Wild Love: A Valentine’s Day Natural History

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. But we’ve had warning – the decorations started going up in stores the day after Christmas. I’m guessing you’re the romantic type – you’re probably going to do something lovely for your sweetheart next week. Maybe opting for traditional gifts, you’ll start with a card and roses, finish up with a nice big box of chocolates.

Each of these love tokens has its links deep within our culture and connects us in different, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways to the natural world. Take paper, for instance. The custom of sending written messages dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used papyrus scrolls to carry their messages. I’m excluding clay and stone tablets, because of the weight and effort that went into making them doesn’t make them good candidates for greeting cards. In order to dash off something like a proto-Valentine, you’d need something light and relatively inexpensive. Cave paintings are right out.

Papyrus. If the Ancient Egyptians had written greeting cards, they would have been on this. Photo: RaBe 2015.

The products on which we choose to write our love letters (mortgage statements, recipes and everything else) have changed dramatically through the ages. The 8th century Chinese were the first to create modern paper from wood pulp, which spread across the Islamic world and Europe, replacing vellum (animal skins) wood, stone tablets and other tough-to-fold materials. By the early 15th century Europe, the Black Plague made rags (made from undergarments no longer needed by plague victims) readily available for rag paper. Handmade paper ultimately became plentiful enough so that non-essential messages like greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe. The oldest Valentine dates back to 1415. It was written by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. It must never have reached the Duchess, because you can see it today in the British Museum (rather than the Louvre).

Not surprisingly, people have made innovations according to whatever was on hand, so the history of greeting cards is also the history of our inexorable march from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies and finally to urbanization. With each new development has come efficiencies. No need to quarry rock, slaughter an animal, find a wetland where papyrus is growing. Mind you, to get your Dolly Parton Personalized Valentines Greeting, you now have to have people to mine the core materials, make your computer, hire Ms. Parton to record your name to camera and other people to create the internet so you can send it. It takes a village.

Of course, all that paper takes a toll on the environment. The effects of producing our global 420 million tons of it annually include deforestation, the use of enormous amounts of energy and water as well as air pollution and waste problems. Paper accounts for over a quarter of total waste at landfills.

Simpler cousins of these roses would have been trampled by the world’s earliest large mammals.

Unlike paper, roses, on have changed relatively little since they adorned the forests of the Eocene, about 40 million years ago. (The world’s oldest flowering plant – from 130 million years ago – is still represented by its relatives coontail or Ceratophyllum.). The rose is an iconic symbol of love, associated with Aphrodite in Ancient Greece, that carried through to Venus in Ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages in was imbued with the idea of courtly love and used in heraldic motifs and, in the 17th century, St. Valentine and roses became intertwined.

The US cut flower industry commands close to $400 million revenue annually (2009 data) and Valentine’s Day accounts for 25% of the holiday market share. Retail florists are dependent on growers and wholesalers for this massive stock. Most of the US growers are in California, but this only represents about 1% of the roses sold here. A whopping 70% of retail flowers in the United States are grown in Ecuador and Colombia, since even considering the cost of packing, preserving and shipping a perishable product like fresh flowers it’s cost effective, as wages in Latin America are so low. (Read about fair trade roses here.)

The basic ingredients of your chocolates (excluding the crushed pistachios and cherry liqueur) are cocoa, milk and sugar. Each has a long history in human culture. Sugar comes from sugar cane, which is a type of grass – a huge family that includes everything from oats to bamboo. Sugar cane is native to the Indian subcontinent, where it has been cultivated since ancient times. In those days, it was labor-intensive, rare, and expensive. In most parts of the world, honey was more often used for sweetening. White sugar was especially prized and, as recently as recently Tudor England, white sugar was exclusively the province of the wealthy. At that time, the nobility enjoyed marzipan (“marchpane”) made from almond paste and sugar, often cleverly fashioned as other things, like leather gloves.

But there are darker sides to our love affair with sugar. As it’s become more readily available, its ubiquity has been the cause of a global epidemic in obesity, hyperactivity, and dental issues. Less well known, however, are the environmental impacts of sugar production. Case in point is the effect of Australian sugar cane farming on the Great Barrier Reef. Some 880,000 acres flood coastal waterways with nitrogen fertilizers, fine sediments and pesticides. Healthy coral reefs rely on nutrient poor water to prevent becoming overgrown by green algae. In an environment already stressed by climate change, these land use practices spell disaster for one of the world’s great natural ecosystems.

Cocoa was first was first domesticated 5,000 years ago, in equatorial South America, before being introduced into Mexico by the Olmecs. Cattle was even earlier, first domesticated 12,000 years ago as a food source and as draft animals. The earliest evidence of using domesticated cows for dairy production is the 9,000 years ago, during the early Neolithic in what is today the region around Turkey. Each has its delights (The Mayans were drinking hot chocolate from 500BC. There’s also chocolate cheesecake.), as well as its environmental concerns. For instance, the high global demand for cocoa is responsible for rainforest destruction, overuse of herbicides and forced child labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where much of our cocoa is grown. (See what the United Nations Environment Programme is doing about it here.) Then there’s the relationship of the world’s billion (yes billion) gassy cows and the worsening climate situation.

You probably won’t think about any of this take the foil off your Whitman’s Sampler brandy snaps (or is that a Brazil nut?). Not the history of the ingredients of the ecosystem that keeps it all going. Not the the animals that pollenate them, the fungus that keeps the roots healthy, or the rivers that provide life-giving water both the crops and the harvesters. But it’s all there – weaving these and so many other products into the fabric of our culture, and keeping them all going year after year.

The thing about these products though is that we humans love something, we tend to smother it with attention. It’s not surprising though – there are 7.9 billion humans on earth as I type these lines. So, meeting global demand for anything from lettuce to lithium potentially means an unsustainable practice has to be devised to provide it. Fortunately, though, for every major source of pollution, every environmental conundrum, there are people working on trying to do it properly.

So, I’m not suggesting you give up your chocolates, live as a hermit, or ride a unicycle to work (although some people do, I’m told). But know about a thing is, often, to care about it. Fair trade chocolate, organic milk, recycled paper, they all make an important, if invisible difference.

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