Turning the Yellow River Yellow

One of the assumptions, or perhaps tropes is a better word, of certain parts of the environmental movement is that only Western countries, or only capitalist economic systems, cause environmental degradation. Or they might stretch it to argue that only countries that have experienced the Industrial Revolution destroy their physical and biological environments, because it takes steel and machines to really ruin the landscape. This idea comes in part from where the modern environmental movement originated, in part because of lingering fumes of the “noble savage” idea, and in part because English, French, German, and Spanish-language sources are a lot more common and easier to work with for most researchers. However, in the past 15 years or so, people have been looking outside the European sphere-of-influence, and digging into archaeological and geographic information to show that no, humans have been “degrading” their environment for a very long time. Continue reading

And Then some Gods Snuck In

The book about Tycho the trader was supposed to be straight fantasy, very simple magical system. Nothing deep, no scientific underpinnings, just some basic rules that everyone understands and we go from there.

My Muse struck again. Some gods showed up. And they are demanding a bigger part. I should have known I couldn’t get away without religion. Continue reading

Long Ago, in a theater not so far away…

my parents sat me down in a seat. The curtains parted. Trumpets sounded, a bunch of words moved past almost too fast for me to sound them out, and then and the biggest…thing…I’d ever seen slowly appeared on screen. Everyone in the theater gasped as a starship filled the screen, and kept coming, and coming… I was pretty young, but even I knew that the dude in the black cape was Bad News. I was hooked, hard, and never looked back.

That amazing film opened 40 years ago this past Thursday, May 25th. Continue reading

Book Review: The River, the Plain, and the State

Zhang, Ling. The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) Print edition.

Chinese imperial management of water has been one of the critical keys to following the history of imperial after the Zhou Dynasty. Some of the bedrock work in US environmental history took as its starting point Karl Wittfogel’s “Hydraulic empire” thesis, looking at state control of water and society and how that relates to the development of both the US government and the American West. Because Chinese records are so copious, a lot of work can and has been done looking at how the Chinese lived with and coped with their major rivers and the hydraulic “systems” that developed over thousands of years. This book focuses on a small space in time and shows how the complicated interactions of state, environment, and society caused, then reacted to, and were shaped by, the Yellow River changing course between 1048 and 1128. Continue reading

RajWorld Scene

Marmolines are a bit like a cross between a marmot, a squirrel, and a raccoon – furry, cute when they are asleep, and thoroughly nasty marsupials that will destroy anything not made of concrete and steel, or so it seems. There is a shield around the army camp that is supposed to keep them, and larger creatures, out.

Kor and Tomás both made those gestures that she’d learned translated, “We really do not want to speak about this matter so we will pretend it has not been mentioned so that it will go away.” Her father did something similar, and Rigi added it to her list of multi-species-applicable indicators of male-ness. Rigi tipped her head back, resting it on the chair, and studied the interior ceiling of the shelter tent. The hanging lamp cast shadows in the corners and she wondered if she ought to check for webs and dust the next day. One of the shadows moved. Rigi focused on it. It moved again, and she caught a glimpse of eye shine. “Dear, Makana, I hesitate to say anything for fear of interrupting an otherwise lovely evening, but it appears that a marmoline or something similar has gotten in. There in the corner of the ceiling, above the wash-stand and water tap.” She stood and eased out of the way. “I believe I will step outside for some fresh air. Come Martinus.” Continue reading

Why Tea?

By now, no one who reads any of my books would be surprised to find a character boiling water, then adding it to some kind of dried and otherwise prepared blend of something-or-other, waiting a short period of time, straining out the leaves, and drinking the results. Teas and tisanes appear in every story, or so it seems. If a reader assumes that I am a chronic tea-drinker, he’s correct. But there is another reason for the frequent appearances of tea. Continue reading

Book Review: Death in Hamburg

Evans, Richard J. Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years (London: Penguin Books, 2005, originally London: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Asiatic cholera reached Europe via trade routes in the 1800s. By 1890 it had become dreadfully familiar, and a topic of medical argument and debate. Was it spread by miasmas, by contagion (person to person) or through contaminated water? Was it evidence of moral laxity as shown by dirty houses, or a disease of foreigners (Russians and Poles), or an act of G-d, or the fault of human authorities? Richard Evans’s magisterial book places the Hamburg cholera outbreak of 1892 in the full political, economic, medical, and environmental context, revealing how Hamburg’s traditional government proved woefully inadequate when the disease exploded in the city.

This is a very thorough book. That is both its great strength and, for the general reader, its dreadful weakness. You will learn far more about the politics and economic policies of the city-state of Hamburg and its fraught internal civil relations than you will about who lived and who died. It takes almost 2/3 of the book to get to cholera and the 1892 outbreak. Politics, economics, class relations, the environment, and medical history take up much of the work, and if you are interested in seeing how historians use statistics and mapping, it is fantastic. If you want an entertaining read about a disease, this is probably not what you are interested in.

Hamburg remained a city-state, independent of the rest of the increasingly centralized German states until the late 1860s, and even then had certain exemptions and exceptions that set it apart. The whole focus of Hamburg, per Evans, was making money. The municipal government was run by members of high merchant families and their lawyers, and as little as could possibly be spent on infrastructure was spent. The port was an exception, and it was expanding the port that started the chain of events that led to the epidemic, because it diverted funds away from constructing a water-treatment facility and forced many more people into slums along the canals, or “fleets.” Evans argues that it was commercial concerns that led the leaders of Hamburg to first ignore and then deliberately obfuscate the first signs of cholera, until all of Europe and the US knew about the disaster, leading to a major economic crisis in the city.

I was somewhat interested in the politics and how unusual Hamburg was. I really wanted to get to the environmental history part and the plague itself. All the historical theories, class relations a la Marx, nods to Foucault, and other academic aspects of the work reminded me why I dislike and grow so impatient with historical theory. Those passages read like a doctoral dissertation.

In general the book is easy to read, and when Evans is doing straight narrative history, the book sings. He is an excellent writer, knows his material inside and out, and can catch the reader very well. Alas, those narrative sections are outnumbered by longer sections on government, statistics, economics, and class-relations. And for academic historians, those theoretical sections are a little dated, which fits the original 1987 publication date.

If you are interested in how city government worked or failed to work in late 19th Century Germany, this is a great book. If you are curious about the politics of Wilhelmine Germany and the Social Democratic impulse in Europe, again, good book. If you are looking for a German setting for John Barry’s The Great Influenza or other gripping medical histories, this is not the book, unless you read only those chapters focusing on the disease outbreak itself.

I’m glad I read it. It is useful in many ways for what I’m interested in and where I’m going this summer. But I confess, at one point, I set it aside and started reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in German just for something lighter and different.

TL;DR: A well-written, dense, political history of the last independent German city-state that uses a cholera epidemic to show the weaknesses of the system. Probably not for the casual or less-than-seriously-interested reader.

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