Laying a Foundation of History

The first thing I’d like to mention is that never in my life have I been more forced to read a book than the chapters assigned in Diamond’s. Having read it laying on the couch Monday morning, it was not the best way to start my morning off. I found Diamond’s writing to be drab and dense, and keeping my head focused on his writing was difficult. He really obviously likes to use sophisticated words to explain his concepts, and that makes the readings more difficult to comprehend. However, with that being said, there were definitely a few subjects he brought up that caught my attention more than others parts of his book.

Diamond, throughout the chapters, ultimately lays down a foundation for understanding human history. He describes how the earliest people depended on hunting and gathering food, rather than farming and agriculture. An early statement he had was how “today, most people on Earth consume food that they produced themselves or that someone else produced for them” (pg. 86), bringing up the question of how the hunter and gatherer lifestyle gradually faded out, and agriculture took over. One way Diamond explains this is by explaining the indirect and direct values of early crops and livestock as food. By selecting the best crops to grow, the total calories obtained are far more than those acquired just by hunting/gathering. Livestock help the crops by creating manure and pulling plows; they also aided people by supplying milk, meat, and fur. The livestock and selected crops, in turn, led to denser human populations because it was an easier lifestyle to live, and allowed mothers to have and support more children.

Diamond goes on the further explain why hunters and gatherers got phased out – the arrival of foreign crops and animals supplied a richer food source, and the hunters/gatherers remaining might have gotten driven out or killed by other coming in to grow their own crops. Quite sad to think about, but it was almost revolutionary. Anything that made life easier was thought highly of.

A good section of the book that caught my attention was the competition between hunting/gathering and food production. Overall, Diamond explains five factors that led to the phasing out of hunting and gathering: “The decline in the availability of wild foods…increased availability of domesticable wild plants made steps leading to plant domestication more rewarding…the cumulative development of technologies in which food production would eventually depend…the link between the rise in human population density and the rise in food production…and geographic boundaries between hunter-gatherer and food producers” (pg. 110-112). Reading this gave me an understanding in why plant domestication came to rule, and was actually interesting.

As a result of this, hunters and gatherers were either taken over by neighboring food producers, or survived only by adopting food production themselves.

Although this book was rather quite boring to read (even more than, say, my molecular genetics textbook), I did enjoy some interesting parts, like why and how the hunting-gathering lifestyle gradually faded out, and the lifestyle with domesticated plants and animals took over. Diamond gives us an informative and somewhat insightful history of the world’s agriculture and humans, but I will say again that it was very dense and hard to read at some, or most, parts.

Overall, I have a much better insight to how the world developed plant production. Of course, there are still many cultures in the world that depend on hunting and gathering there food. However, most cultures and societies today depend completely on food that they produced or others have produced, and it was definitely interesting to read about the history that led to where we are today

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Why Wildlife Corridors?

In the wild, migrating or moving to suitable habitats is a very important aspect. Without this, gene flow would be diminished, and the transfer or alleles/genes from one population to another would not happen. Multiple consequences could happen as a result, including inbreeding within a population, geographic isolation, and speciation, all of which have consequences of their own. As well, animals need to travel in order to find mates and/or den sites, expand home ranges, and to take advantage of seasonal changes in food and weather (Parks Canada, 2015). Roads and other developed areas can fragment habitat, eventually resulting in a decrease of gene flow and genetic diversity. However, wildlife corridors help prevent this; they provide a protected route to allow animals to move safely between areas of suitable habitat.

Banff National Park is especially focusing on corridors to help the animals in and around the area move around. Typically, they are narrow funnel-shaped tracts of land between developed areas (roads, neighbourhoods, etc.) and steep mountain slopes. Of course, these corridors need to be attractive to the animals in which would be using them; this includes size, terrain type, vegetation cover, topography, and absence of human presence (Richard, 2011).

In Banff, the large carnivores have the greatest need for movement, because if their requirements are met, then so are the requirements of smaller species via predator-prey relationships. Sawaya and his colleagues conducted a three-year project in Banff to evaluate the effectiveness of wildlife corridors on genetic diversity. They focused on gene flow in grizzly and black bears. By monitoring their movement and reproduction patterns, they found that the wildlife crossings did indeed allow gene flow to happen, preventing genetic isolation (Sawaya et al,2014).

A few more studies have been done in order to assess the effect of the wildlife corridors, and all of them have suggested that they provide ways of gene flow, preventing a lack of genetic diversity. Corridors also allow wildlife to travel in order to meet their needs and requirements. Overall, wildlife corridors, regardless of whether they are natural or man-made, are critical in environments where humans have made an impact. The Banff wildlife corridors are doing an astounding job in providing wildlife with opportunities to travel.

 

 

Parks Canada. [Internet]. 2015. Wildlife Corridors – A ‘Moving’ Story. Available from: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/banff/plan/faune-wildlife/corridors.aspx (accessed 18 Jan 2016)

Sawaya, M., Kalinowksi, S., Clevenger, A. 2014. Genetic connectivity for two bear species at wildlife corssing structures in Banff National Park. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281(1780). pg 1-10. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1705  http://rspb.royalocietypublishing.org/content/royprsb/281/1780/20131705.full.pdf

Richard, M. [Internet] 2011. 5 Things You Need to Know About Wildlife Corridors. Natural Sciences/Treehugger. Available from: http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/five-things-you-need-to-know-about-wildlife-corridors.html (accessed 18 Jan 2016)

Plants vs. Humans – Who really has control?

Pollan, M. 2002. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, NY. pg. xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton & Company, New York, NY. pg. 114-130.

I currently sit at my kitchen table, being astonished by all of the information and concepts that have been introduced to me for the first time while reading these two books. I did not know that I would be putting as much thought as I am into this, and I’m still not sure whether to argue against the issue of who really controls who when it comes to artificial selection and domestication. 

Both of these books are all about the cultivation of plants from their wild ancestors. I started with reading Pollan’s interesting introduction to his book, and that is what really got me thinking about this new concept of who controls who. Initially, he starts off by describing how most people would, naturally, think that they are in control of what they plant in their garden, and what specifically they want to grow: “I’m in charge here…I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops” (pg. xiv). Of course, this is what I’ve thought my entire life, even when I planted seeds with my mother in our small backyard garden back home in Northern BC. When the vegetables popped out of the brown soil, so green and lively, I was so very excited that the seeds in which I planted and took care of were alive and well. Little did I know, those plants were taking advantage of my ability to move them around, or more specifically, move their progeny around.  As Pollan puts it, “the flower has manipulated the bee into hauling it’s pollen from blossom to blossom” (pg. xiv).

An amazing thing that I think Pollan points out in his book is how plants play on animals’ desires, conscious, and otherwise, especially ones that are fruitful. They stay unripe, bitter, and bland until they are ready to disperse their seeds – then, they become ripe, sweet, and colourful to attract the animals that will move for them, which is an incredibly remarkable strategy. It is a strategy I’ve never considered before: plants ripen in order for their seed dispersal and thus boosting their reproductive success. This entire concept has not been obvious to me, and I’m assuming not many other people think about plants controlling us as well.

I’m stupefied.

Pollan also brings up a good point when he states “it has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves and pure nature begins” (pg. xxii). Humans have been shaping plants via artificial selection for decades, influencing their growth and produce, so that almost all of what we eat these days are not at all what the plants’ wild ancestors would have looked like. It really is amazing to think about, especially when you haven’t put much thought into it before.

Artificial selection is a very popular approach, and is what Diamond really focuses on in his book. Like Pollan, he focuses on the cultivation of plants, but he gives many more examples and scenarios that make you think. He mentions unconscious criteria, which is a fascinating and new idea for me. Before, it never crossed my mind how I preferred larger fruit and vegetables over smaller ones. But of course, it is my unconscious criteria that prefers this, as well as sweetness, fleshy/seedless fruits, and oily seeds. What drives this preference is the fact that our early ancestors cultivated and domesticated the plants that met this criteria. As well, Diamond mentions how we selected not only for all of this, but for “invisible features like seed dispersal mechanisms, germination inhibition, and reproductive biology” (pg. 122), all of which help us in obtaining more high quality plants. He gives the examples of sunflower seeds, peas, pumpkins, oranges, grapes, bananas, watermelons, strawberries – the list is almost endless. It really shows you how much of an impact domestication and artificial selection has had on plants to benefit us.

Overall, as I mentioned, I am astonished by these two authors and books. If it wasn’t for these readings, I would not have even considered how plants control us, and as a result, how artificial selection/domestication has come about. I think the main idea is to plant an idea in peoples’ minds about who really controls who – do plants control people, or do people control plants? It’s an interesting argument. I may have disagreed with the theory that plants control people, but after considering what facts both Pollan and Diamond have brought up, my stand on the matter is changed. After all, “plants have been going about the business of remaking us” (pg. xvii)

 

The Triumph of Seeds

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. Perseus Books Group, Basic Books, New York, NY. pg. xix-18, 55-80

The Triumph of Seeds was a very interesting read, keeping my attention throughout reading the separate chapters. Concerning the chapters within this book, they are very easy to read; each chapter is like a separate story, and you do not have to have read the previous chapters in order to understand what is going on. I liked that part about it. As well, each chapter was focused on completely different, yet somehow connected, topics. It really gets you thinking about the many different aspects that we have on plants, from their diverse seeds to their evolution and traits.

Even in the introduction, Hanson does a good job in introducing the importance of seeds in the world today. He brings up the fact that “even children know that the tiniest pip contains…the spark an all the instructions needed to build a carrot, an oak tree, wheat, mustard, sequoias, or any one of the estimated 352,000 other kinds of plants that use seeds to reproduce” (pg. xxii). It’s almost kind of comforting knowing that children are raised and taught to recognize and know the function of seeds – at least they have some sort of knowledge about the importance they have. Hanson also talks about how we literally live in a world of seeds. They provide so many crucial food items that we use in everyday life, from bagels to hot cocoa. “They are quite literally the staff of life, the basis of diets, economies, and lifestyles around the globe” (pg. xxii). This was very eye-opening for me, for I had not previously put a lot of thought into what seeds actually provide us. Yes, the obvious peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc., but never what vast amount of items they produce. It’s quite amazing how much we rely on them.

The first chapter of the book is quite inspiring. Hanson describes the magnificence and potential of tiny seeds and saplings, summed up nicely by the sentence on page 6: “This tiny speck had the potential to reach the forest canopy far above me, its first steps fueled entirely by the energy of the seed.” It’s awe-inspiring how such a small little seed can turn into the most breathtaking plants on this planet. The author also writes about how important seeds are in the survival of many species, and how, without seeds, the ecology of a forest could be disrupted, leading to a cascade of changes (even possible extinction of species!). Again, this was an eye-opener for me. Of course, I knew that seeds provided food for many species, I just did not think that the loss of seeds could result in extinction. Yet another reason why seeds play a vital role in the world.

The first chapter also introduces Carol Baskin, a seed biologist who is very passionate about her studies. I think that the importance of mentioning her in the book is subtle but important: she explains the mechanism inside seeds that makes the process of germination and becoming a tree happen, but in a way that every reader will have an understanding of it. This is especially apparent when she describes the ‘baby in a box’ analogy for seeds, that “a seed in a baby plant, in a box, with a lunch” (pg. 9). It’s good to have an understanding of where a plant begins its life in order to further appreciate them, and Carol provides this to the readers.

One distinct thing I really enjoyed about this book, are the descriptions of many things. Hanson does an utterly remarkable job in using descriptive words for the readers to get an exact picture in their minds. There are many situations in which he uses this tactic: “root cells…long, narrow tubes that looked a lot like the balloons a clown might use to tie animal shapes” (pg. 13); “The seed fern’s trunk looked like lizard skin, scale black and orange against the tan surface of the rock” (pg.58); “The spores practically glowed, tucked into speckled golden pouches at the base of each leaf” (pg.65). I love how Hanson does this – it really paints a picture in your mind, making the reading more enjoyable and picturing the plants and images in a crystal clear way.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the few chapters of this book. It got me thinking about the importance of seeds in the world (food for both us and many other species), and also where they came from, how they evolved and prospered, and how they grow from a seed into a magnificent plant. I think Hanson’s main goal here is to get readers to understand and appreciate seeds, and to get engaged in the triumph of seeds, because they are crucial on this planet and will remain crucial until the end of time.  The world needs to have an understanding of “how profoundly seeds, and our intimate relationship with them, have influenced the way we understand the natural world” (pg. 73).

 

 

 

The 100-Mile Diet

Smith, A. & MacKinnon, JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Vintage Canada, Toronto. Pg. 2-56.

The first half of this book is a very interesting read, for it really gets an individual thinking more about what they are eating and where that food actually comes from. The concept of the so called “100-mile diet” forces you to think about eating more locally rather than eating globally. It also gets you researching and looking further into what types of food are grown near and around your city, thus you gain an appreciation in the local farmers and suppliers of fresh foods. As soon as I started reading the first chapter of this book, I was thinking about how most of the food that I eat is certainly not local, but rather shipped across hundreds of miles. Every word of this book so far really gets you deeply thinking about local foods, and is definitely changing my perspective about eating worldwide.

Growing up, you never really think about where the food you’re eating comes from; rather, you just make a good meal and enjoy the foods in it. That was my case, anyhow. I have always shopped at commercial grocery stores (i.e. Superstore, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Save-On Foods, etc.), without paying any attention to local food marts. I will also admit I’ve never been to the farmer’s market in town, where local farmers and growers sell and I have an excellent chance in exploring and possibly buying the fresh foods grown locally. It has never really been an interest of mine, because as mentioned, I have never put thought into buying locally.

Reading the very first chapter of this book got my mind going about how oblivious we are when buying food these days. We have no idea where most items are coming from. As mentioned on the third page of the book (very early!), “the food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate”. That is a significant distance, and definitely not local. They also predict that the distance is likely to increase over the years. It’s almost sad to think about – commercial growers are making all the profit, while the delicious, home-grown plants of locals are being almost ignored by most. Of course, I was one of the people who was completely oblivious to buying locally, until I started reading the very first chapter of “The 100-Mile Diet”.

Another point the authors bring up pretty early in the book is that a grocery store today may carry 45,000 different items, 17,000 new food products are being introduced in the United States each year, and yet almost none of the food in a common household came from the surrounding people or landscape (pg. 13). Again, I find that eye-opening, and it almost makes me want to start buying more locally rather than from a typical grocery store. Although it may be more expensive and less items would be available, I would be supporting the locals and the food would likely be fresh and utterly breathtaking. I am not even finished reading the book and I am already considering changing my eating habits to cater to local foods.

Yet another part of the first half of the book I enjoyed, or thought was a good thing to bring up and to think about, was the use of pesticides on plants these days. The sentence on pg. 56 really illustrates this: “in 1952, just 11% of American corn was treated with pesticides and herbicides; today, the statistic is over 95%.” This is definitely part of a long controversial argument in the world about the use of pesticides/herbicides, and I’m glad that the authors of this book brought it up and talked about the ridiculously high number of their use in the world today.

Overall, though I have not finished reading the book yet, I get the impression that the authors really want people to focus more on their local farming communities and to choose a more sustainable way of eating. They bring up many valid points throughout the chapters about how eating around the world has major implications, and eating locally has many positive aspects. I have a much stronger opinion and am definitely more informed about eating locally now. I will probably start looking more into local food marts and the farmer’s market of Kamloops rather than continue to buy everything from a grocery store.