Until relatively recently the spread of agriculture in Europe, and to some extent the whole world, was pigeon-holed into two maximalist models: cultural or demographic diffusionist. Neither of these models were maximalist in that they denied the impact of culture or demographics in totality, but they tended to be rhetorically brandished in a manner where it was clear which dynamic was the dominant mode of explaining the nature of cultural and genetic variation and their origins. Here are two representative headlines from the BBC:
- Genetic roots of Europe, “New DNA evidence suggests that a few hundred Stone Age hunter-gatherers were the ancestors of many modern day northern Europeans.”
For whatever reason archaeologists themselves haven’t been able to resolve these issues. To me it seems that ultimately even if genetics is not determinate or even fundamentally specially insightful, it will at least sharpen the discussions, and move scholars away from arguments of rhetorical excess.
One of the broader issues which I’ve been coming to greater consciousness of is the idea whereby all pre-literate societies were diffuse to the point of being in a state of band-level anarchy. The “demic diffusion” model to some extent seems to play into this, where simple demographic population growth due to the ability of farmers to extract more calories per unit of land allowed them to “swamp” the hunter-gatherers. This is a “low level” fundamental explanation which does not require any sort of collective complexity beyond that of the village. It is the a classic illustration of a “social physics” model of human behavior. Similarly, the cultural diffusion model often seems predicated an imitation-through-proximity, as a serial adoption of farming practices occurs through choice or necessity (as an analogy, consider the adoption of firearms).
In hindsight I think the major problem with these models is that they downplay by understandable omission the higher order social complexity of institutions and identities which characterize humans. I do not believe that only with the emergence of writing did supra-band level identity emerge. This seems clear from the ethnography, and what we know from the fringes of history. The Inca for example did not have full elaborated literacy, and yet had political dominion and cultural hegemony from Ecuador to central Chile. We need to consider pots, people, and, politics, for human prehistory.
Dienekes points to a very useful review in Current Anthropology, which attempts to take a more subtle and nuanced view of the data, supplemented by genetics. Westward Ho! The Spread of Agriculture from Central Europe to the Atlantic:
Years ago I took a course on Tudor and Stuart England. Its primary focus was more on social and cultural aspects of British society at the time, rather than diplomatic history. Later I took an interest in the England of the Civil War era. One thing that struck me was the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy in the minds of the people, from high nobility to low commoner. Like the Romans before the Visigothic sack in the early 5th century these were a people who could not imagine a world any different than the one they had known. That is one of the things which made the execution of Charles I so shocking to many contemporaries. Myself, I was tacitly indoctrinated in American republicanism as a child. Films like the The Patriot grow in the rich soil of the same cultural environment which gave rise to the phenomenon of the antagonists in Roman era films speaking with British accents while the protagonists had robust American drawls. As I spent my formative years on the fringes of of New England there was particular pride taken in that region’s early role in the rebellion whenever we addressed the American Revolutionary War. Clearly I have little reverence and respect for the institution of monarchy as a matter of upbringing and expectation. Not to make too explosive an analogy, but in the past I viewed monarchy as somewhat like slavery, an cultural artifact once universal which would inevitably melt away under the harsh glare of the objective forces of justice for all.
The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.
They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PC sort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”
I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of the Dothraki uncomfortable, to say the least. Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist.”
First, the author immediately notes that for every swarthy barbarian there is a depiction of another trope, the Evil Blonde Guy. Nina Shen Ragosti’s read the books. She knows that though initially you encounter a story which is framed in black-white Manichean terms that is the norm in the more juvenile sectors of epic fantasy, the development of the characters, and your perception of the world which they inhabit, quickly slouches toward many shades of gray.
As of the census…of 2000, there were 13,138 people, 2,229 households, and 2,137 families residing in the village. The population density was 11,962.2 people per square mile (4,611.5/km2). There were 2,233 housing units at an average density of 2,033.2 per square mile (783.8/km2). The racial makeup of the village was 99.02% White, 0.21% African American, 0.02% Asian, 0.12% from other races, and 0.63% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.93% of the population.
The 2000 census also reports that only 6.2% of village residents spoke English at home, one of the lowest such percentages in the United States…46% spoke English “not well”….
There were 2,229 households out of which 79.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 93.2% were married couples living together, 1.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 4.1% were non-families. 2.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 2.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 5.74 and the average family size was 5.84. In the village the population was spread out with 57.5% under the age of 18, 17.2% from 18 to 24, 16.5% from 25 to 44, 7.2% from 45 to 64, and 1.6% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 15 years. For every 100 females there were 116.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 118.0 males.
The median income for a household in the village was $15,138, and the median income for a family was $15,372. Males had a median income of $25,043 versus $16,364 for females. The per capita income for the village was $4,355. About 61.7% of families and 62.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 63.9% of those under age 18 and 50.5% of those age 65 or over.
According 2008 census figures, the village has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and the largest percentage of residents who receive food stamps. More than five-eighths of…residents live below the federal poverty line and more than 40 percent receive food stamps, according to the American Community Survey, a U.S. Census Bureau study of every place in the country with 20,000 residents or more….
And now a New York Times article about the community, A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place:
“It is, in a sense, a statistical anomaly,” Professor Helmreich said. “They are clearly not wealthy, and they do have a lot of children. They spend whatever discretionary income they have on clothing, food and baby carriages. They don’t belong to country clubs or go to movies or go on trips to Aruba.
This is the human past, and perhaps the human future. Gains in productivity and wealth are translated into raw human numbers. While affluent self-actualizing members of society wring hands over whether to bring children into this “horrible world,” there are communities and cultures which have no such hesitation. They breed and they flourish. No fear, just hope of the promise to come. They will be the inheritors. They are rich in the possibilities of future.
Mr. James Winters has finally offered his take on Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. The Return of the Phoneme Inventories:
There are several assumptions made in the paper that I’ve already considered investigating in my own work. Most notable of these assumptions is that the serial founder effect model is the only explanation available. As in population genetics, where numerous papers have supposedly verified the out of Africa model, Atkinson doesn’t really test any other competing hypotheses. It therefore makes it hard for me to accept he’s really shown that geographic distance from Africa is concomitant with a series of population bottlenecks for phoneme inventories. Indeed, with bolstered support for Neanderthal admixture in some human populations, it is becoming increasingly likely that the serial founder effect model is unlikely to hold true in relation to genetic diversity…
… I’m not saying that Atkinson thinks that serial founder effects are solely responsible for the observed patterning (as noted in the quote above)… But I do think the model’s flawed on several theoretical grounds. Specifically, Atkinson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of selection as having shaped these languages according to different socio-cultural niches.
Again, I can’t speak to the linguistics. But overall I believe that cultural evolution has more freedom in terms of the dynamics of transmission, and so is less likely to be captured by an exceedingly general model. In other words I think the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in population genetics is smaller than the space of possibilities of plausible models for the patterns we see in linguistic diversity, mostly because the transmission of culture is much more plastic, flexible, and rapid in action.
Long time readers know well my fascination with quantitative history. In particular, cliometrics and cliodynamics. These are fields which attempt to measure and model human historical phenomena and processes. Cliometrics is a well established field, insofar as it is a subset of economic history. But cliodynamics is new on the scene. At the heart of cliodynamics is the quantitative ecologist Peter Turchin. I highly recommend his readable series of books, Historical Dynamics, War and Peace and War, and Secular Cycles. Also, see my reviews of the first two books.
With that, I am rather excited by the debut of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. Here’s the description of the brief of the field and the journal:
‘Cliodynamics’ is a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History is an international peer-reviewed web-based/free-access journal that will publish original articles advancing the state of theoretical knowledge in this discipline. ‘Theory’ in the broadest sense includes general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of historical societies and models, usually formulated as mathematical equations or computer algorithms. It also has empirical content that deals with discovering general empirical patterns, determining empirical adequacy of key assumptions made by models, and testing theoretical predictions with the data from actual historical societies. A mature, or ‘developed theory,’ thus, integrates models with data; the main goal of Cliodynamics is to facilitate progress towards such theory in history.
The first issue has an article by Sergey Gavrilets, David G. Anderson, and Peter Turchin. Gavrilets is a familiar face. I know him from his work in evolutionary theory. The paper itself is a readable and plausible model of how “medium scale” societies rise and fall through conflict and consolidation. Basically the stage of human society described in Laurence Keely’s seminal War Before Civilization; after agriculture, but before major literate state systems. Their basic method is to take a mathematical model with a tractable number of plausible parameters and run simulations which give one a sense of how it changes dependent variables of interest. Polities were modeled as being circumscribed hexagons; so they had six neighbors (instead of four which would be the case if they were squares). The area modeled had an “edge,” and polities can exist in a flat hierarchical structure, or eventually aggregate so they exhibit rank order. Additionally, polities varied by economic productivity. Finally, there was a temporal aspect in that there was a potential conflict per generation where the probability of success was conditional upon the strength of the polity. Being more powerful increase the probability of victory, but does not guarantee it. Flukes do happen. The full model can be found in the paper, which is open access. The math isn’t totally opaque, so I’m really not going to distill it down. You can swallow it whole. Rather, let’s look at the list of parameters and statistics:
Over the past few days a website which maps American English dialects has gone around the blogs (I found it via Kevin Zelnio). Michelle has some suggestions for improvements of the map in Ohio. Here’s a cropped and resized dialect map:
One thing that immediately stood out is the latitudinal banded pattern of the dialects. They seem to follow migrations from the east coast inland, and reflect sectional divisions which go back to the 19th century. Below is a county by county map of the results for the 1856 presidential election.
The maps above juxtaposes the counties which shifted Republican in the 2008 presidential election vs. 2004 (reddish) and the age-adjusted estimated rates of obesity by county in 2007 (darker blue). One issue which I haven’t seen explored too much are the two faces of Appalachia; the Atlantic facing counties are generally healthier than the lowland countries to their east, even controlling for race. In contrast, the west facing counties have some of the lowest human development indices in the United States. West Virginia is the fattest state. And it seems purely from inspection that the east facing counties of Appalachia which shifted toward the Republicans in 2008 are also amongst the fattest in the nation.
Is this simply a coincidence? A reader queried me about the relationship between politics and weight, wondering about correlations. I don’t follow politics too closely, but apparently there has been some conflict recently between conservatives who oppose the top-down campaign against obesity spearheaded by our cultural and political elites. My perception, which may be wrong, is that some are portraying this as another liberal culture war. To some extent this is dumb, as it seems that the biggest salient predictor of weight is class. The majority of American adults are overweight according to BMI thresholds, and a significant minority are obese. And yet none of the presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2008, or their spouses, were overweight. Take a look at the candidates during the Democratic and Republican debates in 2008, and you can see that they don’t “look like America.” Despite the efforts of NAAFA this is one way that Americans are not too keen on the candidates reflecting themselves. Rather, it seems that Americans were more accepting of fat heads of state when they were a slimmer folk.
Looking in the GSS there’s one variable which might shed light on the question of politics and weight, INTRWGHT. This is basically an interviewer assessment of the weight of the respondent. It was collected in 2004. I limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites to eliminate population stratification.
This is my comment of the month:
Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?
When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.
I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.
No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.
From The New York Times, White Democrats Lose More Ground in South:
There are other signs that the realignment might not be permanent. Growing Latino populations in Florida and Texas, and in Georgia and South Carolina, could rearrange the political map again before too long.
And then there is the curious case of North Carolina. While Republicans racked up historic victories in state races on Tuesday, seven of the state’s eight Democratic congressmen survived challenges, including Heath Shuler, a young Blue Dog elected in 2006.
That, oddly enough, leaves North Carolina with one of the most Democratic Congressional delegations outside of the Northeast.
This an illustration of the maxim that differences among white people are not worth comment, even if they have more impact than differences between racial minorities and whites. At some point Latinos in states in the South aside from Texas and Florida will be numerous enough to be significant, but right now they’re not there yet. But what about Northern transplants? Or those from more exotic locales? If they’re white Northerners who resettle in the Research Triangle of North Carolina aren’t worth mentioning explicitly I guess, but that’s certainly a relatively parsimonious explanation for why North Carolina in particular seems to have weathered the “Republican wave” rather well. Just as Latinos may have given Democrats a demographic booster-shot out West, in North Carolina the addition of Northern transplants who operate somewhat outside of the traditional black-white cultural divide in the South may have bolstered the Democrats.
To make this more concrete, I’ve taken the pop, soda and coke data for Southern states and created ratios of each to the total sum of the three. Below is a bar graph which shows the values for all three by state:
William Easterly asserts that David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest:
A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks helpfully illustrated in his column today on my home region the Midwest. He brilliantly demonstrates how outsiders can get lost in the jungle in a region not their own.
Brooks’ Midwest is:
that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.
Mr. Brooks is apparently unaware from his vantage point on the Far Eastern Coastal Rim that central New York is still in the East, not the Midwest. And there has never been a single Midwesterner in two centuries who ever thought they were in the same region as Arkansas.
I grant the point about Arkansas. But I think Brooks may be on more solid ground about central New York and Pennsylvania. On a biographical note I’ve lived in upstate New York, but near the border with New England (this is why I am a Celtics fan). I’ve also lived in western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh (I’m a Steeler’s fan, and suspicious of the Browns). As a matter of geography Pittsburgh and Buffalo are Northeastern cities, but as a matter of cultural sensibility they’re classic Rustbelt metropolises. They are technically outside the Midwest, but they are most definitely part of the Great Lakes Region. Syracuse may be a liminal in terms of identity, but I don’t think Brooks is totally off base assuming that its sensibility is more with the Midwest than the East.
I don’t know about you, but I have a weird mental problem whereby my visual model of the past is strongly shaped by the constraints on the various representational modes which preserve images from a particular era. For example, the paintings of the 18th century shape how I imagine the 18th century, while the black and white photos of the early 20th century tend to drain color out of that period from my mind’s eye. So it’s always of interest to me when extremely old color photographs are discovered. A reminder to my subconscious that the past looked just like the present in many ways. But this set from The Boston Globe are so good that it’s mind blowing. All the images are from between 1909 and 1912, and within the boundaries of the Russian Empire.
Here’s a sample:
On the heels of my post on cousin marriage, I thought readers might find this article on genetic screening in the United Arab Emirates of interest. One way to tackle the problem of genetic diseases which emerge out of consanguineous unions apparently isn’t to discourage the unions themselves, but dodge the outcomes. So pre-implantation screening of eggs as well as selective abortion of fetuses both seem to be options being evaluated. Aside from the costs, especially in the former case (though abortions are not without risk, and the initial stages of pregnancy are an investment of time as well), I still think there are long term problems with this. But first, Alan Bittles (who produced the map in the previous post) points to a major shortfall of a simple do-not-marry-cousins heuristic in this case:
Dr. John Hawks points me to a review in BMC Biology, A question of scale: Human migrations writ large and small. It’s short, and of interest for the citations themselves. This a field in flux. One point which I think needs to be emphasized in relation to migration parameters is that there are going to be two primary modes which this might play out, short range deme-to-deme contact, and long range cultural/genetic revolution (there is going to be a range between the two, but let us suppose that these are two modes in the distribution).
Long time readers of this weblog will recognize Zachary Latif. Zachary and I have been having exchanges on various topics on and off since 2002 on the blogs. His early opinionated musings on cultural and historical topics were a definite prod for me to venture out more vigorously into this domain. As a Pakistani Baha’i educated and resident in the West he offered me a window into a very different perspective from what I’d ever encountered before. In particular he challenged me in 2002 when I blithely repeated conventional wisdom about the economic rise of India and the stagnation of Pakistan. He had numbers at his finger tips. I did not.
Since that time it is arguable that Pakistan has become more, not less, important to Americans. How is Pakistan doing? To look into this I decided to use Google Data Explorer, focusing on trend lines comparing the various South Asian nations.
To the left you see a map of the distribution of languages and language families in Europe. Language is arguably the most salient cultural feature of our species, as well as one of the most obviously biologically embedded. The trait of language is a human universal, to the point where even those without hearing can create their own gestural languages de novo. But the specific nature of language as it is instantiated from region to region varies greatly. Language in the generality is a straightforward utility with which you communicate with your fellow man. But language also separates you from your fellow man.
European nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was in large part rooted in the idea that language defined the boundaries of a nation. During the Reformation era some German-speaking Roman Catholic priests declaimed the value of the bond of language against that of religion, praising those non-Germans who adhered to the Catholic cause against German speaking heretics (in the specific case the priest was defending Spanish tercios brought in by the Holy Roman Emperor to put down the rebellion of Protestant German princes). In the long centuries between the Reformation and the Enlightenment the idea of a Western Christian Commonwealth slowly melted in the face of the rise of vernacular, but even after the shattering of Western Christianity with the explosion of Reformations the accumulated capital of a unified Christian European elite persisted. Hungarian Protestant students at Oxford could make do with Latin even if they were totally innocent of English (see The Reformation). Newer lingua francas, French and later English, lack the deep unifying power of Latin in part because they are also living vernaculars. They may resemble Latin in some particulars of function, but eliding the differences removes far too much from the equation to be of any use. Linguistic diversity is a fact of our universe, but how it plays out matters a great deal, and has mattered a great deal, over the arc of history.
This is the subject of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Nicholas Ostler, the author, tackles an enormous subject here. He acknowledges the Herculean nature of his task in the introduction. And yet he does avoid some of the more intractable controversies within historical linguistics by constraining his subject matter to the period of history. That is, where we have some written records. This means that Ostler does not address the origins of the Indo-European language family, or the more recent expansion of the Bantus. Despite being separated by thousands of years these are both in the domain of pre-history, because we have no written records of proto-Bantu or proto-Indo-European. This does not mean that the book is not ambitious all the same. On the contrary, Empires of the Word takes on the “thicker” and messier tangle which is the association between language and fine-grained historical processes, social, cultural, economic and political. How history has shaped the nature and distribution of languages which we see extant in our world today is a labyrinth with many doors. Ostler doesn’t come close to opening the majority of those doors, but those he selects in Empires of the Word yield a rich number of surprises and insights, though he does not in the end seem to be able to generate a Grand Unified Theory of linguistic diversity and change from the welter of details.
The New York Times has an interesting piece, As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. It is dense with the different strands of this story. Basically, upper and upper middle class Indonesians are switching from Bahasa Indonesian to English to give their children a leg up, and are sending their children to English-medium schools. Because these children have a weak command of Indonesian some authorities are fearing for the cohesion of the Indonesian nation. Though the piece alludes to other languages in Indonesia, such as Javanese, it does not emphasize the fact that the widespread knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian was the outcome of a top-down project of nation-building, and that that language is the native tongue of only a minority of the citizens of Indonesia!
Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language – some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or ‘good and correct’ Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.
David Dobbs has a long measured response up to David Appell’s strange argument that Pepsi’s “free speech” rights were violated during the recent ScienceBlogs kerfuffle, by way of which he casts some aspersions on the character and agenda of specific bloggers. Here’s the thing about Appell, he has a long history of confused and surly criticisms and interrogations of others and himself. I know that history because I first became familiar with Dave Appell in May of 2002. In between pointers and commentary on physical science, his primary beat as a science journalist, he would offer some personal reflections, frustrations, and worries. I’m not big into bloggers who “overshare,” especially science bloggers, so I tried to ignore that as I focused on the substance of Appell’s posts.
I just got back from a European trip, and I have to say I did not miss tipping. I especially appreciated not having to do the song & dance typical of larger groups in sit-down restaurants in the USA where you figure out how much you’re going to tip on a communal basis, when everyone has different tipping set points and perceptions of service and such. The money is less of an issue than the extra wasted time at the end of a meal & drinks which are spent on the terms of calculation rather than more conventional conviviality. In fact now that I think about it way too much time in my life has been spent discussing the etiquette of tipping, often outside of a situation where people are going to have to tip imminently. I thought about this after seeing this post in The Atlantic on tipping. One correspondent observes:
I lived in Japan for a while. There is no tipping there, and it works great. If we could be like Japan, I’d be all for it. However, I don’t think we’d be like Japan. Anytime I have ever eaten somewhere that does not practice tipping, service has been abysmal. Customers herded through like cattle, dishes brought out late, then diners rushed through them, eyes rolled, etc. We just do not have the service culture that would allow us to disconnect pay from performance and continue to expect the same kind of service.
The point about national culture is well taken. I experienced some bad service in Italy and Finland, but the quality of badness was very different, in keeping what with you’d expect from the respective national cultures (though in general I experienced service as good as in the states in both places).* But the empirical observation about American restaurants without tipping having lesser service suffers from sampling bias. Establishments which don’t have tipping are generally lower-end, verging on cafeterias. So it’s not an apples to apples comparison. A better one would be looking at higher end restaurants which have mandatory gratuities for large groups vs. those which do not. Even here you have the peculiar distortion of the larger group, which can often be more difficult for a server to manage.
Of course one’s perspective on this probably varies by the amount of disposable income one has. If you don’t have much disposable income the small but repeated investments of time & energy which go into tipping might be worthwhile if you can manage to pay less than you would otherwise. If you have a fair amount of disposable income the marginal potential savings introduced by greater price variation which you can control at the cost of time & energy needed may not be worth it.
* I had to bargain very hard with a Finnish server on whether I could handle Indian levels of spiciness. This was obviously a well rehearsed conversation on her part, but I thought she should have updated her priors in my case. The lighting was dim, but not that dim. Usually American servers at Indian restaurants aren’t too resistant when I assert I can handle high levels of spice.
I thought about this memory this weekend, visiting Ruthie and my family. Ruthie and Mike bought part of what was once the orchard from our distant cousins, and built their house there. The rest of the land that had once been Lois and Hilda’s was sold to strangers. The cabin has long been gone; a nice big brick house belonging to someone I don’t know is now where the cabin was. True to Hilda’s palm-reading prophecy, I traveled far in my life. I have now spent well over half my life living away from there. Yet that is home for me, because that is where my family is, and the landscape of my childhood. Now, though, my parents are getting up in years, and my younger sister, at age 40, is battling a disease that may take her life. I hadn’t realized until this crisis with Ruthie how much I had counted on the continuity of her remaining there, even after our parents pass away, to anchor that place as the center of my imaginative universe. She, who has always loved the land and her place there far more than I, and she, whom I could count on to always be faithful to it, however unfaithful I was, sits in her armchair in what was once the orchard, coughing and straining for breath. We hope and we pray for healing, but now the way I thought the world would be may not be the way the world is, or will become. And I am having a hard time coming to terms with that, as both an emotional and a philosophical matter (i.e., trying to understand how to relate to where I come from now that the permanence I assumed would always be there is threatened).
From what I recall Louisiana is a region of the United States where people move least, and are deeply rooted in their locales. In this way I suppose it’s more like Europe and much of the Old World, with the importance of place encapsulated in terms such as Heimat. Though I am an American my family is from Bangladesh, and on the rare occasions that I interact with Bangladeshis I will be asked what my desh is, roughly my ancestral homeland. That would happen to be a small town in the southeast of modern Bangladesh, where my paternal ancestors settled several centuries ago, and where my extended family still has lands. But here’s the thing: I’ve never been to “my” desh. My parents always found this amusing when I asked as a child how my homeland could be a place to which I’d never been, and on some level I think they accept that these terms are anachronistic. Like much of Asia Bangladesh has seen massive urbanization within the past generation, and I get the sense that these old terms are far less relevant. In some ways it may be that Europe and North America, where development and modernization occurred at a slower place, may be the regions where a traditional sense of place remains the most robust because of the more gentle transition from the past to the future.