“Mixed Harvest,” Rob Swigart’s Brilliant Book of Short Stories
Let’s begin by acknowledging a distinct sense of irony in the author’s choice of title for his unique collection of linked short-stories. They tell the story of human evolution, told from the philosophical perspective of Hamlet’s oft-quoted “What a piece of work is man.” What a piece of work is right.
In Mixed Harvest, Rob Swigart has written a most remarkable and imaginative short story collection. It is remarkable for its enthralling, in-depth portrayal of the lives of humans from their emergence as distinct beings. It is imaginative for its breadth in depicting the development of personal and social consciousness from their most primitive origins to the beginnings of how we perceive ourselves and our society today. Each of these stories is told, not only with an acute sense of informed historicity and scientific accuracy, but with engaging writing. Reading these stories was not only an evocative intellectual experience but a heartfelt emotional one as well. It is the work of a master storyteller. Swigart brings the stories so alive one feels a part of them—as if you, I, we, truly are.
The subtitle of Mixed Harvest is “Stories from the Human Past,” and they are fascinating stories. I found myself so engrossed that I had to ration myself to reading just one a day to savor and appreciate Swigart’s storytelling. We know many of these stories from the evidence of facts from various sources, but here they have been tethered together into a captivating narrative.
Mixed Harvest is set up in three sections: Shelter, House, and Home (a la Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs). Each of the short chapters—standalone narratives, to be more precise—details a time and place in human “civilization,” although evolution is probably a more accurate term. Swigart frames each with a brief introduction, then a contextual, factual explanation and expansion at the conclusion that goes further in illuminating the story.
In some instances one story leads to another, but one soon realizes the “ascent of man” (if ascent is what we are to conclude) is greater than the sum of its characters. There is anthropology, archaeology, religion, myth, evolution—in short, all the forces of human development—present, but in the background of the more interesting and compelling stories of people and their lives. It soon becomes clear that our predecessors were as driven by fears as we are today.
And it is this focus, on stories of people, which really sets Swigart’s work apart and above other depictions of early human activity. The characters come alive as people, as real as if they were alive today. As uncivilized or as uncultured as they are, they have thoughts and feelings: Bringer, a Neanderthal woman, takes in the Traveler and in so doing saves his life and helps enrich her own; burying the dead under the family hut to keep their spirit nearby; grandmothers caring for children so the mother can find food; all human-faced rituals that still exist today.
It’s all well and good to go to an art exhibit of, say, Mesopotamian artifacts, but what we see are objects. Mixed Harvest allows us into daily human life, whether it’s in the growing awareness of how a woman is impregnated, the utility of sharp objects, writing (“the technology for storing and retrieving information”), the emergence of human consciousness in understanding nature’s changes, and the compelling need for Maslow’s five needs—food, shelter, etc.— that eventually drove peoples to violence and warfare. Swigart writes, “Of all of mankind’s enemies, mankind took first place.”
One of the book’s more fascinating subjects for me is immortality, which Swigart describes in the personage of Nin-Shar, Inanna, Enheduanna, the early human goddesses who, of course, were only thought to be immortal (which also points out how, even from the earliest times, women were most often worshipped and revered by men (often guised in their adoration as priests), perhaps having to do with fecundity and their spiritual qualities. Even as men still grovel at overt female sensuality and sexuality, we understand they are beheld as the highest and most sought-after treasure.) There is no evidence of immortal human beings, which may be why we ascribe that condition to the gods we worship, but there is certainly proof that it’s been on the minds of humans since the earliest days of our existence. It could be explained away as the desire for life and, by extension, for living as long as (humanly) possible. Certainly, Chinese culture in particular values longevity as one of their peoples’ highest achievements, or at least the ultimate goal to strive for. Early people grasped that life is short—or at least too short, for it was shorter by at least half what it is today. Swigart ironically comments that the god Enki bestowed on us “the attributes . . . of disease, terror, old age, and death.”
Through storytelling, the author demonstrates how selfishly and ruthlessly mankind takes its needs—and in later evolution its wants—from the earth without regard for consequences. People create larger and larger communities—the ancient city of Ur (pictured above) grew to 60,000—and then, to protect itself, had to wall itself in to repel invaders greedy for its resources. That in contrast to the earlier people who welcomed strangers into their camps or caves to learn more about the world outside their narrowly circumscribed environs.
If this so-called evolution is to be properly understood, it’s not in the context of mankind improving itself in relation to the world at large. The advances of civilization, in particular technology, have not created in us a better humanity. It could be said that most of the advances in farming, industry and technology were designed to make humans lazier, although we prefer to say it’s to make us more productive. We are too self-absorbed for such honesty as this, even as we eat ever more sugar and carbohydrates when we ought to be eating less, continuing to start wars upon wars, and bringing the ruination of the earth and its delicate environment with carbon emissions. As Rob Swigart says in the last sentence of this magnificent and often extraordinary sequence of stories, “Though we will certainly make new mistakes, we should, at least, avoid old ones.”
Mixed Harvest (Berghahn Books) is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.