[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.]
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.
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.”