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Re-Discovering Terra Preta in Amazonia
For the upcoming May issue of Pacific Standard, staff writer Kate Wheeling traveled to Peru to report on a potentially groundbreaking new application of biochar, a soil amendment rich in carbon. Her feature, "The Great, Chaotic Biochar Experiment" will be made available exclusively to Premium members in the coming weeks. Until then, a behind-the-scenes look at an additional element of her story.
Picture the Amazon rainforest before Christopher Columbus kicked off centuries of exploration and exploitation of the Americas. Did you envision pristine wilderness, unmarred by human hands? For a long time, experts believed the pre-Columbian Americas were sparsely populated and pristine. The acidic soils of the jungle were thought to be too nutrient-poor to support anything more than small, tribal groups, which left little, if any, marks on the landscape. But evidence has been accumulating for some time that more people may have been living in the Americas during this time than in Europe. Some of the earliest was the discovery in the 1950s of pockets of a super-fertile soil dubbed terra preta, or dark earth, throughout the Amazon.
The black soil is a mix of charcoal, microorganisms, minerals, and ceramic shards—indicating that it was no environmental fortune, but a man-made substance. The punishing rains in the region typically wash the soil of nutrients, but many of the deposits of terra preta are hundreds or even thousands of years old, and are still rich in minerals.
Since then, archeologists have unearthed evidence of massive pre-Columbian civilizations in the Amazon that would have been utterly unsustainable given the natural impoverished state of soil in the region—and underneath them all, black soil brimming with broken ceramics. In other words, at one point, large-scale agriculture in the Amazon allowed vast societies to arise and thrive—at least until Europeans and their unfamiliar diseases arrived and wiped out, by some estimates, upwards of 90 percent of the indigenous populations. The use of terra preta was all but forgotten.
Its re-discovery is, in part, what inspired plant ecologist Brenton Ladd to work on a modern-day version of this soil stimulant called biochar. For the upcoming May issue of Pacific Standard, I followed Ladd around the Peruvian jungle for a few days as he attempted to re-introduce biochar to farmers there who, in the centuries since Europeans "discovered" the Americas, have become reliant on slash-and-burn practices, torching hundreds of thousands of acres of forest every year in pursuit of fertile soil. Ladd believes biochar can help break the cycle of poverty for Peruvian farmers, so they can leave what's left of the Amazon intact.
The idea of a pristine, pre-Columbian Amazon untouched by man may be mostly a myth, but one thing still rings true. The massive Amazonian communities were nothing like modern-day metropolises in their environmental footprint. They rose up within the natural environment, rather than displacing it.
—Kate Wheeling, Staff Writer
A Brief History of Body Snatching
A survey of the history of grave-robbing reveals an afterlife for inequality.
Our Black Markets issue back in November included a feature from Peter Andrey Smith on the illegal trade of human remains across the United States. Pacific Standard editorial assistants Jack Denton and Morgan Baskin wrote a brief history of body snatching that ran alongside the piece in print, and is now available online for premium subscribers. Here is an excerpt:
It's easy to sniffle through a doctor's visit and take for granted the medical community's deep understanding of how our bodies work. But that anatomical knowledge stands on the shoulders (and legs, heads, and torsos) or many centuries' worth of dead people, often ripped dishonorably from their tombs.
The Greek Squad: Two Greek physicians of the third century B.C.E.—Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos—are thought to be the first to buck traditional medicine and regularly perform full-body dissections on human subjects. Working in Alexandria, Egypt, they benefited from the city rulers' desire to make Alexandria the world capital of knowledge, and were routinely given the bodies of executed criminals on which to practice. The majority of their findings, however, were lost by 639 C.E., around the time of the final destruction of the Library of Alexandria, where the pair's medical texts were stored.
The Bloodless Resolution: The use of cadavers for anatomical study fell by the wayside for some 1,700 years, thanks to Christian skepticism of science, along with emerging medical philosophies that shunned dissection as a blasphemy. But in the 12th century, a misinterpreted papal directive drove the practice even deeper underground. At the 1163 Council of Tours, Pope Alexander III forbade clerics from studying physical nature in a canon titled Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine ("The Church abhors blood"). The text was widely interpreted as a ban on performing surgery and studying anatomy—including via dissections.
Read the rest of Baskin and Denton's history of grave robbing here.
Enjoy more features from the Black Markets issue of Pacific Standard:
- King of Boise: The high comes on fast, a euphoric feeling of life itself slowing down, a calm feeling of absolute contentment. But the feeling is fleeting. Thirty minutes later, an addict will be itching for more.
- The Theft of the Gods: On the trail of looters and crooks who traffic in Hopi ceremonial objects.
- Odd Jobs: Inside the Informal Economies Sustaining Large Parts of the Global Workforce: How a 50-acre migrant camp known as "the Jungle" mirrors the reality of commerce in liminal zones and borderlands the world over.
PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
Revisiting a Doomed Studmuffin: Last week, Australian musician and glam-rock wastrel Alex Cameron released the fifth video from his 2017 album, Forced Witness. His videos tend to capture badlands. That means both the actual desert, and the emotional voids of the leering male characters anchoring his songs, which mostly sound like slick, synth-heavy set pieces. His latest video, for "Studmuffin96," is the second directed by and starring Jemima Kirke, best known for playing Jessa on HBO's Girls. In Kirke's own words, "Studmuffin96" tells the story of a young woman ("almost 17," per the lyrics) trying for romance with an older man she once knew, and doomed to find that "their only common ground is a laundromat and a hotel room." The ensuing visuals present a lollipop and an oozing wound, a blond bouffant and a black velvet suit. They are unsettling, nostalgic for the 1970s, and, eventually, pornographic. But above all, they're an excuse to return to the song, easily the standout of Forced Witness.
Cameron's "Studmuffin" overcomes his sense of irony long enough to deploy expert nods to stadium rock, plus an irresistible hook and genuine, if perverse, yearning. I listened to the track over and over when the album first dropped, and after seeing the visual I'm putting it back in rotation. Kirke described the video as "a coming-of-age story about the bleakness of fantasy realized." The story is, yes, bleak. But boy, does it still sound good.
—Elena Gooray, Associate Editor
Leslie Jamison's Memoir of Creative Prose and Addiction: "I'd always been enthralled by stories of wreckage," Leslie Jamison writes toward the opening of The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, a memoir about Jamison's drinking career and ongoing recovery that doubles as a literary study of addiction. The book offers a pleasing corrective to the ideal of the drunken seer-poet, swilling gin in the hope that it might bring them one woozy step closer to the tragedy and poetry of life. It also proceeds with accessible lyricism and disarming frankness, a style that serves as an extension of the book's message that sobriety hardly means the end of poetry, of the clarifying intoxification of language.
Jamison's supporting characters include an august panel of dead literary geniuses known almost as much for their drinking as for their writing: people like John Berryman and Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver, whose ghosts enliven the drinking in the bars of Iowa City (where Jamison, at age 21, received a coveted spot at the famous Writers' Workshop). These Iowa ghosts recur in nearly every chapter, and at times the book can feel like a curiously closed circle, its emotional energy focused so closely on male writers associated with the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The miracle of the book is that most readers probably won't care about this insularity: Jamison's trips into these writers' archives are animated by her own intense need to understand how they recovered, or failed to, and then wrote, or didn't, and Jamison is sufficiently engaging that her urgency becomes ours. In the end, Jamison refuses to accept the freewheeling mythologies that so often accompany such writers; instead of romanticizing them, she conscripts them into a sort of chorus, alongside the voices of people whom Jamison bonds with at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous—plus the archival testimony of patients and inmates at places like the famous Narco Farm in Kentucky.
Throughout, Jamison is zippy in her alternating delivery of meditation and confession, such that the book begins to feel shorter than its 500-plus pages would suggest. Indeed, the length feels almost like part of the point: Jamison speaks of having approached David Foster Wallace's sprawling novel Infinite Jest with understandable skepticism, before discovering that it was exactly the book she needed at a crucial phase of her recovery. There's even the hovering suggestion that Infinite Jest actually prevented a relapse. The generous heft of The Recovering offers a similar sort of lifeline to the people in its title: Come, tell me your story, and I'll tell you mine.
—Ted Scheinman, Senior Editor
An Ode to 'Slacker Milk': In 2016, Starbucks faced lawsuits in two states alleging that it was shorting its customers on substance by overfilling its chilliest drinks—like iced lattes—with too much ice. In a breathy dismissal of the case, a California judge wrote that even a child could see that the plaintiff had "not alleged any viable claims." Starbucks, unsurprisingly, was pleased with the decision. And while this complaint might be beyond the purview of our legal system, it’s not hard to see why some coffee shop patrons feel iced out. Friends, there is a better way.
During a brief cafe interlude in Slacker, Richard Linklater's 1991 film about overeducated 20-somethings bumming around Austin, a barista pours espresso shots into two tall glasses of cold milk, neither iced nor foamed. At the table where the drinks are heartily slurped, one character sophomorically holds court on "the immense effort required in order not to create." More bloviation than brilliance, sure, but there's a nugget of wisdom in his froth: Sometimes less is indeed more.
A "slacker milk," as I call it, is exactly that. Next time you find yourself in an institution of caffeine, ask for an iced-latte-with-no-ice. You'll get a drink with less volume, but also with a full body undiluted by watery ice. The espresso permeates the milk at different concentrations throughout, creating a pleasant variance of flavor during consumption, and a sublime visual effect that recalls a leaky gaseous planet or, perhaps, the Milky Way.
Like Linklater's Austinites who dropped out of the rat race for an improved life, we coffee drinkers can build a better way by shirking orthodoxy and working outside the system (legal and otherwise). Instead of settling for what's on the menu, take an iceless sip with me. Slack on.
—Jack Denton, Editorial Assistant
PS in the News
A look at where our stories and staff surface in the national conversation.
- Rick Paulus' story about how corporations benefit from employees working from home appeared in the Aspen Institute's Five Best Ideas of the Day on April 4th.
- Contributing writer Massoud Hayoun's look at a win for immigrants' rights activists in the San Gabriel Valley—part of his weekly series on immigration for PSmag.com—was shared by the Los Angeles branch of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the California National Party.
- Randy Bryce, a democrat running for Paul Ryan's House of Representatives seat in Wisconsin, shared Antonio Juhasz's story about how the new tax bill stands to benefit oil and gas companies.
- National Geographic included a recent Tom Jacobs write-up about a study of Dutch school children that illustrates the benefits of music lessons for developing minds in its 11 Things We Learned This Week.
How Corporations Benefit From Flexible Work (March 30th)
- When Dolly Parton sang about working 9 to 5, I was pulling 20-hour shifts. But in roughly 90 percent of jobs, flexible hours make a whole lot more sense. The 40-hour work week is a relic of factory work, which most of us don’t do anymore. The transition to task-based wages remains overdue because capitalism will always resist change. So for now, flexible hours are a sensible (and achievable) compromise. You’re preaching to the converted. —Michael LaRocca
My Brother, the White Nationalist (March/April 2018)
- Interesting #longread. It also implicitly covers something I have seen a number of times before: family members acting as enablers for white supremacists, just as family members can do the same for substance abusers. —Mark Pitcavage
- Great article. Really helps me understand that the "follow the rules" "strong father" style of child rearing is a dead end for most people. Surely it's not that simple, but I think that's part of it. Christian fundamentalism strikes again, as it did with the Austin bomber. —Linda Wesson
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