Weekend Reading

A nice selection of historical and literary topics for this week’s reading. Bonbons for your mind:

Floating in the Air, The world that made Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by Jennifer Wilson in the Nation. How St. Petersburg felt in Dostoyevsky’s time.

New jeans, new schools, new worries: North Korean family settles into South Korea by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post. A family adapts.

After The Strongman by Karan Mahajan in the New Republic. Can Zimbabweans hope for a free and open future?

Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? by Mark Binelli in the New York Times magazine. Study of an author/bartender from Goroke, Victoria, a former stagecoach stop in southeastern Australia, pop. 200.

When the Heavens Stopped Being Perfect – The advent of the telescope punctured our ideals about the nighttime sky, an excerpt from the book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by physicist Alan Lightman

Now I’ll grant you this next one sounds stupefyingly dull. No way I’d read it. But click on through. It’s really interesting. Really. New Ecological Economics: Superorganism and Ultrasociality How the agricultural revolution changed the trajectory of our social and economic evolution Interview by Della Duncan with Economist Lisi Krall in Evonomics

And a couple of new articles about the early history of our species:

In to Asia, New evidence about the ancient humans who occupied Asia is cascading in: the story of our species needs rewriting again by Christopher Bae at Aeon.com, and Raised by Wolves by Tim Flannery, a survey of the latest evidence about when wolves became our dog companions, in the NYRB.

Have a nice weekend.

Book Excerpt: Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament

In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.

THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD PARLIAMENT

An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.

We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.

It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.

Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.

Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.

We stop along the path.

“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”

With a hop, “Now the North American.”

Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.

Here is the earth pulling itself apart

•••••

Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.

Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.

•••••

A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING

“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.

Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”

In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.

The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.

Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.

Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.

The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.

Site of the Þingvellir

History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.

At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.

Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.

Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”

Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.

Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.

Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.

What to do?

Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”

Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.

Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.

In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.

•••••

Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.

I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:

Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.

The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.

Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.

Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.

Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.

Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.

Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.

Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.

The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.

•••••

Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Quotes: At the Edge of the Sea

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”

Rachel Carson from Under the Sea Wind, as quoted in a New Yorker tribute by Jill Lapore. Photo is Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada. Click to enlarge.

Weekend Reading

A few intelligent ways to spend the next couple of days:

The Miracle at 14,000 Feet by Ronnie Shuker in Roads and Kingdoms. Ice Hockey in Ladakh.

On the big cosmological news of the week, Dark Matter and the Earliest Stars from Sean Carroll’s blog.

Freedom, Private Property, and Public Access by Emrys Westacott at 3QuarksDaily explores an idea that was new to me before researching Out in the Cold – the Nordic notion of allemansrätten, or “Everyman’s rights,” the freedom to walk wherever one pleases.

Algorithms and the Meaning of Explanation by Daniel Ranard, also  at 3Quarks Daily. A primer on machine learning that’s more interesting than it sounds.

“You’re Fake News” The Unfortunate Reality of the Ad Hominem by Elio Martino in Quillette. Depressing quote:

“Lazy and abusive rhetoric is an effective means of silencing of healthy debate. As a result, polarization in Western Society is likely to get far worse before it gets better.”

Hitler Looks Eastward by Henry C. Wolfe in the Atlantic magazine in 1937. A prediction of the Reich’s expansion written two tears before the invasion of Poland.

Sacrifice Revisited by Audrey Borowski in the LARB’s Marginalia. The quote:

“… ethical self-awareness makes it quite clear that there are situations— tragic situations—in which it is impossible to act without burdening oneself with guilt [the famous “trolley dilemma“]. But at the same time it teaches us that, even faced with the choice of two ways of incurring guilt, we should still find that there is a standard attaching to correct and incorrect action. This standard we call sacrifice.”

You can’t read everything. So instead of reading the book Adults in the Room, here are two reviews of the memoir of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis about his trials negotiating on behalf of Greece in the Eurozone crisis: Modern Greek Tragedy by Adam Tooze in the NYRB and Austerity by Design by J.W. Mason in the Boston Review (which is itself the length of a small book).

Summary, from Tooze:

“In order to avoid a comprehensive restructuring of their banks, the governments of Northern Europe … funneled funds to Athens, most of which then flowed back out to Greece’s creditor banks in Northern Europe…. It was neither sustainable for Greece nor did it deliver stability for the eurozone. Its ultimate rationale … was to give Northern Europe a roundabout bank bailout.”

 

Enough for now. Happy reading, and a good weekend to you.

 

Weekend Reading

Friday morning, middle of February. I can’t jump to conclusions, but I’d be surprised if this butterfly’s progeny are yet en route from Mexico. There is still time left in the Appalachian winter, so let us remain calm.

There’s no snow on the ground right now, but these hills fill their creeks for summer by rain in winter, and they are busy about doing it just now. If there will be a sunny day in all the month of February no one can say which one it will be.

Two recommendations today for interesting weekend reading:

Above the Treeline about travel along the Northwest Passage by Teva Harrison at Granta.com, and

How Hunter-Gatherers May Hold the Key to our Economic Future by James Suzman at evonomics.com.

•••••

My Finnish ESL (English as a second language) wife once accidentally grafted the portmanteau “grandiotic,” just testing it, not sure if it was a word. I don’t think it is a word, but it’s descriptive. Grandiose and idiotic.

“How Hunter-Gatherers May Hold the Key to our Economic Future” sounds grandiotic, but it shouldn’t. It leads into an interesting field of thought about the fundamental nature of work, how work works, and a question: if we employ people nowadays in soul-shattering jobs just to get their forty hours a week, well, should we?

Suzman’s article compliments the well-reviewed new book Against the Grain by James C. Scott, which proposes a newer theory of the transition from hunter-gatherers to, as the author calls it, sedentism. On the topic of humanity’s deep past, see also The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade. Together they help frame pre-agricultural society against whatever is coming at us in the age of automation.

Last night I started a clickable collection of articles on this topic under the heading “Future of Work” that you can find in the Categories sidebar. There are more links there that comprise way more than a weekend’s reading.

Enough for now. Have a lovely weekend.

The Dawn Watch

Reasonably well-read people will know that Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness after spending time in Congo. Maybe you didn’t know Conrad only made one trip up the river and on returning to Leopoldville, before even leaving the colony, wrote

“Decidedly I regret having come here. I even regret it bitterly….”

Most people will also have the vague knowledge that Congo produced rubber. Maybe you didn’t realize how perfectly nasty that business was.

You had to go into the rainforest, your feet squelching deep into mud and standing water, hoping not to step on a snake, ears pricked for the rustle of leopards a pounce away. You had to pick out a rubber vine in the vegetable tangle, then shimmy up its stalk to a point soft enough that you could slice it to release the sap. It was faster just to cut a vine in half, but because that killed the vine, the state forbade it. You had to wait for the creamy liquid to drop into your pot, then wait for it to thicken and gum into latex. The easiest way was to smear the sap over your body. Once it dried, you could tear it off your skin (taking your hair or skin with it, if needed) and roll it up into balls. It could take days to fill your basket with enough tough, gray pellets to satisfy the state or company agent.”

Get yourself a copy of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff and you’ll learn much more. Ms. Jasanoff opens and closes the book with some of her travels to research the book, and while those sections are brief I’d have been eager to read a whole book about her own travel.

The Dawn Watch is a fine travelogue/biography and I recommend it heartily.