UN ‘observances’ or International Years can seem random: 2013, for instance, was the International Year of Water Cooperation — and Quinoa. This year the themes are more fundamental, but as tenuously linked: 2015 is both the International Year of Light and of Soils.
The latter gets a look-in this week in Nature’s Books & Arts section, in a review of David Pietz’s The Yellow River by ex-Nature editor Philip Ball. As Ball shows, the Yellow is the world’s muddiest river — soil in motion. It easily outclasses the swilling sediments of the Nile, tidal squelch of the Thames and oozy glories of America’s Mississippi.
The clogging and flooding that result have made the mighty Yellow a testing ground for leadership in China. “Is there any other nation whose flood myth has a hydraulic engineer as the hero?” Ball asks. “By taming the water, Yü the Great was able to found the first dynasty”. Controlling the river, Ball notes, became a “mandate to rule”.
The loess plains that endow the Yellow with mud featured in another excellent book about soil and nation-building: Grace Yen Shen’s Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China, reviewed by palaeontologist Xu Xing last year. As Xu revealed, modern Chinese science literally grew from the nation’s earth. Nineteenth-century Western geologists such as the American Raphael Pumpelly, drawn to the country’s dramatic topography, ignited rock fever in the Chinese. Pioneers such as Zhou Shuren (under his pen name Lu Xun, a towering figure in Chinese literature) and Deng Wenjiang were leading the geological charge by the early twentieth century. Scientific institutions and publications burgeoned in their wake.
The rivers run through that narrative too. Pumpelly travelled the Yangtze, as he recounted in his riproaring 1870 Across America and Asia; in it he observes how the river “might be aptly called the ‘father of the land’, as the immense quantity of silt rolled oceanward by its current is steadily adding to the continent”.
Nature was in on the story soon enough, with a paper by naturalist Henry Guppy calculating the silt content in three of China’s great rivers. Guppy’s measurement for the Yellow, however, infuriated Liverpudlian geologist T. Mellard Reade, who in a correspondence speculated that it was based on “wet mud” (italics his) and therefore invalid. Recalculating in immense detail, he asks: “I should feel obliged if [Guppy] would explain why the surface-current of the Yang-tse and Pei-ho should vary so in velocity with the same average depth of water. It seems anomalous.” Dangerous ground indeed.
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