Reviewed by Julia H. Haggerty (Center of the American West, University of Colorado-Boulder)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2005)
What Went Wrong: Essays on the Degeneration of our Relationship with Domestic Cattle
Laurie Winn Carlson's Cattle: An Informal Social History discusses a relationship that has been 24,000 or more years in the making--that of human societies with domestic cattle--in an engaging and accessible fashion. More a collection of essays on discrete topics than the synthetic history promised by the title, the text draws upon a wide range of secondary sources representing the classic, the new, the familiar, and the esoteric in a variety of fields ranging from history to anthropology to animal science.
Carlson's approach is consciously designed to inform and pique the curiosity of urbanized readers who spend little if any of their time contemplating the connections between human society and domesticated farm animals. In addition, she sets out to analyze the origins of what she clearly sees as a crisis of modern life: the transformation of the relationship between humans and cattle from one of stewardship and interdependence to one of freakish manipulation loaded with dangers for both humans and cattle. The text ably accomplishes the goal of stirring the non-expert's curiosity, as it is loaded with intriguing anecdotes and histories. Carlson leaves it up to the reader to do the work of compiling these stories into an analytical answer to the book's foundational question; the narrative is geared more towards asking and exploring questions than advancing any clear argument in answer to them.
Carlson is at her best when engaged with subjects most central to her academic training--her dissertation focused on science and agriculture in the progressive era. Her keen appreciation for the linkages between state power, science, and nature benefits informative essays on the disturbing historical connections between cattle breeding and eugenics, the origins of vaccines, and even the history of margarine. In her preface, she professes to have a strong curiosity about the contemporary politics of beef production and consumption. This interest led her into the terrain of disease issues in industrialized beef production and the seemingly endless cultural debates about the appropriate role of animal protein in contemporary diets. While many readers already may be familiar with these topics, Carlson's energetic consideration of them will no doubt refresh and broaden their interest in them.
Pre-packaged tours that promise tourists a comprehensive view of all of the "best sites" in a short period of time inevitably leave the thoughtful traveler a bit bewildered and certainly aware of how much they have missed. Carlson's attempt to consider the whole sweep of the history of human-cattle interactions may prompt a similar sense of confusion and uneasiness for readers, especially those who object to narrative techniques like this sentence: "So it went in Europe for two to three thousand years" (p. 22). When racing from Altamira to Abilene, from the Vikings to the nineteenth-century frontier of the American West, the drawbacks of the absence of a strong analytical and synthetic narrative are especially noticeable.
There are two conventions, the bibliographic essay and flawless prose, that contribute to the success of literary non-fiction (based on secondary material and consisting of topical essays, this work begs comparison to the work of John McPhee and Michael Pollan). Carlson's bibliographic essay fails to provide readers unfamiliar with the subject a useful roadmap to its essential literature, and in addition, her uncritical use of old sources, or sources that have been the subject of considerable controversy, will pose some concerns for academic readers about the credibility of her analysis. The editors of Cattle: An Informal Social History would have done the book an important service by also insisting on prose that is flawless in its composition (e.g., grammar and syntax) as well as being engaging and accessible.
Despite its formal and analytical eccentricities, Cattle makes an important contribution by blending agricultural and environmental history in a provocative discussion that is bound to engage readers from outside academic circles. Carlson's discussions of the biological dangers of industrialized food production remind environmental historians of the importance of considering the ways that both nature and culture have resisted and challenged the separation of consumer and the consumed fostered by industrialized food production. In addition, teachers may find several of the essays suitable for undergraduate course materials--the essay on margarine, for example, will no doubt spark both alarm and curiosity in anyone who eats, prompting even the busiest undergraduate to read just a few more pages.
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Julia H. Haggerty. Review of Carlson, Laurie Winn, Cattle: An Informal Social History.
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