Lost Arts studio

A lot of the fiber arts I enjoy are things like tatting, netmaking, chair caning, and even weaving, where people will come up to me when I demonstrate and solemnly tell me, "That's a lost art."

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Location: SW Outer Nowhere, Michigan, United States

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a chicken. (With apologies to Peter Steiner.)

07 February 2008

The Swamps of History

Bells commented yesterday, "Sometimes I wonder how areas of the world like yours were ever populated," and that sent me off into a rambling mental journey.

Because it's true that Michigan was relatively late to statehood: 1837 compared to 1816 for Indiana, just to the south, and 1818 for Illinois, which is even further west. Why did it take Michigan 19 years more than Illinois? It gets even colder upwind in Chicago than it does here -- just ask Franklin!

The picture above with cattails on either side of the road shows part of the reason: glacial ice completely covered Michigan during the Wisconsin Glaciation. This left a lot of Michigan swampy. Michigan is the only place I know where you can drive up a sandy hill and find a little pocket swamp at the top.

These days we say "destroying a wetland", but when European settlers started trying to move into Michigan, they called it "draining the swamps". I saw a Powerpoint presentation showing my local area before and after drainage, and the difference was dramatic. Back then, drying out the land was considered a public good, rather than an environmental crime.

It wasn't just a matter of draining land so it could be settled and farmed. Besides being the devil to survey or run a road through, the swamps raised mosquitoes by the millions.

When Alexis de Tocqueville encountered Michigan mosquitoes in 1831, he found them so fierce that he couldn’t pause to write in his notebook. He described a sleepless night after a day of hunting near Saginaw, "surrounded by a cloud of these insects, against whom one had to make perpetual war," as one of the most painful of his life.

Almost 30 years later, classes at Michigan Agricultural College (which would eventually become my alma mater, Michigan State University) came to a halt temporarily because all of the students and all but one faculty member were down with malaria.

When I first heard there had once been malaria in Michigan, I was surprised. A, you never hear of it here now (well, almost never), and B, while malaria seems like a tropical disease, Michigan is hardly a tropical state. (There is some debate whether the fever, chills and ague experienced by early settlers was caused by Plasmodium malaria or some other organism, but absent Percival Plasmodium or a time machine, we'll probably never know.)

But here is a very interesting and peculiar side-trail of this journey. Michigan is the home of Vernor's Ginger Ale, developed in the 1860's by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor. I love Vernor's. (Next to Stewart's Ginger Beer, but save the paean to ginger ale for another post.) Besides ginger, Vernor's has another flavor to it, a secret ingredient.

When I finally got Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, to grow large enough so I could smell it, my reaction to its peculiar sweet smell was "Mmmmm, Vernor's!"

Guess what Sweet Annie tea turns out to exhibit? Antimalarial activity.

I so wonder if James Vernor, who probably dispensed antimalarial grains of quinine, knew this.

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Blogger The Sick Chick said...

Did Vernor's make Green River soda? I really miss that stuff!

1:00 PM  
Blogger TinkingBell said...

How cool is that!

It always amzes me that people were so stoic, when these days people scream if they are more than 2 minutes from a mall or have to entertain themselves for 10 minutes! Malaria was common in Italy, and throughout Europe - people thought it was caused by the bad air of swamps - Mal Aria!

3:58 PM  
Blogger amy said...

What a completely interesting post! Thank you for all the information. I'm rereading the Little House books, and in the second one, Little House on the Prairie, they all come down with malaria--she says as much, but at the time they called it "fever 'n ague" and thought it was from the heavy air down in the creek bottom or perhaps from eating watermelons. The eradication of malaria in this part of the world is an interesting topic in its own right.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Knitting Linguist said...

Very cool post! Thanks for the all the information. As an interesting aside, I've read research which suggests that the malaria plasmodium actually came to the now U.S. with British settlers (from the south of England); it did huge damage in Native American populations.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Martha in Kansas said...

Interesting! My ancesters settled in southern Michigan (from NY) in the 1840s where the father died of "ague". In the 1860s she moved to Kansas with her new husband's family and two of her own children. Two sons stayed in Michigan and seem to have helped drain a "lake" near Kalamazoo. The son that moved to Kansas with her (my ancestor) died of ague within a few years, a common fate for Kansas pioneers too.

Thanks for your post. It puts their trials into perspective.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Bells said...

I'm glad my honestly meant question took you in such interesting directions! How fascinating. And yet still I ask, how? It sounds like a most uninhabitable place! Well, actually the summers don't, except for the mozzies.

I haven't read the Little House books for years. I must follow Amy's lead and try them again!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Theresa said...

What a fascinating bit of history. I don't know if I've always been interested in swamps, malaria, and the settling of MI and just never knew it, or if it's just the way you write it, but I was enthralled! :-)

Have you ever had Blenheim ginger ale? It is from a family run business down south, and it is HOT. We make our own ginger ale sometimes. The children love it.

8:40 AM  

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