I was reading about an odd ice cream called Dondurma, made from orchid bulbs, that they eat in Turkey. As is often the case when I read about odd things, my mind drifted off in an odd direction, and I couldn’t help thinking that if there is a way to use and/or abuse anything in the natural world, at some point along the millions of years of our evolution as a species, someone will have tried it. We see all sorts of examples, from primitive tribes that used the Foxglove plant to relieve chest distress (we call the active ingredient digitalis), to the aforesaid Turks and their confection, to our ongoing failure to respect the planet and the trillions of other beings with whom we share it.
Early on, such things were matters of need, rather than want. Times were hard on the Anatolian Plateau, despite its location in the Fertile Crescent. Possibly some practitioner of sympathetic magic, noticing the resemblance of the orchid tubers to testicles, had the idea that a tea brewed from them might be good for ailments in the love department. Perhaps it even worked. Over time, someone would have tried to improve the flavor, perhaps by adding milk, a sweetener like honey, or both. Eventually someone would have left a pot of the stuff out on a cold night, and the rest would, along with later modifications, become history.
These sorts of things happened all the time, throughout human history. The reasons for the experiments may have differed, but the serendipitous results lived on, themselves the basis for still more experiments. They happened because people were close to the natural world, and to the details of their lives. They knew the processes behind making tea and ice cream from orchid balls (the Greek root “orchis” means “testicle”) because every family made their own. Folks learned the best ways to prepare foods for storage, grains for baking, poultices for wounds and so forth, because they had either to learn or die. Those incapable of doing and learning would not have bred successfully, and their lines would have died out. Thus, we became a resourceful, clever species — both our blessing and our curse, as it turns out.
The ancestors of everyone alive today were able to survive because of three factors: their closeness to the land and its products, the presence of forebears who were able to pass on their survival skills and — most importantly — the language skills that allowed them to expand upon and remember things taught by example.
As civilization developed, people slowly moved away from direct contact with their means of survival. The beginnings of agriculture, food storage and animal husbandry in that same Fertile Crescent, about ten to twelve thousand years ago, meant that humans were able to make a living while staying in one place. That enabled them to tend their crops, raise their animals in protected surroundings, and create food surpluses to get them through winters, droughts and other seasonal hazards.
Food surplus led to the development of a class structure. Not having to scratch for a living meant that some people were able to develop specialized skills: masonry, carpentry, weaving, priesthood and a religious hierarchy. This greater organization, in turn, gave rise to government — and politicians. The need to transfer wealth among the classes, many of whom had nothing in common for barter, led to the development of money.
A warrior class arose to protect the villages’ territorial interests. Soon, no doubt, their duties expanded to securing the “cooperation” of neighboring towns in the sharing of their resource. War, as opposed to inter-clan skirmishes, raised its head. The introduction of beasts of burden and wheeled carts meant that force could be projected at distances greater than individuals soldiers could carry their supplies. City-states developed, and eventually grew into empires.
The result of this growing complexity was that more and more people got farther and farther from the level of simple food production and subsistence. The specialists, masters of more complex but fewer skills, not only did not need to fend for their own survival, but began to look down on the people who did. A division of class — city and country — was born, and it persists to this day in most parts of the world. City folks tend to look down on the “rednecks” as ignorant and uncultured, while the farmers (who literally keep society alive) often consider city-dwellers to be stuck-up, effete, and essentially helpless when it comes to the important things of life. The country-folk (paganus, as they were known in Roman times), are far closer than the urban dwellers to the truth of the matter.
Which brings us back to the orchid ice cream. Sort of. We enjoy such confections with little thought to their origin. As far as our appreciation of their source is concerned, we might as well be Israelites collecting manna in the desert. The production of our daily bread might well be magic, for all the understanding most of us have of the process. If we were tasked with providing our own food, we would have little idea how to bake a loaf of bread, at least from scratch, and the acquisition of the wheat, flour, and yeast, would be quite beyond us. Given a bushel of grain, the majority of us would starve.
We are at the mercy of our transportation systems and our food distribution networks. If we ever lose, even for a relatively short time, the ability to fertilize and irrigate our crops, operate our farm machinery, run our trucks and locomotives, and otherwise maintain the literal lifeline that reaches from farm to vegetable bin, cornfield to stockyard, stockyard to the meat cooler at the market, we will be well and truly screwed. And what if the meat cooler isn’t cooling?
There are a lot of weak links in the system: production and distribution of electricity to operate fuel pumps and the meat cooler, rapid changes in the ability of a particular area to continue growing its usual crops, disruption of the ecology, whether natural or artificial, that supports any industry that is vital to our way of life. And if that happens — if the “haves” of the developed countries join the “have-nots” who comprise most of the world’s population — well, just imagine who will have the upper hand then.
What goes around, comes around. And karma is a stone-cold bitch.