Friday, July 27, 2018

A History of the Swedish People

Vilhelm Moberg was born in 1898, in a remote village where remnants of the peasant way of life persisted.  He wrote A History of the Swedish People, which spanned two volumes: (1) before the Renaissance, and (2) after.  Moberg’s writing has been translated into 20 languages, and Swedes have bought six million copies of his books.  Most histories focus on the big shots, the decision makers, the conquerors, the villains.  His work focuses on the nameless people that historians disregard: the common folks, the salt of the Earth.  I like that.

In this spirit, chapter one is a discussion of slavery, which existed for several thousand years.  Bondsmen (slaves) have been invisible in Swedish history, because textbooks are obligated to focus on the patriotic glories, and step around the embarrassing dreck.  Bondsmen could be bought, sold, given way, or killed.  Throughout his life, Moberg was devoted to the notion of freedom.  He estimated that in the eleventh century, twenty percent of the population was bondsmen.  The rest of the book is devoted to the commoners who were freeborn, the rugged peasantry who worked hard to survive in the forests of Sweden, and were the majority of the population.

In most other European nations, peasants were not free.  They suffered for centuries under the heavy fist of feudalism.  They inhabited lands crisscrossed with roads, which enabled the nobility to snatch the fruits of their toil and keep them under control.  The main exceptions were Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, where the peasants escaped serfdom.  The Swiss, surrounded by powerful enemies, were protected by the Alps.  The Norse and Swedes were protected by their vast rugged forests.  As long as the forests survived and remained roadless, the people were much safer.

In several European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root.  Romans built many roads for the expansion and management of their empire.  Later, those same roads made it easier for scruffy outsiders to rubbish their empire and loot their booty.  In Roman times, the wild German tribes were also fiercely warlike, but their goal was not conquest and expansion.  Their goal was to keep outsiders out, homeland security.  Caesar noted, “It is the greatest pride of the Germanic tribes to surround themselves with broad desolate frontier regions.”  Frontier forests were buffer zones that were kept untilled and uninhabited.

In the dense roadless forests of Sweden, invaders soon became perfectly lost.  It was terrifying.  Behind any bush might be a man with a crossbow.  The forest people knew every rock, hill, and cranny in the woods.  They could pick the ideal time and place to strike.  When attack was unwise, they vanished and waited patiently for fresh opportunities.

Over the centuries, Swedes adapted well to forest life.  In addition to fishing, foraging, and hunting, they farmed on a small scale.  Livestock was their primary resource, providing them with meat, milk, butter, cheese, hides, and wool.  The forest was common land owned by no one.  A Swedish proverb declares, “The forest grows as well for the poor as for the rich.”  It was the poor man’s garden.  Forest dwellers often lived in isolation, with few neighbors to rely on.

Moberg devoted an entire chapter to his love for the forest wonderland in which he grew up.  In his strict rural Lutheran village, good and bad were sharply defined.  Where others could see him, little Vilhelm had to behave properly, to avoid criticism.  In the forest, he was free.  He could hide where no one would see him, and behave any way he liked.  He was happier as a child in the forest than in any other place in his life.

In pagan times there were festivals in which stallions, bulls, billy-goats, cocks, and humans were sacrificed to the gods.  One observer recorded details about the annual ceremony at Uppsala.  Next to the temple was a sacred grove, where the corpses of up to 200 sacrificed men and beasts hung from the trees.  The sacrificial humans included criminals, infirm old men, foreigners, bondsmen, and prisoners.

The Vikings were possessed with an insatiable hunger for the valuables belonging to others.  They enjoyed cruising along coasts and rivers and raiding Christian towns and villages — peaceful settlements with which they had no disputes.  Vikings were extraordinarily cruel and inhuman, and they fought with pure fury.  Vikings ravaged Europe from 800 to 1050.

Sweden’s conversion to Christianity was slow and bloody.  The Asa people (pagans) were open minded, and they worshipped many gods and goddesses.  Deities that brought good harvests, weather, and health were honored, and bummer gods were tossed on the compost pile.  When foreign missionaries suggested worshipping a new one, they were willing to give him a try.  The pagans were open minded, but the missionaries were not.  Naturally, the Swedes were not delighted to be told that all their ancient beliefs were wrong and evil.  Commonly, after the missionaries had moved on to convert others, the newly baptized folks returned to the faith of their ancestors.

It took 300 years to convert the small population of Swedes.  In 1122, Småland was last region to be converted.  The chronicle reads: “King Sigurd set his course for a trading city called Kalmar, which he laid waste, and thereafter ravaged Småland, exacting from the Smålanders a tribute of fifteen hundred beasts; and the Smålanders accepted Christianity.”  This slaughter was called the Kalmar Raid.  Sigurd returned to Norway laden with loot.  In some regions, Swedes continued to secretly practice pagan rituals into the seventeenth century.

Later, Christian Swedes decided to teach the Finns about the Prince of Peace.  King Erik offered the Finns peace on condition they let themselves be baptized and adopt the Christian faith, but they turned down his offer.  So the Finns were massacred.  “After the struggle was over the king walked about the battlefield among the masses of the fallen heathen and was so deeply moved by the sight of their corpses that he wept.”

Moberg had deep appreciation for the 5,000-year era of Swedish peasants, which was approaching extinction by 1900, displaced by the hideous rise of industrialism and urbanization.  Ancient farms and villages were being abandoned, returning to forest.  Growing numbers of weird and spooky human-like beings, known as Consumers, were wandering into peasant country from Stockholm, and other insane asylums.

Rural peasants were the last full-blooded individualists; each one was personally unique, warts and all.  They were highly attuned to the ecosystem that had been their ancestors’ home for centuries, and they had little contact with outsiders, or their peculiar ideas.  The Consumers were rootless tumbleweeds who dressed alike, smelled alike, thought alike, and lived alike — the standardized outputs of a mass culture.

Peasants spent a lot of time with each other, gathered around the hearth fire.  Folks did handiwork — spinning, weaving, carving, and so on.  Elders shared stories and memories.  The daily lives of peasants were spent in intimate contact with the magic, mystery, and beauty of wild nature, which is essential for wellbeing.  Consumers would suffer panic attacks if forced to live in a medieval cottage — no lights, TV, radio, internet, books, running water, toilet.  Here’s Moberg’s punch line: “Instead of the things they lacked, medieval people had others, which we have lost.”  They enjoyed good old fashioned community.

The book goes on to discuss many other topics.  It interested me because my mother’s family has Norwegian roots.  The Norse and Swedes are closely related.  I’ve been reluctant to review this book, because it’s not about ecological sustainability.  But it does discuss subjects that are both interesting, and rarely mentioned.  So, I turned to a number of other sources to look for the missing eco-info.

Like the wild Irish, British, and Germanic tribes, Scandinavians shifted from hunting, fishing, and foraging, moving toward small scale pastoralism and farming in forest clearings.  This encouraged conflicts with wild critters, who were thrilled to feast on the delicious offerings of rye, oats, calves, poultry, sheep, and so on.  Nature became an enemy.  The peasant lads fetched their war paint.

By 1870, wild boars, aurochs (wild cattle), and beavers were extinct in Sweden, and red deer and moose were getting close.  By the mid-1900s, the wolf population was zero.  Later, some beavers (from Canada), boars, and wolves were reintroduced, or wandered in from elsewhere.  To this day, the eternal peasant’s war on wolves continues in Sweden, Norway, and Finland — three of the most “eco-progressive” societies in Christendom.

Oddest of all, in Moberg’s celebration of the common folk of Sweden, he made no mention of the Sami people, the wild hunter-gatherers who have been harshly abused and exploited by the civilized racist settlers for several centuries.  New research is discovering that the Sami people inhabited large portions of Scandinavia long before the Nordic (Germanic) pastoralists arrived.  Sami lived as far south as Hadeland in Norway, not far from Oslo, one of my ancestral homelands.

Genetic data has linked the modern Sami to the first humans who wandered into Scandinavia more than 10,000 years ago.  They have been in Sweden much longer than the Swedes.  The Sami homeland is known as Sápmi, and it spans large areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.  Sami have another name, Lapp, which some do not like.

Moberg, Vilhelm, A History of the Swedish People, Pantheon Books, New York, 1973.

To learn more about Sami and reindeer, four nice essays are [HERE]

Lapps and Labyrinths, an excellent 2010 book on the Sami, by archaeologist Noel Broadbent, can be purchased from Amazon ($$$), or downloaded free [HERE]


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years

Following a severe Chinese famine in 1920-21, Walter Lowdermilk (1888-1974) was hired to study the situation, and provide famine prevention recommendations.  He worked there from 1923 to 1927.  Floods and famines had been hammering the Yellow River (Hwang Ho) basin for 4,000 years, sweeping away millions of lives.  The basin is covered with a deep blanket of yellowish, nutrient-rich loess soil, dumped there by winds during the Ice Age. 

Because loess is light, it could easily be tilled using primitive digging stick technology.  This is why an early civilization began in the Yellow River region.  Loess is also easily erodible.  The long history of floods is related to the enormous loads of silt that the river regularly flushed down from the uplands following the summer rains.  As the silt-loaded flow arrived in regions with minimal slope, it slowed down, dumped the silt, clogged the river channel, and spread out across the land.  So, farmers built dikes along the both sides to confine the river channel.  The dikes eventually fail, the land is flooded, the dikes are repaired… the cycle endlessly repeats.

Lowdermilk travelled to the source of the silt, the Loess Plateau, a region one and a half times the size of California.  Prior to the expansion of agriculture and population, ancient forests held the upland loess in place.  After the forests were eliminated, rain runoff increased, erosion increased, and the era of catastrophic floods was born.  The Yellow River has long had a nickname: China’s Sorrow.

Up in the plateau, Lowdermilk discovered a surreal nightmare world of enormous erosion gullies up to 600 feet (183 m) deep.  It was at this point that he realized his life’s calling, soil conservation.  His utopian fantasy was to develop permanent agriculture, so that humankind could be fed in a manner that was ecologically harmless, perfectly sustainable, forever.

In the western U.S., the Dust Bowl began late in 1933.  During a period of above average precipitation (most of 1900 to 1930), a swarm of farmers and ranchers had stripped the natural vegetation from much of the shortgrass prairie.  Then came years of drought, which zapped the wheat, leaving the soil exposed.  When the monster winds arrived, some farms lost half of their topsoil in several hours.  In 1934, the skies in Washington D.C. were dark at noon.  Lowdermilk was hired by the new Soil Erosion Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1938 and 1939, he was sent to Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, to make observations, and report on his findings.  During his research, he drove more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km), until World War Two terminated the project.  He learned how to read landscapes — agricultural archaeology.  He saw many devastated wastelands, some reduced to bare bedrock, which had once been prosperous densely populated regions.  This wasn’t about climate change.  Common causes were deforestation, overgrazing, soil salinization, planting on sloped land, and failure to maintain irrigation canals and hillside terraces.

His findings echoed those of George Perkins Marsh — the granddaddy of environmental history — who had visited Old World disaster areas 80 years earlier.  While Marsh went into great detail in his 300 page Man and Nature, Lowdermilk boiled the core story down to a booklet, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, available free online [HERE].  More than a million copies have been printed.  Importantly, Lowdermilk took a camera with him.  His photos are shocking testimonials to the unintended consequences of domestication and civilization.  The booklet can be read in one sitting.

The text bounces from disaster to disaster, providing a brief description of each.  In Tunisia, he observed the site of Cuicul, a magnificent city in Roman times, which had been entirely buried, except for three feet (1 m) of one column poking out of the soil.  It took 20 years of digging to expose the remarkable ruins.  Today, the land can support only a few inhabitants.  Likewise, the Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000 people, was once home to 250,000.  Lebanon was once covered with 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2) of ancient cedar forests, now reduced to four small groves.  In Syria, he observed a million acres (404,685 ha) of manmade desert, dotted with a hundred dead villages.

I don’t want to spoil the vivid excitement of your reading experience by summarizing most of the subjects.  Keep in mind that the stories he tells are the result of good old-fashioned muscle-powered organic farming, and organic grass-fed herding.  The harms were the result of human actions inspired by ignorance or tradition, not the fickle whims of nature.  Compared to modern industrial agriculture, the early farmers and herders were childlike amateurs at ecocide.  We have, unfortunately, become champions.

Lowdermilk provided recommendations for reducing soil loss, but not eliminating it.  He had a blind faith that the wizards of science would eventually discover ways to make agriculture genuinely sustainable.  Following World War Two, U.S. agricultural policies were somewhat progressive, for a while.  Efforts were made to preserve small family farms.  Farmers were paid to cease crop production on erosion-prone locations, and protect the vulnerable soil with grass.  The government gave additional land to my uncle in North Dakota to reward him for planting shelterbelts of trees to reduce wind erosion. 

Then came the Richard Nixon administration.  In 1973, food prices spiked.  So, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz ordered farmers to get big or get out, plant from fencerow to fencerow, and let the magic of the marketplace select the winners.  Subsidies ended, and shelterbelts vanished.  Huge grain surpluses were harvested, prices tanked, and legions of farms went belly up.

Almost all university grads (and professors) know absolutely nothing about George Perkins Marsh or Walter Lowdermilk.  Those two lads revealed that civilization has never been sustainable, and they deliberately gave their readers a loud dope slap — dudes, it’s still unsustainable.  Wake up!  When Marsh published in 1864, Earth was home to 1.4 billion.  When Lowdermilk released his first version in 1948, there were 2.4 billion.  Yesterday, it was 7.6 billion and still growing.  Oh-oh!  The two lads shared great wisdom with us, which we disregarded.  It’s hard to get concerned about threats that are not immediate, and readily visible.

In the twentieth century, the scale of global agriculture grew explosively.  All life requires nitrogen, but only in a special form that is produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  Plants cannot utilize the nitrogen in the air.  In 1911, Germans began the commercial production of synthetic ammonia, which contained nitrogen in the plant-friendly form, bypassing the ancient dependence on soil bacteria, and ending agriculture’s addiction to livestock manure.  Potent synthetic fertilizer is primarily made from natural gas, a fossil fuel.

Synthetic fertilizer greatly increased the volume of nitrogen available for plant growth, sidestepping nature’s limits.  This accelerated food production, and shattered the glass ceiling on population size.  Nitrogen expert Vaclav Smil speculated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 would not exist without synthetic ammonia fertilizer.*  I wonder what percentage of humankind might survive in the post-petroleum world.  In his essay, The Oil We Eat, Richard Manning wrote, “Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten.”

Later, the crop-breeding projects of the Green Revolution more than doubled farm productivity between 1950 and 2000.  Consequently, population soared from 2.4 billion in 1950 to 6 billion in 2000.  The Green Revolution was all about full scale industrial agriculture — irrigation, large farms, powerful machinery, monoculture cropping, proprietary seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  To sum up the food story today, Paul Ehrlich wrote a five page summary [HERE].

Anyway, Lowdermilk gave me a sucker punch.  When he was in Palestine in the late 1930s, he observed a brutally abused ecosystem.  Much of the highlands had been stripped of soil, which had washed into the valleys, which continued to erode.  This was the land that, 3,000 years earlier, Moses had described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  Moses could have never imagined what his descendants would eventually do to the vibrant vitality of the Promised Land — by faithfully following the divine instructions to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the Earth.  Oy!  Lowdermilk suggested an eleventh commandment, along the lines of live sustainably or go extinct.

This inspired me to contemplate the condition of our planet 3,000 years from now.  My imagination sputtered, gasped, and suffered a total meltdown.  Having read hundreds of books on environmental history, and observed 65 years of modern trends, my ability to engage in soaring flights of magical thinking is dead and gone.  I’ll be happy if I can help a hundred people break the trance before I cross to the other side.

Lowdermilk, Walter Clay, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, 1948, Reprint, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., 1999.

*In 2001, when there were six billion humans, Smil wrote about the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic ammonia.  “Without this synthesis about two-fifths of the world’s population would not be around — and the dependence will only increase as the global count moves from 6 to 9 or 10 billion people.”  Enriching the Earth, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, page xv.

Douglas Helms wrote Walter Lowdermilk’s Journey, an interesting five page paper describing the highlights of Lowdermilk’s professional life.