Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

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Simon and Schuster, Sep 14, 2001 - History - 560 pages
In Civilizations, Felipe Fernández-Armesto once again proves himself a brilliantly original historian, capable of large-minded and comprehensive works; here he redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization.
To Fernández-Armesto, a civilization is "civilized in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment"...by its taming and warping of climate, geography, and ecology. The same impersonal forces that put an ocean between Africa and India, a river delta in Mesopotamia, or a 2,000-mile-long mountain range in South America have created the mold from which humanity has fashioned its own wildly differing cultures. In a grand tradition that is certain to evoke comparisons to the great historical taxonomies, each chapter of Civilizations connects the world of the ecologist and geographer to a panorama of cultural history. In Civilizations, the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not merely a Christian allegory, but a testament to the thousand-year-long deforestation of the trees that once covered 90 percent of the European mainland. The Indian Ocean has served as the world's greatest trading highway for millennia not merely because of cultural imperatives, but because the regular monsoon winds blow one way in the summer and the other in the winter.
In the words of the author, "Unlike previous attempts to write the comparative history of civilizations, it is arranged environment by environment, rather than period by period, or society by society." Thus, seventeen distinct habitats serve as jumping-off points for a series of brilliant set-piece comparisons; thus, tundra civilizations from Ice Age Europe are linked with the Inuit of the Pacific Northwest; and the Mississippi mound-builders and the deforesters of eleventh-century Europe are both understood as civilizations built on woodlands. Here, of course, are the familiar riverine civilizations of Mesopotamia and China, of the Indus and the Nile; but also highland civilizations from the Inca to New Guinea; island cultures from Minoan Crete to Polynesia to Renaissance Venice; maritime civilizations of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea...even the Bushmen of Southern Africa are seen through a lens provided by the desert civilizations of Chaco Canyon.
More, here are fascinating stories, brilliantly told -- of the voyages of Chinese admiral Chen Ho and Portuguese commodore Vasco da Gama, of the Great Khan and the Great Zimbabwe. Here are Hesiod's tract on maritime trade in the early Aegean and the most up-to-date genetics of seed crops. Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations is a remarkable achievement...a tour de force by a brilliant scholar.

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User Review  - pierthinker - LibraryThing

This book attempts to define civilisation as the ability for a group of peoples to live within, harness and ultimately transcend the geographic environment in which they find themselves, rather than ... Read full review

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User Review  - thcson - LibraryThing

A decent book, but it's just uninspiring. The author has clearly aimed this book for a broad public by adopting a very simple and non-analytical approach to world history, grouping civilizations by ... Read full review

Contents

Preface
3
THE ITCH TO CIVILIZE
11
THE HELM OF ICE
39
THE DEATH OF EARTH
56
LEAVES OF GRASS
77
THE HIGHWAY OF CIVILIZATIONS
99
UNDER THE RAIN
119
HEARTS OF DARKNESS
146
THE CLIMB TO PARADISE
247
THE WATER MARGINS
273
THE VIEW FROM THE SHORE
299
CHASING THE MONSOON
323
THE TRADITION OF ULYSSES
347
Breaking the Waves
377
REFLOATING ATLANTIS
403
THE ATLANTIC AND AFTER
435

THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS
173
OF SHOES AND RICE
201
Civilizing Highlands
227
Notes
469
Index
507
Copyright

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Page 77 - For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more.
Page 119 - How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes Now, leaved how thick ! laced they are again With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain, Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
Page 1 - Many the wonders but nothing walks stranger than man. This thing crosses the sea in the winter's storm, making his path through the roaring waves. And she, the greatest of gods, the earth — ageless she is, and unwearied — he wears her away as the ploughs go up and down from year to year and his mules turn up the soil.
Page 347 - HELEN, thy beauty is to me Like those Nice'an barks of yore That gently, o'er a perfumed sea, The weary, way-worn wanderer bore To his own native shore. On desperate seas long wont to roam, Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, Thy Naiad airs have brought me home, To the glory that was Greece, And the grandeur that was Rome.
Page 56 - This is the dead land This is cactus land Here the stone images Are raised, here they receive The supplication of a dead man's hand Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Page 27 - I may now add that civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.
Page 227 - The mountain sheep are sweeter, But the valley sheep are fatter ; We therefore deemed it meeter To carry off the latter.
Page 119 - Lord" . . . in a village near Dorpat, in Russia, when rain was much wanted, three men used to climb up the fir-trees of an old sacred grove. One of them drummed with a hammer on a kettle or small cask to imitate thunder; the second knocked two firebrands together and made the sparks fly, to imitate lightning; and the third, who was called 'the rain-maker', had a bunch of twigs with which he sprinkled water from a vessel on all sides.
Page 442 - America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise. America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and America as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice...
Page 447 - It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock, It is their care that the gear engages ; It is their care that the switches lock. It is their care that the wheels run truly ; It is their care to embark and entrain, Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main. "They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.

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