Thursday, December 27, 2012

Corpses at the door

Spending Christmas with folks means getting to read some of the same books and talk about them. Or is that just a roundabout way of saying that I've been busy reading the book I gave my father for Christmas? The book is Charles C. Mann's 1493, sequel in its way of the amazing 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Like the earlier book it's a masterful synthesis of the work of historians (cultural, economic and environmental) which signals or cements a new paradigm. Mann builds on Alfred W. Crosby's idea of a "Columbian exchange," the global spread of species large and small once "Old" and "New" worlds were linked, and Michael Samways' concept of the "homogenocene," the rendering homogeneous of ecosystems across the globe. It really is epochal, epic.

I'm about half way through, and overwhelmed by not just the scale but the violence of the changes brought about by species unleashed on new and unprepared continents. Part I, "Atlantic Journeys," recounting (among many other things) the settlement of the Americas by more and less free Europeans and enslaved Africans in landscapes reshaped by malaria, involves death rates on a scale I have never encountered before, and not just once but over and over and over. Hegel's "slaughter-bench of history" comes to mind and, less teleological, a turn of phrase from a particularly sensitive student at Princeton, years ago, who wondered how we could live with all "the corpses at the door" of each building we enter. How do we?

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