Thursday, December 5, 2019

Total War

It’s always an exciting and mind expanding experience to get a library card, and spend at least 25 years studying environmental history and ecological sustainability, while also developing a loving intimate relationship with the ecosystem around you.  There’s something healthy, intelligent, and sane about being present in reality, including its tremendous and worsening dark side.  Year after year, the more you learn and heal, the less at home you feel in this culture, which has little interest in the wellbeing of the family of life.

Becoming present in reality transforms you into a peculiar weirdo.  The herd will move away from you, as you move away from it.  Congratulations!  You are outside the fence, outside the cult, outside the mass hysteria.  You can think for yourself, question everything, and begin unlearning all the garbage that has been poured into your brain over the years.  You can seek better paths.

A week ago, I snapped.  I read the latest paper by William E. Rees, the professor who was co-creator of the ecological footprint concept.  He warns us that we are deep into overshoot, and idiotically hippity-hopping down the path to catastrophe.  “Half the fossil energy ever used (and half the fossil CO2 ever produced), has been burned (emitted) in just the past 35 years!”  This is not a path with a long future.  Rees has come to the conclusion that humans are not “primarily a rational species.”  I agree.

The focus of his paper was on a narrow spectrum of the Earth Crisis: overshoot (i.e., excess demand for insufficient resources).  The full spectrum cannot be addressed in a nine page paper, or a nine volume report.  It’s far more complex.  Here’s what triggered me: “Defense of the status quo remains the default position of most other academic disciplines, governments, transnational corporations and international organizations.  Global society is mesmerized by the prevailing cultural narrative of perpetual material growth abetted by continuous technological progress.” 

In our culture, the vast majority has been trained to believe that the primary purpose of society is to pursue perpetual economic growth, to the highest degree possible, by any means necessary, at any cost.  This belief is passed, from one generation to the next, in every classroom, every day.  Accepted as certain truth, it arouses little controversy.  What is painfully absent is a competent understanding of the costs, the multitude of harmful unintended consequences.  Blinded by ignorance, this culture kills its grandchildren to feed its children.  We are the most highly educated generation that ever lived, and the most technologically advanced, the zenith of progress.

Rees wrote nothing I didn’t already know, but it’s so frustrating to wake up every morning on a planet that’s being obliterated by an epidemic of ignorance.  We’re not being pounded by a barrage of giant asteroids.  The fury is being driven by common beliefs and deep misconceptions.

The Rees paper triggered a flashback about Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany.  He gave his most famous speech on February 18, 1943, “Nation, Rise Up, and Let the Storm Break Loose.”  Hitler understood that in the industrial era, access to petroleum was a necessity for all powerful nations.  Germany had lost World War I, and then got slammed with costly reparation bills, and then got clobbered by the Great Depression of 1929.  Germans were not happy, they had no oil wells, and they were willing to listen to the creepy ideas of rowdy beer hall gangsters.

Fortunately, the Soviets had oil wells in the republic of Azerbaijan, the Baku fields.  Hitler wanted this oil province for his Christmas present.  Unfortunately, he got a terrible ass-whooping while trying to take Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943), the biggest battle of World War II.  His armies were severely hammered, and his lucky streak came to an end.  The tide was turning.  Folks back in Germany were seriously bummed out by this crushing defeat, and their hopes and dreams were going up in smoke.  It was time for a pep talk, and Dr. Goebbels stepped up to the microphone.

Now, Joseph was an incredibly talented orator, and a masterfully manipulative control freak.  Comrades, we just learned an important lesson — it’s time to take this war far more seriously.  It’s time for total war.  He whipped the crowd into a frenzy.  The auditorium roared.  The whole crowd repeatedly shouted slogans in unison.  They leapt to their feet cheering.  It was an explosion of high voltage enthusiasm, pure fanaticism.

In 1943, there was no TV or internet.  Goebbels was the dictator of information.  Via radio, he delivered the daily news to 60 million Germans.  Nothing was printed, by any source, without his blessing.  American reporter John Gunther was able to provide an uncensored version of the Hitler drama for his readers at home:  “To millions of honest Germans he [Hitler] is sublime, a figure of adoration; he fills them with love, fear, and nationalist ecstasy.  To many other Germans he is meager and ridiculous — a charlatan, a lucky hysteric, and a lying demagogue.”

Gunther wrote, “Like that of all fanatics, his capacity for self-belief, his ability to delude himself, is enormous.”  “His lies have been notorious.”  “He has no great capacity for hard work.”  “He hates to make up his mind.”  “His orders are often vague and contradictory.”  “When his men fail him, he murders them.”  “The leaders, jealous of each other, and knowing Hitler the all-powerful arbiter of their destinies, compete with one another for his favor.”  “His brain is small and vulgar, limited, narrow, suspicious.”  “He talked himself to power.”  “Hitler… can arouse an audience, especially a big audience, to frenzy.”

Gunther also described Goebbels, who had zero tolerance for dissenting news.  “Control the press of a nation and half of the job of dictatorship is done.  Goebbels has given living strength to the authority of this maxim.  As supreme dictator of the printed word in the Third Reich, nothing may be published in Germany without his consent.  He is at liberty to censor even the words of fellow cabinet ministers.”  “No journalist may find employment in Germany till Dr. Goebbels certifies his acceptability; no newspaper may publish anything without his tacit consent.  Incidental result: 1,400 German newspapers, about one-third of the total number in the Reich, have perished since 1933.”

It was in 1933 when the Nazi party came into power with 37 percent of the vote, according to Gunther.  Voters did not choose Hitler to become the new Chancellor, instead he was (legally) appointed by the departing president, von Hindenburg.  Nor did voters approve the termination of the Weimar Republic, and the establishment of a one-party dictatorship, Nazi Germany.  The new logo was a swastika in a white circle on a red background.  Note that “Nazi” is a nickname for the National Socialist German Workers Party.  Socialists!  (Gasp!) 

Steven Bach wrote that less than a week after Hitler became Chancellor, publications by rival parties were banned, and they lost their right of assembly.  A few weeks later, an emergency decree was passed.  “Curbs on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press, of association, and of assembly, surveillance over letters, telegrams and telephone communications, searches of homes and confiscations of as well as restrictions on property, are hereby permissible beyond the limits hitherto established by law.”  Plans for the Dachau camp were soon announced.  By the end of 1933, fifty camps for “reeducating political prisoners” would be open. 

The Nazis encouraged the angry Aryan mob to hate designated scapegoats like Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissenters, and useless eaters (mentally ill, retarded, handicapped).  Today, the world is home to millions of scapegoats, in various regions, including political dissenters, investigative reporters, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, refugees, immigrants, indigenous people, and on and on. 

Today, populist loud mouths are popping up on every continent, like mushrooms after a fresh autumn shower.  While mainstream leaders do little about the Earth Crisis, beyond making lofty promises, the populists are working like crazy to demolish environmental protections, and accelerate the destruction.  The strains of ever-swelling population, the depletion of nonrenewable resources, and growing wealth inequality are making the mobs edgy and crabby, and I expect this to continue intensifying.  Nothing must interfere with economic growth.  Nothing!  The words of Goebbels and Gunther arouse a prickly sense of déjà vu.

The other night I grabbed Albert Speer’s book, Inside the Third Reich, and reread the final chapters.  Speer was Hitler’s architect in the early years, and later became the Minister of Armaments and War Production.  For twelve years he was in Hitler’s inner circle.  As I read Speer’s book, I was struck by the parallels between Nazis and today’s populist circuses.

In late March of 1945, just weeks before the fall of Berlin, Speer made a visit to the western front.  While German cities were rubble and ashes, the rural folks were in better shape.  Speer understood that the war was already lost, but in farm country, folks expressed continued faith in the war effort.  They believed that Hitler had a brilliant plan.  He was deliberately letting the enemy forces pour deep into Germany.  It was all a cunning trap.  Any day now, Hitler would unleash a new and terrible secret weapon.  The enemy would be crushed, and Hitler would claim the victory.  There were many people high in the Nazi government who believed this too.

Today, in our world, the total war against Big Mama Nature boldly charges forward, led by the holy banner of Economic Growth.  Propaganda ministers have instilled blind faith in our new secret weapons — solar panels, wind turbines, self-driving electric cars, artificial intelligence, sustainable development, metal drinking straws, and so on.  They tell us that we’ll be able to keep all our cool toys, without uncomfortable sacrifices, as we move beyond the primitive era of fossil energy, and continue our sacred journey to techno utopia.  And so, to contribute to the war effort, patriotic consumers must bravely shop till they drop.  Sieg heil!  (hail victory!)

Back to Speer.  In the last weeks of the war, as the enemy was closing in on both fronts, Hitler issued a series of decrees.  He ordered the destruction of his nation’s infrastructure.  This included the phone system, the telegraph system, the postal system, and radio broadcasting; electrical power, natural gas systems, oil and gasoline refineries, and water systems.  All ships and barges were to be sunk, specifically in ports and canals.  All locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars, roundhouses, and tracks.  All warehouses and industrial infrastructure.  All bridges were to be demolished, as well as dams, locks, and canal sluices.  All spare parts, wires, cables, cable diagrams, and descriptions of equipment were to be destroyed.  Coal mines were to be flooded, and their lift machinery destroyed.  All military equipment and weapons were to be trashed.

This plan freaked out Speer.  All the precious industrial infrastructure that he had struggled to preserve would be trashed.  At the end of the war, the German people would be in the Stone Age.  This was a death sentence.  He protested to Hitler.  Hitler didn’t care.  His plan was to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of German survivors by force, and burn down all buildings that remained standing — scorched earth.  If the war is lost, it will be because we were a weak people.  The future belongs to the strong.  Our survivors don’t matter.  “The good have already been killed.”  Many loyal regional leaders were willing to obey the orders of this decree.  Speer managed to convince many of them to preserve as much infrastructure as possible.

OK.  To put his in context, Hitler was just one nutjob, this Nazi story was about just one region, and their six year adventure in total war.  Today, every nation in the world has joined the Economic Growth cult, and its scorched earth mission.  Billions are fully committed to the war effort.  The destruction we now cause is vastly more than the World War II era.  With our computers, satellites, terrifying weapon systems, and enormous herd of consumers, we have never been closer to perfecting total war — and achieving a glorious victory.

Rees, William E., “Ecological economics for humanity’s plague phase,” Ecological Economics 169 (2020) 106519.  [LINK]  (Abstract only, full paper $$$)

Gunther, John, Inside Europe, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1938.

Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich, Macmillan, New York, 1970.

Bach, Steven, Leni: The Life and Works of Leni Riefenstahl, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 27

[Note: This is the twenty-seventh sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 202 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 


Pigs are also known as hogs or swine.  The U.K. and U.S. have slightly different definitions of these terms.  For simplicity’s sake I’ll use pigs, and pigs will refer to both piglets and adults of both genders.  In different regions, over a million years or more, the pig family evolved into a variety of different species, including boars, bearded pigs, peccary, warthogs, and so on.  Today, there are a billion pigs on Earth.  The ancestors of domesticated pigs were wild boars, which once inhabited regions of Africa and Eurasia, from Ireland and India to Japan and Siberia.  In North and South America, none of the pig family species have been domesticated.  They remain wild and free. 

Wolves were attracted to human encampments by the enticing aroma of garbage and (remarkably delicious) human feces.  Over time, a portion of the curious but incautious critters lost their freedom and got reduced to dogs, critters unable to survive in the wild beyond the human sphere.  Similarly, some ancestors of wild pigs were lured into the domestication trap by a treasure chest of garbage, feces, and lush gardens.  The moral here is to always avoid human settlements, at any cost, no matter how wonderfully shitty they smell.  Danger!

Peter Wohlleben reported that the super intelligent wild boars remain alive and well in portions of Europe, where they have been labelled destructive pests.  German hunters kill 650,000 each year.  When the shooting starts, boars disappear during daylight hours, and become night critters.  Hunters are forbidden to use night vision devices.  When hunting season begins in France, the boars swim across the Rhône River to Switzerland, where hunting is banned.  As Winston Churchill once said, “Dogs look up to us, cats look down on us, but pigs treat us as equals.”

Wohlleben says that many folks would never consider eating ape flesh and, if we fully understood how intelligent pigs are, the notion of eating them would gross out those who are confused about the sacred dance (in the family of life, we all feed each other).  Domestication did not reduce pigs to slobbering dimwits, and some types remain capable of surviving in the wild.  Mud-covered pigs are like rich humans at luxurious health spas.  When the mud dries, fleas, ticks, and other parasites are baked into it.  Then, pigs rub on trees to discard the cruddy mud, and the annoying pests trapped in it. 

Cattle, sheep, goats, and horses are grassland creatures.  Pigs are not.  They prefer to reside in moist and shady places — temperate and tropical forests, close to water sources.  Unlike the other four, nomadic grassland people don’t keep them.  Enslaved pigs are usually kept by sedentary communities.  They can grow up to 770 pounds (350 kg), and have seven litters per year.  Piglets can grow rapidly when food is abundant.

John Reader noted that pigs are remarkably efficient at turning food into flesh.  Because their diet is more nutrient rich than mere greenery, they could convert 35% of what they ate into meat (sheep 13%, cattle 6.5%).  In ten months, the offspring of a pair of pigs can produce 3,200 pounds (1,451 kg) of meat — ten times more than cattle.

While cattle, sheep, goats, and horses are herbivores, pigs are omnivores.  Like stoned potheads with the munchies, pigs are not fussy eaters.  They will chow down on kitchen wastes, slaughterhouse wastes, spoiled spuds, ugly spuds, peelings, excrement, nuts, grains, roots, insects, leaves, fruits, flowers, fish, human corpses, and other carrion.  They have been known to bite, and sometimes kill children.

In many settlements, pigs were proud members of the department of public sanitation, along with rats and dogs, cleaning up crud in the streets discarded by untidy humans and other critters.  In regions of India and China, many pigs enjoyed rewarding careers in the sewage treatment profession.  Outhouses were often built above pig sties.  When steaming turds fell from the sky, pigs would scramble to gobble up the precious gifts from heaven.

For some mysterious reason, folks in the Middle East considered pigs to be unclean.  Both Hebrews and Muslims forbade touching or eating pigs.  Marvin Harris added that pigs provided no milk or wool, and they were not at all interested in being herded.  Pigs were not grass eaters, they ate the same foods that humans did.  Consequently, farmers and gardeners were not fond of them.  Also, hot sunny, arid lands (like the Middle East) were a poor habitat for pigs.  When air temps rise above 98°F (36°C), adult pigs exposed to direct sunlight can drop dead. 

Richard Lillard wrote about the early American colonies.  Many regions were forested, unsuitable for cattle, but heaven for pigs, who could keep themselves fat and happy via rooting and foraging.  For most early settlers, pork seemed like an exotic food, because in the old country, boars were kept in hunting preserves, for the hunting pleasure of wealthy aristocrats.  Bacon was for billionaires, high class lords and ladies.

Back country colonists enjoyed a grand life for a while, when the woods of Virginia and Maryland were swarming with pigs.  The porkers could run free without supervision, because they were fairly safe.  They were not easy prey for wolves or bears, although the alligators of Alabama were connoisseurs of plump, juicy, free range organic ham.  As long as you provided a source of salt, and tossed out some corn every day, the pigs would remain in the vicinity.  Humans were careful to mark which pigs belonged to them.

Pigs, of course, were delighted to raid gardens and crops, which totally pissed off the tillers and planters.  The dirty sweaty lads jumped up and down, yowling and bleating for compulsory fencing laws, but their pleas were ignored.  The majority loved having pigs, because raising them was much easier than the tedious drudgery of agriculture.  Ordinary folks could enjoy a leisurely way of life that provided a decent standard of living.

Simon Fairlie noted that huge numbers of pigs were born and fattened in the frontier forests, and every year their keepers would drive them down hog trails to big cities on the east coast, where they were traded for gold.  Pork was America’s favorite meat until the 1950s, when beef moved into the top position.  The first McDonalds restaurant opened in 1948, and soon became a sprawling empire, serving haute cuisine to America’s hungry, burger-loving billionaire aristocrats.

As I’m writing this, the news had a story about feral pigs, of which six million now inhabit 30 U.S. states, especially Texas.  They are descendants of the pigs brought by Spanish explorers centuries ago.  Feral pigs can grow up to 400 pounds (180kg).  Humans who grow things that pigs love to eat are shocked and infuriated when pigs happily drop by to enjoy the delicious gifts that were so kindly left for them.  The hotheads buy assault rifles and shoot lots of pigs.  Pigs are champions at rapid reproduction, and those that are shot are quickly replaced. 

They also have strong razor sharp tusks, which make cougars think twice about attacking them.  Of course predator eradication programs have sharply reduced the number of pork-loving carnivores that used to roam the land.  The news story was about a 59 year old woman who was recently killed by multiple feral pigs as she stepped out of her car at dawn.  She bled to death.  Attacks like this are extremely rare.

Jared Diamond wrote about the Norse colonization of Iceland a thousand years ago.  It became the most ecologically damaged nation in Europe.  Wildlife took a heavy beating.  Within a few decades of settlement, about 80 percent of the trees were whacked down.  Sheep and pigs foraged amidst the stumps, and prevented forest recovery by repeatedly nipping off the new seedlings.  When the highly erodible volcanic topsoil became more exposed to wind and water, half of it moved from dry land to the ocean, and green countrysides were reduced to deserts.  Today, only one percent of the forest still exists.


We’ve already met the huge, powerful, and fierce aurochs, the wild ancestors of cattle.  It’s hard to imagine how such mighty animals were reduced to cud chewing manure makers.  Obviously, the most aggressive bulls were put in the fast lane to the butcher’s chop shop, while those having milder manners were sent to bovine bordellos, where love starved cows eagerly enjoyed their deep affection.  Over the course of centuries, deliberately selecting the most passive bulls for breeding stock, generation after generation, gradually drove the aurochs spirit extinct.  Shamans call this soul loss (i.e., domestication).

Sandra Ingerman wrote that soul loss is a spiritual disease which, in advanced cases, can result in shadow beings who exhibit a “nobody is home” emptiness.  She says that most of us these days are not fully at home.  Jesus said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Indeed!

OK, back to cattle.  The quick and easy path to mild-mannered bulls was to fetch a sharp knife, relieve them of their testicles, and turn them into mellow, easygoing oxen.  In the early days, cattle were used for meat, milk, and hides.  Later, they became a source of muscle power — beasts of burden, and draft animals that pulled carts, chariots, plows, logs, and so on.

Folks eventually quit using oxen for muscle power when someone finally invented a contoured collar harness for horses that allowed them to pull serious loads without strangling themselves.  Horses required a richer diet, but they worked much faster than oxen.  So, farmers could plow larger fields, and fields that were farther from home.  Keith Thomas reported that it wasn’t until oxen were retired from muscle work that roast beef became the iconic centerpiece of English cuisine.  Until then, it wasn’t wise to eat your tractor.

Earlier, we looked at the prehistoric deforestation of Europe.  Actually deforestation was a global human enterprise.  In early times, we created manmade grasslands to attract large herbivores.  With the domestication of livestock, and the craziness of the agriculture fad, and the human population outburst, deforestation continued.  It’s happening right now, on a massive scale, as epidemic soul loss turns folks into weird critters obsessed with killing Big Mama Nature.  This is not a path with a future.

Years ago, I did some hiking in the hills above San Francisco Bay, where cattle were grazing.  Generally, the vegetation was kept neatly trimmed, and here and there were 100 year old oaks.  They dropped lots of acorns every fall, but there were few young oak trees, because their seedlings were routinely nipped off.  Originally, these hills were thriving oak savannahs, covered with a thick undergrowth of sagebrush and other shrubs, dotted with oaks of all ages.  [LOOK]

Especially in coastal regions, California Indians deliberately burned off the cover of dense sage scrub to create grasslands that attracted game.  Later, the Spanish and American colonists created more manmade grasslands for their livestock.  Once the brush was burned off, and cattle introduced, the oak savannah was doomed.  To add insult to injury, the exposed grassland became extremely vulnerable to troublesome immigrants, known as exotic invasive European weeds (more on these in a minute). 

Bison are also ruminants and, in the good old days, they were wild, free, and happy.  They were not the personal property of status seeking ranchers, consequently, for many thousands of years, they did not rubbish the western U.S. plains.  They did not fool around with fire, or create deserts.  Dan Flores mentioned that the bison herds were lovingly managed by family planning brigades called wolf packs.  They ate maybe four of every ten bison calves.  Wolves were dignified professional predators, not infantile status seekers, so they did not kill as many bison as possible, just enough to fill their growling tummies.  Enough is enough!  Status seeking is for dweebs and weenies. 

Western United States

When European colonists migrated into the western plains of the U.S., they found millions of buffalo that had beautifully coevolved with the ecosystem over millions of years.  The alien white lads came from a culture that had a long tradition of owning and exploiting domesticated livestock, which were imagined to be valuable commodities.  The more you owned, the cooler you were, and the higher your social status.  The settlers soon discovered that the large wild herbivores of the plains were too proud and intelligent to be domesticated and enslaved.  Dang!

The European culture was based on private property — owning land, homes, livestock, and so on.  By the nineteenth century, most of the vast forests of Europe had become cropland and pasture, and almost all large wild animals had been eliminated long ago.  Some survived as characters in fairy tales, where the roles for devious demonic bloodthirsty monsters were often assigned to big bad wolves.

The colonists were incapable of imagining the possibility of transforming into nomadic hunter-gatherers, and enjoying an exciting life of wild freedom.  They were, after all, civilized people, and their religious stories originated in an ancient Middle Eastern culture of herders and conquerors.  Buffalo simply did not fit in their self-centered fantasies of wealth and excess.  You cannot own what you can’t control.  Their hearts were broken when they realized that the continent they had stolen was not home to many millions of passive domesticated livestock that belonged to no one.  Well, they had a good cry, and then put on their thinking caps.

Rather than doing something sensible, like turning around, sailing back to the old country, where countless generations of their ancestors were buried, and spending the rest of their days in filthy cities roaring with deadly epidemic diseases and bloody religious fanaticism, they decided to stay, and rubbish the indigenous people, wildlife, and ecosystems.

Their brilliant plan was to import domesticated shorthorn cattle from northern Europe — purebred passive dimwits, ideal slaves.  They could raise huge herds and become extremely rich cattle barons with ghastly pretentious mansions.  Richard Manning wrote an excellent description of the comedy of errors that occurred in this grassland soap opera.  The healthy, functional wild ecosystem was a serious problem that needed to be fixed, because it was an obstacle to progress and a growing economy.

Well, there were some annoying challenges.  You see, buffalo could remain fat and happy on a diet that majored in grass.  By a lucky coincidence, the western plains produced an abundance of delicious and nutritious grass.  For example, the excellent blue bunch wheat grass remained a nutritious food source throughout the winter.  Unfortunately, cattle gobbled it all up prior to winter, leaving nothing for later.  Oops!  When this primo grass is overgrazed, it can take ten years to recover.

The digestive tracts of buffalo had been fine-tuned by evolution to process the native grasses, so they were 18 percent more efficient than cattle.  The fussy foreign cattle preferred a diet of leafy forbs (broad leafed flowering plants like alfalfa), which were scarce in their weird new habitat.  The frustrated hungry cattle were not impressed, and wanted to go back home on the next boat.  Request denied.

Buffalo were well adapted to the dry climate, and they could comfortably go for several days without needing a drink of water.  Their herds roamed across the land at something like a walking pace.  It wasn’t necessary for them to stick close to water, so they were able to wander and graze over a wide region.  They might not return to a location for several years.  The result was healthy grassland, healthy riparian areas, healthy herds of buffalo, and healthy tribes of Indians and wolves.

The prissy imported cattle, on the other hand, had evolved in a much moister climate, where it was far easier to find a drink whenever they got a bit thirsty.  Consequently, they tended to concentrate their grazing on locations closer water, unload tons of manure, overgraze, and mutilate the banks of the streams (riparian areas).  When riparian lands are undamaged, they can produce far more forage than can surrounding uplands — they are top quality places for indigenous herbivores.  On the other hand, when the vegetation is damaged, the soil dries out, and floods are more likely to carry it away.  Overgrazed land speeds rain runoff, which sometimes leads to spectacular flooding. 

The buffalo were well adapted to surviving in a region where the climate majored in blast freezer winters and scorching summers.  The cattle were adapted to living in a dainty moist climate with moderate summers and mild winters — an ecosystem strikingly different from the plains.  During the super-cold winters of 1885-86 and 1906-07, maybe 50 to 75 percent of the cattle on the high plains died — while the snow-frosted bison remained warm, well-fed, and secretly amused at the misfortune of the hapless illegal immigrants.

Well, the ambitious colonists had still another brilliant idea.  They decided to introduce traditional pasture plants from Europe, so their cash cows could get fatter faster.  Unfortunately, most of these exotic plants promptly keeled over and died, because they were equally unsuited for the plains.  So, the next brilliant solution was to import pasture plants from arid regions of Asia — a disastrous mistake that has caused irreversible damage.

Manning described some of the bummers.  Crested wheatgrass thrived on the plains, and it outcompeted and displaced native plants.  In the winter, this wonder grass retained little nutritional value, and so the mule deer, elk, and antelope starved in endless fields of grass. 

Spotted knapweed suppresses native grasses, and has now spread to 7 million acres (2.8 million ha) in 48 states.  Because of root secretions, most other plants can’t live close to it.  Sheep can eat it, but cattle eat bunchgrass instead, which encourages the knapweed to spread. 

Leafy spurge is now found in 26 states, where it has spread across 2.5 million acres (1 million ha).  It excels at outcompeting most other species, achieving communities that are almost monocultures.  Plants have extensive root systems, and can live for 40 years.  Spurge has a toxic sap.  Cattle will not graze near it, only sheep and goats can eat it.  The plant transforms lands into biological deserts, and it is extremely expensive to eradicate. 

Cheatgrass can survive in low quality soils, and in regions having minimal precipitation.  Only in the early spring does this grass provide significant nutrients to grazing animals.  For the rest of the year, it doesn’t, so animals can starve in a thriving grassland.  Cheatgrass is especially flammable, and it burns hot enough to roast the seeds of native plants, which it has now displaced across large areas.  After a cheatgrass fire, exposed soil is vulnerable to erosion and gullying.  Following a rain, the runoff can be rapid, leading to sudden floods.  Dan Flores wrote that in the U.S. mountain west, cheatgrass had turned 100 million acres (40 million ha) into a biological wasteland.

Eliminating invasive exotic vegetation is prohibitively expensive, and often essentially impossible.  Invasives are here to stay, and their plan is to spread.  Human intelligence remains an unfinished masterpiece.


Mark Brazil shared a story that was full of crap.  In Britain, cow manure was promptly and properly composted by patriotic royal dung beetles, which returned essential nutrients to the soil.  In Australia, none of the native dung beetles could get the least bit interested in cow shit.  It was too wet, and too out in the open.  Cow pies could patiently sit on the grass unmolested for four years, because nobody loved them.  This deeply hurt their feelings.  Adding insult to injury, Brook Jarvis noted that fussy cattle refused to graze in the vicinity of neglected pies, so the herd needed access to far more grazing land than normal.

Australian flies, on the other hand, discovered that cow pies made fabulous nurseries for their children.  Each pat could feed 3,000 maggots, which turned into flies — dense clouds of billions and billions of flies — which the hard working Christians did not in any way fancy.  Being outdoors was hellish.  In the 1960s, folks imported British dung beetles, which loved the taste and aroma of cow pies.  Oddly, this is one example where an introduced exotic species apparently didn’t create unintended consequences.  When they ran out of pies to eat, the beetles simply died.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 26

[Note: This is the twenty-sixth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 202 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Animal Domestication

What is “domestication?”  With regard to animal domestication, there are two different meanings, and those who use the word don’t often reveal which one they mean.  James Scott distinguished between “domesticated,” meaning tamed (modified behavior), versus “fully domesticated,” meaning genetically different from their wild ancestors as a result of selective breeding (modified DNA), and dependent on humans for their survival.  Elephants in India have been tamed to do work for humans, but they remain genetically wild.  Poodles are obviously genetically different from their gray wolf ancestors.  The difference between wild humans and civilized ones seems to be far more cultural than genetic.

On the following pages, “domesticated” will refer to animals that have been held in captivity for many generations, selectively bred to encourage specific traits, and genetically different from their wild ancestors — manmade critters that had never existed before.  They look and behave differently.  Animals that have merely been tamed, like a friendly peanut loving squirrel, are not a matter for concern.  But the control and exploitation of domesticated critters has really rocked the ecological boat over the centuries.  The enslavement of animals enabled the growth of most civilizations, increased their environmental impacts, and frequently stimulated bloody conflicts.

Why Do It?

As we’ve learned, the success of hominins has been substantially boosted by our success at hunting and feasting on large wild herbivores — animals weighing more than 100 pounds (43 kg).  Herbivores did not compete with humans for the same wild foods.  They converted the solar energy that was stored in grass into a highly nutritious form that we could digest.  This enabled hominins to develop big brains (but not necessarily wise).

As we’ve learned, “the perfection of hunting” eventually moved our ancestors over a line.  We began taking some game a bit faster than they could replace their losses.  For a very long time, large game remained abundant in many lands, enabling local hominin tribes to live well, and grow in numbers.  As long as food was abundant and easy, there wouldn’t be much motivation to contemplate family planning strategies and wise taboos.  But growing numbers of mouths needed growing amounts of food in order to remain strong, healthy, and alive. 

While large game was abundant for a very long time, the delicious critters were not infinite in number.  Big Mama Nature was simply not in the mood to magically accelerate herbivore reproduction in order to keep the tropical primates fat, happy, and annoying.  It was long past time for the half-clever primates to learn some important lessons about life.  Because they lacked immaculate wisdom, acute foresight, or PhDs in wildlife management, they were forced to learn these lessons the hard way.  Big Mama fetched a paddle named scarcity.  Smack!  Ouch!  Stop it!  Smack!

As we’ve learned, climate change reconfigured the ecological playing field.  The last glacial period spanned from about 80,000 to 12,900 years ago.  The peak of this ice age was the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which spanned from 26,500 to 19,000 years ago.  Barry Cunliffe said that at this time, much of Europe was buried under ice sheets up to one mile (1.6 km) thick (as was North America).  So much water was held frozen in glaciers that global sea levels were 410 feet (125 m) lower than today.  During the frigid LGM, forest country was pushed far to the south.  Trees survived along the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain, and the south shore of the Black Sea.

Following the LGM, a warming trend began, which spanned from 19,000 to 12,900 years ago.  Then, the Younger Dryas cold snap chilled things down again for another 1,300 years, until 11,600 years ago.  Then began the warm climate period that we still enjoy today, which enabled the possibility of large scale agriculture, civilization, skyrocketing population, and the fantastic craziness of modernity.  This warm era has lasted an unusually long time.  Normally, we’d be overdue for a shift back to cold.  Instead, we’re sliding sideways at high speed into a much hotter era, and it seems likely to blindside life as we know it.  Clive Finlayson warns that the end of farming is just one climate change away.

The warm era that we’ve been living in for the last 11,600 years led to a sequence of big changes.  Glaciers shifted into retreat mode, and a tundra ecosystem eventually emerged on the newly exposed soil.  A bit later, steppe grasslands appeared, displacing some tundra.  Still later, increasing warmth enabled the expansion of forests.  As forests migrated northward, they began displacing the open tundra and grasslands that provided optimal habitat for the herds of large herbivores that our ancestors so deeply loved.  So, hunters had to devote more attention to forest critters, which were less abundant: elk, aurochs, red deer, roe deer, wild pigs, and small animals.

For centuries, the human diaspora enjoyed some freedom to roam and expand.  There were still frontiers, beyond which humans had never before set foot.  Eventually, uninhabited ecosystems became more and more scarce, and red neon No Vacancy lights became common.  Continued expansion ceased being free and easy.  The intrepid pioneers kept smacking into <bleeping> limits, which got very annoying (and sometimes bloody).

As we’ve learned, the increasing scarcity of large herbivores required that the menus at the diner had to be rewritten.  Expanding forest cover inspired folks to relocate to wetlands, or to the shorelines of seas, lakes, and streams.  A number of foods that used to be second class became regular mainstays — birds, small game, fish, shellfish, plant foods.  They had been second class because they were far more labor intensive than hunting large game.  Tedious hard work sucks.  Second class stuff had also provided a life insurance safety net, a reserve of food set aside for droughts, famine times, and so on.

Mark Nathan Cohen, Diana Muir, Craig Dilworth, James Scott, and others noted that there was a clear pattern in the archaeological record at many locations.  The older evidence indicated a diet in which large herbivores were core.  Above the old layers, evidence revealed the shift to labor intensive second class foods.  Above that, evidence of herding and horticulture begins to appear — food production that was even more labor intensive.  These shifts were motivated by a gradual process of growing scarcity. 

Scott pointed out that our hungry ancestors were not merely domesticating plants and animals, they were also domesticating ecosystems to promote this new and laborious experiment in weird living.  Forests were being swept aside, and replaced by open cropland and pasture.  Wild animals that might harm crops or livestock were no longer welcome to exist in these new domesticated ecosystems.

Long ago, overspecialization contributed to the extinction of the saber-tooth cats, as hominin hunters competed more and more for their primary prey.  Our ancestors avoided a similar fate.  They were omnivores, so they could consume a huge variety of stuff that wasn’t meat.  Because they had fire, and knew how to cook, they had far more food options than species that were restricted to a raw food diet.  At the same time, successful efforts at eliminating man-eating predators sharply reduced the vital assistance they had provided for discouraging population growth.

Scott summed up the pluses and minuses of animal domestication.  Both a deer and a steer provided meat, bones, hides, and tendons, but the deer required zero human assistance to grow from doe to adult.  The steer could require corrals, winter feed and shelter, herd dogs, salt licks, and a source of water.  As long as deer and other game was plentiful, labor intensive herding and farming would have been moronic.

On the plus side, enslaved female livestock could be milked.  Milk could be made into cheese, yogurt, and butter, and stored for later.  Herders have milked cattle, zebu, water buffalo, yak, goat, sheep, reindeer, dromedary, camels, horse, and ass.  Dairy foods provide vitamin D, an essential nutrient.  In winter months, folks living in snow country often could not acquire sufficient vitamin D via exposure to direct sunlight, so dairy foods could provide a beneficial supplement.

All infants can digest lactose, the sugar in milk.  Before animal domestication, kids would normally become lactose intolerant a few years down the road.  They could no longer digest milk.  Lactose intolerant people are able to digest cheese, yogurt, and butter.  In cultures with a tradition of dairy consumption, evolution eventually modified the gene pool for lactose tolerance in adults.  This shift was not universal in all humans.  In cultures where milk is not consumed, most folks become lactose intolerant after infancy.

Poultry and waterfowl produced meat and eggs.  Folks rode on the backs of horses, donkeys, yaks, reindeer, and camels.  Mounted cavalry radically redefined the rules for warfare and raiding.  Beasts of burden were used to pull plows, carts, and sleds, and to haul loads of cargo on their backs.  Animal manure could be used for fertilizer or burned as fuel.  Hairy critters, especially sheep, provided fibers that could be spun and woven into many useful products.  An animal can give up its hide just once, but a sheep can provide wool every year. 

Herders could also tap some nutritious blood from living animals from time to time.  Up to 80 percent of a wild human’s diet was plant based food, but animal products provided nutrients that were beneficial for a strenuous outdoor way of life.  I have found no evidence of wild cultures that were vegetarian.

From Aurochs to Cattle

On many fine days in years past, I have taken walks in grasslands where cattle were grazing.  I always felt safe, because the animals were not the slightest bit anxious or aggressive.  I walked, they grazed, all was good.  Let’s take a peek at the cattle family tree.

Aurochs were the wild ancestors of today’s herd of 1.3 billion domesticated cattle.  They were huge, strong, and fierce — the opposite of the passive cud-chewing manure makers of today.  In regions having ideal conditions, bulls could grow up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg).  Their horns were much longer than cattle, and pointed forward, aggressively.

Some believe that the species originally emerged in India between 1.5 and 2 million years ago.  They survived in a world along with similarly large, strong, and fierce predators.  Eventually their range spanned from England to China.  Aurochs’ preferred habitat was dense ancient forests with lakes, rivers, bogs, and fens.  They didn’t hang out in frigid tundra regions with woolly mammoths and horses.

In 51 B.C., Caesar wrote that aurochs were animals “a little smaller than elephants, having the appearance, color, and shape of bulls.  They are very strong and swift, and attack every man and beast they catch sight of.  The natives sedulously trap them in pits and kill them.  Young men engage in the sport, hardening their muscles by the exercise; and those who kill the largest head of game exhibit the horns as a trophy, and thereby earn high honor.  These animals, even when caught young, cannot be domesticated and tamed.”

Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne (A.D. 747 – 814), once had a painful encounter while on a hunting trip.  When an aurochs appeared in the forest, his hunting buddies fled in terror.  Charlemagne was less intelligent.  He rode up to one, drew his sword, and pissed off the monster, who gored his leg.  From that day forward, the humbled king walked with a limp.

The famous explorer Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) also described them.  “There are wild cattle in that country as big as elephants, splendid creatures, covered everywhere but on the back with shaggy hair a good four palms long.  They are partly black, partly white, and really wonderfully fine creatures.”

Anton Schneeberger (1530 – 1581) was a Swiss botanist and doctor based in Poland.  He wrote that aurochs had no fear of humans, and did not flee from their approach.  When they were teased or hunted, they got very hot-tempered and dangerous, sometimes hurling idiots high into the air.

Cis van Vuure wrote the book on aurochs.  He thought that domestication began about 9,000 years ago, in the Middle East and Pakistan.  Over time, the mighty aurochs was reduced to countless variations of dimwitted cattle, fine-tuned for specific climates and uses (meat, hides, milk, draft).

As agriculture expanded, Europe’s ancient forests and wetlands shrank.  Grain farmers detested aurochs molesting their crops, and herders resented them dining on prime forage.  Aurochs stood in the path of progress.  The last aurochs died in 1627, in the Jaktoróv forest, in Warsaw province of Poland.

It’s hard to imagine such notoriously fierce animals being forced into slavery.  Alasdair Wilkins wrote about recent DNA research on cattle.  The ancestors of every domesticated cow in the world trace back to a tiny herd in the Middle East, a herd as small as 80 animals.  The process of domestication may have taken a thousand years, and it was likely done by sedentary people.  It would have been impossible for nomadic herders to confine huge powerful animals with a tremendous love of wildness and freedom.

Nobody ever hitched a wagon or plow to an aurochs.  Nobody put a saddle on one.  Nobody milked them, and made aurochs cheese.  They were wild, free, strong, and extremely dangerous.  And so, they no longer belonged in the heavily managed manmade societies we were creating.  Today, thanks to centuries of selective breeding, we can now dine on hamburgers made from the bovine equivalent of a dimwitted yappy poodle.

The Unlucky Losers

The vast majority of living plant and animal species have luckily remained wild and free.  Jared Diamond wrote a lot about domestication.  Of the world’s 148 species of large land-dwelling herbivores and omnivores, only 14 had been domesticated prior to the twentieth century.  Nine of the 14 only had regional significance, but five species soared to become multinational superstars — the cow, sheep, pig, goat, and horse.  All five were domesticated in Eurasia, before 4000 B.C.

Most of the unlucky 14 were native to Eurasia.  In the Americas, only the llama and alpaca were domesticated, and they lived in small herds.  People didn’t drink their milk.  They never spread to cultures beyond the Andes, so the Indian civilizations of Central and North America did not have pack animals beyond dogs.  In North and South America, the heavy toll of megafauna extinctions may have eliminated a number of potential domesticates.  In Australia, zero large animals were enslaved.  In Africa, no large mammals were domesticated south of the Sahara — in this region only the turkey-like guinea fowl was domesticated.

Diamond wrote that the large herbivores most vulnerable to enslavement were species that were easy to feed, rapid growing, disease resistant, and could be bred in captivity.  They did not panic in confinement, nor were they dangerously violent.  These unlucky species were herd animals that had follow-the-leader dominance hierarchies.

James Scott wrote that over the passage of generations, selective breeding produces slaves that are more passive, less alert, less intelligent, and more dependent on human care.  They reach reproductive age sooner, preserve some juvenile aspects, and produce more offspring.  The brains of domesticated sheep are 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors, and pig brains are one third smaller.  Because they were dullards, Paul Shepard referred to domesticated livestock as “goofies.”

Domesticated animals are born in captivity, and many never experience wildness and freedom during their entire lives.  One perk of their enslavement is that their lives are, in some ways, luxurious.  They are provided with food, water, and salt licks.  Many are provided with shelter from the hot sun, and frigid weather.  They enjoy an unnatural level of personal security because predator eradication programs ensure they will usually be safe from deadly attacks, month after month, until their luck runs out, and their masters send them for a visit to the butcher.  Enjoying such an easy life, they don’t need energy guzzling big brains.  (As previously noted, human brains have shrunk about 10 percent in the last 20,000 years.)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 25

[Note: This is the twenty-fifth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 202 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Wandering Tree People

Imagine that you possessed a magic potion that provided super-human powers of vision.  If you dabbed a drop on each eyelid, your perception could soar high into the sky, where you could look down on an entire continent.  Imagine that this trance allowed you perceive, in fast forward mode, the appearance of this landscape over the passage of many thousands of years.  You would quickly notice that forests exist in a state of continuous change.  In ordinary reality, you can’t notice this, because the tree people live much more slowly than we do.  They almost appear to be frozen in time, as old as the mountains.

Grandmother oak was old and wise when I was born.  She was old when my mother was born, and my grandmother too.  She’ll be a bit older on the day when I cross to the other side, but she might not have yet reached the midpoint in her life journey.  Humans, on the other hand, zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmills, and we blink out in just a few decades, like sparks floating away from a campfire on a starry night.

Over the centuries, as climate trends gradually zig and zag from warm, to cool, then warm again, the tree people are always on the move.  They expand into open lands during warm eras, and retreat with the return of ice ages — up and down, over and over, like the tides of the ocean.  Dinosaurs still exist today in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape to distant regions when changing conditions threaten their survival.  Trees can’t fly, but they can and do migrate — but far more slowly than winged dinosaurs.

Peter Wohlleben noted that a strong wind can carry some seeds a mile (1.6 km) away.  Birds can carry seeds several miles.  In ideal conditions, a tribe of beech tree people can advance about a quarter mile per year.  Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation.  We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls.  Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival.  Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture or fire.  So, change that kills some, is less likely to kill all.  Evolution has fine-tuned them to courageously endure the challenges of life.

Like the trees, animal species also ride the climate roller coaster.  Retreating glaciers exposed soil which then became tundra — high quality habitat for wooly mammoths, reindeer, horses, and hunters.  If the warming trend continued, tundra might transform into steppe grassland, and maybe later to forest.  The expansion of forest created challenges for both our ancestors, and large grazing animals.

Barry Cunliffe noted that there were far fewer food resources in woodlands.  The total biomass of forest herbivores was just 20 to 30 percent of the total biomass of tundra herbivores.  So, woodland hunters had to live in smaller groups, and more dispersed.  As forests recovered, growing larger and denser, folks likely migrated to where there was more adequate food, like sea coasts, streams, lakes, bogs, swamps, and river deltas.  In some regions, large areas of unbroken forest may have been uninhabited.

When the climate trend reversed, and ice ages returned, forests retreated, displaced by expanding steppe and tundra.  This open land was far better habitat for large herbivores and the folks who hunted them.  One day, a very clever person had a shocking revelation.  Wow!  It wasn’t necessary to patiently wait centuries for climate changes to diminish forests and make their hunting grounds more attractive to herds of game.  They could achieve the same results by killing some trees, creating openings in the forest where the grass people could expand and thrive.  So they did.  By creating more and larger grassy openings, hunting clans could attract more and larger game.

Later, when outsiders smuggled in domesticated livestock from other lands, traditions changed.  Herding had some advantages over hunting.  By milking the livestock they could, over time, extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply killing and eating them.  Milk was produced every day.  Nutrient dense cheese could be stored for later use.  Naturally, if some livestock is good, more is better.  Herders couldn’t eat trees, so they devoted more effort to encouraging stuff they could eat.  Of course, wolves and other livestock-loving predators had to go bye-bye.

In addition to smuggling in livestock, devious outsiders also brought the seeds for domesticated grasses, like wheat, oats, barley, millet, and so on.  These, of course, required open land, abundant sunlight, and fertile pulverized soil.  Consequently, tree people had to go bye-bye to make space for the plowmen.

So, over time, folks created manmade grasslands for three different objectives: (1) to encourage large game, (2) to benefit livestock herding, and (3) to enable grain production via soil mining.  Naturally, the expansion of manmade grasslands required deforestation projects.

Primordial Forest

In my first book, I included a section on the Norse story of Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods.  These powerful humanlike gods succeeded in temporarily subduing the four forces of nature.  Of course, nature violently broke loose, and gave the arrogant control freak gods their bloody just rewards.  And so, Earth was cleansed, healed, and renewed. 

One of the few deities that survived the great battle was a son of Odin, named Vidar, famous for being strong and silent.  Vidar’s home was surrounded by the solitude of a vast and impenetrable forest.  He lived apart from humans, and had no influence on them, beyond inspiring profound awe and reverence. 

Rasmus Björn Anderson wrote that Vidar was the god of the pathless forest, where neither the sound of the ax, nor the voice of man, was ever heard.  “Vidar is the imperishable, wild, original nature, the eternal matter …a force which man sees and reveres….”  It’s neat that my Norse ancestors, in the good old days, were filled with a deep respect and reverence for creation, in its wild and unspoiled form — combined with a deep distrust of control freak deities who got too big for their britches.

Primordial forests have never been an optimal habitat for hominin hunter-gatherers.  These ancient forests were far more common ten thousand years ago.  Since then, it’s staggering and heartbreaking to comprehend how much forest has been lost to the herders, farmers, miners, road builders, urban developers, industrialists, and the endlessly growing mobs of radicalized consumers.

Let’s take a little joyride, and visit Western Europe 1,900 years ago.  Caius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman journalist.  He wrote Germania in A.D. 98.  It provided a brief overview of several dozen Germanic tribes of the era — the Batavi, Chatti, Usipii, Tencteri, Chauci, Fosi, Cimbri, Anglii, Varini, and so on.  [MAP]

Germania was a vast wild frontier of forest and marsh, “a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native.”  Germanic tribes were isolated from the outer world by the Rhine, the Danube, the sea, mountain ranges, vast primeval tracts, and “mutual dread.”  Germania was a region of wild freedom and fiercely independent anarchist tribes.  They built no permanent settlements.  Their flocks and herds grazed in the openings and edges. 

Tribal warfare provided ongoing entertainment.  Fearless aggressive warriors, skilled at using spears with iron blades, preferred raiding to farming.  “They even think it base and spiritless to earn by sweat what they might purchase with blood.”  Raiding was a common pastime in herding societies, where personal status was determined by how many animals you owned (the origin of the “more is better” mindset).

Tacitus wrote a fascinating description of the vast Hercynian forest.  From the Rhine, it spanned east, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (Romania).  A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west.  Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.”  Pliny also mentioned it:  “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.”  Remember that the Hercynian forest was just one of countless primeval forests that thrived all around the world.  Few still exist today, and the future for those looks bleak.

Forest People

Julius Caesar roamed Western Europe 150 years earlier than Tacitus, and wrote about his heroic adventures in 51 B.C.  He was the emperor of Rome, and his mission was to expand the Empire, and slap down uppity subjects.  His primary attention was focused on provinces of Celtic people in what is now France, Belgium, and England.

Caesar made a brief foolish attempt to conquer the super violent Germanic tribes, and he quickly realized the error of his ways and retreated.  In those days, armies didn’t haul caravans of supplies with them on their campaigns.  Instead, as they marched, they simply swiped food from the farms they passed.  The Germans were primarily herders who built no permanent settlements, and had no granaries loaded with food for invaders to swipe.  When danger threatened, the people and their herds vanished into the dark forest mists.

German tribes built no roads in their forest, and they invested much blood and fury to surround their homelands with a wide barrier of uninhabited wilderness.  In those days, raiding other tribes was a good way to improve warrior skills, grab booty, and cure boredom.  Life was more secure when outsiders lived nowhere close.  The best neighbors were those who lived far away, and were never seen. 

Caesar’s journal reveals an interesting situation.  The Rhine River was a large, treacherous, swift moving river, and there were no bridges in those days.  It took a lot of effort and luck to get from one side to the other, and once you set foot on the German side, a super violent welcoming party was eager to immediately cut you to bloody bits.  The German tribes were strong, proud, wild, free, and determined to remain so forever.

For the German herders, nothing would have been more stupid than eliminating the vast ancient forests that provided a valuable security buffer.  The Roman legions were fine-tuned for open battlefield combat, where heavily armored lads attacked in rigid formations.  Caesar learned that this approach was ridiculous when confronting the guerilla warfare tactics used in the forests of Germania, where there were no roads, no granaries to loot, and rage-crazed fanatics behind every tree.

Caesar had a similar problem in England, when he met the Britons, who did not warmly welcome the Roman thugs.  Few Britons grew grain.  They were herders and hunters who lived on milk and flesh.  The men had long hair and moustaches, and they applied woad to turn their skin blue, causing legionnaires to wet their pants with fear.  Britons were skilled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare.  They would swarm out of the forest, kill disorganized troops, and return to the forest, where Romans dared not follow.  There was only one place where the Thames River could be easily forded, and many sharp stakes were planted along the shore, and under the water.  Caesar failed to conquer them.

In Sweden, forests also provided freedom and security for the common folks.  Vilhelm Moberg celebrated the fact that peasant society in Sweden had remained stable and functional for 5,000 years.  In most of the regions of Europe, peasants suffered centuries of misery under the heavy fist of feudalism.  They were not free.  They lived in lands crisscrossed with roads, which enabled their oppressors to keep them under surveillance and control.  When the natives got uppity, soldiers could readily be brought in to smash them.

The big exceptions were Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, where the peasants were largely able to remain free.  The Swiss, surrounded by powerful enemies, were protected by the Alps.  The Norse and Swedes were protected by their vast, dense, rugged, roadless forests.  It’s simply impossible to exterminate folks who cannot be found.  Moberg glowed with gratitude for his nation’s forests, which allowed the rustic peasants to preserve their freedom until the industrial era metastasized. 

From time to time, there were uprisings in Sweden, and kings summoned their troops.  In open country, the troops had absolute advantage, and could easily smash troublemakers.  In forests they found no roads, didn’t know where they were going, and soon became perfectly lost.  It was terrifying.  Behind every bush might be a man with a crossbow, ready and eager to send you away to Valhalla. 

The forest people knew every hill and rock in the woods.  They could pick the time and place to strike, leveraging their maximum advantage.  When it was not wise to strike, they vanished into the wilderness.  The forest was also a safe sanctuary.  When trouble was advancing, they gathered as many belongings as possible, and moved to locations where they would not be found.

In the future United States, Richard Lillard noted that early settlers from heavily deforested Europe were overwhelmed when they first laid eyes on the incredible abundance of enormous trees.  Back home, many had existed on a diet that majored in porridge, but in this new land they were free to hunt as much they pleased, with zero risk of punishment.  They were astonished to see settlements with wooden fences and sidewalks — an amazing luxury!  Common folks were free to cut as much firewood as they wished, and keep their homes warmer than royal palaces in the old country.  In America fish and fur were abundant and cheap.  Folks felt like they were lottery winners.

Forest Indians, on the other hand, did not celebrate the arrival of the freaky space aliens.  The natives were masters of guerilla warfare, and they took much pleasure in making life as miserable as possible for the hideous mutants.   When planning an assault, they carefully calculated the lay of the land, the weather, the morale of their enemy, and where they were weakest and most vulnerable.  They might silently crawl on their bellies across a mile of briars and thorns in order to strike from the most advantageous position.

Ambush was a favored tactic, according to Lillard.  At the ideal moment, attack suddenly with a burst of terrifying screams and whoops.  Retreat, ambush from another side, duel, retreat.  Pounce and maneuver like cats or wolves.  Make constant bewildering movements.  Terrified soldiers often fired blindly in surprise.  And then, when they were frantically reloading their muskets, natives with hatchets zipped in and euthanized the defenseless aliens.  In the end, the highly contagious diseases of civilization blindsided the Indian nations.

Colonized People

Caesar also described the Celtic tribes who lived under radically different conditions — the Gauls (France), Belgae (Belgians), and Britons (English).   The Celts lived west of the Rhine River, on the other side from the wild and free Germans to the east.  The Celts were the conquered, exploited, civilized subjects of an evil empire.  Obedience to their imperial masters was compulsory.  Naughty subjects were reduced to wolf chow or slavery (around 30 to 40 percent of the residents in Rome were slaves).  Obedient subjects had to regularly pay a generous tribute to the Romans.  Families were required to provide their sons to serve as conscripts for the Roman legions (most legionnaires were conscripts, not lads from Rome).

The Celtic tribes lived in permanent agriculture-based settlements.  They were chained to a place they had to defend, because the cottages, granaries, fields, and herds that they depended on for their survival were vulnerable to being confiscated or destroyed by invaders.  Their villages were linked together by road systems that enabled the Romans to promptly thrash rebels, and keep their subjects under strict control. 

Memorize this vital factoid: in several Western European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root.  In Peru, the Incas controlled a vast empire via an excellent road system — but the same roads later made it extremely convenient for the horse-mounted Spanish invaders to quickly and easily conquer them.  More recently, nations have sharply increased their control via railroads, navies, superhighways, air forces, and electronic communications.  When railroads reached the western plains of the U.S., the buffalo and Indians were doomed.

Anyway, Caesar’s report gives us a glimpse of two cultures.  On one side of the Rhine were wild Germanic tribes that majored in herding.  On the other side, were the civilized Celtic tribes of farmers, herders, artisans, technicians, and bureaucrats — the colonial subjects of a powerful empire.  In earlier times, prior to conquest, the Celts were likely herders too.  Earlier still, both the Germans and the Celts had been wild anarchist hunter-gatherers.

The transition from hunting and foraging to herding, farming, and civilization marked a huge and terrible turning point in the human saga, and the saga of Big Mama Nature.  With sharp metal axes, they began a world war on the defenseless tree people.  These destructive cultures grew and became more and more unsustainable.  They kicked open the gate to a treacherous path that eventually led to the super high-impact way of life we suffer from today.