Monday, October 29, 2012

Don’t Sleep

One day, listening to the jungle drums on the info-stream, I heard that a study had concluded that the happiest people in the world were the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) tribe of the Amazon (true).  I heard that some guy then went to visit them, to discover the source of their bliss (false).  I heard that his name was Daniel L. Everett, and the book was Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (true).  My library had the book, and reading it was a rewarding experience (true).
Everett spent much of 30 years among the Pirahã (1977-2006), arriving long before the happiness study was published.  His three children were raised among them, on the banks of the Maici River.  The jungle was full of dangerous things.  All night long, some natives stayed awake chatting.  They rarely slept more than two hours at a time.  Sleepers became a playground for dozens of three-inch cockroaches (annoyances), and were often joined by eight-inch roach-eating tarantulas (beloved allies).
Acquiring food required the natives to “work” 15 to 20 hours each week.  They hunted, fished, foraged, and grew some manioc.  About 70 percent of their diet was fish.  They lived beside a major river that had not yet been emptied by commercial fishermen.  Villagers who visited cities were shocked to observe how much food the civilized folks consumed — three big meals a day!
The Pirahã were remarkably and genuinely happy.  They wore bright smiles, and laughed about everything.  Violence was rare, and so were angry outbursts.  They were amazingly tolerant and patient.  They were less pleasant to be around when traders brought them rum, and every man, woman, and child became blind drunk.
The people lived in a world that was spiritually alive, and they often saw and spoke with spirits that Everett was unable to perceive.  Sometimes spirits took the form of jaguars or trees.  Sometimes they spoke through a person in a trance.  Sometimes they provided the people with guidance or warnings.  Sometimes they killed people.  Many folks wore necklaces to protect themselves from evil spirits.
The natives spoke to their children like equals; “baby talk” was unknown.  Parents were not paranoid protectionists — kids were free to burn themselves in the fire, or cut themselves with sharp knives, in the pursuit of higher learning.  There was no spanking, and children were never given orders — nor were adults.  Pirahã teens were not confused, insecure, and depressed.  They naturally conformed to the ways of the community.  They were blessed to live in a stable sustainable society. 
The Pirahã language had no numbers, or words to express quantities.  They had no use for the knowledge of the whites, because their way of life worked just fine without it.  After months of daily classes, none could count to ten, or calculate the sum of one plus one.  Consequently, traders delighted in exploiting them, by underpaying them for jungle products. 
Indigenous folks who lived with the Brazilians and their money economy were known as caboclos.  Life in the culture of materialism infected them with madness.  When prospectors found a section of streambed rich with gold, other caboclos did not hesitate to murder them and swipe the treasure.  All that mattered was winning, by any means necessary.
They thought that the Pirahãs were lazy and stupid, because they had zero interest in pursuing wealth, or plundering their ecosystem.  But the Pirahã had a time-proven way of life that worked very well — wild, free, and happy.  They always had everything they needed, and life was more or less grand, hence the smiles and laughter.  Might this have been humankind’s “normal” state in the good old days?
The caboclos were more sullen in nature.  The demands of the money world were highly corrosive to their traditional culture, to the vitality of their ecosystem, and to their mental health.  They were less secure, and had real reasons to worry about tomorrow, because their survival depended on an ever-changing external system that was beyond their control. 
Everett was originally enlisted by the Summer Institute of Language to translate the New Testament into Pirahã.  He was not supposed to preach or baptize.  The SIL had great faith that the sacred words of the scriptures alone were all that was needed to illuminate the wicked souls of the heathens and inspire them to convert to the one true faith.
So, Everett spent much time at his desk, listening to recordings, thinking, taking notes.  He was a linguist, not an anthropologist, and he was on a mission from God.  “I had gone to the Pirahãs to tell them about Jesus…, to give them an opportunity to choose purpose over pointlessness, to choose life over death, to choose joy and faith over despair and fear, to choose heaven over hell.” 
Everett’s heroic efforts were vexed by the fact that no other language on Earth bore the slightest resemblance to Pirahã.  Learning it was devilishly difficult.  The villagers only spoke their native tongue, so no translators were available to assist him.  After years of struggle, he finally succeeded, and translated the Gospel of Mark.  He read it to natives, and none saw the light.  It had no effect.  Only one item in the scriptures captured their complete attention: the decapitation of St. John.
Pirahã culture was focused entirely on the present.  Their way of life was the same as it was 1,000 years ago, and would remain the same for the next 1,000 years.  So, there was no reason for history, and fear of the future was silly.  They lived in the here and now, and believed what they could see.  An event was only real if a living person in the community had been an eyewitness to it.  Thus, Everett’s stories about an ancient miracle worker named Jesus were purely meaningless. 
One day, Everett gathered the folks together and delivered a testimonial.  He had once been a hairy hippy, lost and confused, poisoning himself with drugs and booze.  Then, his stepmother committed suicide, he saw the light, accepted Jesus, and his life became better.  When the story was finished, the Pirahã all burst out laughing.  “She killed herself?  Ha ha ha.  How stupid.  Pirahãs don’t kill themselves.” 
His perplexing objective was “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.”  Missionaries had been trying to convert the Pirahã for nearly 300 years, without saving a single soul.  The villagers insisted that they had no desire to live like Americans, and they begged him to stop talking about Jesus.
By the late ‘80s, after ten years of failed efforts, Everett realized that he had become a closet atheist.  “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”  
He remained in the closet for 20 years, in constant fear of being discovered.  Finally, he confessed, and his family broke apart.  Today he’s a professor in the US.  He helped to create an official reservation for the Pirahã, so that they will forever be safe from greedy materialists (true?).
Everett, Daniel, L., Don’t Sleep – There are Snakes, Pantheon Books, New York, 2008.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lightning Bird

There is no such thing as coincidence, right?  Sitting here in Oregon, I wrote a story about a guy in New Jersey, sent it to a site in England, where it was read by a guy in Greece, who pointed me to a story from South Africa, about a man I’d never heard of: Adrian Boshier (1939-1978).  His life was described in Lightning Bird, a biography by Lyall Watson (1939-2008).  Watson was the inventor of “the hundredth monkey,” a magical thinking meme that once went viral.  The book was just what I needed: a visit to an old-fashioned society.
Boshier was an Englishman who moved to South Africa when he was 16.  He was a reckless, brainy, and extremely lucky man who had a short, fantastic life — a whirlwind adventure in rewilding.  He lived in the bush for most of his first six years in Africa.  Unlike other whites, Boshier walked wherever he went, ate what natives ate, and drank their water.  He would head off into wild country with nothing but a pocketknife and a bag of salt (for trading), and live off the land for as long as he wanted. 
He became highly skilled at catching and befriending dangerous snakes.  Walking into a village wrapped up in a 14-foot python, he terrified the natives, giving birth to his reputation as a powerful magician.  He would catch an eight-foot cobra, milk its venom, and drink it before a wide-eyed crowd.  They called him Rradinoga, the father of snakes.
By and by, Boshier met Raymond Dart, the archeologist who discovered Australopithecus africanus.  Dart took him under his wing, and arranged museum work for him.  The lad also made some money selling snake venom to labs.
Boshier was forced to unlearn his narrow Englishness.  Natives taught him the juicy delights of gobbling three-inch caterpillars.  Eventually, he learned how to chase down a young antelope and strangle it with his bare hands.  When a leopard killed an animal, he would race at it screaming, scare it off, and snatch a hunk of flesh.  He once tried to swipe some fresh meat from five lions, unsuccessfully, but he lived to tell about it.
He was fascinated by native culture, and decided to learn more about diviners or witch doctors.  An elder told him to go to Makgabeng, a mountainous land that was home to fearsome spirit power.  The mountains were so dangerous that you shouldn’t even point your finger at them, let alone walk into them.  Boshier walked into them.  Before long, he gained the respect of the residents.
Their chief introduced him to the keeper of the traditions, who told Boshier that the spirits had brought him to Makgabeng to learn.  Why?  “The lessons that the spirits bring cannot be doubted and they must not be ignored.  If you disregard the experience offered by the sprits, you will fall.  You may even die.  But if you follow the path along which they lead, you will learn.  You will gain power and your sprits will be happy.”
A witch doctor reinforced this message.  She told him that his health problems resulted from his resistance to the spirits.  “The hospitals in your cities are full of the hornless ones, those who have been called and would not go.  No one asks for the spirits and it is not easy to live with them.  Everyone fights in the beginning, but in the end one must obey them and do their work.  You should be dead.  I do not know why they let you live.”
Eventually she taught him the skills of a witch doctor, and he was honored by an initiation ceremony.  But whenever he got too stressed, he would flee to Johannesburg and spend time with the whites.  He straddled two incompatible worlds, and never felt at home in either one.
In the mountains, he visited many caves, and studied the paintings on their walls.  Some were recent, and some were very old.  He met elders who understood their meaning.  They were not just decorative graffiti.  The images recorded information, something like writing.  Tribes who spoke different languages all understood the painted symbols in the same way, because they were like a universal form of communication, archetypal images.
The bright climax of the book occurred when a severe drought came to Makgabeng.  Since he was a powerful witch doctor, the people asked him to make it rain.  He responded in a beautiful way.  He found their sacred drums in a forgotten cave, where they had been hidden 50 years earlier, when German missionaries demanded their destruction.  A black bull was sacrificed to provide new hides for the drums.  To bring rain, everyone had to be initiated in the old ways, and the ancestors fully honored.  The people were united by an empowering healing process.  It rained.  Joy!
“There is in African custom an essential harmony, an equilibrium with the land which seems to be lacking in our lives.”  Africa is a special place.  The roots of the old culture go “all the way back, in one long unbroken line, to the origins of man.”  For all of us, a journey to Africa is a homecoming.  “There are few things in traditional life in Africa that can be identified as distinctively sacred in the sense that they can be separated from the rest of life.  For Africans, the whole of life is sacred.”
The megafauna of Africa did not go extinct, because humans coevolved with them.  Living in the tropics, we needed no clothes or substantial shelters.  A sumptuous buffet was available year round — lizards, snakes, roots, berries, nuts, grubs.  We got by with very simple tools for a long, long time.  This was the normal, time-proven, sustainable mode of human living — a mode that our genetic evolution had fine-tuned us for (with the same genes we have today).
Then, folks migrated out of Africa, to non-tropical lands where living conditions were less perfect, and survival was more challenging.  Dwelling outside of our evolutionary homeland turned us into something like moon explorers.  Without technological crutches, we would have been unable to survive.  Be clever or die!
The dark climax of the book was one of humankind’s big tragedies.  Some old cave paintings that Boshier studied had images of sheep.  Sheep were not indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa.  They came from the Middle East, where clever people had reduced strong and powerful wild mouflon into fuzzy, sub-intelligent freaks that could not survive without human care.
Portraits of sheep indicated that the clever moon explorers had returned to sacred Africa, bringing with them domesticated livestock, sacks of seeds, and the consuming mindset of the colonizer and domesticator.  “The introduction of a pastoral economy, starting perhaps three or four thousand years ago, seems to have marked the beginning of a relentless destruction, now almost complete, of the earliest way of human life.  It was the end of a society that had discovered how to live in harmony with — rather than at the expense of — nature.”
The archaeological community was always on the lookout for evidence of the miraculous transition, when primitive hominids, who lived by instinct, crossed the Rubicon and became self-aware Homo sapiens with complex brains — incredible modern humans!  Well, here we are, neck deep in a bubbling cauldron of toxic progress soup, big brains and all.  Success!  These days, the primitive side of the Rubicon is looking more and more like where we really belong — home.  Can we learn something here?
Boshier was an epileptic.  To Europeans, epilepsy was a disease.  To Africans, he was blessed by the spirits, very special.  Near the end of his life, he was having as many as 30 epileptic attacks per week.  On 18 November, 1978, Boshier waded into the waters of the Indian Ocean and died.  The next day, a storm raced into the bone dry Makgabeng, the thunder rumbled, and “it rained and rained and rained.”
Watson, Lyall, Lightning Bird — The Story of One Man’s Journey into Africa’s Past, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1982.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Little Ice Age

Once upon a time, Brian Fagan became curious about how history has been shaped by climate.  He did a remarkable amount of research, and then delivered a fascinating and very readable book, The Little Ice Age.  Mainstream history tends to focus on rulers, empires, wars, and technology, providing us with a pinhole perspective on ages past.  Fagan used a wide angle lens, and revealed how the miserable peasantry of Europe struggled to survive in a world of daffy rulers, steamroller epidemics, wildly erratic weather, and the ever-present threat of famine — a highly insecure existence in a world with no safety nets, and brief life expectancy.
Most of our detailed, regularly recorded weather data is less than 200 years old.  Older writings made note of climate conditions, times of prosperity, famines, plagues, and natural disasters.  More recently, we’ve discovered that tree rings and ice cores can provide climate information going back thousands of years.  The annual rings in tree trunks are thicker in ideal weather and thinner in lean years.  The annual layers of ice in glaciers are thicker in cold years, and thinner in warm ones.  In this way, climate leaves a fingerprint pattern that we can decode.  Ice also preserves ash residue, marking volcanic activity, which can have significant effects on weather.
While climate can vary from year to year, and day to day, modern climate science has discovered broader trends in weather patterns.  Fagan examined three trends: the Medieval Warm Period (900-1200), the Little Ice Age (1300-1850), and the warming trend of the fossil-fuelled industrial era. 
In northern Europe, the years between 800 and 1200 were the warmest period in the last 8,000 years.  There were vineyards in England.  Generous grain harvests fed a population explosion, which naturally triggered a rash of bloody conflicts.  Because of the warm weather, sea levels rose between 1000 and 1200, creating challenges for the lowlanders.  “At least 100,000 people died along the Dutch and German coasts in four fierce storm surges in about 1200, 1212-1219, 1287, and 1362.”
The kickoff for the Little Ice Age came in 1315, when it rained almost continuously from May to August.  Fields became lakes or knee-deep mud.  Floods erased entire villages.  Wars had to be cancelled.  The population, which had exploded between 1100 and 1300, now had to share a puny harvest, if any.
The survivors eagerly awaited a return to normal weather in 1316, but rains resumed in the spring.  Livestock diminished, crops failed, prices rose, and the roads were jammed with wandering beggars.  Many villages were abandoned.  People dined on pigeon dung, dogs, cats, and the corpses of diseased cattle (rumors of cannibalism).  By the spring of 1317, they had eaten their seeds, and had few oxen to plow with.  The rains returned.  There were seven years of bad harvests, creating steady employment for gravediggers.
For the next 550 years, the weather got colder, and there were more storms.  Frigid spells might last a season or a decade.  Cold weather was extreme from 1680 to 1700.  London trees froze and split open, and the Thames was covered with thick ice.  Chilly summers led to poor harvests from 1687 to 1692.  You could walk across the ice from Denmark to Sweden in the winter of 1708-09.  The All Saints Flood of November 1570 submerged the Dutch lowlands, drowning 100,000. 
This book is jammed with stories of weather-related problems — floods, droughts, crop failures, epidemics, famines, and food riots.  Most people struggled to survive via subsistence farming, using primitive technology.  Most didn’t have enough land for livestock, which meant little manure for fertilizer.  Under ideal conditions on prime land, planting a bushel of wheat would produce just four or five bushels at harvest time.  Because of this low productivity, feeding society required the labor of nine out of ten people.  Famine was common, and food relief was rare.  “Even in the best of times, rural life was unrelentingly harsh.”  “Farm laborers lived in extraordinary squalor….”
Fagan’s tales reinforced my dislike of agriculture.  It fuels overpopulation, converts healthy wild ecosystems into wreckage, enslaves plants and animals, and requires inequality and brutality.  It is proprietary — all the big juicy melons in that field belong to my group, and our field is strictly off-limits to any other creature.  This is the opposite of nature’s way, in which a big juicy melon is fair game for one and all, finders keepers.   
Private property turns humans and societies into obnoxious two-year olds — “that’s MY melon!”  Possessions become objects of wealth, power, and status.  If I steal your horse, then its power becomes mine.  In the insatiable pursuit of wealth, people will lie to your face, snatch your purse, cut your throat, bomb cities into ashtrays, and destroy entire planets.  You can’t farm without warriors to protect the real estate, livestock, and granaries, and you can’t control warriors without hard-fisted leaders.
The legions of hungry dirty peasants who produced the wealth were expendable, and lived in a manner that none of us would tolerate — while the lords gaily feasted.  “Excavations of medieval cemeteries paint a horrifying picture of health problems resulting from brutal work regimes.  Spinal deformations from the hard labor of plowing, hefting heavy grain bags, and scything the harvest are commonplace.  Arthritis affected nearly all adults.  Most adult fisherfolk suffered agonizing osteoarthritis of the spine from years of heavy boatwork and hard work ashore.”
 Today, our lives are unnaturally soft and cozy.  We exist in a “luxurious” unhealthy cocoon created by a temporary bubble of abundant energy.  The shelves at the store are always full, a wonderland of easy calories.  We have no memories of the hellish life of muscle-powered organic agriculture.  We have forgotten how recently our ancestors died from famines and pestilence.  As the cost and scarcity of energy increases, our bubble will surely pop.
Fagan gives us an eye-opening preview of what life is likely to look like when the fossil fuel bubble becomes the subject of scary old fairy tales (The Big Bad Consumer).  As our miraculous machines run out of fuel, we will have no choice but to slip and slide into a muscle-powered future, which will be anything but unnaturally soft and cozy. 
He also warns us that climate change is often not smooth and gentle.  History is full of sudden catastrophic shifts.  Despite our whiz-bang technology, and hordes of scientists, climate shifts remain beyond our control.  We will experience whatever nature decides to serve us — even if we exercised our famous big brains, and permanently stopped every machine today.  Climate was a persistent threat to agriculture-based societies long before coal mining was invented, because agriculture had far more defects than benefits.
This book provides vital information for those struggling to envision a sustainable future based on organic agriculture.  Ideally, enlightened humans will deliberately keep the transition to muscle-powered organic agriculture as brief as possible, whilst devoting immense wisdom to the essential goals of full-speed population reduction and rewilding.  There is nothing finer than a sustainable way of life.  All other paths lead to oblivion.
Fagan,Brian, The Little Ice Age — How Climate Made History 1300-1850, Basic Books, New York, 2000.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Unlearn, Rewild

Are you glowing with inner peace?  Is your journey healthy, balanced, and joyful?  Do you believe that the world is close to perfection because of technological progress?  None of the above?
Miles Olson is a young man with an old soul.  He has never felt at home in modern society, even in childhood.  The only people who made sense to him were the Native Americans, because they lived with respect and reverence for all things.  When he was 17, he spent the summer living alone on a remote island.  Solitude in wildness is powerful medicine.  In a week or so, he could barely remember his name.
He struggled to find his life’s vision and calling.  There was no integrity in pursuing a career that injured the family of life.  There was no integrity in eating food produced in an atrocious manner.  There was no integrity in devoting his life to robotic consumption.  The “normal” mode was wacko. 
The proper way to live in industrial civilization was to plug into the system, obey the rules, and never ask questions.  But this was not a path with integrity, and Olson refused to submit to a dishonorable life.  So, he commenced thinking.  If the system was destroying the future, then the system was insane.  If the system was insane, then so were its rules.  Therefore, the virtuous choice was to disregard the rules, listen to his heart, and purse a life of integrity, by any means necessary.  He did just that.
He’s been squatting for almost a decade on the fringe of a large unnamed city in British Columbia.  He hunts, traps, forages, and gardens.  He gets profound satisfaction from reducing his dependence on the machine, and reducing the harm he causes.  He wrote Unlearn, Rewild to describe his life as an outlaw with high principles.  (Well, he’s an outlaw to the system, but consumers are outlaws to nature, and nature bats last.)
Unlearning is a process of throwing civilized illusions overboard, of cleaning our minds.  Rewilding means “to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication” — to become uncivilized, to reconnect to place.  The bottom line is that “without genuine, raw connection to wild nature we, as creatures, go insane.” 
All of us have hunter-gatherer genes.  When we were born, our souls expected to spend life as wild and free creatures in a sacred world.  What went wrong?  Olson sees domestication, agriculture, and civilization as being catastrophic mistakes in our journey.
“Sustainability” has become a meaningless word, hijacked and disemboweled by greedheads, nutters, universities, and shameless marketing hucksters.  Nothing is unsustainable anymore.  Our world is totally awesome.  We just need to burn a bit less fossil fuel, make a few minor tweaks, and our way of life will become utopia.  Olson disagrees.  He’s become a revivalist who preaches a fiery message about “radical sustainability” — good old-fashioned fundamentalist sustainability, the genuine article, the most important word in our language today.
One of his sermons illuminated the grave misconceptions that torment vegans and vegetarians, and lead them down a dark path into the valley of malnutrition, impaired health, and prickly self-righteousness.  He was once a vegan, until he saw the light, and returned to the normal omnivorous diet that everyone’s ancestors had enjoyed for a million years.
Yes, of course industrial meat production was abominable, cruel, and ecologically foolish.  The dim-witted domesticated livestock and poultry certainly suffer for it.  But why does no one grieve for the thousands of wild creatures murdered by every pass of the plow and combine?  Why do we ignore the blood gushing from our tofu stir fry?  “There are precious few humans that hear the screams of the Earth….”
Olson recommended that we stop feeding grain to animals, and use it to feed hungry folks.  But this would require continued soil mining to produce the grain.  Instead, in the spirit of big dreaming, I would suggest that we cease growing grain for animal feed, and convert that cropland back to grassland, restore the soil to good health, and give it back to the indigenous wild life — let it heal.
He wondered if hunting with firearms was ethical.  How much technology is too much?  When the Cree replaced bows with guns, they killed more caribou.  But “…the ones truly being victimized by this technology were not the caribou.  The caribou were still free, the people had entered a trap.”  This chapter began with a Ran Prieur quote: “Every technology begins as a key and ends as a cage.”  Well said.
Obviously, the turd in the swimming pool is the way we think — our insane culture.  If our civilization burned to the ground today, we’d start rebuilding it at dawn tomorrow.  “If humans had clean minds, like grasses and thistles, we would return to a state of balance when the forces of domestication ceased.” 
It is at this point that the two sacred verbs “unlearn” and “rewild” summon immense power.  Are we capable of firing up our brains and envisioning humankind living in balance with the rest of life?  Yes, if we try.  Are we capable of escaping from our cage?  Yes, with patience and determination.  Is it possible that sanity is contagious?  Let’s find out!  Olson concludes that we would be wise to make some effort to evolve.  It will take generations to create cultures that win the Radical Sustainability seal of approval, but all we have to lose is an insane way of life.
The book has two parts: ideas and endangered skills.  The ideas section describes his philosophy of life.  The skills section is a sampler of essential knowledge for squatters: making traps and snares, skinning and gutting game, medicinal plants, food preservation, sex without pregnancy, tips for cooking earthworms, slugs, and maggots, and so on. 
I learned some new tricks here, but this is not the last book you’ll need to read.  Chestnuts are good food, but horse chestnuts are toxic.  How do you tell the difference?  Camas is good food, but death camas, which looks the same at harvest time, is not mentioned.  Why is it called death camas?
Olson doesn’t write like a dusty scholar surrounded by piles of musty books.  He writes like a cheerful outlaw who has created a rewarding career in harvesting roadkill, foraging for nuts, roasting grasshoppers, and feasting on dandelions.  It’s a loose and feisty tome with strong opinions and a strong sense of hope and enthusiasm.  It’s not flawless and polished — it has some squeaks, leaks, and rattles — but it still works.
Olson has not given us “The Solution” here.  Obviously, this week is an inconvenient time for seven-point-something billion to become squatters.  But the rising cost and scarcity of energy may turn us all into squatters before long, ready or not.  Nevertheless, he is fully engaged in the most important work of our era — finding the path to genuine sustainability.  Truly, every week is a perfect opportunity for unlearning, rewilding, thinking, and living with greater integrity.
Olson, Miles, Unlearn, Rewild, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2012.

Monday, October 1, 2012


The wild potato is a masterpiece of evolution.  Botanists have discovered 169 species of them, widely dispersed across the Americas, but primarily located in the Andes.  Wild spuds have been able to adapt to every type of ecosystem except for lowland tropical rainforest.  Their foliage is bitter with toxic glycoalkaloid compounds that promptly spoil the appetite of hungry leaf munchers (or kill them).
Beneath the ground, small tubers grow on the roots, in a wide variety of colors and shapes.  The toxic tubers store energy and moisture as insurance against unfavorable conditions.  As they mature, the plants flower, and then produce tomato-like fruits containing up to 200 seeds.  Because the seeds are the result of sexual reproduction, each one is genetically unique.  Some will be resistant to frost, and/or drought, and/or blight.  Wherever they happen to grow, plants having the most suitable genes for local conditions will be the most likely to thrive and reproduce.  Diverse genes are essential for long-term survival.
Wild spuds are not the slightest bit interested in sprawling agribusiness monocultures, cancerous civilizations, population explosions, fungicide industries, topsoil destruction, or morbid obesity.  They simply find ways to blend into their ecosystem, live well, and not rock the boat, like all proper and dignified organisms do.
After consuming several tons of domesticated spuds over many decades, John Reader was inspired to write Potato, a highly readable book that described the amazing success of the humble spud, and the astonishing unintended consequences.  It adds one more chapter to the ongoing comedy of backfiring human cleverness.
Nobody has come up with a compelling explanation for why humans domesticated toxic little tubers, but we did.  Some of the myriad mutants resulting from wild potato sex must have produced tubers with low toxicity that tickled the imagination of somewhat-clever minds. 
Domesticated tubers are much larger than wild ones, and much better tasting.  When the plants stop growing, and the foliage withers, the tubers are no longer poisonous.  An acre of spuds can produce as much food as eight acres of wheat — in much less time.  Spuds are now our fourth most common food, following wheat, corn, and rice.
They are remarkably nutritious.  You can eat nothing but spuds for several months and remain healthy.  If you add a glass of milk to every meal, you will be completely nourished — this was the Irish peasant’s diet 200 years ago.  The average adult male ate 10 pounds of spuds daily, and 20 when working hard.  Seriously!
Potatoes can thrive where grains don’t, and they can be stored for months.  Long ago, the people of the Andes learned how to make chuño — freeze-dried potatoes, which can be stored for years, while losing no nutritional value.  Sweet potatoes are not related to potatoes, and they spoil far more quickly.
Prior to the arrival of potatoes, European peasants were typically malnourished and short-lived.  But spud-gobbling bumpkins were healthy and vigorous, despite their extreme poverty.  Potato-fed kids were more likely to survive into adulthood and reproduce.  Infants could be weaned earlier by switching them to a mix of mashed potatoes and buttermilk, allowing mom to get pregnant again sooner, and have more children.  When potatoes arrived in Ireland around 1600, the population was no more than 1.5 million.  By 1845, it was 8.5 million, of which 90 percent were hardcore spud addicts.  This explosive growth could not continue, of course.
I shall now introduce the arch villain in this story: Phytophthora infestans, a fungus commonly referred to as “late blight.”  It probably originated in the highlands of central Mexico, and then migrated to other regions.  Today it can be found almost everywhere, and wet weather is its call to action.  Blight spores can ride the winds to new locations.  Nothing gives it greater pleasure than discovering a big field of moist mature potato plants.
In 1845, spores from the US took a steam ship cruise to Ireland, where everyone was eagerly expecting a bumper crop of lumpers.  To their horror, entire fields turned black overnight.  Blight raced across Europe, destroying two million square kilometers in four months.  It struck again in 1846 and 1848.  Ireland was hit hardest, and their wretched British overlords could not be bothered to provide much assistance.  A million Irish died, and a million emigrated.
I shall now introduce the hapless victim in this story: Solanum tuberosum, the family of domesticated taters.  In the process of being transformed from wild toxic tubers to an incredibly productive super food, domestic spuds lost most of their sex drive (via male sterility).  Few produce any fruits or seeds.  So, commercial American potatoes are not grown from “true seeds.”  Instead, farmers plant “seed tubers,” which are hunks of tubers from the last harvest.
True seeds are rugged survivalists, because they are genetically diverse.  But domesticated potatoes are helpless sitting ducks, because they are genetically identical clones.  If one is susceptible to blight, they all are.  Reader says, “In fact, most modern cultivars are biological ‘monsters’ that could not survive in the wild.”  They can’t live without human caretakers (like domesticated dogs, cattle, sheep, and maize).
Scientists have two control options.  The cheapest solution is to breed new varieties that are blight resistant, but this is a time-consuming process, and there are only a limited number of gene tricks that work.  The success of any new variety can only be temporary, because the blight fungus is constantly mutating.  Blight will inevitably create offspring that can overcome the resistant spud’s defenses, and each new blight spore can produce 100,000 spores in four days.  The scientists will have to start all over again.
The other solution is more expensive and toxic: fungicides.  In wet seasons, a field might be sprayed 12 times (or 30 times in super-moist New Guinea).  Like plant breeding, the effectiveness of fungicides is temporary, because the fungus will inevitably develop resistance to them.  When one poison stops working, you switch to another, use more, or try combos.
There can be no permanent solution to blight.  Scientists will run out of clever tricks long before Mother Nature quits producing countless new fungus mutants every minute.  Rising energy costs will continue to drive up the price of fungicides, making them unaffordable for a growing number of poor farmers.
Wild spuds still thrive in the high Andes, preserving the wild gene pool that’s essential to the work of plant breeders.  Blight has never been a problem in this region — until recently.  Climate change has been making the weather warmer and wetter in the homeland of spuds.  Some crops of native potatoes have been heavily damaged.
The venerable historian William H. McNeill once penned an essay titled “How the Potato Changed the World's History.”  Europe’s population skyrocketed between 1750 and 1900, thanks in part to the spud.  Millions of surplus country folks were forced to move to cities, work in factories, earn peanuts, and live on taters.  Thus, spuds played a significant role in the mass emigration of Europeans, the growth of colonial empires, and the rise of Russia and Germany as industrial powers.
Reader lamented that “millions [of] lives were spent as fuel for the Industrial Revolution,” but in its wake, “a new and better world emerged.”  Really?  I have a feeling that it would have been wiser to leave the spuds as we found them — wild, free, and happy.
This book has many, many more spud tales to tell.  Throw some French fries in the microwave and find a comfy chair.
Reader, John, Potato — A History of the Propitious Esculent, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009.