Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Power of Horse

There's an old made-up story about my ancestors, the proto-Indo-Europeans, from the steppes of western Asia, near the Caucasus Mountains. It comes from the field of linguistics, which has gone to some length to reconstruct the mother language that spawned all the daughter languages from Portugal and Norway to Bombay. The expansion of this language, and subsequent cultural flowering that occured, or deflowering, depending on which end of the sword you're looking at, was driven by the domestication of the horse.

Can you imagine the first horse-borne riders appearing over the hills, raiding the small agrarian villages of eastern Europe? How terrified they must have been!

In fact we have a historical account of a very similar introduction of mounted soldiers, this time with guns and steel to boot, in the story of Pizzaro's rout of the Inca under their sun-god emporer Atahualpa. In the early 1530s, Francisco Pizzaro lead a group of Spanish conquistadors through the wilds of South America, to the stronghold of the Inca in modern-day Peru. I don't feel like looking up the exact numbers because the lack of parity is so incredible that it doesn't really matter, but I think it was about 100 infantry, and about 60 mounted cavalry, with swords, daggers, and very early, but very scary, guns. They overwhelmed and routed 80,000 Inca that day, and captured Atahualpa as well, whom they held hostage until they had extorted the collected gold wealth from the rest of the overthrown civilization. Then they killed him. Nice people. Not that what they did was unnatural, just seems barbaric to us moderns living under a very different energetics reality.

But back to my old made-up story. I took this from Dr. Jared Diamond's book, "The Third Chimpanzee," and think it says a lot about life at the point in history when our ancestral language was about to explode on horseback to conquer the globe.
First in Proto-Indo-European (PIE):

Owis Ekwoosque

Gwrreei owis, quesyo wlhnaa ne eest, ekwoons espeket, oinom ghe gwrrum woghom weghontm, oinomque megam bhorom, oinomque ghmmenm ooku bherontm.

Owis nu ekwomos ewewquet: "Keer aghnutoi moi ekwoons agontm nerm widntei."

Ekwoos tu ewewquont: "Kludhi, owei, keer ghe aghnutoi nsmei widntmos: neer, potis, owioom r wlhnaam sebhi gwhermom westrom qurnneuti. Neghi owioom wlhnaa est."

Tod kekluwoos owis agrom ebhuget.

Now in modern English, which is a direct descendent of the previous language:

Sheep and Horses

On hill, sheep that had no wool saw horses, one pulling heavy wagon, one carrying big load, and one carrying man quickly.

Sheep said to horses: "My heart pains me, seeing man driving horses."

Horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see: man, the master, makes wool of sheep into warm garment for himself. And sheep has no wool."

Having heard this, sheep fled into plain.

From these simple, but heavy, beginnings, horses went on to serve as vehicles, tractors, tow trucks, tanks - they were everything for the next 6000 years. The next shock of this magnitude would have to wait for the arrival of the Third Reich and their iron tanks with mounted cannons. But even that was small potatoes compared to the way horses revolutionized life on Earth.
Even our space program was affected by horses! (Another story for another time.)

The steppe peoples who gained control of the horsepower then thrust their horse-drawn cultural package into the bush of eastern Europe, where those new technologies mingled with a sedentary farming culture, retained the PIE language base, and evolved into a planet-defeating military-industrial package. The daughter tongues of PIE are spoken all over the world today, including all of the western hemisphere, far from PIE homelands, most of Africa, and even Australia and New Zealand, where the unique (and I think beautiful) forms of English they speak rest after their long and complicated linguistic journey. And it all started by catching a horse.
Not that the horse was the only blessing of geography to the region. Southwestern Asia is called "The Fertile Crescent" for a reason. Wouldn't know it to see it today. We're talking Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel - you know those lush green countries with all the oil. But the reason they're so run down and barren is because agriculture and pastoralism were born there, and now we can see the effects of 10,000 years of growing human populations, their insatiable resource grab, and what it does to the soil. Many of the world's common staples originated in the region - goats, sheep, chickens, wheat, barley, and chick peas for starters. Goat, in particular, is worth further consideration here. Much maligned in Christian cultures (and Cake tunes alike), I think goat will play a starring role in energy descent.

So what does all this about horses have to do with relocalization anyway? Good question. Who knows what role the horse will play, when, and where exactly. My guess would be that horses will become a lot more useful again, including integration with cutting edge intensive rotational grazing systems that rehabilitate instead of degrade land. Tilling the soil needs to fall out of vogue in general - tractor, horse, or otherwise - and I think that message will get out eventually, so perhaps the horse's usefulness will ultimately decline too (unless we get OK with eating them). Cultivation was part of expansion, working so well for that purpose that we got destructively addicted to it, but our understanding of topsoil is much more complete today, and annual tillage needs to stop in an energy descent context. Maybe, like cultivation, the horse was an expansionary idea for the most part. Who knows. I don't think contraction will work like expansion at all, so hard to say. I just think it's a lot easier to form a coherent idea of where we might be headed if we possess a broader understanding of where we came from. That and it's just fascinating to me.


  1. Personally, I am both excited to think about horses becoming central to our lives again (I love, love, love horses)and also very fearful at the prospect. I am afraid because when horses become "machines" again, there to serve man's wishes, many, many will be mistreated again as well. When every asshole who needs to get somewhere fast mounts a horse, the animal pays for his rider's ignorance. Horses are treated badly even now - when the idiot down the road (who used to screeching, peal out in his lifted Chevy pickup every morning)decides to purchase a horse instead, I shudder in disgust and apprehension for what will happen.

  2. I think you're on the right track with the thought that goats will become more important to this country as we de-leverage from fossil fuels.