An alternative history: city folk vs. country folk

Thanksgiving weekend traditions in the country often include cutting firewood.  It’s great exercise after days of eating too much.  Cutting wood warms you up twice.  Once when you cut it and once when you burn it.

thanksgivingThis year it’s too rainy and besides we cut plenty earlier in the year.  Sure nice to have huge stacks of firewood ready to warm us this winter.

We accumulated these huge stacks by thinning a grove of elm trees which had grown up in a former pasture by the Delta outpost and were crowding each other out.  A bunch of city kids did a great job and even learned to distinguish elms and oaks.  Pines are much easier to discern.  We cut the pines out of the woods first.  They are no good for firewood.  Besides, they are way too selfish and discourage the hardwoods.

Much like any resilient people or tribe.  You know about white pine privilege, right?  Pines are like any resilient people.  They make it easier for other pines to survive.  They lay down a lot of high tannin needles which acidify the soil and make it difficult for oaks and hickories and elms to survive near them.  Azaleas and blueberries do fine cause they like high pH soils.  But the purpose of pines is to make the world better for pines.  Making a world where azaleas and rhododendrons and blueberries thrive is not the purpose.  Just a pleasant side effect.  An epiphenomenon.

Similar to what resilient peoples do.  They make a world where peoples like them can survive.  Waves of folks from Asia swept into what we now call the Americas in at least three mass movements.  First were the archeo-Indians.  These folks didn’t have a lot of technology.  But they had enough to survive.  They killed a lot of megafauna.  Drove many huge mammals into extinction.  They had the Clovis arrowhead and used it with deadly results.

Some evidence is they didn’t even make clothes since the last of their kind were spotted on the tip of the South American continent naked and kept warm by huge fires that gave Tierra del Fuego its name.

They’d been pushed as far South as they could go by the subsequent waves of Asians to invade the Americas.  These tribes transformed the American landscape even more.  They used fire to keep the forests back and help grasslands dominate and feed the buffalo they loved to eat.

These new waves of invaders developed technologies never seen before.  They domesticated weeds and turned them into potatoes, tomatoes, beans, corn, pumpkins and all kinds of other squash varieties.  They turned wild turkeys they found in Guatemala into delightfully delicious meat animals with wonderful plumage which made beautiful cloaks.

Then, as nearly all civilizations do, some of them forgot their roots in Nature.  They developed huge cities which could not survive when climate changed.  The abandoned ruins of the Anasazi in the American Southwest attest to both their sophistication and their lack of resilience.

Their mound cities in the Midwestern US didn’t meet that fate.  They were thriving when the first Europeans arrived.  DeSoto’s little excursion from Mobile Bay up to Arkansas encountered vast, productive towns and cities ecologically integrated with the land and thriving.

Unfortunately for them, they weren’t resistant to many of the viruses and diseases that the white folk had gotten used to in Europe and brought with them.  So DeSoto’s trip sowed the seeds of destruction of these civilizations–paving the way for a new wave of invaders from Northern Europe.

These new invaders from England and France were like the pines.  They created an environment conducive to propagation of their kind.  They killed off a slew of other species and turned vast areas into plowed fields, just like back home in Europe.  They almost exterminated the buffalo and brought in new grass-eaters that they liked better: cows, mainly.

The white tribes saw the turkey and corn and made them even more productive.  They turned the long-legged Indian turkey into a short legged huge meat animal which could not survive in the wild, but did fine as long as the white man fed them.

The white tribes turned also turned corn into a species which couldn’t survive in the wild, but did fine as long as the white civilization eliminated all weedy competition.

Another species domesticated by the Indians, tobacco, was an even bigger boon to the white tribes.  This species provided an alkaloid which Europeans loved and became addicted to.  Vast tracts of land were cleared and planted year after year in tobacco for export to Europe, making fortunes for the British Virginians and Carolinians and even up to Delaware and New Amsterdam.

As man is wont to do, however, these tribes depleted the soil resource and tobacco and corn wouldn’t grow in the depleted soils, so they moved west to find new ground to exploit.

They found means of building up depleted soils with high nitrogen guano from South America and manure from their cattle.  They created an environment where people like them could survive.

The white tribes built huge cities which extracted resources, but also produced inputs to keep the industrial agricultural system alive.

They were like pines, creating a system so that other pines could survive.  White city people created systems which helped white city people survive.  The Indian tribes didn’t do so well.  For some reason, the white city folk decided not to totally destroy the Indians.

Andrew Jackson gets a lot of blame for the Trail of Tears, but he loved the Indians.  He saw they would be destroyed unless they could be moved away from his rapacious country men.  So he found territories white men didn’t want and helped the Indians go there.  Many died on the way.  Others got adopted by families who took pity on them on their way West.

The white city tribes made alliances with black city folk in Africa. These powerful black tribes had a tradition called slavery which the whites had abandoned long ago, but saw reason to bring back.  So the dominant black tribes sold their slaves to the whites to bring to the US.  These folk sometimes fit into the world the white city folk had created and sometimes didn’t.  In Brazil and Florida, they took to the woods and created new hybrid tribes with the “native” Americans.

When technological advance made slaves no longer cost effective, the institution of slavery was abandoned in the Americas, just as it had been in Europe.  Some of the freed slaves adapted to the environment created by the white city folk.  Others didn’t.  As the white city tribes came to control everything on the continent, it was adapt or die.  No longer was escape into the wilderness possible.

If you didn’t like white cities, tough.  Many whites didn’t like the cities either, but they had no choice.  Either learn the way of the white citytribes or live on the margins, in the black economy, in the shadows.  Many whites and blacks still live there today.  Surviving on the fringe.  Not quite ready to adapt to the white cities, but having no choice—since that’s the only game in town.

Eastern Europeans and Asians saw the white cities and saw an environment where they could thrive.  They came in and lived in the white cities and did well.

They are like the blueberries and azaleas in a pine dominate forest.  The pines create an environment where other pines can thrive and inadvertently make space for some other species.  The white city tribes make an environment where other white city people can thrive and inadvertently make space for some other city people to thrive.

But cities all over the world nearly always lose touch with Nature.  They extract and don’t give back.  No such system is resilient.

Young people today are increasingly realizing that fact.  They want to escape the city and head to the country.  Some will survive and thrive, others will slink back to the cities, defeated and forlorn.

We’ll see who of this new crop survives.

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