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Improving the gene pool

The most memorable classroom presentation I ever witnessed was at UC-Berkeley in the spring of 1980. Notice I didn’t say “lecture.” That word can be off-putting.

I sat in on J.B. Jackson’s class on the American landscape. Jackson had invented the academic field of cultural landscape studies and was surely one of the most charismatic and effective teachers in the history of education. I’m told Vincent Scully at Yale was Jackson’s match.

The amphitheater might have held 200, but slightly less than half the seats were occupied that morning. Jackson spoke from stage right, near a laboratory table, and thralled us for about forty-five minutes without slides or any other illustration. Only at the end, the lecture safely concluded, did he append a half dozen grainy slides taken from a moving vehicle in a dust storm. But the immediacy of those frozen moments only reinforced what we had just heard. His words had conjured better images than a Kodak carousel would have feebly cast on any available flat surface.

Jackson’s topic that morning? The county fair. I think of it today as a friend reveals he has taken on the design of Fennimore county’s fairgrounds.


The country fair–contrasted with city fetes and festivals–was a place to display our prowess in horticulture and husbandry. But, more important than blue ribbons and bragging rights, it was a marketplace for improved crops and livestock. Seed was traded and sold. Male animals were put to stud; females sold to the highest bidder. Knowledge, too, passed among the crowd: tips on planting, erosion and pest control. The result was a mixed blessing. The gene pool did indeed improve, but at the cost of biodiversity–a lesson we are learning at our peril in the 21st century.

The country fair was a social event as well. Paths crossed that otherwise would not. Conventional wisdom grew in volume and assurance. And human breeding stock improved along with cattle and sheep. In a pre-industrial society, the availability of mates was often limited to the social island of the farmstead and, at best, the parish church and village. Families intermarried in a complex genetic tartan plaid of ever tightening weave. So the dance and other social events enabled marriageable youth to improve their prospects and their progeny. This was as true for medieval England as it was in 19th century Agincourt.

The story of the Fennimore County Agricultural Society will be more complex and nuanced than that. But it is a beginning. And, as Princess Irulan observes at the opening of Dune, “A beginning is a very delicate thing.”

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