The Phoenix: New Growth after Tragedy

Paul Fürst, Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (coloured version)

With apologies to King Arthur, England was a fringe nation of little importance before the plague. England’s primary crop was wheat, which was consumed locally. But after the plague had ravaged the western world, the labor-intensive process of growing wheat could not continue as it had before. The shortage of workers skilled in producing and processing wheat led to two key outcomes.

First, much arable land was diverted away from wheat to sheep grazing. It took far fewer people (with less skill) to tend sheep per acre than grow wheat per acre. This in turn led to a boom in production of textiles, which could easily be exported. This textile-based economy was a key engine of English wealth through the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Second, the scarcity of wheat workers allowed those individuals to demand better pay. This contributed to the rise of a middle class in England.

Not unique to England, the plague led to an immediate excess of available fabric. Prior to the Black Plague, books had been rare. But the sudden availability of cloth led to transformation of that cloth into paper (e.g., the reason newspapers are referred to as “rags”). This was a key enabler for the enlightenment and explosion of innovation and knowledge that followed the Black Death.

Any tragedy will cause pain. But tragedy is often followed by benefits that would have been impossible without the tragedy.

My book club is reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which revolves around the massive fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in April 1986. The fire and its damage were devastating, in many areas destroying at a heat of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (books start to burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet destruction of that library led to massive community energy to rebuild. Among other things, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) system was free to invest in cutting edge computerized cataloguing technology. While I’m not sure Orlean makes the connection in her book, widespread adoption of computerized catalogues, powered by the LAPL adoption of the technology, seems a necessary pre-condition for the 1995 creation of what initially was an online bookstore, Amazon.

The post title references the legend of the Phoenix, which dies in fire and is reborn anew. While the Phoenix is myth, many organisms are adapted to thrive despite destructive fires. Such pyrophytic (fire loving) plants may even require the heat of fire to allow new seeds to be released or thrive. The lands near volcanoes are famously fertile in large part because of what happens as a result of devastating volcanic explosions.

Even for us as individuals, we only grow stronger when we allow ourselves to be partially destroyed. Exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is actually a tool athletes use to make themselves stronger. For each cell damaged, such damage may be the end of it’s individual existence. But the body as a whole becomes stronger.

This past week, speakers at General Conference spoke to us, comforting us in our trials, whether directly related to COVID or not. But they also reminded us that trials and hardship can help us.

Whatever comes to us, as those who have selected God’s will as the guiding focus of our lives (Israel, “Let God Prevail”), may we ponder the ways that God’s will can be accomplished even as we find ourselves broken by our hardships. And when the damage to our individual selves seems too great to ever overcome, let us know that Christ heals all who turn to Him. Through Christ, each individual may, ultimately, overcome any damage and harm they have sustained in life.

We need not die in our own metaphorical fire merely hoping that generations yet to be will garner benefit. We can know that we are held in the arms of God’s love, and that all these things will be for our experience and for our good.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

8 thoughts on “The Phoenix: New Growth after Tragedy

  1. As long as I am unable to write things as wonderful as this, I am grateful that you are in the world writing them. This is beautiful and so encouraging.

  2. Another nifty historical tidbit that adds to your thesis: As the massive population loss was replaced and the farming labor force regrew, English farming moved into three-field practice. This wasn’t something anyone had really tried pre-plague, as the population was working as hard as it could to feed itself and nobody saw the wisdom in leaving one field in three fallow each planting season. Fewer laborers to work the fields meant it happened almost by accident. And the practice meant that “rested” soil was much more fertile, increasing crop yields and allowing the population to grow well beyond its pre-plague levels.

  3. @Lattertarian,

    Thank you for the crop rotation tip. While the initial origins of crop rotation are lost to time and the method is described in Roman literature, it seems likely the ‘middle ages’ emergence of the method corresponds to the sudden disruption in prior practices occasioned by the Black Death.

    When I used to present at Mother Earth News fairs, I would demonstrate this principle by having a bowl of candy, explaining how crops will deplete certain “candies,” eventually leaving an excess of nutrients not wanted and depleting nutrients that are wanted.

    And I was delighted to learn living in a place where the climate provides a solid cold season means bugs die off once a year.

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