two herring buried in a planting mound could sometimes triple the yield.  The natives, on the other hand, had no wheeled carts, and were not bewitched by daffy ideas like private property.  When their current fields were depleted, it was far easier to simply clear new fields.  Hauling lots of slippery fish around in baskets was not pleasurable work.

Paul Weatherwax wrote about early Native American agriculture.  Several societies along the Pacific coast utilized a super fertilizer called guano (bird poop).  At some locations there were enormous deposits that seabird colonies had created over many centuries.  The Inca civilization prohibited killing birds in these colonies.  During the nesting season, nobody could visit the treasure islands.  Law breakers were executed.

In 1585, one observer in North Carolina reported that Indian farmers used no manure or other fertilizer.  In 1635, someone made the same comment about Indians in Virginia.  In the Cuzco Valley of Peru, folks dried human excrement, pulverized it, and stored it until planting time.  In some regions, manure from alpacas and llamas was also used.  In the history of poop, many chapters have yet to be written.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Plague of the Spanish Lady

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 has largely faded from the public memory.  It got its name from the Russians, who called it the Spanish Lady.  In Spain, folks preferred to call it the French flu.  Many thought it was a German bioweapon, despite the fact that the flu pounded the poor Germans so hard that they finally hurled Kaiser Wilhelm overboard, and eagerly signed an unconditional surrender, which brought an end to the insanity of World War One (1914-1918).

Richard Collier wrote a book about the pandemic, The Plague of the Spanish Lady.  He was a journalist, and he described how the events unfolded in many localities.  The virus appeared on the radar in March 1918, and was fading out by May of 1919.  Collier focused his attention on the 17 week period when the flu had reached its maximum scale and mortality, beginning in early September 1918.  The pandemic killed at least 20 million in just five months (others say 50 to 100 million).  World War One, on the other hand, took five long and bloody years to rub out a mere 10 million lives.

For folks disgusted with the creepiness of life in the twenty-first century, Collier’s book provides a refreshing diversion.  You will be so happy that you are not living in 1918!  The only lucky group during that pandemic were the untouchables of India.  The flu hit India the hardest, killing more than 12 million.  Rivers were clogged with corpses.  There were times when 700 people died every hour in Mumbai (Bombay).  Since there was a social obligation to stay away from untouchables, far fewer of them got sick.

It was common for the flu to hit like a hammer.  Folks might have some aches and pains for a few days, and then maybe a sore throat, and then maybe some large blisters on their face, back, or chest.  High fevers were common.  Folks coughed up blood, and many bled from their ears, nose, and/or eyes.  Lungs filled with blood, and people turned blue from lack of oxygen — it was hard to tell white folks from blacks.  Some called it the Purple Death.  People wondered if the end of the world had arrived.

In late September 1918, a tram was carrying passengers through Capetown, South Africa.  One passenger dropped dead, and was laid on the sidewalk for city workers.  As the tram continued, four more riders died and were put off.  Then the driver of the tram dropped dead.

In early October, an official of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, who was normally a good boy, violated the quarantine, filled a train with soldiers, intending to take them from Quebec City to Vancouver.  At numerous stops, he left behind carloads of sick soldiers, unleashing the epidemic in each city.  Arriving in Vancouver with the remaining survivors, he immediately jumped on an eastbound train, with plans to take another load of soldiers west.  He learned about the deadly consequences of his foolish mission, and he had no remorse.

The Spanish flu had unusual effects.  Flu bugs generally prey on kiddies or the elderly, but this one hit folks who had the strongest immune systems.  Half of its victims were aged 20 to 40.  My grandmother’s sister, Emma Amundson, died of the flu at 33, on November 19, 1918.  She was a nurse who lived in a tiny village in middle of nowhere North Dakota.  The railroad that ran through the village probably delivered a sample of the hellish disease from the outer world.

In 1918, there was no commercial air travel.  To take a trip around the world took a year, via steam ship.  The H1N1 flu virus zoomed around Earth in just two months.  It moved by train, boat, bus, and camel caravan.  In 2005, the virus was identified as being avian, birds carried it.  Six miles off the coast of Tasmania, there was an island.  In October, the husband and wife who ran the lighthouse had seen no visitors in three months.  Birds brought the couple a yucky surprise.  The flu also found isolated native settlements in Alaska, where starving sled dogs broke into cabins and ate the dead and dying.

In 2018, the hundredth anniversary of the Spanish flu, the BBC produced a fascinating report: The places that escaped the Spanish Flu.  One advantage was living in a location that was isolated from the rest of the world.  Another was super strict, zero-exception quarantines.  Some communities were kept healthy by armed vigilantes who allowed no one to enter or leave.  Of course, in 1918, folks in nonurban regions primarily dined on food conveniently produced close to home. 

Today, the food story is very different.  Dinner ingredients are often shipped in from around the world via complex energy-guzzling distribution systems.  Another frightening difference is personal mobility.  Many do not hesitate to board a plane and fly to faraway places, unintentionally transporting pests and pathogens.  In 2018, airline passengers took a billion flights, domestic and international, to and from the U.S.  Even more people routinely jump into their motorized wheelchairs and drive other cities or regions.  Imagine how our super-mobility could turbocharge a highly virulent virus today.  Yikes!

In 1918, Australia got a gold star for displaying above average intelligence, which led to below average infection rates.  Eighty ships having infected people aboard were not allowed to dock.  Smart!  On land, 10,000 infected people were kept isolated from society.  Brilliant!

Unlike many traditional epidemics that were empowered by lousy sanitation and hygiene, the rich, famous, and powerful got no mercy from the Spanish Flu.  Mortality in plush neighborhoods was the same as in the slums.  The Purple Death was an equal opportunity killer.  In efforts to stop the spread, many cities closed schools, theaters, churches, saloons, race tracks, libraries, and all public meetings.  Phone booths were boarded up.  Caskets, in short supply, were rented.  Folks were urged to walk, and stay off the street cars.  In San Francisco, some courts were held outdoors in parks. 

Communities that downplayed the risk of disease, and attempted to continue business as usual, often paid dearly for their mistake.  In Kansas City, the Health Board tried to close saloons and theaters, but the mayor kept them open.  More than 1,800 died.  In Jamaica, the decision to not quarantine the sick led to 7,000 deaths. 

On September 21, the SS Niagara departed from Vancouver, Canada, heading for Auckland, New Zealand.  On October 9, when it landed in Fiji, 83 of those aboard had succumbed.  Passengers were allowed to go ashore.  Consequently, more than 8,000 died on Fiji’s 100 islands.  Then, on October 11, the captain of the Niagara sent a message to New Zealand, notifying them that sickness was spreading on his ship.  On October 12, the Niagara docked in Auckland — it was a floating hotbed of infection.  The ship should have been quarantined, but wasn’t.  Consequently, 6,680 New Zealanders died.  On October 30, Auckland authorities allowed the SS Talune, with infected passengers, to depart for Samoa.  “It was as if a death ray had struck the island” — 7,000 perished.

Another quirk of the flu was “apparent death,” in which the victim was cold, not breathing, and had no pulse.  It was a deep coma.  Quite a few were shaken out of comas inside their coffins.  Hundreds each week may have been buried alive.  In Cape Town, a notorious drunkard and wife beater, who had no friends whatsoever, screamed from his coffin on the way to the graveyard.  The drivers of the wagon ignored him.  “I reckon ain’t no one going to miss him.”

The grand finale of the Spanish flu was the glorious conclusion of “the war to end all wars” which occurred on November 11.  The world erupted with immense celebration.  Church bells pealed.  Big Ben rang in London, ending four years of silence.  All rules against public gatherings were disregarded, as the happy crowds hugged, kissed, and danced.  Victory “ushered in the greatest medical holocaust in history.”  In Cockermouth, England, which had entirely escaped the flu, one church service infected the whole town.  The state of Louisiana reported 350,000 cases in the week after the celebration.  Within a week, 19,000 died in Britain, and 17,000 doughboys died in France.

Collier’s book was published in 1974.  In 2006, Dr. Michael Greger published Bird Flu, which focused more on medical analysis, rather than lively journalism.  He estimated that the 1918 pandemic caused 100 million deaths.  Almost all of humankind was exposed to the virus, and half of them experienced some level of infection, from mild to fatal.  In the end, the flu ran out of victims.  Essentially, you were either immune or dead.

Greger also presented uncomfortable information on how we’re getting even better at unintentionally encouraging flu viruses to mutate in new forms.  The H5N1 virus that hit Hong Kong in 1997 was far more deadly than the H1N1 variant of 1918.  Viruses keep themselves amused by constantly rearranging their proteins, so scientists who develop vaccines will never be out of work.  The H1N1 virus is still around, in multiple new variants.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic rumbled onto the stage.  It’s caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, not the influenza A H1N1 virus, but both types of virus are highly prone to “rapid viral evolution.”  Mutations limit the long term effectiveness of vaccines.  Many suspect that COVID-19 originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan China, where many species of live animals are concentrated in impressively unsanitary conditions, creating a delightful playground for viruses of every size, shape, and color.

Collier, Richard, The Plague of the Spanish Lady, Atheneum, New York, 1974.