Monday, July 25, 2005

I live in Tampa, Florida, and I'd like to think I've spent enough time in places like Lettuce Lake Park to have some idea what Florida looked like before human interference. (Which is fooling myself, given the boardwalks and roads that even let me into the park.) And I read the papers enough to have some idea about the constant battles between development and environmental preservation south of me in the Everglades, but local concerns understandably get more press here.

W. Hodding Carter's Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades from its Friends, Foes, and Florida provides an overview much larger than any continued-on-page-8 article, explaining the history of human alteration of the Everglades and connected water systems (which total up to most of the southern half of the Florida peninsula) and attempts to reverse the alterations. The difficulty here is people -- Miami and other urban areas on the southern part of Florida's East Coast; sugar cane farmers; mining; and even vacation-home owners whose properties are in the way of planned expansions to the Everglades National Park protected area. And, of course, disagreements between scientists and planners about what steps would actually work to fix the pollution, the lack of water going into the aquifers that humans draw on, and the lack of water reaching the wild areas. It ain't simple. But Carter makes it at least comprehensible. He also shows what there is in the Everglades and natural Florida that's worth appreciating and saving. The one solution that would make everything as pristine as humanly possible would involve turning huge farms and thousands of people's homes into protected parks, and they just aren't going to want to go, but this book does a good job of persuading the reader that as much toward that goal should be done as can possibly be done.

Friday, July 01, 2005

To modern Americans, it's difficult to imagine bearing a child and then literally putting it out somewhere for someone else to find and raise. Indeed, we find it realistic but reprehensible for kittens and puppies to be abandoned to their fate in that way -- for human babies, it's unthinkable. This is what makes John Boswell's The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance so mind-boggling. Despite encountering references from Oedipus Rex to the life of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to children being left on hillsides or the doorsteps of orphanages, it never sinks in how truly unexceptional it once was to abandon a child with no idea what would happen to them. These days, it's difficult enough for people to give children up for adoption knowing that their child is going directly to a family who specifically want a child and have jumped through all the hoops necessary to adopt one.

But a Roman could leave a child in the marketplace and have a reasonable expectation that someone would take them into their home -- perhaps as what we'd consider a foster child or perhaps as a slave, but the evidence Boswell produces makes it clear that very few of these abandoned children died. A more common worry was apparently the risk of unwittingly committing incest with an abandoned relative.

The medieval world with its more spread-out, rural population continued the practice in slightly different ways, leaving children to be brought up by monasteries in such numbers that rules had to be made about whether these "donated" children were required to be monks or nuns throughout their lives.

This isn't a quick read -- many pages have as much or more space taken up by footnotes as by the regular text. But it makes Boswell's case all the more convincing that there are so many references. Quite surprisingly, though, I didn't think the book felt difficult or overly academic -- just a fascinating look into what seemed to me to be among the most alien aspects of the past.