Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some Thoughts on Forest Primeval- Part One

The traditional historical perception of the "New World" encountered by Europeans in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries is a perception that tends towards the idea of a clash of civilizations with an untouched wilderness or "forest primeval" serving as the idyllic backdrop.

The Indians encountered in this bizarre new land are generally thought to have struck a harmonious balance with what we think of as "Nature," untrammeled tracts of perfectly climatic forest and grassland. The cliche is that natives had little impact on ecological succession.

My early winter readings have been cause for personal evaluation of these historical interpretations. British historical geographer, Gordon Whitney uses the old contextual model of European imposition upon a pure wilderness environment in his excellent book, "From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain"--operating largely under the assumption that upon contact wildness was the state of North America geography.

Whitney structures an almost geometric study of forest and prairie conditions throughout eastern and midwestern temperate American from 1500 to the present and the systematic changes that occurred with wide scale European settlement. While there is little doubt changes have occurred from pre-Columbian ecological conditions, I find it necessary to challenge Whitney's fundamental thesis.

Could it be that the thick woodlands and grasslands of our imaginations of the contact period through colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries were indeed much changed in a span as short as even 3 or 4 decades? That is to say, that the world encountered by early settlers might not have been the world at all of some 100 to 200 years prior around the time of Columbus and subsequent Spanish voyages. Indians perhaps acted upon the land in ways we don't fully understand the scope of.

An interesting study relating to this theory is William Deneman's 1992 article, "The Pristine Myth," which essentially argues that pre-contact native populations were much higher than thought and Indians manipulated their environments in remarkable ways.

Deneman puts figures of native populations in the 20-40 million range at contact. Large empires and 1000's of smaller bands of natives were patchworked consistently across the entirety of the Americas, and were engaged in forest clearing for fields, hunting, the burning of grasslands for both game drives and to keep an open understory for ease of travel. They also built numerous structures such as permanent and semi-permanent housing, earthen mounds, etc.

Throughout the south and Mississippi Valley alone from 1100-1500-the Mississipian cultures had vast, complex agrarian enterprises and trade routes, doubtlessly impacting the environment in myriad ways.

As Deneman hints, we must consider not only the impacts of native populations at contact, but the cumulative effects of thousands of years of habitation prior when evaluating just how radically the land was altered.

to be continued soon...

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