Gardening for Beer. Beer for Gardening.

Nearly four thousand years ago, someone living in what is modern-day Iraq etched into a clay tablet, instructions for making beer. Part recipe and part hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer, the etching is the oldest written recipe so far discovered. And the one thing we can know for sure is that people have been making beer even longer than that.

Though the precise beginning of beer has proven tricky to pinpoint, researchers have found evidence of it from as far back as ten thousand years ago, around the time the human lifestyle began to shift from hunting and gathering to farming and domesticating.

beer-2439237__340In the late 1980s, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Dr. Solomon Katz first suggested that the accidental discovery of beer might have even been the driving force behind that shift. Basically, he theorized that when humans left wild wheat and barley outside the cave to get wet, the resulting dark liquid, when mixed with natural yeast in the air, made early man overly confident and inclined to watch football.

Dr. Katz explained that it could have been a desire to find a stable production method for beer that drove humans to plant some seeds and stay a while, beginning the long tradition of plopping onto a barstool and drinking oneself stupid.

One observation that supports the theory is that in some of sites of the earliest Neolithic villages, researchers find plenty of evidence for the presence of grain, but very little for the cooking of it, indicating that beer may have predated bread as a grain-derived food source. Also, astute anthropologist that he is, Dr. Katz has pointed out that cultures all over the world have long gone to great efforts to obtain and produce mind-altering substances. In other words, people like beer, and probably always have.

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Most of my friends seem to prefer a local-ish craft beer. I won’t argue with them.

Personally, I’m not a big fan. I might drink a beer from time to time when a social occasion calls for it, but I have never particularly enjoyed the taste and would almost always prefer a glass of wine or, more often, a Coke.

But I have lots of friends who really enjoy beer and do things like hold beer tastings and talk to each other using words like dry-hopped, cask conditioning, and adjuncts (which apparently does not refer to the part-timers in the English Department, who coincidentally, also tend to like beer).

These are generally the same friends who turn up their noses at a can of Budweiser and then roll their eyes at me when, at their insistence, I take a sip of their favorite microbrew and say something profound like, “Yep. That’s beer alright.”

So, even though it provided a great deal of nutrition and a safer way to consume water and was possibly a major catalyst that launched humans toward life as we know it today, I don’t have a lot of use for beer. Or at least I didn’t until this past week.

Much like our ancient forefathers thousands of years ago, I am a gardener. Also, like them, I mostly do it by trial and error and am not always good at it. This spring, as my baby plants have tried to push their way through the lush soil in my garden boxes, something has been nibbling away at them. The culprit, I believe, is the sowbug.

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Technically, this is a crustacean. That likes beer. photo credit: Wanderin’ Weeta Big pillbug-3 via photopin (license)

Better gardeners than I may insist that these funny pill-shaped bugs are not my problem, but I have performed a pretty thorough study (meaning I Googled it) and have found that these little monsters, while not a problem for larger, established plants might just munch their way through tender young shoots. And apparently one way to deal with them is to get them rip-roaring drunk.

After carefully considering my pest control options for about five minutes, I decided to buy some beer. I went with a craft variety because I don’t know if, like my friends, roly poly bugs are beer snobs and my fresh green beans are worth it. I set shallow dishes of the stuff throughout my garden beds and waited.

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There are bugs in my beer garden. And hopefully, eventually there will be vegetables, too.

It turns out, these critters like beer as much as our ancestors did and they will go to great lengths to get it. As their bar-haunting distant cousins drown their sorrows in beer, great numbers of the sowbugs just drown. I suspect the smarter ones are already trying to figure out how they can make more of it themselves in a sustainable, and possibly less lethal, way.

As I watch this seemingly innate drive for beer, I am convinced that Dr. Katz was onto something. Not every anthropologist agrees that beer was the greatest driving force for giving up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, citing things like climate change and population growth as other plausible explanations. Still, most admit beer may have been a factor. It seems then that gardening is for beer, and beer is for gardening.

Huggin’ It Out for Millennia

It’s been about twelve years since the discovery of a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy set archaeologists’ hearts aflutter. In this land associated with Shakespeare’s famous pair of tragically short-sighted and love-besotted teenagers, a team of archaeologists led by Elena Maria Menotti uncovered a six-thousand-year-old tomb for two. Inside were two skeletons, a male and female, with their arms and legs entwined.

And that’s when the team proved they’d paid attention in high school English class and demonstrated their worthiness to be involved in such a find by incessantly quoting Romeo & Juliet. Located in the village of Valdaro, the couple has become known as the Valdaro Lovers, and they represent the only such entwined remains ever to have been found.

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The Lovers of Valdaro. Dagmar Hollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Although the couple did die young (probably somewhere around age eighteen or twenty) it seems unlikely they died violent deaths, each making the assumption the other has kicked the bucket because one of them was dumb enough to play opossum without bothering to clue in the other.

Unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, the Neolithic lovers evidently managed to survive the throes of perpetual hormonal concussion associated with human teenagers. While it’s not impossible that they died in one another’s arms, according to researchers, the bodies were most likely arranged in a peaceful embrace after death.

Their deaths may have been somewhat less tragic, but their eternal embrace touching. While most Neolithic skeletons are studied bone by bone, the Valdaro Lovers have never been separated, and I suppose that’s the way it should be.

We are living in a world in which the most often referenced example of literary love is a couple of teenagers who were convinced to commit suicide rather than survive the flush of their first intense crush. Separation, divorce, and heartbreak seems more common than a relationship that lasts a lifetime. So, it’s nice, especially on Valentine’s Day, to think of a couple whose love has survived millennia.

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Pretty sure my stress level went down just looking at this picture.

Besides, who doesn’t like a good hug? Research suggests that those of us giving and receiving regular hugs—at least 8 per day—are probably reaping some significant health benefits. Hugs lower stress, strengthen our immune systems, reduce pain, and boost oxytocin levels.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the young lovers of Vadaro, but they’ll keep trying. Thanks in part to the efforts of an association called the Lovers of Mantua, led by Professor Silvia Bagnoli, the two will remain forever entwined and on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. This decision presents a difficulty when it comes to studying the couple, meaning their story—what pieces we might be able to find of it—may remain undiscovered. But it doesn’t really take fancy science to see the makings of a good love story.

Happy Valentine’s Day!