John Muir said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." In On Paper, Nicholas Basbanes centers on something paper - and makes it a hub whose spokes can touch everything else on Earth.
Many micro-histories have been published in the last few years, and they are as varied as they are popular. Banana by Dan Koeppel is one, Coal by Barbara Freese is another. The list goes on and on. What is it that readers find so fascinating about these in-depth examinations of a single thing? Perhaps the most tangible reason is that these items are familiar to our lives we know them inside and out, we use them every day and because of these relationships, we are intrigued to know more about them. As a result, they become a gateway to trekking through a broader scope of history. But there may be another reason we find these micro-histories so compelling - because they point to a world where everything is connected to everything else.
Among the many micro-histories written in the past few years, Mark Kurlansky wrote two books, one about salt, an element essential to the survival of life as we know it, and another about cod, a fish which has helped human civilizations survive and even prosper.
Life cannot exist without salt. Even after we left the sea, some 350 million years ago, we carried our salt water within our bodies - science estimates that the salt concentration in our body fluids is the same as that of the sea. Animals are drawn to salt, indeed need it - whether there is land that supports life salt can also be found. Humans are also drawn to salt - European cities that begin with the prefix "sal-" or "hal-" or the suffix "-wich," which are Latin Greek, and Old English roots for "salt," testify to the salt that made habitation possible. We look for salt both within our own bodies and in the environment our bodies choose to inhabit.
So salt is one element that connects us all. Cod is another, and we could just as easily examine its history, as Kurlansky does, or a number of other wild animals to trace human migration and settlement. Regardless, all of these elements lead us to the same place. We look at the animals upon which we depend, and we understand another connection among us all.
What all this points toward is an interdependent world in which everything is interconnected with everything else. This is what these micro-histories might, ultimately, teach us. For us humans, it creates a paradigm from which to shape our lives, our societies, and our relation with the Earth and all Her children. Buddhism has taught the interdependence of all reality for millennia, the simple realization that as bees depend on flowers and flowers depend on bees, so every sentient being depends on other beings, who, in turn, depend on other beings and so on to infinity. Therefore, while one lives alone, all are part of the whole, and, thus, the welfare of one depends on the health of the whole.
This article was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the
July 2014 paperback release.
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