Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Bishops' Sea: My Paddle Flashing Bright

Research can be expensive, and there are scholars known who use their control of the pursestrings to make sure that the field gets on their train. Arctic archaeology is expensive, and the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa is an important gatekeeper. That's why Robert McGhee's name comes up a lot in citations. He does not seem like the kind of man who would impose his research idees fixe, so I am guilty of some awful rhetorical crime in bringing his name up here. It's just that I'm not entirely comfortable about building vast intellectual superstructures on the negative evidence that kayaks and umiaks do not appear in Arctic archaeological contexts prior to the Thule Tradition, or were "first used about 4000 years ago," per Wikipedia.  (Because what's two thousand years, more or less, to exact science?) When we read about how Vågan in the Lofoten Isles first becomes known to us when a new north-south axis of trade intercepts a much older east-west circumpolar intersection, we are drawn back to humanity's first penetration of the boreal spaces, which must have involved people moving from Siberia to Alaska, right through the future Inuit (Eskimo) cultural interaction sphere 15,000 years ago. You can choose to assume that they did so without boats, but making that assumption on the basis of negative (archaeological) evidence seeems . . . bold.

"Lofoten Svolvear Fährhafen Ausfahrt" by Stahlkocher - first upload in de wikipedia on 18:12, 1. Jul 2004 by Stahlkocher. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That being said, kayaks far more than umiaks are clearly very challenging technologies, and I would be the first to admit that I chose to lead off with this because I wanted to begin with cute kids singing "Land of the Silver Birch." The dichotomy here is between remarkably complex personal watercraft , whether skin-made kayak or birchbark canoe, and not the larger skin boat which, after all, St. Brendan used to carry sixteen passenters across the Atlantic. (Shyeah right.)

Caones, kayaks, umiaks: boats are the defining theme of a post which might just as well have been entitled "Can Ancient Eskimos Tell Us About the Social Context of Technological Learning? Probably." 

I will also try not to forget about bishops. See? St. Brendan? Of course, my deep skepticism about the reality of St. Brendan is on record here. The argument here is about the social transformation of the high European Atlantic around the turn of the millennium has more to to with the establishment of church-settlements than with largescale population movements. Get rid of the notion that, say, Iona, was uniquely "Celtic Christian," and we can perhaps extend this institution of "mitred abbots," to those parts of the high Atlantic that ended up Nordic rather than Celtic. As Knut Helle so very cautiously points out, the survival of relics of written law in the western Norse communities dating a century before the first Danish laws indicates the primacy of the "English influence" over Scandinavian (that is, Danish) at that early date. Adam of Bremen, it is tolerably clear, is happy to disregard bishops of the northern isles consecrated at York rather than Hamburg-Bremen, and we shouldn't be distracted down the same road by the weird, post-modern liminality of the "Bishop of Sodor."  Yes, Sir Topham Hatt is trying to put one over on us. (1,2,3,4, also so very much 5.)

So that's the arrow from the east (York>Iona>Hebrides>Iceland) that I want to collide with an arrow from the west at Amassalik (Tasiilaq, "The Place of Capelins"), at 65 degrees,43 minutes North on the east coast of Greenland, almost due west of Bjargtangar at the tip of the Westfjords region, settled in the landtaking by the chieftain Helgi Magri Hrólfsson.

Looking west from Bjargtangar. With wild surmise, etc.  Source.
The long line of the Western Continent on the horizon, the heretical suggestion of a "Celtic Atlantic," made in the full knowledge that it is the classic resort of crackpots. Rest easy, though. I'm not trying to get Irish to Boston.

I'm putting Sami in Greenland. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Postvlogging Technology, May 1945, I: The "V" of the Wild Geese

Group Captain R_. C_., RCAFVR, DSO, DFC (Bar),
RAAF Richmond,

Dearest Father:

Thank you for your urgent warning. Unfortunately, the courier was held over until Tuesdasy by a squall at Kwajalein. Had it not been for Great Uncle, I am afraid that things would have gone very badly indeed.

Not that things did not go about as badly as one can imagine. Well, no, not true. Shots were fired, and it is one thing to face them yourself, and another to hear them fired at loved ones. –So I fear that I lose some perspective when I cannot push the party from my mind.

Let me back up: your ominous predictiones came true; but not in your wildest fever could you have imagined just how. It began as I was receiving the guests at 8. Miss W. was invited, as how could she not? I never expected her to appear. L.A. is far away, anthropologists not her usual company, and 8 is rather late for her to be sober these days, if the gossip magazines are to be believed. (Not that I would ever be caught dead reading those rags, she sniffed, self-righteously.) 

The point, though, is not her reading material, but her escort. T. V. Soong! At my party! And in the company of Miss W., after all the things said about her by the Nationalist Press, no less, nor a bodyguard in sight. Foolish girl that I am, I took that as a sign of pacific intent, where I should have remembered that with a Soong in the house, one counts the silverware coming and going.

So there we were, our party graced by His Excellence himself. The stiffness between him and Professor L. might have been death to the party, but Professor K. engaged the Vice-President manfully over Manhattans on Californian antiquities, upon which subject he manfully held his own, teasing the Professor with hints of the origins of the Whale Man, and reading the characters on the parquet of the Hall floor to him. 

And just as dinner was served, my next unexpected guest, rolled into the dining room just at the start of supper in a wheelchair, Great Uncle! I had honestly never expected to see him aware again, but there he was, eating his soup with only an occasionally guiding hand from Amy So sitting discretely behind him. I think that was the moment I began to feel my stomach. Her husband was nowhere in sight, and, as you know, Wing Chan was not brought on board as a nurse on the strength of his beside manners.

I suppose this is another revelation of the power of penicillin, in this case to break Great Uncle's lower infection, which explains, I am told, part of his dementia. Without it, he still has occasional good days. Fortunately.

Just before the soup dish was cleared, the foreman of our construction gang appeared at Soong’s elbow, quite uninvited, and, too late, I saw the trap I had fallen into. Soong did not need to bring retainers. They were already here!

My stomach dropped out until I realised that the expression forming on His Excellency’s face was anything but satisfied. And then I was called to the phone for Fanny, calling from the college to let me know that she had received my warning, and that she was sitting with the University Provost at that moment, with the twins.

I had a moment to try to form some inane comment about how I had given no warning when a fusillade of shots rang out overhead, ending in a heavy thud from above, and another, not nearly so sterile, for he came right through the bad spot on the ceiling to land on the dance floor, prostrate before the Whale Man. Not inappropriately. You will not be surprised that the first sign he gave that he was still alive was to swear in Russian. (I think. Miss v. Q. certainly answered him in Russian, saying, if I am any judge, something about staying very still on pains of receiving a discrete little automatic's worth of .22 rounds at a yard's range. It matched her purse. Very fashionable!)

Great Uncle stared ahead, only slightly smiling when the sound of the voices of your youngest, and “Miss V.C” came through the floor, the former calling for towels, the latter asking how to reload her pistol.

Then Great-Uncle began to speak.

“Welcome, everyone, to my humble home. If you do not know me, perhaps you know of me, and are not surprised to hear gunfire. If not, seek enlightenment from your companions. You will rejoice with me that tonight some Shanghai thugs bit off more than they could chew. Our carpenter friend, and our guest of honour might take a lesson alike.”

Our carpenter friend’s ambitions better not extend to getting a bonus. It’s unfortunate. They were very hard to find, and I should have questioned my luck.

Great Uncle continued. “I do not know if you are all aware of this, but this started with shots in a house, not nearly as respectable a one as this, in old Bantam long ago A shipment of country goods, bound from Shanghai to Wenchang, had somehow fetched up there. A cargo of opium had been prepared against the happy accident. Which proved a little short, some caddies being filled with sugar, and that in turn to a rather drastic settling of accounts. 

"It thus became an honourable ancestor of mine’s duty to explain to a distant cousin that one did not go around shooting one’s fellow Englishmen in cold blood, even in a house of ill-repute, no matter who might have stolen from whom, or what his business partners said. Or, at least, that one does not leave witnesses behind as one departs, swaggering and drunk, into the night.

“Honourable ancestor, charmingly naïve, put a pistol with a single round on the table at the end of the interview, and retired below to await the report. Or, as it happens, the sound of boots hitting the verandah outside, and of coins, sewn into a waistcoat jingling.

“I will not venture to say how our blue-blooded murderer made his way to the harbour and a waiting ship. I think His Excellency could tell us, if perhaps he has attended to his family stories. He may not have. It was a long time ago. Although the memory of the time when your clan put a future Governor of California in its debt is perhaps not forgotten so quickly as some stories.

“I do not think he could tell you how the next thing happened, the letter from Valparaiso later that year, suggesting that there were not enough coins in that waistcoat for the young man's taste, and that he had booked passage to New York, with the thought of proceeding onwards to London if he arrived in a situation not to his liking. And so off went honourable ancestor, to England and an unlikely imposture as his own third cousin, and to arrange something in New York.

“Oh, do not look at me that way. The British remittance man is an American staple, and when the matter is more serious than gambling, wine or women, one seeks a new name, and one way of securing such a thing is to find an American family willing to add a branch to its family tree. Throw in a certain facility with accents, a little bit of travel, and America can be the land of reinvention. 

“Unfortunately, his choice of destinations was California, for he was not quite ready to stand on his own, when he could continue to trade on the family’s influence. The less said about that,the better. But it is a very nice  university.

“Nor was it only our influence, at least by intent. His old allies showed up, too. Well, we settled them in the end, in California at least, with knives in the dark and guns on lonely trails. Dirty, dirty business. Sometimes I wish we could have settled with the Governor, too. The state would be cleaner. The railways, perhaps, even. The vulgar business with his wife. . I will have much to answer for when I pass on."

And then he looked at Soong. "But you, Your Excellency. You walk into my house and imagine that it is not settled? Well, it was settled then, and it is settled now. I cannot now destroy your connections root and branch. There is a place prepared for your allies and your followers a little north of here, you know where. But as for you and your sisters, you will leave California.”

His Excellency blanched, even before Wong Lee appeared to escort him back to the Embassy.

And, at the door, I heard Professor K. tell Miss W., clear as day, that she could now tell people that she had met the real Fu Manchu, and, for once, I could only smile at that.

It was funny. But my party was ruined, and I think that the Government of China might be upset at us.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Placeholder for Postblogging Technology, June I, 1945

Well, it was a nice vacation, as elder care emergencies go. Plans to do work tended to get sidetracked along the way by one thing or another. I'm not blaming anyone but me. I am most certainly thanking the good people at Interior Health and Boundary Hospital, though. 

Here. Enjoy the sights!

The historic Grand Forks Hotel. Or, where it used to be before it burned down and was repalced by this parking lot. Which is unfortunate, because with a population that's been declining for over a decade, the town does not need anywhere near as many parking lots as it has.

And if it did, the owner of this "For Sale By Owner" abandoned house could sell it for extra parking. He'd have to kick the deer grazing in the old garden, out, though. This post-apocalyptic, abandoned landscape is directly opposite the hospital, by the way.

Grand Forks is a nice place.
While I'm not a very good photographer. Focus on the beautiful hill, not the gigantic parking lot.
It's a huge (well, not Central Valley of California huge, but 10,000 hectares, easy) basin of agricultural land in a region that's not oversupplied with such. It  is a cross-roads on a major Canadian highway and unimportant American one, has a a railway and an "educated workforce." It's in one of the "growth provinces."

It shouldn't be depopulating, but it is. Given the way that global warming is looming over this incomprehensibly dry landscape, seeing how much land is going fallow in the valley is frustrating.

I'll let that hang. I think I need to set up my ducks before I talk about agriculture and global warming. I will say that I saw more horses than cows on the fields, and more deer than people in the Grand Forks "suburbs." This land is not going to waste because it can't be productive. It's not even going unproductive because of perverse incentives. The nursery business is growing like Topsy around the Boundary country. It's just that a hundred thousand acres plus of nursery would be a lot of investment. I think, demand being there, it will all be nursery before the end of time.   Given enough demand, it will all be nursery tomorrow. Which is kind of the rub.

Regular service will resume tonight or tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Bishop's Sea, III: The Real Presence

Alaska is a big enough and complicated enough place to have seen armies of  armoured "Eskimo" warriors. Greenland? No idea, frankly.

"In 484 AD Brendan was born in Tralee, in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the south-west of Ireland.[6] He was born among the Altraige, a tribe originally centred around Tralee Bay, to parents called Finnlug and Cara. Tradition has it that he was born in the Kilfenora/Fenit area on the North side of the bay. He was baptised at Tubrid, near Ardfert by Saint Erc,[1] and was originally to be called "Mobhí" but signs and portents attending his birth and baptism led to him being christened 'Broen-finn' or 'fair-drop'.[7] For five years he was educated under Saint Ita, "the Brigid of Munster". When he was six he was sent to Saint Jarlath's monastery school at Tuam to further his education.[8] Brendan is one of the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland", one of those said to have been tutored by the great teacher, Finnian of Clonard."

Thus Wikipedia. Fact piled on fact, all, as far as we can tell, the fantasy of later medieval Irish chroniclers inventing useful pasts for their monasteries --or, rather, "church settlements."

None of them, however, are more fantastic, or, at least, more fantastic in a way that resonates with readers, than the story for which we remember Brendan of Clontard: Brendan the Navigator. For in 512AD or so, Brendan set out from Clontard to travel the Atlantic in a medieval Irish hide boat(1,2), in search of the island of the Garden of Eden. Which, amongst other marvels, he and his companions found. Unlike, for example, Adam of Bremen's  Gesta Hammaburgensis Pontificum, recovered in a single text from a Danish monastery in the Sixteenth Century, or the lost, anonymous Færeyinga Saga, recovered in small part from other early Icelandic sagas, the voyages of Brendan are known from over a hundred medieval manuscripts. As later with Mandeville's or Marco Polo's travels, the European reading public made its tastes known with pen in hand. It liked travel stories. (And stories of monks performing and witnessing miracles in the liminal wilderness, to give Brendan's readership their due credit.) It seems likely that one of those manuscript traditions can be traced through an 11th Century High German exemplar. Adam of Bremen, voracious and eclectic reader, could have read it. If the number of surviving manuscripts is evidence of readership, he could hardly have been unaware of it, at least. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Bishop's Sea, II: Eirik the Red's Land

Source: Anglican Diocese of British Columbia. I knew the then-Bishop's son in grad school, and he knew  my Victoria second cousins. Connections!

Let's see. Where to begin?

Oh, I know: Margaret Craven's 1967 novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, in which an Anglican bishop is made aware that one of his priests. Naturally, the bishop conceals this from the priest, and instead sends him to a mission church in Kingcome Inlet, where "he learns from the Indians, and they from him." And then he dies.   Kingcome Inlet is (very loosely) in the catchment of my high school (W00t NISS, rhymes with a rude word less than our rival, PHSS!) So I knew some kids from there, children of an old Kingcome Inlet family, the Halladay girls, who roomed in Port McNeill during the school year. So that's a personal connection with a story so famous that it actually got made into a General Electric Theater Movie of the Week! Craven was a member of that Bay-area Stanford-San-Francisco quasi-aristocracy which has so many odd connections with the Northwest Coast on account of being our informal metropolitan for so many years, and Kingcome Inlet is "home to people of the Dzawa̱da̱'enux̱w tribe of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation (who are given the now-archaic name “Kwakiutl” in the book)." So, connections.

No, wait, that's just a bit about little mission churches in remote Indian reservations way up the chuck. We're dealing with important things here. Like the Kaiserdom Speyer, the largest Romanesque cathedral in Germany, which label does not even begin to capture the scale of the design.

I could not find an image that really captured the Kaiserdom's majesty, so I went with Romantic pencils instead, courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

Given the way that a tour of Europe can degenerate into "another day, another cathedral," I'll just point out that Speyer is a small village in the ancestral lands of what we choose to call the Salian family, not a city. Under Gregory VII, it was taken to be an explicit challenge of the papal power. Whether Conrad II intended it as such when he began work is another matter entirely. Much more likely, its key role was to provide an appropriate scale of burial place for the eventually century-long descent of the Salian emperors. In that sense, it's about family. Eleventh Century German-Imperial high politics is a story of family connections told without genealogies or family names. The former were first set down a century later, and the latter often coined even later and then fitted back onto the noble clans. These are matters which can be obscured, denied and problematised, and one can see why the Salian emperors took steps to steadily render their dynasty more concrete, monumental, and permanent, by erecting it in stone. 

Wait. Greenland? Wasn't this about Greenland? Since Greenland is an island dependency of the Kingdom of Denmark with a nice little Wikipedia article which summarises, amongst other things, its inexpressibly romantic history as the further westermost and arguably only North American Viking settlement, I would ordinarily direct the reader there. Not this time, though, because it would be in contempt of the bench of the International Court of Justice, which, in a judgment given on 5 April 1933, defined "Greenland" for us. Did you know that the International Court of Justice decided what Greenland was. (Justices Anzilotti and Vogt dissenting, and Justices Shuecking and Wang concurring. Unfortunately, the dissents and concurrent opinions are omitted in the online PDF. I can't remember if they appear in the printed proceedings, which I haven't looked at in years.)

What the heck? You ask yourself politely. In a nutshell, on 1 June 1931, Norway acceded to a longstanding pressure campaign to "annex" a chunk of the far northeastern coast of Greenland as its very own Arctic colony. Norwegian whalers and fur traders being the only Europeans (and for the most part only humans) active in the area, there was some shadow of an economic claim, but it really comes down to Norway being upset that all the cool Viking stuff got taken from it while it wasn't being a country. Hence the fact that the putative colony was dubbed "Eirik the Red's Land," notwithstanding the fact that even Norwegian nationalist opinion had receded from the full wingnut position that Erik the Red's Eastern Settlement had been on the east coast of Greenland (in Erik the Red's Land, as opposed to further south at Amassalik Island), and that therefore Denmark was bad and wrong, and should be ashamed of itself.  Also Sweden. And, really, pretty much everybody except Norwegians, and even some of those.