About the Author
In other words
|Smoke and mirrors|
|It has been a tough summer in British Columbia. My home province has been devastated by wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and thousands of hectares of forest. |
One aspect of being a historian is that one grows accustomed to teasing out the bias from reports. As a result it seems to me that, as well as the smell of burning wood which fills the air hereabouts, there is also a powerful whiff of BS on the airwaves.
Official pronouncements in the media repeatedly lay the blame for the devastating wildfires on climate change – something which is not exclusively the fault of provincial or federal government. Yet apart from a cooler climate in the past there were three major factors preventing today's destructive fires. Firstly, there was a lot of old growth in the forest. A tree with a two-meter trunk is very hard to burn. Secondly the forest was mixed, with harder-to-burn deciduous trees such as birch and aspen sharing space with highly inflammable larch and pine.
Finally local tribes were in the habit of burning off undergrowth in the autumn which removed the primary fuel for fire starting. This autumnal clearance also encouraged the growth of Adler which is hard to burn. Over the past century - purely in the interest of profit - the government has allowed the extensive logging of old growth and removes 'commercially valueless' trees from the forest by spraying aspen and birch with herbicide. It uproots the Adler and has made illegal fall fires which clear the undergrowth.
In short, having short-sightedly made the interior of the province into a perfect fire-trap, the powers-that-be are now blaming the climate. I doubt history will let them off that lightly.
|The Reading List|
|One of the things about being an ancient historian is that you get to read – a lot. Almost everyone in my profession has a large and growing pile of books on their 'to read' list. There's a massive outpouring of books from academia, which is not helped by the fact that some people are required by the conditions of their grant to publish their research. This leads to the need to sort the wheat from the chaff and it's not always easy. One of the most fascinating theses I've ever read was about Anglo-Saxon Buckets. But even after sorting a lot of worthy books go unread. |
There is also a massive corpus of ancient texts to get through. Everyone knows of Tacitus and Cicero, but what about Bacchylides, Columella and over a hundred others? It does not help that some of the really obscure texts are not in translation, so reading them involves doing the job oneself.
Because it is not possible to read everything, some historians choose only to read modern research, while others, such as myself tend to ignore the modern stuff and concentrate on material written at least sixteen hundred years ago. So you get a historian whose knowledge of an ancient writer such as say, Appian, is based on what Smith says about what Syme says about Appian. That historian has hardly glanced at the original text of Appian because there's so much modern stuff about. Or you get historians such as myself who have read the entire corpus, but almost nothing from later eras, and so missed a number of potentially valuable insights along the way.
I console myself that a lot of modern ancient history gets old really fast. No-one is really interested in the racist blather produced by many late 19th century historians, and the Marxist theorizing of the 1960 is looking pretty dated. One has to wonder if modern preoccupations will eventually go the same way. Tacitus and Cicero, on the other hand never go out of fashion.
|Clima mutatur, nos et mutamur in illa|
|'The climate changes, and we are changed by the climate'|
One of the things I have noticed from studying the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire is that the reasons given for the Fall tend to reflect the contemporary preoccupations of society at the time. So you find Gibbon during the Enlightenment deciding that the main factor was Christianity. In the nineteenth century it was because of 'decadence' particularly homosexuality. (Despite the fact that a by-now Christian empire was a lot less decadent than when it was flourishing under Nero).
Then in the early 20th century it was because the Roman empire was flooded with 'inferior races' who diluted the pure Roman stock. Now in the early 21st century, it seems that climate change was responsible. So I examined this thesis with considerable scepticism, not least because I am informed by pundits in the media that climate usually changes over millennia and the current rapid warming in the 21st century is unprecedented.
Actually those pundits are wrong. Climate can change quite rapidly. It's now been established that there were major fluctuations in climate both at the end of the Roman Republic and the end of the Roman empire. What really made me think climate has to be taken seriously is a people called the Garamantes. These were a north African civilization whose entire existence was a losing battle against the increasing desertification of the Sahara. Then there are Mesopotamian cities such as Ur which stand today in arid badlands that were once fertile fields of grain.
The moral of the story from a historian's viewpoint is that - for whatever reason - climate change does happen, and can happen relatively fast. Societies either adapt of die.
|The Author- ative Cook|
Two things that go very well together are being a writer and being a cook. And by 'cook' I don't mean an amateur chef. Amateur chefs do their thing by sporadically preparing elegant confections for dinner parties, and there's nothing wrong with that. A cook puts meals on the table two or three times a day every darn day of the week.
The thing is that a lot of my cookery involves leaving the food to get on with it while the cook changes hats and becomes a writer. For example as I write this a slab of paneer is being pressed in the kitchen and some dried chickpeas are soaking beside the stove. I made the bread this morning and the soon-to-be baked beans are currently simmering in the cookpot. None of this involves a lot of work, but one does have to be around to check it regularly.
That's why writing and cooking go together. My writing goes stale if I hammer away at the keyboard for hour after hour. I need to get up every forty-five minutes or so and do something else before I return to the job refreshed, often with some new ideas. The breaks are when I check that the yeast is rising, the yoghurt is setting or the roti dough is ready to be rolled. Or I wander off to check the herb garden and water the salad veg.
Another reason is that if you scrape a living as a writer, you can probably get rich doing something else (albeit something much less fun). When I make something at home it usually costs around a quarter of the equivalent product in the shop – and it's not only way cheaper, it is a lot tastier. As your local supermarket manager will tell you, food items are stocked according to shelf life, regularity of supply, price and about four other criteria before taste is even considered.
Eating fresh, home made material takes mealtimes to another level tastewise. And that's before we consider the exotic colourings and preservatives in commercial foodstuffs.
Actually, there's also another reason for cooking from scratch – the same reason why I make my living writing about ancient history. It's deeply satisfying and very enjoyable.
|Cook like a Roman|
|The other day a friend came around and stayed for lunch. He asked where he could get the paneer that was diced into the salad. He was rather taken aback when told that, while it is not available in local shops, it takes just twenty minutes and 8 cups (about a litre) of milk to make. The visit was extended while I prepared another slab of the stuff right then and there. |
Apart from ricotta, paneer is about the simplest and quickest cheese one can make, though queso fresco comes close and can also be made in a day. It's not hard – the hard bit is breaking the cast-iron conviction of modern consumers that food can only be obtained from the supermarket. This is not helped by modern TV cookery shows which give the impression that food preparation is a traumatic and complex business.
This is where my career as an ancient historian helps me. When I looked at the resources available to an Etruscan peasant and observed that he made a pretty good loaf of bread without the help of Groc-er-rama superstores, it seemed natural to have a crack at it myself. Likewise with cheese. In fact these days we buy milk by the bucketload and make not just paneer but a dozen other types of cheese (e.g. edam, cheddar, and exotic types like danbo and cotija). Also yoghurt, labneh and tzatziki.
My basic rule is that if something could be made 2000 years ago by peasants who had way busier lives than I do, then it can be made at home with minimal effort thanks to modern technology. Apicus did not own a stand mixer. It's a rare day that does begins without me preparing something while I write. At present there's dough rising in the oven that will become subs, and on the hob fresh strawberries reducing with cane sugar and lemon juice on the way to becoming jam. It's easy, healthier and saves a bunch on groceries. I've already made the dough that will go into tagliatelle con pesto genovese for supper tonight.
My friend's visit caused me to recall a comment that someone reported their kid making. 'We didn't have any french fries, so dad sliced up a potato and put it into a skillet. His fries tasted almost like the real thing!'
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