Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.
It was a Saturday morning in May of last year; the kind of morning when the air was cold but the intensity of the sun hinted of the hot afternoon that would ensue. My boyfriend and I were browsing the Farmers’ Market, knit bags in hand. We had already filled them with our usual fruits, vegetables, and local honey, when we came across a small booth I had not noticed before.
The first thing I laid eyes on as a humble package of tiny, hand-picked chamomile buds. How delicate they looked: I could imagine just how deliberately and painstakingly they were plucked from their plants, dried, carefully separated, and sealed into their respective bags. I tentatively picked up the bag, and, at the same time, my gaze was drawn to a row fresh wild greens at the opposite side of the table. I saw broad leaves of stinging nettle, a few varieties of clover, and then, a bag bursting with dandelion shoots, the largest I’d ever seen. I smiled at the girl behind the counter, probably no more than a couple years older than me: “I’ll take one of these, please,” I said, imagining the bright and nutritious salad I could make (although my boyfriend looked a little less convinced).
As the young clerk tallied up the cost, a woman appeared beside me, busily inspecting the greens,”How does this taste? Is it garlic-y?”
“Yes,” replied the girl “I believe it is. Would you like to try?”
The woman popped a cluster of leaves in her mouth and chewed hurriedly, “Nope. Doesn’t taste like garlic at all.” Then she walked off.
Before I could process this a second woman came by, bringing herself just close enough to the table so that we could hear her scoff: “aren’t those the same weeds I could pull out of my front lawn?” I felt my face get warm as I stared down at my bundle of greens; they certainly didn’t look like any I could find on my lawn (and were presumably much safer to eat). My boyfriend and I exchanged glances, thanked the girl, and headed on our way, the dandelion greens joining the other chosen items in our bag.
So, what do dandelion greens have to do with the advent of agriculture? For me, they are a symbol of the fact that agriculture, as Jared Diamond expresses in “Guns, Germs and Steel”, was not much of an “advent” at all, but a slow evolution. And that, correspondingly, the path from the life of a hunter-gatherer to that of a farmer was not at all linear, but was more than a bit messy.
The defiant woman at the farmers market, and admittedly my boyfriend, turned their noses at the idea of eating dandelion greens because they are a wild food, viewed by many as no more than a common, bothersome weed. In contrast, when I told my grandmother about my purchase she had a much different reaction: “Oh yes, dandelion greens!” She nodded, recalling with a hint of nostalgia how she would collect them as a girl for her Italian father, in a field adjacent to their house. For him, these greens were a delicacy, and a necessary ingredient to the perfect salad. This demonstrates just how much is still changing in our dependence on, and in our knowledge of, edible wild foods. By the time my grandmother was raising her own children, virtually all of their plant foods (other than the odd collection of wild berries) were deliberately grown in the garden or bought at the store. This is a modern day example of changes that have evolved as a response to convenience and availability, two important themes that emerge in Diamond’s work.
Starting with Chapter 4, “Farmer Power”, I found this phrase striking: “Today, most people on Earth consume food that they produced themselves or that someone else produced for them. At current rates of change, within the next decade the few remaining ands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle” (p. 86). I found this striking because it is a reminder of the way our ancestors lived, and even thrived, in non-agrarian groups for so long. When I have thought of my ancestors previously, I didn’t look so far back – I thought of the lives that my more recent relatives dedicated to farming, and to me this made farming and gardening seem the most natural and instinctive things in the world; a way to connect back to the Earth. But, Diamond’s words made me think, what is a more intimate and loving connection with the Earth than taking only what you need, careful to respect the integrity of the land from which you take it, as hunter-gatherers often did?
Coming back to the advent of agriculture, I appreciate how Diamond takes us through research and reasoning piece by piece, as if we are on the journey to unraveling the great mystery of the beginnings of food production with him. His sequence of explaining these events is completely logical, and fully explains a topic in one area before moving on to the next. For example, in Chapter 6, he begins with “Formerly, all people on Earth were hunter-gatherers” (p. 104), which set the stage for a long list of questions, loosely in the form of: “Why did this happen the way it did, and not this?”
Then, he “dispels” misconceptions about the origins of food production, and the differing lives led by hunter-gatherers. Finally, we get to the fact that “food production systems evolved as a result of the accumulation of many separate decisions about allocating time and effort” (p. 107) and the consideration of “food production and hunter-gather wrong as alternative strategies competing with each other” (p. 109), ending with a discussion of why, in the end, an advantage was seen in food production, leading to the modern agriculture that we have today.
But, perhaps my favourite chapter so far was Chapter 8, “Apples or Indians”. This chapter compares the facility of cultivating plants and domesticating animals in the Fertile Crescent with two vivid examples at the other extreme – the highlands of New Guinea and the Eastern United States. These examples culminate in an important lesson: it was not some deficiency of the people that lived in these areas that led to relatively less food production than obtained in the Fertile Crescent, but a deficiency in the availability of wild species that could be domesticated for human use or consumption, as well as a deficiency in crops that provided adequate protein and calories for these populations to expand. In fact, Diamond makes the case that the indigenous peoples that inhabited these areas (and in some cases, still do) knew a lot more about their natural environments than we do today, and they were extremely capable in recognizing which varieties of plants would be useful to them. “Native Americans were not constrained by cultural conservatism and were quite able to appreciate a good plant when they saw it” (p. 152).
When the “Mexican triad” was completed in the Eastern United States with the introduction of beans and corn via trading, native species like sumpweed (a relative of ragweed) were discarded and long forgotten as a food source. Somewhat similarly, we have largely forgotten dandelion greens in our modern-day North American salads, instead replacing them with tender lettuces while we spray and weed out the invasive dandelions.