“Black Paths” and Trade Routes

In Barry Cunnelif’s Desert, Steppe, and Ocean, he makes the observation that trade routes never disappeared completely. Even if something had not been available for generations, as long as a sample remained, someone would say, “You know, I wonder if we/I can get more of that,” whatever that happened to be—lapis lazuli, fancy weavings, spices, unusual metal alloys, odd pottery. Movement of food also seems to have followed a similar pattern, although there were other complications, most notably the question of bulk transport of a perishable good.

I just finished reading a rather different book entitled Oceans of Grain. I’ll do a full review later, because I need some time to chew on the author’s ideas, pun intended, and decide what I think about them. The book is fascinating, and useful. One thing the author points out over and over is that the “black paths,” the trade routes for grain from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes to other places never went away. Come plant disease, come Black Death, the trade routes might fade from use, or be avoided, but they always came back. Just like the older routes across Central Asia, and I suspect in other places as well. People remembered that something good or useful came from “over that way,” and once demand returned, then transportation also restarted.

People always seem to want what we don’t have. Some thing different, something Odd, catches our eye and we dig it up, or trade for it, or (a very few per generation) go to see where it came from and if we can get more. Doing that for food is obvious, and appears over and over in history. Mesopotamian records, Chinese records, the Books of Genesis and Ruth, the decline of “Old Europe” and the arrival of the Proto-Indo-European speakers, the end of the Anasazi and the rise of the Rio Grande Valley peoples, they are all part of the constant story of finding food and bringing it home, or going to where the food is. But what purpose does lapis lazuli serve, or raw copper that is not made into tools? Obsidian made excellent sharp arrowheads and knives, although it is a bit more fragile than flint, and passed from hand to hand across continents, or at least across regions. But what about carpets and cloth? Apparently a market has always existed for “like what we make but different,” even if it is the same material? It seems to be part of being human to want unusual things, either for status, or just because they are “not like what we make.”

German highways overlay Roman roads, which often used or paralleled older routes, some of which might be animal trails to salt or good grazing or shelter. English roads follow Roman roads, but not always, because the Roman used roads to show power as well as to get there from here the fastest way possible. Ancient routes across the steppe connected grain-consumers to grain growers, and later railroads ran along the foot paths and cart-roads. To the east, old, old ways ran from oasis to spring to sheltered valley, from the Black Sea or even the Balkans east to China. Other routes branched off to the south, to Mesopotamia, the Oxus and Indus Rivers, and the Amur. Trading cities rose and fell with climate and culture, but despite multiple interruptions over the centuries, ideas and things passed back and forth. Domesticated horses, wheeled chariots, bronze technology, barley and other grains, silk and gems and spices, back and forth they went.

Perhaps, instead of Homo ludens or homo faber, we should use homo commercium. Man the trader instead of “man who plays” or “man the maker.” Because we swap everything and anything, and do it over the same paths for thousands of years.


Peak – Sylphium? Tree? Whale? Oil?

A fellow environmental historian noted the other day that no-one really talks about “peak resource” anymore as part of their arguments for conservation and moderating use of natural resources. That was a big thing in the mid to late Twentieth Century – the world would run out of iron, or oil, or aluminum, or copper, or coal, farmland, or other things. Thinking about it, I’ve not heard that argument used for at least a decade, I think since global warming/anthropogenic climate change became the greater concern. As is my wont the idea sent me down a bit of a research rabbit-trail. Have we humans, globally, ever run out of a resource completely? Not local shortages or failures, but the entire world?

The Roman plant called sylphium (or silphium) might be one of the few resources that westerners used to extinction. And that’s a maybe because a Turkish botanist thinks that the plant might have survived in Anatolia. (Not the genus, but the specific plant). The plant contained chemicals in its resin and sap that affected female hormones, causing abortions or temporary infertility depending on the woman’s condition when she took it. Given what Roman patriarchs did with unwanted children (ordering them exposed after birth) and the risks of pregnancy and maternal death, it’s easy to see why the plant – per tradition – got used up and vanished.

When I came through school the first time, I was taught that the reason for the Industrial Revolution and the switch to coal was because England (and the rest of Europe) ran out of trees. They’d reached peak wood, forcing the shift, which led to the first Industrial Revolution. Or, they ran out of big trees for building and looted North American forests, then ran out of fuel wood, and so on. Well, it turns out that the first one wasn’t true, and the second one was partly true. Managed woodlands in England and Wales provided wood for iron smelting and other uses well into the 20th Century, as it turns out. Cost had more to do with it, both the cost per ton of hardwood charcoal vs coal, and the cost of transportation. Coal measures and seams near water were far cheaper, and provided a steadier, more intense heat, and could be worked more quickly than waiting for wood to grow, season, and then be converted into various fuels. The English had been using coal since at least the Tudor days (1400s), to the point that London passed rules about burning coal in order to preserve air quality. Ship timbers were a slightly different story, because the Royal Navy wanted live-oak and other timbers that had grown in the proper shapes and didn’t need to be pieced, carved, or spliced. England and Ireland were running out of those, and with the mess in the Baltic [thanks Sweden and Russia!] that supply of mast timbers had gotten both expensive and somewhat precarious. So off to North America they went. If the government owns it, you don’t have to pay for it, if you’re part of the government, na ja? And in theory, there was no competition or risk of wood theft.

Whale oil was another resource that almost disappeared. Whale oil and oil lamps were better and cheaper than candles, were more reliable than olive oil lamps, and whale oil could be used for mechanical things that required a very light oil that wouldn’t go rancid as quickly as walnut, olive, and other plant-based oils. It was lighter and less viscous than olive oil, so it could be used in much colder temperatures. Whale oil had a distinct scent (bad) and the odd knack of bleaching fabric that it got on – sort of the opposite of used engine oil. [Or so I’ve been told. Really.] Baleen whales had a different chemical composition to the fat in their blubber, making it much better for most purposes than the blubber of toothed whales. This led to the hunting-out of many whales, to the point of near extinction. However, the search was already on for a replacement for whale oil, preferable something as good as the oil but without the stink-and-stain properties. Rapeseed (canola) oil, petroleum oil, and other things also came into use, and peak whale became less of a worry for everyone except corset makers. They needed the baleen, the ling, flexible filters baleen whales used to separate krill and larger fish from seawater. Then cheap, thin steel appeared on the market, and corsets also switched from baleen to metal for stays.

Then it became peak petroleum, and peak aluminum, and . . . Humans keep finding replacements, or work-arounds, or new sources, or what have you. I suspect that’s partly why we don’t hear about “peak resource” anymore. It doesn’t sell what the environmental activists are trying to do. I firmly believe in recycling what can be recycled, and not wasting things. But I also believe that people will find a solution.

The Shadows Are Black

Yes, this is self-evident. Except this year, having trees and other things cast black shadows is a novelty. Allow me to explain.

Going back to June, I noticed one afternoon, as I glanced out my window on one of our many sunny days, that the shadows had soft edges and a reddish cast. The sky was not obviously smoky, as sometimes it has been, but soft blue and just-a-whisker hazy. The sun cast reddish shadows where black ought to be.

And so it continued all summer. With a few exceptions, usually the morning after a storm, reddish shadows stretched and contracted as the sun crossed the sky. No air-quality warnings (except when fires in CO and NM sent smoke right over us), no red skies (like 2019 and 2020), but the light lacked the usual edge that cut crisp lines of black and white, or black on green. Something muted the sunlight, which also explains why tomatoes and the like failed to truly thrive. High smoke and a solar minimum dimmed the light and the plants just didn’t thrive. We had heat, but not clear light.

That began to change three weeks ago, and really shifted this past week, when a very strong cold front and rain lumbered through, drenching everything in one of those cold, damp weekends perfect for curling up with a good book and hot tea, and not doing outdoor chores. (So you can guess who needed to take out the garbage, and do outdoor chores.) On Tuesday, as I drove home, I was gazing at the brilliant orange and gold trees rising above their still-green cousins, and thought, ‘What’s different about the light?” It wasn’t just that the colors are so striking and richer this year than last, or that everything seems to be changing all at once. No, the very light and sky struck me as harder, clearer, sharper than before. I’d gotten so used to the smoky sun that undimmed light surprised me.

No smoke. No dust. The shadows had crisp edges and pure black centers. Light poured down from a clean-washed lapis blue sky that faded to turquoise, not hazy white-blue. Feathers of white touched the heavens here and there, but didn’t block the light.

Fire-season’s not over, not until snows start to fall into Colorado, but the air has cleared. Even with masses of high clouds blanketing the sky, the light remains white, not reddish-tan. The world is a little closer to High Plains normal, for now.


The humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan popularized the term “topophilia” after observing that people from all sorts of cultures around the world tend to identify one sort of landscape as the ideal, and that people do best when we have access to that landscape. One of his observations was that when given their choice, people preferred a gently rolling, well-watered (but not swampy), grassy landscape with scattered copses and clumps of trees. A savanna, in other words, but not flat. The presence of good grass and trees appealed to both herders and farmers, because it shows good soil and steady grazing. The scattered trees provide shelter but don’t block the view, and people like views. They like to see what’s around them, what’s coming.

People relate to our landscape in various ways. We sort out what is good from what is less good, and what is downright dangerous. This over here would be a great farm, that over there should probably stay managed woodland, and avoid that boggy place that smells bad. We fall in love with landscapes, or reject them for a host of reasons. I grew up on the High Plains, which are semi-arid steppe grasslands. The first summer I lived in the Midwest, I boggled at the thick, black soil and the lush grass even in mid-July. Green ditches are not natural. Ditch grass is brown. But in that part of the world? It is a wonderful landscape that has to be maintained by people, or large areas revert to wetland and marsh. Other parts would become forest. The landscape today is flat to gently rolling, with clumps of trees, large swaths of domestic grasses, and semi-managed watercourses. Sound familiar? It’s beautiful, fertile, prosperous, and a bit rough during winter, with the occasional tornado, derecho, and giant hail in summer.

One of the things that Yuan tried to impress on people, especially urban planners, is that people need greenspaces. I remember reading an account from LA, where well meaning urban planners descended on a ghetto/barrio area with designs for a community center and pool and other amenities that would benefit residents. The residents informed the planners in no uncertain terms that they did NOT want another swath of cement that happened to have a pool and community center. They wanted trees, and grass, and growing things. This was in the ’60s, when the concrete and steel school of urban landscaping and city planning was still hanging on. In this case, the planners listened, and after to-ing and fro-ing, a new urban greenspace appeared in the form of a park with some trails and sports fields and trees. A savanna, in other words.

All people related to our environment in some way. We may reject it and seek another, we may sample a variety of landscapes and decide on a particular one where we want to dwell, we change our current surroundings in order to better fit what we prefer. Some people try to shape landscapes (notably urban ones) in order to remake society in the image they prefer. Others attempt to put the environment under glass, to preserve a perfect “pristine” world that never actually existed, and that is not stable. If there is weather, and sunlight, and the occasional plant, you cannot have an unchanging “climax state” in the ecosystem. In fact, the idea of climax states has gone out the window. We may prefer the land to be a certain way, but often we have to keep it so by burning, or irrigating, or draining, or adding trees, removing trees . . . We’re as bad as beaver and bison, except we have thumbs.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?

When I was in northern Germany on the Hansa trip, one stop was Schleswig, up near the Danish border. First, we went to see the Viking museum and Haithabu/Hedeby (closed for major remodeling – Boykin’s Law of Museums in action) and the open-air reconstruction, then to the main museum. One of the fascinating things in the museum is the quartet of “bog bodies.”

The “Child of Vindeby” Author photo.

People disappeared into moors (“Moose” in German, “Moss” in some northern English dialects) ever since people discovered the hard way that the solid surface wasn’t solid. Some people died by accident, wandering and getting bogged, drowning and being preserved. Others were murder victims (crime-type violent death) and others were ritual deposits, to use the nice, tidy archaeological term. Those bodies left in peat bogs were, sometimes, preserved, tanned by the tannic acid in the peat waters. Sometimes the entire body and clothing survived, in other cases only parts have remained intact. The bodies are always found by accident, which further reduces the chances of them being “perfect.”

Why were these people left in the bogs? In a few cases, the presence of large rocks, wooden stakes through the heart, and piles of brush held down with more rocks and stakes suggests that the community did NOT want the individual returning to haunt them, or sending plague. Those tend to be relatively rare finds, and more bodies of that sort are found on land. Why sink a vampire (suspected or confirmed) in a bog when you can do it far more safely on solid ground? Some were probably murderers who were staked and left in very unhallowed ground as further punishment, be they Christian or otherwise. A few just got lost and died.

A number that have been found appear to be sacrifices. These are the ones that inspire books, spooky stories, museum displays, and much speculation. The first major work on these, entitled The Bog People, is still the best starting point, even though modern technology and later research have shown some of the early ideas to be incorrect. Peter Glob summarized what was known, what was guessed, and what was suspected, based on the best science at the time. The sacrifices seem to have been unusual in some way – physically different or otherwise slightly outside of society. Several had berries or grains in their stomachs not usually eaten as food, like mistletoe. Some had been strangled, or had been killed by a blow to the head, or by having their throat cut. To whom they were sacrificed is unknown, especially for the ones that are from 1400-1200 BC/BCE or so. The Iron Age sacrifices are also uncertain, although the Celtic gods are probable possibilities, perhaps even the Norse deities, although there’s a LOT of doubt there.

I’d read about the bog bodies growing up, and this was my first chance to ever see one. Or five, in this case. One was not on display when I visited, having been removed for further study. The others are in a separate, dimly-lit section of the museum dedicated to death and beliefs about the afterlife. Since Europeans generally don’t have the taboos about displaying the ancient dead that other cultures have, there were no reasons not to show the bodies, as long as it didn’t lead to preservation problems (unlike Ötzie, who must remain frozen or decomposition will resume.) The larger area talks about beliefs concerning death, what cultures do with bodies, and why these were preserved. Then you come to the actual bodies themselves.

It’s fascinating to see. The lighting is dim for preservation reasons, as well as continuing the sense of mystery and “otherworldliness” we often associate with death. The bodies are in reconstructions of where they are found, if possible. The one above was first thought to be a girl. Later study and better imaging equipment revealed that he is a boy who probably died of disease or other natural causes, possibly related to multiple episodes of malnutrition. Interestingly, he seems to be the only one of the four who was not a sacrifice or “dangerous burial” of some kind.

Old bodies – be they skeletons or bog bodies – don’t bother me the way they disturb some. My culture doesn’t practice ancestor veneration, nor do we believe that a surviving physical body is necessary for an afterlife. I am fascinated by what skeletons and bodies can tell us about everyday life (hard, mostly) and beliefs.


“You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

Darkness, night, dark nights of the soul, following a star in the heavens, comets as portents . . . What does it mean if all of that goes away? Both in terms of astronomy and interesting people in star-gazing and studying the heavens, and in the sense of culture and religion? Those were some of the topics batted around at one of the FenCon panels.

The title phrase comes from one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s letters to a young poet, in which he (Rilke) muses about preferring darkness to firelight, because night includes everyone, while light shuts out those beyond the glow. I confess to having always been one “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost phrased it. I grew up star-gazing, taking walks after dark, going on Owl Prowls at the nature center, and so on. I prefer to keep lights dim, even as my aging eyes are less sensitive to light in general. I grew up understanding all the star references, and learning celestial navigation, and so on. But what about generations that can’t see stars, or anything dimmer than the quarter moon, because of city lights?

For astronomers, to lose the stars is both sad and a professional problem. Who will pick up the mantle after the current generation retires, if younger people don’t learn to look up, and are not fascinated by the wonder of “what’s out there? Why does it look like that?” Light pollution is a serious problem for migrating birds as well, in some cases. It can be a real pain for pilots, because finding the airport in a sea of lights is Not Easy if you don’t already know what to look for. Especially if you are not on an instrument approach with everything set to get the radio beacons or GPS fixes. There’s a runway down there. Somewhere. Or is that I-80?

Some people reply to the plaints with “There’s an ap for that!” You can point your phone or tablet at the sky, or ground, and get a star chart for whatever you are aimed at. Hubble and Webb telescope images are far more colorful and detailed than what you can see through a 6″ backyard telescope or binoculars. And some places still have a planetarium, to simulate going out at night without the bugs, traffic, light pollution, stiff neck, or risk of mugging. Who needs real stars?

We humans do. We need darkness to properly rest. We need to be reminded to things outside of our ken, of worlds greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement kids and adults get from seeing the stars and identifying the patterns and shapes, the nebula and galaxies and planets, that even a great planetarium can’t quite match. There’s no ap that will reveal the heavens in their glory on a cold October night in Yellowstone, when so many stars filled the sky that I couldn’t identify constellations or planets. The Milky Way cast shadows, it was so bright. Or out at Black Mesa, Oklahoma, as the summer stars marched across the peak of the heavens and a coyote or ten called back and forth.

Darkness stands for evil in many religions. Darkness is when bad people lurk, and thus when heroes do their thing. Humans generally don’t see as well at night as by daylight, although there are a lot of variations on “not as well.” We don’t see color, and discerning patterns and “is that a shadow or a hole” becomes a bit more challenging. Not that it stopped people from working, traveling, or doing things at night in the past. Today, we flood the night with artificial light to make travel (in vehicles) safer, to discourage footpads and robbers and other mischief makers. We fear darkness more than in the past. Which came first – not going out into the darkness, thus leaving it for evil to use for shelter, or evil growing in the shadows and chasing “good people” indoors when the sun sets? Yes?

St. John of the Cross reveled in night, in his extended poem and meditation “Dark Night of the Soul.” Night brought the lover (G-d) and the beloved one (the mystic) together. Night is for lovers, for philosophers, for socializing. Night holds sweet secrets, conceals private pain from those who would mock or minimize what is very personal and real. Night is greater than we are. Darkness and stars, the moon and planets, remind us that we are tiny creatures in a big, mysterious, wonder-full universe. Who made the moon and hung the stars? What are the stories of the shapes in the night sky?

Without stars, we humans lose both astronomy and spiritual wonder. At least, that’s what the panel and those present eventually drifted toward, although no one said it in those words.

Book Review: When the Sahara Was Green

Williams, Martin. When the Sahara was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be. (Princeton U.P. 2021) Kindle Edition.

Once upon a time, millions of years, tens of thousands of years ago, the region called teh Sahara was green. Sometimes it held enormous rivers. Volcanoes erupted, were crowned with glaciers, and fell silent. Huge fish swam in the giant lakes and rivers. Lush vegetation of varying kinds grew on the land.

Then something happened. Actually, a very large number of somethings, including the entire continent moving in such a way that tucked the Sahara into a dry swath of climate, and Europe (the landmass) cutting the moisture supply to the northern regions. All long before humans ever wandered the landscape. So, as Dr. Williams points out, you can’t blame humans for the desert. Which may be the most useful point in the book.

Martin Williams is a geologist who specializes in deserts and how they got that way. His first introduction to the Sahara came in 1970, when the group he was with couldn’t go to Libya because of a coup in progress, so they went to an even drier region instead. As he and the group leader went ahead of the others (on camel, as the others got the Land Rovers and other vehicles repaired), Williams noticed evidence of human presence, and of a river, in a place where no water could be seen. That made him curious, and the rest is this book.

Half geology and half travel, the book is a very readable account of the Sahara’s deep history, going back to the Cambrian. It has nice maps and diagrams, although more would be useful, especially in the e-book version. The illustrations are hot-linked, as are the end-notes, so you can go back and forth, but that gets tiresome so I just studied the major diagrams and memorized what was where. Williams has a knack for translating from geology into good prose, and blends the deep past with more recent explorations and observations. He works roughly chronologically after the introduction, going back to the Cambrian and moving toward the present climate regime.

Contrary to popular understanding (and most nature shows I’ve seen), the Sahara is not an endless sea of tan dunes. About a quarter at most of the land is sandy. This is in part because sand is needed to make sand, and large swaths of the area don’t have the right rocks. More common are huge rocky “pavements”, and clumps of hard, black or red hills. Some are volcanic, some are tougher sedimentary remnants (think Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia). Volcanoes in East Africa played a role in drying the region, blocking flow from what is now the Indian Ocean. Africa moving north to collide with Europe, closing the Tethys Sea, didn’t help, since what is now the Med has gone completely dry, most recently during the last phase of the Ice Age. Then things improved until the Younger Dryas, before returning to the current arid phase.

The edges of the desert move. This is not, as Williams points out, because of overgrazing, slash-and-burn farming, or air chemistry. It is because of changing rainfall patterns linked to the North Atlantic Oscillation and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean monsoon. How are they connected? No one knows yet, but there are a lot of guesses. In wetter phases, the North African grasslands and brush move south, or the sahel region moves north. When things dry out, the Sahara grows once more.

Humans didn’t cause this, but modern governments can make things worse for the people of the desert. Ordering Bedouin and others to stop moving, even when drought moves in for a decade or two, causes misery for the nomads and for the farmers around them. Killing off livestock “to stop overgrazing” isn’t the best answer, per Williams. Understanding the actual reason for the drought, and making space for people to respond in ways that work, is the better solution.

Williams is concerned about human effects on the environment, but he’s not pounding the “two legs bad, four legs good” drum that so many do. I suspect his background being in geology makes the difference – he’s used to looking at the looooooooong term. He talks about the humans who lived in what is now the desert, how they coped with the gradual changes and shifts, and what we know and don’t know.

I highly recommend this book. You don’t have an earth-science background to enjoy it, but it does make for faster reading. The illustrations and charts are good, and there are lots and lots of endnotes for those who want more.

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

Not Repeating, But Rhyming

China and western Europe have drought. The previous year had flooding and cold. Eastern Europe alternate hot and cool. Parts of North America are dry, then drenched, while other parts get warm for extended periods. La Niña has dominated the ENSO pattern in the Pacific for two years now, and may go neutral or shift to El Niño after February.

We’ve seen this before. The 1200s and early 1300s, the early 1600s, low solar energy output augmented by a bunch of tropical volcanoes going off, with the Italian volcanoes and Iceland’s Katla tossing out their own contributions, caused a massive climatic downturn in the northern hemisphere that led to some of the worst-for-humans weather patterns in centuries. Cold and wet, hot and dry, floods and rotting crops, summers with hard frosts in June, droughts that dried the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, plague and other disease outbreaks, civil unrest and regional wars . . . The Seventeenth Century stank worse than rotten eggs and a dead cow in a confined space in August. And it wasn’t because of CO2 or the internal combustion engine. It was the internal combustion of the sun and some volcanoes.

El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation are patterns. They don’t repeat on set schedules, because there are far too many variables, only a handful of which climate and weather people are 100% sure about. To make things more complicated—as if Nature needed help!—there are connections between the snowfall and rain in East Africa and the El Niño pattern. We just have no way to know how it works, but we know it is there because of the enormous Nile flood calendar. Climate specialists can cross-reference written and proxy data from South America and Southeast Asia with the Nile flood records, and there is a clear pattern.

What we can’t predict are volcanoes. A massive volcanic eruption in what is now Indonesia probably played a major role in the weather shift that triggered the rodent population explosion that led to the Plague of Justinian as well as the cold, wet, stormy weather that battered north-western Europe in the 500s. Nor could we predict the spate of tropical volcanoes in the 1300s and 1600s, or the Year Without a Summer (Mt. Tambora, tone it down!) The right volcano in the wrong place can cool things considerably. Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines dropped global temps by 1-2 degrees C for a year or so.

Nor can we pinpoint forecast what will happen exactly where. Eastern Europe might be slightly above average while Western Europe and Britain freeze. Or bake. A heavy winter with lots and lots of snow might be followed by a hot summer and drought. We can guess trends based on recorded and past oceanic temperatures and winds, but all forecasts are odds. My part of the country has good odds of reverting to average-for-the-past-thirty-years rainfall if next year is an El Niño, because that shifts the storms patterns south, more directly over this area. But that’s averages, not “RedQuarters will get 22 inches of rain between February and November.”

So if I seem a bit mellow about the latest “sky isn’t falling and it’s all the fault of the Global North minus China,” it’s because I’m looking at the long patterns. No, it isn’t any comfort when my water bill skyrockets as I try to keep the grass not-entirely-dead or the gas bill zooms because of Snovid ’21: Part 2 the Sequel. (We only got down to -4 F, with windchills of “miserable.” And up here we had rolling four-hour blackouts on a schedule, not the weeks without power like down-state.) Nor do I envy Europe if the predicted effects of the Tonga volcanic eruption do cause colder weather on top of the usual chill. Is it all mankind’s fault? Only if we’ve figured out how to trigger volcanic eruptions, or how to dim the sun, and I do not refer to adding fine particulates to the atmosphere, or putting mirrors in space to reflect “excess” solar energy.

I still don’t like drought, or blizzards, though.

Book Review: The Last Day of the Dinosaurs

Black, Riley. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of our World. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022) Kindle Edition.

I freely admit I grabbed this because it was on sale and I wanted something completely unrelated to anything else I am working on (Scottish history, Vlad III, academic histories of various kinds). I enjoyed the heck out of all but part of one chapter. The book is a celebration of life, and of what survived the worst single-event extinction in planetary history.

Black does a fantastic job balancing hard science with very plausible might-have-been-likes. The introduction explains why Hell Creek is the main lens through which the dinosaurs’ world is studied, and gives a bit of background on paleontology, including why the K-T event is now supposed to be the K-Pg event*. Black writes very well and puts you into the places and times being discussed.

The book starts in the late Cretaceous, with a Triceratops and a Tyrannosaur. It’s hard to go wrong with that combo, at least for those of us who went through a dino-mad phase as kids. Black discusses the ecology of Hell Creek, the world of the dinosaurs, and what happens when they die. Then the camera pulls back a bit to take in the boloid aimed for Earth.

The impact and the following hours and days are described very well. You might want to read this with some ice water at hand, because trying to imagine a world that gets turned up to “broil” for 24 hours is pretty miserable. Black handles the gore, and the chemistry, quite well. The story moves around the world, considering what effect the erupting Deccan Traps had (an important one, actually), and the effects of the impact event on the seas. The author then jumps to one week, one month, one year, and so on.

This brings up what I considered a strength but others found as a weak point: the book jumps around from the main narrative to look at other places around the world at the same time. So Hell Creek is the main story, but Black will cut over to Antarctica, the Indian Subcontinent, the Atlantic (once it opened up enough), and so on. Also, Black dramatizes events, using data available through scientific papers and sources. Some people don’t like this approach. I found it useful, BUT I’m also well read on paleoenvironments and so on, so it wasn’t entirely new to me.

Black hammers one point pretty hard: nothing was predetermined. The non-avian dinosaurs went extinct because they were perfectly adapted to their world. When the world went to hell, literally, that was that. But nothing said that the meteorite would hit at that angle in that place. Nothing said that the Daccan Traps would ease the global cooling. No special gift led primitive primates to develop so quickly compared to other mammals, or that monotremes and marsupials would fade out compared to true mammals. Black’s other oft repeated point is that life didn’t stop. That’s one of the author’s pet peeves, or so it appears. Existence did not cease with the dinosaurs. That world ended, but ferns and cycads hung in there, fish, reptiles, things that could hide underground or under water all made it. Perhaps not for long, but the story didn’t end with Chixulub.

Black takes the story up to a million years after the impact, then offers a last chapter meditation on change, extinction, and the resilience of both dinosaurs and life on Earth. I admit, I skimmed this, because it brings in the author’s personal life and I’m not really interested.

However, the appendices are fantastic. Here Black explains what we do know, how we know it, what is still being argued over (99% of everything), and the sources used for each chapter. This is an excellent way to document the material while keeping the bulk of the book fun for non-experts, without resorting to long footnotes. I like chatty footnotes in academic books, but they don’t suit a semi-narrative like this one.

I’d recommend the book to people who want to know more about the death of the non-avian dinosaurs and what came after. A bit of background knowledge in science is helpful but not really needed, since the author does a good job explaining terms and concepts. Some of the authors hypotheses have already been challenged, which I’d expect. After all, paleontologists seem to love nothing more than a good argument. OK, finding an intact member of a new species probably comes first, but a good argument’s not far behind.

*Sorry, to me K-Pg is either KP&G, the power company, or the initials of what is now KPMG before they added the M. It’s the K-T line to me.

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