In the Saddle or On the Saddle

It’s a phrase I’ve never, ever really thought about. Why do we say, “back in the saddle” or “swung up into the saddle?” We mount a horse, or get onto a horse, rarely fork a horse (old term, very rarely used today in most places). But saddles are always “into.”

You have to go back to the Middle Ages, and then to the Spanish saddles brought to the New World. Don’t think about a modern English style saddle, which is designed to be light and to allow the rider and horse the greatest sense of contact between them.* Think back to who owned horses and rode them and what most saddles were used for: either stabilizing cargo, or war.

The goal was to keep the rider seated no matter what, especially when you rode with straight, extended legs. The saddles had high pommels and cantles that secured the rider when he was hit from the front or behind. It also helps keep an injured or exhausted rider from sagging and falling backwards or forwards. Sideways is also a bit of a challenge, but you can fall off in any direction if you try. Or the horse helps you.

This is a replica jousting saddle. You get into it, not onto it. Creative Commons fair use. Original source:

Here you see a version of the saddle in action, modified for the rider’s armor. It’s a great article about the how and why of re-creating a medieval saddle, and the results for horse and rider.

A 15th century saddle for show or parade. However, you can see the height of the pommel and cantle. This one is in the Met Museum.

These are the type of saddles most writers talked about, unless they described a specific sort of other saddle – pillion pad, or pack saddle, or box saddle, or side-saddle, or . . . These were the sort brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and used on war horses and mountain horses. Below is a Spanish colonial saddle from the late 1700s-early 1800s. It should look familiar.


To this day, charro saddles and others have higher, more snug pommels (or swell) and cantles than do some other western saddles. Because of this Spanish tradition, it is common in American English to say that you get into the saddle, even if you are riding English style.

Some modern dressage saddles retain the older medieval features if you are doing the Airs Above the Ground (Austria and Portugal, France are about the last places to learn this tradition.) I have a barrel-racing saddle that I love. It has a relatively snug seat, as well as suede on the outside, so the rider fits more snugly for making tight turns and rapid accelerations/decelerations. I got to sit in a replica medieval saddle once, and it really helps lock in your posture and where you put your weight.

And so, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sang about “Back in the saddle again,” because that’s what vaqueros did, and what modern cowboys do. And reenactors, and advanced dressage, and . . .

*Bareback’s no fun for extended periods, and not stable. For either horse or rider, especially once you shift into the trot or canter.


Atmospheric Rivers, the Pineapple Express, and a Large Wetland

California’s drought is, if not broken, seriously dented, especially for the upcoming summer. As of Tuesday the 17th, average depth of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was one and two-thirds the thirty-year average and increasing. As usual, once the media could get in, and the storms proved to be numerous and productive (and photogenic. Large bounders on the highway are cool. So are floating cars if they are somewhere far away from you,) people began trying to blame someone for the “atmospheric river.” (Climate change! Global warming! Cars and trucks! Hollywood’s moral turpitude!*) Um, well, not really. This isn’t new, just mildly uncommon.

California and parts of the western coast of North America have a Mediterranian Climate. This means that summers are warm and dry, because the ocean currents tend to be cold, and discourage evaporation. Also, winds from inland bring warm, dry air down from the mountains and push out to sea, sending any storms away from the coast. This makes for predictable seasonal weather – you can plan a picnic for July 15 and be 99% sure it will be sunny and warm, even if you set the date in December of the previous year. Likewise, November through March tend to be moist and cooler, although how wet and how cool vary from year to year. A strong La Niña pattern will send the moisture well to the north, and Seattle will get lots of snow, as will British Columbia. Southern California will be dry, and soon start worrying about water limits and rationing and Mega Drought. An El Niño year means California wades, the northern Rockies are relatively dry, and Arizona has a ski season as well as flooding. Remember when the Colorado River almost ripped out Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1980s? El Niño years. We’ve been having a series of La Niñas.

The short-term pattern his shifted, thanks to a series of Pacific storms that formed well south of the usual track in the Gulf of Alaska. These are sometimes called “the Pineapple Express,” because a southern branch of the jet stream picks them up from as far as Hawaii, and slings them over the west coast. From there they might go straight east, or north, or more rarely a little south**. They dump rain and snow on the West Coast.

Since California lives and dries by the winter rainfall and snow pack, all this would be great if it were spread out between October 1 and March 1. However, it is all in December-January, and the overload has filled rivers, flood plains, reservoirs, overloaded snow-removal equipment, and generally made a mess of the place. This is also not new. If you build a lot of hard surfaces along a river, it will rise higher and faster than before, causing flooding. Land-slides are part of the process as well, which people have observed going back to the Spanish colonial period. That’s just what the geology does in that part of the world, especially when very wet.

We’re nowhere near the mess of 1861-62 yet. Back then the Central Valley was still a wetland for the most part, undrained and grass covered, with meandering streams and only one major outlet. So when lots and lots and lots of snow and rain fell, and fell, and fell between November and January, some of it very hard and all at once, the Central Valley went under water. Literally. Sacramento was navigable by boat. Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico also had flooding, and the Texas Panhandle finally saw the terrible drought of the 1850s broken for a while. A drought had plagued the area in the 1850s, and the shift to a very strong El Niño broke the drought hard. Very hard. Now, since there were far fewer people to be afflicted, it was a pain but not the disaster it is today. Only a few thousand people died (!) The rest of the country was more worried about the Civil War (and in TX, about the Comanches raiding again). It wasn’t that flooding hadn’t happened before, but that the scale was so impressive. Thirty-feet deep floodwaters are uncommon, and memorable. The good news was, it refilled the aquifers. The bad news was, it wiped out the ranches in the Central Valley along with a lot of other property, and cost human lives, and made a mess of the place. Wired has a pretty good article, if you skim the climate-apocalypse bits. The cautions and observations about the long-term sequence of floods and modern consequences is food for thought – and disaster novels.

Today, parts of the Central Valley have sunk from ground-water pumping. California’s water storage and use policies are . . . I will be charitable. Convoluted, awkward, complex, and perhaps slightly off in their use priorities. The current series of storms will be good in the medium-run, especially this spring and summer as the snow-pack melts and provides summer in-stream flow. Right now, it’s rough on people, livestock, and wildlife. It will also be a major concern for produce growers and other things, since so many fields are under water – literally – and will be water logged for a while. What the state of the soil will be after the water drains is to be seen. We may lose some to sand and other sediment deposits.

What we’re seeing isn’t new, just news. It’s not caused by people but by atmospheric pressure and temperature systems. Rain happens, and sometimes a lot of rain happens all at once.

*The Book of Genesis says no more global floods. There’s nothing about a localized scouring not being an option.

**The southern track is more common with El Niño patterns, and that’s where southern NM, TX, and northern Mexico get winter precipitation. Or we get it from the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s rare this time of year.

Do What with the Porpoise Hide?!?: Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England

Treating moon sickness was relatively easy. You get the hide of a porpoise, cut it into strips, and beat the sufferer with the strips of hide. Cure follows soon after.

Now, I suspect that most modern medical schools would take a dim view of belaboring a patient with strips of sea-creature hide in order to cure anything. (Not that the faculty have not been tempted to do that to students, or ER physicians to members of that select group known with a distinct lack of fondness as “frequent flyers*.” Nooooooo.) However, it wasn’t all that long ago that slapping someone to break them out of a hysterical trance, or in the case of a small child, dousing him with a large bowl of cool water, was quite acceptable. It worked in most cases. Today? Both would be assault and battery in many jurisdictions, even if the cure worked.

However, the mind and culture were rather different back, oh, 1500 years or so ago, and in the Anglo-Saxon world, some ailments responded best to physical stress, in this case, flogging with a porpoise hide, among other things. The use of flagellation was not rare in Medieval medicine, and seems to have had truly beneficial results in some cases. Porpoise had several magical properties, so and were hunted for food, so the hide would have been available and known by patient and family alike. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with reasons why the cure worked. I’m not going to speculate. It worked, and was considered a standard treatment, and that’s that.

Once we get into the period after AD 900 CE or so, herbs and prayers replace magical formulae. Mostly. The edges of the world, like the Celtic Fringe (Ireland, western Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, Brittany) held onto things for much longer. Certain other rites and traditions were retained because they worked, despite what the Church might have said officially. One suspects that a lot of parish priests turned blind eyes when they found small bundles of medicinal herbs tucked close to the front of the altar, and ignored rumors of someone gathering healing plants from the churchyard. The Lord worked in mysterious ways, after all, and the bishop was far away. And better to bless the plants, which the Lord had put on earth to help people, than to encourage a relapse into paganism out of desperation.

So leechbooks** included lots of strange-to-us remedies. As it turns out, several of them work, and in one case work so well that it is used to treat MRSA infections. Others used a combination of natural antibiotics, natural anticoagulants, soporifics (often with a little something to keep the patient from getting too sleepy), fats to prevent drying, and the like to start the body healing. Anti-fever and anti-cough preparations were common. Some of the plants are used today in well-known and respected drugs (digitalis, anyone? Belladonna to dilate your eye before getting an eye exam?) Others, as it turns out, deserve more study. And a few seem to have had magical or placebo effects that we no longer experience because we don’t worry about suffering from elf-shot, or being afflicted by dwarves, or bothered by the evil-eye. Back in the 500s-800s, those were real problems in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Britain, and needed to be taken seriously by any good practitioner.

I’m not going to leap over into the “natural medicine” side of the argument any time soon, but it’s intriguing to try and imagine the mental world where the leechbooks and other writings came from. I will be incorporating parts of what I’m learning into two books, at least, in two different series. The complicated nature of many remedies implies a full-time herbalist and medical specialist, a leech in the old sense, who did nothing but prepare common remedies and treat the ill and injured. I need to add that to one story in particular, because it fits with the protagonist’s task, and gives him something that he can also do to earn trust when among strangers.

*These are individuals who do not have serious medical problems that truly do need immediate care, but often include people who are seeking pharmaceuticals. Some people who make multiple ER trips have 100% legitimate reasons, and they are NOT “frequent flyers.” When an incoming individual is offered something strong, and demands something “even better” that is a sign.

**”Leech” meaning physician goes way back to the Proto Indo-European root meaning a magic worker or one who gathered words. In Old Gothic and Old English, it carried the sense of enchanter of words as well as healer. The Irish Gaelic term has similar meanings. Words had power.

Free Cities, Imperial and Otherwise

The free cities of Europe seem to have been one of those odd historical quirks that didn’t arise elsewhere. The first ones go back to the Classical Era of Greece and Rome, and were cities that were founded by a king or prince, and administered by a representative of the monarch, but otherwise governed themselves. A few could coin money. All could defend themselves from interlopers from behind good walls. The pattern continued in the Middle Ages.

Some of the oldest free cities (slightly different from later Imperial Free Cities) were Roman settlements (Cologne, Kempten, Augsburg, Basel). They would later buy or fight their way to free city status, although Cologne never quite made it, leading to ongoing spats between the city and the Prince-Bishops over jurisdiction and taxes. Others developed as foundations made by nobles or abbeys in the 900s-1200s, or were chartered by the Holy Roman Emperors and administered by Vögte (Voigts). The vögte represented the interests of the Emperor and had final say in city management, unless an appeal was made to the emperor himself. These cities took care of their own daily affairs and administration, and had walls. Unless a place had walls and could keep people out for at least two days, it was not a city, most certainly not a free city.

A large number of free cities and Imperial Free Cities date from the 1000s – 1100s. Hamburg, Magdeburg, Lübeck, Rostok, the Hansa cities, were founded or re-founded at this time. Warmer weather with better sea conditions played a role, as did the expansion of Imperial power into formerly Viking-plagued areas. Increasing wealth allowed the cities to buy their freedom. In some cases, if the founder’s family died out, as in the case of Schwäbish Hall, the town became a free city. (Barbarossa wanted the salt revenue, the city wanted freedom, and a bargain was made.) The Imperial Free Cities had seats in the Imperial Diets along with the princes, but their votes counted for less, and so many didn’t actively participate in that part of the Holy Roman Empire’s administration.

When you look at free cities, you will often find that they are based on trade and commerce. All were self governing to a greater extent, all had walls, all had conflicts with magnates (lay or ecclesiastic) who wanted to control and tax them, and all had pretty rigid social stratification based on employment. The Hansa cities* were and are the best known, and Lübeck was the first among equals. Nuremberg too was ruled by the wealthy merchants, the patricians, who made money from metalwork, then weapons, map making, armor making, and engraving (both printed and on objects). Some became city states, but most did not. The numbers waxed and waned as did their collective political power. No major noble liked having a free city in or near his jurisdiction because he could not tax or control them. They provided an option, and some were in some cases amazingly wealthy.

By the 1800s, most cities had lost their independence. The hard times of the 1300s-1400s cost a few their freedom as they sank into debt, or lost population due to plague and war. The wars of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War also took a toll. Napoleon finished off several free cities that did not regain their freedom in the re-mapping of 1815. Without the Holy Roman Empire, being an Imperial Free City meant . . . nothing in legal or economic terms.

*Not all Hansa cities were free cities. London was not. Bruges varied, and even Bruges got cross-wise with Emperor Maximilian, who opted to move the main port to Antwerp. That was the end of Bruges as a financial power.

The Wonderful Past . . . that Wasn’t

Back in December, I did some review of the Romantic movement of the 1800s, and of the modern flavors of it. Some of the environmentalists sound very much like Romantics, although William Blake and Friends lacked the nihilist streak we see today. Some of the pronouncements from “experts” and “influencers” also strike the same chord as the back-to-the-Middle-Ages types of the 1800s. You know, the wonderful Middle Ages when peasants were all hard-working, happy, well-behaved, and respected their Betters? And when nobles were paragons of chivalry, and knew what was best for everyone, and ran things because they were to the manor born, and everyone obeyed and respected them? And sheep and cows were clean, tidy, obedient, and you could picnic in the meadows and woods without getting grass stains on your silk and satin clothing?

I’ll wait for those of you who have ever been around sheep and cattle to stop laughing before I go on.

The longing for a lost Golden Age very far back in human history. The time before the Fall, or when Numa Pompilius led Rome, or before Pandora opened the box, or during the reign of the legendary Good Emperors in China, or . . . Things were simpler, people were better, life wasn’t as hard, the earth gave forth of its bounty without weeds and thorns, and all the children were above aver— Oops, sorry, wrong introduction. Ahem. Anyway. Things were very good, perhaps too good, and then something happened. Now, if that something was the fault of people, or just bad luck, or gods who got irked because people weren’t grateful enough, or who knows why, but the world became harder to live in and people had to work.

Modernity and the various political shifts of the 1700s-early 1900s led to several sorts of nostalgia for the past. Some of it came from fuzzy childhood memories of rural life, memories that blurred out the stench, danger, hungry seasons, and very hard work. Some of it was a reaction to the problems of newly-urbanized society and of concentrated populations (crime, sanitation that left a lot to be desired, stress because of change in general). Some of it was political, with rulers and the old nobility (and would-be old nobility) dreaming of the days when people didn’t challenge them. In the Good Olde Days, might and heredity together made right. But with the Industrial Revolution and the social changes of the 1700s-1800s, the old unspoken understandings and social contracts failed, because people no longer lived in the narrow, tradition-bound world where everyone just knew what to do and how to behave. “Why? Why do we have to do that? Why do we have to listen to him? Why stay here when we can go away? Why not start a business/leave the manor/get the right to vote?” Those are questions not voiced in, oh AD 1100 CE. And some people preferred that world, or at least the world they imagined it to be.

I see some of that today, albeit in different words. “The EU government needs to take over this, this, and that, so that Europe will once again be the global economic power.” With the implication that the proper order of society is for Europe to dominate the rest of the planet, and for Brussels and the Experts to dominate Europe. “We need to go back to farming as it was done before the Green Revolution caused so many environmental problems. We need to honor and nurture Native ways of knowing about farming, and to live smaller and simpler.” “The family farm is the answer, with mixed agriculture and Community-Based lifeways.” (No, I’m still not sure what he meant, although I agree to an extent on the mixed agriculture.*) “We should re-wild Europe.” Or North America. Funny, no one talks about re-wilding most of Asia, or Latin America, and certainly not Africa.

Change is not something I adjust well to. New technology is the near-bane of my existence. However, I also know that “re-wilding” Europe and North America would be a disaster for millions of people, and to a large extent can’t be done without, oh, turning steel, glass, cement, and asphalt back into their ingredients and returning those to the ground. The Ogallala Aquifer will not suddenly return to the surface and fill springs if farming stops tomorrow. Europe won’t be a paradise for wildlife, although parts of Eastern Europe are looking more and more like an American wilderness reserve. Nor will millions of people happily surrender their jobs and political voice to “our betters.” OK, some would, and some do as a lifestyle choice. Jump if you’re feelin’ froggy. I don’t trust other people to know what is best for me. I certainly don’t trust people who have never held a non-government or non-trust-fund job in their lives to run the world. We’ve got some of those already. No, thank you.

The pristine environment, the paradise of the Medieval World, they never existed. But they are so appealing when draped in art, and museum displays, and full of CG lambs gamboling on lush meadows. And I suspect most of us have had a moment or two when living in a less complicated time (but with our modern amenities) has some appeal. I’d like to go back to certain Victorian morés, but with modern sanitation and being able to vote and to work where I choose. I enjoy seeing an un-peopled environment. I also like electricity, hot running water, paved roads, and relatively inexpensive food and clothing.

But that’s the problem with reading a lot of history, and being honest. You know that lambs poop, and that the peasant wars of Europe and China and Japan were numerous and nasty.

Reality’s a bummer if you’re a Romantic. Miniver Cheevy did not have a happy life.

*Mixed agriculture, or safety-first agriculture, means you have a variety of crops as well as livestock on a farm, so that if one fails, there are other options that will get you through. It requires a lot more work, and it’s not as efficient on the large scale as monocrop commodity farming. But it might be better for the soil and for society in the very long run. Opinions differ, as you can imagine.

Roots, Place, and Identity

A friend and I were batting around a question that’s puzzled both of us: What happened to the town we used to know? I didn’t see the change as sharply as he did, because 1) I’ve been here during the gradual shift and 2) when I came back from Grad School, some of the larger cultural differences matched what I’d been around at Flat State U, so the “fish in water” effect was present. But we agree that something changed and not for the better, at least to us.

After talking things over, and chewing on the idea for a week or so, I think it’s the problem of roots. If a place forgets or chooses to ignore its roots, the culture changes. Add a large influx of people who never knew those roots, or who prefer certain aspects of their home culture to what they find here, and you get more change. Federal influence might also play a role in some city policies that seem to have encouraged anti-social behaviors among part of the population, but that remains a large unknown. Without roots and a memory of the past, what gives a place an identity? Cultural features? Is New York City* nothing other than the Met, concerts, Wall Street, the Natural History Museum, and Broadway? OK, in that case, the Village as it used to be, perhaps?

I admit, there’s an element of nostalgia for me, not so much for my friend. He was looking at the rougher side of the city, one I only knew by reputation. Everyone knew about That Bar, the one where they frisked you for weapons and if you didn’t have one, you could rent one. (I kid, but just a little). If you wanted trouble, you went to these neighborhoods, or to that one area after about eight PM. During daylight and before eight it was happening and cool, and the bars kept things lower key. After eight? All bets were off. And everyone knew it. Crime happened elsewhere, to be sure, but there was “the bad side” and the rest of town. Today? Very different.

When I grew up, roots were part of the local identity. Ranching and the west were close at hand, and celebrated. Rodeos, pow-wows, cattle drives, ranching heritage, all played a huge part in how things worked. Local magnates were ranchers, bankers, some oil and gas men (and That One Guy, who eventually left town for greener pastures and was not missed.) Today . . . We’re supposed to be finding a new identity, bringing in lots of young people from Elsewhere (“if they come, they will build it” was the city government’s motto for a while. Thus far that hasn’t really happened that I can see.) Calls rose to spend more time talking about Hispanics and African-Americans, both their role in building the region, and the discrimination they suffered. They had a role in history, and certainly should be recalled in the city’s roots. But history is not a 0-sum story. We should be able to include all the area’s pioneers without kicking out any. This region was ranching and cowboys and farmers and oil patch and proud of it. And because of that, certain things were expected – civic participation, self-reliance (we’re relatively isolated and had to be self-reliant), helping neighbors, church participation, and self-governance.

Things are different now. “Bomb City” is supposed to be the new nickname for the largest city. Um, that should be Albuquerque or Los Alamos, in my opinion. There are still rodeos, but they’re not what they used to be. Native Americans are included in the history, but we don’t have many pow-wows, if any. There’s less about the good people of the past and more about the sins of the past. A lot of people from outside the region, state, and country have moved in, bringing new ideas and some serious challenges. What had been off-beat local shops are now variants on coastal boutiques, with more of a coastal vibe. The older western-ranching-cowboy past is not something the new people know about, or honor the way older people did and do.

What is the local/regional/state/national culture? Human geographers have begun talking about the negative aspects of “cosmopolitanism,” of being “a citizen of the world.” Citizens of the world don’t have roots, and they bring what they like to wherever they go – London, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, Ft. Worth, Denver. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but neither is it a purely good thing. A sense of place, of common culture, provides strength when tough times happen, and gives younger people an identity to help support and sustain them. Americans are an idea people. We are based on a culture of ideas and shared heritage. Not blood, not soil, not common religious denomination, but an idea and shared heritage and mythology.

Who are we? What is $PLACE$? It’s not something most of us sit down and try to define, but perhaps we should. What makes the place you love, or like, or want to live in or near, what it is? The physical environment? The people? The culture? Yes?

I’m not sure we as a city/region/state/country have done that often enough, deeply enough. Mayhap we should. But how do you put roots into words? How do you get a community to say clearly, “This we are, this we believe, this we like. If you want to change it, you first must understand why we have kept it, and only then ask us to change.” I don’t have an answer, nor do I know how to go back to “the good-as-I-remember-them days” even if it can be done.

*I know that the boroughs and neighborhoods are different from Manhattan. I’m grabbing Manhattan because it is what most people think of when I say “New York City.”

Now To Conclude Our Christmas Mirth . . .

The tree has been taken down, ornaments stored, wreaths changed out for another year. A few Christmas cookies remain to be eaten, and some lebkuchen, but with the feast of the Epiphany, Christmas has ended for another year (unless you are Orthodox Christian, in which case, Merry Christmas! Or if you follow the tradition that Christmastide lasts until Candlemas and the feast of the Purification.)

January 6th is Twelfth Night. The Three Kings visit in some places, leaving gifts for children. Or perhaps La Befana comes to call, she who was too busy to go with the kings and so trails after them, seeking the Christ Child. It ended the official feasting and parties of Christmas, and the Solemnities of Christmas as well. It was time to return to work and the long nights of winter. The days are growing longer, but also colder in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Winter has a way to go yet.

“Three great wonders fell on this day: a star brought kings where an infant lay/

Water made wine in Galilee, and Christ baptized in Jordan.”

Three feasts fall on January 6, only one of which do I remember noticing as a child. My current place of singing does two – Epiphany and the baptism.

Book Review: The Vortex

Carney, Scott and Jason Miklian. The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation. (New York: Ecco Books, 2022) Kindle edition.

The short version – this account of the 1970 Bay of Bengal cyclone and the war between East and West Pakistan is well written, makes good use of sources, and is painful to read because of the topic.

Scott Carney and Jason Miklian tell the story of a natural disaster that became the catalyst for war, including attempted genocide (their term). Hurricane forecasting was just starting to move into the realm of science, and in 1970, different countries used different ways to predict storms and warn of their intensity. Sattelite imagery too lagged behind time of need, and the National Hurricane Center in the US didn’t get images quickly. When trying to warn people on the other side of the globe, that lag became lethal, as did the confusion in intensity scales. A US Category 4 sounded mild on the older 1-10 scale. It wasn’t.

The book follows five people – two young men from East Pakistan, an American woman and her husband who work in Dakka, East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, and a Pakistani officer. President Richard Nixon and a few others appear at times. The way the authors use those characters can make the story a little confusing, because each chapter focuses on one person in turn. I found the American woman and the young man on the island to be the most intriguing. They tried to stay outside of politics, and for various reasons got pulled in: she organized international aid and distribution, and he became a guerilla fighter.

The story quickly turns ugly. The cyclone, which caused an estimated 250,000 deaths (possibly as many as 500,000) led to unrest in East Pakistan. This caused the government of West Pakistan to act against those who had been calling for more political rights for the flat, ethnically Bengali half of the country. The solution was to eliminate anyone in leadership and anyone who did not speak the languages of western Pakistan. The resulting “Operation Searchlight” led to the deaths of millions, either through execution through or disease and hunger as refugees fled to India, or tried to. That in turn galvanized East Pakistani units in the larger army to mutiny, and individuals in East Pakistan to turn to irregular warfare.

There are clear villains in the story as told. Yaha Khan, the president of the country, Richard Nixon (who gave Khan a blank check and arms in exchange for helping facilitate the opening up of China), the West Pakistani military commanders who encouraged murder, rapine, torture, and other things. Heroes include those who tried to help, and those who fought for the freedom of what became Bangladesh. Missing is India, for the most part.

The book is well written but painful to read. Genocide is not pleasant. I’d read about Operation Searchlight in general, but not the horrible details and how it was organized and carried out. The results of the 1970 cyclone – bodies, death, emotional pain, starvation – are also hard to read, although perhaps more familiar. I got tired of the Anthropogenic Climate Change drum being beaten, especially in the final chapter. The disjointed nature of the story, hopping from person to person, could also get confusing. Having a map in hand helps.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the history of South Asia in general and Bangladesh in particular and those looking at the interplay of natural disasters and politics. I’m not comfortable with the amount of blame the US gets in the book for Operation Searchlight, but I’m not a diplomatic historian and don’t have enough background to be able to tell if the authors overplay the importance of the US’s reaction or lack there of to the West Pakistani actions.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the authors or publisher for this review.

Arches and Beams

There are several ways to keep the outdoors out of buildings. Flat roofs (which are not really 100% flat in most cases), thick layers of brush and small branches to make a dense layer, mats of woven stuff under turf, wooden beams with sod on top (and cloth or newspaper to slow the leaks and divert falling critters), stone, metal over wood and stone . . .

Heavy wood beams on top of heavy structure, covered in thin pieces of wood. That’s what you do when wood is available and needs to last a long time. I’d guess that the core of this Polish shed went back to the late 1800s. The reforestation of the 1800s had made wood more available than it was between 1600-1820.

When wood is in short supply, you build with imported wood, then cover it with plaster and thatch. The thatch weighs less than a tile or slate or wooden roof of the same quality, allows better air flow but retains heat, and lasts for 30-40 years when done properly. A good thatch roof in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein in this case) is up to 24″ thick. In the case above, the materials are reeds brought in from the Low Countries and England, since the local reeds are not numerous enough, or grow in protected areas and can’t be harvested in the needed quantities. A wooden frame supports the thatch. Fire isn’t as much of a hazard as you’d think, at least in that part of Germany, because it tends to be wet.

However, since fire was one of the greatest hazards of urban areas in the Middle Ages, those places that could required slate or tile roofs. In the north, in the German lands, Low Countries, and Poland, brick replaced the non-existent stone and very expensive imported wood.

Slate, lead, and copper over wood and brick, with some stone. This is Lübeck, the center of the Hansa trade network, and very wealthy. Fire-resistant roofs replaced thatch at a relatively early date. Brick also took the place of both wood and stone. The large holes in the “spine” of the building on the left are to allow the wind through. The stepped roof lines serve a similar purpose – North Sea winds are fierce when they get going, and there’s not many hills or other things to break the flow of air over the land. Ground floors often served as floodways. You didn’t store or build anything on the ground floor that you weren’t willing to either sacrifice or have get wet. The water came at you from both directions up in this part of Europe.

I mentioned timbers?

Mind your head when you get up, or when you stand quickly near the washroom. This is from an old hotel in Olomutz, Moravia, Czechia. Wonderful place, but not for the tall or forgetful. It had a tile roof, probably synthetic tile because of the weight and because of hail. I was on the top floor because, well, I’m small, can carry my luggage up medieval staircases, and don’t mind hiking up steep and narrow medieval staircases. (The porter meant well, but I was in a hurry and other people needed his help a lot more than I did.)

When you have more wood than you need, so to speak, you can do this:

This is down almost on the Polish/Slovak border, in the mountains. Wooden roof because fire is not a danger, wooden building because wood was cheap in terms of labor and supply both. Cheap being relative, however. Parts of Eastern Europe, like western Europe, had occasional shortages of the desired types of wood, even if wood in general was plentiful to “not scarce”. I couldn’t get into this church because a service was in progress. The interior is plastered and painted.

When we think of wood and timber shortages, most of us think about England and Britain in general, because that was one reason given for sending people to the Americas – find wood. Also, the traditional history of the Industrial Revolution centers on a lack of wood for fuel, so coal came into use, which along with the pump led to the use of steam and mechanizing factories and . . . As always, the story is more complicated, but good building timbers tended to be relatively scarce going back to, oh, the Roman Era. When you build things like:

Another, older church is below. It goes back to the 1100s, although I suspect the roof joists are not that old. It was the the first church in England built to honor St. Olaf, and is in York. It was a parish church, and is still active. The oldest surviving beams below date to the 1400s.

If you can’t afford any of those, or your trees are all too short?

Thatch and turf on turf. It works.

Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Mostern, Ruth. The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021) hard cover.

It was once called the Great River, and flowed clear. Over time, human use, climate shifts, and political responses to floods and droughts led to the river becoming the Yellow River, sometimes called China’s Sorrow. How this happened is a story as convoluted as the river’s floodplains, and a fascinating lesson in parts vs the whole, and the limits of human power. People and water, and silt and sand, worked together to destabilize the great river over the course of a thousand years.

Asian environmental history has been relatively under-studied, in part because of problems with language, in part because of the enormous spans of time involved. European environmental history is easier to divide, and the archaeological pieces are gathered into tidier “heaps” of sources, so to speak. Only within the past 20 years or so have many works about the environmental history of China been published. This book builds on several classic works of that history, and expands the time-span of the history of the Yellow River.

Mostern argues that while climate shifts and weather pattern changes played a role in the changes observed in the Yellow River watershed, human activity played a far greater role, especially after roughly the year AD 600 CE. Differences in priorities between imperial governments and local officials, plus the focus on relatively free-market development and agriculture, led to Han Chinese culture expanding into regions not suited for intensive farming. By 1855, the Yellow River had become unusuable and impossible to manage (given the finances and technologies of the time), and what had once been a fertile and prosperous region turned into a salty, gravel and sand-choked series of barrens and wetlands. The Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River transformed with ever-increasing speed from grasslands and mixed forests to a rugged, eroded near-desert that sent millions of tons of sediment to cover the floodplain downstream.

Warfare caused much of the damage to the ecosystem of the upper Yellow River, but stable imperial regimes could be just as bad for the environment. The region is one of conflicts – hot and cold air masses, desert winds and tropical moisture, herders and farmers, imperial centralization and tribal societies. Competing armies stripped the land of forests and grass, and the soldier-farmers of Imperial China denuded the land to build walls and grow food for their own survival. When the nomads chased the Han back to the river and farther south, they too removed forest cover, although long stable periods did allow for regrowth of grass and trees. Sometimes. The development of iron-bladed plows and intensive farming technologies caused further, faster, erosion. Demand for fuel and building wood in peace time as well as war devoured more and more forests, causing more erosion and more flooding downstream.

Some observers saw what was happening and argued that the erosion and loss of ground cover needed to stop at the source. When the capital city remained in the upper Yellow River, the government seemed—sometimes—more interested in considering those ideas. But once the government moved downstream, the focus shifted to coping with the results of the problem, not the sources. Huge floods in 1048 and other years devoured tens of thousands of farmland, displaced millions, and drained the imperial treasury. Only the Grand Canal made it possible to feed and supply Peking/Beijing as the land around it turned sandy and salty from inundation and sediment dumping. In 1885, efforts to keep the Grand Canal open failed, and sea transport became the only to move food to the city. Southern China refused to pay for the problems of the Yellow River.

The book is very well written with excellent illustrations, tables, and a long appendix of methodologies. It helps to have a background in overall Chinese history, but that is not needed. A bit of hydrology helps even more, otherwise the learning curve might be a touch steep in the introduction and first chapter. I found the book an easy read, but one with lots and lots to ponder and mull over. The author is even handed in her approach – people can’t know what they can’t know, and the imperial hydrocrats’ priorities made sense to them. They lacked the tools and the resources to see the entire watershed as a whole. Those who did pull back to see the larger picture lacked the will to sacrifice the imperial capital to floods in order to pour resources into the upstream lands.

The author’s use of some terms struck me as odd, enough so that it pushed me out of the story a few times. I disagree with using the term “Anthropocene,” although in this case there is some logic to it, given the importance of human influences on the life of the river. Other usages were literally correct, but jarring, almost as if the author were not a native speaker. I do not know, and it does not affect the overall readability and quality of the book.

I recommend the book to historians of water, historians of China, people interested in the interactions of government and the physical environment, and conservationists. The idea that “the problems caused by central control can be fixed by central control” rings all too true in the West today. I am reminded of an interview I did with a farmer about flooding on a small river. He shrugged and said, “Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” People can try to work around, with, or against floods and droughts, but only by looking at the watershed as a while, rather than reach by reach. This is an excellent addition to the literature in several disciplines.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or remuneration for this review.