Thursday, November 29, 2007

Some Thoughts on Forest Primeval Part II

I recently finished reading Andres' Resendez's new book, "A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca." The story is oft-told and one of the more interesting ones in American history--Narvaez's expedition blows off course and lands in what is now Florida in 1528. The 300 men leave the ship and venture into the interior. Eventually this group was whittled down to four, de Vaca, two other Spaniards and an African slave named Estabanico.

They essentially traveled on foot through the swamps of Florida, then constructed rafts, drifting out into the gulf, shipwrecking again along the Texas coast, walking back into the interior of northeastern Mexico and the American southwest, eventually walking into Spanish territory some 10 years later. A truly remarkable journey.

Resendez scrupulously footnotes his book, drawing heavily from primary source documents, largely from de Vaca's "Relacion", an account published in 1542.

What is interesting, aside from the story of survival, from a historical geographical perspective, is the land that these men unwittingly traversed. They were the first Europeans to do it and the land they encountered was anything but a vast unoccupied wilderness.

At every turn the Spanish "children of the sun" encountered tribe after tribe of natives, all of whom had intimate knowledge of their environments, many were hunter/gatherer societies living in seasonal migration patterns, other inland communities were more sedentary and agricultural.

As they reached the southwest U.S. by the 1530's, they encountered relatively vast societies structured almost solely on maize agriculture and trade.

Moving through Spanish territory and the end of their journey, de Vaca encountered a landscape being radically depopluated of natives via the brutalities of the slave trade and, more impactfully, the ravages of virgin soil epidemics, which would in the matter of a few decades, take down Indian populations some 90-95% throughout the new world, a fate awaiting the peoples contacted by the de Vaca group and all of the tribes of what is now the eastern U.S.

So, Denevan argues that with depopulation came the cessation of human (Indian) intervention on large swaths of land, thusly allowing for more forest succession and the "wilderness" that Whitney analyzed as basically untrammeled prior to European settlement.

Thus, perhaps the notion of the forest primeval that rests in the American lexicon needs a re-interpretation, and is better viewed as a snapshot at a particular moment in time of a land in a perpetually dynamic state. The world that de Vaca and others would encounter was not at all in a "natural state." In fact, there may be no such condition.

To conclude, by triangulating the perspectives of the traditional European historical geographer, the intrepid explorer, and the archaeologist cum historian, I've had a subtle shift in my thinking about notions of wilderness, the forest primeval, and what it really means.


ollie said...

Thank you for this series of posts. It is good food for thought.

dirt_trail_runner said...

Thanks, Ollie. See you at McNaughton one of these weekends. Should be interesting tomorrow with the ice.