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In '1493,' Columbus Shaped A World To Be
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
I just read a book that made me see the world differently. It's about an
environmental upheaval that I never realized existed, and it dates back to
I knew his voyage was the start of an era that brought slavery, smallpox and
syphilis to the Americas. What I didn't realize was that the ships carrying the
European explorers, traders and colonizers also brought to the Americas plants,
animals, insects and other infectious diseases that permanently changed the
And when those Europeans returned to their own countries with plants, birds,
insects and micro-organisms from the Americas, it altered the environmental
makeup of Europe.
My guest, Charles Mann, is the author of a new book about these radical
environmental changes called "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created."
It's a follow-up to his book "1491." Mann is a correspondent for The Atlantic
Charles Mann, welcome to FRESH AIR. What do you see 1493 as the year that
changed everything? What was unprecedented about Columbus' voyage or voyages
and how they connected the globes to hemispheres?
Mr. CHARLES MANN (Author, "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created"):
Well, if you think about it, you know, there's been a tendency in textbooks now
to kind of downplay Columbus because they say he was a bad guy, and he
mistreated Indians, and he discovered the Americas by accident and so forth.
But to ecologists, he was this super-important figure, and the reason is that
200 million years ago, as you remember learning in school, the world was a
single, giant land mass they call Pangaea, and geological forces broke it up,
creating the continents we know today. And over time, they developed completely
different suites of plants and animals.
And what Columbus did was bring the continents back together. He recreated
Pangaea, in effect, and as a result, huge numbers and plants and animals from
over there came over here, and huge numbers of plants and animals from over
here came over there, and there was a tremendous ecological convulsion, the
greatest event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.
And this underlies a huge amount of the history learned in school: the
industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, the rise of the West, the
collapse of China(ph) - all of these were tied in what's been called the
Columbian exchange. The term was invented by this wonderful historian, Alfred
Crosby. The Columbian exchange sort of underlies them all.
GROSS: I love the moment when you're describing being at a local nursery, and
you're about to criticize them for not having more local plants when you
realize - well, tell us what you realized.
Mr. MANN: I realized that every one of the garden plants that I'm about to buy
to stick in my own garden are in fact not local, either, and that that there's
absolutely nothing in my garden that originated within 1,000 miles of my house.
And I feel sort of foolish that here I am, supposedly this, you know, hip,
locally aware guy, and what I'm doing is planting this enormous bed of exotic
GROSS: Such as?
Mr. MANN: Well, tomatoes to begin with, which originated in Mexico. You know,
the plants around it, like basil, which came from Italy, onions, which came
from Europe. You know, the whole - everything in there is - I live in
Massachusetts. There's absolutely nothing in there from New England.
GROSS: So is there just - like, list some of the things that Columbus brought
to the Americas.
Mr. MANN: Well, Columbus started off, he brought wheat. He brought cattle. He
brought horses. He brought all kinds of, you know, plants that are in our
gardens today. But almost as important, or even - and in some cases more
important, were the things that he brought over and didn't realize.
He brought over a whole plethora of diseases, he and his followers. I shouldn't
say Columbus, just, you know, the Spaniards who came after him brought all
these diseases that didn't exist in the Americas. And they brought all kinds of
insects. The list is just absolutely enormous.
One of the things that they brought over were plantains, or bananas, which are,
you know, basically the same species. And they planted them because they - the
Spaniards liked them. And they didn't realize it, but as the entomologist
Edward O. Wilson, this famous entomologist, has postulated, they brought over
some of the plantain's pests, which are these tiny little insects called scale
insects that live on the roots of the plantains.
And when they planted these big, you know, banana plantations all over
Hispaniola, which is what the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Spanish colony,
it was - led to this huge boom in the population of these scale insects.
Now on this island, already, was an ant, a fire ant, Solenopsis geminata, and
it turns out to really, really like scale insects - particular the excrement of
them, which is very sugary. And it led to this huge population boom of the fire
ants, which in turn led to something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where
there's this ant plague that drives Spaniards effectively off the island, and
the few remaining are, you know, praying to the various saints to drive them
away, and they're, you know, living on top of the roofs of their houses because
their places are swarming.
And this is the kind of ecological convulsion that I'm talking about, you know,
magnified 100-fold and spread across the world that's created and set off by
GROSS: It sounds like a movie that William Shatner could have starred in after
that spider movie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANN: You know, the histories, you read about these, you know, this in the
Spanish chronicles, and basically they're saying in, you know, sort of
dignified 16h-century Spanish, oh my God, you know, just over and over again at
these strange results.
GROSS: So you mentioned that these ants were on Hispaniola, the island that has
the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was that island that Columbus first tried
to colonize. This was in - he founded La Isabela, named after the queen, who
was funding him, in January 2nd of 1494. This was supposed to be, you say, a
permanent bastion in the heart of Asia.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: A headquarters for exploration and trade for Spain. So describe what
actually happened when Columbus got to La Isabela.
Mr. MANN: Well, it was kind of a catastrophe. I mean, it only lasted for a few
years. He set up this whole town, and he forced everybody to build a big
mansion for himself and, you know, plant it with all kinds of European crops.
And then he sent everybody off to discover the gold that he was absolutely sure
was in the hills. And meanwhile, he went off to find China.
And they didn't find much gold, and they of course, didn't find China, and the
whole thing dissolved into squabbling and Indian wars. And it would've been
pretty much a thorough failure except that about that time, the Spaniards
actually (unintelligible) imported diseases, particularly smallpox.
And these kind of didn't exist at all in the Americas. This whole range of what
they call crowd diseases - diseases that can be spread from person to person -
didn't exist in the Americas at all by a quirk of history. And the reason is
that when the continents broke up and various other things happened, there was
no domesticable animals in the Americas. There were no, you know, horses. There
were no cows. There were no sheep. There were no goats. There were no ducks.
And one of the things that happened in Europe and Asia was that people lived
for thousands and thousands of years, right next to these domesticated animals,
you know, the cows and the horses and so forth. And every now and then, an
animal disease can do what scientists call jump the species barrier and become
a human disease.
And so the most recent example would be bird flu, which everybody knows is a
disease that, you know, started in some kind of bird and has now become a human
Well, all of the great diseases, you know, from smallpox to measles to
influenza, are this kind of disease, and none of them existed in the Americas
because they didn't have any domesticated animals.
And so when the Europeans came over, started by Columbus, it was as if all the
deaths over the millennia that have been caused by these diseases were
compressed into 150 years in the Americas. And the result was to wipe out, you
know, somewhere between two-thirds and 90 percent of the people in the
And this had just, in addition to enormous human effects, I mean, it was the
worst demographic disaster in history. It had enormous ecological effects
because these people had been tending the landscape, managing the landscape,
and suddenly it reverted into wilderness.
One of the ironies of this is that, you know, I think we learned in school that
Europeans came over to the Americas and sort of wrecked the wilderness. And
what they in fact did was, in the most awful way possible, they created it. And
this is part of the ecological convulsion of the Columbian exchange.
GROSS: That's such a different way of looking at things. When did historians
start seeing the explorers bringing these epidemics, which destroyed
populations and thereby created wilderness?
Mr. MANN: Well, it's the Spanish accounts and the English accounts and the
colonial accounts. If you read, you know, William Bradford's account of
Plymouth, you know, the first colony in New England, he talks about how just
before they arrived, there was a huge epidemic that swept away the people and
made room for them.
So if you look in there, it's quite clearly in those accounts. You know, people
were aware of it. It sort of got forgotten, and then in the 1960s and 1970s,
the knowledge kind of resurrected again. And there was a couple of historians,
there's a guy named Henry Dobyns, there's a guy, Alfred Crosby, that I
mentioned, who really brought it to attention.
And when you start adding up everything that we know, it becomes apparent that
there was just an enormous catastrophe that took place. And a lot of it took
place outside of European eyes because Native people didn't have these kind of
diseases. They didn't have the idea of quarantine.
And back before there was antibiotics, what happened if you had a contagious
disease, you were kind of fenced off, right. So the people in plagues, you
know, like in Boccaccio(ph), would, you know, would hide away from this.
None of that happened in the Americas. So somebody would get smallpox, and the
whole village would come around and try to comfort that person. They would all
get sick, they'd flee in panic, they'd run to the next village. They'd spread
it there. And so these diseases exploded like chains of firecrackers across the
GROSS: So in North America, when the settlers were fighting wars with the
Indians, the Indians that they were fighting with, the Native Americans they
were fighting with, were survivors of these plagues?
Mr. MANN: Yes, they were, by and large, people, you know, who were in a state
of complete cultural shock because, you know, two-thirds of the people that
they knew had died. And there is just no culture that can resist foreign
invasion, even by small bands of people like the Europeans were, when you've
just had this enormous, shattering experience.
Alfred Crosby pointed out in "The Columbian Exchange," that if Genghis Khan had
arrived right after the black plague, you and I would not be speaking a
European language. He would have just swept in.
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Mann. We're talking
about his new book "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created," and it's
how Columbus and subsequent Europeans who came to America totally changed the
ecosystem of America. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're just having a slight technical difficulty with my interview with
Charles Mann. So we'll get to it momentarily. Actually, we can get to it right
My guest is Charles Mann. His new book "1493" is a follow-up to his book
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: "1493" is about how Columbus and subsequent Europeans who came to
America brought things with them - from insects to diseases to animals to foods
- that totally changed the ecosystem of America.
So you were talking about how Columbus and subsequent explorers brought with
them to the New World domesticated animals like horses, cows, pigs, chickens,
and, you know, how on the one hand, you know, this brought a lot of disease,
but at the same time, it created, you know, opportunities.
You point out that for instance people in the Americas had no other - had no
form of transportation or of, you know, moving things, carting things except
for other humans.
But what confuses me about that is I always thought that there were always wild
horses in North America and that Native Americans had horses or ponies before
the European settlers got there.
Mr. MANN: Well, he did in some cases, but there - it was a recent innovation.
What happened is the Spaniards brought horses to Mexico in the early 16th
century, and it took the native people no time at all to realize what a great
things this was. And they began stealing them, you know, basically as soon as
Cortez arrived and funneling them up into the north.
Meanwhile, in North America, in the American West, native people also realized
what a tremendous advantage people with horses had over people who didn't, and
there was a kind of an arms race as they raced to the south to get control of
the horses, and it was a complete convulsion in native culture as people gave
up their farms, adopted the horses, and this whole, you know, horse-riding
culture that you see celebrated in these great photographs of Edward Curtis
and, you know, is in countless cowboys and Indian movies was, in fact, the
complete cultural adaptation to the arrival of this foreign animal.
GROSS: What are some of the other ways that domesticated animals changed life
in the Americas?
Mr. MANN: Well, there were no grazing animals of the sort, you know, like cows
or sheep that people had. And so ecosystems throughout the Americas were
completely unused to them.
I have to put a caveat in there. There were some in the Andes with the lama and
the alpaca, but basically they didn't exist, and so there were large parts of
the American landscape that sheep and goats and cattle so forth nibbled down to
the ground and radically transformed.
And there's a woman named Melville who has written a couple of books about this
- she's dead now - and talked about how the Mexican landscape - you know, the
sort of Sergio Leone Mexican landscape - is in many cases a modern creation.
Before, it was much, much lusher. It just simply got eaten down to the ground
by these creatures that hadn't existed there before.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit more about insects. You mentioned earlier
about how the explorers inadvertently created an ant epidemic in Hispaniola.
Europeans brought with them honeybees because they wanted honey. They didn't
yet understand what pollination was, but the bees pollinated anyways.
So how did the honeybee change ecosystems in the Americas?
Mr. MANN: Well, it did so in two ways, one that we know a lot about and one
that we don't know so much about. And the one we know a lot about is that
European crops, you know, from peaches to apples to strawberries to walnut
trees, all depend on pollination and wouldn't, so far as we know, have been
pollinated by native bees.
What's remarkable about the European honeybee is that it will - it's a
promiscuous little beast, as the entomologists say, and it will pollinate
practically anything. And so it made it possible for all these European crops
to spread into the Americas.
The other thing they did is much less well-understood, but the bees, you know,
they call it swarming, where they will, you know, sort of pick up and move from
one place to another, and this wasn't at all in control of the Europeans.
And so European bees spread out over the landscape, and historical
entomologists believe that they drove a lot of native bees extinct simply by,
you know, crowding them out. And those native bees typically pollinated certain
species, and those species were dependent on them for the pollination.
And so they would've had a much harder time with European bees if European bees
didn't happen to have the taste for them. And so historical entomologists
believe, although they don't really know, that there was a kind of a rolling
wave of extinctions that went on as the European bees spread out into the
And among people who noticed this were native people who would see the European
bees coming in, you know, far ahead of the Europeans themselves, and they
called them European flies, and they were pretty sad when they saw them because
it meant that the Europeans would be following.
GROSS: Let's talk about Jamestown because it has a really interesting ecosystem
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now, the colonizers came to Jamestown looking for silver and gold and
expecting to find it. They didn't. But they started growing tobacco, and
tobacco became really big there, they brought it back to England by ship, and
here we start getting some really interesting, surprising, ecological
consequences. What happened?
Mr. MANN: Well, as you say, tobacco was this craze. It was, in fact, the
world's first, you know, global commodity craze. Everybody all over the world,
sort of simultaneously, went nicotine-mad. And obviously Virginia, one of the
main supply places, this is a great thing, they start sending over huge
quantities of tobacco. And the way they do this is by leveling the forest all
over Chesapeake Bay and planting tobacco.
And this has a couple of effects. The first is that tobacco is absolutely
notorious for exhausting the soil. Basically when you harvest tobacco, you
harvest the whole thing, and so you're just generally taking all the nutrients
in the soil, putting them into this big plant and then putting it in barrels
and sending it on ships.
The other thing that happened was that European ships would come in, and they
would have ballast that would be necessary to balance the ship, and when they
took in all these heavy barrels that would weigh, you know, half a ton or so,
they would throw out the ballast, and the ballast had lots of soil in it, and
the soil almost certainly carried earthworms.
And the interesting thing about that is that all over the northern part of
North America, there were no earthworms. They were destroyed by the Ice Age, so
far as we know, and so all the earthworms that are now in the gardens of - you
know, my garden in Massachusetts are imported. They're exotic species.
And in the thousands of years since the Ice Age, an ecosystem had evolved in
which earthworms didn't play a part, and the leaf litter, which is what
earthworms eat, sort of piled up on the soil, and plants and trees, sapling
sought their nourishment in that.
The earthworms move in, they eat all the leaf litter, they stick it under the
soil in the form of castings, which is good for your garden, but it's terrible
for all the other creatures. And in fact there's a kind of a rear-guard
earthworm-fighting action that's taking place in the remnants in the old
forest, in places like Minnesota and Alberta and Ontario, where they have -
there's this great place, the Minnesota Worm Watch, where you can get all these
posters about, you know, contain your crawlers.
If you're a fisherman, you're not supposed to dump them, and they're still
trying to preserve the remnant of the pre-Columbian forest. Where I am in
Massachusetts, it's pretty much gone, and it's been transformed by the presence
of these underground engineers.
GROSS: So tell us a bit more about how the forests were transformed by the new
Mr. MANN: What they did is they removed the understory plants in a kind of
indirect way, by eating the piled-up leaf litter and sticking it under the
soil. All those plants had ways of obtaining their nutrients from aboveground,
from the piles of leaf, you know, leaf litter, which would be knee-deep or
When this disappeared, they simply starved to death, and the forests in places
like, you know, way upstate New York or Minnesota are dominated by sugar maples
and a whole range of species that depend on them. All of a sudden, they can't
survive. The sugar maple sprouts can't survive, and you get this radical change
in the forest, where new plants move in, and you get the kind of pine-dominated
forests that you now see in New England.
GROSS: Charles Mann will we back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Charles Mann. His new book
"1493" is about how Christopher Columbus and subsequent European explorers,
traders and colonizers created an environmental upheaval by bringing with them
animals, insects, plants and microorganisms far into the Americas.
When we left off, we were talking about how British ships that were taking
tobacco from the American colony of Jamestown back to England unintentionally
left behind in Jamestown earthworms that were new to the Americas and altered
the growth of everything from forests to gardens.
Now is it Jamestown that also brings malaria into America?
Mr. MANN: Yeah. No, there's no malaria in the Americas. And this is a
tremendous thing for native people - of course, they didn't know it, because
malaria is this tremendously wily parasite. It's a single-celled creature that
has proven just extraordinarily difficult to eradicate and has had huge impacts
in places like Africa, where, you know, there's all kinds of calculations by
economists that if malaria hadn't existed in Africa for the last 200 years, it
would just be fantastically wealthier than it is now because so much of the
continent's human capital goes into being sick all the time.
And so what happens is that there are - malaria is this parasite that needs
these particular mosquitoes to survive. They exist in the Americas as different
species, but are compatible with malaria. And Europe has malaria at this time,
particularly South East England, and they - it comes over in the bodies of
colonists, gets picked up by the mosquitoes and makes this broadband of the
coastal Americas - from Chesapeake Bay down to, you know, the southern border
of Brazil - just full of malaria, and it becomes quite inhospitable for
And in places like Virginia, they have to go through this process, it's called
seasoning, which is you bring over an indentured servant and then you sit
around and wait for a year to find out if he's going to survive or not. And
death rates are up to, you know, 40 percent. So you bring over these servants,
and 40 percent of kick the bucket the first year, and many of them are sick for
long periods thereafter. It's hugely extensive. And at that point, people start
looking around and they start seeing Africans.
Now the interesting thing about Africans is that they're - in a sort of a
strict Darwinian type sense - they're genetically superior to Europeans because
their bodies contain - particularly people from West Africa - certain mutations
that make the most immune to malaria of any people on earth. I'm skipping a lot
of technical details. There's actually two types of malaria, and so on. But the
basic thing is that Africans are much less likely to get sick. And so people
who import them have an economic advantage over people who import Europeans.
And the result is that in malaria areas is kind of the Columbian exchange.
Bringing over this parasite, the malaria parasite is actually kind of nudging
these societies toward slavery.
Now it doesn't mean that malaria causes slavery. Obviously, people are moral
agents and make their own decisions. But we all know what the lure of the
market is, and you just have a better chance of making a success out of your
operation if you bring in people who won't get sick immediately.
GROSS: And also, I would imagine if a lot of the people that were bringing in
as indentured servants were dying, that slavery seemed to the plantation owners
to be an economically favorable system. Not only weren't the Africans dying,
but, you know, you didn't have to replace them as quickly, because they had
this immunity - not that the Europeans understood the concept of immunity yet.
Mr. MANN: No, exactly. It's - you didn't have to understand it to have the
economic advantage. It's sort of weird, you know, in a way, to be talking about
slavery - which is this awful thing - in this kind of cold-blooded way. But,
you know, at bottom, it was an economic institution. And the Columbian Exchange
- in the form of bringing over these diseases - favored its creation in this
broad belt of the Americas. It's striking to me that the area in which the
worst kind of malaria - which is called falciparum malaria - can survive, you
know, regularly, in a routine way in the Americas, stops right about Chesapeake
Bay, right about Washington, D.C., actually. And that's where the Mason-Dixon
Societies north of that - you know, where I live in Massachusetts - had slaves
much more than people in New England like to acknowledge. But the societies
south of the malaria line are really slave societies in ways that you England
and places like are not.
GROSS: Well, doesn't the malaria surviving south of the Mason-Dixon line have a
lot to do with the climate, because mosquitoes survive better there?
Mr. MANN: Yes. Absolutely. Exactly. Exactly. And also the parasite doesn't, if
it gets too cold to parasite slows down - you know, it's just a single-celled
creature - and it takes so long to, you know, reproduce and do its business
inside the body of the mosquito, that it effectively - the mosquito dies before
it can finish reproducing. And so you have this area in which the mosquitoes
can survive, but the parasites can't. And that's, you know, sort of North,
right around Washington, D.C.
GROSS: So not that this is relevant to your part of the "1493" story...
Mr. MANN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But how come we happily don't have as much malaria in the United States
as we did then?
Mr. MANN: Well, we had an enormous effort to eradicate it. It took two forms.
One was systematically draining swamps, and there's a huge amount of swap
drainage. Now we think of swaps as wetlands, and we sort of decry it. And, of
course, it had, you know, some real negative environmental consequences. But,
in fact, that was what it was about. And the second thing is that we invented
DDT. And again, DDT had real negative environmental consequences. But it did
drive out this terrible disease that, in many ways, you know, shaped Southern
One of the sort of funny things is when I was researching this book and I was
reading about how all the measures that people took to try to protect
themselves against these diseases which they didn't understand - they didn't
really know what malaria was. It's just something that happened to people - is
they discovered that if you built your house on top of a hill and you cleared
all the, you know, all the underbrush and trees from around so it sort of, you
know, stood on a bare lawn and you had, you know, tall, thin windows to, you
know, facilitate air movement - all which are anti-mosquito measures, so they
didn't really understand it - that this would help.
And I watched "Gone with the Wind" and Tara is like this perfect anti-malaria
device. Look at the picture, and it's all about, as architecture, all about
keeping out the mosquitoes.
GROSS: Hmm. But it's a really interesting way of looking at it.
My guest is Charles Mann. We're talking about his new book "1493: Uncovering
the New World Columbus Created." It's about how Columbus and subsequent
Europeans who voyaged to America changed the environment system, the ecosystem
by bringing with them are you animals, insects, diseases, plants, and then also
bringing back from America to Europe new insects and plants and so on.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the so-called
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Mann. We're talking about
his new book "1493." It's a follow-up to his book "1491."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And "1493" is subtitled "Uncovering the New World Columbus Created." And
it's basically like an ecosystem history. It's about how Columbus changed the
global ecosystem because he and subsequent Europeans who came to the Americas
brought with them all these new insects and diseases and animals and plants
that changed the ecosystem here, and then subsequently changed ecosystems in
Europe and China and other parts of the world.
I love the story that you tell in your book about guano, bird dung.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's I think one of the real high points...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...of the book. And you said, you know, bird dung, guano, was
discovered, you know, in South America to be a great fertilizer. And when the
Europeans came and they realized what a good fertilizer it was, they wanted to
bring it back to Europe. So how did they go about doing that?
Mr. MANN: Well, guano came from these islands off the coast of Peru, the
Chincha Islands, which had been the homes for seabirds for, you know,
millennia. And the seabirds had built up these enormous kind of mountains of
guano. You know, some of them two or 300 feet deep. And effectively, what they
set up was guano mines, complete with the mining carts and people with pick and
shovels. Now, this is just about the most awful work you can imagine. And so,
of course, no Peruvians wanted to do this. So what they did was they brought
over Asian slaves.
Thousands of them were essentially abducted in southeast China and brought
over, thinking they were going to go to the California gold fields. And lo and
behold, they ended up being probably the most awful place on earth digging this
stuff. And the mining conditions for the guano were just - I mean, no matter
how ghastly they are, the more you read about it, the more ghastly than you
imagined. You know, each part of it is worse than the next, no matter which
order you take it in.
And so, for instance, my favorite little sort of horrifying detail is that in
the guano are little crystals of ammonia. So when you're ax was, you know,
whacking into this, you know, the cliff wall of guano, there's little bomb
bursts of - tiny little minute bomb bursts of ammonia going off, and then you
would load it into these carts and dump it down this long shoot several hundred
feet into the hold of waiting ship. And there were - more slaves would be down
there, more Chinese slaves. And this stuff would just explode, and they would
be completely naked, with cloth wrapped around their face, trying to shovel out
this stuff. It was just horrifying.
GROSS: That sounds really horrible. And it ended up being a big scandal.
Mr. MANN: Right. No - it's even for the 19th century, this was a bit much.
We're talking - and there were, I'm happy to say as a journalist, there were
enterprising reporters who exposed this, and there were efforts to reform it -
mostly ineffectual. What really happened was the Peruvians exhausted the guano
deposits, and then moved on to deposits of nitrates in Chile.
GROSS: So as horrible as this, like, slave colony of guano miners was, you
write that the guano trade also launched modern agriculture...
Mr. MANN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and some of its worst pitfalls. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...how did guano trade launch modern agriculture?
Mr. MANN: Well, you know, the way that a modern farm works is that, you know,
the land is kind of like a Petri dish, and you pour in nutrients in the form
of, you know, high-intensity fertilizers, and you plant in the crops you want
to grow, and then you spray on, you know, the pest protection that you need.
And it's a scientific way of farming that was really invented in the 1840s, and
it's totally dependent on high-input fertilizers on, you know, heavy
fertilization, to get these fantastic yields.
And there's just no question about it, modern agriculture has been this
tremendous boom. And, you know, famine is basically - compared to what it was -
you know, it's almost eradicated in the world. Obviously, there's still very
many hungry people, but it's just absolutely nothing like what it was two or
300 years ago. But it depends on this system that was invented in Peru and
brought over to the Americas in the 1840s, and it has serious pitfalls.
Mr. MANN: Well, one of the things that happened was that Peruvians brought over
the fertilizer and was, you know, spread all over European fields. And with it
came some Peruvian potatoes. Potatoes are, you know, from Peru, and they were
infected with a fungus-like organism - it's called an iowae MYCIT - that causes
potato blight. And in 1845, we had the first - you know, right after the, you
know, shipment of the first guano, we had the first modern agricultural
disaster when the potato blight exploded over Europe and, you know, sort of
wiped out the potatoes in a 2,000-mile range from, you know, Ukraine all the
way to Ireland.
Ireland - which was the heaviest potato consumer in the world. There's these
studies that the average Irish person ate, you know, some fantastic amount of
potatoes a day, like laborers a 20 pounds of potatoes day, or something absurd
Anyway, there were - 40 percent of the people in Ireland, or something like
that, ate nothing but potatoes for solid food. And all that vanished in a
matter of weeks, and there was massive starvation. It was horrifying. And about
a million Irish people died, many, many more fled the country.
And as a result, Ireland - it was such a huge disaster for Ireland that the
country still hasn't recovered today, 150 years later. And Ireland today has
fewer people now than it did 150 years ago. And it's got to be the only country
in the world that's in the same borders that has fewer people now than it did
150 years ago.
GROSS: So let me see if I understand this correctly. The potatoes originally
Mr. MANN: Yes.
GROSS: ...ends up in...
Mr. MANN: And so are the potato pests.
GROSS: Right. Ends up original - among other countries in Ireland. And then the
potato pests maybe it came in the form of guano that's shipped to Europe and
then kills the potatoes.
Mr. MANN: Right.
GROSS: So you've got this kind of like complete, like, loop that's closed...
Mr. MANN: Right.
GROSS: ...in this post-Columbian environmental exchange, ecological exchange.
Mr. MANN: Yeah. One of the things that happens is that when you bring species
out of its home range, you very frequently, when you transport it, bring it to
a place where it doesn't have whatever predators and pests and so forth were
keeping it down. And that's why if you go to the American Southeast, you see
kudzu, right? It's like, you know, it's like Christo went crazy and draped the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANN: ...with this plant. And when I went to Japan for the first time, you
see this little inoffensive thing on the sides of the road. And I said, what is
that? And they said, that's kudzu. And there's something about this, you know,
there's this phenomenon called ecological release, so that when kudzu comes out
of Japan and comes into the U.S. Southeast, it goes bananas. And this happens
again and again. So the potatoes brought out of Peru come to Europe, and they
just thrive. You know, they do fantastically well. And then, sooner or later,
the pests follow and wipes them out. We're about to see another one of these
GROSS: We are?
Mr. MANN: Yeah. The Para rubber tree - which is a Brazilian plant - is the main
source for natural rubber. And even though, you know, natural rubber sounds
like this thing that should be in health food stores or something, in fact, 40
percent of the world's rubber market depends on natural rubber. And it's what's
in your tires. It's - you know, airplane tires are 100 percent made out of it.
Because it's so expensive to synthesize, you know, artificial rubber of the
quality of natural rubber, that basically, people don't do it. It's just way
too expensive. And so natural rubber is really important, and it's grown over a
huge area, this Brazilian tree in South East Asia spreading from, you know, the
very tip of southern China, all the way down to Malaysia and Indonesia. It
covers an area, you know, more or less the size of Great Britain in rubber
Now, all of these are grown from a few seedlings of rubber that were smuggled
over from, in the 1870s, from Brazil, the Kew Gardens, where they were raised,
and then transplanted in Europe. And they're all vulnerable to a disease,
another sort of fungus-type disease of fungus, called - well, I won't give you
the scientific name, but the disease is called South American leaf blight. And
they've been protected by the fact that there's just relatively little, you
know, air traffic between the Amazon in Southeast Asia. But Brazil is becoming
a wealthier country. Southeast Asia's nations are becoming wealthier. And
sooner or later, just as the potato blight came from Peru to Ireland, the South
American leaf blight will come through there.
GROSS: Well, there's a moment in the book where you're afraid that you're
actually going to spread leaf blight from South America to China. Do you want
to explain that?
Mr. MANN: Oh, yeah. I took a trip to Brazil, and then I flew directly to
southern China from there, and then went into the rubber areas in Laos. And as
I'm going to the border, it suddenly occurred to me that I'm, like, potentially
Typhoid Mary, so to speak.
Mr. MANN: I'm the guy who's going to - you know, I'm wearing, you know, some
kind of hiking boot. What if it's, you know, some spores of this stuff are
stuck in the cleats of my shoes or something? I have this sort of paranoid
moment where I'm wondering: Is the responsible thing to do to tell this to the
border guard in China, where I'm sure that I'm not going to be happy with the
results? Or should I just get in there, and when I get to my hotel room,
really, really scrub everything? And, of course, I choose...
GROSS: What did you do?
Mr. MANN: ...the cowardly way out and I went to my hotel room and I really,
really scrubbed everything and crossed my fingers.
GROSS: But you didn't just buy new shoes?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANN: Well, I'm a - kind of a tall guy, and I have big feet. And, you know,
one of the - a minor problem for me in going to Asia is that if I, you know,
lose any clothing, it's not really easy for me to replace.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay. Fair answer. So your new book "1493" is about how the world was
environmentally changed, how ecosystems were changed after Columbus and
subsequent European explorers came to the Americas. So what's one or two of the
things you wish students were being taught in school now about Columbus?
Mr. MANN: That I would wish that students were taught what a tremendous
landmark in human history 1492 was. That, you know, it was the beginning of the
modern world, and that two huge things happened as a result of it, to the human
race itself. The first was that the things we've been describing, there was
this tremendous die-off of native people. And it's been estimated that, you
know, one out of every five people on the planet died in the next hundred years
as a result of this unintentional bringing over of diseases.
And the second thing is that what happened after the Europeans came was not so
much that Europeans came, but the Africans came. The number of Africans who
came to the Americas up till about 1840, 1850 far outweighed the number of
Europeans. They were three Africans for every European that came to the
Americas in those first couple hundreds years.
GROSS: A this is because of slavery.
Mr. MANN: Because of slavery. And so the Europeans who came, like, you know,
many of my ancestors in the later part of the 19th century came to landscapes
that had been radically changed, but they had - into new cities. But those
cities had been built African hands, the landscapes had been reworked by
African hands, the boats that were going up and down the rivers were piloted by
African crews. And so that - there was a tremendous change in the very
distribution of the human race on the planet as a result of Columbus.
GROSS: Well, Charles Mann, thank you so much. You have all kinds of things in
the book that I never knew and never thought about. Thank you so much for
talking with us.
Mr. MANN: Oh, it's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Charles Mann is the author of "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
Created." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about two performance artists
and their children.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Delightful Portrait Of The Screwball 'Family Fang'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Kevin Wilson's new novel "The
Family Fang." His 2009 short story collection, "Tunneling to the Center of the
Earth," was awarded the Shirley Jackson Prize, named in honor of writer who
gave us the very disturbing classic short story "The Lottery."
Maureen says Wilson's own worldview is also somewhat off kilter, but happily
it's lightened with a lot of humor
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: There's a temperature at which water boils, and there's a
temperature at which the brain melts, and we've reached it. It's August, and
almost everywhere in the country, it's hot. The will to think, to focus has
oozed out in millions of droplets of forehead sweat. That's why it's such a
minty fresh delight to open up Kevin Wilson's debut novel, "The Family Fang,"
and feel the revitalizing blast of originality, robust invention, screwball
giddiness. Every copy of "The Family Fang" sold in August should have a sticker
on it, imprinted with the life-giving invitation that used to be issued on
movie marquees in summertime during the dawn of the air-conditioning age: Come
on in. It's cool inside.
Meet the Family Fang: Caleb and Camille Fang - that odd last name was
supposedly shortened from something Slavic at Ellis Island - are renowned
husband-and-wife conceptual artists. They've won a slew of awards, even the
MacArthur Genius prize. For years, they've been videotaping transgressive,
improvisational pieces that involve their children, Annie and Buster, known to
fans of Fang Art as Child A and Child B.
To give an example: In a 1985 piece called "The Last Supper," the Fangs take
their then-young kids to the most expensive French restaurant in town. All
their parents tell Buster and Annie are the dread words that the events to come
will be fun.
Throughout dinner, the Fang parents are utterly silent, but keep checking their
watches. The children become increasingly tense, especially Buster, who's been
ordered at the outset to finish every scrap of the shimmering piece of purple
liver on his plate. Finally, the suspense gets to Buster's intestines, and he
projectile vomits what Wilson describes as the dark red remains of a shredded
animal across the white table cloth.
The fancy dining room erupts in cries of disgust, and the Fangs leap up and
rush their children out to the parking lot - of course, also skipping out on
the check. Speeding away in the family van, the Fang parents congratulate their
children for unknowingly collaborating on another great piece of art that
disrupts the world, makes it vibrate.
As you might expect, there comes a time in teenage-hood when Annie and Buster
refuse to be manipulated any longer as props in their parents' artistic
happenings. I won't give anything away. I'll just tell you that the rift occurs
after a hilariously incestuous high school performance of "Romeo and Juliet."
In the present time of the novel, however, Annie and Buster as adults have had
to return to their parents' house, seeking refuge there from life's
catastrophes. Annie, a Hollywood actress, has been devastated by a mean
publicity campaign, Buster, a writer, has been seriously wounded in the face
while on a freelance magazine assignment.
The Fang parents aren't faring so well, either. Historically, most of their
performance pieces took place in shopping malls, where a ready audience of
shocked onlookers could always be found. But these days, so many folks wall
themselves off with earbuds and iPhones that the Fangs' recent spectacles have
As Caleb Fang laments: People have become so stupid that you can't control
them. Camille agrees. They are so resistant to any strangeness that they tune
out the whole world. God, it's so damn depressing. Uneasily reunited in the
family house, licking their life wounds, the younger Fangs have to reckon with
the price of Caleb and Camille's narcissistic core belief that art, if you
loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain.
This premise could easily have devolved into pop psychodrama, but think,
instead, of something like "Little Miss Sunshine" - a family story that's out-
of-the-box and funny and also genuinely moving. Wilson's inventive genius never
stops for a rest break. He spins out entertaining scenarios for the Fang
performance pieces, as well as loony summaries for Buster's novels and Annie's
movies, as well as what unfolds as the present-time suspense plot of the
disappearance of Caleb and Camille. Is it genuine, or is it yet another Fang
Early on in the novel, we're told that the art the Fangs create has been
glowingly described by critics as choreographed spontaneity. Wilson might as
well have been writing a review for his own strange and wonderful novel, for
"The Family Fang" indeed reads as a work of choreographed spontaneity that will
linger in your mind long after the mall has closed and the mess in the
restaurant has been cleaned up.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Family Fang" by Kevin Wilson. You can read an excerpt on our
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.