How far can carp fly? Not the infamous jumping carp currently infesting the Mississippi River watershed, but basic Eastern European carp. Because either they can fly, or spontaneously generate from the soil, or someone’s been stocking a local lake on the sly. Continue reading


Complaint Department

Athena T. Cat is not happy. In fact, she is currently stretched out on the floor, feet in the air, in the process of dying of hunger despite having just eaten breakfast, as well as having had her bit of milk in her bowl, and the last drops of milk from my bowl. She is . . . the World’s Fluffiest Starving-to-Death Housecat. Continue reading

Book Review: China’s Land and Waters

Marks, Robert D.   China: Its Environment and History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011) Kindle Edition

Robert Marks’s excellent survey history of China’s relationship with its lands and waters provides a one-volume reference for anyone interested in the country’s past and in how non-Western peoples approached their environment. It serves as a much-needed corrective to some misperceptions about non-Westerners and their surroundings as well as showing how different cultural values lead to different approaches in landscape management. Continue reading

When it Rains, It Puddles

Water goes. That is one of the few givens in hydrology – water is going to go somewhere, always down hill, or down into the soil. Which raises interesting questions for those living at the bottom of hills or in flat places. In many parts of the world, flat places tend to be soggy places. The Great Plain of Hungary was an enormous wetland prior to the 19th century and drainage plans. Large swaths of Germany also contained marshes and moors, in some ways like the Fens in England or what are now the drained lands of Holland (aka the Low Countries.) The same held true for central North America. The Dakotas, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, parts of Minnesota and Iowa, and the High Plains of Texas contained multiple natural lakes. But they were very different, with different origins and life-cycles. Continue reading

Book Review: Food history of America

O’Connell, Libby The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (2014) Kindle Edition

I wanted to like this book. And it started out entertaining and somewhat educational. It is a collection of short essays on food-based themes, from Native American crops to the rise of fast food to the trials and tribulations of alcohol consumption in the United States. Mrs. O’Connell writes well, in a modern, breezy tone well suited to American Studies or to short pieces of text for a museum display or TV program.

As I read, especially once the book got into the mid to late 19th century, I had more and more difficulties, and I was not certain why. Something about the tone kept throwing me out of the book, which is a major problem for an essay collection. It was not until I got near the end that I realized what had happened. I read the book expecting it to be recipes and foodways with some history. That is how it begins. But the second half of the work is a popular US history told with food, using eating and manufacturing trends as a lens to view culture and politics. The other difficulty lay in the author’s injection of her understanding of history into the topic. Again, since I was reading this as a cookbook and food history that happened to take place in North America, the author’s commentary threw me out of what I was expecting and took away from the book.

It is a fun read, at least the first half, and has some interesting tidbits and trivia. The recipes look workable, although I have not tried to make any of them yet. If you are looking for a light read that puts food into historical context, than this may be exactly what you are interested in. Since I was reading it backwards, as food-in-history rather than history-with-food, the author’s commentary might prove useful.  Mrs. O’Connell’s interpretation grates a little in the final chapters, because she repeats what I have read in more detailed monographs and other histories. We all know that processed foods are the tools of the devil, that fake cheese is fake, and that Europeans were the worst thing that could have happened to North America since the last time the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted (OK, I exaggerate a little on that last bit). The author errs on the side of the currently accepted historical narrative at the expense of some fairly important historical information. Does it affect her argument? Not really, but again, what I read the book for and what she served did not mesh.

The American Plate is an easy introduction to the food history of the US, especially the chapters covering the time before 1900. I’d recommend the Smithsonian’s American Foodways series, heritage cookbooks, and regional food histories and ethnographies for people truly interested in the history of how Americans ate and how our diets changed for the better (or worse) over time.

The Power of Energy in History

As part of preparation for teaching this upcoming semester, I’ve been reading up on environmental histories of Asia and European Russia. Luckily, several good summary histories have come out recently, one of which I will be reviewing shortly. But one of the themes that undergirds environmental history all over the world is that of energy usage and dependence. Every culture that has shifted from foraging to agriculture has found a way to tap solar energy through animals. Industrial peoples added wind and water power, then new forms of chemical energy, and in a few cases nuclear power. Without tapping new energy sources, cultures remained at the same plateau. It’s something the pundits and some activists tend to forget, or to discourage, in  policy and resource discussions today. Continue reading

A Happy Playa and an Unhappy Lake

“Happy [lakes] are all alike; every unhappy [lake] is unhappy in its own way.” With profound apologies to Tolstoy and all literature readers.  Right now the Panhandle is full of happy playas and unhappy lakes, or more precisely, unhappy people having to deal with, live beside, and drive around very large new bodies of water. Well, not exactly new, just newly re-filled. Continue reading

Trade, Traders, and Accounting: Economics in Rada’s World

It is a general truth in the Cat Among Dragons universe that those who don’t work don’t eat. And so Rada, and Zabet, and company all work in their various vocations, participating in a mostly stable economy that encompasses a large part of the spiral arm that happens to include Earth. Individual planets, certain star systems, and various corporate bodies have trade agreements, or membership in larger governmental organizations. A few opt out, preferring complete autarky for religious or other cultural reasons. Rada’s delivery work straddles those gaps. And the wonder of it is that the system manages to more-or-less function. Continue reading

Comment Problems

OK, I’ve gone through and reset all the comment options. Comments on recent posts should be open. If not, please keep e-mailing me and I’ll see what else I can do, short of sacrificing a black chicken at a crossroads or invoking Ada Lovelace and Commodore Grace Hooper to exorcise WordPress.


Saints . . . with Dragons!

Although the one on the fragment of altarpiece at Stift St. Florian did look a bit more like a Persian cat with some scales. The dragon seemed positively apologetic as it peeped out from under a fold of St. Margaret of Antioch’s skirt. I don’t think she even realized it was there.

I’m not certain if it was coincidence or tied to something older, but the three saints I encountered most often on this trip were St. George, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Florian. St. Florian made sense, because he is from Austria and was martyred (according to tradition) in an Austrian river. And St. Barbara always appears in mining areas (she’s the patron of miners, people who work with explosives, and one of the Fourteen Emergency Helpers invoked during plague or risk of sudden death). St. Catherine and her wheel turned up at regular intervals, as did St. Christopher (patron of travelers) because of the trade routes we crossed. But where I’d expect to find St. Michael Archangel, St. George appeared. And his dragon. Which is . . . interesting. Continue reading