April 7, 1933 A Good Time for a Beer

Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate, when Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Nevertheless, the letters of Roman cavalry commanders from the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia”, for the legionaries.

Given the right combination of sugars, almost any cereal will undergo simple fermentation, due to the presence of wild yeasts in the air.  It seems likely our cave-dwelling ancestors experienced their first beer, as the result of this process.

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From Wikipedia: “Alulu beer receipt – This records a purchase of “best” beer from a brewer, c. 2050 BC from the Sumerian city of Umma in ancient Iraq”.

Starch dusted stones were found with the remains of doum-palm and chamomile in the 18,000-year old Wadi Kubbaniya in upper Egypt.  While it’s difficult to confirm, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern says, “it’s very likely they were making beer there”.

Chemical analysis of pottery shards date the earliest barley beer to 3400BC, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate, when Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Nevertheless, the letters of Roman cavalry commanders from the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia”, for the legionaries.

In North and South America, native peoples brewed fermented beverages from local ingredients, including agave sap, the first spring tips of the spruce tree, and maize.

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“Ancient cultures used an array of ingredients to make their alcoholic beverages, including emmer wheat, wild yeast, chamomile, thyme and oregano. (Landon Nordeman)” H/T Smithsonian magazine

PilgrimsandbeerclipThe Pilgrims left the Netherlands city of Leiden in 1620, hoping for rich farmland and congenial climate in the New World.  Not the frozen, rocky soil of New England.  Lookouts spotted the wind-swept shores of Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, and may have kept going, had they had enough beer.  One Mayflower passenger wrote in his diary: “We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…

Prior to the invention of the drum roaster in 1817, malt was typically dried over wood, charcoal, or straw fires, leaving a smoky quality that would seem foreign to the modern beer drinker.  William Harrison wrote in his “Description of England” in 1577, “For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke”.

Smoky flavor didn’t trouble the true aficionado of the age.  When the Meux Brewery casks let go in 1814 spilling nearly 400,000 gallons onto the street, hundreds of Britons hurried to scoop it up in pots and pans.  Some even lapped it up, doggy-style.

1,389 were trampled to death and another 1,300 injured in a suds stampede, when someone thought the beer had run out at the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, in 1896.

Khodynka Field

The 18th amendment, better known as “prohibition”, went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell liquor, wine or beer in the United States.

Portable stills went on sale within a week, and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of rhine” or “blocks of port”. The mayor of New York City sent instructions on wine making, to his constituents.

Smuggling operations became widespread, as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This would lead to competitive car racing, beginning first on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks.  It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

Organized crime became vastly more powerful due to the influx of enormous sums of cash.  The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

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Gaining convictions for breaking a law that everyone hated became increasingly difficult. There were over 7,000 prohibition related arrests in New York alone between 1921 and 1923.  Only 27 resulted in convictions.

Finally, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce his support for repeal.

It’s difficult to compare rates of alcohol consumption before and during prohibition.  If death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption didn’t decrease by more than 10 to 20 per cent.

Beer_bootleggerFDR signed the Cullen–Harrison Act into law on March 22, 1933, commenting “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”  The law went effect on April 7, allowing Americans to buy, sell and drink beer containing up to 3.2% alcohol.

A team of draft horses hauled a wagon up Pennsylvania Avenue, delivering a case of beer to the White House – the first public appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales.

Clydesdale, Pennsylvania Ave

“Dry” leaders tried to prohibit consumption of alcohol on military bases in 1941, but military authorities claimed it was good for morale. Brewers were required to allocate 15% of total annual production to be used by the armed forces. So essential were beer manufacturers to the war effort, that teamsters were ordered to end a labor strike against Minneapolis breweries.  Near the end of WWII, the army made plans to operate recaptured French breweries, to ensure adequate supplies for the troops.

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18 states continued prohibition at the state level after the national repeal, the last state finally dropping it in 1966. Almost 2/3rds of all states adopted some form of local option, enabling residents of political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition.  Some counties remain dry to this day.  Ironically, Lynchburg County, Tennessee, home to the Jack Daniel distillery, is one such dry county.

The night before Roosevelt’s law went into effect, April 6, 1933, beer lovers lined up at the doors of their favorite public houses, waiting for their first legal beer in thirteen years.  A million and a half barrels of the stuff were consumed on April 7, a date remembered to this day as “National Beer Day”.

So it is that, from that day to this, April 6 is celebrated as “New Beer’s Eve”.  Sláinte.

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December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

The meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami

Only hours from now, families will gather from across the nation, for the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

Wait…What?

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Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen, Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of beautiful delicate purple and blue flowers, floating across tranquil ponds on thick, dark green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans, and remain viable for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species, while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

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During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  “Lake Bacon”.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times.  One Agricultural official estimated that such a free-range hippo herd would produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, these things are dangerous.

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The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  And heaven help anyone caught between a cow, and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little slower than Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

p-hippo-1_1467398cBe that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

What could be better than taking care of two problems at once.  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be solved.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream, some four years earlier.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Frederick Burnham was the “most complete human being who ever lived “.

Frederick Russell Burnham (left), Fritz Joubert Duquesne (right)

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Duquesne was destined to be a German spy and saboteur, through two world wars.  Frederick Burnham described his mortal adversary, thus:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

in-1910-President-Roosevelt-supported-a-bill-that-would-have-released-hippopotamuses-into-Louisiana-to-eat-an-invasive-plant-species-and-to-provide-delicious-hippo-bacon-to-hungry-AmericDuring the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other.  In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast.  Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote, but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what we’re already doing, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges, and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbug”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

That golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if any of us could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the roast hippopotamus, got there.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

December 11, 1970 The Man who saved a Billion People

It’s hard to get the modern head around the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality, due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters. The ten worst dictators of the last 1½ centuries account for the loss of nearly 150 million lives. Most of us remember their names. At least some of them. Who remembers the name of the man who Saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

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We live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can report “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and accordingly has high obesity rates; one-third of the population has obesity plus another third is overweight”.

It wasn’t always so. In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in “absolute poverty.” American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote that: “Individuals in the bottom 20% of the caloric distributions of France and England near the end of the eighteenth century, lacked the energy for sustained work and were effectively excluded from the labor force.”

It’s hard to get the modern head around the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality, due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

Nels Olson Borlaug once told his grandson Norman, “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” An Iowa farm kid educated during the Great Depression, Norman Ernest Borlaug periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money. A Civilian Conservation Corps leader working with unemployed people on CCC projects, many of his co-workers faced persistent and real, hunger. Borlaug later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

norman-borlaug1Borlaug earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry, in 1937. Nearing the end of his undergraduate education, he attended a lecture by Professor Elvin Charles Stakman discussing plant rust disease, a parasitic fungus which feeds on phytonutrients in wheat, oats, and barley crops.

Stakman was exploring special breeding methods, resulting in rust-resistant plants. The research greatly interested Borlaug, who later enrolled at the University of Minnesota, to study plant pathology under Stakman. Borlaug earned a Master of Science degree in 1940, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, in 1942.

Borlaug attempted to enlist in the military following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but his application was rejected under wartime labor regulations. He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

Between 1939 and ’41, Mexican farmers suffered major crop failures, due to stem rust. In July 1944, Borlaug declined an offer to double his salary, traveling instead to Mexico City where he headed a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

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“Pure line” (genotypically identical) plant varieties possess only one to a handful of disease-resistance genes. Random mutations of rusts and other plant diseases overcome pure line survival strategies, resulting in crop failures. “Multi-line” plant breeding involves back-crossing and hybridizing plant varieties, transferring multiple disease-resistance genes into recurrent parents. In the first ten years Borlaug worked for the Mexican agricultural program, he and his team made over 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. Mexico transformed from a net-importer of food, to a net exporter.

In the early sixties, Borlaug’s dwarf spring wheat strains went out for multi-location testing around the world, in a program administered by the US Department of Agriculture. In March 1963, Borlaug himself traveled to India with Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson, along with 220-pounds of seed from four of the most promising strains.

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The Indian subcontinent experienced minor famine and starvation at this time, limited only by the US’ shipping 1/5th of its wheat production into the region in 1966 – ’67. Despite resistance from Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies, Borlaug imported 550 tons of seeds.

American biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestselling book The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich went on: “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

Ehrlich could not have been more comprehensively wrong.

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Borlaug’s initial yields were higher than any other crop, ever harvested in South Asia. Countries from Pakistan to India to Turkey imported 80,000 tons and more of seeds. By the time of Ehrlich’s book release in 1968, massive crop yields had substituted famine and starvation, with a host of new problems. There were labor shortages at harvest, and insufficient numbers of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed, along with trucks, rail cars, and grain storage facilities. Local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

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In three years, the world increase in cereal-grain production was nothing short of spectacular, dubbed a “Green Revolution”.   Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, protesting to be only “one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers – mostly small and humble…”

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Norman Borlaug works with Chinese agricultural leaders, 1974

With mass starvation or widespread deforestation being the only historic alternatives, the “Borlaug Hypothesis” introduced a third option, that of increasing yields on existing farmland.  The work however, was not without critics. Environmentalists criticized what they saw as large-scale monoculture, in nations previously reliant on subsistence farming. Critics railed against “agribusiness” and the building of roads through what had once been wilderness.

David Seckler, Director General of the International Water Management Institute said “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.”

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Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 11, 1970

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank. Well fed environmentalist-types congratulated themselves on “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1984-’85 destroyed over a million lives. Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug fired back, “[S]ome of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Borlaug became involved at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, who wondered why methods used so successfully in Asia, were not being employed in Africa. Since that time, the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has trained over 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques. Maize crops developed in African countries have tripled, along with increased yields of wheat, sorghum, cassava, and cowpeas.

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The world population when Ehrlich released his book in 1968, was about 3.53 billion. Today, that number stands at 7.7 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such events are almost exclusively, man-made. The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette once described Norman Borlaug as “The greatest human being who ever lived…and you’ve probably never heard of him.” Let that be the answer to the self-satisfied and well-fed, environmentalist types.

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“I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.” – Norman Borlaug, 2000

October 20, 1937 Albert’s Swarm

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes.

Between 1932 and 1943, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells of the time when grasshoppers wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs that all hope was gone for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creek, published  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the plague of grasshoppers.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous food habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, if the need arises.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine in the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again in the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

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Illustration of egg-laying females, from 1877

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling flood, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C. ”

Albert’s Swarm” was the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

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It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, and each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so, in a few weeks.

One farmer reported that the locusts seemed “like a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go, and then the root vegetables, potatoes, carrots and turnips, eaten out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of your sheep.  At its worst, the locust horde was known to eat the clothes off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

rocky-mountain-locust-1Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

Still, it was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

map-from-the-locust-plagueAnd then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

Feature image, top of page:  A child swings a broomstick at a 4-mile wide swarms of locusts, plaguing Argentina.  H/T Business Insider

September 28, 48BC Mad Honey

Tales come down from the Civil War, of Union troops getting into hives of mountain honey and becoming sick and disoriented, much like Roman troops some two thousand years earlier.

From sniffing glue to licking toads and huffing gasoline, people have thought of crazy and often dangerously stupid ways, of catching a buzz. Three years ago, CNN reported on a child ingesting a few squirts of hand sanitizer, resulting in slurred speech and an inability to walk straight. What do a dozen broke college kids do on a Saturday night? Buy a bottle of gin, and snort it. In some parts of the world, bees pollinate great fields of rhododendron flowers, resulting in a neurotoxic delicacy known as “Mad Honey”.

The Rhododendron genus contains some 1,024 distinct species ranging from Europe to North America, Japan, Nepal and Turkey and grown at altitudes from sea level to nearly three miles. Many Rhododendron species contain grayanotoxins though, in most regions, concentrations are diluted to trace levels. Some species contain significant levels.

rhododendron ferrugineum

Occasionally, a cold snap in the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States will kill off other flowers while leaving Rhododendrons unaffected, resulting in mad honey. Such circumstances are rare. Mad honey is the most expensive in the world, normally selling for around $166 per pound.

When ingested in small doses, grayanotoxins produce feelings of euphoria and mild hallucinations.   Larger doses have toxic effects,  ranging from nausea and vomiting to dizziness, severe muscular weakness and slow or irregular heartbeat and plummeting blood pressure. Symptoms generally last for three hours or so, but may persist for 24 hours or longer. Ingesting large amounts of the stuff, may result in death.

Today, the toxic effects of over ingesting mad honey are primarily found among middle-age males in Turkey and Nepal, where the stuff is thought to have restorative qualities for a number of sexual dysfunctions.

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Tales come down from the Civil War, of Union troops getting into hives of mountain honey and becoming sick and disoriented, much like Roman troops some two thousand years earlier.

The Greek historian, soldier and mercenary Xenophon of Athens wrote in 401BC of a Greek army passing through Trebizond in northeastern Turkey, on the way back home. While returning along the shores of the Black Sea, this crew had themselves a feast of honey, stolen from local beehives. For hours afterward, troops suffered from diarrhea and disorientation, no longer able to march or even to stand.

Fortunately, the effects had passed by the following day, before their defeated Persian adversary could learn of their sorry state.  Nearly four hundred years later, Roman troops would not be so lucky.

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus lived from September 29, 106BC through September 28, 48BC, and usually remembered in English as Pompey the Great.

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC, Alexander’s generals and advisers fell to squabbling over an empire, too big to hold. The period marked the beginning of Hellenistic colonization throughout the Mediterranean and Near East to the Indus River Valley.

Within two hundred years, the Mithradatic Kingdom of Pontus encompassing modern-day Armenia and Turkey, was becoming a threat to Roman hegemony in the east. King Mithradates VI is remembered as one of the most formidable adversaries faced by the Roman Republic, engaging three of the most successful generals of the late Republic in the Mithradatic Wars of the first century.

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In 67BC, a Roman army led by Pompey the Great was chasing King Mithridates and his Persian army through that same region along the Black Sea. The retreating Persians laid a trap, gathering honey and putting the stuff out in pots, by the side of the road.

Had any on the Roman side brushed up on their Xenophon, the outcome may have become different.  As it was, Roman troops pigged out and could scarcely defend themselves, against the returning Persians.  A thousand or more Romans were slaughtered, with few losses to the other side.  And all of it, for a little taste of honey.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 6, 1940 A Different Kind of Courage

By the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  For twenty-eight months these guys guarded their seed bank, without eating so much as a grain.

In 21st century America, “diversity” is often seen as that overly PC tendency, leading the backdrop of every political speech and college recruiting poster to feature all those smiling faces, in just the right mix of race, sex and color.

In the world of plant biology, diversity can literally mean the difference between feast and famine.

The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century resulted from the failure of a single crop. The direct cause was the water mold Phytophthora infestans, but the real culprit might have been the over reliance on a single strain of potato. A million Irish starved to death and another two million departed, never to return, in a country starting out with barely 8.4 million in 1844.

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Phytophthora_ nfestans (late blight) on tomato

The Irish potato famine was just one of 120 such calamities to afflict humanity in modern times, resulting in the starvation death of hundreds of millions. Blight, climate disruption and insects are but a few of the causes. Often, the only solution was having enough food-source variety that no single crop failure could lead to starvation.

Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov was a Russian botanist and plant biologist.  Vavilov witnessed the death of millions of Russians in three such famines, and devoted his life’s work to the improvement of wheat, corn and other food crops necessary to sustain a global population.

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Nikolai Vavilov

Over a lifetime of study of phytopathology and plant immunity, Vavilov organized expeditions and collected plant specimens from every corner of the world. Traveling over 5 continents and 64 countries, “The world’s greatest plant explorer” taught himself no fewer than 15 languages so that he could speak with native farmers, collecting more seeds, edible roots, tubers and fruit specimens than any person in human history.

 

There is hardly any part of our modern day understanding of crop diversity, that doesn’t go back to the work of this one man.

Nikolai Vavilov was a man of pure science.  Not so his young protege, Trophim Denisovich Lysenko. The younger man was a political opportunist, an apparatchik and crackpot who rejected the natural selection and plant genetics of Gregor Mendel, in favor of a cockamamie theory which came to be called “Lysenkoism”.

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Trophim Lysenko

Lysenko placed great confidence in the pseudo-scientific theory of environmentally acquired inheritance, by which parent plants pass down to their offspring,  characteristics acquired through use or disuse during their life cycle.  By this theory, rye could transform into wheat, wheat into barley, and weeds somehow transmuted into edible food grains.

 

In 1928, the previously unknown agronomist from peasant background performed experiments in “vernalization“, claiming to triple or quadruple wheat crop yield by accelerating the life cycle of Autumn-seeded winter wheat varieties.

Intense exposures to cold and humidity including direct seeding into snow-covered, frozen fields were known since 1854 to produce marginal increases in crop yield, but nothing remotely similar to Lysenko’s claims.  Nevertheless, Lysenko was hailed as a hero of Soviet agriculture, particularly in light of the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s.

echist1As Stalin’s Soviet Union imposed the “terror famine” of 1932-’33, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers known as the Holodomor.

Lysenko dove into a variety of agriculture issues with “helpful” solutions such as plucking leaves from cotton plants, cluster planting trees and outlandish & unusual fertilizer mixes. A shameless sycophant and toady to Communist ideology, Lysenko gained status among party officials with one harebrained proposition after another, following one after another, far too quickly to be disproven by the patient observation of reputable scientific method.

At this time, the hottest ideas in plant genetics were emerging from biological studies of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Lysenko used his increasing influence in party circles to denounce such scientists as “fly-lovers and people haters”, denouncing the lot of them as “wreckers” who were purposely trying to bring about the downfall of the Soviet government.

Scientific research into plant genetics was dead in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

855c4322c0bca57a84dde41308bad993As director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko put his theories to work, with unsurprisingly dismal results.  He’d force Soviet farmers to plant WAY too close together, on the theory that plants of the same “class” would “cooperate” with one another, and that “mutual assistance” takes place within and even across plant species.

There had to be a reason why Stalin’s agricultural program wasn’t working. There had to be scapegoats.  In a 1935 speech, Lysenko compared dissenting biologists to peasants continuing to resist Soviet collectivization policies, denouncing traditional geneticists as being “against Marxism”.  Josef Stalin himself was in the audience, and jumped up clapping enthusiastically, calling out “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo.”

The gloves were now off. Lysenko and his chief ally Isaak Izrailevich Prezent savaged Lysenkoism’s opponents, including his former mentor, himself.  Over 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired, “disappeared” or even executed, among them Nikolai Vavilov.

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Botanist Nikolai Vavilov’s mugshot. Note the several deep scars on his right cheek, indicating severe beatings sustained by the scientist in prison

On August 6, 1940, Vavilov was on expedition in Ukraine, collecting specimens when he was snatched up and driven away in a black sedan, his staff helpless to intervene. Vavilov was sentenced to death in 1941 with sentence later commuted to twenty years.  It didn’t matter. In January 1943, this man whose scientific work was at least as important as that of Norman Borlaug, starved to death in a Soviet Gulag.

Nikolai Vavilov had collected some 220,000 specimens of edible fruits, seeds and tubers over the years, which now sat in a Leningrad basement. 120,000 additional specimens were added to the hoard from other collectors, bringing the entire cache well into the tons of edible plant material.

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‘Third Degree Interrogation’ from Drawings from Stalin’s Gulag Illustration: Danzig Baldaev

On September 8, 1941 the German Wehrmacht completed its encirclement of the city.  The siege of Leningrad lasted for twenty-eight months.  Hunger soon took hold and, before it was over, more than a million Leningrad residents starved to death.

Soviet authorities had ordered the removal of art from the Hermitage prior to the siege, but not these botanical specimens.  Scientists couldn’t know where their leader was, or even whether he yet lived.  They locked themselves in the basement with their trove and took turns standing guard, protecting future food crops and the survival of untold millions, yet unborn.

USSR-Stamp-1977-NIVavilovBy the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  These guys had stood guard over their seed bank for twenty-eight months, without eating so much as a grain.

The verdict against Nikolai Vavilov was set aside in 1955, one of thousands of reversals of Stalin era death sentences. Vavilov’s reputation was publicly rehabilitated by the 1960s.  In time he would come to be seen as a hero of Soviet-era science.

 

Trofim Lysenko would outlive his benefactor Stalin, and retained influence into the era of Nikita Khruschchev.  Lysenkoism was officially renounced in 1964, the bureaucrat denounced by physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists“.  The disgraced apparatchik died in 1976.  It took Soviet media two days to so much as mention his passing, with a small notice printed in the broadsheet, Izvestia.

In the funhouse mirror world of the Soviet Union, the future was always known.  It was the past, that was subject to change.

Still home to the largest collection of plant genetic material in the world, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg was scheduled to be razed in 2010, to make way for luxury housing.  Scientists from around the world petitioned Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to rethink the decision, and not destroy the largest collection of European fruits and berries in the world.  At this time, the decision is undergoing “further study”.

For all the good it did the institute’s namesake, long-since murdered by the malignant ideology he had spent his life’s work, attempting to serve.

But hell, he got himself a postage stamp, in 1977.

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Timeline of Genetics and Science in the Soviet Union
Feature image, top of page:  Soviet Propaganda, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov Threshing on the collective farm

August 4, 1693 Drinking the Stars

The Roman Rebublic built on and improved what the Greeks had begun, creating their own God of Wine and calling him Bacchus. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the concept of Terroir, “tare WAHr”, the notion that regional climate, soils and aspect (terrain) can effect the taste of wine.

1-armeniaThe oldest winery for which archaeological evidence exists was established around BC4100, in present-day Armenia. The Egyptian Pharoahs were producing a wine-like substance from 3100BC for use in public ceremonies, due to its resemblance to blood.

Archaeologists discovered a 3,700 year old wine cellar in the north of Israel.  Phoenecian traders plied the Mediterranean from the shores of the Middle East to Gibraltar, transporting grapevines and wine in ceramic jugs.   Traders introduced wine to the ancient Greeks sometime around BC800, who then began to perfect the beverage, even naming a God of the grape harvest: Dionysus.

alexakis-history-of-wineSounds like a great job, as Greek Gods go.

As the Greek city-states rose in power, viticulture and wine making traveled the eastern Mediterranean with Greek armies, into Sicily and the boot of Italy, and north toward Rome.

wine history

The Roman Republic built on and improved what the Greeks had begun, creating their own God of Wine and calling him Bacchus. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the concept of Terroir, “tare WAHr”, the notion that regional climate, soils and aspect (terrain) can effect the taste of wine.

bacchus-12The legions of Rome expanded the Empire across Europe from modern day France and Germany into Portugal and Spain.  Everywhere the Legions went, vineyards were soon to follow. To this day, some regions are said to have more ‘Terroir’, than others.

Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate, and Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Nevertheless, letters home from cavalry commanders of the Roman Britain period (ca AD97-103), include requests for more “cerevisia”.

Muhammad directed the “Righteous” to abstain from alcohol sometime in the seventh century, but promised “[R]ivers of water unaltered, rivers of milk the taste of which never changes, rivers of wine delicious to those who drink…” in heaven.  (Surah 47.15 of the Qur’an.)

Local production of rustic beers continued well beyond the collapse of the Roman empire, while the monasteries of Europe became prime repositories of viticulture and wine making technique.

The wines of medieval and renaissance-era Europe tended to be almost universally red and almost always, still.  The in-bottle refermentation that gives “sparkling” wine its ‘fizz’ was a problem.  Fermentable sugars were frequently left over when weather began to cool in the fall, particularly with the white grape varietals. Refermentation would set in with the warm spring weather, converting bottles into literal time bombs. Caps would pop off and wine would spoil. Sometimes the whole batch would explode, one pressurized bottle going off in sympathetic detonation with the other.

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Pierre Perignon entered the Benedictine Order at the age of 19, doing his novitiate at the abbey of Saint-Vannes near Verdun and transferring to the abbey of Hautvillers in 1668.

On August 4, 1693, the date traditionally ascribed to Brother (Dom) Pérignon’s invention of Champagne, the monk is supposed to have said “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”.

hautvillers-vineyardsThe story is almost certainly a myth, a later embellishment to the story.  During his 47 year career, Pérignon went to considerable lengths to eliminate bubbles from his wine.  Dom Pérignon never succeed in that goal, yet he did make bubbly wine a whole lot better, using corks for the first time to prevent the escape of carbon dioxide, and perfecting a ‘gentle’ pressing technique which left out the murkiness of the skins.

It is almost certainly Dom Pérignon who perfected the double fermentation process. He was an early advocate of natural farming methods we would call “organic”, today.  Pérignon insisted on “blind” tasting, not wanting to know what vineyard a grape came from prior to selection, and strictly avoiding the addition of foreign substances, insisting that all blending take place at the grape stage.

Dom PerignonPérignon didn’t like white grapes because of their tendency to enter refermentation. He preferred the Pinot Noir, and would aggressively prune the plants so that vines grew no higher than three feet and produced a smaller crop. The harvest was always in the cool, damp early morning hours, and Pérignon took every precaution to avoid bruising or breaking his grapes. Over-ripe and overly large fruit was always thrown out. Pérignon never permitted grapes to be trodden upon, always preferring the use of multiple presses.

In 1891, the Madrid Agreement established among the European powers, that only sparkling wines from a certain region in northeast France may be labeled “Champagne”.  The principle was re-asserted in the Treaty of Versailles ending WW1, providing protections for a French wine industry which had, ironically, been saved and literally rebuilt from the ground up by grafting “inferior” American root stock onto French vines.

But that must remain a story for another day.

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1890 cartoon from Punch depicting the Phylloxera aphid, which all but obliterated the French wine industry.

That American companies like Korbel, Cook’s and others may continue to call their bubbly wines Champagne is due to the United States’ Senate never having ratified the treaty formally ending WW1, back in 1920.  The United States entered the Madrid system in 2003, but the Champagne name dispute, remains unsettled.

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Benjamin Franklin, born nine years before brother Pérignon’s death in 1715, is supposed to have said “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” That’s close, but the quote seems to come from a letter to André Morellet dated 1779, in which the Founding Father wrote  “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy“.

Either way, I enthusiastically approve Mr. Franklin’s message.  Cheers.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.