The Utopia Problem

There’s been a larger-than-usual wave of utopian ideas and Millennialism running around the world in the past decade or two. Granted, utopian ideas never go away, because someone always has dreams of a perfect world, not just a World To Come in the theological sense, and a smaller number of someones want to put everyone else into their personal idea of paradise. Most utopian ideas never get past books, or a very small and limited group that eventually gives up, or dies off without harming anyone else (or in a rare case, without benefiting anyone else). These ideas tend to come in waves, usually associated with some sort of serious social stress.

Millennialism takes its name from the 1000-year period associated in some Christian theologies with the Second Coming. When used in history, it describes a religions movement that has a very, very strong End Times component and either seeks to undo major social and religious crises, or to bring the New Creation sooner. The Münster Anabaptists, the Ibo cattle-cult, the Ghost Dance among some of the Plains Indians in the US, Extinction Rebellion, are all examples of Millennialism. The Ghost Dancers sought to call the spirits of the bison to return, the dead would rise again, and the Anglo-Americans would be driven away. Things would go back to the glory days when the Plains peoples had horses, some trade goods, and lots and lots of buffalo. Justice would be done and a new world arise from the ashes of the old. Extinction Rebellion sought [seeks?] a reversion to a world without internal combustion and petrochemicals, where small numbers of humans live in harmony with Nature and are no longer in charge of the environment. Some E.R. folks go to the extreme and see the world as so terribly broken that nothing save the elimination of all humans can possibly right the terrible wrong. Then a new, perfect world will arise from the old and justice will be done.

Millennialism by definition is religious. Not necessarily Christian or Jewish, but there’s a religious core to the movement, and it behaves as a faith. Utopian ideas often incline toward religious language, but they can be secular, or at least work very hard to be “post-religious” in today’s language. A perfect world can be made here, on earth. And have people in it. Which for me right there means utopia is not going to happen.

My utopia is far, far different from yours. My paradise is another person’s “I’m-dying-of-boredom.” You want a tropical island paradise of easy living and warm climate, with lots of friendly people and things to do with people. I want a place where it’s always autumn and there are lots of books to read and stories to tell and there’s frost some evenings, and chilly rain on occasion, and people leave me alone. Utopia – Nowhere – because there’s no place on this planet that is autumn all year round.

When peoples start trying to impose a utopia on others . . . it gets ugly. Workers’ Paradise! Kingdom of [Deity] where all worship and live according to religious teachings! The General Will of the People where true freedom is obedience and you can be forced to be free! A world where everyone lives “small,” and has only a few possessions and lives in an apartment and finds self-worth and happiness by, um, following their bliss? Working for the state? Doing what gives them joy and somehow getting paid for it by the State? Or, combine several of those, and everyone will live at a a very low level of physical subsistence, work for the state, and be very happy eating protein made from insects and other things because the People don’t have to/can’t compete for stuff and status. And a small group of wise people will run everything and the planet will heal.*

That utopia is close to my idea of an infernal plane. There’s no room for variation or chance (the 5 Year Plan always works, da, Tovarish?) There’s no room for stories other than those approved by the small group of wise people. There’s no place for my books, electronic or hard-copy. There’s no room for the individual in that utopia. And it is static. Static states . . . tend to become un-static in messy and sometimes catastrophic ways. Even when I agree with the ideals of the utopia, the thought of trying to impose one on other people makes me back away slowly while reaching for a large stick or a can of bear-spray.

Human nature always defeats utopias. New Harmony. The Shaker colonies. Those are the most benign examples that come to mind. Jonestown. Münster and the fiery end of the Anabaptists there. Unless you have an outlet for the Odd, the stubborn, the determinedly individual, and also for social tension, well, utopia turns into something else.

In the 1960s-70s there was a trend for sci-fi where computer chips and supercomputers allowed for the creation of a tech-topia. Everyone had a chip in their brain (or something similar) and so bad thoughts and impulses were muted or burned away by the super-wise computer and the world was perfect. Until it wasn’t. Today it is social programming through the internet and government control of assets (with a government run by a small group of wise, kind people who will know what is best for everyone.)

No, thanks. Millennialist movements sometimes end quietly, other times they end in blood and fire. They almost always hurt someone, if only the group members. Utopias imposed on people are not paradises. Any time someone starts promising a wonderful, better world on earth, I start to twitch. I’ve read about those. No, thanks.

*Heal from what? The last time a large civilization declined and shrank in Europe, that being the end of the Western Roman Empire, some of the worst environmental degradation and erosion before 1800 happened. Why? No one was around to do flood control, to maintain canals and drainage systems, to keep fields from eroding. I’d wager similar things happened in the 1300s, albeit on a less obvious scale. There’s some serious speculation that the CO2 in the atmosphere, in addition to making plants happier, is keeping at bay the global cooling that should accompany the current solar minimum. I don’t want to “heal” back to a Pleistocene climate for most of the Northern Hemisphere, thanks!

Odetta: When Folk Music meets Opera

I grew up listening to recordings of folk music. Ian and Sylvia, the Kingston Trio and Limelighters, the New Christie Minstrels; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez, Judy Collins. But the woman whose voice I remember hearing the most was Odetta.

Odetta Holmes (1930-2008), who sang as Odetta, trained as an opera singer. It showed in her voice, richer with far more depth and control than is generally associated with the 1950s-60s folk sound. She played guitar as well, and became active in the folk-music renaissance of the 1950s-60. Her version of “Lowlands” and “The Fox” are the two I recall the best of all the versions I’ve heard.

Odetta was also active in the civil rights movement, like so many in the folk scene. The music I listened to didn’t hammer the me over the head like some “folk” songs of the era. She let the voice and the songs tell the story of working folks, sailors, soldiers, and others.

“All my Trials” is gospel. MomRed has a very low alto voice, and sang this as a lullaby. Which may explain something about me . . .

As with many operatically trained musicians, and women who do R&B*, she had a second career in her later years. I’ve heard R&B described as one of the few areas where women become more in demand as they age – it takes mileage to sing the blues well. Odetta had taken care of her voice, and did well in the 1990s-early 2000s. She died of complications of heart problems in 2008. Given what happened to so many musicians of that era, her 78 years is very impressive.**

Odetta was a contralto before contraltos were cool. If you listen to a lot of female vocalists today, outside of symphonic metal, you find very few sopranos. The 1960s made alto cool, and Odetta is one of the coolest of the cool. Her control, diction, and tone color stood out, and still stand out.

*Rhythm and Blues

**Some years ago, Ted Nugent had a sad little op-ed in the Wall Street Journal bemoaning how many truly great musicians of his generation had been done in by drugs and booze, and wondering what might have been if Jimi Hendrix and others had continued to produce and grow musically.

Can Anyone Tell Me

. . . how to reset *YAWN* a cat?

Athena T. Cat gets up at 0500 every morning. Including Caturday and Sunday. When her major domo wants to sleep until, oh, 0630 Local Time.

I’ve lost her instruction manual and can’t find the reset switch through all that fur. Any ideas?

Playa Lake 101

A re-post from 2018.

My long-time readers will recall that last year I was following a local playa lake over the course of the seasons. I’m still doing that, but it has been so dry that the view has not really changed, at least from the place where I take pictures. Unless you really know what to look for, all you see is swaths of brown stuff with slightly enlarging or contracting patches of green stuff. Not really gripping blog fodder.

So I thought I’d go back to what a playa is, on the off-chance we get more precipitation and water actually, you know, shows up in the lakebed. Continue reading

“Hunting or Fleeing”

That was the heading on a side-bar in an archaeogenetics book I’m reading. The question concerned modern humans’ adaptations that enabled us to stand upright and walk preferentially on our hind legs. Me being me, and having read about hunting big game, my thought was “the difference is . . . 2.3 seconds. Or less, if it is a Cape Buffalo.”

I AM smiling. Creative Commons Fair Use. Original source:

Even the dedicated plant eaters on the African continent will track you down and turn you into pulp if you earn their ire. The Cape Buffalo . . . was born with an attitude that only gets worse as they age. Cape Buffalo spend their free time premeditating murder, or at least mayhem. Slow hunters? “Target acquired, gore, hook, and trample at will.” It would not surprise me at all if some naturalist discovers a secret Cape Buffalo score-board, where the buffalo list the number of humans et al that they’ve removed from the gene pool.

I suspect ancestral humans spent a goodly amount of their days avoiding wildlife as well as stalking and killing it. It is only in very recent history, in a few specialized environments, that humans have become the only apex predator. I’ve been out in the not-so-wilds of the US and have been stalked. Once it was by a young bobcat. Once . . . I don’t know, but I didn’t linger, either. Mountain Lions were not supposed to be in that area. Alas, mountain lions don’t read press releases or Fish and Wildlife monthly bulletins. I’ve been chased by a pack of feral dogs once, and I can attest that I was no longer at the top of that food chain. (I also discovered I could climb a cliff like a pro when truly inspired. I’d just as soon avoid that inspiration, thankyouverymuch!)

Heck, when I was in grade school and on a Civil War battlefields trip with my parents and Sib, we found a large warning at Manassas/ Bull Run Battlefield. A doe had treed a hunter. She proved to be rabid (!) and the park rangers were telling everyone to stay the heck away from the deer, and to back away slowly, then quickly, if we saw one by daylight. Yes, Faleen, Bambi’s lady friend, had tried to kill a hunter.

The difference between hunting and fleeing? A couple of seconds, especially if the bow-string snaps, or the spear just makes the critter angry. Imagine our intrepid paleohunters sneaking up on a Large Beast. One eases to his feet, aims, and throws.

Thunk. “Roooaaaarrrrr!” Thud, thud, THUD!

“Um, Thag, I think you missed the kill spot.”

Natural History Writing

A good natural history book is a joy to read. They seem to be growing scarcer, alas, although it might just be that there are so many books out these days that winnowing “natural history” from “environmental dirge” from “pop-science” from “local writer writing about local birds” has grown far more difficult. But when I find a good natural history, it is such a treasure.

What is natural history? I know it when I read it. OK, beyond that, it is a study of a place over time, one that looks at everything from the dirt and rocks to the birds, plants, waters, land-use, and weather of a generally small bit of of the world. When you finish reading, you know the critters, flowers, trees, grasses, soils, and story of the land – sort of a biography of place, with a dollop of science. The first of these that is fairly well known in English is Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Selborne was the parish where White was minister for many years. The book was published in 1789, and is still in print. White described the place through the seasons, what grew there and why, and so on. Pliney and other ancient and Renaissance writers had done descriptions of places and critters, but no one had written a popular study of one small corner of the world.

White inspired a lot of other writers, some talented amateurs, some professionals, some a little of both. Aldo Leopold was a forest ranger with a gift for writing, and his Sand County Almanac and other essay collections are magnificent depictions of places, and meditations on “nature” and “Wilderness” and what those ideas mean for people and critters.

So, what’s the difference between environmental history (my bailiwick) and natural history? Environmental history is more academic, meaning it has all the things that are required of academic writing (footnotes/endnotes, historiography, formal introduction and conclusion with certain elements in them). Environmental history often includes a lot about people, government policies, laws and how they were applied (or were not), corporate history, you know, paperwork stuff. And they tend to cover more ground. A natural history of Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, for example, only talks about that particular place. It doesn’t go into discussions of federal and state wetland policies and how they changed over time, except as they related directly to the wetland, and then only one chapter at the end of the work. Instead, it starts with the geology, then the mud, the cattails and other things that root in the mud, the fish and bugs and amphibians, and works up to the raptors and other birds that live in and around the wetland.

I’ve tried my hand at writing a few natural history type things. I’m not good enough, and I don’t know enough to do a good job. Natural Histories are love songs. Environmental histories are ballads.

Yep, I’m a History Nerd

. . . I got excited to see that Ole Benedictow has updated his book on the Black Death. The new book is only 1060 pages! On the other hand, it is priced, ahem, where you’d expect his publisher to price it, so I’ll stick with my “merely” 600 page older edition.

. . . I was asked “What’s your favorite time period?” and I started to reply “environmental history,” which isn’t a time period. I settled on “I don’t have one, really.” I’ll devour environmental history from pretty much any era, any continent, and any sub-field, although water history is always my first love.

. . . I caught myself critiquing the casting of a movie because one character looked too old and another was too much like his historical counterpart. Then I remembered “This is the late 1600s. These guys are all adults and then some!” And I giggled, because . . . the wigs. Oh, the wigs. Yep, very late 1600s – 1700s. You really do get a sense for the overstuffed formality of the Habsburg Court. (The film is the Italo-Polish production The Day of the Siege, about Vienna in 1683. It’s not quite what I expected, but it works.)

. . . I can almost justify more Sabaton stuff because “It’s historical.” Almost.

. . . I have strong opinions about certain periods of history, and certain schools of historical philosophy. And will go on at painful length about them unless stopped by an outside force, or all my listeners fall asleep on their plates.

. . . Yes, I read all of it. And of that one too. I’m still working on that one (600 pages or so left to go).

. . . I forget that normal people don’t get wildly excited about new translations or publication of documents from [obscure historical period or location].

. . . I’ve said, “I need to fill that hole” at least once a year for the past decade or two, and I’m not talking about the yard and gardens. Thus books on the economic history of China, the environmental history of China, environmental history of Africa, the one on preColumbian landscapes and environmental management of California, the comparative frontiers of South Africa and the US West and Mexico, and an intellectual history of Communism. Most of them I’ve finished reading, a few still need to be finished.

. . . I read geology and archaeogenetics as escape reading. Along with fiction.

. . . My recommendations on are, let us say, eclectic and heavy on obscure histories that look really fascinating. (We will not discuss shipping costs.)

I think, at this point, I’m hopeless. Which comes as no surprise to anyone who has set foot in my house and seen the two stacks of “I’m in the process of putting them back” books by the front door. One stack of which has sat for so long that I need to take them back to school, because we’re going to be starting that topic again soon! Oops.

Cheese: A Luxury, but not an Indulgence

So, the question arose in a chat over on MeWe. Is cheese a luxury? Well, people can survive without cheese, be it cow, water-buffalo, sheep, goat, or otherwise. If you have to severely trim your budget, good cheese tends to get shed from the protein list in favor of legumes, milk (for those of us who do milk), eggs, and cheap meat cuts. Soft cheeses, like cottage cheese or queso fresco don’t keep that well. Milk can be used to cook other things, as well as drunk straight, turned into really good chocolate milk, or tapioca pudding (stretch your dairy and starches), or to fortify hot cereal. I’m not so sure about Cheddar cheese and cereal, but I’m sure someone has tried it at least once, if only on a dare.

However, cheese is one of those things that adds a lot of flavor to dishes, perks up otherwise bland things, and has enough fat to be a comfort food. A really, really good macaroni and cheese, or three-cheese-pizza with real cheese, or fresh-grated Parmesan on fresh veggies in a cold pasta or chick-pea salad, those are all things that satisfy more than just the stomach. Flavor and fat make a lot of things far more edible, and cheeses provide both of those. And if you need dairy, but can’t drink milk, hard cheese lasts far better than most yogurts.

So, I would argue that while good cheese is a not a necessity, it is not an indulgence, either. To me, an indulgence is something that goes overboard. A $250/pound Kobe beef steak is an indulgence. $100/lb chocolate is an indulgence. Down here, a full-length fur coat is an indulgence (unless the fur is on the inside, and it has a wind-blocking layer, at which point we’re talking “Arctic parka” rather than “see my fancy fur coat.”) Really good cheese, Cheddar, Emmental, or other similar semi-soft grating or slicing cheeses, Parmesan and related truly hard cheeses, they are worth the money. Man can live without cheeses, but life is far better with them. When I’m cold, and wet, and achy, and my budget is whimpering, well, grated cheese melted in a tortilla (quesadilla AKA Mexican grilled-cheese) with a good salsa fills a physical and emotional hole. And it tastes really, really good.

What do you mean by that? Musings on Modern Minds . . .

I was looking up Prinz Eugen von Savoy’s birth date, so I could be sure I remembered something else correctly. (He was 20 years old at Vienna in 1683. I was right.) That led to a bit of a rabbit hole, and some head scratching. A writer for a history web site wondered how Eugen could still be considered a hero of Austrian history when he had “blood on his hands.” Puzzled, I kept reading, and discovered that the author disapproved of what happened after the first siege of Belgrade. As usually happened after sieges, the attackers sacked the city, and a number of Muslims and Jews were killed. I sort of nodded and thought, “Unfortunate, but normal. What’s the problem?”

That’s when I realized that the web-site author and I have very, very different views of history, and of this historical figure. The author is looking back from a 21st century, nice person’s mindset, where a commander’s duty is to win with an absolute minimum of bloodshed and good soldiers never, ever do things like that. Eugen should have followed the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions and US or UN Rules of Engagement. Because he didn’t do that in 1683-1704, he was a bad person and not worthy of being honored as a national hero.

I look at Eugen as a brilliant leader and tactician, as well as someone who performed the miracle of fighting successful wars on a Habsburg budget.* So Muslims and Jews were massacred (or at least killed in large numbers) during the fighting in Belgrade. That’s how wars worked back then, especially sieges. Double especially a war that was Islam vs. Christianity and where both sides had been fighting “dirty” for, oh, [thinks back] since the Hungarians first collided with the Ottomans in 1366. Given some of the other things that happened over the 400 years of fighting, just killing people in the streets was somewhat tame. Not right, perhaps, but not the worst. And anyone who didn’t know what incoming troops would do if they broke into a city rather than it surrendering, well . . .

Is my mind warped, or have I spent too much time in the pre-modern era, or have I just accepted that the past really is a different country and so I don’t get bent out of shape when people don’t fit modern expectations? I know that the first is somewhat true. I”m not certain about the second option, so let’s go with the third option. You can’t read lots and lots of history, and walk battlefields or medieval cities without some of the time soaking in.

I guess I was a bit more surprised that the web-site author thought Prinz Eugen should have acted like, oh, Erwin Rommel, or General Michael Rose (during 1990s Balkan War). I shouldn’t be surprised, not anymore.

*The Habsburgs were firm believers in underpaying their military while expecting miracles, then acting surprised when Bad Things Happened. See the sack of Rome, when Charles V was shocked, shocked that his German mercenaries decided to pay themselves.