Farming and the climate crisis

Let’s be charitable and admit that both Bill McKibben and Laura Day (July 29; Letters, August 5) have a point. It all depends on the length of their respective historical perspectives on the issue of agriculture as the primary factor in environmental (climate) change. Years ago I took the long view, focusing on the beginnings of anthropogenic environmental change with the introduction of mixed farming and permanent settlement in the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages in Mediterranean Europe, while acknowledging the continuity into modern times of the key factors: the cutting down of trees to clear land for cultivation, with consequent loss of litter (and its fertilizing nitrogen, organic matter and protection from run-off) and alteration of the microclimate hampering regeneration of the original dominant trees; the substitution of the climax vegetation by selected plants, often of single species, arranged in rows with bare soil between them; the plowing up and down slope instead of along the contour; the inevitable soil erosion, as the ancients recognized, siltation (fluvial and coastal) and the growth of marshes; and so on.

The model has long been evident – ​​the replacement of the original rich brown woodland soils by the now familiar red (rubified) earths of Mediterranean limestone regions is recorded in the stratigraphy around each pre- and proto-historic settlement site – but it took the twentieth century (and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) to encourage protective farming measures globally. Cultivation, in short, is by definition environmentally detrimental without regulation. In contrast, hunters and gatherers, as we learn from anthropology, have always been acutely aware that overharvesting the creatures they catch, the nuts and berries they collect and the plants they pick means less or no food next season, and are protective of pregnant animals and seeding plants. Read the good practice advice of the Sicilian gatherer Rosario T. as recorded by Danilo Dolci in Inchiesta a Palermo (Poverty in Sicily, 1956).

Catherine Delano-Smith
Institute of Historical Research, University of London

The Elizabethan Mind

In his appreciative review of Helen Hackett’s book (July 29), Rhodri Lewis remarks on the human-animal divide. Unless I misunderstand him, he seems to get it all backwards. He cites Montaigne as maintaining this divide in An Apology for Raymond Sebondand Descartes, along with a line from King Lear, as playing it down. But Montaigne is exactly trying to force that divide, while Descartes strenuously and systematically asserts it. Lear’s question, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And no life at all?”, takes its fury and thou pathos precisely from its assertion of a huge gap in value between the non-human creatures cited and the infinitely more valuable human who is lost. The animals are generic (species) categories – “a dog”, etc; the human is a “thu”.

Richard Strier
University of Chicago

‘The New Atlantic Order’

Jonathan Sperber, reviewing Patrick O. Cohrs’s The New Atlantic Order (July 29), observes that one of the author’s “more interesting arguments” is that German efforts to mobilize civil society in the UK and US against the Versailles treaty terms backfired, making the two countries ever more determined to impose it. The German government, led by Socialists in the wake of the kaiser’s abdication, took seriously Woodrow Wilson’s earlier call for “a peace without victory”. The Germans imagined this call would lead to their equal treatment at the peace conference, where of course they were treated instead as a defeat foe to whom the victors would dictate terms.

Behind Wilson’s earlier call lay his conviction that all were guilty of the coming of war, which led him to insist on an armistice on French soil rather than pursuit of the retreating German Army to Berlin, as others had wanted. What changed his approach? Was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge right to conclude that wily Europeans had overturned American interests at the peace table, manipulating Wilson, thereby leading the senator towards isolationism? Had German efforts to mobilize civil society in the US emboldened Wilson’s domestic opponents, thereby hardening his attitude?

Albion M. Urdank
University of California, Los Angeles

Rilke in translation

Rey Conquer, reviewing the Sackville-Wests’ translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (August 12), mentions it as “this curiosity from the history of Rilke in English”. Another example is the deep influence of the sequence (in its original German) on the young English poet Sidney Keyes. His first volume of poetry, The Iron Laurel (1942), contained the long poem “The Foreign Gate”, which pays homage to the German poet, translating the First Elegy’s opening address in lines 5-6 of the poem. Here are the first eight lines of the poem:

Once a great man cried and the great Orders heard him:
Pacing upon a windy wall at night
A pale unlearned poet out of Europe’s
Erratic heart cried and was filled with speech.
Were I to cry, who in that proud hierarchy
Of the illustrious would pity me?
What should I cry, how should I learn their language?
The cold wind takes my words.

Without this paean to Rilke, it is doubtful that Geoffrey Hill’s “Funeral Music” (perhaps the best sonnet sequence in English since the Second World War) would ever have been written. Hill writes of the debt (obliquely) in his essay “Sidney Keyes in Historical Perspective” (in The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, 2007). Hill’s stress on “the historical” agrees with Conquer’s comment on Rilke’s “precise… historical background and usage”. It was the very “modern sense of dislocation” of which Conquer writes that drew both Keynes and Hill to the Duino Elegies.

Sam Milne
Claygate, Surrey

Shakespeare’s private life

Lois Potter wishes to increase our interest in Lena Cowen Orlin’s Private Life of William Shakespeare (Letters, August 5). Bart van Es had written an appreciative but nuanced review (July 29), yet Potter wants to gild the lily. She might have mentioned (we call it “full disclosure” here in Massachusetts) that she and Orlin are good friends. To quote from the latter’s recent interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library, “I have a good friend who wrote a really brilliant biography of Shakespeare, Lois Potter.” It’s good to know, in these inflationary times, that advertising space is so cheap in London.

Lee Oser
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA

Inventing Cinema

Paul Fischer’s The Man Who Invented Moving Pictures may be “wonderful storytelling”, as Muriel Zagha ​​finds (August 5), but how “true” or original it is may be another matter. This is not the first time that Louis Le Prince has been discovered, and proclaimed as a tragically overlooked pioneer. In 1990 Christopher Rawlence’s book and accompanying Channel 4 docudrama The Missing Reel told the Le Prince story in considerable detail. But amid a steady stream of misleading claims, it’s vital to resist what Zagha ​​calls the “canonical stories” of the Lumière 1895 Paris screenings (which did not include Arrivée d’un train) and Edison’s Kinetoscope as the “birth of cinema”. Neither the Lumières in Lyon nor Robert Paul in London would have developed their successful systems without the stimulus of Edison’s device. The simple historical fact is that what became cinema had many pioneers and inventors around 1890 – well described by the French historian Laurent Mannoni as “workers of the eleventh hour”. Le Prince was one of at least half a dozen, several of whom managed to show their results on screen before either the Lumières or Paul. Meanwhile, Edison turned to projection only when he saw its success in Europe.

Ian Christie
Birkbeck College, London

What are you like?

Thomas Nagel’s question of “what it is like for a bat to be a bat”, quoted by Charles Foster in his review of Ed Yong’s An Immense World (August 12), contains the mantra of the consciousness studies movement, that there’s “something that it’s like to be conscious.” What’s most striking about this idea is how obviously wrong it is.

In the common-sense understanding of the word, if you’re responsive to sensory stimuli, you’re conscious, but, if not, you aren’t. Likeness, however, is not an object of sense. Anything can be considered in some respect as like, but in others as unlike, anything else because likeness is a relation that only similes and metaphors can conjure up between objects either of sense or of abstract thought, eg red roses and my love.

The peculiar senses of bats and other species enable them to react to phenomena that don’t impinge on ours, but likeness is not one of them because they have no language in which to formulate the concept of likeness. We can imagine what it might be like for us to have the senses bats have, but for bats there’s nothing that it’s like to be a bat.

Christopher Eddy

Charles Peguy’s reputation

This is the eightieth anniversary year of the founding of Amitié Charles Péguy in 1942 in occupied France to promote the understanding and diffusion of Péguy’s works – in contrast to the propagandistic use of his writings made by the Pétainist anthologies published at the time. As vice president of the association during the previous decade, I write to remind your readers that Péguy earnestly supported Dreyfus during the Affair, and never regretted or ended his combat in favor of Dreyfus or against antisemitism. For more precision about that matter, readers might turn to Péguy’s Notre Jeunesse (1910) and to the missing passages in the English translation, presented in the fine volume by Annette Aronowicz, Jews and Christians on Time and Eternity: Charles Péguy’s portrait of Bernard-Lazare (1998).

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec
Université Caen Normandie

Saved from the flames

On reading Ian Sansom’s Afterthoughts, “Burning my books” (August 5), I immediately purchased a copy of his book Reading Room, of which only two copies were still available on It is my sincere hope that Amazon is able to fulfil my order before Mr Sansom manages to set it alight.

Paul Drexler
Seattle WA

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