On The Shoulders of Giants

You probably know Isaac Newton’s famed homage to his predecessors and rivals, especially the last line here, addressed to Robert Hooke: “What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Here’s an earlier version: the 12th century theologian John of Salisbury wrote “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

Paging through Wildlife of the Mid-Atlantic: A Compete Reference Manual by John H. Rappole (University of Pennsylvania, 2007) I was stopped dead in my tracks by a picture. (I was horizontal at the time, so my tracks were all quite mental.) (The book doesn’t have photo credits).

That’s Robert Ridgeway (1850-1929), the famed-ornithologist in training, on the left, and an unidentified man sitting at the base of a giant American Sycamore in southern Illinois in 1870. Look at the size of that tree! It’s staggering, Redwood-scale. Historic pictures of American Chestnuts tell a similar story. There used to be unbelievably large trees east of the Mississippi.

Of course, that’s not all. Those were not “pristine” forests found by Europeans. Native Americans used a potent technology, fire, to transform patches of the Americas for deer parks, berry gathering, and swidden (slash and burn/fire-fallow) agriculture. According to this, so anthropogenic were these peoples that, after the devastation of the Columbian genocide, their absence was felt in the global climate. Without native forest-managers, the woodlands grew so much in the Americas, sucking up so much carbon, that they contributed to the Little Ice Age.

A contemporary American Sycamore record-holder, a West Virginian 112 feet high and 25 feet in circumference at breast height, was some five centuries years old when a seventeen-year-old set fire to it in 2010, damaging it so much that it had to felled. Dwarves, indeed.

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Here’s a listing of the sex crimes alleged against Donald J. Trump, current President of the United States.

1 Response to “On The Shoulders of Giants”


  1. 1 Paul Randall November 19, 2017 at 8:13 am

    these days, it’s dwarves calling the giants liars.


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