Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 42


[Note: This is the forty-second sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]

SACRED ENERGY

Sunbeams

Alfred Crosby wrote a fascinating history of energy use.  There are two primary sources of energy, nuclear fusion from the core of the sun, and heat that rises up from the molten magma within the Earth.  Almost all of the energy used by the family of life traces back to the solar source.  Every day, the sun reliably provides clean energy for our planet, and it never sends us a bill.  Solar energy will very likely continue to be delivered for millions of years.  It is genuinely sustainable.

Energy arriving via incoming sunbeams is captured by the living solar panels built into a wide variety of green plants.  The solar panels contain chlorophyll, which uses sunbeam power to assemble simple carbohydrates by combining molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O).  This magic act is called photosynthesis, and it enables the existence of the entire family of life.  The carbs it produces include sugars, lignin, and cellulose.  They are used for the plant’s basic survival, growth, and reproduction.  Some plants store carbs for later use.  The byproduct emitted by photosynthesis is a gas called oxygen.

By a remarkable coincidence, living organisms called animals require both carbohydrates and oxygen in order to survive.  Animals burn (oxidize) carbs and release a byproduct called carbon dioxide, the gas that plants need to perform photosynthesis.  Animals consume food from plant and/or animal sources and use it for growth, reproduction, daily activities, and so on.  The portion of their food intake that’s not utilized is emitted in wastes called pee and poop, which are highly nutritious substances for plants.

Finally, all living plants and animals. sooner or later, become dead plants and animals, and dead stuff is a highly nutritious source of food for the recycling crew of wee beings.  They convert dead stuff into humus.  This organic matter sequesters essential nutrients and improves the fertility of topsoil, much to the delight of the entire family of life.  Under ideal conditions, the fertility and depth of topsoil can improve continuously for thousands of years.  Prior to soil miners (farmers), parts of Iowa were covered with a layer of super-rich black soil up to ten feet deep (3 m). 

Ladies and gentlemen, please stand up and give an enthusiastic round of applause for the amazing magic of life — a brilliant, intricate, functional process that has been perfectly sustainable for several billion years, successfully rolling with the many powerful punches of change!  Hooray!  All lives matter!  All deaths matter!  The dance goes round and round.  Woo-hoo!  Big Mama Nature rocks!

Here’s something I didn’t know before.  Earth is an unusual planet, because its land surfaces include accumulations of carbon-rich organic matter, stuff left behind by the family of life.  This matter enables the possibility of fire.  Three things are needed for fire: oxygen, heat, and fuel.  A living forest can burn, and so can collections of dead dry stuff.  Crosby suspected that Earth might be the only planet where fire is possible.

Carboniferous Period

The family of life is sunbeam powered.  Soil organisms are children of the sun.  Plants and trees are children of the sun.  Everything that swims, flies, crawls, or walks is a sunbeam critter, including you and me.  Fossil energy is hydrocarbon compounds originally created by ancient sunbeams.

Coal is fossilized sunshine from tropical swamp forests that lived during the Carboniferous Period, which was roughly 360 to 300 million years ago, long before dinosaurs.  This fossil biomass accumulated over the course of 60 million years, largely in the vast swampy rainforests of Europe, Asia, and North America.  The rainforests absorbed sunshine and carbon, and used it to create carbon-rich biomass, via photosynthesis.

Today, tree trunks are roughly 1 part bark to 4 parts of wood.  During the Carboniferous, the trees trunks were more like 8 parts bark to 1 part of wood (up to 20 to 1).  Back then, there were no microorganisms capable of decomposing the lignin in the bark of dead trees, so nothing rotted for 60 million years.  The biomass in the rainforest swamps eventually became carbon-rich peat.  Over time, pressure and heat transformed the peat deposits into coal.  In some locations, coal beds are up to 39 feet thick (12 m). 

Because so much carbon was buried, there was far less of it in the atmosphere.  Consequently, the oxygen content in the air soared to 35 percent (now it’s 21 percent).  So, for the animals living in that oxygen-rich air, many things grew to giant proportions.  Dragonflies had wingspans of 29 inches (75 cm), and millipede-like bugs grew up to 9 feet long (2.7 m).  Some amphibians were almost 20 feet long (6 m). 

 Finally, the Carboniferous Period was brought to an end by climate change.  Wet and warm became cool and dry.  Glaciers grew, sea levels dropped, and many rainforest species went extinct, including most of the forests.  In the new climate, many reptiles adapted well, because the eggs they laid on land had shells that prevented the embryo from drying out.  Eventually, this enabled the emergence of the dinosaur era, which included the ancestors of modern birds.

It took many millions of years to transform the woody biomass into coal.  Over the passage of time, Big Mama Nature buried most of the sequestered carbon.  The family of life had no need for it.  So, the fossil sunshine took a long and pleasant nap.  Much later, when human miners rudely began drilling and blasting, the coal spirits were totally infuriated.  They cast malevolent spells against the screw-brained primates.  Their curses loaded the atmosphere with carbon, jerked the rug out from under a stable climate, and blindsided ecosystems everywhere.  Leave the coal where it is!

Jurassic Period

Petroleum and natural gas are buried sunshine that began in bodies of water during the Jurassic Period, the age of dinosaurs.  In those days, the climate was very warm, creating perfect conditions for teeny-tiny plants called phytoplankton that float around in oceans, seas, and lakes.  They absorbed Jurassic sunshine, and used it to create carbohydrates (their food), via photosynthesis. 

Today, phytoplankton are the most numerous organisms in oceans.  It is estimated that they comprise one percent of global biomass, yet most of them are too small to see with the naked eye.  They are the foundation of the oceanic food chain, and all sea life depends on them for survival.  Of all the photosynthesis performed on Earth, they do half of it.  They produce half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, the stuff you’re breathing now.  They asked me to tell you that they are really pissed off about the climate crisis and ocean acidification.  Leave the oil and gas where it is!

During the Jurassic, countless gazillions of these floating organisms lived happily.  When they died, they sank to the bottom.  In some locations, large deposits accumulated faster than the material could decompose.  These deposits formed between 260 and 10 million years ago.  Once they were buried under layers of sediment, heat and pressure stimulated chemical reactions.  Oil and gas were created when the deposits were cooked for millions of years at temperatures ranging from 180° to 280°F (82° to 137°C).  In many locations, large concentrations of these hydrocarbons (oil and gas) have survived to modern times.  (So, oil is not dinosaur juice, it is phytoplankton stew.)

It took 250 million years for the biomass to accumulate at the bottom of the sea, and additional millions to finish pressure cooking it into oil and gas.  During this extremely slow process, 90 tons of ancient biomass was transformed into oil from which one U.S. gallon of gasoline (3.8 l) could be refined.  Over the passage of time, Big Mama Nature deeply buried most of the sequestered carbon, because the family of life had no need for it.  The world continued to live happily, and the air remained fresh and clean.

Vicious Circle

Our hominin ancestors appeared maybe four million years ago.  Like all other animals, they needed food, air, and water to survive.  Plants made their own food via photosynthesis, so they needed sunbeams, air, and water. 

As mentioned earlier, the invention of the fire drill, and the domestication of fire was a major turning point in the human saga.  Our early hominin ancestors may have lived for a million years or more prior to fire making.  It wasn’t necessary for biological survival, but it eventually enabled civilizations to develop the deadly technology needed to destroy entire ecosystems, and destabilize the climate.  We do know that, sooner or later, our ancestors became seriously addicted to using fire.  At that point, they developed a never-ending interest in fuel — dried organic matter like grass, leaves, dung, peat, and wood. 

Fire enabled them to better defend themselves against man-eating carnivores, so fewer brothers and sisters became cat food.  It also enabled cooking, which sharply increased the number of potential food resources from which they could extract solar energy.  So their addiction to sunbeam energy now expanded beyond the food they ate, to the solar power stored in the fuels they burned.

Humans are walking sunbeams.  We absorb sunbeam energy when we eat nuts, berries, fruit, tubers, and other digestible plant substances.  We can’t acquire it by eating grass, but we can absorb it when we eat grass-loving herbivores.  We can encourage the expansion of their herds, and increase our food resources, by deliberately expanding herbivore habitat — grasslands.  This can be done via firestick farming or deforestation.  For humans, grasslands provide more food than deserts, wetlands, forests, or brushy scrub. 

Wild herbivores are far less likely to overgraze than are herds of domesticated livestock, because a herder’s wealth and status is based on the number of critters he owns, not the condition of the grassland.  More is better.  For this reason, herders also have a long history of aggressively exterminating the wild carnivores that also cherish their herds.  As mentioned earlier, some ecosystems have been reduced to wastelands when overgrazing leads to catastrophic erosion over time.

Cropland can produce far more food per unit of land than grazing land, so it was often expanded in regions that were suitable for agriculture.  The healthy community of wild vegetation was ripped off the face of the land, the soil was tilled, seeds were planted, and sunbeams nurtured a generous banquet of nutrients we could digest.

Like herding, agriculture also has a long history of degrading ecosystems over time, in a number of ways.  Each crop removes nutrients from the soil that are often not returned — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other stuff.  When sunbeams heat up exposed soil, they stimulate microbial life that degrades the humus, causing precious carbon in the soil to float away as carbon dioxide.  This long term carbon loss is even greater when cropland was originally created via deforestation.  Wild forests and unmolested topsoil are two huge treasure chests of precious carbon.  In a later chapter, we’ll take a closer look at the serious harms and challenges related to agriculture today.

Once again, attentive readers will see that the hunter-gatherer way of life had far less impact on ecosystems.  It wasn’t consistently harmless, but it kept humans alive for 300,000 years, and our hominin ancestors for several million years.  In comparison, the lifespan of civilization will be more like a quick flash in the pan, a train wreck.  Prior to the dawn of herding and farming, the planet remained in far better condition than it is today. 

Human cleverness, motivated by good intentions, and handicapped by ecological ignorance, has spectacularly backfired — and this failure is not understood by billions of folks who know little or nothing about environmental history.  Catastrophe is invisible to them.  Their virtual reality headsets stream images of a high standard of living, wondrous prosperity, amazing genius.  Let’s go shopping!

Craig Dilworth described the ongoing rise and fall of civilizations as a vicious circle.  Clever innovation enabled folks to control and exploit more sunbeam energy, and this enabled population growth.  More mouths needed access to more sunbeams, which required more cleverness, and on and on.  It was a merry-go-round that kept spinning faster and faster, until it ran into solid limits to growth that cleverness could not sweep aside.  Then, the merry-go-round shifted into reverse, and the game got slower, simpler, and quieter.  Societies strangled by scarcity, or bulldozed by stronger outsiders, tumbled into the tar pits of oblivion, while new merry-go-rounds began spinning elsewhere.  What goes up must come down.

Albert Bartlett tirelessly preached that growth in population and resource consumption is undesirable, unwise, and unsustainable.  Therefore, the super-trendy buzzword “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.  Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of educated people in the world are radicalized believers in an absurd oxymoron.  It’s like the neon sign in the tavern window, “Free Beer Tomorrow.”  Our obsession with perpetual growth is batshit crazy.  Luckily, ignorance is curable, in theory.

By removing the forests, and growing crops, orchards, and livestock, the incoming solar energy could generate far more digestible nutrients.  More nutrients enabled the survival of more primates, so more forests were converted into manmade nutrient factories, and the primate mob grew even more.  The trees cleared could be processed into many useful products.  The charcoal could be used to smelt ores, and produce metal tools.  Metal tools made it much easier to remove forests, build things, plow cropland, and kill enemies and other animals.  This merry-go-round of cleverness has never spun faster, with greater fury — a vicious circle indeed.

Muscle Power

Throughout the four million year era of hominins, muscle power has been a primary source of energy for doing stuff.  Muscle power is highly versatile, able to run on a variety of edible fuels — grains, beans, meat, eggs, fruit, nuts, roots, insects, and so on.  Clive Ponting noted that until 1800, about 75 percent of the mechanical energy needed to run civilization came from human muscles, and most of the rest was from animals (wind and water were minor sources). 

Prior to 1492, the indigenous Americans had enslaved zero extra-large beasts of burden (beside humans).  The grand cities of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs were built entirely with human labor.  Much human energy was used to create Egypt’s pyramids.  The Great Wall of China was constructed by one million workers, half of whom died in the process.  The Greek and Roman city states held large populations of slaves.  Slavery was common from the dawn of civilization until the nineteenth century, and so was forced labor for “free” peasants.

Pita Kelekna wrote that horses were wild and free until maybe 4000 B.C., when humans began enslaving them.  Wild horses had been popular large game for many thousands of years.  Several scholars have speculated that domestication probably saved horses from extinction.  You can only eat a horse once, but you can force it to perform heavy work month after month, year after year.  They could be used to pull stuff, haul loads, and carry riders.  Four legged slaves enabled a tremendous expansion of soil mining, forest mining, mineral mining, bloody empire building, and economic growth.  They helped unlock the gateway to industrial civilization.

Humans produce less muscle power than horses, but we need less feed, and can digest far more types of foods.  We have bodies and brains that allow us to perform a much wider variety of physical tasks.  People can travel across deserts, up rugged mountains, and through dense rainforests.  Horses are less adaptable to hot climates and arctic regions.  Each one requires five acres (2 ha) of good grassland, and the supply of good grassland is not infinite.

By 1900, the global population of humans had soared to about 1.5 billion, and the era of horse power was wearing out its welcome.  Eric Morris wrote a fascinating essay to help us remember life in the Peak Horse era.  The streets of big cities 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 (1.3 to 1.8 million kg) in New York City each day.

(To be continued…)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 41


[Note: This is the forty-first sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]

SACRED FORESTS

Hunter-Gatherers

Long, long ago, we’re not sure when, a clever smarty pants discovered the magical juju for using friction to conjure fire.  Hominins are the only clan in the entire family of life to learn and use this dangerous technology.  If the trick had never been discovered, they would have survived without it, and maybe remained on a simple sustainable path for millions of years, something similar to the baboons, maybe.  They would have never left the tropics, most or all of the megafauna extinctions might never have happened, and the world of today would be remarkably healthy and beautiful.  Imagine that.

Fire making enabled hominin evolution to pursue an unusual and complicated path that led to the appearance of brainy oddballs like Erectus, Neanderthal, and Sapiens.  Since the domestication of fire, hominins have been dependent on wood as a source of fuel.  In theory, it’s a renewable resource, if used in moderation.  Bottom line: no fire > no civilization > no Earth Crisis.

Hominin hunter-gatherers emerged in Mother Africa, and eventually expanded eastward into tropical regions of Asia and Australasia.  Their population was tiny, and so was their use of wood — cooking fuel, simple lean-tos and huts, weapons, and so on.  They would have had little or no need to kill mature trees, and their stone tools for chopping and shaping wood were low tech.

Over time, hunter-gatherers began migrating north into temperate regions, snow country.  Here, demand for firewood expanded beyond daily cooking, to space heating during the chilly season.  Shelters now had to be better at retaining heat — teepees or mammoth bone huts for example.  Snow country was home to extensive regions of steppe and prairie grasslands, which were prime habitats for herds of large game, the prey preferred by hunters.  Forests were inferior hunting grounds, because there was less large game, and hunting was more difficult in the dense woods.

At this point, folks in snow country were overcoming a huge limit to growth, as they figured out how to survive in climates too cold for bare naked tropical primates.  This allowed them to advance on a new limit to growth, the availability of large game.  In Australia, their growth was not limited by the ability to survive in a frigid climate, so they were able to proceed directly to the limit of large game.

Eventually, the availability of large game presented a firm limit to growth.  Folks had several options for addressing it.  (1) They could simply continue the status quo of modest overhunting, which gradually reduced large game numbers, and eventually led to spasms of megafauna extinctions on every continent. 

(2) They could combine foresight and wisdom to develop methods of family planning in order to limit the size of their bands.  Some pursued this option.  This was especially successful in cultures having super-rigid limits to growth, like in Arctic regions, deserts, rainforests, and islands.  The island of Tikopia did this brilliantly.

(3) They could develop methods for expanding grassland habitat in order to boost the numbers of large game.  To do this, folks engaged in programs of firestick farming, periodically burning grassland to eliminate woody brush and sapling trees.  In this way, they created and maintained extensive manmade grasslands.  Over time, burning transformed regions of forest into game habitat, on a significant scale.

Food Production

Please bear with me for a few more sentences, while I radically oversimplify an extremely complex process, and set the stage for a bit of jabber on large scale forest destruction.  As discussed earlier, the eventual perfection of hunting in many regions put a squeeze on large game hunting.  Hunting efforts had to shift to small game, forest animals, waterfowl, fish, shellfish, insects, and so on. 

In the Fertile Crescent, sedentary communities developed where wild grains were abundant, as were wild sheep, goats, horses, and cattle.  Over time, these grains and animals were domesticated.  This enabled a growing number of cultures to become far less dependent on hunting and foraging, and increasingly addicted to food production.  Access to wild foods had long served as a limit to growth.  The transition to food production eventually blew that limit out of the water.  Now, the path was cleared for thousands of years of explosive growth, the development of civilizations, and the conception of a hideous monster child, the Earth Crisis.

The adventure in food production presented us with new limits to growth.  Agriculture typically began in soft moist soils that could be worked with digging sticks.  Stream banks and river deltas were covered with alluvium — a moist and highly fertile deposit of clay, silt, sand, and gravel that was delivered by annual floods.  It was a soft loose soil that was ready for sowing. 

Ideal locations like these were, of course, limited.  Further away from the water’s edge there were often highly fertile soils that were heavily infested with <bleeping> annoyances called trees.  This critical limit to growth could be pushed back via a brilliant solution known as deforestation, and metal axes became the tools of the trade.  Unfortunately, forest soils were often so heavy that digging sticks were useless.

Heavy soils served as a firm limit to growth until clever madmen invented new tools, like spades and hoes.  The eco-doom meters swung sharply into the danger zone with the appearance of a diabolical new technology, the moldboard plow.  It was a dark turning point in the human saga.  It accelerated the heroic march of progress, allowing us to proudly become more self-destructive than ever before.

Over time, folks figured out how to raise crops and graze flocks on lands formerly home to magnificent forests.  Ideal locations for creating new cropland and grassland were fairly flat and level, and these, of course, were limited.  The obvious way to push back this limit to growth was to allow the expansion of deforestation into sloped lands.  Unfortunately, tilling and overgrazing encouraged the exposed hillside soils to be washed away when the water from heavy rains and springtime snowmelt sped downhill.  Topsoil went first, then less fertile subsoil.  In a number of regions, bare bedrock was eventually exposed, and the good old days were long gone, never to return.

Anyway, the transition to food production kicked open a huge hornet’s nest of stinging challenges that created more and more new limits to growth.  Some could cleverly be pushed back, others made growth impossible and reversed it.  Food production conjured a parade of nightmares — overgrazing, desertification, salinization, catastrophic erosion, landslides, disastrous flooding, wildlife destruction, and so on.  Sadly, this was just a warm-up.  Destruction shifted into high gear with the rise of empires and civilizations.  It went into warp drive with the rise of the industrial era, the perfection of food production, the population explosion, and today’s ecological Armageddon. 

The dominant culture became an ecological steamroller, smashing one limit to growth after another.  Our sacred mission is to grow, faster and larger, for as long as possible, until the planet is reduced to a wasteland, and the curtains close on the Age of Cleverness.  One way or another, we should learn that all growth has limits (will we?).  It’s tragic that we cannot accept such an obvious truth, and respond in an intelligent manner.  Maybe it’s because ecology is rarely, if ever, a fundamental subject in school.  Kids are taught that the ultimate goal in life is to live in a trophy home with a four car garage.

Frederick Coolidge and Thomas Wynn examined the big history of human intelligence, and the slippery organ between our ears.  They noted that, “excepting humans,” today’s great apes are in decline (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans).  Meanwhile, Old World monkeys are thriving, and almost as intelligent.  The large brains of great apes are biologically expensive energy guzzlers.  “If they no longer yield a competitive edge, their owners will, predictably, go extinct.”  Craig Dilworth described many ways in which humankind has become “too smart for our own good.”

Old World Forests

After the Ice Age wound down, Western Europe became a region with a moist temperate climate that was ideal for growing gorgeous forests, so it did.  Forests originally covered 95 percent of west and central Europe.  Barry Cunliffe noted in 7000 B.C., Europe was inhabited by hunter-gatherers.  By 4000 B.C., wild Europe was taking a beating.  The Fertile Crescent had spawned the birth of two devastating experiments that most folks consider to be great achievements: farming and herding.  These fads spread into Europe, and took a heavy toll on the health of the land.  Both expanded via centuries of relentless and catastrophic deforestation.  [MAP]

In the transition from hunting and gathering to food production, forests had served as a limit to growth — grain and grass won’t grow in the shade.  Deforestation cleared away the towering giants and let the light shine in.  When metal axes came into common use, lumberjacks could produce mountains of dead trees, far more than needed for cooking and heating.  In a painfully ironic twist of fate, dead trees actually became an accelerator of growth.  They were a critical resource for the rise of civilizations, as a source of biofuel, lumber, and other products.

John Perlin wrote an outstanding history of deforestation.  He described a pattern of destruction that was common among civilizations in the Mediterranean Basin.  The trees were cut, heavy winter rains were normal, exposed soil was washed into the watershed, and then swept downstream.  Soil in cleared lands tended to be dryer and harder than forest soils.  It couldn’t absorb much water, so runoff was rapid, and flash floods were common.  Over time, downstream ports and bays were buried under deep loads of silt.  After the topsoil was gone, wrecked lands could produce little more than olives, grapes, and goats.  Today, the Mediterranean is ringed by damaged ecosystems that used to be forests. 

In the King James translation of the Bible, the word “forest” appears 41 times, and the word “grove” also appears 41 times, but only in the Old Testament.  Neither word appears in the New Testament.  Hmmm…

Once the forests of southern Mesopotamia were cleared away, a new and terrible monster arose, salinization.  It destroyed large regions of cropland in a way that was permanent and worsened over time.  In the region, some locations were home to salty rocks.  As soil erosion exposed these rocks, normal precipitation moved dissolved salt downhill into irrigated fields, where it accumulated.  When farmers allowed water to flow into a thirsty field, this elevated the water table beneath the surface, lifting the salty water up into the root zone of the crops.  Salt restricts the ability of roots to absorb water.  Then, as the sun beat down on the moistened field, water in the soil evaporated, leaving behind the salt.

Eventually salt buildup rendered the soil infertile forever.  Some dead fields look like they have been dusted with snow.  As soil health deteriorated, wheat could no longer be grown, and folks shifted to barley, which was more salt-tolerant.  As the salt continued to increase, barley yields plummeted, populations shrank, and the Sumerian empire disintegrated.  Its once-great cities are now small villages, or quaint ancient ruins surrounded by barren moonscapes. 

Deforestation, erosion, irrigation, and salinization brought an end to the wonderland described in the glorious legends of King Gilgamesh, a notorious pioneer in industrial scale deforestation and civilization building.  Today, fanatical members of the perpetual growth cult, having no understanding of ecology, are likely to enthusiastically describe similar disasters as miracles of Sustainable Growth™.  Growth is our god word, nothing else matters.

Now, let’s look at the importance of wood to civilizations.  Folks used wood to build homes, buildings, bridges, fences, wagons, furniture, docks, barrels, boats, and so on.  When a growing state eventually wiped out its forests, it had to scramble to import wood from elsewhere, like the Phoenicians did when they ran out of cedars to murder in Lebanon.  States that had minimal access to wood were not in the fast lane to power and prosperity, they tended to fade away and blink out.

Wood was an essential component of military power.  It was used to build fleets of ships for trade and warfare.  States having the strongest fleets could conquer and exploit the weaklings.  States with ragged junk yard navies were sitting ducks.  In those days, unmolested forests looked like mountains of treasure, and they were — like the supergiant oil reservoirs in Saudi Arabia are today.

Treasure makes civilized folks crazy.  Big shots who were delirious with ambition and greed would soar away into visions of barbaric zeal when they gazed upon old growth forests thriving in states too weak to defend them.  These valuable woodlands provided an excellent reason for them to fetch the war paint, and mercilessly seize all they could, by any means necessary, as fast as possible. 

Other irresistible targets were mineral treasures, like deposits of gold, silver, lead, copper, tin, iron, and so on.  The development of metallurgy smashed down many limits to growth, and provided civilizations with powerful new tools for increasing eco-destruction, manufacturing, trade, warfare, empire building, and so on. 

Minerals are nonrenewable resources, so their exploitation can never be sustainable. All animals can live perfectly well without gold jewelry, lead bullets, copper wire, and iron doodads.  Our existence depends 100 percent on the most precious mineral substance of all — topsoil.  Agriculture destroys topsoil far faster than new soil is created, so it is nonrenewable, from a human timeframe. 

If we continue living like there’s no tomorrow, then soil mining, metal making, fossil energy, and other bad trips must certainly arrive at a dead end.  Out of control growth trends will screech to a halt, shift into reverse, and stomp on the accelerator.  We know this, but we have a fervent blind faith that the technology fairy will save our ignorant, short-sighted asses via astonishing new miracles of divine cleverness.  We are fantastic dreamers.

Perceptive readers can perhaps appreciate the tremendous advantages of hunting and gathering, which left nonrenewable resources unmolested, and allowed wild hominins enjoy healthy exciting lives for several million years.  Each generation essentially left the land in the same condition that they found it.  Imagine that.

OK, sorry, back to wood.  It has been a primary source of fuel throughout the entire human saga.  Over time, the simple campfire evolved into the stove, furnace, and kiln.  Wood was used to power industries that smelted ores, forged metal tools and weapons, made glass, bricks, cement, pottery, and so on.  Some industrial processes required temperatures higher than could be produced by burning plain dry wood.  For these, they used charcoal, wood that was slowly and carefully baked in large dome-shaped kilns. 

Perlin described the copper industry on Cyprus in around 1300 B.C.  Copper was used to make bronze, which was in high demand during the Bronze Age.  For each 60 pound (27 kg) copper ingot produced, four acres of pine (120 trees) had to be reduced to six tons of charcoal.  Each year, the copper industry on Cyprus consumed four to five square miles (10 km2) of forest.  At the same time, the general society consumed an equal amount of forest for heating, cooking, pottery, lime kilns, and so on.  Can you guess what inevitably happened to the forests, soils, industry, and affluence of Cyprus?

Clive Ponting noted that in the 1500s, the rising cost of fuel wood in England was creating a limit to growth.  They were forced to transition to coal, a fuel that everyone considered to be inferior.  Coal was both expensive and dirty.  In the early U.S., excellent wood was often free for the taking.  In 1696, the construction of warships for the English navy was moved to the U.S., because the Brits ran too low on premium lumber from old growth trees. 

Shortages also affected the use of wood for heating.  In chilly regions, a city of one square mile might depend on 50 square miles of forest to provide the firewood it consumed year after year.  In the good old days, this was often possible.  Later, as forest area decreased, it wasn’t.  Michael Williams noted that by 1700, firewood for Paris had to be shipped in from forests up to 124 miles (200 km) away.  One winter night, the King of France sat in his great hall, shivering as he ate dinner, the wine in his glass was frozen.  Writing in 2006, Williams noted that almost half of humankind still depended on wood for heating and cooking, and we were burning twice as much as we did 20 years earlier.

Man and Nature

George Perkins Marsh was a brilliant American hero that few folks today have heard of.  The gentleman from Vermont served as the U.S. Minister to Italy.  While overseas, he visited the sites of many extinct civilizations in the Fertile Crescent, and what he observed was terrifying and overwhelming.  They all seriously damaged their ecosystems and self-destructed in similar ways, primarily because of deforestation and agriculture.

Unbelievably massive levels of soil erosion created surreal catastrophes.  He saw ancient seaports that were now 30 miles (48 km) from the sea.  He saw ancient places where the old streets were buried beneath 30 feet (9 m) of eroded soil.  He stood in mainland fields, 15 miles (24 km) from the sea, which were formerly located on islands.  He saw the sites of ancient forests, formerly covered with three to six feet (1-2 m) of soil, where nothing but exposed rock remained. 

Far worse, Marsh was acutely aware that every day back home in America, millions were currently working like crazy to repeat the same mistakes, glowing with patriotic pride at the prosperity they were creating.  In a noble effort to cure blissful ignorance, he fetched pen, ink, and paper and wrote a book to enlighten his growing young nation, and it was published in 1864.  Sales were respectable for a few decades, but America did not see the light and rapidly reverse course.  Folks thought that the cure was worse than the disease.  Intelligent behavior was not good for the economy.  Tom Brown’s mentor, Stalking Wolf, lamented that our culture was “killing its grandchildren to feed its children.”

Marsh’s book has stood the test of time fairly well.  It presented a wealth of vital information, none of which I learned about during 16 years of education.  Forests keep the soil warmer in winter, and cooler in the summer.  Springtime arrives later in deforested regions, because the land takes longer to warm up.  Forests absorb far more moisture than cleared lands, so after a good rain, runoff is minimal, and flash floods are rare.

Deforestation dries out the land.  Lake levels drop, springs dry up, stream flows decline, and wetlands are baked.  In the fourth century, when there were more forests, the water volume flowing in the Seine River was about the same all year long.  When Marsh visited, water levels could vary up to 30 feet (9 m) between dry spells and cloudbursts.  In 1841, not a drop of rain had fallen in three years on the island of Malta, after the forest had been replaced with cotton fields.  And on and on.  The book is a feast. 

Walter Lowdermilk was deeply inspired by Marsh’s work.  Spooked by the 1930s Dust Bowl, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent him to ancient sites in the Old World to study soil erosion.  In 1938-39, he travelled more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km), took photos, and wrote a short, easy to read summary of his findings.  [HERE]

In Tunisia, he observed the site of Cuicul, a grand city in Roman times, which had been entirely buried, except for three feet (1 m) of one column poking out of the soil.  It took 20 years of digging to expose the remarkable ruins.  The Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000 people, was once home to 250,000.  Lebanon was once covered with 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2) of ancient cedar forests, now reduced to four small groves.  In Syria, he observed a million acres (404,685 ha) of manmade desert, dotted with a hundred dead villages. 

New World Forests

Richard Lillard described how early white explorers experienced the ancient forests of America.  When standing on mountaintops, they were overwhelmed by the fact that as far as they could see in any direction there was nothing but a wonderland of trees.  It was stunning to observe an ecosystem that was not in any way controlled and disfigured by human activities.  The intense experience of perfect wildness was almost terrifying. 

Walking beneath the canopy at midday, the forest floor was as dark as a cellar, few sunbeams penetrated through the dense foliage.  At certain times, some sections of the forest were places of absolute silence, a spooky experience that bewildered the white folks.  They saw vast numbers of chestnut trees were nearly as big as redwoods.  British visitors to early settlements were stunned to see wooden houses, sidewalks, fences, and covered bridges — something rarely seen back in their heavily deforested homeland.

William Cronon noted that in other regions, Native Americans had created extensive manmade grasslands, via firestick farming, to expand habitat for large game.  Forests had been eliminated at Boston and along Massachusetts Bay.  Settlers with iron axes went crazy on the forests, cutting them down as if they were infinite in number.  Lots of excellent wood was simply burned, to clear the way for progress.  They built large houses, and heated them with highly inefficient open fireplaces.  By 1638, Boston was having firewood shortages.

As clearing proceeded, summers got hotter, and winters colder.  As stream flows dropped in summer, water-powered mills had to shut down, sometimes permanently.  In winter, upper levels of the soil froze solid on cleared land, and snow piled up on top of it.  When springtime came, the frozen land could not absorb the melt, so the runoff water zoomed away, and severe flooding was common.

Stewart Holbrook wrote about the fantastically destructive obliteration of ancient forests in the U.S. upper Midwest.  On the same day of the great Chicago fire of October 8, 1871, a firestorm obliterated the backwoods community of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing five times as many people as in Chicago.  On this day, the new word “firestorm” was added to the English vocabulary.  Holbrook interviewed John Cameron, an eyewitness to the Peshtigo fire.

Deforestation dries out the land.  Cameron noted that there had been little snow the previous winter, and just one rain between May and September.  Streams were shallow, and swamps were drying up.  Logging operations left large amounts of slash in the woods (piles of discarded limbs and branches).  Slash piles were eliminated by burning, even when it was very hot, dry, windy, and extraordinarily stupid. 

The morning of October 8 was hotter than anyone could remember, and the air was deadly still.  At noon, the sun disappeared.  By nightfall the horizon was red, and smoke was in the air, making their eyes run.  At 9 P.M., Cameron heard an unusual roaring sound.  The night sky was getting lighter by the minute.  A hurricane force wind howled through.  Suddenly, swirling slabs of flames were hurtling out of nowhere and hitting the dry sawdust streets.  In a flash, Peshtigo was blazing — maybe five minutes. 

Cameron saw horses, cattle, men, and women, stagger in the sawdust streets, then go down to burn brightly like so many flares of pitch-pine.  He winced when he spoke of watching pretty young Helga Rockstad running down a blazing sidewalk, when her long blond hair burst into flame.  The next day, he looked for her remains.  All he found was two nickel garter buckles and a little mound of white-gray ash.

The river was the safest place that night.  People kept their heads underwater as much as possible, so the great sheets of flame wouldn’t set their heads on fire.  Within an hour, the town was vaporized.  Big lumberjacks were reduced to streaks of ash, enough to fill a thimble.  In this village of 2,000, at least 1,150 died, and 1,280,000 acres (518,000 ha) went up in smoke.

Also on October 8, 1871, numerous big fires raged across the state of Michigan, where it had not rained in two months.  These fires destroyed 2.5 million acres (1 million ha) — three times more timberland than the Peshtigo blaze.  This was an era of countless huge fires.  For example, in just the state of Wisconsin, tremendous fires destroyed huge areas in 1871, 1880, 1891, 1894, 1897, 1908, 1910, 1923, 1931, 1936.  Holbrook’s book described numerous similar disasters in other regions of the U.S.

Paul Shepard wrote, “Sacred groves did not exist when all trees were sacred.”

Monday, June 1, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 40


[Note: This is the fortieth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time.]

SACRED PREDATORS

Limits to Growth

Garrett Hardin revealed some fundamental concepts about growth and limits.  These concepts are considered to be heresies by our culture, which is tormented by toxic superstitions, like our fervent blind faith in perpetual growth.  Santa Claus is real, and he’ll be back again tomorrow, and the next day, and forever — a never-ending barrage of cool toys that we’ll fool around with for a while, and then send away to the majestic Landfill Mountains.  Hardin, like Malthus, was a naughty heretic because he stated the obvious — all growth has limits.  A campfire will die when it runs out of wood to burn.  A city will decompose when its grocery stores shut down.  An industrial civilization will go belly up when its energy sources sputter.

Big Mama Nature is amazing.  She has created a sacred dance of growth and limits, eaters and eaten, parasites and hosts.  Hardin noted that every species produces more offspring than is needed to merely replace mommy and daddy.  This surplus allows for expansion when resources are abundant, or more habitat becomes available — until expansion slams into limits.  A swarm of a billion locusts will feast on delicious wheat fields until there is nothing left to eat, game over.  In the realm of our culture’s magical thinking, there simply are no limits, we can believe whatever we wish.  “Just think a happy thought and you can fly!”

The cool thing here is that producing surplus offspring is a vital component of the sacred dance, the secret of its success.  Surplus critters provide essential nourishment for the predators that depend on them.  It’s an elegant balancing act.  The prey cannot suffer from population outbursts, because when their numbers surge, this leads their predators to increase in number — more bunnies… more coyotes.  Likewise, the expansion of predators is limited by the availability of their prey.

The balancing act does not depend on predators alone.  Limits to growth can also be set by starvation, disease, violent conflict, climate juju, and sudden miracles of mass enlightenment that inspire voluntary self-restraint (just kidding!).  Unfortunately, in our culture, voluntary self-restraint is not seen as a virtue, but rather as clear evidence of a feeble mind, or an infestation of brain worms.

Hardin concluded that humans have cleverly (unfortunately) bypassed numerous limits to growth by temporarily turbocharging food production (instead of family planning), by continuous campaigns of predator eradication (both man-eaters and livestock varmints), by a deep reduction in death rates via the resource-guzzling technologies of modern medicine and public sanitation (intensive death control without intensive birth control), by continuously boosting our energy supply (wood, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, etc.), and on and on.

We’re getting near to the bottom of the bag of magic tricks for keeping the plague of perpetual growth on life support.  Not every wish comes true.  It won’t be long before humankind slams into limits as mighty and immovable as the Himalayas.  Billions of radicalized believers in perpetual growth are tap-dancing into an era of titanic surprises.  Big Mama Nature spits and hisses as she works, “So, y’all don’t believe in limits, eh?  Well, hang on to yer arses!  Limits don’t care what you believe.”

Predator Eradication

In the good old days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the entire family of life consisted of wild plants and animals, and wild humans were just one of the gang.  Back then, if a wolf pack ripped up a young aurochs, nobody cared.  Predation was perfectly normal and healthy.  When some cultures transitioned into herding domesticated critters, the game changed.  Those cattle and sheep had become my personal property, and the wolves had no right to molest them.  But, of course, they ate them anyway.  Because of this, wild predators ceased being relatives, and became intolerable enemies, noxious pests that had to be exterminated.

Alfred Crosby discussed the colonization of Australia.  Grazing animals from Europe were introduced into an exotic ecosystem, far away from the predators, parasites, and diseases that had limited their growth in the old country.  With access to lots of vegetation, they grew to full size quicker than usual, and produced more offspring.  Because there were zero wolves, a single shepherd could oversee thousands of grazing animals.  Wild dingoes did kill livestock, but far fewer than Old World predators had. 

Evolution did not genetically prepare hominins to be apex predators.  It was cleverness, innovation, and spooky technology that enabled our ancestors to become peculiar imitations of genuine, natural born, apex predators (lions, tigers, bears, etc.).  These abilities also enabled our ancestors to better defend themselves against attacks from natural born large carnivores.  A mob of angry hominins with spears was the last thing many predators saw in their final moments of life.  This success reduced our losses to predation, which weakened a traditional limit to growth, and disturbed an ancient ecological balancing act.  More hominins could exist, grow up to be hunters, and kill more game and carnivores.

Over the passage of centuries, trends shifted.  There were far fewer wild carnivores, and far more livestock and humans.  Bye-bye predators.  Hello human tsunami.  It continues to this day.  The U.S. has been heavily invested in “predator control” for more than 100 years.  Today, we invest $100 million per year in Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In just 2018, Wildlife Services killed 68,186 coyotes, 1,002 bobcats, 375 mountain lions (cougars), 338 bears, 357 wolves, and so on.

Today, the large carnivores of America have been sharply reduced in number, and are primarily confined to isolated regions.  In my long life, I once saw a flicker of movement in a forest that may have been a cougar.  I’m not sure.  Most folks are more likely to win the lottery than to have a life threatening meeting with a large carnivore in the wild.  Out in the forests and fields, we now enjoy an unnatural sense of safety, despite being large, juicy, slow moving meatballs.  We’re something like children in a nursery, where nothing can hurt us.  The lions, tigers, and bears in our infantile lives are soft fuzzy stuffed animals.  We are so far from our original home in the living world, and our ancestors’ time-proven way of celebrating life.

Kaibab Deer

The Kaibab Plateau lies north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Prior to 1905, it was home to about 4,000 deer.  President Theodore Roosevelt loved the deer.  After a century of intense gun slinging craziness, the plateau was essentially the last surviving remnant of America’s once abundant wildlife.  In 1906, he created a national game preserve to protect them.  Most of the cattle, horses, and sheep were then deported, because careless overgrazing had rubbished the vegetation.

By the time the preserve was created, wolves had already been heavily exterminated by ranching interests.  Now, deer hunting was banned, and the Forest Service declared war on the remaining wild predators.  Between 1907 and 1939, they killed 500 bobcats, 7,388 coyotes, 20 wolves, and 816 mountain lions.  As the deer herd grew, the bureaucrats glowed with pride at their success.

By 1924, the deer herd had skyrocketed to about 100,000 animals.  Vegetation was stripped off the land, and animals began starving.  By 1939, the land was seriously damaged, and only 10,000 remained.  This tragedy fascinated Aldo Leopold, who worked for the Forest Service.  He wrote that the deer live in fear of the wolves, but the mountain lives in fear of the deer.

This is a classic example of a trophic cascade, an imbalance that radiates through an ecosystem.  With primary predators eliminated, grazing animals exploded in number, stripped the vegetation off the land, and then starved.  This was a top down cascade.  There are also bottom up cascades.  For example, if extended drought nukes the forage, the herbivores starve, and so do their predators.  If potato blight rots the spuds, peasants experience a die-off, along with their lice and fleas.

The Bible’s Old Testament emerged in a Hebrew culture of herders and farmers.  In their mindset, the livestock they owned were valuable property, and the wild predators that killed them were monsters from Satan.  Behold their skills at magical thinking: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat.  They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD.”  Wow!  That plan would be a death sentence for the holy mountain.

Predator Restoration

William Stolzenburg wrote about the benefits of wolves.  American couch potatoes, ranchers, and hunters really, really hate Bambi-killing wild predators, like big bad wolves.  In 1925, officials in Yellowstone National Park succeeded in exterminating the last surviving wolf, and a trophic cascade was launched.  Naturally, elk exploded in number, forcing park officials to scramble.  Some were captured and moved, others were exterminated.  In 1995, shifting public attitudes inspired the reintroduction of wolves into the park.

Wolves came to the rescue of damaged stream and wetland habitats.  During their 70 year absence, red deer had substantially stripped away the vegetation along waterways.  With fewer trees protecting the waters, marine life was more vulnerable to predators.  With the return of wolves, more and more deer became Happy Meals, and the surviving deer decided to migrate to less accessible locations.  Before long, the willow people returned, shade returned to streams, overheated waters cooled off, and the fish were overjoyed by the great healing provided by the wolves.

Wolves came to the rescue of struggling forests.  During their absence, forest regeneration declined, because elk gobbled up too many seedlings and saplings.  The youngest cottonwoods were 60 years old.  Wolves totally enjoy lunch dates with tree-killing elk, much to the delight of the tree people and other forest dwellers. 

Wolves came to the rescue of antelope, who were in decline, because coyotes ate too many young antelopes.  Wolves were delighted to dine on their coyote cousins.  Within three years, half of the coyotes had become Happy Meals.  Consequently, far fewer baby antelope were killed, which led to a recovery of their numbers.  A reduction of coyotes was also a gift to other animals, like rabbits, mice, foxes, weasels.  Wolves also benefitted scavengers, like bears, ravens, eagles, and others, who were happy to dine on partially consumed carcasses.  Predators are essential components of every healthy wild ecosystem. 

Stolzenburg noted that American housecats annually kill an estimated one billion wild mammals and hundreds of millions of birds.  I live in neighborhood with many lonely humans who keep cats for companionship.  Here, birdsong is minimal.  A mile away, in a cat free riverside forest, the bird symphonies at sunset are magnificent.  Where coyotes have managed to survive, they have become great cat lovers, much to the delight of the birds. 

Delicious Two-Legged Meatballs

Once upon a time, while wandering through a dusty musty 100 year old book, I came across the story of Cormac mac Airt (son of Art), a High King of Ireland.  His story comes from a misty realm that blurs together legend and history.  It’s full of bloody feuds, fairies, druids, and wolves.  Some say he maybe lived somewhere between A.D. 150 and 366.  When Cormac was born, the druid Olc Aiche sang five spells over the boy, to protect him from the five primary dangers in life: slaying, drowning, fire, sorcery, and wolves. 

It was striking to be reminded that there was a time when, every day of your life, there was a decent chance that you might have an unscheduled lunch date with a hungry wolf pack.  In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the word “wolf” appears 72 times.  If the records in my family tree went back 10,000 years, many thousands of folks in the extended families of my ancestors must have been killed and eaten by large carnivores — a perfectly normal, natural, wholesome event.

Michael Bright wrote an entire book of stories about man-eating carnivores — whole chapters on wolves, snakes, tigers, lions, crocodiles, and others.  Wolf packs in Paris killed 40 in 1450.  British sources noted 624 humans killed by wolves in Banbirpur, India in 1878.  In 1996-97, more than 50 children were killed by wolves in Uttar Pradesh, India. 

In 1769, 400 were killed by tigers in the area around Bhiwapur, India.  In 1922, tigers in India killed 1,603 people.  Sy Montgomery wrote a book about the tigers that live in the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans region, near the border of India and Bangladesh.  She wrote, “Here the tiger is feared but not hated; here it is worshipped but not loved.  For the tiger is a sacred creature who rules an enchanted land.”  During a six-year period in the late nineteenth century, Sundarbans tigers ate 4,218 people.  In the 1990s, they were still killing hundreds every year.

In Tanzania, a pride of 17 lions in a game preserve by Lake Nyasa killed 1,000 to 1,500 people over 15 years.  John Gunther reported that five hundred Africans were killed by lions near Ubena, Tanganyika in 1946 and 1947.  Once upon a time, the original range of modern lions was enormous — most of Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the Near East, the Middle East, and much of India.  [MAP]

Today, in the twenty-first century, tool-using humans have been the big animals for thousands of years, arrogantly gloating like New York billionaires.  Most humans now spend their entire lives without ever once experiencing a real fear of being attacked and eaten.  A wildcat that innocently trots past a school must die.  Naturally, becoming the dominant animal has done quite a head job on our perception of reality.  It has given birth to the belief in human supremacy, which rubbishes our ancient intimate relationship with the family of life — the relationship that nurtured the evolution of our species, and made us who we are.

Because of this attitude, as long as industrial civilization exists, I can’t imagine how humankind could ever be persuaded to demand the abolition of predator eradication, and allow predators to fully recover, and freely return to their sacred occupation, maintaining balance in the family of life.

It is clear, with absolute certainty, that the explosive growth of industrial civilization will smash into limits it can no longer sneak around — limits of nonrenewable resources like fossil energy, mineral ores, topsoil, ancient freshwater aquifers, effective antibiotics and vaccines, and so on.  There are folks alive today who will witness that collision.  Eventually, humankind will run out of manufactured ammunition for their weapons, and other defensive tools.  At that point, mighty Superman shrivels into a far more vulnerable primate meatball.  Joyful large carnivores will celebrate the dawn of a great revival, and a long overdue process of healing will begin.

Dinofelis

Long, long ago, our hominin ancestors were humble meatballs.  Baz Edmeades work introduced me to an interesting story about a large prehistoric cat that apparently loved hominins so much that our ancestors may have been his favorite lunch.  In 1924, Raymond Dart discovered the remains of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa.  It appeared to be the missing link between ape and man.  European scholars soiled their britches.  Africa?  A continent of primitive savages!??  This was profoundly embarrassing and depressing. 

White society traditionally assumed that our holy species had originally evolved in a more dignified region, somewhere much closer to London, probably.  This was reinforced by Charles Dawson’s gratifying discovery of the missing link between ape and man.  Its skull was found near Piltdown village in Sussex, England in 1912.  It was a hoax.  White folks had a good cry.

Dart had lived through the horrific bloodbath of World War One.  Studying the bone collection in the Swartkrans cave of South Africa, Dart observed that many skulls had been damaged by powerful impacts.  Based on this evidence, and his wartime memories, he concluded that our early ancestors were insanely violent, and probably cannibals too.

Years later, C. K. (“Bob”) Brain studied the same cave.  He concluded that the ancestors had not actually been killing each other.  Instead, they appeared to have been a favorite source of nourishment for large cats and hyenas.  Early hominins were rather small, and probably not masters of self-defense.  For large carnivores, Australopithecus was a much easier prey than speedy antelopes.

Brain observed that numerous hominin bones were found in the cave, but far fewer antelopes and other critters, which seemed weird.  Who killed them?  His primary suspect was the large feline carnivore Dinofelis, nicknamed the dirk-toothed cat.  Brain strongly suspected that it had specialized in hunting our hominin ancestors.  He found some Paranthropus skulls with holes punched in them that exactly matched the long upper canine teeth of the big cat.   

Dinofelis had lived well for several million years, until the emergence of Homo erectus, the first hominin having human-like body proportions, and an extra-large brain for its body size.  Erectus was a major turning point in our evolutionary saga.  Erectus-like critters migrated from Africa into Asia and Europe, and were big game hunters.  The type found in Europe is called Homo heidelbergensis.  They were killing woodland rhinos in Boxgrove, England 500,000 years ago.  Erectus was likely a more challenging prey for Dinofelis.  The dirk-toothed cats went extinct about 1.4 million years ago.  Without this limit to their growth, the hominin mobs continued to expand.

What would the world be like if Dinofelis had not blinked out?  What if they had prevented the emergence of large-brained Erectus, and kept our hominin ancestors inside Africa?  Would the planet today be in perfect health, home to billions of sabertooths, cave bears, woolly mammoths, giant sloths, Irish elk, and on and on?  Would your soul be living a condor today, soaring above the mountains?

Circle Dance of Nutrients

Derrick Jensen, in his book on human supremacy, pointed out that every student in our culture is taught the notion of a pyramid-shaped food chain.  Apex predators (like humans) are placed at the pinnacle of the pyramid, and at the bottom are the wee ones that can only be seen with microscopes.  It’s no surprise that this hierarchy resembles the hierarchy of power in civilizations.  Jensen rejected this model.  He sees the family of life as a process of cycles within cycles.  The wee ones are no less important than the large carnivores.  “You eat and you will be eaten.  That’s life.  Get over it.”  A Cheyenne proverb said it like this: “Let us all be meat, to nourish one another, so that we all may grow.” 

Paul Shepard wrote that we spend our lives in a grand and mysterious drama called, “Now you eat me.”  Life lives on death.  Evolution created a number of large carnivore species that are larger, stronger, and faster than humans.  Without tools and fire, we were helpless sitting ducks.  At birth, we are second- or third-class predators.  Without tools, hominins would have likely gone extinct prior to the emergence of Erectus, Neanderthal, or Sapiens.  But we had tools, and we persisted.  Many large carnivore species have been driven to extinction.  Hominins played some role in this, by directly killing the predators, or by depleting the game animals they depended on.

Val Plumwood was an Australian environmental philosopher.  One fine day in 1985, she hopped in a canoe, and paddled around in a lovely national park.  She was quite surprised when a large crocodile knocked her into the water, and violently pulled her underwater.  It was a mind-blowing experience.  This can’t be happening!  I am a human being!  She nearly died. 

The crocodile’s sharp teeth gave her a sudden and memorable lesson about an important fact of life.  All life is food.  I am meat.  In an ecosystem, “we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.”  Our bodies belong to the ecosystem, not to ourselves. 

Vegetarians believe that only animals have souls.  We must dine on nothing but soulless food.  This builds a concrete wall across the family of life, separating the haves from the have-nots.  Plumwood says bullshit!  “All our food is souls.”  “Our bodies flow with the food chain… they do not belong to us; they belong to all.”  She chose to be a vegetarian, not because eating meat was wrong, but because factory farmed meat was a spiritual abomination.  Domesticated animals are raised in jam-packed concentration camps, isolated from the wild world, and raised solely to be edible commodities — nothing but meat.  She believed that the monstrous process de-souled them.

Plumwood detested modern burial customs, which she saw as a weird component of “heavenism,” the belief that our brief time on Earth is like a stay in a cheap dirty motel.  Our true home is in a heavenly paradise, far from Earth.  We bury our dead in coffins, to better preserve their bodies, until angels come to carry them away to their eternal home.  The objective is to prohibit the normal and natural recycling of the nutrients within the corpse.

In our culture, we place grandpa’s well-dressed corpse in a sturdy coffin, and bury him deep in the ground, well below the upper topsoil where countless tiny living things work tirelessly to transform organic rubbish into nutritious compost.  Rich folks sometimes entirely enclose the coffin in a concrete vault.  God forbid that a mob of hungry worms should have a magnificent banquet, celebrating grandpa’s life, and forwarding his nutrients to the future generations of all species.  The body you live in today is made of nutrients recycled countless times, over millions of years, from the dawn of life.

The civilization we live in is manmade.  We consume food mostly made from domesticated plants and animals, mostly from elsewhere, that is processed, transported, and sold by complex energy-guzzling industrial systems.  We do not roam across the surrounding land, hunting and foraging, singing and dancing.  Our lives are largely isolated from direct intimate contact with the local ecosystem we sleep in.  Civilization is like a walled fortress we live within that keeps us isolated from nature.  In a sense, it’s like a strong coffin.

Other cultures do a far better job of composting corpses.  In sky burial, corpses are left on the ground for the vultures to eat.  This was done by folks like the Tibetans, Western Algonquians, and Zoroastrian communities in India.  Similarly, Walter McClintock wrote that the Blackfeet recycled their dead by placing their corpses on scaffolds built in trees, called death lodges.  John Gunther wrote that the Bakutu people of the Congo recycled corpses by laying them on termite hills.

Once upon a time, even the prim and proper English recycled the dead.  Barry Cunliffe wrote about excavations of prehistoric sites in Wessex.  For several thousand years, until about 1000 B.C., corpses were exposed in special locations, where hungry teams of wild scavengers and composters could feast on them.  Leftover bones were buried in pits or ditches.  The official word for this custom of exposure was “excarnation.”

The Maasai are a tribe of African cattle herders who live primarily on meat, milk, and blood.  From their perspective, tilling the soil is an enterprise that is totally beneath their dignity.  They won't even break the sod to bury their loved ones.  Paul Spencer described how they recycled their dead.  The corpse was rubbed with animal fat.  Then it was taken outdoors, placed beneath a tree away from the village, and left there for the hyenas and other scavengers.  Usually it was gone by the next morning.  Joseph Thomson added, “To bury a corpse would, they think, be to poison the soil; it must be thrown to the wild beasts without ceremony.”  A side benefit was that well-fed hyenas were less likely to molest their livestock.

Knud Rasmussen described the Inuit customs in Greenland.  In an ecosystem where the ground was frozen solid, graves could not be dug for the dead.  Corpses were buried under a pile of rocks, where they would eventually decompose, and return to the ecosystem.  Knud met Merqusaq, an elderly native who told him about a cold dark winter long ago, when their clan ran out of food, and hunger set in.  People starved, some died, and were eaten.  “I saw them eat my father and my mother.  I was too young and could not stop them.”  When they ran out of corpses, they decided to kill Merqusaq and eat him.  He struggled to escape, and lost an eye in the process.  Cannibalism was sometimes a necessary practice in this extremely harsh land, where the survival of the group’s most essential people was job #1.  Boys too young to hunt were expendable.

Asteroid Children

About 66 million years ago, the Chicxulub impactor (an asteroid or other space object) slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  It may have been up to 50 miles (81 km) in diameter, and was moving at 12 miles (20 km) per second.  It released billions of tons of sulfur which acidified the oceans.  Intense acid rain probably nuked forests.  Dust blocked out the sun, altered the climate, and blindsided ecosystems.  After enjoying 160 million years on Earth, the dinosaurs went extinct, except for some of the winged ones who were the ancestors of today’s birds.

Much of the Earth was tropical in the dinosaur era.  Small mammals had existed throughout the epoch, and some survived the sudden transition.  With the warmth-loving cold-blooded dinosaurs gone, a niche opened up for large mammals, warm-blooded critters better able to survive in cooler climates.  If the Chicxulub catastrophe had not happened, you and I might be happy lizards today.  Peter Ward wrote that “we are the children of the asteroid.”

Andrew Bard Schmookler pointed out that in the big history of the Earth, the colossal catastrophes have usually been caused by stuff like asteroids, volcanoes, climate swings, and so on.  The catastrophe we’re living in today is called civilization, and it emerged from within the family of life.  The mass extinction event we’re living in today is the largest since the asteroid strike.  It’s driven by a whirlwind of ambition, innovation, ignorance, and illusions. 

We are the only animal to cause a mass extinction, to exterminate entire forests, to dam the flow of major rivers, to drill deep into the Earth to extract sequestered carbon, to drain ancient aquifers, to fill the atmosphere with so much crud that the climate is heating and glaciers are melting.  How smart is that?

Edward Abbey concluded, “Man is literally undoing the work of organic evolution.”  Human numbers are growing explosively, while all other apes are in decline.  As the populations of many wild animals are falling, the number of domesticated critters is soaring.  Selective breeding has fine-tuned them to optimally serve human needs.  Most of them depend on humans for their survival, few would be able to survive for long in the wild.

Man’s Best Friend

In an earlier chapter, I mentioned Paul Shepard’s view that the domestication of dogs was a daunting turning point in the human saga.  Recently, that notion snapped into sharper focus for me.  I was reading about Knud Rasmussen’s visit to Greenland in 1903–1904.  He met Maisanguaq, who told him a bear story.  “Bears know everything and hear everything that people say.”  Sometimes they shape shift into human form.  An Inuit woman once came upon a mysterious dwelling and went inside.  She quickly hid when the bears returned home.  She listened to them talking about humans.  “We cannot stand against them, for they bar the way for us with their dogs and they kill us with their arrows.”

Indeed!  When a bear is surrounded by vicious snarling dogs, the advantage goes to the human hunter.  Without the dogs, the big strong bear would be much safer, and the smaller weaker hunter would be in greater danger.  Louis Liebenberg wrote about the San.  It was far easier for them to hunt gemsbok with dogs, because there was a point in the chase where the tired prey stopped, faced off the mongrels, and the hunter killed it (deer also eventually stop, face their attackers, and surrender).  Dogs were rewarded with the guts and leftovers.

Humans are not as fast as many large game animals.  Dogs will chase anything that moves, and they can run quickly.  They have a phenomenal sense of smell, so they can easily follow prey that are not visible.  During a high speed pursuit, they repeatedly bark so the hunter knows where to go (wolves don’t constantly bark like dogs do).  Once dogs had treed a raccoon, it was easy for the hunter to kill it.  Dogs could find the dens of hibernating bears buried under the snow.  Sleepy bears were easy kills. 

Bottom line: when working together, the dog-human team could find, kill, and eat much more game.  This was far from a common scheme in the family of life, especially at such a large scale.

Tim Flannery wrote that we selectively bred domesticated animals to better suit our needs.  This process created unusual new organisms that had little or no chance of surviving in the wild, away from the human sphere.  By mastering the art of conjuring useful mutants, humans “became the most powerful evolutionary force.”  We no longer had to spend lots of time wandering around in search of game.  We could hold the livestock we owned in confinement, and accumulate their offspring.  Animals having the most desirable traits were the most likely to be retained as breeders. 

The success of animal domestication greatly increased our food resources, and swept aside a number of traditional limits to growth.  Of course, our reckless joyride in breaking the laws of nature was perfectly unsustainable, and we are deep in karmic debt.  One way or another, Big Mama Nature will guide what remains of the terribly bruised and beaten family of life onto a much needed path of healing.

Wikipedia provides a lengthy scientific discussion on the origin of the domestic dog, and it is a bewildering hell broth of conflicting theories that will leave your head spinning.  You will find that dogs were domesticated somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, at a location that few agree on, somewhere in temperate Eurasia, between Western Europe and Siberia.  Keep these dates in mind as you read the following paragraph. 

Humans began migrating into Eastern Europe around 36,000 years ago, and arrived in Portugal around 34,000 years ago.  Wikipedia listed the extinct animals of Europe.  They include cave bear 27,500 B.C., cave hyena 11,000 B.C., cave lion 10,000 B.C., grass eating rhino 10,000 B.C., Irish elk 5000 B.C., scimitar-tooth cat 10,000 B.C., woolly mammoth 2000 B.C., and woolly rhino 10,000 B.C.  Humans and dogs entered the Americas around 13,000 years ago, at which point an extreme spasm of megafauna extinctions followed.  (Dogs had nothing to do with the extinctions in dog-free Australasia.)

Certainly, no large animals were driven to extinction by dogs alone, but it would seem very likely that they were willing accomplices in many hunting adventures.  Dogs were not natural born apex predators, and neither were humans without weapons.  But the combo of humans, weapons, and dogs was effective at killing large game, a bit too effective.  Over time, the combo grew even more powerful with the addition of horses, and later guns.  Limits retreated.

¶ Herders had a serious hatred for the wolves who killed their dimwitted livestock.  Large strong dogs were bred and trained to kill wolves.  By around the third century B.C., Irish wolfhounds were on duty.  Much later, the Irish used them as war dogs, to control the Norman terrorists.  Two wolfhounds could knock an armored Norman knight off his horse, down to where he could be ethically euthanized. 

War dogs were used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Alans, Slavs, Britons, and many others.  Romans had platoons of war dogs with spiked collars and chain mail armor.  Prior to battle, they were deliberately underfed, and then they were released as the first wave of attack.  Their Molossus war dogs were unbelievably vicious, but they were wimpy compared to the broad-mouthed war dogs of the Britons, whose mastiffs could grow up to 200 pounds (91 kg).

Columbus brought war dogs to the New World in 1493, to terrorize the uppity natives.  Gonzalo Pizarro brought a thousand war dogs to Peru in 1541.  Spaniards trained their dogs to disembowel natives (rip out their intestines).  In the early U.S., Benjamin Franklin advocated the use of war dogs against the Native Americans that sometimes hid behind every tree, and were not slightest bit fond of white folks.  Close your eyes and imagine standing in front of five or six charging 200 pound war dogs determined to rip you to bloody shreds.

Tom Brown has developed an extremely intimate relationship with wild nature.  He gained fame for his knowledge of tracking, survival, and nature awareness.  He lives in rural southern New Jersey, a region on the scruffy side.  In 1977, garbage was sent to open dumps, where it provided a food supply for dog packs, which were growing in number, and becoming a serious annoyance.  Unwanted litters of puppies were often abandoned in the woods by buttheads.  Some of the mutts who ran with the packs were pets who slept in their master’s home at night.

The packs were killing horses, cattle, sheep, and house pets — domesticated animals whose wild survival skills had been bred out of them.  They sometimes attacked people, a baby in a carriage got mauled.  They would surround a farmhouse all night, waiting for someone to come out.  From time to time, police took action, using poison and traps, sometimes shooting them.  Tom was sometimes hired to help them find the packs. 

During an especially intense episode, one pack hammered farmers, killing large numbers of sheep, but only eating one or two.  In a bloody frenzy, they simply killed for thrills, like humans do.  The chief of police hired Tom to shoot the troublesome pack.  He did, without pleasure, there was no other option.  Many of the dogs were starved, diseased, loaded with ticks, covered with open sores.

¶ Wolves have never forgotten how to be wolves.  Bears have never forgotten how to be bears.  The same is true for every wild animal species.  But all domesticated animals, to some degree, have been severed from their wild ancestors, in mind and body (genes).  The two super freak animals in the world are dogs (domesticated wolves) and humans living in non-wild cultures (farmer, herder, urban).  In the last 12,000 years or so, both have mutated into a variety of unusual forms, like a person with multiple personalities, or a sorcerer who can deliberately shape-shift into a wolf, bear, frog, raven, and so on.

Originally, humans were hunters, foragers, and scavengers.  With the emergence of plant and animal domestication, we became herders, farmers, millers, weavers, traders, warriors, and so on.  Then came industrialization and globalization, which led to many thousands of new crafts, professions, and freak shows — none of which resembled our archetypal wild ancestors, folks who had never forgotten their natural identity.  We’re like the bar scene in Star Wars, an extremely diverse mob of mysterious aliens.

Originally, dogs served as garbage disposals, intruder alert security systems and, most importantly, hunting partners.  Later, some were bred to be wolfhounds, big and strong enough to drive away livestock-eating wolves.  Then war dogs, bred to terrorize enemies, and preserve the lives of warriors.  Then sheepdogs that kept the herds together, guided them, and rounded up strays. 

Keith Thomas noted that common working dogs were for the scruffy folks, but the nobility developed something new: high class dogs — hunting hounds for the gentlemen, and small lapdogs (mostly toy spaniels or pugs) for the ladies.  Middle class folks striving for upward mobility acquired dogs to demonstrate their elevated social status.  Today, the pet population has skyrocketed.  Many are considered to be “fur children,” members of our family, beloved companion animals.  Thomas was a party pooper.  “The fact that so many people feel it necessary to maintain a dependent animal for the sake of emotional completeness tells us something about the atomistic society in which we live.” 

Glossy magazines are loaded with photos of glamorous celebrities and their adorable dogs.  Super-trendy breeds have become must-have status symbols and fashion accessories for ambitious go-getters eager to present the appearance of fame and success.  I recently looked in the Seattle paper’s want ads to check current prices for yuppie puppies.  English bulldog, $3,500.  American Akita, $1,650.  Bernedoodle, $2,900.  French bulldog, $2,695. 

Look what we’ve done to the wolf!  Like Midas, everything we touch turns to gold.  What a curse!  Look at what we’ve done to the wild human!