Friday, August 30, 2013

Mayflower - Nathaniel Philbrick

After the perilous crossing was over, after the initial exploration of a mysterious shore was begun, and the first winter survived, the self-styled Pilgrims still had to carve a new life out of a landscape they could have never imagined. With a lifetime of vast uncertainties ahead, these believers tried to make sense of their lives, community, and faith in this new, unknown, and at many times perilous, world. Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower looks at the story of this preeminent early American community - those who Americans would claim as their progenitors - and how they lived and died, made peace and war, settled and fought on this new continent.

Central to Philbrick's work is his claim that the story of the Mayflower doesn't simply end with the Pilgrim's settlement at Plymouth Rock. Without developing crucial relationships with native people, any hope of Pilgrim survival would have been little more than a dream. Though both Indians and settlers ran the gamut of emotions and positions concerning these foreign people, avenues of exchange were forged and each came to rely upon the other. However, as the years passed, and the English became more comfortable and assured in this new world, their younger generations could not but help take the Indians for granted. Often seeing these, so different, people as obstacles to more peaceable lives, and along with unfettered access to a land they coveted, it is little wonder that conflict would arise. Philbrick's work continues through the end of King Philip's War and argues that the conflict remade the American landscape and was central to securing this new English preeminence. Contrary to the American national mythos, Philbrick demonstrates the tenuous nature of English victory in the war - and the precarious advantages they were able to exploit. We are left believing that history could have been written very differently indeed - that the future of this new world balanced on a knife's edge. Yet, by the time sachem Philip was killed in battle, the Indian population had been decimated and their claims to land usurped. Their numbers were never to rebound - nor was their land to be reclaimed.

These early days preceding the United States ought to remind us all of the humble and uncertain beginnings. As we look at the uncertainty of days gone by, we cannot help but wonder how things could have been, and what opportunities were lost along the way.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt - Edmund Morris

All energy.

The power and enthusiasms of Theodore Roosevelt crackle off the page of Edmund Morris' first of a three-part biography. From his birth and family origins unto the very precipice of the presidency, we see the young Theodore Roosevelt as a man never satisfied. Ever striving, succeeding (and failing), ever looking at what's next, Roosevelt seems to imagine a world on the cusp of being. Out West freedom is waiting to be harnessed. On the floor of the New York Assembly are problems to solve, foes to vanquish. Corruption in government is rampant. The natural world is in need of taming, exploration and explanation. To sit, to stagnate, is to watch life pass before you. Keep moving, seems to be his credo.

Yet for all TR's breathless efforts, we are left uncertain as to his motivations. Though it is always fraught to ascribe contemporary moralities to past periods, Morris more so questions Roosevelt's lack of common humanity. Why Roosevelt was driven to a life of public service remains largely uncertain - perhaps the man himself could not say. In all its power as a character-study Morris does wonder greatly at the young behemoth. We are left with the subtle feeling that Roosevelt's energies were expended more with an eye towards contest and glory than for any other notion. That it was the cultivation of his own imagined aspects of character, more than his impact on others, that drove Roosevelt so incessantly. Though we may wonder at this, it is not clear that Roosevelt ever did. We are left pondering: was the young Theodore Roosevelt a careful man? A thoughtful one? Does this change our estimation of his (coming in later volumes) greatness? Do we like Theodore Roosevelt?

While we may stand in awe of his efforts, his energies and his results, in the balance it is difficult to revere Roosevelt. The human dynamo blasts beyond everything in his path, yet when the points are tallied his success seems to reside largely in self-promotion. Thought he may embody the truly American spirit, a prizing of victory and glory without a reflection upon motivation and broader impact remains a tricky proposition. While we applaud his personification of our boundless enthusiasms, we simultaneously are given pause by the display of our many darker lights. Our tightrope between the past and the future is one strung across a chasm of uncertainty. Action and reflection are the opposing tensions holding our rope aloft. Pay too little, or too much, heed to one or the other, and we are lost. Some plow forward unknowingly, while others are paralyzed. Yet both falter. History would seem to conclude that Roosevelt found a balance which propelled him, and the country, forward. That, in his colossal efforts, he brought the world into a new age. Perhaps this demands a reassessment of the proper tension between action and reflection. We will see.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Spillover - David Quammen

"We shake the trees, figuratively and literally, and things fall out."

The notion, David Quammen writes, that the human world can ever be bracketed, separated, from the nonhuman world of animals, ecosystems, and the still undiscovered mysteries out there, is given lie by our susceptibility to the world's lesser understood aspects. Rampant population growth, exploding agricultural industry, and ecosystem destruction suggest that our relationship to the world around us is not what it once was. We have crossed a threshold. We no longer simply inhabit the world. As Michel Serres writes, we weigh upon it. It is not that our embeddedness within the world is something unique, rather, that the role of people in the biosphere has become outsized. Thus, we are confronted with novel challenges.

Foremost among these emergent concerns, Quammen writes, are the role that zoonotic diseases play in the present, and future, of the human prospect. The animal kingdom, both through our husbandry of domestics and our increasingly inescapable closeness to the wild, is now brought into more direct contact with people. Often these interactions take place in circumstances that are patently unsanitary and unhealthy for both man and beast. New phenomena arise from novel circumstances, and we can never fully prepare ourselves for the next big thing.

As coyotes and rabbits, hawks and deer, have become forcibly acclimated to life alongside and within human society, with fewer ecosystems to exploit, and as cattle and pigs, chicken and game meat are more widely slaughtered and traded, viruses, once confined to obscure existences in relatively untouched corners of the geographical and microbial world, are adapting to the human sphere and to human hosts. If the thrust of evolution is adapt or perish, then we must expect our tangled world of things to exploit the breadth of possibility. These tentative forays into a brave new viral world are bound to catch populations of people unawares. As our global interpenetration increasingly connects all people to all places, the risk of being caught unprepared is broadcast. The illness of Singapore quickly becomes the outbreak of Toronto, Lagos and Rio.

As we reach our fingers across the globe and into the depths of unexplored realms, is it any wonder that we have loosed phenomena which outstrip even our most scientific and modern epistemologies? Encountering more of the world means that we must develop our own understandings. Ways of knowing continually evolve, not only to meet the unexplained within ourselves, but to make sense of the heretofore unknown. As our envelopment of the world grows we will continue to be confronted with uncertainty, with the previously unimaginable. How this uncertainty informs our decisions and our actions is of crucial importance. We are left to wonder: will humans ever be adequately prepared to meet the world in all its complexity and awesomeness? Will we ever be able to forecast the next big thing?