Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Two Observations

"Often in a pitched battle there was no way of knowing if your blow went home, the more so with arrows..."
-SM Stirling, The High King Of Montival (New York, 2011), Chapter Nine, p. 187.

And with guns. I asked guys who were in WWII. They were ordered to fire, e.g., into a forest and had no idea how many they had killed. But they knew many who had been killed. In fact, "There was one officer who was such a bloody nuisance that we had to get rid of him ourselves!" Another man went to Australia straight after the War, returned in the '70s and found his best friend's name on a village War Memorial.

"The air had an intense cleanliness that you got only at some distance from men's dwellings - no dung or woodsmoke." (pp. 187-188)

Imagine that: dung and smoke wherever there are people!

OK, folks. I am making two quick observations, then signing off for the night. It is meant to be healthier not to computerize before sleep.

24 comments:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

Your first observation reminded me of PA making very similar comments about combat and battle in his works. And he noted as well how intensely interested in each other two warriors or soldiers can momentarily be as they tried to kill each other.

And the bit about smoke and dung is also something Anderson noted in many of his works, as his characters neared farms or entered towns/cities. Esp. those shown in lower tech times.

Sean

S.M. Stirling said...

Up until the decade before WW1, a prosperous Western city had a horse for every 10-15 people; and a horse produces 15-35 pounds of dung a day, along with gallons of urine.

The horse and mule population of the US peaked in 1915, with about 26 million animals. Most on farms, but a lot in cities; horses were the only way to move goods and people once you got off the rails.

This created absolutely appalling waste management problems, worst of all in really big cities like London or New York, which were never really solved.

It was like living in a barnyard, only worse. The dung dried to a toxic dust which got into everything, including your lungs.

In Montival, they actually have more of a grip on it -- they use a lot of it for biogas production in cities, and then the sludge gets recycled as fertilizer. It all still smells.

It's amazing how rapidly IC engines replaced horses in an urban context -- in say 1905, everything that wasn't on rails moved by horse-power, and cars were a toy for the very rich. Woodrow Wilson remarked that the spread of automobiles was promoting socialism by flaunting the wealth of the plutocrats in everyone's face.

By 1914, powered vehicles were visibly and rapidly replacing horses in advanced countries, and by the late 1920's the process was essentially complete.

Paul Shackley said...

Mr Stirling,
Thank you for this and many other short historical articles!
Paul.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

I should have remembered how a nation didn't need to be all that "low tech" to be still heavily dependent on horses and mules as was true of most Western nations as late as 1915. I remembered seeing pictures and early movies of cities in the early 1900's and how MANY horses I saw in them.

But, I had not known that dried horse dung produced a toxic dust harmful to people's health.

Sean

S.M. Stirling said...

Yup, the dried dust, and the way it got into everything -- on people's shoes, on the long skirts women wore -- and the innumerable hordes of flies that bred in it and then carried diseases, and that's just for starters. Pollution of water supplies was chronic and serious too, of course. On to secondary problems -- it fed enormous flocks of sparrows and starlings in towns (much larger than now) and -they- damaged vegetation and caused health problems. There were mathematically well-founded fears in the early 1900's that large cities would literally choke on piles of horse-dung if they kept growing.

There was an occupational sub-category of "crossing-sweepers" in Victorian times, who you paid a small coin to in return for sweeping the crossing before you stepped into the street. Dung was mostly what they were sweeping away.

Not to mention that about 25% of the agricultural production of the US in 1915 went to feed horses and mules. That was one major reason people bought tractors as fast as they could afford them as soon as efficient models were available and the fuel/maintenance system in place; simply by using a tractor you got a 25% boost in salable production from your farm. This generally much more than compensated for the cost of gasoline or diesel for the tractor, plus of course the tractor was faster and didn't eat when you weren't using it and got sick a lot less. (Horses are fragile beasts.)

That 25% boost caused chronic overproduction of crops in North America and a couple of other places during the 1920's and 1930's, by the way -- an unintended side-effect. The population didn't go up by 25% nearly as fast.

S.M. Stirling said...

When you're writing set in a lower-tech environment, one of the things that modern readers miss unless you point it out is things like the smells, or the way the ground around a barn was a mixture of mud and animal droppings, or the enormous numbers of flies. You need to mentally interpolate this if you're reading period fiction, too.

One thing Poul gets (he mentions it in THE BOAT OF A MILLION YEARS and elsewhere) was that you could tell a rich, prosperous port by the density of the swarms of seagulls... which were eating sewage and garbage from the waters.

S.M. Stirling said...

It's also useful to remind yourself of stuff like this when reading earlier works because it's relevant to what's "modern" and what's a "period" or "fantasy" element in

I'm fond of Tennyson, for example. If you read his "Lady of Shallot", it's a poem about a maiden in an enchanted tower in King Arthur's time.

But the impact on a contemporary reader in the 1830's would be different from one today because (among other things) the environment described was much more current for Tennyson's audience.

Ie., the tower is on an island with long fields of barley and rye on either side of the river, and the poet mentions "reapers, in among the beaded burley" and "reapers, reaping early" and "reapers weary, piling sheaves in uplands airy" finishing their work by moonlight.

That's an exotic image for us. For people of the period, it's commonplace -- grain was still reaped by large numbers of people with sickles in early-Victorian Britain.

Likewise the people walking and riding horses along the river on a dirt road. That was how people then got around.

There are exotic elements in the poem: the magic, of course, the knights in armor, the abbots and page-boys. But the shepherds and countryfolk are just part of the actual landscape of the author's time.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

Yes, I think I see: dung, insects, birds feeding on them, etc., all this contributed to making cities so unhealthy a century ago. And I have heard of the people who made a living as crossing sweepers.

A big boost in agricultural production from farmers no longer needing horses after tractors became practical? This must have also had a deflationary effect on food prices.

Sean

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

I've started rereading your DIES THE FIRE, so I will certainly keep an eye for the SMELLS of post-Change farms and towns. And I remember how Poul Anderson was careful to also mention the smells of lower tech milieus.

Sean

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

MORE things to keep in mind as I begin rereading your Emberverse books! What seemed "exotic" was actually simply everyday life for the people in those poems and stories.

Sean

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

Another thought I had was that the vastly smaller population of post-Change towns and cities was a factor in Montival being able to get a better grip on the problem of disposing of horse dung Post-Change Corvallis or even Portland were not anywhere as large as New York and London, circa 1900. Thus there were fewer horses.

Sean

Paul Shackley said...

Sean and Mr Stirling,
In Anderson's GENESIS, in an emulated alternative history of York, horses wear diapers.
Paul.

S.M. Stirling said...

Yes, that's so; also they knew about the problem and could tackle it from the beginning as horse populations built up.

S.M. Stirling said...

Note that throughout the 19th century there was an "urban disadvantage" in death rates, though it was dropping. Getting clean water in and human waste out was mostly responsible for this, together with gradual improvements in nutrition and control of adulterated and rotten food and drink; but the "horse problem" was one reason it continued. The Victorians were the first people in human history to have large cities where more people were born than died, though the Edo-period Japanese came very close (I could go into detail about the unusually well-organized cities of Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns!). In particular, urban infant mortality rates remained higher because it was so difficult to keep insects off children's food, and contaminants out of milk.

S.M. Stirling said...

And today, we once again have a situation where big cities have more people dying than being born, though the cause is lower fertility rather than higher death rates. This is true in most places -- Indian cities have TFR (Total Fertility Rates) in the 1.3-1.9 range, for example. Chinese cities are astonishingly low -- below -one- child per woman on average, and it's not a matter of government policy either.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

I thought so, thanks! But, as generations passed, I think SOME post-Change cities would still have problems properly handling both animal and human wastes as populations grew.

Sean

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

A very good point! I should have remembered that. Ummm, but those equine diapers would need to be CHANGED as often as they would be for human infants. But that emulation at least shows how some people might try to handle the horse dung problem.

Sean

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

Again, thanks for your interesting comments. I had not known Tokugawa Japan's were so well organized. I did have some idea of how Western cities in Victorian times were among the first to get a grip on the problems of getting clean water in and improving nutrition, etc.

Yes, social, moral, and political causes are among the reasons why we are again having more people dying than being born in big cities. And I know this is starting to worry some!

Sean

S.M. Stirling said...

On a personal note on the living-conditions thread: my paternal grandmother was from a yeoman-farmer family in northern Wiltshire (the "cheese" part, not the "chalk").

My father did some genealogical research and found the family had been there in the same three parishes since before Domesday Book; when ordinary people got surnames in the Middle Ages, they became the "Uphills" -- because their farm was up-hill from the church. As he said, they might as well have been called "Baggins".

She was the youngest of 13 siblings on the farm, all of whom survived (one was killed in the Great War but the others all lived into their seventh decade) and it's often struck me that they were probably among the healthiest of people in the country at the time. They certainly had the healthiest living conditions.

They had the advantage of living in the country away from industrial pollution and the byproducts of cramming people together, and had clean water and air.

But unlike farm laborers they weren't poor or underfed or living in damp cold cottages -- they had a substantial farmhouse, and grew and processed almost all their own food except for things like tea and sugar and salt (the farm's cash crops were milk and pork and veal) and ate very well.

All her life my grandmother looked down on women who didn't bake their own bread and "put up" their own vegetables and make cheese as rather slovenly. She had an amazing number of "country crafts" in her fingers.

At the same time, unlike the rich of the Edwardian era they didn't overeat relative to their output; they worked damned hard all the time at an enormous range of physical tasks. Judging from the photographs they were all big strapping young men and women around the time my grandmother left; not many prospects for the youngest on a modest-sized farm(*).

I remember one of them, my great-uncle Gordon, who I met when I was about 7 and he was in his 70's; he wasn't very mobile any more (arthritis) but he could crack walnuts by squeezing them in his fist, which had a grip like a mechanical grab. He'd left too as a young man, first as a foremast hand on a windjammer (he sailed around the Horn that way) and then working on a trawler, eventually captaining his own.

(*) she set out for America in 1912, at the age of eighteen; her ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the passengers were taken to St. John's, where my great-grandfather owned a hotel, and she met my grandfather there. Such are the chances of life!

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

Thank you for this very interesting autobiographical "sidebar." Yes, what you said about your Uphill (a very Hobbitish name, I agree!) does remind me of the reasonably well off farming families we see in the Emberverse books.

And, it was amusingly serendipitous, how your grandmother first met your grandfather. I just hope nobody was hurt from her ship hitting that iceberg!

Sean

S.M. Stirling said...

Everyone was rescued, IIRC. It was sort of overshadowed by the Titanic... 8-).

My maternal grandmother was a VAD nurse in WW1, and met my grandfather while he was convalescing -- he was gassed at Third Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917. They'd never have met in peacetime (families of different social grades by the finely-divided standards of the time) so they eloped and went as far from England as they could... Peru, in fact. My grandfather died of the lung injuries in 1938, when he came down with pneumonia.

My mother's mother was from Lancashire, and she could remember waking up to the sound of the mill-girls' wooden clogs on the cobbles in the morning.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

Re the ship your grandmother was on: good, I'm glad everyone was rescued. Too bad it was not like that with the TITANIC!

Hmmm, I had thought your grandmother first met your grandfather at the hotel your great grandfather owned. Somewhat later, got it. I think I remember you saying both sides of the family disapproved at the time of them marrying, hence they left for Peru.

And it's interesting Lancashire mill-girl still wore WOODEN clogs in the early 20th century! Cheaper than leather shoes, I assume.

Sean

S.M. Stirling said...

Wooden clogs and shawls. Though she was in her twenties in 1917, so her earliest memories would have been something like 1903 or 1904, just barely post-Victorian.

It's interesting to remember that in 1917, there would have been plenty of people around who remembered their grandparents talking about the wars against Napoleon.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

And that reminds me of how my father was born in 1903, and HIS father in 1867. So there would still be people around who personally remembered the wars against Napoleon when my grandfather was born.

Sean