Innovative orangutans, Otzi the Iceman and snotty children

If you want to avoid catching a cold, keep your nose warm, wash your hands a lot and stay away from children.

November 18, 2008 | | Back Issues | Countryside Digest | Departments | Environment | Winter 2008

Johnny Applejack

“Sketchy though they were, the biographical facts were enough to make anyone question the saintly Golden Book’s version of Johnny Appleseed … but it was a single biological fact about the seeds themselves that made me realize that his story had been lost, and probably on purpose.

“The fact, simply, is this: apples don’t come true from seeds – that is, an apple grown from a seed will be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parent. Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible – ‘sour enough,’ Thoreau once wrote, ‘to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.’

“Thoreau claimed to like the taste of such apples, but most of his countrymen judged them good for little but hard cider … Apples were something that people drank … Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.” From The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, Random House, 2002.

Fashion in 3300 bc

“Seventeen years after emerging from an Alpine glacier, the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy known as Otzi the Iceman continues to reveal new secrets. Scientists reported last week that analyses of single hairs show that his clothes were made from the hides of domesticated animals. His coat and leggings were probably sheepskin, and his moccasins were cowhide.” From Science, Aug 29/08.

Love in 3300 bc

“About 5,300 years ago, near the center of modern-day Niger, a woman and two children died; how it happened is unclear. They were buried carefully, on a bed of flowers – the woman, the 8-year-old, and the 5-year-old cuddled in a last embrace … Carbon dating revealed they were Tenerians, who lived in Gobero when the Sahara was a lush savanna.” From Science, Aug 22/08.

Where’s Reverse?

“America’s Northeast was once U.S. agriculture’s major force, with farms supplying the country’s densest clusters of population. The Northeast now does very little farming, and most of the agricultural lands have gone back to forest or suburbs, an odd transition in that these are in some ways the nation’s best agricultural lands. Unlike the western grasslands, the Northeast gets enough rain to grow crops.

“The decline came as a result of a particular form of subsidy: federal irrigation projects. Beginning at the height of the progressive era, the nation set to work on making the western deserts bloom, investing billions in dams, canals, tunnels, and drains to bring nine million additional acres under cultivation. The historian Donald Worster has shown that this figure exactly parallels the acreage of abandoned farms in the Northeast – land that already had water – during the same period.” From Against the Grain, by Richard Manning, North Point Press, 2004.

Biotech Babble

“So far the claims of the biotechnology industry are not backed up by scientific evidence; its rosy rhetoric obscures our choices. This can keep us from investing in tools such as conventional breeding and agroecology that, based on their track record, should be leading the way to helping the world feed itself.” Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists, quoted in Mother Earth News, Oct-Nov/08.

Pencil Line

“The pencil’s origin lies in the late sixteenth century, when shepherds in Borrowdale, England discovered deposits of pure graphite and used it to mark their sheep. (The Greek graphein means ‘to write.’) One of the oldest pencils was made with Borrowdale graphite wrapped with string. Scribes would unwind the string as the graphite wore away to avoid covering their hands with carbon. The earliest eraser was a loaf of bread.” From Worldwatch, Sept-Oct/08.

Orang Aid

“Wild orangutans have been seen self-medicating for the first time, in Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. The apes were spotted chewing Commelina leaves, which they made into a balm and rubbed on their limbs. The naturally occurring anti-inflammatory drugs found in the leaves are used by local people to treat aches and pains.” From New Scientist, Aug 2/08.

Cold Facts about Kids

“Chilling anywhere on the body prompts a reflex cut in blood flow to the nasal lining, a major site of heat loss, which may lower our defences against viruses.

“Children pass on viruses better than adults because they get more snot on their hands, wash them less often, and have more contact with peers and caregivers. That said, in classic experiments in the 1950s, researchers stained the snot of adults with a fluorescent dye before they engaged in normal activity – and watched in awe as the dye turned up all over the room and its other occupants.

“So if you want to avoid catching a cold, keep your nose warm, wash your hands a lot and stay away from children.” From New Scientist, Sept 6/08.

Carbon Facts

Estimated carbon emissions per mile walked (grams of CO2) powered by: top sirloin, 900-1,600; 2% milk, 200- 400; typical U.S. diet, 160; vegan diet, 30. From Worldwatch, Sept-Oct/08.

Mad Farmer

“According to Wendell Berry, ‘…the single goal of the industrial economy, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, has been the highest possible margin of profit. That is to say that its single motive has been greed. The economy justifies itself as a sequence of innovations that it calls “progress.” But it is progress for the biggest possible profit. Industrialism is the most effective system ever devised for the concentration of wealth and power. Its most characteristic “progress” has been the increasing ability to concentrate wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands.’

“This view of society is antithetical to the ‘cooperative economy’ that Berry has sought to depict in his writing and to manifest in his farming and in his relation to his own community of Fort William, Kentucky.” From a review of Conversations with Wendell Berry, Edited by Morris Allen Grubbs, University Press of Mississippi, 2007, by Christine Casson, in American Scientist, Nov-Dec/08.

Wind First

“A small town in Missouri made history earlier this year as the first in America to receive its electricity solely from wind energy. Rock Port, located in northwest Missouri, uses four wind turbines to provide electricity to its 1,300 residents.” Madeline Hyden, in Mother Earth News, Oct-Nov/08.

Biblical Barter

“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us close our eyes and pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Desmond Tutu, 1931, quoted in CCPA Monitor, Sept/08.

About the Author More by Douglas G. Pearce

Douglas G. Pearce is a retired scientist who lives in Mono, you can read more miscellany in other issues of Countryside Digest.

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