June 30th, 2010

Hesiod and the plowman

You know, I do actually recognize that there's a lot of room for debate about how to read _Works and Days_. I get that. Normally, I don't give a crap, because I find Hesiod so boring I wish I could fall asleep reading him. However, when The Idiot responsible for _Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization_ and a waste of your time and mine claimed this: "Whereas Hesiod recommended using an experienced plowman who could plow a straight line regardless of the lay of the land, by later classical times terraces were built to try and retain soil and extend the productive life of hillside fields", I foolishly decided to make an effort to determine whether I thought that was a plausible reading.

I _think_ the Idiot is referring to line 44x.


"one who will attend to his work and drive a straight furrow and is past the age for gaping after his fellows, [445] but will keep his mind on his work."

Yes, it's Hesiod, and feel free to pick a different translation (this one has the merit of free access online), but that would seem to be pretty clear: you're looking for a 40 year old so he can pay attention to what he is doing, and plowing straight rather than meandering _because he's paying attention to the other guys out there plowing too_ would appear to be the message. Is Hesiod suggesting that if you hire some young guy you're going to find him out there humperating with the other field hands? Is Hesiod just pointing out that the young'uns are irresponsible twits? Who knows. But suggesting that this is straight-line-vs-terraced is asinine.

Is there some _other_ Hesiod reference to plowing a straight line that I missed? Interpret liberally -- it might amuse me, and I could sure use some amusement at the moment.


Periodically, I run across an assertion about yields that just drives me nuts. No, not stocks and bonds (altho that, too). Usually, it's assertions about wheat yields somewhere else a long time ago and how they were for crap and aren't we oh so much more clever than they were.

Well, Montgomery has committed this sin as well: "English farmers gradually increased per-acre grain yields to well above medieval crop yields of twice the seeded amount". I'll leave off the rest of the sentence about early Egyptian crop yields because it is too painful to even contemplate.

The first time I encountered this wildly improbable "fact", I thought, "Self, would _you_ farm if you got a yield of 2-1 for seed? No," responded Self. "Not a fucking chance." Then I thought, "Self, do you think anyone _else_ is dumb enough to farm for a yield of 2-1?" and Self thought about it for a while and replied, doubtfully, "Someone might be that dumb, but they wouldn't successfully reproduce if they spent all their time that way, so it can't possibly be true."

It was the work of seconds -- not even minutes -- to learn the first time that medieval yields were hella higher than 2-1, and that the source of the 2-1 was a poorly understood church storage document that someone mistranslated, misinterpreted and then a lot of people cited without engaging their brains. Which just goes to show that with all the food we have nowadays, it's possible to be much, much, much stupider than you could get away with as a medieval peasant.

This time, a few more seconds on google and wikipedia not only reiterated to me that medieval wheat yields were hella higher than 2-1, but we've got instances on record of people pulling high 20s in bushels per acre. Given that the US wheat yield average is only in the 40s, well, don't be slamming the medieval manor and acting like people were all so smart in the 17th century. I don't have a solid line on seed yield, but it seems clear it wasn't worse than 4-1, ever.

As for the more complex assertions that Montgomery makes about the timing of yield improvements, well, JSTOR has articles that would argue with him about the "gradual" and which centuries it happened in.

Just to be clear: Montgomery is not wrong when he says that soil will flow downhill if you have bad agricultural practices and that has caused problems all over the world at various times. However, he is remarkably unimaginative and uninformed when it comes to _why_ people engaged in bad agricultural practices and his data does not support what he thinks it supports. He has backwards causation all over the place. He repeatedly misrepresents the implications of historic climate variation. And when it comes to demographics, he is breathtakingly innumerate: a population drop of 50% over a couple centuries is remarkably invisible, contrary to what he is at least trying to help the reader infer.

I _like_ that Montgomery doesn't just blindly accept the "tragedy of the commons" explanation. But wow, his alternatives aren't so hot either.

You would think that University of California Press would have insisted this thing be rewritten. In addition to its numerous other problems, it is highly repetitive and simultaneously lacking in detail in the areas I would expect Montgomery's expertise as a geomorphologist to be strongest.