Book Review—Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods

Collins, Andrew. Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods. The Temple of the Watchers and the Discovery of Eden. (Bear and Co. 2014) Kindle Edition

The book wasn’t quite what I expected, but the first half or so is a great description of fascinating archaeology. Then the book gets Odd. The introduction by Graham Hancock gives readers a large hint that this is not a standard academic or even popular archaeology book. Which was a bit disappointing, but I still learned a great deal, even if I did a lot of eye-rolling toward the end.

The author, Andrew Collins, became intrigued by Neolithic and Paleolithic sites that don’t seem to fit what most archaeologists accept as the standard progression of society and culture in terms of technology and organization. The overall idea is that over time, small groups of hunter-gatherers coalesced on occasion into larger groups for rituals and socializing, then scattered out again, but that they never really built major structures (with a tiny handful of exceptions, including the complex at Salisbury Plain in England, and Göbekli Tepe, and Catalhuyuk in Anatolia.) At some point, agriculture began to complement, then slowly replace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in much of Eurasia. These developments happened locally, to meet local needs, and agriculture also spread relatively slowly. That’s the standard.

The first part of the book is a study of the site of Göbekli Tepe. It is a collection of megaliths (carved standing stones in this case) that seem to be part of a larger complex of structures. Some of the stones and the buildings were aligned with particular stars and constellations back when the complex was built. There’s not an obvious local development pattern at Göbekli Tepe that archaeologists have found yet, unlike Salisbury in England. I emphasize yet, because Anatolia – modern Turkey – is a comparatively understudied area. This chunk of the book is great, and the author is careful to note what we can 100% confirm, what archaeologists are mostly certain about, and what is speculation or is based on computer modeling.

Then the book launches into speculation based partly on the Apocryphal book of 1st Enoch, Genesis, and some other texts, plus theoretical archaeology, and some other things. Collins believes that the remnant survivors of a superior culture (not necessary alien, but certainly odd-looking) were forced from their homeland in the north by a terrible disaster. They spread, and taught the people of Anatolia and elsewhere metalworking, construction, and to remember a terrible flood, among other things. These people remained semi-separate, and were priests and leaders until they finally died out. The Book of Enoch preserves some of this in the description of the fallen angels who had relations with men, and of the skills they taught mankind. Collins then combines this with Genesis to find the Rivers of Eden and perhaps the Garden of Eden itself in the mountains near Göbekli Tepe.

Collins writes well, and the story is intriguing. If you are interested in lost civilizations, prehistory, and what-ifs, it’s a great book. As I said above, the first half or so had solid archaeology and was quite clear what’s known vs. theorized vs. private speculation. The second half I read as an interesting fiction. My difficulty with Hancock, Collins, and others is that they have to pull too many stray bits and pieces together. Francis Pryor’s understanding of the Salisbury Plain complex, for example, is simpler and fits the evidence without requiring a super-civilization in the past. The photos and diagrams are very good, and the book has decent maps.

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


Senescent Material, Senescent Ideas?

“A buildup of senescent material has deleterious effects on the grassland biome . . . ” Not the most gripping of reads. Translated into normal English, it means a lot of dead grass and stuff has accumulated and is causing problems, or could cause problems. Many glassland ecosystems developed to be grazed, so to speak, so that the plants are trimmed of older material and there’s not a build up of dead grass and brush. Others were burned on a fairly regular basis, which had similar effects, as well as getting rid of ticks and other things. Either way, it put nutrients back into the soil, reduced the danger of fire in dryland areas, and preserved the health of the system in general.

I was thinking about fuel loads and how desperately a certain pasture needs to be mowed or (ideally but really not likely) have a controlled burn to get rid of a decade and more of dead material. The old stuff is choking out the younger growth, nothing grazes it, and soon the place will be dead or go to weeds. Some cacti are already appearing. That’s not a good sign. The owner either doesn’t know what his land needs, or doesn’t care. Or is one of those people who thinks that removing grazing animals from grass for long periods “is good for it. It lets the plants rest.”* The pasture is not healthy. The grass isn’t resting. It’s pining for the fjords. I know because I went out there as far as the edge of the fence and looked. Healthy native grass is not brown in May. Trust me on this.

Right now, society seems to have a bunch of senescent ideas as well. They worked once, but they no longer fit, or they have become brakes rather than fuel. Society would benefit from cleaning out some of that dead growth, from acknowledging that certain economic ideas and habits shaped by out-of-date technology have failed. Some judicious pruning, trimming back what no longer works, perhaps even removing roots as much as possible in a few cases, all should help newer ideas and patterns to grow and thrive.

But it’s a lot easier to rejuvenate a grassland than it is to get rid of dead ideas and habits. A burn at the proper time, or mowing off the dead matter, keeping an eye out for unwanted weedy plants, and grazing on a healthy rotation will all lead to benefits that are often quickly visible. Other improvements need a little time, but springs can come back, grasses replace brush, and long-absent species return now that the habitat has healed. There are lots of books, articles, organizations, and individuals willing and eager to help you restore or preserve a grassland. Society? Not so easy.

People like the old, comfortable ideas. They grew up in that world, and it made sense, still makes sense in a way. No one really enjoys having their apple-cart upset, even if it is to repair that one hole that should have been patched ages ago. Others benefit from the dead idea, because it provides a job, or a sense of power, or allows them to explain why the world is out to get them and owes them favors [cough*Marx*cough]. “I like that government program!” “But what about the people who depend on [whatever]?” “It’s not fair for some to have more and others like me to have less, so it must be the fault of [group]!” “Well, it worked in the 1930’s didn’t it? It will work now.”** “If this organization doesn’t agree to embrace people who [behavior], then you must be part of [long-dead group].”

There’s also the problem of Chesterton’s Fence. If you want to eliminate an old thing, you should know why it was done in the first place, and what good it served. Then, once you can argue that, you will know far better whether that old thing should be removed outright, or reduced, or relocated, or left. For example, US forestry policy, once we had one, was developed by men who trained in Germany. The Germans had lots of plantation forests with uniform crops of species planted for certain goals. Burning was not done. (Also not a climate where forest fires were at all common even before management began.) The Americans learned, and applied what was state-of-the-art knowledge to forestry and timber-cutting in the US. Even after the Germans realized that they were doing it wrong, and modified their forestry practices. “No burn” became a standard in the US after WWII. The super-huge range fires of the late 1800s-early 1900s were bad, so all range fires were to be prevented. We all know the result of that. It doesn’t work in the forests of the American West. They developed with fire, fairly frequent and low burning fire that cleaned out underbrush and dead material. So the fence of “all fires are bad” had a solid foundation on then-current knowledge and practice. Now we have a lot more data, know better how the forests “should” deal with fire, and should remove that fence.

It takes work to manage a grassland well. It takes work to manage a society well, as much as anyone can manage a society or culture. It starts with learning what was done in the past, and as best we can tell why, then going from there. What served a purpose in 1933 might not be appropriate in 2023. Or it could be that what was considered a basic good idea and common sense in the 1890s and 1790 is still a good, common sense idea, and needs to be brought back. When something has held true for thousands of years, despite the best efforts of different groups over time, there might be a reason for it. But if an economic system has not worked for a hundred years in any place it has been tried, it should probably be scrapped. The Gods of the Copybook Headings, and runaway range or forest fires, never go quietly.

*No, plants don’t work like that. Letting the overgrowth get so rank that no water or sun reach the growing parts isn’t good stewardship. See Alan Savory and everyone else who works on “holistic grazing” and high-intensity-short-duration pasture management.

**There’s growing evidence that it didn’t work all that well in the 1930s, once you look past the first three years of the New Deal.

Leaky People: Patch, Wrap, Wait, or Yes?

It all depends on where, what else, and what else is leaking. One of the first things that any First Aid or bleeding control instructor, or other emergency situation instructor, will tell you is that you need to take a deep breath and evaluate the site. Slow down. It’s like firearms – slow is smooth, smooth is fast. If you go rushing into a situation and become a second victim, no one gets helped. Is there a live power line? Is the shooting still in progress? Is there green (or reddish orange brown) air in the room? Don’t do it! Look for Plan B, or observe and call for help and give calm information to the dispatcher.

If you don’t have training, and/or you don’t know what else to do, see about moving bystanders to a safer, quieter place. Call for help, relay what you see as best you can, and get others well clear. If bad people set up the initial problem, they may have delay-action nasty stuff waiting. Move people away, because you might prevent even more people from getting hurt. Ditto if you see green/red/brown/black air coming from where the initial problem started.

Then comes the evaluation of the leaky person. Where are they leaking from? No, you cannot use a tourniquet on someone’s neck, no matter how tempting it might be. Arms and legs, yes. Torso? Good luck finding a place where you can clamp the punctured blood vessel against a bone to stop blood flow. So you can use a tourniquet on an arm or leg, pack and/or apply pressure on the shoulder, hip, or other area like that, and use a chest seal on the torso. The class or instructor goes through how do to those with either a “real” tourniquet like a CAT-5 or other brand, or a pressure band like a SWAT-T. If you are dealing with a child, you’re not going to find a tourniquet small enough in most first-aid kits or field emergency kits. That also applies to small or frail older people.

It’s going to be messy, no matter what’s going on. If there’s a bullet entry point (or shrapnel from an explosion of some kind), there might be an exit would. You have to deal with both. There’s going to be blood, messy clothes, possibly other stuff to deal with. You might have people losing their cool, or trying to take pictures, or just freezing. You night need a second set of hands, or several really big people to hold down someone while you try to slow or stop the leaks.

And you need to act quickly, if you can. The class started with a video of a 20-something guy in Pakistan who “fooled around” and tried to start a monkey dance with some cops or paramilitary guys (there’s a lot of overlap in that part of the world.). He “found out” the hard way and got shot in the leg, femoral artery. One minute and a few seconds later, he was close to dead. He had a large leak from a relatively small bullet (7.62 the instructor said.) Time really is of the essence when people leak profusely.

I learned a great deal, and it confirmed the importance of mindset, at least for me. I tend to game through things in my head. I’ve added “messy and chaotic” to my mental run-through. How will I deal with people who are losing their cool as I’m trying to keep mine while dealing with problems? Who in my daily round could I call on for a second set of hands, if needed? If other people have the scene, how would I move a group away, calmly, and try to keep them from having breakdowns all over the place?

I suspect a lot of it comes down to me being calm and organized. Sort of like horses. A horse thinks, “Oh, the predator on my back is tense. I need to freak the heck out right now!” And does so. If the adult-types stay calm and start dealing with matters, then other people will stay calmer. Because no group of people will all stay mellow if there is blood and stuff all over the floor. (If they do, I should probably worry about something else, because that’s NOT normal behavior for most ordinary teens and adults.)

Book Review: Locked in Time

Lomax, Dean R. and Robert Nicholls. Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils. (Columbia University Press, 2021) Kindle e-book

I needed a brain break from history (depressing), herbology and medieval medicine (wince-inducing) and current events (no comment). So, dinosaurs and paleo mammals it was. The book is popular science, not academic analysis, but has a very thorough bibliography and works cited section for those interested in detailed paleontology and physiology. It also begins with sex and ends with corpolites and urine, so you’re warned.

The book focuses on behaviors, how we know about them, what clues we can suss out from trackways, trails, bones, and so on. It is not a guide to different species, so don’t expect to learn much about any one type of critter. One review dinged the book for that, and I can sympathize, but the focus is on “how did the animals do [thing]” more than a guide to paleo-creatures. In part because of this, the authors assume that readers have some basic science background and are generally aware of types of dinos and paleo-mammals. I suspect that covers the bulk of their target audience.

The book is arranged by behavior, starting with reproduction. You will learn lots of fascinating biology, and about how meticulous fossil preparers and excavators have to be. After all, one early fossil includes two insects caught in flagrante delicto, and shows their anatomy. Most of the fossils are not that small, but two are smaller. Each behavior has detailed photos of the fossils involved, as well as a full-color scientific illustration of the behavior described. Burrows, baby-sitting, fights, naps, each is shows in the probable habitat. The fossils are from around the world, and are very current (most recent from an unpublished 2020 paper).

You can dip in and out of the book, but I read it straight through. The writing style is good popular science, not watered down. The author is English, but dinosaur is a universal dialect. As I mentioned above, the writer assumes that you have a basic idea about biology in general and ancient life in particular, but you don’t need to be a physiology expert to get a lot out of the book.

The e-book worked on my first generation Paperwhite™, but to really get the benefit of the illustrations, you need a color screen or the print edition.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in ancient animals, people curious about “where did dinosaurs sleep, anyway?” and parents of kids who are ready for more than Dino 101. (You might skip the first chapter unless you want to discuss birds, bees, fishes, turtles, and so on.) It’s very well written, with a dry sense of humor. The authors really love old critters, and it shows.

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

Putting Water Back In the Ground

A lot of people depend on ground water, aquifers, for drinking and irrigation. Some aquifers recharge on their own, and do it pretty quickly, such as the Edwards Aquifer in central Texas, or the Sandhills portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Others either recharge very, very slowly, or not at all. Those are the ones that tend to get lots and lots of attention, unless Central Texas is dry, and Austonio begins talking about sending a pipeline up to the Panhandle to tap the Ogallala.

A quick note to clarify here, before I go any farther. I’m talking about aquifers in sediment like sand and gravel, not groundwater in bedrock, as is found in New England, Canada, and a few other places. That is a different formation, with different flow patterns, and I know next to nothing about how those “work” other than general theory. If you are in New Hampshire and you have a well drilled into bedrock, please contact a local expert.

How do aquifers recharge? It depends on the material above and below the porous layer. That’s what most aquifers are – a layer of sand and gravel that at one time was exposed to rain and snow, or was a river bed (large swaths of the Ogallala and Equus Beds). Under that layer is a watertight layer, usually a shale or something. Over time, that sand and gravel got buried by other things and now lies below the land surface. A few, like the Edwards in central Texas, have access today through caves and sinkholes, where rain can fall right in, or have a very porous layer above that lets rain and snow melt trickle down pretty quickly. The Nebraska Sandhills are pure sand, and water that falls there soaks in, recharging the Ogallala below. Unless there is an extended drought, recharge is not as much of a concern (over-pumping that draws down the water too fast is a different matter.) Other aquifers, like those in Arizona, coastal Georgia, and most of the Ogallala, would take hundreds to thousands to regain their water, if they can at all. When the aquifer is buried hundreds of feet below the surface and topped with firmly-packed dirt, caliche, and so on, water has a harder time soaking in. These are “fossil” waters, and you just assume they won’t recharge without help. How to help without destroying the formation, is another problem.

First, there has to be water to go back in. Without that, it’s pretty moot. Also, the material in the aquifer layer has to still be loosely-packed enough to accept water. If you draw enough out, the layer compresses, and that’s that. No recharge ever, unless all the surface material erodes away and rain falls directly on the sand and gravel.

Ideas for recharging aquifers all involve “putting the water back in down there,” or at least, giving the water an assist. Drilling a well and pouring water back in . . . has a lot of technical difficulties, including the fear of contaminating the rest of the aquifer if some chemical or biological contaminant seeps in – think fecal coliform, or avian cholera, or . . . So the water would have to be filtered, and dust kept out, and the water released high enough that the layers between the end of the well and the aquifer would filter some of the stuff. Oh, and you have to hope that on the way down, the water won’t pick up salt, gypsum, or dig a hole that causes a sink hole.

Around here, attempts were made to deepen the natural rainwater lakes, punching through the clay layer at the bottom of the shallow depression to allow more water to seep in. It started well, but the clay swells, and sediment filled in the holes, closing them. Also the rate or recharge did not justify the cost of the work, which has to be maintained. And depends on moisture. In a year like 1940-41, when the area got 40″ of rain or more, no problem! In a decade like the 1950s, or 2010-2014? Rain? What rain?

Most aquifers were “laid down” when the local/regional climate was much wetter. The Ogallala was sediment dumped from the Rockies by huge, enormous, massive, gargantuan rivers that wandered back and forth over the region for millions of years. Then things changed. In the case of the Ogallala, the goal in 90% of the region is to balance draw-down over time, so that X% of the current depth will remain in Y years. Some places are changing types of crops, other areas revert to range land, and irrigation is much, much more efficient than it used to be. The down side to better irrigation is that less excess water seeps back in to return to the aquifer.

Eventually, a way might be found to return water to places like the Ogallala, Equus beds, coastal aquifer, and so on. If the stuff has not compacted, and if there is sufficient rain and snow to permit that. And if people are willing to spend the money and time needed to do it.

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.

Dust Storm or Just Blowing Dirt?

If you are not from the area, it might seem like a difference without a distinction. If you happen to live in a place where, as long as we have written and geologic records, the soil has traveled downwind, it’s an important difference.

Note the make of the cars. Welcome to the Filthy Fifties, which were drier than the 1930s around here. Image source:

The above is a dust storm. They happen when the wind picks up so much dust that it starts attracting more, and you get black (or deep red) skies and lots and lots of static. In my part of the world, they often came from the north, part of a screaming cold front, but not always. In the 1950s people could identify the looming wind shift based on the color of dirt. Some cars would be shorted out by the static in the air, and woe betide you if you touched a barbed-wire fence. They became electrified. A dust storm is a haboob, “black roller” that tosses dirt and sand well into the sky. If you can see over it from the ground, it’s not a dust storm (by local standards). Back in the day, some were so bad south of the Panhandle that the blowing sand would strip the paint off of cars. I’ve not heard of that in a very, very long time.

I’ve been inside a dust storm once. The sky turned dark red, the wind howled, I could see two blocks in town, and the power went out for four hours. There wasn’t much to do besides read on my Kindle, then sit and listen to the wind and wait for the power to come back.

Blowing dust is just that. In local areas you will have poor visibility, such as downwind of a construction site or bare field (depending on soil moisture and wind direction). The top soil departs and gets into the air, but you can see blue-ish sky over the layer of dirt. Straight up might be blue, or somewhat brassy (as I type this, it is brassy in town, so it is probably icky brown in more open areas.) Visibility can drop locally, but you don’t have huge swaths of the area shut down because of no visibility at all. As I type, the wind is 270 at 41 MPH gusting to 67 MPH. Which explains why, as I drove back from Day Job, I saw exactly one semi on the interstate, and he was east bound. Everyone else is staying parked until this weakens, lest they end up on their sides, or needing to refuel every ten miles. We’re supposed to get a hard wind shift around 2000, 50 MPH from the north, then tapering off quickly.

If you go back to the earliest written accounts of the region, and from areas to the east, you find that the dirt blew long before humans farmed out here. The bunch-grasses had gaps between clumps when it got a little dry. Bare soil + steady dry winds = traveling topsoil. The dust storms are less common, but still happen.

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.

Well, That Was Odd

So there I was, driving back from an 0700 appointment at Ye Haus of Autos. The air temp was a blazing 21-24 F, depending on where the thermometer happened to be hiding. Thick fog covered the areas away from town, and thinner fog in town. The sky turned heavy, low gray at sunrise. The first wave of cold air had oozed in overnight.

As I drove back into town, white began to frost the sidewalks and road. Cars shimmied a little as they pulled out of parking lots and side streets. The road had become slick. This wasn’t the usual “some [unkind word] left the sprinklers on” ice on the sidewalks and gutters. The fog thickened as well, even though I was surrounded by developed areas. How odd.

Up ahead, snow slithered across the road, whirling up behind cars. Snow? Snow had not been forecast at all. I eased forward when the light turned green, and the rear of the truck shivered a touch even so. Very bad traction. I glanced off to the side, into the park, and saw the large rainwater pond there. A few ducks and geese basked on the unfrozen water. Then I turned my attention back to the road. There was my answer. Indeed, the snow disappeared and the fog thinned two or three blocks past the pond, and the pavement returned to its usual rough self.

Pond-effect snow. The water had not frozen over, and the wind was just enough to cause “lake effect” precipitation.

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This region gets orographic snow on a slightly different scale, but lake-effect isn’t as common, despite having a large lake. The canyon walls around the lake interfere with the airflow. What does happen is a north and south difference across the Canadian River Breaks, with more snow on the south side as northerly winds are forced back up onto the plains. It’s not as dramatic as Buffalo New York’s two meters (six feet) at a time, but it is noticeable if you look for it.

So I got to see lake-effect snow 60 miles or so from the closest official lake. I love Texas!