Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.
“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”
EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.
“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”
EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.
I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.
I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.
But back to the man in the woods in the court:
“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”
“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.
“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.
“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”
EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.
“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.
“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.
“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”
EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.
“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …
“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.
“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”
Social Organization (or lack thereof):
“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.
“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.
“The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”
Humans have been around for about 200,000 years–longer if we include other members of our genus, such as Homo Erectus–and it took us about 199,800 of those years just to make one billion of us. It took about 120 years to make the second billion of us, and 100 years to make the next six billion.
When will we stop? Will our population stabilize, keep climbing, slowly decline, or suddenly crash? I have no idea. I do know, however, that humanity’s growth–and industrialization–shows no sign of slowing in the short term, putting increasing pressure on the other species we share our planet with.
I like animals. I don’t want elephants or panda bears to go extinct. But how much good can conservation efforts do in a world of increasing numbers of hungry people who also want to use the animals’ habitats?
Since there is nothing I can do about the number of people in the world, I propose a different solution: mass domestication.
Wikipedia estimates that there were about 60 million buffalo (American bison) in the US in 1800. Today, there are about 90 million cattle. Domesticated cattle far outnumber their ancestral species, the auroch. Dogs outnumber wolves. Corn has gone from a dinky little plant growing in Mexico to one of the world’s most common plants. Even rats and pigeons have benefited from their association with man.
How many species could be preserved by mutually-beneficial domestication?
Many species of deer or other large herbivorous herd animals could be raised for meat, such as the Pere David’s deer, virtually extinct in the wild:
In the late 19th century, the world’s only herd belonged to Tongzhi, the Emperor of China. The herd was maintained in the Nanyuan Royal Hunting Garden in Nan Haizi, near Peking. In 1895, one of the walls of the hunting garden was destroyed by a heavy flood of the Yongding River, and most of the deer escaped and were killed and eaten by starving peasants. Fewer than thirty Père David’s Deer remained in the garden. Then in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the garden was occupied by troops and the remaining deer were shot and eaten, leaving the Père David’s deer extinct in its native China.
I hear it’s difficult to farm or raise cattle in marshlands, so why not raise marsh-adapted deer?
The scimitar oryx, similarly extinct in the wild, has lovely horns and lives comfortably in large herds in dry areas.
The Axolotl is an incredible “amphibian” that never develops lungs and spends its entire life underwater:
As of 2010, wild axolotls were near extinction due to urbanization in Mexico City and consequent water pollution. They are currently listed by CITES as an endangered species and by IUCN as critically endangered in the wild, with a decreasing population. Axolotls are used extensively in scientific research due to their ability to regenerate limbs. Axolotls were also sold as food in Mexican markets and were a staple in the Aztec diet.
Axolotls come in a variety of lovely colors and range in appearance from the cute to the intimidating.
And if you want an axolotl in your aquarium, perhaps you’d also be interested in an Alabama cave fish.
Governments, in order to symbolize their long, peaceful rule, could adopt tortoise mascots, sheltering them on official grounds (there’s plenty of space around the White House for a herd of turtles.)
Imagine a future in which tortoise races are an official function of government. Or diplomats engage in slow-motion jousting matches.
Since turtles and tortoises are temperature sensitive, each government would want to highlight a local species, not an imported one (unless no local species were available.)
I’ve eaten duck eggs. They’re tasty–a lot like chicken eggs, actually.
Pygmy elephants, rhinos (if you could breed a non-grumpy variety) and giraffes–imagine delicately proportioned miniature giraffes being taken for a walk through Central Park by their gliteratti owners.
Flightless birds like the kakapo have been decimated by the introduction of invasive hunters like cats. Since they cannot fly, they seem already better suited to being pets than flying birds like cockatoos.
Most primates seem too intelligent for domestication–they’d use their thumbs and smarts to get into trouble–but maybe a few, like lemurs, could make good companions.
Pangolins, seals, and otters are obviously high on my list:
Obviously this post has been somewhat lighthearted, and there are probably good reasons why some of these animals actually aren’t well-suited to domestication.
But I am also serious; I would far rather live in a world with miniature pet pandas and giraffes than a world where these animals have gone extinct.
If we’re stuck on this planet–and it looks like we are–let’s make it a pleasant place to live.
They say electricity drove away the fairies. Does it kill all belief?
I find it a lot easier to be absolutely terrified when it’s pitch black out. The last time that happened, I was in a national forest in the mountains, trying to find my way back to my car. My imagination, being mine, was convinced that the woods were full of thieves and I was about to be dead.
As a kid, prayer had a wonderfully soothing effect on my fear or the dark, but my devout spirituality cratered mid-highschool.
Every angry, nostalgic nerd claims that things were better back when he was a kid. Original Star Trek was better; the latest movie in an unholy abomination. Han Solo shot first; the new movie is an unholy abomination. The video games were awesomer, the school curriculae were smarter, the Christmas lights were merrier.
Even Santa Claus was way better when I was 5.
Does everything go to shit with time? Or do we just look at the world through different glasses when we’re little kids? Do we just believe more? Are there monsters under the bed, or just in our imaginations?
We adults don’t fear the dark–and why should we? Look at all of our lights. It’s 2 AM, and I can see my hands! I could write this post on notebook paper without even straining my eyes.
But when the electricity is gone and I’m left in the real, true, dark, suddenly the all of the emotions–not just the fear–come back. They’re stronger in the dark. In the childhood of dawn, we still believe there are things that go thump in the night, but in adulthood and the noonday sun, we’re atheists.
What was life like before electricity? When candles were a luxury?
It is pretty easy to massively over-estimate the amount of light people had at night. I see it frequently in fiction–characters easily reading or noticing each other’s expressions by candlelight.
Candles and fires don’t give off all that much light. And they are costly. Nights were dark. And long.
As much as I enjoyed Christmas as a child, I never felt like it had much to do with winter. When I grew up, I moved to a latitude where the winter sun had set by 4 pm, the rivers froze, and I walked home each night through this icy darkness. When the town strung up Christmas lights and handed out hot cocoa, what a welcome relief they were! So that’s why we lit candles in the winter, took comfort in their light.
When I visit my relatives in the country, I am suddenly confronted with the Milky Way; uncountable thousands of stars thrown like jewels into the darkness. Who has not beheld it and felt the majesty and awe of the universe?
When I look at the stars, I feel as if I am about to fall off the Earth and tumble headlong into the universe, the infinite void.
And from this unutterable blackness, this void, this trembling fear at the universe, do we draw our belief all things mystical. Is this where the idea of gods and ghosts and demons came from? (Angels, I suspect, could only have come at dawn.) When you grandmother tells you a ghost story in a pitch-black house while winter rages outside, what choice do you have but to believe her?
But then the lights came on… and belief flickered off.