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Her mother’s laugh January 26th, 2020 by

In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer, professor of science writing at Yale University, takes us on an enlightening and ambitious tour de force of genes and the history of their science. Zimmer loves a story, and he treats his readers to many along the way: for example, how the American plant breeder Luther Burbank, who had only a faint idea of genetics, but a keen eye for plants, bred everything from the Burbank potato to spineless cactus.

Zimmer’s stories weave in many ideas, but I want to focus on just two. First, many genetic traits are not governed by simple Mendelian genetics. Mendel, the ‘father’ of genetics, got lucky in his breeding experiments with peas, where easily observable traits like flower color and wrinkled seed coat are conveniently governed by single genes.

But there is no single gene for much of what we admire most. Tall people do have tall children, but there is no one gene for height. There are several thousand genes, each of which may add a hair’s breadth to your stature. Likewise, there is no smart gene, yet 84% of our 20,000 genes have some influence on our brain.

In agriculture we are seeing the same thing. For example, crop yield is shaped by a wide range of genes and there may not be any one gene that helps plants resist a specific disease.

A second of Zimmer’s lessons: nearly all genes are influenced by their environment. Healthy kids who eat nutritious food grow up to be taller than sick, hungry children.

In Europe, 30,000 years ago, hunter gatherer men were around 6 feet tall (183 cm). But early agriculture was not able to provide the protein and dietary diversity made possible by hunting and gathering. The first farmers were shorter than their ancestors, and from the dawn of agriculture until the 1700s the average European man stood at 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm). The move from agriculture into the industrial era was even more disastrous. At the end of the 18th century in England, 16-year-old boys from wealthy families were 9 inches (23 cm) taller than lads from poor homes. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that sewage systems had improved public sanitation (and people’s health) and the railroads began bringing fresh food long distances to cities. As urban people began to eat better, they got taller. Today many human populations are once again as tall as their ancestors were, 30,000 years ago.

So, there is no tall gene, yet good health and nutrition can help kids grow up to be as tall as their genes will allow. What is true for people is also true for plants and agriculture. Healthy soils, rich in organic matter, and well-managed water and a rich biodiversity of crops and wild plants and animals will help farmers to make the most of the genetic heritage of their plants and livestock.

Further reading

Zimmer, Carl 2018 She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton. 656 pp.

Related blog story

Read more about Luther Burbank and spineless cactus: Spineless cactus

The magic lantern January 12th, 2020 by

While listening to a recent broadcast on Belgium’s Radio 1 about the magic lantern and the “lanternists” who entertained paying audiences, I realised that some developments we think off as highly innovative may also be seen as a modification of something that existed hundreds of years ago. 

The magic lantern projected images on hand-painted glass slides using a lens with a light source, like a candle flame or oil lamp. The magic lantern was a great success from the 17th to the 19th century, after which it was replaced by cinema and only used by missionaries who used the most up-to-date lanterns and lenses to sway large audiences of up to 700 people.

Most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with the magic lantern’s invention in 1659 because he replaced images etched on mirrors from earlier devices, such as one called Kircher’s lantern, with images painted on glass. This allowed the use of colour and double-layered slide projections to simulate movement, which made for spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

According to legend, the 17th century Jesuit priest, Kircher, came up with an inventive use of the lantern to convince his sceptical followers. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of death, which he projected in the evening on simple farmhouses. The next Sunday morning his church was packed with standing room only. As Kircher was aware that some of his predecessors had been charged with sorcery for using projected images, seen as “the workings of the devil”, Kircher was clever enough to demystify the show by explaining that it involved reflection and optics, not magic.

The magic lantern was not invented by any one individual, but very much came from several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens. Some magic lantern shows were quite sophisticated, using multiple lanterns or several lenses to improve magnification and clarity, or to dissolve one scene into another.

At first, the “lanternist,” as the projectionist was known, simply used a plain cotton or canvas sheet, or even just a wall, but the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – also spurred developments in screen technology. Cinema was born in the 1890s, and in the 1930s plastics started to replace cloth screens. Later, various coatings were used that gave the cinema its nickname, “the silver screen”.

The silver screen may have wiped out the magic lanterns, but other devices were used over the twentieth century for education and entertainment. Small projectors with 8 mm film were used in schools and for “home movies.” Academic talks were often illustrated with overhead projectors and slides, while the DVD player and the projector that could be attached to the laptop brought videos to much wider audiences. In the 2000s, the Digisoft smart projector was the latest device for sharing sights and sounds with audiences of up to 200 people.

The “lanternist” earned money from organising shows, travelling from place to place with the projector in a box carried on his back. The concept of these early mobile screening entrepreneurs has recently been re-introduced by Access Agriculture, an international organisation that supports ecological farming in developing countries through farmer training videos (see the full video library at: www.accessagriculture.org).

While centuries ago, lanternists were adults, Access Agriculture has established a network of young, ICT-savvy, entrepreneurs who make a business from screening training videos to rural communities. Lanternists travelled from village to village with a small collection of glass slides. Today’s young entrepreneurs are equipped with a Digisoft smart projector, a foldable solar panel and a library of more than 200 videos, each one in multiple languages. The whole kit is small enough to take on a motorcycle, but casts an image large and sharp enough for a whole village. Being able to screen videos on demand, these young people bring entertainment and education to remote areas where there is no electricity or internet.

Like the old lanternists, the youth with their smart projectors are using the best technology of their day, but sharing down-to-earth ideas that family farmers need for a changing world.

Watch a young entrepreneur show videos in rural Africa

On the road with the smart projector in Uganda

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Remembering an American king December 22nd, 2019 by

My mom was born in Moab, Utah, an area of outstanding natural beauty, famed for its mountains and red sandstone canyons. Long before Moab became one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Mom took me to visit another attraction, one that is much less well known. She drove me just north of the town to see the “King of the World”, a large stone relief sculpture, carved into a sandstone boulder. I vividly remember the sculpture. The boulder sat at the base of the cliff, down a dirt road, not too far from the highway. Mom explained that the sculpture was a self-portrait of the sculptor, and his horse.

I’ve recently learned more about sculptor. His name was Aharron Andeew and he came to Moab in the 1930s, during the height of the Depression, a gloomy era in American history when jobs were scarce and rural poverty widespread. After his arrival, Andeew spent 15 months doing odd jobs while gardening and tending his small herd of goats. Andeew camped north of town on the ranch of a kind family, the Parriotts. This is where he carved his sculpture. It is so well done that he must have had formal training, but no one knows where. Andeew spoke with a foreign accent and my brother Scott remembers the old-timers calling him “the mad Russian.”

The stone carving bears the following inscription:

1935

M.C.F. Hhaesus

America

Aharron Andeew

King America

King World

I have no idea what M.C.F Hhaesus means, but the self-portrait shows a man with a curved beak of a nose, wearing a Cossack’s fur hat, with a map of the world carved into it. His coat has two buttons, one carved in the shape of North and South America, while the other one represents the Old World.

Andeew had some odd behaviors. On Sundays he used to march up and down the road near his camp, carrying a rifle, with a sword in a scabbard. He was dressed in a great coat, bearing brass medals he had made himself. Andeew never threatened anyone, but in 1936 the townspeople firmly suggested that he leave town. When he got to Provo, Utah, he introduced himself as the King of the World, and he landed in a psychiatric hospital, where this gentle eccentric later died.

Few recall the people who ran Andeew out of town, but his presence is still felt through his unique piece of art. Art is often seen as a sublime form of communication, better than mere talk at revealing feelings and emotions. But art can also make a message last longer than simple verbal communication. Ancient peoples who lived off the land often left us art that depicts themselves and their animals, from cave paintings in Lascaux, to realistic stone carvings of cattle in Egypt and India, and the pre-Colombian big-horn sheep carved into boulders all around Moab itself.  Today, a stone sculpture in Moab reminds us that an immigrant sculptor, gardener and goat herder named Aharron Andeew was here 85 years ago, and that he had a grand imagination.

Visit the King

The King sculpture is no longer on the old Parriott Ranch. In 2009, the new land owner, Jennifer Speers, decided that she did not want the stone, but that it should be preserved. Speers donated the 30-ton rock to Grand County (the county that includes Moab). The sculpture was moved to the lawn of the Seniors Center, near the Allen Memorial Hospital, in Moab, Utah.

Further reading

Barker, Vicki 2010 Relocating Rock Art, A Moving Experience https://www.moabhappenings.com/Archives/historic1003RelocationRockArt_AMovingExperience.htm

Dudek, Robert 1986 The King of the World. http://www.riverguides.org/SDG/SDG1-4.pdf

Stiles, Jim 2015 Albert Christensen & Aharron Andeew: Eccentric Sculptors…& Kindred Spirits? https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/04/01/albert-christensen-aharron-andeew-eccentric-sculptors-kindred-spirits-by-jim-stiles/

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Bringing back the native trees December 1st, 2019 by

As cities grow and more people leave the countryside, parks and gardens will be some of the few remaining places where people will come into contact with trees. City parks are highly managed, cultivated spaces and the choice of species says a lot about the people who create and manage the parks.

The little park in my neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Parque Virrey Toledo, is a case in point. It’s an unpretentious area with a children’s playground, a running path, courts for basketball and football (soccer), and a statue of a colonial bully, streaked with pigeon feces. There are always people in the park, playing, chatting and strolling. Virrey Toledo may be unexceptional, but it is full of trees, enough to make the park seem like a small forest.

Ana recently gave me a little tour of the park and its trees. I was surprised to learn that almost all of them are exotic. There are stately Italian cypresses, flame trees from Madagascar with fleshy, red flowers. North America contributed the big poplar trees (alamos) with rugged bark and large, flat leaves. A rubber fig from India is named for its thick leaves. A set of Australian “pine” trees tower over the football field. Chinaberries, originally from the foothills of the Himalayas, are losing their leaves and bark as they slowly die from a phytoplasma disease.

Ana explained that 50 to 60 years ago, when these trees were being planted, the fashion was to model city parks after Victorian botanical gardens, which were also full of exotic trees, gleaned from around the world by British plant hunters, eager to show off the showy species from around the new empire.

“Aren’t there any native trees at all in the park?” I wondered. Ana pointed out two trees of jarka, with their delicate, golden flowers, which were once one of the dominant trees in the valley. “But these jarkas probably weren’t planted,” Ana explained. One of them was too close to one of the concrete paths that cross the park. “It probably seeded itself,” Ana said.

None of the trees in our little park are labelled. For most people, these are just shade trees. Most of the neighbors have little idea that the park is full of exotic trees, with hardly any from Bolivia or neighboring countries.

But things are changing. Ana has been working with a volunteer group and the municipality to plant native trees in the park. In 2017 she selected some 20 tree seedlings from the municipal nursery, and hired a helper to dig the holes. Volunteers came to plant the trees and to make a little fence around each tree, to protect them from dogs, careless lawnmowers and playful youngsters.

At two-years-old, these native trees are doing quite well. They include locals like the tajibo with its canopy of flowers, the tall Cochabamba ceibo, and the tipa, from watershed of the Río de la Plata.

Culture is reflected not just in art and architecture, but in urban parks and green spaces. Early to mid-twentieth century Bolivia had little appreciation for native languages, native crops and foods, and ignored native trees for planting in towns and in the countryside. In all fairness, less was then known about how to plant native trees. But as interest in native trees have grown, Bolivian foresters have been learning how to plant them. People in the Andes are starting to appreciate their own heritage a bit more, and native trees are back in favor. When the children now playing on the swings are adults, native trees will welcome them to this park.

Scientific names

Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens

Flame tree, Delonix regia

Poplar, Populus sp.

Rubber fig, Ficus elastica

Australian pine tree, Casuarina equisetifolia

Chinaberry, Melia azedarach

Jarka, Acacia visco

Tajibo, Handroanthus impetiginosus

Cochabamba ceibo, Erythrina falcata

Tipa, Tipuana tipa

Gauchos for hire October 6th, 2019 by

Picture a gaucho astride a horse on a homemade saddle, galloping like a centaur across the limitless plains of Argentina. Above his broad brimmed hat, he twirls three balls (bolas) tethered together, to fling at the feet of a fleeing bull. The rawhide cords of the bolas wrap around the lower legs of the bull and bring it crashing to the ground.

The gauchos are often portrayed as a romantic even mythical figure, so it is easy to forget that they were workers in commercial agriculture, supplying the world’s markets with export beef, even in the early nineteenth century.

Argentine historian Ricardo Salvatore has written a book about the final, glory days of the gauchos (1829 to 1852), when Argentina was governed by Juan Manuel de Rosas. Now largely vilified in his home country as a dictator and populist, Rosas liberalized markets and freed them from the restrictions and high prices imposed under colonial rule. He awarded government contracts in public, on the steps of the police station, to those who submitted the lowest tender. Rosas insisted that the courts give equal legal treatment to rich and poor, black and white. He created a large army and filled it with rural men, but he also fed their widows and families with beef confiscated from enemy ranchers.

The Argentine civil wars dragged on for decades. Rosas and his party, the Federales, favored less government. They would eventually lose to the rebel Unitarios, who wanted a strong central administration. During the war many rural people, paisanos, migrated to the relative calm of the province of Buenos Aires. Along the way young men were arrested on charges of deserting the army. Fragments of their defense statements, transcribed by court clerks, make up most of the source material for Salvatore’s book.

The gauchos were, by Salvatore’s definition, illiterate. They also worked as ranch and farm hands, and led a simple life. They owned little more than some simple horse-riding tack and the clothes on their back: a shirt, jacket, poncho, home-made boots and a chiripá (a woven cloth worn around the waist, and tucked between the legs).

The vast pampas may have been unfenced but they were policed by small town judges (jueces de paz), and owned by ranchers, who employed the gauchos to raise cattle, and to grow a few crops. Products like dried beef, hides and tallow were carted to Buenos Aires and exported, mainly to Europe. Live cattle were herded to the city. On one single day, 27 February 1847, a whopping 19,073 animals were slaughtered. It’s not clear if this was a routine toll or just a bad day for cows. In those days the meat was salted and exported, before the invention of tinned food and refrigerated shipping.

During the long, violent wars of independence from Spain (about 1809 to 1825), all of the mainland Spanish-American countries, from Mexico to Argentina, emerged as self-governing republics. In Argentina, the struggle for independence had fostered an ideology of equality, which the gauchos held onto during the civil wars that broke out soon after independence was granted. Labor shortages also strengthened the gaucho’s position with their employers. Some would demand advance pay and then vanish. Others insisted on being paid daily, to earn more than the monthly salaries that ranch owners preferred. Employers also lured the gauchos into jobs with rations of beef, tobacco, and sugar. But money and rations weren’t enough to keep gauchos on the job. They insisted on being addressed respectfully. A foreman who barked out orders like a rude command could be challenged to a knife duel by a weather-worn gaucho.

In the mid 1800s, the Argentine ranch owners purposefully played down differences in social status. The ranchers wore the same clothes as their workers, ate almost nothing but meat, and lived in houses where the only furniture was a saddle hanging on the wall.

After the Argentine civil wars ended, Salvatore says that the gauchos faded from history. Deserters were no longer of interest to the small-town judges. And the distinction between Federal and Unitario was less important, so rural travelers stopped being arrested and questioned. Gauchos appear infrequently in the police records, now mostly described as “vagabonds.”

After the 1860s, the beef economy rapidly modernized, with the introduction of barbed-wire fences and railroads. Scottish, Irish and English migrants took over many of the gaucho’s jobs in the countryside. Italians worked in the city in commerce and in packing plants.

The gauchos migrated to the towns and to the frontiers and eventually intermarried with the newcomers. The gauchos were no longer a distinct social group by the end of the 19th century. Gone but not forgotten. Modern Argentina still has an egalitarian touch; even the waiters approach their customers tall and proud, addressing their customers like friends.  Perhaps the tough, friendly spirit of the gauchos lives on, at least a bit.

Further reading

Although Salvatore is Argentine, he wrote in English. Mateo García Haymes and Luisa Fernanda Lassaque’s Spanish translation is so cleverly done that it reads as though it had been written in Spanish.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2018 Paisanos Itinerantes: Orden Estatal y Experiencia Subalterna en Buenos Aires durante la Era de Rosas. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros.

Original version:

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2003 Wandering Paysanos: State Order and Subaltern Experience in Buenos Aires Province during the Rosas Era. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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