Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Food Explorer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

American Serengeti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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