May 27, 2010

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield

The cities between Kabul and Chang'an are famous to us, and saw wealth in the first millenium CE, because of the trade routes between East and West, also between Tibet and India. They were ecologically fragile, with scant or unreliable water supplies and terrible weather. But there were dozens of kingdoms, cultures, entire religions that rose or survived in this web of cities connected by traders. (Perhaps it's an example of island biogeography for ideas.) Also, cloth and paper -- and the religious trading societies seem to have been widely literate -- survive pretty well in dry cold salty territory.

Whitfield summarizes the general history, and the kinds of records we have and the history of those records, in the first chapters. Each subsequent chapter is a biography or pseudo-biography of someone with a reasonably characteristic life, one era to the next, over 250 years from 750 CE to 1000 CE. None of these lives are easy, given the combination of marginal ecological existence and the tides of conquest running in all directions, but that makes them exciting to read about.

There are wonderful pictures, of the objects and wall-paintings that survive, or at least survived long enough to be photographed. (Whitfield works at the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, which links web access to collections all over the world. She argues that Aurel Stein was more responsible for saving some of the artifacts of Dunhuang from destruction or smuggling than not.)

Interesting early 'bio-signature': illiterate persons putting a forefinger down under their name, and the positions of the joints marked on the contract.

The long story of life on a hard trade route reminded me of two other books that I don't seem to have mentioned. The Mummies of Urumchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, describes the astoundingly well-preserved mummies and fabric salt-frozen into the edge of the Tarim Basin desert as the last water dried up about 1000 BCE. One of the points of contention is where the mummified civilization came from, and who, if anyone, are their descendants now. Whitfield describes rather a lot of the small civilizations of 1000 CE as being of unknown origin, even down to 'East or West?', although I suppose we have a better guess at their descendants. Wayland Barber is also an experimental archaeologist, someone who understands the evidence by figuring out how to use or reproduce it; her specialty is fiber and cloth, still important in Whitfield's period; the "Silk Road", after all.

Or, considering ecology more than trade, Eagle Dreams, by Stephen Bodio: what it's like to hunt with a golden eagle in Mongolia. There was a lot of romanticism in that book, about how tough the steppe-dwellers are compared to lowland dwellers. Certainly they are. They're also clearly at the top of a food-chain with a narrow base; Bodio describes his confusion at looking at grazing-grounds that seemed to be made of rocks only, no grass. Consuming a higher proportion of what's available probably crowds out more of the creatures that could live there if humans didn't. Bodio seemed to assume it was ecologically virtuous (or at least, defensible despite its carnivorous, aggressive, gunpowder-happy style) because the absolute consumption seemed lower. I suspect absolute consumption is actually pretty high, because it takes a lot -- of calories, to start with -- just to survive there; it's comfort that's low. On the other hand, it's (a version of) a system that did co-exist with large wild animals for hundreds of years, so can be at least locally reasonably sustainable. (One is not socially allowed to keep a hunting eagle for more than a few years, which is an impressive social stricture given how hard they are to catch and train.) On the third hand, I don't know that the steppe pastoralists have been a local lifestyle on a historical timespan.

Whitfield's period overlaps Tibet's time as an expansionist military empire, which still confuses me. How did they support the manpower? Did the expansionism export young men and import NPP? How is this related to comfort vs. consumption, as in the Mongolian example? It fits ibn Khaldun's theory of conquerers-from-the-desert becoming soft, conquerable city people, sort of.

Find in a Library:

Life Along the Silk Road

The Mummies of Urumchi

Eagle Dreams

Posted by clew at 12:29 PM

May 10, 2010

The evolution of prose

Nature Methods just published a paper that uses careful descriptions of grimaces, e.g. "the eyes close and the area around them tightens", which were originally developed to estimate pain in infants, to calibrate pain in mice. (We want to know how much what we're doing to them hurts, often because we're testing painkillers.) This is (explicitly) a followup to one of Charles Darwin's books, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The modern version of that is the "Mouse Grimace Scale (MGS)": sparing of text, chary of assertion.

Langford et al. say "there has been no study of facial expressions of pain in any nonhuman species." In 130 years! (but there is a 2003 conference volume on the expression of animal emotions.) Of course, we spent a lot of the intervening time refusing to believe even that infants could feel pain, and had to back into the admission that animals can. I suppose we went through denying that infants and animals could feel pain while accepting the stricture that, if they could, it would be wrong of us to inflict it; the latter not widely accepted in Darwin's day; history bends towards justice in a very gradual curve.

I can't think of an argument for believing that animals didn't feel pain that doesn't rule out the belief that other human beings feel pain. Other humans may say so, but then, we lie.

Langford, D. J. et al., "Coding of facial expressions of pain in the laboratory mouse", Nature Methods, doi:10.1038/nmeth.1455 (2010).

Project Gutenberg text 1227, Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1857. (Good line drawings of dogs -- it's a very English book, as I recall.)

Posted by clew at 10:21 AM

May 08, 2010

Late to the Gillian Bradshaw party

I've known the title of one of her books for ages (Hawk of May), but never bothered to read them; having lucked into a Great Rebellion/rogue printer novel a while ago, I picked up her The Sand-Reckoner, about Archimedes' early career, and am now reading them all fast as I can.

The characters generally start the book four-fifths defeated. I don't know that any of the beginnings are as thumping as waking up with no memory in the crater of a volcano about to explode (a Tanith Lee bombast that I can't remember the title of), but I think waking up badly wounded on your own pyre, with the enemy soldiers not noticing you only because they've gone into the shade to escape the killing heat of the desert at noon, is plenty enough trouble to start with (Cleopatra's Heir).

Bradshaw's characters are also not quite wish-fulfilment characters; they are mostly smart and reasonably likable, but not effortlessly smart or given unreasonably devoted followers and enemies (as in too many of Anne McCaffrey's novels). Most of them get out of trouble by paying a lot of attention to the people around them (Render Unto Caesar, an excellent trader's noir set in early Imperial Rome; or Island of Ghosts, about a princely defeated Sarmatian exiled to be his Roman conquerors' shock troops in northern Britain). Some survive by concentrating on a singular gift and letting other people react to them (Dangerous Notes, like and unlike The Gold Bug Variations; or The Wolf Hunt, which retells a lai of Marie de France). Some of the problems so far have been moral quandaries, but the point of the novels has not been to mull and marinate, but to choose a path and carry it out competently.

The prose is clear; the historical characters are probably more fitted to modern mores than they should be (uneasy about slavery, accepting female agency); and they wind up with a few pages on which parts are better or worse documented in actual history. Most of the stories are romances in the modern sense, with autonomy and skill valued in both partners. They're as good as a basket of apples.

Find in a Library: books by Gillian Bradshaw.

Posted by clew at 06:14 PM
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