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.

What About Giraffes!?

They’re fascinating animals, that’s what.

Consider:

You may not be able to talk while breathing through your nose, but a poor giraffe cannot even have a drink of water without putting itself in mortal peril. Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey the waterhole at length and in great detail before they commit, because once they do it takes effort, and precious seconds, to splay themselves into their ungainly, legs-spread stance, and just as much time to clamber back upright.

Valves in giraffes’ necks close when they put their heads down to drink, to keep all their blood from flowing to their heads. That’s why they spread their legs wide apart because they’re apt to get a little light-headed. And that is when the big cats might strike.

Rumbling along a safari track once upon a time, B. (short for Bonnetswe, our guide in the Okavango Delta) told us the single most dramatic thing he had ever seen; it was the time he watched a giraffe kill about ten lions before finally going down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he grinned, “Imagine the giraffe,” whose foot is as wide as a dinner plate. And so lions usually leave giraffes alone. Except when they’re drinking.

As it happens, and thankfully (if you’re the giraffe) they needn’t drink more than every second or third day. To minimize the time they have to spend in that vulnerable stance they manage to get most of the moisture they require from the leaves they eat (For this same reason they need not migrate).

Consider the browsing life of a giraffe. While other animals compete for food on the ground, up in the trees, up there, if you’re a giraffe, it’s mine, all mine. Which means giraffes can afford to be discerning eaters.

Using half meter long prehensile black tongues, they take branches in their mouths and pull their heads away, leaves along with them. Their preferred leaves are thorny acacia. They grind the thorns between their molars (In the Okavango the acacia is known as the toothpick tree. They also use their thorns as sewing needles.)

Now, every bit of explanatory science I have ever seen notes the giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, and then goes on as if everybody knows what that means. What prehensile means is “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, in the sense that we have opposable thumbs.

The giraffe uses his up to eighteen-inch tongue to slide up a branch and grab a bunch of twigs and leaves (They prefer acacia, which are important sources of calcium and protein. Plus, tender acacia twigs may contain 74 percent water.). Nobody except maybe the largest elephant can reach twenty feet from the ground to eat, and you can see this at work in areas rife with giraffes, as they create a “browse line” along the trees.

But if eating is a walk in the wildlife park, with the pick of only the very best leaves in the tree, it takes a lot of leaves – and a lot of time – for a giraffe to get his fill. A 3000-pound bull needs around 75 pounds of food a day, and it may take him three-quarters of the day to get it.

•••••

Charles Darwin developed a theory of natural selection but he didn’t claim it was efficient. To the contrary, he called it clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Clumsy or not, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David P. Barash points out that natural selection has to work with what it has got.

In the giraffe, he writes, “natural selection has produced a creature that on the one hand is spectacularly adapted to its peculiar ecological niche” and on the other is a poster child for Darwin’s clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Barash points out that to pump blood to the head, seven feet over its heart, giraffes require “exceptionally high” blood pressure. To keep blood from remaining in their feet they have “evolved the equivalent of compression stockings” (which would also be useful for visiting Americans on the long plane ride to Africa to see them).

Barash notes “giraffes are fully six feet taller than other competing browsers, which would seem to argue that competitive foraging as such hasn’t been the main driving pressure behind their altitudinal evolution.” And thus he coyly presents a peculiar practice of male giraffes that he suggests could have furthered positive evolutionary selection for those long necks.

During the rut, male giraffes will stand shoulder to shoulder, parallel with one another and use their necks, as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

And this can hurt. Giraffe horns, called “ossicones,” are harder than the keratin of cattle horns. They are skin-covered cartilage, actually fused to the animal’s skull, that over time hardens into bone. Only the giraffe and okapi [which deserves its own article] have ossicones.

Giraffes hammer each other with their heads until one of the opponents gives up and cedes dominance. Barash speculates that since the longer the neck, the more force behind each blow, females may prefer long-necked giraffes, and this preference may be passed along genetically. This is the “necks for sex” hypothesis.

At least that is one idea. Cynthia Moss’s 1973 Portraits in the Wild precedes Barash’s work, and back then she was having none of it. To Moss, “A necking match is a lovely sight.” She calls it “gentle sparring,” punctuated by pauses to stare into the distance for some time, affecting “a slight air of superiority.”

Moss notes too that giraffes are different in different places. She cites different researchers’ variable findings.

Giraffes may be found “singly, in twos and threes, and in herds of up to fifty.” One of the researchers she cites, Carlos Mejia, says “They are gregarious but they don’t interact.” Mejia, she says, can’t figure out why they come together at all.

She found researchers agreed that giraffes’ social structures are loose, open, “with giraffes coming and going as they please.”

On the one hand, in Mejia’s study in Tanzania herds may be made up of “males, females, and young, all males or all females, or any combination….” and a “herd rarely comprises the same individuals for more than a few consecutive days.”

On the other, “the sexes in Nairobi park show distinct preferences for different areas. The females and young stay on the plains, whereas the males tend to stay in the forested area.”

•••••

In the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we once saw a very baby calf, so newborn that it only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. She kept her calf tight to her side and remained most attentive to us, but that after-the-fact tenderness doesn’t cover up for the brutality of birth.

The giraffe calf receives a jarring first wake up call, being dropped head first some 5-1/2 feet from the womb to the ground, but it is soon standing, close to six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.

And they grow so fast! In their first year some four feet, and Cynthia Moss cites reports that they can grow nine inches in a single week.

•••••

As a ruminant, the giraffe swallows its food, which must then be rechewed. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Received by the reticulum, the vegetation forms into fist-sized balls and is regurgitated, chewed, swallowed and then passed into the other chambers, the rumen, omasum and abomasum, all in the process of digestion.

This is a three, four, five hour a day process that we call “chewing the cud” in the farm animals back home. All the ruminant are mammals, including yaks and goats and sheep, deer and antelopes and cows.

All that eating takes up most of a giraffes’ day. Moss tells us that in a giraffe’s day no more than five to thirty minutes at a time are spent sleeping. And even then, giraffes, especially moms with young babies, may sleep with one eye open, a practice they share with flying things like bats, ducks and chickens and, it is said, dolphins too.

•••••

If giraffes ran like most other hoofstock, their extra-long legs would be liable to get tangled up, so they move both their legs on one side and then the other, alternating sides. This is called “pacing” and has the effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion when in fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The giraffe can flee a pursuer at 55 kilometers per hour, though not for sustained periods.

In fact, the word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” for “one who walks swiftly.” Zafarah is Arabic, from the land of camels, and the camel runs like the giraffe; it also “paces.” Perhaps that similarity half accounts for the giraffes’ Latin species name, camelopardalis. The “leopardalis” part? There was an archaic belief that the giraffe was part leopard – because of those spots.

•••••

As with other animals on the African plain in general, Moss writes that “It is rare for a giraffe to die of old age; when it becomes very old and weak, it is usually taken by a predator.” Back in the 90’s, when I was very new at this, I remember a visit to Ngorongoro Crater, when a wildlife guide named Godfrey showed us a zebra with a broken leg on the edge of a herd, and said it wouldn’t make it until morning. This horrified me, and I lay in the dark and thought about it that night.

The system in the African wild is efficient, and it is surely ruthless, too. If we humans (some of us) have the good fortune to die in bed, pain-mitigated, that surely is not true on the African plains.

•••••

Got a minute to buy me a cup of coffee?

Cold Winter Weekend Reading

Next week I think I’ll post a vignette from a trip to West Africa, some form of which should work its way into my eventual book about African travel. As for now, along with everyone else on the U.S. east coast, I’ll be spending this weekend mostly indoors. Here’s some engaging reading to enjoy by the fire, or wherever you are:

Spies, Dossiers, and the Insane Lengths Restaurants Go to Track and Influence Food Critics in the Washingtonian by Jessica Sidman
One of Us at laphamsquarterly.org by John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Bridge to Nowhere and the Bays Road at East of Elveden by my friend Laurence Mitchell
Will globalisation go into reverse? in Prospect Magazine by Barry Eichengreen
The monster beneath at 1843magazine.com by Helen Gordon
They Began a New Era in The New York Review of Books by James Salter (recommended as a Salter fan. I can also recommend the 2013 compilation of Salter’s travel writing, There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter)

Cheers for now.