Fading Indelibility

Old habits die hard. So, it turns out, do new ones.

Back when I was living in Japan, I had a friend who was born near Tokyo in the 1950s. His family wasn’t poor, but with the scarcity of protein that Japan faced for many years after World War II, he grew up eating whale meat. He told me that while he hadn’t particularly liked it, and no longer ate it, it had a taste for him of childhood nostalgia.

Kuniyoshi print of fisherman. Source: printsofJapan

Kuniyoshi print of fishermen.
Source: printsofJapan

According to an article on the BBC web site, large-scale Japanese whaling only began after the war, at the encouragement and with the support of the U.S. military. While the Japanese whaling culture goes back hundreds of years, in contrast to the American whaling for oil, traditional Japanese whaling made use of the entire animal, and it was mostly at a subsistence level.

Whaling increased during the 1930s, but long-distance Antarctic whaling only started once the U.S. helped the Japanese convert two Navy tankers into whaling factory ships to meet food demand.

So while I was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti, kids my age in Japan were eating whale meat. Not because it was an age-old tradition across the entire country, but because it was an immediate solution to the aftermath of war, a solution created by a winning army used to doing things on an industrial scale.

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830. Via: Wikipedia

Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830.
Via: Wikipedia

When I was in Japan – around 25 years ago – everyone was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti in addition to their udon and ramen and fish. Then as now, there was no need for cheap protein, especially not protein as heavily subsidized as whale meat. I saw whale meat for sale my very first day in Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market, and was shocked – but I was told that almost no one bought the stuff, it was a specialty item.

But the people, the men in particular, who grew up in the post-war era, are now the men who fill many bureaucratic and political positions across Japan. And they have an appetite for both nostalgia, and for the whale meat of their youth. And not just for its taste, but for what it does.

Even as the consumption for whale meat has been in steep decline in the country as a whole, and even as whaling is condemned internationally, the Japanese continue to hunt whales in the name of ‘scientific research’ and we often find ourselves wondering why.

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

The BBC article concludes that the reason the Japanese still hunt whale is simple: During the post-war period, a bureaucracy grew up around whale meat.

It quotes former Greenpeace researcher Junko Sakuma as stating the simple political reasons for continued whaling: “Japan’s whaling is government-run, a large bureaucracy with research budgets, annual plans, promotions and pensions.

“If the number of staff in a bureaucrat’s office decreases while they are in charge, they feel tremendous shame.

“Which means most of the bureaucrats will fight to keep the whaling section in their ministry at all costs. And that is true with the politicians as well. If the issue is closely related to their constituency, they will promise to bring back commercial whaling. It is a way of keeping their seats.”

Japanese whale tattoo. Source: Pinterest

Japanese whale tattoo.
Source: Pinterest

This comment made me wonder: How many practices that we call conventional yet unsustainable, from pesticide use to forestry practices to livestock treatment to fossil fuel dependency, are the result of the same kind of thinking?

We know the practices don’t work in the long-term, the appetite for them is decreasing, and they don’t date back as far as we’d like to think. In fact, in almost all cases, the practices we now know are unsustainable only date back to the post-WWII era.

Like the stale bureaucracy around Japanese whaling, we’ve built an entire world economy around them, as if they are all indelibly inked into our future as well as our past.



Horses, Railroads, Seeds and War

I learned a few new words today while on a trip down a research rabbit hole.

And as is so often the case, I can’t remember how I first got to the interesting blog, Cryptoforestry. But get there I did, and that’s when I fell down the hole.

The first word I learned is polemobotany, i.e. war botany. The study of fauna impacted during the course of military activity.

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Greater Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus serotinus), which rode into Sweden on German military trains during WWII.

In a book on invasive species, author James Carlton describes how there was little danger of any unintentional hitch hikers on caterpillar-treaded vehicles from central Europe surviving the trip to desert conditions in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War.

In contrast,  the Australian military took steps to clean military vehicles on its tropical base in Darwin, Northern Territory, to prevent the introduction of invasive species to the similar environment of East Timor in 1999. Of course, the Australian military was part of a peacekeeping force, not an aggressive invader.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Another word I learned is related: polemochores, the followers, or seeds, of conflict. Coined at the end of the Second World War to denote alien plants introduced through war-related activities, this term refers to the tiny agents of polemobotany, the hitch hikers themselves, trespassing along with invasive forces, setting up camp and making themselves at home.

Unlike the invasive humans, however, polemochores would have to fall upon friendly ground to take root and thrive.

A further narrowing of the lens when it comes to polemochores led me to a couple of very specific types of botany study: hippochores. These are seeds introduced by horses and their foraging during the course of human conflict.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

A further term, not nearly as official-sounding but just as interesting, is railroad botany: The botany of railroad tracks. Specifically, the botany of areas in which there are alien seeds transported by rail, particularly during conflict. This enlightening term was found in a 1979 paper titled Flora of the Railroads in St. Louis, Missouri by Viktor Mühlenbach, which someone kindly added to the Internet.

I found no specific terms referring to seed transportation by trucks, tanks, ships or boots during conflict, but I’m sure they exist.

Overgrown railroad tracks Photo: Frank Dutton

Overgrown railroad tracks
Photo: Frank Dutton

I did, however, find a reference to ‘rubble fauna, the plants that established themselves in the rubble of bombed urban areas during WWII – rubble offering “warmer and drier conditions than natural habitats and (being) a suitable habitat for plants and animals from warmer regions of the world. Many plants that were previously rare became permanent members of the urban flora in war-damaged European cities.”

So many ways to describe inadvertent anthrobotany, the way in which we alter the world around us through our human activities and disputes.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War (IV)

We were walking on one of our forest hikes in Norway when we came upon this construction.

Walled construction. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Walled construction. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

It had a circular, snail-shell form that invited investigation. We weren’t sure what it was until we walked into it. It turned out to be a part of a military bunker from WWII. There were others, as well.

Bunker interior. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Bunker interior. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

As it turns out, the bunkers were an extended part of the German submarine base, Dora I, which was built by the German occupation force in the early 1940s. Trondheim was the largest German naval base in northern Europe from its construction until liberation in 1945.

Old supply tracks atop one of the hillsides lead to nowhere.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The idyllic forest setting, the fjord nearby, the birds flying overhead and the myriad flowers all around these objects of conflict – it put me in mind of the great Jorge Luis Borges short story, The Circular Ruins (an online version is here).

Thousand-year dreams of dominance that still exist only in these structures meant to defend a force which has long since dissolved. All that remains are mossy reminders that many visitors most likely little know or care about, but which have become a permanent part of the environment.

Bunker. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Bunker. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

The submarine docks of Dora I, too large and expensive to be destroyed, now form a busy harbor for private boats, the docksides are packed with outdoor restaurants and shops.

For our part we continued on, and found a large field of wild raspberries, with the occasional hiker standing in the midst of a rich harvest, eating as they stood in the afternoon shade.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

And the only creatures watching the skies for intruders were these birds along the fjord.

Trondheimsfjord Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read