Off the Bookshelf: Swimming Oxen

Short excerpts from long reads

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"Since the little farming village of Burriana had no harbor curving out to protect the shore, it could have no pier; storm waves driving in from the east would periodically destroy attempts to maintain a quay. So the huge barges which conveyed the oranges to the freighter had to be loaded ashore. Each barge was hauled onto dry land and crammed with barrels containing oranges until it must have weighed several tons...

"Obviously, when the barges were loaded they had to be dragged back into the water in order to be floated so that they could be rowed out to our ship. How to do it? In Roman times businessmen using this coast for the transfer of freight to Italy had solved the problem. They reared a breed of oxen that thrived in salt water, and now these huge beasts, working in the sea with often only their eyes and horns visible, backed close to a barge while workmen attached chains to their harness. Then with men who also lived mostly in the sea whipping at them and cursing, the great beasts strained while everyone ashore pushed on the barge. Slowly, slowly the near swimming oxen and the men and the shouting got the barge moving. Slowly it left the shore. The massive oxen moved deeper and deeper into the sea, so that men directing them had to keep afloat by grasping the oxen's horns, and in this way the oranges in their steel barrels were ferried out to our ship." ~ from Iberia by James A. Michener


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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