Saturday, February 04, 2017 5:31 PM
So, I was reading about my hero, Joseph Henry, who grew up in Albany, New York at the turn of the nineteenth century. That got me interested in the history of New York State. Today I started reading one such history and it described the Native Americans of the area prior to First Contact with the West—the Iroquois and the Oneidas, Mohawks and what-all—what was the Five Nations and would become Six. It described their early agriculture—the Three Sisters, which were beans, corn, and squash—the beans climbed the cornstalks like a trellis and the squash leaves kept the moisture in the ground, plus their root systems descended to three different levels, so the three crops weren’t competing for nutrients.
The East Coast Native Americans were different from the Plains Tribes and others further West and South—and certainly different from the Natives closer to the Arctic Circle, up North. They lived harsh lives, from our perspective—but looked at differently, they lived in the ultimate health spa—living and dying exactly as nature had evolved them to live. They hadn’t even gotten around to metallurgy before the Europeans came along.
Yet there was a civilization—with a spiritual framework, a wide-spread confederation of oversight (one couldn’t call it governance—since their lifestyles precluded the need for taxes or prisons) and, more to the point, a society just as complex—and more humane—than any we have created or seen since.
It is melancholy to imagine what the Americans would have done with their land, left to themselves. A land without livestock, mining or metalwork—an incentive to live less bellicose lives. Who knows how that would have panned out, given some space? But now we’ll never know—and given the reality, we are fortunate that any record of their cultures survives (not that all of them have).
So, I’m going to slog through this pre-invasion history—and then try not to think about it, as I move forward to the more modern history of colonization and ultimate statehood. What else can be done—rewind the past? There’s no helping the fact that the birth of the United States was the death of something else, something that had a right to exist, something beautiful—but no one can undo the past.
The genocide, like Henry’s discovery of Electromagnetic Inductance, is both a foundation of the present—and entirely irrelevant to the present. It is now nothing more than dust—but it is the dust we stand on. A fascination with history can turn sour if we don’t keep our heads above water—there’s a limit to empathy and we are only human.
The early chapters of my history also describe the geography—the many lakes and rivers—particularly the Hudson River and the Great Lakes—and what a convenient harbor New York had at the mouth of the Hudson. It is strange to think that waterways, today, tend to be obstacles to transport rather than a means. The vast majority of international shipping still travels the oceans—but today’s technology makes inland travel almost entirely a dry-footed affair.
The Native Americans hadn’t much technology above the bow and arrow—but they had invented canoes (and moccasins—a technology the Europeans first ridiculed—then instantly adopted). And water was kind of handy to have around in those days, even if you didn’t travel. They had a great trail that went from Manhattan all the way up to Canada—today we call it Rt. 22, mostly—and 90% of New Yorkers still live along that trail. But when they weren’t walking, they were using the profusion of rivers and lakes that New York offered.
I read somewhere that New York State has the greatest diversity of trees of any state. I read somewhere else that an early European colonist once described flights of migrating birds so vast that they would darken the sky from horizon to horizon. Can you imagine what it was like back then? Virgin forests, pre Iron-Age culture—golly.
I feel a little jinxed, peering into the details of the improbable history of the Empire State—the stuff of legend, half of it, and the rest merely incredible—here at a juncture in time when the whole thing may be balanced on a knife edge—and only because the entire world as I’ve known it seems bound and determined to hurl itself into the abyss as quickly as possible. From what I can tell so far, what we call New York was a great land before anyone ‘discovered’ it—it became a colony and a state that was an empire unto itself, regardless of the federal government—and the tip of it became a city so busy with power and life that it, too, became an entity unto itself, outside of its state.
New York State is one of those things so large and diverse that we are taken unawares by the sudden realization of its existence—this massive determiner of so many destinies—so much a part of our lives that we hardly realize it’s there. And it is even easier to overlook, given that each of its nooks and crannies—particularly within the five boroughs—is a province unto itself.
New Englanders are known to be flinty, anti-social types—but they are a step down from Manhattanites, who are actively antagonistic towards their neighbors. Yet New York City remains such a gravitational force on the globe that we can excuse the inhabitants their need to be actively repellent—they need to make sure you really want to be there—it’s crowded enough already. And the pressure at the center of human civilization is not for the faint of heart.
It makes me superstitious—as a computer guy, I’ve spent a great deal of my life learning about things that disappear—old hardware, old software, old businesses that have faded away—all my precious knowledge becomes so much sewage clogging up my brain—and it’s not as if that stuff was easy to learn, dammit. And now, as I study American history—and my home state, no less—I feel a cold draft on the back of my neck—it could be melting ice caps, it could be Trump’s inability to resist the big red button—I can’t help worrying that I’m learning about something else that may disappear someday soon.