Illusions of Nature
Picture the first place you thought of as nature. Maybe it was nothing more than a vacant lot in the middle of a city, or a patch of scrub along a riverbank. It might have been a cottage or campground that you visited year after year, or perhaps your childhood home opened onto a forest, a beach, a mountain. Whatever your original vision of nature was, fix it in your mind.
Myself, I grew up on a prairie that had no name. I've looked into the question, hoping to turn up some lost but interesting name like those I've known from other places—Joe's Snake Field, or Our Lady of the O, or Fountain of Bones—and have come up empty handed. The best explanation I can give for the anonymity of my home prairie is that it seemed to have hardly any history. Why give a name to a patch of grass where nothing much had happened?
Even to say it was a prairie doesn't seem quite right, because it wasn't flat or even rolling, but instead spilled down from high ridges to a river valley. Still, it was grassy and open to the sky, and in every practical sense it was infinite. My childhood landscape was the northernmost tip of the rain shadow drylands that sprawl up most of western North America, and I could have stepped out of my house and walked a thousand miles to Mexico and been thirsty all the way. It was rattlesnake country and black widow country, and as a boy I was brown skinned and blond haired and so much a son of that sunbaked earth that I wouldn't flinch if a two-inch-long grasshopper thudded down on the bare skin over my ribs as I ran through the fields. I knew the prairie in the hands-in-every-crevice detail that only a child can, and it was, for me, a place of magic. The miracle of a mouse skeleton compacted in a pellet of owl scat! The mystery of snow flies hatching onto ice! One winter my father stopped his truck to chase down a giant, bone-dry tumbleweed that was pinwheeling in the wind. He set up that huge ball of prickles on the patio, threaded it with lights, and sprayed it nightly with water until it glittered with golden icicles. It remains the most beautiful Christmas tree I've ever seen.
The fiercest animal on the prairie, and therefore my boyhood symbol of wild nature, was the red fox. The sporty, lolling, yipping red fox. It's an extraordinary animal. An adult red fox is able to run at forty-five miles per hour. They've been observed trying to race airplanes down runways, the way dogs will chase the wheels of a car. When hunting, a fox can leap twenty-five feet and land with enough precision to pin a mouse beneath its forepaws, meaning that at takeoff the fox has accounted for its own speed and trajectory, the speed and trajectory of the mouse, along with other factors such as wind and ground cover,all without ever actually seeing the prey. Such a pounce is so carefully controlled that a fox will, at times, beat its tail to one side or the other in midair to adjust its flight path. There were always fox dens on my home prairie.
I finished high school and, as people do, I moved away, coming home to visit ever more rarely. One day I returned to find that the nameless grasslands had finally been given a name: the Royal Heights housing development. Suburban homes now spread across the land that held my first memory of snow, my first night in a tent alone in wild country, and of a thousand other adventures.
A small rump of prairie remained, and I went there looking for fox dens. I found none. As I walked away that day, I saw the red fox as a martyr for every harm ever done by humankind against the wild, an icon of the ceaseless retreat of fang and claw and the relentless advance of the bloodless and tame. Every year more grasslands were erased to make way for lawns or shopping centers, with the fox gradually disappearing from the unsung hills as surely as the buffalo once vanished from the Great Plains or the whales faded from the sea. My childhood home had become my lost Eden.
Just about everyone on earth, I suspect, has their own version of this same story—the childhood wilderness despoiled. For me, it was the beginning of a journey that would change the way I see the natural world. I came to realize that we, you and I, cannot hope to make sense of this thing we call nature by looking at what surrounds us, or even by seeking the wilderness. Instead, as science has begun to recognize, we need to reach back and revisit the past—tens, hundreds, even thousands of years ago. What we find there is the living planet at its most extraordinary, often so far beyond what we know today that it challenges our expectations of what life on earth can be. The good news is that time travel is just the way we imagine it, full of marvels and surprises, odd beasts, ancient mysteries, and lands that have never known a human footfall. But the history of nature also takes courage. It calls on us to remember losses, not only in the wild, but within ourselves. The past asks us how, what, and why we allow ourselves to forget.
When I began to look into the story of the foxes, I expected to uncover the usual sad chronicle of decline, another species vanishing point by point like stars obscured by city lights. Instead, I learned that the foxes of my youth had trotted onto the scene only a few decades ahead of my own arrival as a five-year-old boy—that they were, really, not much more a part of the natural order than the housing development that had displaced them. In fact, if you live in North America and have ever seen a red fox, have ever taken delight in the briskness of its movement and intelligence of its expression, then what you have seen is almost certainly an animal that is not a part of the native wildlife.
When the first Europeans to settle in North America arrived on the east coast, they found themselves in a land apparently devoid of the red fox. Beginning in the 1700s, they began to import the animals so that they could pursue them for sport as they had done back home, in English-style horseback hunts. Some foxes escaped and, like the European colonists themselves, began to drift westward. People later introduced red foxes in other corners of the continent, accelerating their spread. By about the 1980s, the canine known to science as Vulpes vulpes had taken over North America from east to west.
Biologists consider the red fox an invasive species—they can do serious harm when they move into a natural system they were not a part of before. Red foxes threaten some two dozen rare animals in California, including such federally endangered species as the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, least Bell's vireo, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and giant kangaroo rat. Introduced red foxes have caused major declines in many of Australia's wonderfully named small beasts, from rock-wallabies and brush-tailed bettongs to quokkas and numbats. They can spread diseases such as rabies, distemper, and mange. Not every introduced species is a problem, but the red fox makes the top one hundred list of the world's worst, as compiled by the Global Invasive Species Database.
In places, introduced red foxes have even driven native fox species off the landscape, and this is where the issue becomes confusing. As it turns out, North America actuallywas home to red foxes before Europeans introduced the animals, but these native foxes were adapted only to northern boreal forests and to certain mountain ranges in the west. I hoped to discover that I grew up among native foxes, but biologists considered it unlikely and every clue I turned up suggested that foxes were not present in the past. In the 1860s, for example, a pair of British immigrants began hosting English-style hunts over the sagebrush hills around my hometown. The events were complete in detail right down to the imported hounds and the cries of tally-ho. Only one part of the foxhunt broke from tradition: they didn't hunt foxes. Finding none in the area, the hunters pursued coyotes.
To learn that the red fox, my personal symbol of the wild, was not deep blooded on the landscape, not "natural," felt like a blow to my sense of self. I told one of my brothers what I had discovered and he said, "I don't believe you"; I began to reel off the evidence and he said, "Nothing you can say will make me believe you." You think you know the truth of a place, and then—you don't. The fox, however, was only the beginning.
Nature is a confounding thing. The question of whether humans are a part of nature or stand apart from it has probably been debated since the days of the first campfire. In one sense, the answer is obvious enough: whether you believe human beings are the result of a lengthy process of evolution or a sudden act of divine grace, there is no question that we are flesh-and-blood animals, carbon-based life forms spun from the same celestial dust as the rest of creation. At the same time, we have always sought to define ourselves as separate from all other species, whether through our capacity for self-awareness and rational thought or the presumed existence of the human soul. Such efforts often carry more than a whiff of desperation: one philosopher saw human exceptionalism even in the fact that our noses are a "marked projection" from our faces—apparently unaware of, say, the proboscis monkey, which has a hugely bulbous nose that dangles down to below its mouth.
The same contradictions pervade our relationship to the landscape as a whole. When the German biologist Ernst Haeckl sat down in 1866 to give a name to the study of nature's systems, he began with the ancient Greek word for "house,"oikos, and coined the term ecology. The living planet is our home. As of 2008, however, a global majority of people live in cities, where that idea is increasingly distant and abstract. We're surrounded by a world that is, by our own description, "man-made" and "artificial"; nature is what rises up at the edges of cities and towns, or wherever else it has not been beaten back by human hands. We often put the two—natural versus unnatural—in opposition, weighing whether or not to preserve the former or make way for the latter, all the while assuming we can distinguish one from the other. This is nature by our most ordinary definition: the sum total of everything that is not us and did not spring from our imaginations.
We're all aware that dramatic events have played out in the human relationship to the natural world, from the extinction of the dodo to the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery to the logging of the Amazon rainforest. Yet nature also seems somehow outside of history, always expressing itself in a weed poking up from a crack in the concrete—give it half a chance and it will erase our puny imprint as surely as it buried the pharaohs of Egypt in desert sand or the Mayan temples in jungle vines. We stand on a stretch of wild seashore or see a mountain covered with trees and make what the cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus calls "the error of the historical present"—we assume that it is as it always was, at least by any measure of time that we can grasp. Nature was here long before we were, and will linger long after we're gone.
As a field of study, the history of nature is remarkably young. It doesn't even have a settled name. "Natural history" was taken long ago as a catch-all for the natural sciences (botany, geology, paleontology, etc.), leaving us to struggle with descriptors like "environmental history," "ecological history," "historical ecology," and "green history." None of these terms is even fifty years old, and the bulk of the research is more recent than that. The first ecological history of North America—The Eternal Frontier, by Tim Flannery—was printed in the twenty-first century.
To find the roots of the science, it's useful to look back to 1864, when the New England scholar George Perkins Marsh published a book titledMan and Nature. Marsh had an interesting life: self-described as "forest born" on a Vermont homestead where wolves and mountain lions still prowled, he went on to read and write in twenty languages, decide the final dimensions of the Washington Monument, and act as America's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Marsh lived at a time when entire new civilizations were being founded in places like Australasia and the Americas, while the riches of these regions renewed the empires of Asia and Europe. When Marsh wrote Man and Nature, popular belief still held that the natural wealth of the earth was infinite. There was not much reason to think otherwise: in North America at that time, for example, buffalo in the hundreds of thousands still roamed the Great Plains, grizzly bears skulked through every mountain range in the west, and more than half a century would pass before the last million-pound hauls of shad would be fished from the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard. Marsh's accomplishment was to see what others of his day could not.
Marsh was the first to popularize the idea that humankind is not the righteous redeemer of nature's bounty, but instead a disturber of natural harmonies and a threat to life on earth. To today's reader, that message—along with the book's apocalyptic tone—is instantly familiar, if not hackneyed. At the time, it was shocking. Man and Nature made a major contribution to the rising interest in wilderness preservation that took hold in the late nineteenth century, leading to the establishment in 1872 of the world's first national park, Yellowstone, which today includes parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho; the book directly inspired the creation of Adirondack Park, which remains the largest protected area in the contiguous United States. Marsh's relatively scholarly writing, however, was soon overshadowed by more poetic contemporaries such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, whose celebration of American wilderness has set the tone of conservationism ever since as a battle to defend pristine nature from human degradation.
What was forgotten—what the world was perhaps not ready for in Marsh's time—was Man and Nature's more subtle point. Traveling the world 150 years ago, Marsh concluded that most of the planet was not a threatened wilderness, but had already been "much modified in form and product." He notes, for example, that the papyrus plant used to make writing paper by the ancient Egyptians had, by his own era, nearly vanished from the Nile River. In Ravenna, Italy, he measured the doors of an ancient cathedral and found they were made of grapewood thicker than any vine that still existed. He recorded that ostriches had once lived not only in central and southern Africa, but all the way north to the Mediterranean and across the Arabian Peninsula 2,000 miles to the nation of Oman. Studying the histories of ancient armies, Marsh noted that many of the most arid and abandoned landscapes of Europe and Asia were once so fertile that large armies made long marches through them on local food supplies alone. In his own lifetime Marsh had seen earthworms, introduced to New England from Europe, go from being so rare that anglers kept secret the few locations they could be found, to so numerous that some freshwater springs were soured by the taste of their rotting bodies. He made note that many of the oak forests first witnessed by pioneers on the east coast of North America had been maintained in a "park-like" fashion by indigenous nations, and that seals used to visit the freshwater of Lake Champlain in Vermont, where they are utterly unheard of today. Marsh was the first to promote the now widely held idea that the collapse of the Roman Empire was in large part an ecological collapse—"rivers famous in history and song have shrunk to humble brooklets"—and even speculated that the reason that writers from the age of classical antiquity failed to remark on the phenomenon of ocean phosphorescence was because they never witnessed it: that civilization since then had transformed the seas to such an extent that luminescent plankton were freed to set the waves aglow.
Man and Nature is today considered one of the founding texts of the environmental movement, and there's no question that Marsh argued for the preservation of the wild. But he also went further. More than a century before the first Earth Day, Marsh was calling for the renovation, literally the "making new," of an exhausted planet. His concern was not first and foremost how much land to set aside here or there in parks and protected areas—the question that launched a hundred years of battles for the world's last and best wild spaces. Instead, Marsh asked whether we were changing nature itself into something new, something lesser, something our ancestors might not even recognize. He had written what can be thought of as the first principle of historical ecology: to know what is, you must know what was.
That isn't as easy as it might sound. I mentioned earlier that my childhood landscape seemed to have hardly any past, and this is true in a textbook sense. The first European to visit the area didn't arrive until 1811. By that time, there was already steam-powered ferry service between New York and New Jersey, London had a population of more than one million, and Captain James Cook had circumnavigated Antarctica. The place where I grew up never saw war or revolution, was never dark and bloody ground. George Washington's false teeth have a longer written history than my hometown.
But then, no ordinary telling of history commemorates the caribou. Most people know caribou as the strange, bone-jutting beasts that survive on Arctic barrens, yet caribou were hunted within living memory on a plateau across the valley from my family's kitchen window; it was probably there that a prospector in 1926 witnessed the animals being "wantonly slaughtered." My parents worked at Cariboo College, but not once while growing up did I hear that the name referred to the former presence of the actual animal.
No one ever spoke of the elk, either, described in one account as "numerous and widespread"—their antlers were still bleaching in the hills as the twentieth century began. An early naturalist wrote that the Western rattlesnake could be found on some hillsides "coiled upon every ledge, stone, and bare spot"; I saw just two rattlers in my entire childhood. The schools I went to never taught that the sage grouse, white-tailed jackrabbit, pigmy short-horned lizard, and viceroy butterfly, among other species, had vanished from the hills. I knew that bounty hunts had helped to eradicate the wolf from much of North America, but had never been told that the landscape I lived on shared that history, or that the killing had gone far beyond wolves to include any animal that might steal a chicken, eat a kernel of wheat, or otherwise intrude on human interests, from owls and eagles to sparrows and prairie dogs. Some were massacred in "ring hunts," with the spirit if not the huge breadth of one recorded from eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, when a man named Black Jack Schwartz organized two hundred settlers to circle an area thirty miles in diameter and then close in on every bear, buffalo, elk, deer, cougar, wolf, bobcat, wolverine, fisher, otter, and beaver in the area—allegedly nearly 1,000 animals in all.
"The gun and the plough, the saw and the cow, the dam and ditch"—so goes one abbreviated history of my hometown. By 1850, settlers' cattle and cayuse horses had grazed whole horizons of grassland to the ground. Feed was shipped in, and with it came the seeds of the invasive plants—Kentucky bluegrass, smooth brome, diffuse knapweed, crested wheatgrass—that swept through the native prairie to become the familiar vegetation of my youth. The Christmas tumbleweed I remember so fondly was a stowaway from Russia.
Earlier still was the fur trade, which drove an annihilation of wild mammals so total that trapped-out regions were sometimes called "fur deserts." A typical pack train of the era involved three hundred horses, each loaded with twin eighty-pound bales of pelts, for a total of 48,000 pounds of furs. The Scottish naturalist David Douglas, apparently outraged by a landscape empty of any furbearing animal larger than a chipmunk, told the chief trader of the fort that went on to become my hometown that "there is not an officer in it with a soul above a beaver skin."
Even the fur trade is not the beginning of the depletion. Millennia of indigenous settlement came before that, the tribes and cultures that, by the time they encountered men of European descent, were so thickly populated on the landscape that one early visitor reported he was never out of sight of campfire smoke. In one local legend, Buffalo charges at Coyote for disrespectfully kicking at the bones of Buffalo's ancestors. "They were all killed, and my brothers and sisters were taken away," Buffalo says. "I am the only one left." The archaeological record shows that buffalo, also known as bison, roamed at least near enough to my home prairie that a herd could have covered the distance in a weekend. Never once while growing up did I hear that the land might have been buffalo country.
In the year 2000, a local biologist named David Spalding, attempting to express in simple terms the reason so many species had disappeared, put it down to "the general increase in humans." The soil itself was once crusted with a living skin of lichens and microorganisms, hundreds of years in the making and now trampled into powder by livestock in most places. One such cryptogamic crust species,Diploschistes muscorum, is a living irony: it's easily destroyed by grazing cattle, but looks like a cow-pie. The resemblance generates Abbott and Costello dialogue such as this, from a grasslands walk I took with a local conservationist: "There's some lichens! Or maybe that's just cowshit." Today, a dubious milestone has been reached. In this overlooked corner of the globe, this place that seems so empty of history, the natural world has undergone so much change in just the past one hundred years that a person like me, raised so close to the land that my feet were stained the color of it, wouldn't feel at home in the original grassland. The prairie as it was is an unfamiliar country.
Yet if I took you onto the remaining grasslands around my hometown today, they would seem to you as ancient and unchanging as anywhere on earth. You'd smell sage and the vanilla scent of ponderosa pine bark, and you'd hear meadowlarks, and the bunchgrass would rustle like the restless dead. Cicadas would zing in swales of aspen, and if you were lucky with the year and the season, the brittle prickly pear would be in lemon-yellow bloom. The breeze would suck across the hilltop balds where it has carried away the soil and leave you blinking as it dried your windward eye. In the dust you might see stripes where gopher snakes had lain to warm themselves in the morning sun. You might see an ant lion spitting sand as it tries to knock insects into its pit trap. You might see fox tracks. The whole of the landscape, from sky to soil, would have the look and smell and feel of what we call nature. It is an illusion that has in many ways created our world.