Snowshoe Time Machine

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 85-113, 131-156.

Madison, a good friend of mine, and I decided to travel to Revelstoke on Friday to indulge in a weekend of adventure while school hadn’t gotten too busy and demanding. We planned on participating in a few typically Canadian activities, visiting the small city centre and reading our assigned book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, in an adorable café. Needless to say, most of the weekend was spent doing activities with a typical Sunday night rush to read the rest of the assigned readings. Although we only read one chapter in Carrie’s Home Café, I found myself reflecting on the plant world while enjoying my time in Revelstoke.

Chapters four, five, six, and eight of Jared Diamond’s book all pertained to the general idea that food production arose in certain areas of the world and not others. These chapters dive into the values of food crops and animals, the identification of the first domesticated areas, and why those areas were successful in food production over other areas of the world. I know, reading about these concepts does not sound nearly as thrilling as curling, snowshoeing, and beer tours, but it was still a decent Sunday night activity. These chapters were written like essays, with introductory and concluding paragraphs and body paragraphs to expand on the statements provided. Generally, these four chapters were centered around the development of plants and animal domestication and how those initial changes helped to shape the future of food production.

As Madison and I were trudging through the thick, heavy snow beside the beautiful flowing water of the Columbia river, I imagined ourselves living and exploring this land thousands of years ago. Would we have ventured this far North in search of food and shelter? I can picture our tribe walking along the river edge in the summer just as Madi and I had recently done this weekend. Yes, I’ll admit, they definitely wouldn’t have stopped to take a few selfies like we had but I’m sure they would’ve taken a few breaks to rest their travelled legs and enjoy the beautiful scenery. As I struggled through the snow, I often gazed around at the wide variety of plants growing at the edge of the river. Jared Diamond had mentioned a few factors that, when combined, allowed the Fertile Crescent to be so successful over other areas. Although I don’t know what Revelstoke looked like in the distant past, I found myself making comparisons while reading the rest of the chapters.

My poor frozen toes would gladly tell you that Revelstoke does not have the same Mediterranean climate that made the plants species of the Fertile Crescent so successful. However, the Columbia river did provide a large source of water that was necessary for food domestication. The highly abundant and productive wild ancestors of the Fertile Crescent crops were a major contributing factor to the success of that area. I am definitely no expect at identifying plant species but as I enjoyed my jolly, little scenic stroll, I did notice a variety of trees and even a few grasses poking through the snow bed. I’m sure the plant species I was observing were not nearly the abundance required but I was enjoying making the comparisons none the less. Jared Diamond also mentions that the great climatic variation in the Fertile Crescent favoured the evolution of the flora in that area. As I read that statement, I nodded as I pictured my summer and winter visits to Revelstoke. Shivering surrounded by giant mounds of snow in the winter and sweating profusely under the sun in the summer. Finally, I remembered Jared Diamond saying an  “… advantage of the Fertile Crescent’s Mediterranean zone is that it provides a wide range of altitudes and topographies within a short distance.” (pages 139-140) Although Madison and I had gladly chosen to snowshoe along a very flat path, I admired the hills and mountains in the near distance, providing staggered harvest seasons.

Jared Diamond goes into many more descriptive and detailed explanations on why food production and domestication arose in some areas before others and what made those environments more successful. Although I enjoyed comparing my snowshoeing adventure to the Fertile Crescent, at one point my legs started to ache and fatigue took over my mind as a sat down into a soft mound of snow and gave in to just focusing on life in that moment.

Personally, I remotely enjoyed chapter four and five of this book, however, I found chapter six and eight to be slightly dull and repetitive (rude, I know). Jared Diamond seems to be a very informational writer, who lacks the appealing story-telling aspect that the previous authors had. Regardless of finding myself drifting off while reading through the last two chapters, there were some positive features throughout the book.

I found certain words and descriptions Jared Diamond used to be compelling. “Sumpweed, in particular, would have been a nutritionist’s ultimate dream, being 32 percent protein and 45 percent oil.” (page 151) This characterization of sumpweed made me very curious as to what it was and why, if it’s so nutritious, were we still not eating it? I then googled it and decided that it did not look very appetizing.

I usually enjoyed the way these plant books make me think about things I have never considered before, such as how humans used to test for poisonous seeds and how some plants have changed drastically in order to have developed into seedless fruits. Unfortunately, I only had one moment of curiosity like that during these four chapters when Jared Diamond mentioned the birth interval of tribes. “In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion.” (page 89) I have never imagined past humans actually physically controlling their births, let alone preparing infanticides or undergoing abortions without modern tools and medications. Personally, I thought ‘No thank you’, but after more thought, I imagine that these women and their tribes didn’t have much choice, having to be very mobile to survive. The other questions Jared Diamond proposed, such as where plant and animal domestication began, where food production thrived, why did it thrive it certain areas and not others, etc., seemed intriguing, however, they did not maintain my interest and ended up boring me in the long-run.

Each chapter was like its own little essay. They start with an introductory idea that gets developed into a well-expanded thought which is then thoroughly concluded and summarized. Although this may seem like a good way to get your point of view and information across, I found it to be boring and almost too informational.

Another aspect that seems positive but came across as repetitive was all the examples that Jared Diamond includes in his writing. Yes, sometimes it is good to include an example to explain or exaggerate your point but there were way too many examples.”In all these examples, peoples with domestic horses (or camels), or with improved means of using them, enjoyed an enormous military advantage over those without them.” (page 91) “For instance, Aboriginal hunter-gatherers of northeastern Australia traded for thousands of years with farmers of the Torres Strait Islands, between Australia and New Guinea.” (page 105) “For instance, in the 19th century U.S. West, the cattlemen sheepmen, and farmers all despised each other.” (page 108) “A typically puzzling example comes from Africa.” (page 133) Even while typing out these quotes, I find it very repetitive and tedious to read.

Certain passages made me briefly consider the concepts and ideas that Jared Diamond was bringing up but, unfortunately, the chapters did not maintain my interest and any deep contemplations I would have had were lost in all the words and facts he included. All in all, I found the overall idea that domestication first arose in the most well adapted environments to be understandable. I agree with Jared Diamond when he says that there are many factors that influenced the development of food production and I noticed that I would have definitely only considered one or two of them. I personally found it very difficult to read and analyze these chapters as I was unable to maintain focus on them, however, I find Jared Diamond’s main concepts to be intriguing. I suppose just like plant and animal domestication developed over time, maybe my enthusiasm for Jared Diamond’s writing will increase with age.


One comment

  1. Hi Chels. After personally reading and blogging about Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I too had the same sense of displeasure for the content itself and the style of writing, which makes it all the more humorous that out of all the readings, here I am commenting on one of my least favourites. However, your scene setting was all too familiar and I couldn’t help but catch my own name illustrated as a character in your witting for this week, so I delved. To my surprise, considering my aversion towards Diamond’s writing, I found yours refreshing and insightful, and it even made me appreciate Diamond’s writing more.

    I enjoyed your imagery and comparisons you make about trudging along the Columbia River. I completely agree with your point “I usually enjoyed the way these plant books make me think about things I have never considered before.” Though, your context for this point was a counter argument to Diamond’s work, I still felt your considerations during our snowshoe were a thoughtful reflection on things beyond our typical considerations particularly during a snowshoe for example.

    I am also thoroughly impressed with your ability to lengthily blog with fluidity, clarity and thoughtfulness even when you dislike a reading. You are inspirational my friend.


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