Sunday, June 10, 2018

Germs Seeds and Animals

In history classes, students struggle to memorize and regurgitate the names, dates, and places essential to our glorious myth — the sacred journey that brought us to the miracle of today.  For many, this parade of dusty factoids is the story they will believe for the rest of their days.  What I was taught about Christopher Columbus resembled a kindergarten fairy tale — the courageous hero succeeds.  Hooray!

The last 50+ years have released a flash flood of important new information.  Our planet is being disemboweled by seven-point-something billion humans racing down a hell-bound path for no good reason.  Alfred Crosby was an important pioneer in the field of environmental history.  In his book, Germs, Seeds, and Animals, Crosby described how the Columbus voyage of 1492 detonated a global ecological catastrophe.  It was a monumental event in the human saga, something like an asteroid strike.

When the Pilgrims washed ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were not immediately exterminated by Wampanoag warriors, because the tribe was nearly extinct.  Smallpox got there first.  Pilgrims found an empty village surrounded by cornfields full of weeds.  During the first winter, half of the colonists died from malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure.  They knew almost nothing about surviving in a foreign ecosystem.  Pilgrims struggled to survive on shellfish, and on corn (maize) that was bought or stolen from the Indians.  It wasn’t until 1624 that they figured out how to live on their own.

Native Americans were spooked by the freaky aliens.  Everyone around them was dead or dying, while none of the aliens were molested by evil spirits.  Deadly diseases, especially smallpox, spread from tribe to tribe, across vast regions, well in advance of explorers and settlers.  Natives could have easily exterminated the Pilgrims, but they were fearful of their horrific dark powers.  Without smallpox, history could have taken a radically different path.

The Pilgrims came from a densely populated civilization that had transformed its thriving rainforest into fields, pastures, and disease-ridden cities.  In Europe, smallpox had raged for centuries.  Around 1500, the virus mutated into a far more virulent form, killing many children in cities near the Atlantic coast of Europe.  Folks who survived to adulthood were those lucky to have unusually robust immune systems.  It was these folks who carried smallpox to the New World in 1518, where it killed up to half of those infected.  The virus could unintentionally be transported via a trunk of clothing.  Human-to-human contact was not needed.

In an era of long distance sea travel, ships often returned to Europe with new and exciting diseases from every corner of the Old World.  Many deadly diseases originated in domesticated animals, with whom Old World people often lived in close contact.  A number of livestock pathogens were able to transfer to human hosts.  These germs especially loved infecting dense crowds in filthy cities.  Epidemics of assorted diseases bounced from region to region on a regular basis.  Native Americans, who did not enslave herds of animals, had only two indigenous pathogens, Chagas’s disease and Carrion’s disease.

Spaniards documented the die-off in Mesoamerica (Aztecs) and Peru (Incas), where 90 percent of the Native Americans were dead within a century.  In these cooler highland regions, folks died from temperate diseases, primarily smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia.  In the hot, wet coastal lowlands, people not only died from temperate diseases, but also tropical diseases, like malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and amoebic dysentery.  Around 1590, an observer estimated that 29 of every 30 lowland natives had perished from disease.  As a special bonus, Europeans also brought chicken pox, typhus, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and influenza.

To this day, Old World diseases continue killing natives who come into contact with outsiders for the first time — missionaries, loggers, miners, etc.  By far, the primary reason Europeans conquered the Americas was disease.  I was surprised to learn that Europeans did not intend to exterminate the natives and replace them with settlers.  Colonists suffered from get rich quick fever, and the fast path to wealth was to control and exploit multitudes of Indians.

Unfortunately, the native workers rapidly died from disease, malnutrition, and abuse.  This labor shortage inspired a rapid expansion of the highly profitable slave trade.  Africans were less vulnerable to the tropical diseases, for which white folks were helpless sitting ducks.  At least ten million slaves arrived alive in America.  Millions more perished before setting foot ashore.  Once here, their death rate was higher than births, which kept the slave industry booming.

Old World livestock thrived in the New World.  The new ecosystem had abundant vegetation, was free from Old World pathogens and parasites, and wild predators were not a serious threat.  Animals grew faster and larger, and had more offspring.  On the pampa of South America, where few humans lived, feral horses and cattle multiplied into huge populations — they had no buffalo to compete with.

Corn (maize) was a super-productive crop.  Sowing a bushel of wheat might yield 12 to 20 bushels at harvest time.  A bushel of corn might yield 200 bushels or more.  Corn could be grown using simple tools and unskilled labor.  It could be grown on marginal soils, required minimal weeding, and could survive several frosts.  It stored well.  Husks discouraged losses to birds.  When mature, ears could be left on the stalk and harvested later, without risk of spoilage.

Settlers in America were far better nourished than the sickly mobs of Europe.  Most lived in rural areas, in low density, which discouraged epidemics.  They bred like crazy, and many of their kiddies survived to adulthood.  Folks had access to abundant land for expansion.  By 1775, the U.S. population was doubling every 25 years.  In 1790, half of Americans were younger than 16 years old.

Meanwhile, Europeans took corn, potatoes, and treasure back to the Old World, where they blindsided almost everything.  Corn became a staple in southern Europe.  For many folks, it was their primary food.  Because it lacks the essential nutrient niacin, many poor folks came down with pellagra.  Around the world, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands died from pellagra.  The simple cure was a slightly better diet.

Potatoes were widely adopted in northern Europe, where they produced far more nutrients per area than traditional grain crops, which were vulnerable to molds, fungus, and cool weather.  A family of five could survive on 5 acres (2 ha) of grain, or just 1.5 acres of potatoes.  Folks remained healthy on a daily diet of 11 pounds (5 kg) of potatoes and some milk (another source said 10 pounds).  Potatoes contained vitamin C, so far fewer died from scurvy during winter months.  Farmers could raise them on marginal soils, using only a spade.  In wartime, invaders could easily steal stored grain, but buried spuds were often too much effort to swipe, so fewer farmers starved.

Gold, silver, and gems were hauled back to Europe.  This provided a flash flood of new wealth, which greatly expanded the global economy.  Manufactured stuff went to the New World, and resources sailed back to Europe.  The wealth surge provided the capital needed to jump start the Industrial Revolution. 

Because potatoes and corn were highly productive, less cropland was needed.  So, many peasants were forced off the land, to make room for sheep, which generated more profit.  Mobs of displaced people migrated into cities, where they provided cheap labor for industry.  After the 1666 epidemic in London, the plague largely went dormant in Europe.  This spurred population growth, which intensified urban filth, and provided ideal conditions for the cholera epidemic that arrived in 1829.

Aided by potatoes and corn, both Europe and America were able to harvest far more food.  People were better nourished, so child mortality dropped.  The population of Europe leaped from 80 million in 1492, to 180 million in 1800, and 390 million in 1900.  Europe was bursting with people, and many migrated to colonies — Australia, New Zealand, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, and the U.S.  Bottom line, world population leaped from 450 million in 1500 to 7.5 billion in 2018.

Crosby concluded that Columbus sparked “the greatest demographic catastrophe in the human record.”  “The encounter may have been the most influential event on this planet since the retreat of the continental glaciers.”  “Calories can make as much history as cannons — more in the long run.” 

Crosby, Alfred W.  Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1994.

Other Crosby books I’ve reviewed are Children of the Sun, and Throwing Fire.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Ghost Map

Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map, is a thoroughly researched, very interesting, and well written historical detective story.  It describes how Dr. John Snow proved that cholera was a waterborne disease, during an 1854 epidemic in London.  In those days, nobody knew that tiny invisible life forms, in a nice cool glass of water, could pull the curtains on your existence in a most unpleasant way.

At the time, London was suffering from a population explosion, soaring from one million in 1800, to 2.4 million in 1851 (5 million in 1900, now 14 million).  Its infrastructure was totally inadequate for the huge mob.  “It was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat.”  One question tormented the minds of urban bureaucrats: “What are we going to do with all this shit?”  London had become the biggest city in the world, and the biggest city in human history.  To cholera bacteria, heaven looks like dense crowds of people who are unclever at sanitation.  Joy!

The domestication of grain in the Fertile Crescent was a half-clever blooper that enabled humans to exist in densities that were unnatural, unhealthy, and crazy-making.  Cholera apparently emerged in Asia in about 500 B.C.  Much later, in the age of steamships and locomotives, both people and pathogens could travel great distances at speeds never before possible.  Cholera arrived in Europe in 1829, advanced to Britain in 1831, and then sailed across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1832.  Boats and trains rapidly spread it across Canada and the U.S.  In the past two centuries, seven pandemics have spread cholera around the world.  The seventh began in 1961, and is still killing today.

In the old days, filthy cities were population sinks — the death rate exceeded the birth rate.  Child mortality was very high.  An analysis of 1842 data found that 62 percent of recorded deaths were children under 5.  The upper class life expectancy was 45, and for commoners it was their mid-20s.  Another source noted that in 1750, the population increase in all of England was cancelled by the high mortality of London.  Urban population levels were maintained by a steady inflow of rural peasants who had been forced off the common lands to make room for sheep, and refugees from the famine in Ireland.

Johnson described 1850s London as a city that wasted little.  Thousands of underclass scavengers did a remarkable job of recycling.  They included “bone pickers, rag gatherers, pure finders, dredgermen, mud larks, sewer hunters, dustmen, night soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen.”  Pure finders gathered dog turds (“pure”) and sold them to tanneries.

Londoners got their water from shallow wells in their neighborhoods.  Sewage and other wastes were stored in cesspools.  When your cesspool was full, the night soil men hauled the dreck out to farms, where it was applied to fields.  As the city expanded, the distance to farms increased, as did the cost of removal.  So, more and more stinky muck remained in town.  Dung heaps grew to the size of large houses.  The entire city had a powerfully intoxicating aroma.  Parliament had to shut down during a heat wave 1858, when the flowing sewer known as the Thames River emitted the Great Stink.

The center stage of Johnson’s book was a well pump at 40 Broad Street, in the Soho district.  Near the end of August 1854, the six month old daughter of the Lewis family got sick and died.  Her soiled diapers went into the cesspool, and caused the biggest cholera outbreak in London history.  The cesspool was only accessible to the Lewis family.  Other tenants in the building “tossed their waste out the windows into the squalid courtyard at the back of the house.”  The cesspool was in the cellar, and the brick-lined well was just 32 inches (81 cm) away.  Oh-oh!

A thousand people used the pump.  Ironically, the water was clearer than water from other pumps in the neighborhood, and many preferred it.  In less than two weeks, 700 nearby people were dead.  Cholera symptoms included an upset stomach and rocket diarrhea.  When this happened, you might turn blue and be dead within 48 hours.  To become infected, you had to ingest more than a million bacteria, via contaminated water.  Stomach acid killed almost all of them.  If survivors entered your intestines, you might soon be joining your neighbors for a ride in the dead cart.

With the exception of Dr. Snow, all the experts agreed that the cause of cholera was miasma — stinky air.  Poor Dr. Snow was cursed with an ability to engage in critical thinking.  If the entire city smelled like shit, why did cholera only occur in isolated clusters?  Why did the sewer hunters, who spent their days wading in filthy muck looking for lost valuables, not die like flies?

Much of the book is a tragi-comical soap opera about the astonishing stupidity of experts.  Since miasma was certainly the cause of the problem, the solution was to move the stink elsewhere.  So, in the name of public health, they built sewer systems, and directed the smelly crud into river.  Before long, “the Thames had been transformed from a fishing ground teeming with salmon to one of the most polluted waterways in the world.”  Meanwhile, the epidemics continued.

In this era, private water companies were also growing, in response to the trendy flush toilet fad (flushes filled cesspools even faster).  There was no unified city plan.  So, it was not uncommon for water company intake pipes to be a bit downstream from sewer system discharge pipes.  Guess what happened.

Anyway, after much study, Dr. Snow concluded that the water from the Broad Street pump was somehow killing people.  The experts howled, shrieked, and called him a bloody nutjob.  He drew a map showing the location of the neighborhood pumps, and added a black mark for each cholera death, at the location of their residence — the “ghost map.”  Yikes!  Luckily, Snow convinced a respected pastor in the neighborhood, and they managed to get permission to remove the pump handle.  The deaths soon tapered off.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis, the father of the dead baby, also died.  Mrs. Lewis dumped his filth in the cesspool in the cellar.  If the handle had not been removed, the epidemic would have raged on.  The accuracy of Snow’s theory was supported by obvious smoking gun evidence and numerous eyewitnesses.  Yet, even after he made this revolutionary discovery, and curtailed the epidemic, the experts continued to ridicule him.  His achievement wasn’t honored until years after his death.

As I write, many in America’s ruling class refuse to believe that human activities are accelerating climate change.  Many consider them to be shameless loudmouth liars, because it’s impossible for anyone to actually be so stupid.  Really?

I enjoyed the book until the Epilogue, when it hit a patch of banana peels.  Johnson, a proud resident of the utopia of Brooklyn, praises the excellent cities in developed countries.  Birth rates are low, life expectancies are high, incomes are huge, health care is great, the technology is state of the art, well-educated residents are very cool people, the food and entertainment are amazing, and the environmental footprint is much smaller than in the suburbs.  Eventually, everyone will live in wonderful cities, and enjoy excellent lives.  Hooray!

The tone is mostly upbeat, but he does acknowledge that we may experience some problems in the coming years — climate change, energy limits, warfare, influenza pandemics, and so on.  Don’t worry!  Things also looked bleak in 1854 — but the experts saved them!  The global challenges in 2018 are many orders of magnitude worse.  There are now three megacities with populations over 30 million.  In many regions today, conditions are fairly similar to 1854, or worse.

Johnson believes that cities will survive the end of oil.  Hmmm…  Systems for water distribution, sewage treatment, trash removal, medical services, agriculture, transportation, lighting, heating, cooling, law enforcement, communications, manufacturing, etc., require enormous amounts of energy — primarily fossil energy.  Experts who believe in technological miracles, rational societies, and rapid radical worldwide change, suffer from thought processes similar to the miasma experts of London.  A human herd of seven-plus billion, largely urban, propelled by human muscles and horse power, is magical thinking.

Sorry for the ranting.  I really liked most of the book.  The Epilogue made me stop and think (and wince).  Maybe that was the clever plan.  Maybe Johnson is a coyote teacher, using slippery ideas to overwhelm our mental autopilot, and trick us into putting the whip to our prodigious brains.

Johnson, Steven, The Ghost Map, Riverhead Books, New York, 2006.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book Tribe is fascinating and perplexing.  He’s a journalist who has covered a number of armed conflicts.  As a result of these experiences, he’s developed an admiration for war and warriors, because chaos brings out the best in people.  It creates an alternate reality in which it is acceptable and desirable to behave like human beings (sort of).

During times of helter-skelter, people shift into a tribal mode.  Divisive stuff, like race, religion, and politics, are largely swept under the bed.  Emotional disagreements over beliefs that are irrelevant to the immediate situation can get everyone killed — the opposite of the preferred outcome.  In chaos, people share, cooperate, care for others, and abandon class roles.  The tribal mindset feels pleasantly natural and satisfying, a refreshing change.  They cease being the isolated individuals that industrial society excels at mass producing.

In combat, warriors become capable of great courage and great cruelty.  They transform into fearless beings of holy rage who laugh in the face of death.  “They wore amulets and magical charms and acted as if they were possessed, deliberately running into gunfire and dancing while firing their weapons.”  They were intensely and absolutely alive (sort of).

This reminded me of stories about wild European warriors.  Berzerkers were sometimes swept away by a state of fury they could not turn off.  They killed everyone in sight, even friends.  In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him.  He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.

Junger noted that when a deployment ends, warriors plunge down a chute, back to consumer oblivion.  They return to “a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”  It’s a sharp slap on the face.  Equality comes to an abrupt end, class roles resume, and some brave warriors once again have to move to the back of the bus, work crap jobs, and suffer the arrogant rudeness of petty tyrants.  It immediately becomes apparent that the society that they had fought to protect is insane.

Back in consumer wonderland, herds of strangers, blissed out on antidepressants, devote total attention to tiny glowing screens.  Roads are jammed with frantic reckless drivers who have no sense of courtesy or common decency.  Alpha consumers proudly posture beside their shiny $50,000 pickup trucks and pretentious McMansions.  It’s like a loony zoo for primates born in captivity.  Warriors feel completely out of place.  Many snap.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common. 

Junger is fond of American Indian tribes, because they honored and respected warriors, and performed ceremonies to help them successfully reintegrate into civilian society.  The mindset of modern warriors has elements in common with the tribal cultures of wild societies.  Humans have a powerful desire to be close to others.  Hunter-gatherers learned to share food, help one another, promptly resolve conflicts, and cooperate in team hunting and group defense.  Self-centered individualists were annoying pariahs, because they were a threat to group stability.

Junger reminds readers of colonial times, when whites captured by Indians actually preferred living in the wild society of their captors.  Many refused to return to rigid Christian society, even when begged by relatives.  This was so common that laws were passed that prohibited settlers from abandoning their communities and voluntarily choosing to live in tribal freedom.

Page one asserts that the white colonizers were aggressively conquering Stone Age Indians who had barely changed technologically in 15,000 years.  I disagree.  During the colonization process, Indians acquired horses, guns, and metal tools.  Horses dramatically cranked up the velocity and intensity of warfare, enabling the rise of the Comanche empire.  Hunting on horseback made it much easier to kill bison, which increased the possibility of overhunting and population growth.

The three sisters system of agriculture (corn, squash, beans) began expanding around 800 A.D., following several centuries of experimentation.  It allowed far more nutrients to be extracted from the same land area.  This led to surging population, increased conflict, mutual defense alliances, hierarchical chiefdoms, and large villages surrounded by rugged wooden palisades.  Junger mentions that the Iroquois empire dominated just about every tribe within 500 miles (804 km).

Tribal towns emerged at Cahokia, Illinois; Spiro, Oklahoma; Moundville, Alabama; and Etowah, Georgia.  Each invested many years of manual labor in building monumental earthworks.  Mound 72 at Cahokia contained the bodies of 52 young women, sacrificed in some way that did not leave marks on their bones. Their bodies had been stacked in two tidy layers.  South of the border, in the motherland of corn, Aztecs apparently sacrificed thousands of people every year.

Junger’s short book often feels like a supertanker of testosterone.  It feels like its primary message was a celebration of war, warriors, and tribal culture.  But anthropologists tell us that war is not a normal component for all tribes.  There have been many exceptions, and these cultures did not domesticate grains, or enslave horses or livestock.

I had a flash of excitement when Junger briefly mentioned the !Kung people of the Kalahari, the northern group of the San hunter-gatherers.  Louis Lieberman noted that the San are genetically among of the oldest modern humans.  Their hunting culture survived into the 1950s, and may have survived continuously for 200,000 years or more.  They possess all the positive characteristics of tribal people, minus the warrior tradition.

Junger’s book devotes abundant attention to the holiness of warriors.  Do you think the pathology of modern society could be cured by becoming more war oriented?  The book devotes far less attention to the creepy soul-killing civilian culture that warriors hated returning to.  Modern societies fail to provide a way of life that is comfortable, normal, and natural for primates.  We weren’t meant to live like neurotic caged animals amidst crowds of strangers in sprawling concrete metropolises.

The book’s subtitle is “On Homecoming and Belonging.”  Home is far more than a group of humans.  Even more important, home is also a place that supports a complex family of life — wild life.  From what I gather, Junger grew up in Boston, and has spent most of his adult years in New York City.  I sense that he, along with most Americans, has never experienced a healthy lifelong spiritual connection to a healthy wild ecosystem.  We are a society of lost and lonely homeless critters.

If this disconnection does not change, we can have no long term future.  Modern societies are possessed by a collective trance — an overwhelming blind faith in technological miracles, perpetual growth, and endless progress.  We are the greatest, and the best is yet to come!  It will take a profound cultural awakening to break out of this toxic trance.  Junger scores points for pointing out how dysfunctional our society is.  In order to successfully break the spell of powerful illusions, millions more need to join him in delegitimizing the black magic juju.

What’s missing is a heartfelt celebration of wildness, and the powerful medicine of healthy connection.  Also missing is a deeper discussion of the conflicts he reported on.  In two sentences, Junger mentions that he did not support the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War.  So, on the battlefields, young warriors learned some beneficial aspects of tribal relationships.  But the warriors were risking their lives to participate in wars that were not justified — wars that should never been started.  Might there be better ways of learning how to have healthy relationships with the family of life?

Junger, Sebastian, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Twelve Books, New York, 2016.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Biggest Estate on Earth

The British colonization of Australia began in 1788.  Historian Bill Gammage, a white fella, spent ten years studying the writings of early observers, as well as paintings, drawings, and maps from the era.  The landscape in 1788 looked radically different from today.  Much of what is now dense forest or scrub used to be grasslands.  Early eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks.  In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich.  Oddly, the Aborigines who inhabited the park-like Australian countryside were penniless bare naked Stone Age heathens.  Their wealth was the land.

For unknown reasons, the British immigrants did not immediately discard their clothes, metal tools, livestock, and Bibles, fetch spears, and melt into the wilderness — freedom!  Instead, they attempted to transplant the British way of life onto a continent for which it was unsuitable.  In his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Gammage focused on the first century of the colony (1788–1888), an era he refers to as “1788” in the text.  He refers to the Aborigines as “people,” and the aliens as “newcomers.”

In a nutshell, he describes the people as being brilliant at surviving in a brutally bipolar drought & deluge climate, and the newcomers as a hapless demolition team.  Gammage’s academic peers, stodgy old gits faithfully clinging to the glorious myths of Empire and white supremacy, did not leap to their feet cheering for his scandalous nonsense.  So, his book is jam-packed with images and lengthy quotations that support his heretical conclusions (1,522 footnotes!).  The endless parade of historic evidence may test the endurance of general readers, but Gammage had to do it in order to avoid being dismissed as a raving nutjob.

A core subject in the book is firestick farming — using fire to deliberately reconfigure ecosystems in order to better satisfy human desires.  Our species originally evolved as grassland hunters that loved dining on large herbivores.  In Australia, the people used a variety of fire strategies for transforming rainforest and scrub into lush grassland.  This greatly expanded habitat for delicious grass loving critters.

The people used both hot fires and cool fires to manage vegetation that was fire intolerant, fire tolerant, fire dependent, or fire promoting.  Different fires were used to promote specific herbs, tubers, bulbs, or grasses.  To prevent new grassland from reverting to woody vegetation, it needed to be burned every two to four years.  Eventually, after decades or centuries of repeated burnings, there would be no more dormant tree seeds that could germinate.  According to Gammage, “Most of Australia was burnt about every 1 to 5 years depending on local conditions and purposes, and on most days people probably burnt somewhere.”

Ideally, in selected locations, patches of dry grassland were burned as rains approached.  Several days after a shower, fresh green highly nutritious grass burst through the ashes, and the wildlife raced in to feast on it.  After a burn, the grass grew waist high, and often head high.  Some sites were deliberately designed to optimize ambush hunting for kangaroos or wallabies.  Without managers or fences, the wild game animals capably raised themselves, and eagerly moved to where the people provided fresh food.  By keeping most fires small, the people chose when and where game would be concentrated.  On outstanding years, when herds got too large, surplus animals were slaughtered, to avoid rocking the ecological boat.  Australia had few large predators that competed with the people, or ate the people.

Gammage saw that the people lived in affluence.  They had learned how to live through 100 year droughts and giant floods.  No region was too harsh for people to inhabit.  Their culture had taboos that set limits on reproduction and hunting.  Hunting was prohibited in breeding grounds for important animals.  Lots of food resources were left untouched most of the time.  Newcomers were astonished to observe the great abundance of wild herbivores, fish, birds, and edible plants.  Abundance was the norm.  “People accepted its price.  They must be mobile, constantly attendant, and have few fixed assets.”

In 1788, the people were also growing crops, including plums, coconuts, figs, berries, macadamia nuts, tubers, bulbs, roots, rhizomes, and shoots.  Yams were grown in paddocks that could cover many square miles.  The people planted grains, including wild millet and rice.  Early newcomers described millet meadows of a thousand acres (405 ha), as far as the eye could see.  The people’s method of farming did not require a permanent sedentary life.  They stored food, but they didn’t remain by their stores to guard them.  Even in harsh times, theft was uncommon.  The people were astonished to see how hard the newcomers worked to grow food.  Whites perceived hard work to be a virtue.

The people made farm and wilderness one.  Also, their way of life intimately married spirituality and ecology.  Gammage provided a fascinating chapter on the spiritual life of the people.  While many different languages were spoken in wild Australia, all places shared the same cosmology, the Dreaming.  Reality was created by their original ancestors in the Dreamtime, and they established the Law, which required the people to care for all of their country.

“The Dreaming has two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it.”  Thus, fundamental change was outlawed.  Many other societies are possessed with a pathological desire for change, and see it as natural — progress.  Their god word is Growth.  “People prize knowledge as Europeans prize wealth.”

The native kangaroo grass was excellent (“caviar for grazers”).  It was a deep-rooted, drought tolerant perennial that held the soil in place, retained soil moisture, survived fire, and was highly nutritious.  It remained green after four months without rain, a great asset for wildlife in drought times.  The newcomers’ sheep grazed it down to bare clay, killing the grass.

Wetlands were drained to expand pasture.  Livestock compacted the soil, which dried out, and cracked.  Springs, ponds, and creeks evaporated, eliminating the critters that lived in them.  When rains returned, runoff was increased, leading to erosion, landslides, deep gullies, floods, silt chokes, and the spread of salts.  An observer in 1853 commented on the growing soil destruction: “Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with a tussocky grass like a land marsh.”

The unclever solution was to continue overgrazing, and plant exotic grasses from Europe and Africa.  These were shallow-rooted annuals that flourished in winter and spring, wheezed in summer, and died when burnt.  When “the land looks drought-stricken; it is cattle-stricken.”  Before long, the finest native grasses were greatly reduced, and in many places eradicated.

The newcomers wanted to live like rural Brits — permanent homes, built on fenced private property.  They freaked out when the people set fires to maintain the grassland.  Before long, districts began banning controlled burns.  This led to the return of saplings and brush.  So, in just 40 years, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.

Without burning, insect numbers exploded.  In 48 hours, a pasture could be nuked by caterpillars or locusts.  Dense clouds of kangaroo flies drove newcomers crazy.  Leaf-eating insects defoliated entire forests.  Without burning, fuels built up, leading to new catastrophes, called bushfires.  Since 1788, there have been many catastrophic bushfires.  The Black Thursday fire hit on February 6, 1851.  It burned 12 million acres (5 million ha), killed a million sheep, thousands of cattle, and countless everything else.

Newcomers generously shared smallpox and other diseases with the people, who proceeded to die in great numbers.  Too late, the people realized that the newcomers intended to stay.  They resisted, but were badly outnumbered.  Newcomers “brought the mind and language of plunderers: profit, property, resource, improve, develop, change.  They had no use for people who wanted the world left as it was.”  They were champions at the dark juju of genocide.

Without people hunting them, the kangaroo population exploded, gobbling up the grass intended for sacred cows and sheep.  Bounties were paid for kangaroo scalps.  “In 1881, New South Wales paid a bounty on 581,753 roo scalps — 1600 a day — and in 1884 on 260,780 scalps in the Tamworth district alone, but roo plagues continued.”

Australia is an especially salty continent.  There are large lakes saltier than the ocean, and numerous saltwater rivers and creeks.  In many regions, topsoil sits on a layer of clay, which keeps water from penetrating into the salt below.  Since 1788, the salt problem has become far worse.  The bigger trees grow, the more water they drink, saltwater rises, killing the trees.  Also, forest clearing increases runoff, and faster moving water cuts deeper into subsurface salt — so do plows and other mutilations.  The salt predicament befuddles the experts, but all agree that salt is an effective cure for agriculture.

One question perplexes me: Was firestick farming genuinely sustainable for the long run?  It significantly altered the ecosystem of a land the size of 48 U.S. states, minus Hawaii and Alaska, and the alterations had to be regularly maintained, century after century.  Nobody is sure when the practice eventually became time-proven and widely adapted.  Obviously, Australia wasn’t interested in being continually forced to dress scantily, like a park.  At the first opportunity, she rushed to return to her preferred wardrobe, primarily forest and scrub.  Could the burning have continued indefinitely, without additional harm?  Should we consider firestick farming to be a form of domestication?

Gammage’s benediction:  “We have a continent to learn.  If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country.  If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.”

Gammage, Bill, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011.

There are several Gammage videos on YouTube.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Peak Horse

In the early 1900s, automobiles, trucks, buses, and tractors were becoming very trendy.  The human population was two billion and growing, while the horse population peaked and declined.  Model T Fords did not require five acres of good grassland to fuel them, an area that could feed six to eight people.  While grassland was, in theory, a renewable resource, there was not an infinite supply of it.  Pasture could be degraded or destroyed by overgrazing, drought, plowing, or urban sprawl.

Of course, motor vehicles are dependent on a wide variety finite nonrenewable resources.  The global production of conventional oil peaked around 2005, and now we’re briskly advancing toward the peak of unconventional sources — tar sands, shale deposits, and deep-water — the fossil energy that’s far more difficult and expensive to extract.  When we pass Peak Oil, production will begin a continuous decline, and prices will rise.  Some estimate that this will begin around 2030.

Life is solar powered.  Plants have solar panels that use light to create carbohydrates.  Plant eating animals acquire these nutrients by feasting on the greenery.  Meat eating animals consume the flesh of plant eaters.  Legions of wee organisms extract the nutrients from biomass and build topsoil.  Solar energy is also embedded in coal, oil, and natural gas — carbon that was sequestered millions of years ago.

Throughout the three million year era of our ancestors, muscle power was the primary energy for moving people and things.  Muscle power is highly versatile, able to run on a variety of edible fuels — meat, eggs, fruit, nuts, roots, insects.  More versatile than horses, human muscles can move people and stuff through dense rainforests, up rugged mountains, and across deserts.  Horses are poorly adapted for hot climates and arctic regions.

Pita Kelekna noted that humans have a long history of acquiring stored solar energy via the consumption of horse flesh.  At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists found a 2.5 acre (1 ha) bone bed, up to 29 feet (9 m) thick, containing the bones of up to 100,000 horses.  Neanderthals hunted horses there 50,000 years ago.  Later, humans hunted them from 37,000 to 10,000 years ago. 

Around 9,000 years ago, the last horse in the Americas died in Patagonia.  The once plentiful wild horses of Western and Central Europe’s river valleys were apparently eliminated by overhunting 8,000 years ago.  To the east, large numbers of horses managed to survive on the wide open Eurasian steppes, where trapping animals was less easy.

Horses were domesticated about 6,000 years ago.  Kelekna described how nomadic pastoralists became skillful horse parasites.  “The Mongols lived off the horse; as they traveled, they milked and slaughtered for food.  They consumed a steady diet of milk and yoghurt, drank the horse’s blood, and mixed dried milk paste with water, dried meat, and millet.”

Eventually, clever folks realized that horses were not just a tasty form of solar energy — they also had more muscle power than humans.  If properly enslaved, they could be used to pull stuff, haul stuff, and carry riders.  Four legged slaves enabled a tremendous expansion of soil mining, forest mining, mineral mining, bloody empire building, and economic growth.  They unlocked the gateway to industrial civilization.

Around 25,000 years ago, the mammoth hunters at the Dolní Věstonice site in the Czech Republic heated their mammoth bone huts by burning the solar energy embedded in two fuels: mammoth bones and black coal.  By the mid-1500s, English forest miners had nearly succeeded in eliminating the ancient rainforest.  This created an energy shortage that inspired a large scale transition to coal burning.  In the late 1800s, the oil industry emerged, and the war on the future became turbocharged.

As the age of mechanical horsepower accelerated, the long era of four legged horse power rode off into the sunset.  My grandparents witnessed the advent of Peak Horse, and my parents saw work horses largely disappear from farms and cities.  Physicist Albert Bartlett calculated that children born after 1966 will see the world consume most of its oil during their lifetime.  Industrial civilization has an expiration date.  So, we’ll just have to go back to horse power, right?  Well, umm, there are some challenges.

Eric Morris wrote a fascinating essay to help us remember life in the Peak Horse era.  By 1898, big city streets were jammed with horses, carriages, and wagons, squishing through a deep layer of manure and urine, past rotting horse carcasses, amidst dense clouds of flies and overpowering stench.  Cities were rapidly growing, as hordes immigrants moved in to enjoy miserable industrial jobs, while living in crowded, filthy, disease ridden slums. 

Each horse emitted 15 to 30 pounds (7 to 14 kg) of manure daily — 3 to 4 million pounds in New York City every day.  In 1800, farmers would pay haulers to bring manure to their fields.  By 1900, there was way too much poop, and it piled up on empty lots.  Some heaps were 60 feet high (18 m).  Clouds of flies picked up pathogenic microbes and brought them to your kitchen, spreading typhoid and other fecal-oral diseases.  In 1880, 41 horses died each day on the streets of New York.  The average horse weighed 1,300 pounds (590 kg).  Carcasses were often left to rot, making it easier to dismember them, so they could be hauled away.

Horses were jammed into filthy, poorly ventilated stables — excellent disease incubators.  In 1872, the Great Epizootic Epidemic struck, as huge numbers of horses were infected by the equine influenza virus.  Coughing spread it from one animal to the next.  Typically, they recovered in two to three weeks, but severe cases could immobilize an animal for six months.

During the epidemic, available horse power was drastically reduced.  Folks had to use wheelbarrows and handcarts to transport goods.  The postal service was hobbled.  Freight piled up.  Coal deliveries stopped.  Food distribution wheezed.  On farms, plows and other equipment fell idle.  Boats quit moving on the Erie Canal.  Horse-drawn fire engines and street cars did not move.  When a big fire roared in downtown Boston, firemen had to pull their heavy equipment from the station by hand.

Almost certainly, there are people alive today who will see the peak of motor vehicle production, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some (or many) will experience the extinction of motor vehicles, and the lights going out on civilization as we know it.  Bye-bye railroads, air travel, refrigerators, elevators, irrigation, mining, supermarkets, and so on.  Sewage treatment plants, municipal water systems, and digital technology will blink out.  Vast areas of cropland will cease being plowed, planted, and harvested.  The age of obesity and cell phone addiction will end, but we might see the screw-brained revival of wood-fueled motor vehicles.

Kelekna, Pita, The Horse in Human History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009.

Olsen, Sandra L., “Pleistocene Horse-hunting at Solutre,” Johnson, E., ed., Ancient Peoples and Landscapes, Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock, 1995, pp. 65-75.

Dolní Věstonice webpage with awesome illustrations.  [LINK]

Morris, Eric, “From Horse Power to Horsepower,” Access, Number 30, Spring 2007.  [LINK]

Bartlett, Albert A., The Essential Exponential, Center for Science, Mathematics & Computer Education, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2004.   [LINK]

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Food Explorer

Cue up the marching band, majorettes, flag-waving veterans, and cheering crowds.  The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone is a proud celebration of American greatness.  The hero of the story is David Fairchild (1869–1954), a botanist and agricultural explorer.  Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his group was responsible for sending home seeds and cuttings of thousands of plants from nations around the world.  The goal was to expand the variety of crops grown in America, and build the biggest, most profitable, industrial agriculture system in human history.

The devious villain in the story is Charles Marlatt, a childhood acquaintance of Fairchild who had grown up to be an entomologist.  He detested what Fairchild was doing, because the tons of samples sent home to Washington were not quarantined and thoroughly inspected.  So, plant diseases and pests were free to flee and discover America.  Imported insects included the codling moth, Hessian fly, asparagus beetle, hop-plant louse, cabbage worm, wheat-plant louse, pea weevil, Croton bug, boll weevil, San Jose scale, gypsy moth, brown-tail moth, Argentinian ant, alfalfa-leaf weevil, and so on. 

Marlatt understood that plant pests and pathogens were potentially as dangerous to society as a cholera epidemic.  They could spread rapidly and cause enormous damage.  Farms were getting thrashed, and Marlatt had stunning photos.  It was nearly impossible to control problems once they were released into the ecosystem.  It would have been far more intelligent to zap them before they left the starting gate.  Fairchild scoffed at Marlatt’s hysterical paranoia.  Economic benefits exceeded economic costs, he believed.  America could solve any problem.  Full speed ahead!

The spooky fanatical weirdo in this story is Fairchild’s all-star food explorer, Frank Meyer.  In deepest, darkest Asia, he often walked 20 miles (32 km) per day, through regions where locals intensely hated white folks.  He had frequent confrontations, beatings, and near death experiences.  He obsessively gathered and shipped thousands of plant seeds and cuttings.  Folks who comprehended the botanical risks of importing exotics gave him a nickname, Typhoid Mary (Google her). 

In his book Grassland, Richard Manning talked about the unintended consequences of introducing European cattle to the western plains, where the climate and natural forage were not ideal for them.  Efforts to introduce traditional European plants failed, so Meyer was assigned to send back plants from arid regions of Asia.  Crested wheatgrass was one of his discoveries. 

Following the Dust Bowl, and other agricultural wipeouts, the government aggressively planted crested wheatgrass for erosion control.  It thrived on the plains, aggressively replacing native vegetation with colonies that were nearly monocultures.  Unfortunately, in the winter months, this wonder grass retained little nutritional value, and the mule deer, elk, and antelope starved in endless fields of grass.  Manning lamented that “Meyer brought with him botanical bombs that explode even today.”

The plant importation fad introduced a number of bummers.  Spotted knapweed suppresses native grasses, and has now spread to 7 million acres (2.8 million ha).  Grazing animals avoid it.  Leafy spurge now inhabits 2.5 million acres, only some types of goats can eat it.  The result is biological deserts that are expanding, and extremely expensive to eliminate — essentially impossible, according to Manning.

Anyway, my curiosity about Meyer led me to discover Stone’s book.  It’s easy to read, and portrays the food explorers as heroes who devoted their lives to making America great.  If, like most Americans, school taught you little about environmental history, Stone’s story is warm and fuzzy, a pleasant tale of courage, progress, and wealth creation.  Fairchild became a celebrity, and hung out with the rich and famous.

One of the biggest eco-catastrophes caused by imported plants was the chestnut blight.  Fairchild, Marlatt, and Meyer were fully aware of it.  It was first noticed on American chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904.  At that time, chestnuts were a canopy species in 8.8 million acres (3.5 million ha) of eastern forest.  The trees were called “the redwoods of the east.”  Some grew to 150 feet (46 m) high, having trunks up to 17 feet (5 m) in diameter, and a canopy 100 feet wide.

Every year, mature trees dropped an abundance of nuts, food for squirrels, wild turkeys, deer, bears, raccoons, and grouse.  The wood was rot resistant, easily split, did not warp or shrink, and was useful in many ways.  Both the Indians, and the hill people who followed them depended on these trees.  Hillbillies could raise free-range hogs in the forest commons at no cost, and fill their smokehouses with chestnut flavored pork.  Cartloads of nuts were hauled to town and sold for cash, “shoe money."

Spores of the blight fungus were transported by birds, mammals, insects, and breezes.  As the contagion got rolling, it could spread as far as 50 miles (80 km) per year.  The blight damaged the inner bark, blocking the flow of water and nutrients to the tree above ground.  Within 40 years, the American chestnut was a threatened species.  Four billion trees died.  The wildlife disappeared, and many hill people had to abandon their subsistence way of life.*  One reported, “Man, I had the awfulest feeling about that as a child, to look back yonder and see those trees dying; I thought the whole world was going to die.”

In 1904, nobody knew if the fungus was native or imported.  Meyer identified the source of the fungus when he found infected chestnut trees in China in 1913, and Japan in 1915.  He noted that these trees rarely died from the blight, and some were very resistant.  The food explorer lads did send back some chestnut seeds and cuttings over the years, but they weren’t the first.  In her essay on the introduction of the blight, Sandra L. Anagnostakis** noted that nurseries were importing Japanese chestnuts as early as 1876.  Many seedlings were sold by mail order long before 1904.

Marlatt argued that the blight could have been prevented if the federal government had wisely quarantined and inspected all imported plants.  Fairchild though this was a ridiculous idea, impeding the speed of progress for no good reason.  Marlatt eventually won.  Congress passed the Plant Quarantine Act in 1912, and inspections were the domain of the Federal Agricultural Board, which Marlatt controlled.

Stone devoted about four sentences to the chestnut blight catastrophe.  In Stone’s account, Fairchild dismissed the blight as a triumph of progress — an existing vulnerability had been eliminated by importing the superior blight resistant chestnuts from Asia.  Hooray!  Fairchild wrote a different version of this story in his 1938 book, The World Was My Garden.  When he eventually comprehended the incredible devastation, he was stunned.  He wrote, “I regretted any feelings of impatience I may have had towards their quarantines and inspections.”

As we chaotically plunge into the twenty-first century, with seven-point-something billion humans furiously beating the stuffing out of the planet’s ecosystems, all the red idiot lights on the dashboard are flashing.  At the same time, the vast majority of consumers seem to believe that perpetual growth is both possible and desirable, life as we know it won’t get blindsided by the end of the fossil fuel era, and wizards will find a way to feed eleven billion.  I’m beginning to wonder if it might be wise to devote a little time to sniffing reality’s butt.

It took thousands of years for Old World cultures to develop the skills and technology needed to obliterate their wild ecosystems.  By the time these folks washed up on the shores of America, they were fire-breathing masters of the art of destruction.  Uninvited immigrants colonized a vast continent and threw open the floodgates to legions of biological nightmares.  Environmental history is loaded with horror stories caused by primate travelers — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, HIV, and countless others.

The tallgrass prairie and much forest land has now been stripped of indigenous life, plowed, and planted with sprawling monocultures of genetic clones — absolutely perfect paradises for pests and pathogens.  Here comes the sprayers.  Here comes the tumors.  There goes the topsoil.  The parade marches on.  Hooray!

Stone, Daniel, The Food Explorer, Dutton, New York, 2018.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

American Serengeti

Once upon a time, the Great Plains of the western U.S. resembled the Serengeti of Africa, a vast prairie inhabited by abundant wildlife.  Each year, during the wet season, grasslands produce far more new biomass than forests do, per unit of land.  The greenery converts sunlight into carbohydrates, nutrients necessary for the existence of animal life in the ecosystem.  Thus, the usually sunny plains are a vast array of solar collectors that generate food for the vast array of animal life.  Bison meat is highly concentrated solar energy.

Dan Flores is an environmental historian, and he specializes in Big History, which focuses on entire ecosystems, and regards humans as just one group of the many actors on the stage.  Each species of plant and animal plays a role in the living drama.  In this book, American Serengeti, Flores described the drama of the Great Plains from a perspective that spanned millions of years, going back long before humans.  It highlights the sagas of six species. 

The notion of “climax state” asserts that ecosystems can achieve enduring balance and stability.  Flores doesn’t believe in climax states.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors succeeded in existing for a very long time in a low impact manner.  The fact that agriculture emerged independently in multiple locations indicates that the process could sometimes wobble out of balance, and whirl into ecological hurricanes.  We gradually expanded into new ecosystems, improved hunting methods, grew in numbers, and began bumping into limits.

Before Siberian hunters discovered America, the Great Plains were home to many species of large mammals, none of which had evolved adaptations for living near packs of aggressive primates with spears, dogs, and fire.  Between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, 32 genera and at least 50 species went extinct.  Losers included camels, mammoths, giant ground sloths, horses, steppe lions, dire wolves, long-toothed cats, long-legged hyenas, giant long-horned bison, and many others.  In addition to overhunting, it’s likely that intense climate change also played a role in the surge of megafauna extinctions. 

Eventually, the species that escaped extinction managed to adapt to the humans, and share the plains for several thousand years.  Then, two centuries ago, powerful primate hurricanes whirled in from Europe and launched a devastating war on the Great Plains ecosystem.  Flores says that today, “you feel as if you’re standing at the end of an immense line of dominos…” 

Pronghorn antelopes evolved from ancestors that emerged 25 million years ago.  They are the fastest mammals on the plains.  Males can zoom along at 55 mph (88 km/h), and females at 65 to 70 mph (104 to 112 km/h).  Pronghorns can run at 90 percent of their top speed for two miles (3.2 km).  They can easily outrun today’s wolves and coyotes, only their fawns are vulnerable to predation.

Pronghorns evolved traits to evade a number of speedy predators, all of which blinked out at least 10,000 years ago.  They are very well adapted to a reality that no longer exists.  Unfortunately, they are unable to leap fences, a fact that has benefitted their exterminators.  By 1900, they had declined from at least 15 million to 13,000.  Today, there are 700,000.

The coyote story is fascinating.  Indians had great respect for them.  Coyotes were often tricksters in their folktales — exceptionally clever, but their cleverness often backfired.  Along with wolves and jackals, coyotes evolved in America five million years ago.  By one million years ago, some wolves and jackals migrated west into Eurasia.  Gray wolves returned to America 20,000 years ago, and began bumping into coyotes, leading to friction.  Evolution solved this problem by making wolves larger, and coyotes smaller, adjusting them for different niches.

American settlers hated coyotes, leading to decades of extermination campaigns.  By inserting strychnine pellets into rotting carcasses, one lad could kill 350 coyotes in ten days — far easier than shooting them.  Many millions have been killed, and the U.S. continues to kill 500,000 every year.  Efforts at extermination almost always backfire.  Apparently it’s impossible to permanently eliminate them.

Coyotes, like humans, have fission-fusion families — they sometimes work in packs, and other times as individuals.  This versatility promoted their survival.  Wolves are solely pack hunters, an unfortunate limitation.  Coyotes are fertile at one year old, and their average litters have 5.7 pups.  But when food is abundant, or their numbers are dwindling, they have larger litters.  Persecution also inspires them to migrate and colonize new lands.  They now range from Alaska to Panama, in all Canadian provinces, and all U.S. states except Hawaii.  They’ve learned how to thrive in cities.

Horses, pronghorns, wolves, and coyotes originated in America.  The ancestors of horses emerged 57 million years ago.  At some point, the horse family discovered Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa.  In North America, they were extinct by 10,000 years ago.  Spanish settlers later brought them to New Mexico, where many escaped in 1680.  They fled into an ecosystem for which evolution had already fine-tuned them, and where extinction had eliminated their primary predators.  Paradise!

Given these conditions, they were tremendously successful.  One observer noted, “As far as the eye could extend, nothing over the dead level prairie was visible except a dense mass of horses, and the trampling of their hooves sounded like the road of the surf on a rocky coast.”

For Indians, horses provided huge benefits — with hunting, hauling, raiding, and rustling.  They gained wealth by capturing wild horses and selling them at white trading centers.  A number of tribes abandoned agriculture, moved to the plains, and became bison hunters.  Comanches were the dominant tribe.  They were eager to trade horses for cool stuff, fully intending to steal their horses back from the palefaces at the first opportunity.

Today, wild horses baffle Americans.  They compete for forage with livestock that have market value.  Americans are unwilling to consume organic, grass fed, high protein, low fat horse meat — ordinary food in countries including Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, and China.  In the 1800s, pompous Anglo-Americans sneered at the disgusting meat that only low class immigrants would eat.  Thus, a cultural taboo evolved.  Countless horses ended up in dog food cans.  Today, instead of raising native animals fine-tuned for the Great Plains, like horses and bison, we continue to raise animals fine-turned for Europe — a region having a mild, moist climate, and a blend of vegetation optimal for raising cattle and sheep.

Grizzly bears were hammered in the last two centuries.  Settlers detested big strong animals that loved having lunch dates with settlers.  Five hundred years ago, the entire western half of the U.S. was grizzly country, home to 100,000 bears.  Travelers sometimes saw 30 or 40 in a day.  By 1900, only a few hundred remained, hiding in the mountains.  Today, there are zero bears on the plains, and maybe 1,000 close to national parks.

Giant long-horned bison from Eurasia discovered America about 800,000 years ago (today’s bison are dwarfed).  Both bison and pronghorns survived the megafauna extinctions.  Since then, both have coevolved.  Bison prefer to eat grasses, which encourages the growth of plants that pronghorns like.  Pronghorns prefer flowering plants and shrubs, shifting the advantage back to grasses.  They don’t compete for the same grub.

Following the megafauna extinctions, bison had few grazing competitors or predators, so their numbers swelled to maybe 20 to 30 million (others say 60).  Once upon a time, bison ranged from northwest Canada to Florida.  Sometimes a single herd took more than a week to pass.  “The buffalo was the essence of ecological adaptation to North America, perfectly suited to the grasslands.”  They survived drastic climate changes, and 100 centuries of human hunters.  Sadly, it took less than 100 years to reduce them to 1,073 animals by 1886.  They stood in the path of progress and civilization.

Before Indians got horses, hunting was far more difficult.  Fewer bison were taken, so scarcity was not often experienced.  Hunting did not seem to diminish their numbers, and many believed that the animals magically regenerated, the dead were renewed.  “The horse cast a dark shadow over the bison herds… no Indian could see that shadow.”  Then came the crazy Americans, for whom bison were walking gold pieces, which the magic of the marketplace deposited into the piggy bank.

The ancestors of wolves, coyotes, and dogs originated in America five million years ago.  Some wolves migrated into Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa.  Following the extinction spasm, a number of large predators left the stage, leaving a huge niche for both bison and wolves.  Wolves almost acted like shepherds to herds of bison and other large grazers.  They ate maybe four of every ten bison calves.  When horses were reintroduced, yummy colts were added to the menu.

As settlers, market hunters, and sportsmen moved west, they killed lots of game.  Wolves feasted on the banquet of leftovers.  The bison extermination campaign raged from the 1860s to 1880s.  As bison were depleted, market hunters turned to elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and deer.  Countless millions of animals were slaughtered.  Then, the generous settlers began raising delicious wolf chow, dimwitted critters called cattle and sheep.  Enjoying 10,000 years of fine dining, wolves may have expanded up to 1.5 million animals.  Around 1850, America declared war on wild predators.  Wolves were shot, roped, gassed, stomped, strangled, poisoned, and trapped.  By 1923, wolves had been erased from the Great Plains.

The book closes with a discussion of recent efforts to rewild the west — remove the fences, and let bison, wolves, and others return to wild freedom.  A few projects are underway, and others are being considered.  For decades, Americans have been migrating out of the plains.  The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, nuked many farms.  Then came irrigation, extracting fossil water from the Ogallala Aquifer — an adventure in water mining that’s beginning to sing its death song.  Dust is returning.  Climate change may be the settlers’ last stand.  It’s expected to make the plains hotter and drier, maybe a desert.

“Before it was de-buffaloed, de-wolved, and de-grassed, the nineteenth-century Great Plains was one of the marvels of the world,” writes Flores.  “It took 13,000 years but the one, singular charismatic megafauna that walked upright did finally succeed in vanquishing, indeed nearly obliterating, all the others and bending the plains to its will.”  His book is fascinating, easy to read, short, and sad — an illuminating and uncomfortable look in the mirror.

Flores, Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2016.

See my review of Flores’ earlier book, The Natural West, HERE.  YouTube has some Flores videos.  In 2010, National Geographic released a gorgeous and informative video titled American Serengeti.