ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Evolution”

Falling forward – a reflection on evolution

The other day, I was listening to a radio programme about the deficiency of our basic design. “Our” in this case being us humans. It seems that the biped descendant of those very ancient primates that is modern human has as yet to fully master the challenge of walking without falling over.

Research has been conducted on young healthy people and their walking mishaps (the scientists have given up on the rest of us, unstable wrecks that we are). Turns out that even these prime specimens have a tendency to fall over. More than 50% report falling over on a regular basis – mostly due to stumbling over their own feet. Note that the participants were all sober, and the falling over incidents were not restricted to midnight walks through forests. Nope. Bright daylight, even ground beneath, and still our young and healthy representatives fell. A lot.

Maybe it’s not the two legs that’s the problem. Maybe it’s our feet. Maybe we, as a species, have been burdened with feet that stick out too much. The scientists disagree. There’s nothing wrong with our feet, they say. Instead, our overall stability would have been much, much better had we continued to walk on all four, dragging our knuckles along the ground. Not exactly a surprising conclusion.

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Moonlight Sonata, R.A Blakelock

Thing is, had we not dared to let go of the ground and rise on our (then) hind legs, we might have been less prone to falling, but we would also have been much, much dumber than we are today. Once primitive man lifted his eyes off the ground to view the world at large, to stare at the moon and stars above, something began happening in his brain, further stimulated by the fact that now that he wasn’t walking on his hands, he could use them for other things. Like making rudimentary tools. Or picking fruits and berries. (Or lice. Plenty of lice to pick off our ancient ancestors’ hairy frames)

Obviously, Homo Erectus was not aware of the “small step for man, huge leap for mankind” he represented. Here was a hirsute creature, standing on his two feet and regarding his surroundings from a sufficient height to discover threats before they discovered him – a good thing, seeing as our ancient forebears had little with which to defend themselves against, f.ex, a hungry leopard. I’m guessing this is where the tool development took off. Hungry leopard drops down on biped. Biped falls to the ground. Long fingers find purchase round a rock. Biped frantically hits hungry leopard over the head with rock. Leopard very surprised, lets go. Biped lives to see another day. Phew.

From rock to bash leopard with, progress was probably quick, all the way to that day when a very thin, very sharp sliver of flint was used to do some basic hair removal. “Oooo! Look at my legs,” cooed Mrs Homo Erectus, “all smooth and unhairy.” (I’m not sure we should be grateful to her, BTW) Somewhat more seriously, making tools had a huge impact on our intellectual capacity. It requires intelligence to fashion a lump of rock into something – specifically, it requires a vision, the capacity to see what it will be once it is done.

Our tool-making forefather had thereby moved into the realm of conceptual thinking. Once you can look at an unshaped lump of rock and think “hmm, that would make a great hand-axe. All I need is to chip a bit here, and there, and then…” the step towards considering the future, where we might come from and where we might end up, is not that big. Yes, Homo Erectus may have been a bit unsteady on the ground, but his brain was expanding at an impressive speed.

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Moonlight on the Fens by G Coulson

So when next you stumble over your own two feet (and no, it’s not the feet’s fault: that has been scientifically proven) remember that this is the very, very small price you pay for being able to crane your head back to look at the night sky and wonder about life on Mars. Or listen to a Beethoven symphony. Or lose ourselves in art by men like Blakelock and Coulson. Mind you, Homo Erectus would probably not have appreciated the art. Or the music. And he had never heard of Mars. But he was thrilled to bits at having survived that leopard attack!

Taking the plunge – of baths and cleanliness

It is my firm conviction that mankind has always had a love-hate relationship with water. Hate because you can drown in it, love because it tastes great and because a nice soak generally leaves you quite refreshed – and clean. Small boys may be the exception. Small boys don’t seem to like the soap & water combo all that much – but maybe that’s the soap rather than the water.

baths soapwortAs all of us who read The Clan of the Cave bear know, even caveman had a thing about keeping clean. As per Ms Auel, the intrepid heroine Ayla did not only battle isolation and survival. She also took some time out to find some soapwort and wash. Those of us who’ve had a closer encounter with soapwort will know it doesn’t exactly lather like modern-day shampoo, but there is a soapy feeling to it. I suppose those early humans had low expectations: it wasn’t as if hot showers abounded.

Now, had any of us dropped 50 000 years back in time, we would not have been impressed by the hygienic standards of the time. Not so much because people didn’t wash, but because what they wore rarely saw a dunking. That’s the problem with pelts – they’re not easy to launder, and as a side effect they tend to attract lice and fleas and other little creatures that rather like the idea of living in close proximity to the food store (the human wearing the pelt) and in comfy warm quarters (the pelt itself).

Anyway: time passed. Mrs Cavewoman upgraded to Mrs Living-in-a-hut-woman. Gone were the pelts, in came woven fabrics such as linen and wool. Easier to keep clean, and now that humanity had upgraded to Standard A in civilisation, people, I imagine, quickly established washing procedures. Off went the daughter to fetch water from the river, and then faces and hands were carefully washed – sometimes feet as well. Now and then, these our distant forbears probably bathed in the river or the sea, but as yet there were no such conveniences as a bathtub – or a shower.

By the time the Old Testament was written, bathing was an established practice. Take, for example, the story of Susanna. This beautiful young lady attracted more than her share of male ogling, but being a most virtuous wife, she generally ignored the cat-whistles. Besides, she rarely left the house other than adequately covered. But. Susanna liked her baths, and she generally took them outdoors in her garden, which leads me to assume they had still not got round to inventing bathrooms.

In Susanna’s case, she had a very secluded garden. Depending on which painted depiction you choose to study, you will either conclude Susanna’s husband, Joachim, was very rich, what with the fountains and the obviously huge grounds, or not so rich, what with nothing but a small pool.

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Gerrit von Honthorstus – Susanna & the Elders

One very hot day, Susanna was happily soaking in the water, unaware that two of her unwanted admirers – elders, no less – had sneaked into her garden to spy on her. Upon seeing her in the nude, these two Peeping Toms were overcome with lecherous thoughts and approached her, threatening to accuse her of adultery unless she let them have their way with her. Susanna refused. The spurned elders hastened off, telling everyone they’d just caught Susanna in flagrante in her garden, under a tree.

This was unacceptable, the elders thundered, and as the legal system back then had several drawbacks, one of them being a bias against women, soon enough poor Susanna was fighting tooth and nail to defend herself from these unfounded accusations. A losing battle, I might add, and people were already laying up sizeable heaps of stones in gleeful anticipation of her stoning when Daniel entered the scene. (Yes, this is the same Daniel as the Daniel of lion-pit fame, but at a somewhat younger age) After listening for a while, Daniel suggested the elders be questioned one by one rather than together. Immediately huge inconsistencies appeared, and soon enough it was the elders who had the law breathing down their neck while Susanna could go back to her bathing. Except I don’t think she wanted to…

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Georg Pauli – Odalisque in a Roman bath

Well, after that rather depressing bath story, let us hop forward to the true connoisseurs of bathing – the Romans. It’s probably because of their fondness for pristine togas that the Romans went all wild and crazy about their baths. Or maybe it’s because of the aqueducts – piping all that water around stirred a craving to use it. Whatever the reason, wherever the Romans went, they built baths – sometimes on the truly grand scale, such as the Baths of Caracalla, at others of a more modest size. Accordingly, Mrs Roman Matron was very clean – she had no excuse not to be.

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M Domínguez Sánchez – the suicide of Seneca

From Roman times come some of the earlier “death in the bath” cases. Other than Emperor Commodus, who was strangled to death in his bath, we also have Seneca, famous stoic philosopher & teacher and advisor to Nero. As an old man, he was accused of having conspired to kill Nero (which, IMO, should be considered as doing society a favour rather than a crime) and was therefore ordered to kill himself. Seneca opted for slashing his wrists in his tub, but whether due to age, too shallow cuts, or general infirmity, his was a slow, painful death, blood staining the bathwater pink.

Après nous, le déluge, said Louis XV (or his mistress) in the 18th century, with no reference whatsoever to the fall of the Roman Empire. And yet, it is a most appropriate description of the chaos that engulfed the former civilised world of the Romans when the Pax Romana came to an end, the proud empire trampled underfoot by the barbarian tribes. Out went the bathwater – quite often with the baby in it – and the sophisticated life of the Romans fell into oblivion, ushering in what is often called the Dark Ages.

Personally, I don’t think the Dark Ages were all that dark. Soon enough, centres of learning popped up, towns were built and fledgling countries saw the light of the day. By the first millennium, civilisation was thriving – man is nothing but resilient. And the bath, dear people, never went out of fashion. It just became rarer, what with the effort required to lug hot water in buckets from the hearth to wherever the bathtub was situated.

baths medieval-bath-3-650x487There is a tenacious misconception that medieval people were extremely filthy, but the distinction of being truly dirty belongs to the people of the 16th and 17th century – and onwards. In medieval times, people did wash. The higher up the hierarchy, the more probable you bathed at regular intervals, and even if you didn’t change your underwear on a daily basis, you probably picked up clean linen once a week. (Well, assuming you were relatively well off. Cleanliness was a social divider – as it was well into the 20th century here in Europe)

Medieval people without castles and the servants required to draw a bath could always visit a bathhouse. Originally, these establishments were precisely that: places where you could take a bath. Men and women would disrobe and wash, and in the early 14th century there were more than thirty public bathhouses in Paris, close to twenty in London. Of course, the church was a bit wary about all this socialising in the nude, and one church writer recommended that if a man had seen his wife (!) and other women naked in a bathhouse, he should fast for three days as a penance.

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Having a good time in the stews

Soon enough, the bathhouses began offering other services – food, drink, gambling, the odd blood-letting and carnal entertainment. The reputation of the bathhouses went downhill fast, and soon enough only disreputable women visited the “stews” – generally to ply their trade.

The bathhouses disappeared rapidly in the early 16th century. Various reasons have been put forward for this: some say it was because of the Reformation and the assumption that putting naked men and naked women in a bathhouse would automatically lead to lewd sin – probably a correct assumption, and the fiercely devout Protestants were far more intolerant of human weaknesses than the Catholic Church, this due to lack of experience. There is also the emergence of syphilis – the dreaded pox – which made it that much easier to argue for closing the bathhouses. Plus, by the time the 16th century rolled around, larger towns suffered from a shortage of clean water. Bathhouse clients did NOT want to bathe in the polluted waters of the Thames…

Poor water quality was to remain a major issue for the coming centuries. Bathing was even considered dangerous, and with the advent of perfume it became considerably easier to hide bad body odour (Hmm…) I’d wager our modern sensibilities would find it far more painful to navigate the famous Hall of mirrors at Versailles under Louis XIV than a medieval feast in Westminster Hall.

This, however, does not mean that people did not enjoy being clean. I imagine a hot bath has always offered comfort to those who were weary or heart-sore or generally in need of relaxation. Accordingly, I am quite convinced that those who could indulged in the odd soak – if nothing else by plunging into the cold waters of a nearby lake.

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J-L David, La Mort de Marat

At times, taking a bath was taking a major risk. Even if you’d ensured the water supply was uncontaminated, even if you’d arranged for a private little moment so as to soothe your ailing skin condition, bathing came with the risk of leaving you very vulnerable. Ask Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolutionary hero who in 1793 was assassinated in his bath by the young Charlotte Corday. Now, in all fairness, one could argue Marat had it coming, what with his uncompromising attitude to the somewhat more moderate elements in the new French republic. Still, to be skewered by a long blade while in your tub seems an unnecessarily violent end to a man who always spoke up for the weak and oppressed. But at least he died clean…

As late as the early 19th century, clean water to wash in had to be carried into some of the larger European cities, and accordingly “washing” was rarely a bath, more of a damp washcloth that was swiped over face, hands and forearms. Plus the neck. In general, the hygienic standards of the 19th and early 20th century were pretty dismal – even if public bathhouses saw a resurgence in the late 19th century. In fact, I’d wager these our relatively close forebears were far dirtier than our medieval ancestors, and as to the Romans, they’d have fainted in horror at all the grime.

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Anders Zorn – bathing outdoors

These days, we are all very clean. Perhaps too clean, what with daily showers or baths. Where our great-grandmothers would wash their hair every fortnight at best – and in between they’d sprinkle their tresses with flour and brush out the excessive grease – we shampoo more or less every day. Sweating is an issue – except at the gym – and we prefer the artificial scents of perfumed soaps, deos and body lotions to our own scents. Unfortunately, I’d say. Next time you’ve taken a swim in a lake or the sea, dry in the sun and then smell your clean skin. Nice, isn’t it? Much, much better than anything Dove can come up with!

Why me? Of neolithic genes and sweet-tooths

Give me a choice between a tournedo and a chocolate praline, and I’ll go for the praline. Plant a lobster in front of me, and chances are I’ll still go for the praline – not always, but most of the time. Tempt me with gorgeous salmon sandwiches or a Swiss roll and I’ll be sinking my teeth into the roll.

Why, one wonders, have I been given the sweet-tooth in the family? Why can’t I, like my mother, shine up at the thought of vegetable soup? Why do carrot sticks to nothing for me compared to a chocolate éclair? (Although seriously: anyone who prefers a carrot stick to an éclair probably has issues of their own…)Why me?

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Photo Petr Novak, Wikipedia

“It’s the cavewoman in you,” second son would probably say. “You’re a prime example of a survivor in a neolithic society, going for the sweet & fatty stuff.”

Fantastic. Only problem with that is that I do not live in the Stone Age. I am not subjected to irregular food supply, I am fortunate enough to know today that I will eat tomorrow. In short, that cave-woman gene of mine fills no purpose. Well, it does in the sense that it is also this gene that makes me go “eeek” at spiders or snakes, and we all know such an approach to these dangerous creatures can save your life. Hmm….

Back to the food issue. Stone Age people had no chocolate. They had very ittle sweet stuff beyond honey and berries. No one baked a Swiss roll over the open fire, no one vacillated between apple crumble and toffee pudding. Poor them. The last few years, it has become something of a thing to eat “Stone Age”, which means nuts, roots, more nuts, fruit, meat, fish. No dairy – our cave-dwelling ancestors had not got round to taming cows and such yet. No bread – we were eons away from the first mill. Yes, they ate the grain, but directly from the husk. Nom nom.

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Happy in the Stone Age…note the total lack of women.

Anyway, the Stone Age diet is supposed to be good for you, leading to longevity and health. Hmm. Stone Age people didn’t live all that long, did they? Oh right; this is where my gene comes in. You see, our neolithic forebears had a really healthy diet – assuming they found food. But quite often, they didn’t, and this is where those members of the clan with a propensity for over-eating and scarfing down whatever sweet stuff they could find came into their own. Those extra layers of fat could be the difference between death and survival, between bearing a child and remaining barren.

Obviously, a higher share of “sweet & fat” loving people than the “I adore carrots” made it through the neolithic period. (In which there weren’t any carrots, so that was something of a bummer…) And as history of humanity picks up speed, pretty soon we start seeing desserts on the menu.

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Pomegranates just begging to be picked & shared

Sometimes dessert was just a fruit. Sometimes, said fruit was shared between him and her, the beta version of the Lady & the Tramp meatball scene. Sometimes, said fruit was a pomegranate – an ancient symbol for everything erotic and beautiful – and I really, really want to meet that loving couple who fed each other pomegranate seeds without permanently staining their linens. In actual fact, I’d like to see the fair maiden who managed to eat this fruit daintily and “stainlessly”. I would also like to point out that in my book, a pomegranate does not qualify as a dessert – not on its own. (Sprinkled on a pavlova, yes)

The ancient Greeks must be admired for much, and from a dessert perspective, they did bring a new dimension to things. Sesame pies, honey and yogurt, small baked goods, often containing dried fruits, and, of course, that elegant combo of fresh cheese and honey, preferably sprinkled with nuts. Note the appearance of dairy products. We are approaching a point in time where there will be cream to whip, and what would strawberries be without whipped cream, hey?

So the Greeks gave us cheese and honey, and the Romans gave us ice cream.Okay, not so that your run-of-the-mill person suffering from a sweet-tooth ever got to taste such a delicacy, but it still existed, as did the spira (Danish pastries before the Danish even existed) and an assortment of souffles and puddings. The Romans knew their desserts, people, but most of these toga draped gentlemen and their palla covered wives opted for fruit – waistline issues, seeing as already these our Latin-speaking forebears were struggling with the consequences of the Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene.

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Sack of Rome. Very non-Visigoth gent clambering atop another…

As we all know, the Roman Empire was over-run by the barbarian hordes led by Alaric. These hirsute peeps were more in the mead & meat category than in the dainty dessert group, but I bet you their ladies did not say no to a honeyed wafer or two (or three, or four – that’s what happens with such things: one starts eating and they just take you over!)

However, in the turbulent time that followed upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, people often had more pressing concerns than planning their menus – such as staying alive in a world where the agricultural efforts had been rudely interrupted by nomadic Germanic tribes. Fortunately, the Dark Ages were not quite as dark as people make out, and sometime between the 6th and 8th century AD, the Western world saw the introduction of sugar, this thanks to the Arabs who were more than inordinately fond of this sweet stuff that went so well with filo pastry and pistachios.

Sugar was a luxury. My sweet-tooth ancestress living in a Viking village somewhere to the north of where I live today, probably never even tasted it – but she’d heard of it, had maybe even met someone who’d tasted it. With sugar, the art of desserts exploded to a new level. With sugar, one could create confections and marchpane, candy fruits and petals. I bet many a pastry cook wept happy tears when presented with a sugar loaf – a commodity so precious it was kept behind lock and key. It sure beat parsnips as a sweetener!

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Hernán

By now, man had progressed in leaps and bounds from than ancient existence in a cave. Now there was sugar and cream, honey and nuts, fruits and berries, eggs and flour. There was marzipan and nougats, there were meringues and pastries, and one could almost believe Dessert Nirvana had arrived. But one major ingredient was still missing. Yup. Sadly missing. Fortunately for all us dessert maniacs – but not at all for the mighty Aztec civilisation – a certain Hernán Cortés would soon set things right. Ladies and gents, I give you that elixir of all things sweet and wonderful – chocolate.

In the late 16th century, chocolate became available in Europe. Not, I hasten to add, a chocolate that bears any resemblance to what we call chocolate. No, the drink the Spanish explorers brought back from the court of Montezuma was bitter and frothy, something of an acquired taste.  But if you drank it early in the morning, it was supposed to be invigorating, and the Spanish were all for invigorating stuff, now that they had a continent to conquer.

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Morning chocolate, anyone?

Someone came up with the brilliant idea of combining chocolate with sugar – and a tad of cream, and suddenly chocolate as we know it was in the making. Chocolate fondants, chocolate cakes, chocolate mousse – the Neolithic lady up my family tree would have done cartwheels.

And so here we are, in a world where things that are sweet and fatty are constantly available. We sigh happily, and in the depths of our DNA that Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene prods us into action. Eat, it says, eat, eat, eatyou never know when next you will see food. The “I adore carrots” people nod and pick up a carrot. The rest of us dive for a Snickers – or spend our lives fighting the urge…

I fight the urge – most of the time. But sometimes I cave before the cave-person in me. I am weak, I tell second son, a victim to my mitochondrial baggage. Second son snorts – he is not fooled. He rarely is. But happily, second son can be bribed – after all, he has his fair share of that ubiquitous and utterly indestructible Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene. So: chocolate cake, anyone?

Of old roads and dead men

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An old medieval road, no less

Whenever dear hubby wants to go off on some sort of excursion, he always dangles the carrot of history before my nose. Being a predictable sort, I always bite. (This, of course, leads me to consider just how much he has manipulated me throughout the years. Quite a lot, I suspect…)

Anyway, this time round he suggested we set off on a hike that would take us along an ancient medieval road. It would also, he said, lead us to something called Kastagropen (a deep crevice which, tradition has it, was used to dispose of old people in. One simply shoved them over the edge). Now, I know for a fact that my forebears did not throw the old and infirm off a cliff (phew!) but I was curious as to Kastagropen for an entirely other reason: this was where Swedish authorities purportedly hanged Danish rebels in the 17th century, leaving their rotting bodies to dangle like huge over-ripe fruit until they fell to the ground in pieces. This, unfortunately, does seem to be a true story.

So, off we went, with hubby throwing in yet another teaser. Once we’d done the medieval road and the Crevice of Death, we were going to hike to the Dead Village. Yet another cheerful little destination…

A short drive, a kilometer or so walking through the forest, and it was becoming quite apparent the road we were walking on was old – really old. I sort of shivered at the thought of all those ancient feet, shod in heavy wooden clogs for the most part, that had walked here before me, steadying the creaking wheel of their overloaded cart, pulling recalcitrant oxen along, or just dancing at the side of their loved one.

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The Preacher’s Pulpit

The road followed the bottom of the crevice, with ancient stone-bordered channels on both sides to lead off the water. The further we walked, the steeper the sides of the gorge became, until we were standing beneath something called The Preacher’s Pulpit. Anyone standing up there to address the people would be heard for miles. A perfect place for a rebellious Dane to call his people together and urge them to fight the Swedish invaders unto death. Just as perfect a place to display that same Dane, now hanging at the end of a noose…

Those 17th century Danish rebels went by the name of Snapphanar – this due to their preference for snaphance lock muskets (for more, see here). They were fighting for their right to the land, for their customs and language. The Swedish aggressors were less than impressed, and the captured rebels were tortured and killed in the most horrible ways to instill fear and obedience in the rest of the people. Seeing your man nailed to a church door and there left to die must be a terrifying experience. Watching your relatives have their limbs torn apart before they were hanged was quite the deterrent. And yet, people still hid the rebels, still held on to their Danish roots, which was why the Swedish authorities decided to do some deportation, bringing in good Swedish people to replace the Danish families sent off to Swedish Livland (present day Baltic States).

I slipped my hand into hubby’s as we stood craning or necks back under The Preacher’s Pulpit. For an instant, I could see the surrounding trees adorned by hanged corpses, I could hear the raucous sound of crows and rooks as they pecked at unseeing eyes, unfeeling faces. Ugh.

After this unsettling experience, we continued along the old road. The water in the ancient ditches leapt and burbled cheerfully, wrens and robins darted back and forth, and the spectres of those unfortunate 17th century rebels faded from my mind. Instead, we set off in search of the Dead Village.

This part of Sweden is a harsh land. The ground is littered with stone, the terrain is a collection of hills and crevices, of sudden jutting cliffs and boulders. To clear a field would have been back-breaking work, and the people who lived here were probably always staving of starvation, never being able to grow quite enough to see them comfortably through the winter. Twenty kilometres to the south, things change. The earth is rich and fertile, the ground undulates towards the sea. Whoever owned those lands, could count on plentiful harvests, in difference to the poor folk who inhabited the forests and complemented their sad little fields with lumber and pigs.

In the mid 19th century, many of these poor Swedish people took the decision to leave. America beckoned, promising virgin land ready for the plough, endless acres just waiting for a new owner. It also promised religious freedom, an unknown concept in Sweden where the Swedish Lutheran Church ruled absolute and did its best to squash any alternative religion, such as the Methodist Church or the Evangelists. (Religious freedom is a relatively new concept in Sweden, where Conventicle Laws existed until 1858)

In the poorer parts of Sweden, these new expressions of faith resonated with the people. In response, the Swedish Church fined and punished, making the poorer even poorer. A vicious circle that ultimately drove entire communities to sell off everything they had and set off for the land of hopes and dreams come true.

The Dead Village is one such community. The inhabitants took a collective decision to leave in the 1860s or so, and off they went, leaving their houses behind. In a terrain littered by stone, the village was crisscrossed by dry stone walls, testament to just how much stone and rocks had been moved off the narrow fields.

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Woods that once rang with the sound of axes, where boys chased after piglets and girls tended the precious cow, now lie silent. The wind soughing through the trees, the distant sound of water and birds – that’s all I could hear. A branch broke under my foot, a deer leaped off down a hillside, and the only thing that showed this was once inhabited land was the road beneath my feet – an old, old road – and the stone walls, now covered with moss. Nothing remained of the houses beyond the odd shallow indentation. Nothing remained of gardens and fields, nature having reclaimed its own. That’s how ephemeral our presence in this world is – give nature time, and it swallows back whatever we have wrested from it.

“Not these days,” my daughter said when we discussed this. “These days, we build in concrete.”
I merely smiled. A block of concrete left in the open will soon be perforated by grasses and dandelions, crumbling back into its basic components with the rain and the sun.

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All that remains…

To me, it is somehow comforting. Life is so much more than us, the Earth is so much more than us. We may think we are the pinnacle of creation, that whatever we build will stand forever and more, but this is just us succumbing to that most ancient of sins, hubris. I stood in the middle of the bright green beech forest and rested my hand on an ancient granite gatepost. This is what remained, a piece of standing rock. Everything else had returned to being what it was – before man, before ploughs and axes.

All in all, it was a good hike. A walk through centuries of history, through woods as constant now as they were then. A lesson in humility, bringing home just how short and precious our time on Earth is. Because once we die, we leave very little behind – beyond the dreams we’ve passed on to the coming generations and the hope that somewhere someone will remember us, maybe even speak our name. The people who once lived in the Dead Village are nameless today. The valiant Danish rebels are just as anonymous, casual facts in a history book, no more. But they lived – just like us – and they died – like all men do. And somewhere, someone wept and called their name.

The Neanderthal within

The other day, I was out walking with second son. To do so, is not only physically exerting (we went on a long walk), but also intellectually challenging, as this boy of mine has been gifted with a vivid and mobile intellect that has him leap-frogging from discussions as to what exactly happened when Rome fell (an incorrect term, he points out, as it never actually fell, it sort of dissipated) to the fantastic opportunities offered by genetic algorithms (and no, I don’t really understand, but I’ve gathered this is a collective describing a situation where mathematicians develop multiple algorithms, “mate” them, and see what happens next, a mathematical application of Darwinism, if you will).

I must admit to letting my mind wander to other things when he goes too in depth. An adequate “mmm” or “really?” keeps him going while I consider just what to cook for dinner or if it is warm enough to prune the roses. Mostly, though, I listen and learn, rather impressed (and yes, I am biased) by the things he knows, and just how broad his interests are. So when he halfway through the walk brings up the Human Genome project I am not particularly surprised. Nor am I all that surprised when he follows up with an account of how the team behind the Human Genome Mapping approached mapping Neanderthal genome. Even I understand it must be quite the challenge to match the genome of an extinct species, and I am quite fascinated when second son describes how the Neanderthal tradition of eating the marrow of their dead was crucial to conserving their DNA. Turns out that bone sucked dry of marrow still retains some traces of marrow, but so little it dries more or less instantly, thereby bypassing the rotting stage that would contaminate the marrow with bacteria. (It is quite fascinating, isn’t it?)

Anyway, the conclusion of the whole genome thing was that essentially modern day man and the Neanderthals had a lot in common. Like 99,8% in common. Son points out that these “in common” discussions are a bit dangerous, as we actually have 50% of or so of our DNA in common with a banana, but rarely do we define ourselves as fruits. (Oops! The banana is NOT a fruit. Well hang on; yes it is, except it is also a herb. Almost as complicated as a human being…)

We went on to discuss why the Neanderthals died out, how come the shape of their chests were so different from ours (news to me) and whether or not they were capable of abstract thinking. Absolutely, is my conclusion. A species that buries its dead (albeit marrow-less in some cases), has some sort of advanced communication and lives in complex tribal systems, was probably fully capable of now and then tilting its head towards the heavens and ask that classic existential question, “why am I here?” A large chunk of our walk was covered while talking about this, now and then interrupted by son’s desire to study a particular type of moss, or to poke at the thick layer of frog’s eggs in jelly that floated in some of the pools of water we passed.

What really did surprise me was when second son told me that Northern Europeans have traces of Neanderthal genome. Not, he hastened to point out, to a massive extent, but enough to indicate that at some point the ancestors of modern man and the Neanderthals met and mated. For some odd reason, that made my day. I have Neanderthal DNA and I’m proud of it! Besides, having devoured the Ayla books when young and impressionable (Am I the only one who has fond memories of Jondalar, I wonder?) I have a fond relationship with the people of the Clan of the Cave Bear. So fond, I have found the prevalent theory that the Cro Magnon man brutally hunted and murdered their Neanderthal cousins very disturbing. Now, it seems, there is room for a touch of romance…

I go all twinkly-eyes, imagining this ancient joining of him and her, a primitive Romeo and Juliet story starring him in smelly skins and her in…taa-daa…smelly skins. Second son jostles me and shakes his head. “That’s probably not how it happened.”
“No?” I say, disappointed.
“Nope.” He ruffles my hair – and I don’t mind, because this is my son, the boy become man who combines his impressive mental skills with a heart the size of an elephant. “Man has great capacity for cruelty against those considered lesser beings.”
Yeah. And instead of my starry-eyed couple, I see a bewildered girl, led off by a group of dirty men, while round the campfire behind them lie the still bodies of the girl’s father, her brother. I decide to interrupt this little sequence before it gets too grim.

VanGogh-starry_night_ballance1Whatever the case, maybe it is that long ago girl, whether victim or lover, who has bequeathed me that remnant of Neanderthal genes. Maybe it is because of her I can stand for hours under the starry winter nights and wonder why I am here and where I might be going. A question as old as the DNA that sings in my veins, as ancient as the human race. A question my little Neanderthal girl may have expressed with bitterness and fear as she clutched her half-breed baby to her chest. But I hope not. I hope she asked it with someone holding her hand.
“Mum!” Second son rolls his eyes and says something about romantic fools.
Hey; I prefer my fairy-tale version, okay?

Humble beginnings: a rib and an apple

Eve Michelangelo,_Creation_of_Eve_01Today I thought we’d talk a bit about one of the more maligned women in history. Well; history might be pushing it a bit, as we don’t know for sure this lady existed. Many would instead argue they know for sure she most definitely didn’t exist – woman did not spring from a male rib. Too right; if we had, men would have walked the world with more ribs on one side than on the other, which does not seem to be the case.

By now, I’m thinking most of you, dear readers, have worked out that today we’ll be talking about Eve, the lady who gave the fig leaf a face.

As per the creationists among us, our heroine was brought forth as the pinnacle of God’s creative efforts. Seeing as God first made Adam, then made Eve, it stands to reason Eve was the better, improved version – except, of course, that He used Adam’s rib.

Now, we all know the basic story line, don’t we? God creates the Earth, the sun, the stars and the skies. He goes a bit wild and crazy in the zoological department, and as to insects, well clearly God has a fondness for things that creep and crawl, that buzz and sting and flutter about. Or maybe He likes it that they don’t talk. Or think. They simply are, in difference to the far more vocal and independent creations He chose to put at the top of His little evolutionary pyramid.

Adam 1280px-Adam_na_restauratieOne could argue that in creating man, God showed lack of judgement – or maybe we are testament to His faith – in us. Why else give us free will, lead us constantly into temptation, pollute our souls with the seven deadly sins, and gift us with sufficient intellect to question His existence. Not that all of us do, mind you. Many are the men and women through the dust-lined road of time who have fought and died on His behalf, professing with their dying breath that God exists.

As a little aside, when God in Genesis 1 creates Adam, the name denominates mankind rather than a specific dude. In Genesis 2, however, God moulds Adam the man from the earth and breathes life into him. It is this Adam who is gifted with Eve, lest he become too lonely playing with himself.

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Lilith playing w a snake.

I am sure Eve was less than happy about all the insects. I am not all that sure she was too thrilled at having been created as a replacement. Yup, folks, that was what she was – at least according to the apocryphal texts. As per Jewish tradition, God made both a man and a woman at the same time, from the same earth, but this spirited young lady named Lilith had no intention whatsoever of being Adam’s help-meet. No, Lilith was the world’s first feminist and refused to either sleep or serve under Adam, and when he tried to tame her, she upped and left.

Instead, Adam got Eve. The First Woman was not the first woman – she was the Number Two Wife, no doubt making Adam hope that this female would be somewhat more acquiescent to his demands. Lilith, meanwhile, was enjoying herself enormously with the demons, producing an endless stream of baby demons. But to judge from Michelangelo, Adam was quite the hunky guy, so maybe Eve was happy enough with her lot in life. I wonder if Adam was, or if he dreamed of wild Lilith and her flowing black hair.

Now God may be a misogynist – or even an invention, an expression of wishful thinking along the lines that all of us like the idea that there’s someone out there, “Someone to watch over me” as Judy Garland sang very many years ago. But to give Him his due, He didn’t stint when it came to the Garden of Eden, creating a veritable paradise for Adam and Eve to live in and be fruitful in. He turned them loose with a fond smile – and only one admonishment. “Don’t touch the apples, children,” He said, pointing at the Tree of Knowledge. Clearly, God lacked parenting experience. Those more jaded among us know that whatever you tell a kid not to do, is probably the first thing he will do, given a chance.

Adam and Eve, however, had enough to take in – at least initially. They strolled through meadows and forests, they picked daisies and wove them into garlands (of course they did!), they held hands and progressed from that to other things, they swam in the lakes, climbed the trees, rolled in the mud, played with the baby lions – but at no time did they approach the Tree of Knowledge. After all, God had said “no”.

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Eve, L Cranach

The tree, however, was always on their minds, a little teaser that now and then had them taking a couple of steps in its direction before remembering it was out of bounds. Eve would pick an apple from another tree and bite into it, eyes stuck on the perfect, Christmas-red apples that hung from the Tree of Knowledge. She bet those apples tasted sweeter, were crunchier and jucier. Adam would pick an apple and eat it while watching Eve, considering just what he would do to her after their meal. men are, at times, rather singleminded…

One could have thought God would have made it difficult to reach his precious tree. Like put up an electrical fence around it, or something. Instead, the tree just stood there, a perfect tree in a perfect world. From having detoured around it, Eve began to walk that much closer, wondring just what knowledge the tree could impart. That’s the thing with us women, we are naturally curious. (Men are just as curious, but prefer to send out their women to pick up the gossip rather than to be seen listening avidly)

One day, she was standing close enough to touch the tree, when out of nowhere, she heard a voice.
“Great apples,” the voice said.
“I wouln’t know,” Eve replied.
“Duh.” The voice slithered closer, and to her surprise, Eve realised she was conversing a serpent with legs (as per Genesis, okay?) “Wouldn’t you want to know?”
“How they taste?” Eve asked, confused. By now, she’d sampled her way through all the other apple trees in paradise, and she didn’t really think one apple would be that awesome. The serpent rolled its eyes, cleft tongue darting out repeatedly.
“No,” it said, “wouldn’t you want to know everything?”
Hmm. Eve mulled that over. Would she? She thought of Adam and the dreamy look on his face when he woke in the mornings and reached for her, something like disappointment flitting over his features when he properly woke. Did she want to know what he dreamed? Unfortunately for mankind, Eve was the jealous type, so she decided she wanted to know, thank you very much, not stopping to consider that she might regret her choice.

The serpent undulated in happy figures of eight, weaving itself round her legs, up her legs, round her waist, and it was a very nice serpent, despite its legs, not at all cold and slimy, but warm and smooth to the touch. Gently, it urged Eve closer and closer to the tree, whispering that once she’d eaten, she would know as much as God, and why should a dude with a lot of hair and a matching beard call all the shots, huh?
“Why not a pretty lady like you instead?” it hissed, and Eve definitely thought it was onto something here. Besides, she really, really wanted to know what Adam dreamed about each night. She rached for the closest apple. It fell, ripe and round, into her hand.
“Yummy, yummy,” the serpent said, caressing her hips with his coils “And you know what they say, don’t you? An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“Doctor?”
“Never mind. Once you’ve eaten it, you’ll get to know everything about doctors.” It snickered.”Good one,” it said to itself, attempting a high-five with its stunted little forelegs.

Eve Michiel_Coxie_-_Original_Sin_-_WGA05581The moment she bit into the fruit, she was overwhelmed by the sensation that this was a bad, bad idea. But it was too late for regrets, and the apple was delicious, even more so because it was forbidden.The world around her changed. The trees, hitherto so permanent in their bright green foliage, acquired a hue of gold, and what was that, a leaf drifting to the ground? “Death,” the serpent hissed. “As of now, you and all your kind is mortal. There’s a price to everything dear Eve, and you aint seen nothing yet.”
“Death?” She watched the leave shrivel. she raised her hand to her face, and the skin was no longer quite as radiant. “You’ll grow old and wrinkled,” the serpent informed her, and she knew it was speaking the truth. “But him, your Adam, he will remain as he is, and he won’t want you when your body sags.” It laughed. “Best feed him some of that apple, hey? Old men lose their eyesight, you know.”
Yes, she did know. She knew everything now.
“You wish.” The serpent coiled itself tighter around her. “He will be pissed off, and you will be punished.”
“Why me?” she asked. “Why not you?”
“You’re the woman, soon enough you’ll be the seductress that tempts Adam to taste. Cherchez la femme, as the French say.”
Eve didn’t understand. But she did know it was right; she would tempt Adam, she had to, making them both equally guilty in the eyes of God.

That dear people, is not how things worked out. God called a little meeting – not because he didn’t know what had gobe down (being omnipotent and all-seeing has its advantages) but because he wanted to hear what they had to say.
Adam blamed Eve. She’d played the “do it if you want to get laid” card, and being a man, he’d gone along with it.
“Did you?” God asked Eve. She squirmed and concentrated on adjusting her new figleaf. With knowledge had come a desire for more modesty.
“So what?” she finally replied. “I just took a leaf out of Lysistrate’s book.”  God pinched His nose, thinking it had been a very stupid thing to do, to encapsulate all knowledge in one tree and its fruits.
“And just so you know,” Eve went on, “the serpent tricked me!”
“That would presume you didn’t know you were disobeying me,” God said.
“Umm…” Eve looked contrite.

Eve Heyerdahl_adam_og_eva

Heyerdal – Adam and Eve being banished

God pronounced judgement. The serpent got off real easy, losing only his stunted legs. Mind you, he wasn’t too happy about it, objecting loudly at having to drag his beautiful shimmering coils through the dust. Adam and Eve were banished.
“Eh, what?” Adam said, looking quite panicked. He knew for a fact things were pretty dismal out there, having peeked now and then.
“You heard.” God made a shooing motion with his hand. “Off you go, use all that new knowledge you’ve got to build a new life somewhere else. Good luck with that, by the way.”
“But this is her fault, not mine! Send her off!”
“Afraid I can’t do that. You know, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder and all that.” God looked at Eve. “But she will be further punished.”
Eve quaked, standing very quiet as God told her that from this day forth, woman was condemned to give birth in pain and to always live under the dominion of man. Fortunately, since then us ladies seem to have crawled out from under the male thumb, but the having babies part is still very far from being a walk in the park.

One can only imagine just how strained relations betwen Adam and Eve were after these events. And life outside of Paradise was tough, even more so when the babies came. Plus there was the whole mess with Cain and Abel, showing neither Adam nor Eve had much of a role model in the parenting department. That’s what you get when you mould people out of clay – or a rib.

Over the centuries, Eve has been portrayed as the ultimate seductress, the woman who brought Original Sin into the world. It was Eve’s example that had early Christian Church fathers conclude that women were indeed a weaker vessel, much more prone to sin and spiritual mischief than men. Women had to be kept on a short leash, their evient carnality controlled by their male betters. (Or exploited. Quite often exploited, one suspects) Women were called such fun things as “the devil’s gateway” or the “sting of the scorpion”, and collectively women were blamed for having brought death into the world, thereby indirectly causing Jesus’ death. (I know, a HUGE mental leap)
Eve’s transgression formed the theological base used by such nasties as Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger to promulgate the theory that witches were mostly female, as expressed in the Mallus Maleficarum. Over time, our legged serpent evolved into being Satan himself, coming down to tempt that lustful creature, woman, to sin. Rarely did anyone stop to consider that Eve’s behaviour was that of a person willing to step beyond boundaries and explore the unknown. Where Adam was happy to sit about all day and just enjoy his perfect status quo, Eve longed for change, for evolution. Makes me think that if it hadn’t been for Eve, we would have been a very, very dull bunch. Makes me think Eve would have fitted right in with us today, ever curious, ever open for new possibilities, new insights. Just saying…

These days, few of us have a portrait of Adam and Eve on our walls, and even less do we refer to them as our ancestors. After all, many of us are far more comfortable identifying a long dead half-ape, half- human lady nick-named Lucy as our progenitor rather than admit to maybe – maybe – believing God had a finger in the pie. An apple pie, of course.

 

 

The impermanence of permanence

Human beings have a thing about permanence, about roots and foundations. We like knowing where we belong, and many of us drift through life looking for “home” with a capital H, a place in which to settle down and remain for the rest of our lives – a permanent fixture, if you will.

We are attracted to symbols of permanence: stone walls, massive foundations, even the ruins of buildings that have sunk into the surrounding landscape, silent mementos of those that went before.

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Permanence?

We crave permanence because of our own impermanence, an attempt to ensure something is left behind when we move onwards and upwards. Our ancient forebears decorated caves to tell the world that they’d been here, people through the ages have ordered elaborate tombs, inscriptions, statues, portraits – all of it to safeguard their memory, remind the not as yet born that once they existed. A prerogative of the rich, to be sure, as the peasant working the fields of a medieval manor could never aspire to much more than a simple wooden cross on his grave, but now and then even the humble man left something behind – a carefully carved likeness of his wife or a horse, the beautifully joined three-legged stool that survived to sit in pride of place four centuries down the line, now labelled an antique.

These days, those that want to have their names remembered down the generations are somewhat challenged: we no longer build mausoleums (not unless we’re megalomaniac dictators, and very few of us are), nor do we build cathedrals or castles. The truly rich buy decaying piles and renovate them into splendour – or build a sky-scraper that rises like a giant, flawless phallus towards the skies.

The rest of us, we do as we have always done: we assure ourselves of a genetic future by having kids and leave the building of monuments to others.

We strive for permanence – a sense of context, of a past that will segue into a future – which is why some of us research our ancestors, needing the names of those that engendered us so as to define ourselves. Sometimes, these research efforts backfire, and it is with horror the amateur genealogist discovers he/she has an infamous murderess up the family tree. After all, some say that blood will tell…

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Impermanence

It is all rather futile: the human race may have some permanence (although there are days when I wonder for how much longer) but the individuals are as ephemeral as butterflies, here one day, gone the next. The houses we build, the fences we mend – they are as impermanent as we are, albeit over a longer period of time. Ancient trees will fall and rot, mountains erode into sand, rivers dry up, diverge and reform. The continents shift as we speak – extremely slowly, to be sure, but all the same. Even our precious planet has an allotted time, and some day in the very, very distant future, there will no longer be a spinning orb of blues and greens, no seas, no lands, no life. One day, the stars themselves will fizzle out and die, replaced by others – newer, brighter. Not that any of us will be around when that happens.

There is no such thing as permanence. Deep inside, we all know that. Deep inside, we refuse to accept it, finding it quite, quite inconceivable that we are no more permanent than a cobweb – or a mote of dust, that glistens for an instant in a stray ray of sun and then is no more.

Babbling in Babel

Turning torso vOnce upon a time, everyone spoke the same language. That, at least, is what the Bible says, and even if I am doubtful to taking this as God’s truth, let us assume this was the case, the consequences being that we agree humans first saw the light of the day in one location rather than having multiple evolutionary threads which all culminated in homo erectus, then to become (with a lot of intervening years) homo sapiens.

The idea of multiple evolutionary threads ending up with the same end result – us – falls on the fact that nowhere are all factors identical, and the one thing we know about evolution is that generally it is a reaction to something. All change is, as nature – and us – always prefers status quo if that is the best option. Well, in actual fact most humans prefer status quo full stop, being somewhat wary of change.

Those first hominoids were itty bitty little things, and they didn’t say much either. Communication was rudimentary at best, but as the years went by, grunts became vowels and consonants, and at some point in time speech was born. I guess they celebrated – whipped out the aged zebra steaks and the fermented honey or something.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAs per the Bible, it was the power of communication that enabled these our ancient forbears to come together and begin an enormous enterprise: they were going to build a tower that went all the way up to the sky so that they could circumvent God’s restrictions on access to heaven (you know: good guys get in, baddies do not – but on the other hand, we all know it’s the bad girls who have all the fun). Welcome, people, to the Babel project!

Clearly, by then people had some sort of religion – why else attempt a rendezvous with God? The concept of a deity requires abstract thought, but does abstract thought require speech? Does speech –or rather communication – in itself develop the brain towards more complex thought patterns? Like one starts out talking about the simple things – “me want pig”, “you go that way” – and from there we move on to “do pigs have feelings?” Whatever the case, those cave dwelling ancestors of ours who have left us masterpieces such as those in Lascaux or Altamira had progressed a long way when compared to the original hominids – much more than we have progressed when compared to the Cro Magnon people. (I know; it’s difficult to accept we have a LOT in common with people in animal skins…)

Back to that first global effort, the tower of Babel. The people chattered and planned, they cheered themselves on and spoke enthusiastically of clambering up the sides of their construction to see for themselves the wonders of heaven. God was not pleased. In fact, He felt there was an element of intrusion in all this. Plus, I suspect, he had no desire to let anyone have a preview of the delights of paradise – these were strictly reserved for those who deserved them.

Confusion_of_TonguesGod threw a tantrum, and wham! The tower was no more. And just to make sure these pesky humans didn’t attempt something similar in the near future, God brought forth multiple languages, and behold, just like that the world went polyglot. In retrospect, not a bad thing – where would we be without the richness provided by multiple languages and culture? At the moment of it happening, I guess it would have been very confusing – putting it mildly. One moment, the person beside you was answering your questions in perfectly comprehensible English, the next he is speaking what sounds like Russian – and eyeing you with an anguished expression as he no longer understands what you’re saying. No, all in all, this was not one of God’s better ideas – however much I love languages.

The notion that once upon a time we all spoke the same language is probably not wrong –even if the tower of Babel should be considered a fable. That original language is now lost to us, and when linguists today study our various language families, their conclusion is generally that there was something before them, a language harkening back all the way to the stone-age or so.

Today, most people in Europe speak languages within the Indo European language group. Proto Indo European was probably once spoken by our very ancient forefathers, and the number of modern languages that fall within this family of languages is huge – from Bengali, through Iranian, Armenian to the vast majority of European languages. I can’t help but wonder where the cradle was – geographical common sense points at somewhere close to the Black Sea.

However: Indo European wasn’t first – at least not in Europe. For a really, really old language, we must set course for the Basque country, a region in the north-east of Spain and spilling over into France. No one knows where the Basque language came from. No one knows where the Basques came from. All we do know is that the Basques – or at least their language – were here long before the speakers of Indo European arrived.

Not only do the Basques speak a unique language, they also, as a people, share recurring genetic traits that set them apart as different from the surrounding peoples – it is theorised the present day Basques are a remnant of the Proto Europeans, the first humans to colonise Europe as the ice age waned. Interestingly enough, the Basques share a lot of their distinctive traits with the Welsh and the Irish, so they were obviously around much earlier than the rest of us too.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me…

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa (W. Lloyd MacKenzie, via Flickr @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/saffron_blaze/)

Once upon a time, the people of the world communicated in a common tongue. Once upon a time, or so the story goes, those long-lost ancestors of ours attempted their own Stairway to Heaven. They didn’t make it, but mankind has continued to build upwards, to strive for the sky. All the way from the ancient stone towers that dot Europe, to the pyramids of Egypt and the present day skyscrapers that are so tall one gets vertigo just from looking at a picture of them.

Is this because we’re trying to recreate the tower of Babel, driven by a desire to stand closer to God? Show Him we have overcome the language divide He caused? I think not. I believe we are all born with a spark of the divine, and so the endless blue of the sky calls to us, promising us wonders beyond wonders if we ever make it over the rainbow. Himmel, cielo, heaven, ciel, spéir, awyr, zerua, taivas – all of them words to denominate the sky above us. Beautiful words, old, old words, because ever since man first discovered the miracle of speech we have lost ourselves in the beckoning infinity above, wondering – always wondering – what may lie beyond.

Going with the flow – or the spark of life

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_Project

Tor’s hammer & lightning

Electricity has always been around. Lightning is a form of electricity – but our ancestors called it magic, and cowered in fear in their recently decorated caves as the skies burst apart with bolts of light. Or they blamed it on God. “Let there be light,” He thundered, and the sky lit up from within.

In the form of lightning, electricity was of little use, however impressive a display of celestial power it might be. Over the centuries, however, man began pondering just what it was that lit up the sky, and if all that power could be harnessed somehow. This is why Benjamin Franklin flew that famous kite of his, attempting to further understand the nature of natural electric flow. His conclusions led to further advancement in the understanding of electricity, but it remained relatively useless. Yes, Franklin proved there was electricity in the sky, yes, he could make it light up a spark or two. No, he couldn’t control it.

At the time, electricity was mainly used as a parlour trick. Some smart person or other had invented a simple generator with a crank – without really understanding the science behind it. You turned the crank, thereby charging a glass globe. Someone blew out the candles, the operator set his hand in contact with the glass globe, and lo and behold, the hand glowed blue!
“Oooo!” squealed the young ladies in the darkened room, excitedly clutching at each other – or throwing come-hither looks at the man doing the cranking.

 Signore Volta

Signore Volta

Based on Franklin’s research, others became interested in electricity. Two of these were Italians. Allow me to introduce in one corner Signore Alessandro Volta, and in the other Signore Luigi Galvani. These two gentlemen rarely saw eye to eye – in fact, they were in constant competition with one another. Volta was a professor at the University of Pavia, Galvani at Bologna. (I must admit to a predilection for Bologna, that red city that bustles with industry and has the best ravioli in the world, but that is neither here nor there)

Luigi_Galvani

Signore Galvani

Galvani was the proponent of “animal electricity” (or bioelectricity) as being something totally distinct from “electricity”. Volta was of the opinion that electricity was electricity, full stop. The two gentlemen went through a number of experiments (and frogs) to prove their points. Volta hectored, Galvani sneered and rebutted, and in general their audiences did not know what to think. Until Volta discovered the electrical cell.
“Discovered?” you may ask. Well, what Volta did was study animals that could produce “animal electricity” (such as a stingray, for example) and succeeded in isolating the cells that generated the burst of electricity. Being not only trained in physics but also in chemistry (this is the dude who discovered methane – based on the observations of that ever curious Benjamin Franklin), in 1800 Volta succeeded in replicating the structure of the cells he’d been studying and built the first “voltaic piles”. Taa-daa!!! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the first ever battery, a major breakthrough in the study of electricity. Suddenly, man could produce electrical power – albeit quite uncontrolled, but still.

These first time batteries were like giant layer cakes, with layers of copper, zink and paper drenched in acid. To produce measurable electricity, a number of voltaic piles were required, and one can imagine all that acid hissing and steaming, filling the room with fumes one should probably not inhale.

Obviously, this discovery sort of killed all Galvani’s future arguments. Besides, he was ailing and in deep mourning ever since his wife had died a decade or so previously. Fortunately for Galvani, he had someone to further the cause of bioelectricity, namely his nephew, the talented scientist and excellent showman, Giovanni Aldini.

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Aldini

Aldini didn’t waste time on arguing with Volta about the potentially different types of electricity. Instead, he set out to use those voltaic piles to do his own experimenting. I guess he started with frogs, upgraded to mice, perhaps a cat or two, but at some point this was not enough. Giovanni needed something more spectacular, and while visiting England in early 1803, an opportunity arose for a really juicy experiment – at the expense of one George Forster.

George was not one of life’s brighter or better specimens. The man had been found guilty of murdering his wife and daughter, and had been sentenced to hanging and dissection. Dissecting executed criminals was a fail-safe way of ensuring they did not rise again on Judgement Day. It was also a horrifying add-on to the execution, as it was not uncommon for the corpse to come very much alive during the dissection – this due to not having been properly dead to begin with. (Yuck!)

Aldini was utterly thrilled at the opportunity offered by George’s planned execution. Coin changed hands, and no sooner was George “hanged by the neck” until dead, but he was transferred over to Aldini’s care. The audience was riveted, gawking at the multiple “voltaic piles” Aldini had put in place, connected one to the other. The corpse was rolled in. Aldini sauntered over and connected poor dead George to the hissing piles. Aldini straightened up, smiled at his captive audience. (Did I mention all of this took place in Newgate?)
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, throwing his arms wide. (I must admit I have no idea what he said. I wasn’t there. But he strikes me as someone who would have milked this his finest moment) “Today, I will demonstrate the power of electricity. Look here,” he said, sweeping his hand over the inert George. “He is dead, yes? But now…” Aldini plunged a lever. “…he rises again!”

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)When the electricity coursed through George, his body began to twitch. His muscles contracted, one of his eyes opened, and some in the shocked audience thought they were witnessing a resurrection. The right hand clenched and unclenched, the legs began to move. Aldini switched things off, George reverted to inertia. But for those who’d just seen his body move, it seemed as if this electricity stuff could indeed offer the spark of life – a magical way of awakening those who had died.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

At the time of Aldini’s experiment, one Mary Godwin was only five years old. Fifteen years later, in 1818, this little girl published a book named Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. It was published anonymously,created quite the furore, and is today considered on of the classics of the horror genre.

Being a self-published author (surprise! many were back then), Mary re-published her book a couple of times, now under her married name, Mary Shelley. In the 1831 edition she also included a “why did I write this book” section which she called her waking dream. As per Mary, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Just like George did, when Aldini plunged that lever. So here you have it people, science and art, walking hand in hand to the mutual benefit of both!

 

How a Swedish spread became a part of New York

We have recently had cause to celebrate here in Sweden. Or in Denmark. Or on the Faroe Islands. You see, some days past it was 375 years since Jonas Bronck bought himself quite a spread just on the outskirts of New Amsterdam, and to this day the area in question still carries his name. The Bronx.

Faroe_Islands,_1767,_as_seen_by_Yves_de_Kerguelen_Trémarec

The Faroe Islands…

Some say Jonas was from the Faroe Islands. Just to properly validate their claim to him, the islanders have a road named after him. (And for those of you who have NO idea where these islands might be found, let’s just say they are specks of rock stuck in the North Sea, from where come hardy sheep and very hardy people – that’s what you get when you grow up in such barren and harsh surroundings.) As per the Faroe contingent, Jonas was the son of a priest who was born and raised in Torshavn before being struck by the travelling itch and setting off for the American continent.

Huh, say the Danes. Everyone knows Jonas was born on Bornholm, a small Danish island in the Baltic Sea. He was the son of a Danish priest called Morten and even studied at the university in Copenhagen before being struck by the travelling itch and etc. etc. etc. Thing is, this Morten character seems to have died like fifteen years before Jonas was born. We’re talking a very, very long gestation period should Jonas be his son.

No, no, no say the Swedes. I mean, who has ever heard of a Dane being called Jonas Bronck? That’s a solid Swedish name – or rather Brunke is – and Jonas was a farmer’s lad from the interiour of southern Sweden, where he grew up until he was struck by the travelling itch and – well, you got it by now.

The only thing these three versions agree on is that Jonas went to America – and that he did so via Amsterdam. They also seem to agree on the fact that he arrived in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in 1639 and that he bought a substantial amount of land – at a most auspicius price, one would guess. I mean, this was before the New York property market had begun to boom…

1988.150_CAMPrior to setting off to make himself a fortune in the New World, Jonas had spent time in the Netherlands, where he also met and married his wife, Teuntje. By the late 1630’s, things were a bit shaky in Amsterdam. The tulip boom had come and gone, leaving a number of people in financial ruin (and one must love a people that goes wild and crazy over tulip bulbs, mustn’t one? Seriously: ONE bulb could be priced at the equivalent of a house…).

The powers that were in the Netherlands were less than happy with how things were progressing in their American colony. In difference to the English colonies, things weren’t happening, so to say, starting with a depressingly low influx of settlers (What can I say? Those spectacular tulips kept all of them at home…). To encourage more settlers, land was offered at discounted prices, and our Jonas quickly saw the oppotunities this might offer. Together with his Danish friend Jochem Kuyter (and yes, this is an indication that Jonas could potentially have stronger Danish connections than us Swedes want to recognise), Jonas leased a boat with the rather epic name “The Fire of Troy”, loaded it with cattle, other wannabee colonists and set off for this beckoning brave new world.

It was a new world. Magnificent and wild, it offered the intrepid man endless opportunities to improve his lot in life. Jonas was most definitely intrepid – as way Jochem. One of them settled in present day Harlem, the other – Jonas –  chose land on the other side of the Harlem River, with Jonas ending up the proud owner of close to 700 acres, some of this land bought directly from the Lenape tribe. Unfortunately, Jonas would not be given the chance to truly explore this new land of his. For unknown reasons, Jonas died early in 1643.

Jonas Bronck signing-the-treaty-with-the-indiansAt the time, a certain Wilhelm Kleft was the Dutch Governor. This gentleman is infamous for his treatment of the Native Americans. In early 1643 he had Dutch soldiers slaughter 120 Native American refugees – in flagrant breach of the treaty signed in 1642 at Jonas Bronck’s homestead. This event sparked a two year period of hostilities between Colonists and Native Americans. Those most at risk were those living on the fringes of things – Like the Bronck family – so maybe Jonas fell victim to a retaliating attack by the angered Native American tribes. We don’t know.

bauer-elk-cottongrass3

See? She’s riding a moose

What we do know, however, is that Jonas was a literate, multi-lingual man, possessed of a library numbering well over 30 books and a number of pamphlets when he died. From his reading matter one can deduce he was also very devout – further substantiated by the name he gave his homestead, Emmaus. Several of the books in Jonas’ possession were in Danish. Quite a few were in Dutch, one or two in German or Latin. None seem to have been in Swedish – but this may say more about the sad state of the Swedish publishing industry at the time than Jonas’ nationality. After all, Sweden was at war! We had no time to print books when we needed to produce weapons and tame moose for the cavalry. (And yes, moose were domesticated, were broken in and ridden, but the poor beasts died quickly, having no liking for hay and oats. Plus they leapt like March hares at the sound of muskets…)

A Peter Bronck was named as Jonas’ heir. Whether this was a son, a brother or a cousin we don’t know. We do know Jonas’ widow remarried in the summer of 1643, so either she wasn’t all that grief-stricken, or women were such a valuable commodity in the colonies that she drowned in potential suitors, all of them vying for her hand. We also know that a Peter Bronck was to build a house in 1662 – the oldest existing building in the New York vicinity.

For some years after Bronck’s death, his farm seems to have been left untended, indicating there were concerns with living so far away from the centre of things (well, the collection of houses and the wind-mill right at the southern tip of Manhattan that went for the centre of things back then). But people still referred to the area as “Bronckland”, and the nearby waterway was called Bronck’s River. The name of the land changed with new owners, but the river retained its connection to the very first white settler, even if Bronck’s became Bronx. And so the name was still around when the five boroughs of New York were named, which was how present day The Bronx came about. A small, tenuous connection to Sweden, right there in the Big Apple.

Manatvs_gelegen_op_de_Noot_Riuier

JB’s homestead was where the smudge, middle right, is (over Harlem River)

So, was Jonas Swedish? Well, Brian Andersson seems to think so, and given that Mr Andersson is a historian and genealogist who has been researching the topic for several decades – and he’s also the former Comissioner of NYC’s Department of Records – he should know, right? After all, Mr Andersson has chosen to celebrate the 375th anniversary of Jonas’ arrival in the New World here, in Sweden, at the Jonas Bronck Centre.

What further proof do you want, people? Jonas Bronck was as Swedish as moose and lingonberries, as Swedish as meatballs and cinnamon buns. And as to why he left Sweden to begin with, I’m thinking it all had to do with that dratted Thirty Years’ War: any young man in Sweden risked being conscripted into the royal armies. Maybe Jonas was a pacifist. Maybe he didn’t relish the idea of having selected parts of his body shot off by muskets or cannon-balls. Or maybe he was one of those boys who was always looking at the horizon, wondering what might lie beyond it. Whatever the case, his life took him on a very long trip given the times, and he must have made a very lasting impression on the people he met along the way – why else keep on calling the spread he lived on for four short years by his name?

 

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