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THE ORIGINS OF MIXED HARVEST BY ROB SWIGART: Climate

The Origins of
Mixed Harvest

Listen to Mixed Harvest Chapter 2 here.

The recently published Mixed Harvest by Rob Swigart is Berghahn’s latest feat of historical fiction, digging into the deep past of human development and its consequences through a combination of storytelling and dialogue. From the first encounter between a Neanderthal woman and a Modern Human she called Traveler to the emergence and destruction of the world’s first cities, Mixed Harvest tells the tale of the Sedentary Divide, the most significant event since modern humans emerged.

Climate

BY ROB SWIGART

A statistic has stuck in my mind for decades. When agriculture began ten millennia ago, atmospheric CO2 began to increase. I seem to remember an average of around 2% per time unit. Year? decade? It doesn’t matter. While wandering up and down (the so-called drunkard’s walk), the average rise was achingly slow, but it was relentless, following the spread of farming. Two thousand years later, with the advent of wet rise in Asia, methane levels followed CO2 at roughly the same rate. Bacteria in water produce the stuff, you see.

The lines look almost flat until the late 18th century, when they turn upward, slowly at first then sharply. The J or hockey stick. Industrial Revolution!

Well, that part was pretty obvious to anyone who follows science even a little. Human activities have an impact. After all, coal smoke turned the moths in England black in a matter of years. Woo-hoo!

Less obvious, perhaps, was that earlier gradual rise. No one noticed.

Burning forests, or even simply cutting down trees to clear land released lots of carbon. Sometimes the gases stopped rising and reset a little, as when the Black Plague killed half the world’s population in the 14th century. All those abandoned farms reverted to forest, soaking up a little carbon dioxide. But the population refused to stay down and a couple of hundred years later CO2 rose again, along with the number of babies.

Then there were domesticated animals, particularly cattle, which, as anyone who has driven by a feedlot recently knows, produce prodigious quantities of methane. Toss in fertilizers and running water and you get soil erosion. Add food waste, pesticides, herbicides, industrial monocultures and you get species extinctions, dust bowls, poisoned groundwater.

People were doing just fine before farming. They were wandering slowly after ripening berries or migrating reindeer. They did fine because, for one thing there were a lot fewer of them. Women could carry one baby trekking after blueberries. If she had another one right away it was pretty tough on the little tot with no one to carry it. It helped to breast feed as long as possible, too, which keeps fertility more or less at bay so pregnancies were more widely spaced. Because they were gathering the food, or occasionally, hunting protein packaged in a deer, horse, or aurochs, the size of a band was limited. And there was plenty of leisure time for gossip or gambling. Or sex, one supposes.

This went on for, oh, at a couple of hundred thousand years.

Then, around ten thousand years ago, came this farming project.

Brilliant, people. Stay put, grow as much as you can. Steady food supply, right. No need to chase it. And have as many babies as possible. There were two reasons for this. One, infant mortality went up. Why? Living crowded together with newly domesticated sheep and goats allowed diseases to leap from the animals onto vulnerable people and kill them (called zoonosis).

Also there were rats.

High mortality drove a need for more fertility, which, without modern medicine, had a tendency to kill mothers as well. Hurry, hurry, have another child. A farm needs hands. So, lots of dying, and lots of procreating. And not much leisure time, though clearly enough for sex.

There was the labor, too: preparing the soil, sticking holes in it, plowing it. Getting water to it. Finding the seeds. Planting the seeds. Weeding the crops. Harvesting. Carrying it around. Winnowing the chaff from the seed. Disposing of the chaff and storing the seed. Grinding the seeds (oh my aching back: rheumatism). Rolling, mixing, shaping, baking, and then all that bread? Obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Who knew?

The work never ended. Winter making tools, summer using them up. No time to play (except procreating, but seriously, that was business). Sounds a little bit like slavery, no?

Then there was weather, that daily variation in rainfall, temperature, wind, and such. Weather is not climate. Climate helped cause the whole thing around fourteen thousand years ago. By getting all warm and comfortable and encouraging animals to multiply and food grasses to grow, climate did us a huge favor.

Or did it? Because now we are changing the climate and what do you know? It’s getting worse.

But back to weather, which provided hailstorms, torrential rains, and droughts, not to mention locusts. And did I mention rats.

Lots of people crowded together was a pressure cooker for ideas, though, and innovation took off. Plows, scythes and threshers. And stirrups, which were very helpful when the people released from farming to protect the crops really got into fighting and invented war. Soon there were tractors and combines and trains and trucks, supermarkets and farmers markets… So technology ran away with us. We now have smart phones to help us shop for food grown in distant lands and brought to us by airplanes, which produce CO2, sending that curve straight upward to our doom.

If we had had the right technology way back when we first started self-domesticating, and we happened to notice that the atmosphere was just a little bit denser with carbon dioxide and methane, would we have paused for a moment to assess what that might mean, long term?

It’s worth thinking about.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ROB SWIGART has a doctorate in comparative literature. Since then he’s worked as a technical writer, computer journalist, designer and scriptwriter for computer games. With Portal for Activision, he pioneered computer narrative and later served as secretary of the board of the Electronic Literature Organization. For a dozen years, he was a Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future.

Because of his lifelong interest in the deep past, he described this work as a kind of future archaeology. In the first decade of the 21st century, he turned his attention full-time to archaeology and wrote two textbook-novels, Xibalba Gate: A Novel of the Ancient Maya and Stone Mirror: A Novel of the Neolithic, while a visiting scholar at the Stanford Archaeology Center. His new novel Mixed Harvest is a collection of short fiction that chronicles mankind’s mistaken adoption of agriculture.

Listen to Swigart’s reading of “Bringer,” Chapter 2 of Mixed Harvest here.