Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Winter Solstice 2021

What a memorable year this has been.  Terrorists failed in their first attempt to overthrow the U.S. government.  The COVID family of viruses was so popular that it will return for another year of thrills, chills, ventilators, and conspiracy theories.  This has been a good year for being a writer, spending week after week in a wordsmith cave, largely isolated from viruses circulating in flesh and blood society.

Almost every day I spend 60 to 90 minutes biking on pathways along the river.  On my route is a 50 acre (20 ha) grove of forest that hasn’t been cut in maybe a hundred years.  It’s lush, green, and alive.  Songbirds fill the air with their music of love and celebration.  This is my church, a sacred place.

In the last 12 years, I’ve only seen a starry night once or twice.  There must be thousands of children in this city who have never once experienced a sky full of twinkling stars.  Moonlight is still able to penetrate the light pollution.  The moon silently watches our frantic craziness.  In years past, it watched the campfires of hunter-gatherers.  It watched the wooly mammoths come and go.  It watched the dinosaurs come and go.  It watched the dawn of life.  It will continue shining down when the lights of civilization finally blink out, and the family of life struggles to begin a long and difficult healing process.

Last year, I hoped that my book would be finished by now, but it isn’t.  I completed the rough draft in early September, minus an unwritten summary chapter, the final item on my to-do list.  Early sections of the draft date back to March 2016.  I’ve learned a lot since then.  I’m now rereading the entire manuscript, making revisions, and adding new info.  I strongly suspect that the newer sections will need less attention.  Maybe the revisions are half done.  We’ll see.  Quality is more important than speed.

Day after day, I slog through endless tedious details, resolving questions, zapping booboos, and fine-tuning the clarity.  In the end comes the joy of finishing another passage.  It’s satisfying to see that this torn and battered old brain can still produce work that warms my soul, and makes me smile with satisfaction.

Since the 2020 solstice, my blog has had 100,000+ more views.  This summer, for reasons I don’t understand, I got a surge of friend requests on Facebook, rapidly tripling my friend collection.  They came from Australia, Bali, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, Cote D’Ivorie, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Gaza, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Kashmir, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Zambia.

I wish I had time to chat with them, but the library gives me just one hour a day of internet access.  Right now, my primary goal in life is to finish this book.  Publishing a book can take years of effort, with no guarantees, and I’m getting old.  These days, publishers prefer books with generous servings of magical thinking, sustainable solutions, and maximum strength hopium.  That’s where the money is.  I’m interested in where the reality is, which has become an entirely different matter.

In my ten years as an author and blogger, I’ve learned that when interesting writing costs nothing, it reaches far more eyeballs than when the same material costs money.  My current plan is to skip publishing and give this book away, in digital formats, an Earth Day gift.  It’s cheap and easy to send free PDFs to folks in distant lands, rather than paperbacks.  After so many years of hard work, it would be fun to finally reach an audience.

All the best! 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Megafauna Review

Megafauna is an important, fascinating, unforgettable, one-of-a-kind book.  It primarily focuses on prehistoric megafauna extinctions around the world, and how they happened.  Baz Edmeades (“ed-meedz”) has been working on this book for 20+ years, and it is impressively thorough.  His grandfather was a professor who found a unique human-like skull that was about 259,000 years old.

Megafauna are mammals weighing more than 100 pounds (46 kg).  Hominins are primates that walk on two legs, like you and I.  Hominins have been around for several million years.  Humans have been around for 250,000 to 400,000 years, depending on who you ask. 

During the last two or three million years, lots of megafauna species, all around the world, have moved off the stage forever.  Why?  A heated debate has been buzzing for 50+ years.  Was it an asteroid strike?  No evidence.  Were they zapped by diseases?  No evidence.  Was it climate change?  It probably strained some regional situations.  Was it human activities?  The evidence strongly supports this.  In 1966, Paul Martin presented his megafauna overkill theory (humans did it), which ignited big controversy in academia.  Edmeades became friends with Paul Martin, and learned a lot from him. 

Hominins originated in Mother Africa, where there used to be at least nine species of big cats (three today), nine types of elephants (one today), and four hippos (one today).  There were giant antelopes, giant hyenas, giant pigs, giant monkeys, and giant baboons — all gone.  Extinction spasms especially surged as humans wandered out of Africa, and gradually colonized the planet.  They migrated across Southern Asia, to Australia, then Eurasia, and finally the Americas. 

Paul Martin coined the misleading term “blitzkrieg overkill,” which angered quite a few folks.  As humans colonized new regions, the megafauna declined in number, in a process that could take a thousand years or more, multiple generations.  It was not a high-speed massacre.  These hunters were Stone Age people, using simple tools.  Many of the large game they hunted had low reproductive rates, which made them extremely vulnerable to extinction.

There is a clear pattern that when hunters migrated into continental land masses, stuff went extinct — except on uninhabited (human-free) offshore islands of the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and elsewhere.  On these islands, extinctions didn’t begin until humans eventually stepped ashore, sometimes thousands of years later.  Understand that offshore islands have a climate quite similar to the nearby mainland.  Climate was not a factor here.  Many of the megafauna species that blinked out had survived multiple ice ages over the passage of several million years.

In 2015, I stumbled across early sections of the Edmeades book online, and they blindsided me.  I never understood how incredibly alive this planet once was, and how tragically damaged it now is.  None of my teachers ever explained this, because they never learned it.  Our cultural myths celebrate the upward spiral of humankind’s brilliant achievements.  We live in a technological wonderland, not an ecological graveyard.  Life has never been better, and the best is yet to come.

The ancestors of hominins were originally tree dwellers.  Our closest living relatives are chimps, with whom we share 98.8 percent of our DNA.  Long ago, when the climate changed, and forests shrank, our ancestors were forced to survive as ground dwellers, a lifestyle for which evolution had not prepared them.

Over the course of several billion years, evolution has been a remarkable force that guided the journey of the family of life.  When frigid eras arrived, critters evolved fur coats.  When foxes became faster, evolution selected for faster bunnies.  It was a balancing act.  Foxes needed bunnies, and bunnies needed foxes.  The family of life was continuously fine-tuned at the speed of evolution, an extremely slow process.  Alterations could take many thousands of years.

Over millions of years, evolution provided giant tortoises with large bodies, invincible lion-proof shells, and long lifespans.  In the blink of an eye, these advantages were rubbished when hominins moved into the neighborhood, and began killing 200-year-old tortoises with big rocks.  This hunting method was not fine-tuned by evolution.  It was a sudden innovation that popped into the mind of a hungry hominin — and it worked!  Invincible tortoises were immediately transformed into helpless sitting ducks that didn’t have a bright future.  Evolution was yanked out of the driver’s seat.  Ancient rules no longer mattered. 

Hominin cleverness changed the world.  It made it far easier to grab essential resources, grow in numbers, and avoid becoming cat food.  Cleverness had the long term impact of an asteroid strike.  Cleverness enabled hominins to domesticate fire, plants, and animals.  We colonized the planet, developed industrial civilization, zapped the forests, polluted everything, and destabilized the climate.

Many folks in the human herd suffer from a blind faith that the miraculous power of cleverness can easily overcome all challenges.  Their vision is to keep our maximum impact way of life on life support, as long as possible, and hope for the best.  Edmeades presents no solutions, but this is a story that was important to tell.  He laments that cleverness “has given our species the power to transform the biosphere so profoundly that no other organism on this planet may get the opportunity of evolving it again.” 

His book does an excellent job of discussing the megafauna extinctions in an understandable way, with up-to-date information.  Its bitter medicine, and good medicine.  Many misperceive evolution to be a divine competition, in which species fight relentlessly to reach the top of the hierarchy, seeking to wear the Dominant Animal crown.  This pyramid-climbing quest for domination is the engine of civilization.  By the end of the book, you understand that evolution is more about adapting to changing conditions in a way that is as smooth and balanced as possible. 

Evolution has been the great friend of the family of life.  The Dominant Animal game has been its grim reaper.  While the wild megafauna are now sharply diminished, human-caused extinctions of many other species continue at an accelerating rate.  Cleverness never sleeps.  I’ve spent 69 years in a roaring hurricane of devastating cleverness.  Edmeades book reminded me that this planet was once a healthy and amazing living paradise.  Some of my genes have their roots in those good old days of abundant life.  That’s a comforting notion.

Edmeades, Baz, Megafauna: First Victims of the Human-Caused Extinction, Houndstooth Press, 2021.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Forest Rewrite

Greetings!  The following is a rewrite of samples 25 and 41.  They will be combined into one section and moved much later in the manuscript, before Sacred Energy.  One more step closer to the end!


As mentioned earlier, after the last Ice Age wound down, glaciers and ice sheets melted and retreated, eventually allowing the expansion of tundra, grassland, and forest.  Grassland spurred the momentum of the human experiment by boosting herds of game.  In wooded regions, hunting was more challenging, and forests interfered with the growth of trendy new fads like herding and farming.

This is why civilization emerged in the grassland regions of the Fertile Crescent, where wild wheat and barley grew in great abundance, as did herds of wild game.  Bountiful lands made living easier.  They also had a prickly habit of stimulating population increase.  The uncomfortable pressure of crowding and friction inspired some folks to envision escape.  Maybe they could create a more pleasant life in the forest frontier of Europe’s wild west.  Some of them packed up and left.

In Europe, Barry Cunliffe noted that as the climate warmed, wild folks migrated northward from the Mediterranean.  By 7000 B.C., they were present in a number of locations.  In lean regions they were nomadic, and in places of abundance they settled down.  At the same time, forests were also migrating northward, encouraged by the changing climate. 

By around 4000 B.C., forest expansion stopped, when it finally reached regions that were too chilly for happy trees.  By this time, folks were raising crops and herding livestock in a number of permanent settlements.  These communities were expanding their fields and pastures, which required murdering happy trees.

Over time, this increasingly abusive relationship between the two legs and the tree people led to tremendous destruction.  In the good old days, forests originally covered 95 percent of west and central Europe.  Jed Kaplan and team wrote a paper on the prehistoric deforestation of Europe.  It included stunning maps that illustrated the shrinkage of forests between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1850. [Look]  Deforestation went into warp drive between 1500 and 1850, driven by the rise of colonization, industrialization, and other dark juju.  The voracious human swarm was swerving deeper and deeper into mass hysteria. 

Humankind’s war on forests has been intensifying for several thousand years.  It’s a huge and complex subject.  Forests have suffered from many impacts, including firestick farming, agriculture, herding, industry, warfare, construction, consumerism, climate change, and population growth.

In this chapter, I’ll share a few snapshots from the ripped and torn photo album of the relationship between two legs and the tree people. 

Humbaba’s Roar

The Fertile Crescent was where plant and animal domestication shifted into high gear.  It was in this region that the first civilizations began popping up all over, like a painful burning rash of deforestation, soil destruction, slavery, patriarchy, exploitation, aggression, self-destruction, etc. 

It’s interesting that the oldest known written story is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the saga of Gilgamesh, a lunatic king who ruled over the city of Uruk, located along the Euphrates River in Sumer (now Iraq).  By around 3100 B.C., Uruk was the biggest metropolis in the world.  Today, Uruk is a crude pile of brown rubble sitting amidst a desolate barren moonscape. [Look]  It has an important message for folks today: “Don’t live like we did.”  But humankind is a herd of sleep walkers, wandering lost in a foggy dream world.

The story was originally scratched into clay tablets in cuneiform script.  Over the course of 2,000 years, components of the story unified into a single narrative by around 1800 B.C.  In the story, King Gilgamesh was a lecherous slime ball who worked hard to expand low-tech, muscle powered, organic agriculture along the Euphrates River (a process now known as Sustainable Development™). 

Gilgamesh was probably a real king who lived somewhere between 2900 and 2350 B.C.  The growth of Uruk led to massive deforestation along the valley, which unleashed immense erosion and flooding.  In the story, Humbaba was the sacred defender of the forest.  Gilgamesh whacked his head off, and proceeded to cut trees like there was no tomorrow.  Rains then washed the soil off the mountains, down to bedrock.  And so, whenever the floods blast down the river, the noise of catastrophic destruction is referred to as “Humbaba’s roar.”  It’s the first sound I hear every morning.

Beyond Hunting and Gathering

Earlier, I jabbered about how some hunter-gatherer cultures used firestick farming to boost the availability of wild game and special plants.  This involved limiting forest, and encouraging the expansion of customized grasslands.  The tree people were never fond of this.  Over time, this expansion encouraged the intensification of farming, herding, civilization, industry, and aggressive deforestation. 

Other cultures used a different survival strategy, mindful self-control.  They understood the need to pay close attention to reality, to recognize the signs of approaching limits, and to avoid scarcity by adjusting current patterns.  Sometimes reproduction taboos were used to reduce the birth rate.  Mindfulness could avoid having an abusive relationship with the tree people, but modern society displays little interest in it.  It’s not good for jobs or the economy.

Let’s take a quick peek at the relationships that several cultures had with the tree people.  (Prehistoric dates are not certain, different sources cite different dates.)


When the glaciers of the last ice age began melting, sea levels were much lower than today.  England was connected by dry land to Ireland, Scandinavia, and continental Europe.  Barry Cunliffe noted that most of Western Europe essentially became a vast forest.  This expansion of forests displaced natural grazing land, which affected the abundance of large herbivores.

By 9000 B.C., hunter-gatherers had apparently made some small clearings in the forest to attract game.  By 6500 B.C., rising sea levels had made Britain an island, like it is today.  It was no longer connected by dry land to neighboring regions.  By 4500 B.C., when farmers and herders began to trickle in, Britain was largely a forest, except for the highlands.  Hunters dined on red deer, wild boar, aurochs, and so on.  By 3000 B.C., substantial clearances for cropland and pasture were increasing.  By A.D. 1100, just 15 percent of Britain was forest.  By 1919, it was five percent.  Britannia was essentially stripped naked, a ghastly painful open wound.

J. B. MacKinnon mentioned a story about Mark Fisher, a British scientist who visited the U.S.  From an overlook in the White Mountain National Forest, he could gaze down on 800,000 acres (323,748 ha) of woodland, an overwhelming experience.  He burst into tears and had a long, hard cry.  At Yellowstone, he saw wolves in the wild for the first time, and he dropped to his knees.  Fisher dreams of rewilding the U.K. — introducing long lost critters like beavers, lynx, wolves, and so on.


The story in Ireland was similar to Britain in many ways, but Ireland got much more rainfall, annually receiving 50 to 200 inches (127-508 cm) of precipitation.  The wet climate encouraged the growth of lush temperate rainforests.  Frederick Aalen noted that early hunter-gatherers arrived about 8,000 years ago, when the isle was covered with a dense unbroken forest.  Folks lived along coastlines, lakes, and streams.  In the forest they created some openings to attract game, but these were apparently small in scale.

Then came a paradise-killing event of dark juju.  Farmers and herders began arriving around 3500 B.C., and the war on trees commenced.  By the end of the 1600s, the destruction of native forests was nearly complete.  When Aalen wrote in 1978, only three percent of the island was occupied by natural forest or tree farms. 

Deforestation had many unintended consequences.  William MacLeish noted that in the good old days, the rainforest wicked up a lot of moisture from the land, and then released it into the passing breezes, which carried it away.  When the trees were gone, this dispersal process wheezed.  Meanwhile, the Gulf Stream faithfully continued delivering warm rainy weather from the Caribbean.  So, the heavy rain continued, and the water remained where it landed.  Consequently, water tables rose, bogs spread, and the ground turned acid.

Deforestation blindsided the rainforest ecosystem.  The new manmade grassland ecosystem seemed to be a perfect place for raising enslaved livestock.  Winters were mild, the grass was green all year, and there was no need to grow, cut, and store hay for winter feed.  Barns were not needed to protect livestock from the cold.  Milk and meat were available all year round.  Herding worked well, but the very rainy climate made it rather risky to grow grain, despite the rich soils.

In A.D. 1185, King Henry II sent Giraldus Cambrensis to visit Ireland and produce a report.  He mentioned many beautiful lakes, where some of the fish were larger than any he had ever seen before.  Common freshwater fish included salmon, trout, eels, and oily shad.  Along the coast, saltwater fish were abundant.  The woods were home to “stags so fat that they lose their speed.”  There were numerous boars and wild pigs.  Wolves had not yet been fully exterminated.  He said it was common to see the remains of extinct Irish elks.  Their remains were usually found in bogs, often in groups.

The herding life allowed the Irish people to survive, sing, and dance.  They did not have the slightest interest in the dreary backbreaking work of agriculture, a stupid fad.  Cambrensis felt great pity for the uncivilized natives.  “Their greatest delight was to be exempt from toil, and their richest possession was the enjoyment of liberty.”

Maximum Security Forests


Julius Caesar roamed around Western Europe and wrote a report in 51 B.C.  He was the emperor of Rome, and his mission was to expand the Empire, collect tribute payments, acquire military conscripts, and vigorously spank uncooperative subjects.  During this campaign, he focused his attention on provinces of Celtic people in what is now France, Belgium, and England. 

He had also hoped to conquer the wild Germanic tribes that lived on the east side of the Rhine, but this fantasy promptly came to an end.  The Rhine was a large, treacherous, swift moving river.  No bridges.  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.  

Each tribe preferred to keep their homelands surrounded with a barrier of uninhabited wilderness.  The Germans were primarily wandering herders who built no permanent settlements.  They had no granaries loaded with valuable food for raiders to swipe, and no roads to make invasions quick and easy.  When danger threatened, the people and their herds vanished into the deep forest mists.

For the German herders, nothing would have been dumber than to eliminate the vast ancient forests that provided this security system.  The Roman legions were fine-tuned for open battlefield combat, where heavily armored lads attacked in rigid formations.  Wild Germanic tribes excelled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare.

On the west side of the Rhine were the Celts of Gaul (France), who were subjects of the Empire.  Their forests were mostly gone, roads crisscrossed the land, and folks were forced to engage in the backbreaking misery of muscle powered organic agriculture.  Their granaries stored the result of months of hard work. 

Stored grain was treasure that villainous raiders found to be irresistibly tempting.  It was impossible for farmers to hide or quickly move their treasure.  Raiding was popular, because it was much easier than honest work.  Consequently, highly vulnerable farm communities required constant military protection, for which they had to pay dearly.  In several Western European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root. 

So, the Celts that Caesar described did not reside in the primordial forest that their wild ancestors once enjoyed.  They were the opposite of wild and free.  Peasants were essentially wealth generating livestock controlled by local strong-arm elites.  On the east side of the Rhine, the Germanic tribes had not destroyed their forests.  They were alive and well, wild and free.

Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote Germania in A.D. 98 (150 years after Caesar).  It described several fiercely independent tribes of that era.  They preferred the thrills and excitement of raiding to the drudgery of farming.  “They even think it base and spiritless to earn by sweat what they might purchase with blood.”  Perhaps they learned this effective and profitable strategy from the Romans. 

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.”  In those days, there were still a number of primeval forests in the world. 


In Sweden, forests also provided freedom and security for the common folks.  Vilhelm Moberg celebrated the fact that peasant society in Sweden had largely remained stable and functional for 5,000 years.  In most of the regions of Europe, peasants endured many centuries of misery under the heavy fist of feudalism.  Many Norse and Swede settlements were lucky to be protected by their vast, dense, rugged, roadless forests.  It’s simply impossible to kill or rob invisible folks who live in unknown wilderness settlements.  Moberg glowed with gratitude for his nation’s forests, which allowed the rustic peasants to preserve their freedom until the industrial era metastasized.

Aggressive invaders from elsewhere found no roads, and soon became perfectly lost.  Behind every bush might be a man with a crossbow.  The local folks knew every hill and rock in the woods.  They could pick the ideal time and place to strike.  When trouble was advancing, they gathered as many belongings as possible, and vanished into the greenery.

My Norse ancestors told the story of Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods.  Some creepy gods had temporarily subdued nature, but in this great battle, the forces of nature rubbished the gods, and cleansed the Earth with a great flood.  Peter Andreas Munch described the dawn of a new era: “Out of the sea there rises a new earth, green and fair, whose fields bear their increase without the sowing of seed.” 

A man and woman survived.  From them sprang a new race of people.  A few minor deities also survived.  One was Vidar, a son of Odin (Viðr means forest).  Vidar was known for being strong.  His home was in a vast and impenetrable forest.  Rasmus Björn Anderson wrote that Vidar was the god of wild primordial forests, where neither the sound of the ax, nor the voice of man, was ever heard.  He is silent, dwells far away from, and exercises no influence upon, the works of man, except as he inspires a profound awe and reverence.  This was a culture filled with a deep respect and reverence for creation, in its wild and unspoiled form.  Forests were holy places. 

Forest Mining

In the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding, forests had served as a limit to growth — grain, grass, and herds don’t thrive in shady places.  Deforestation cleared away the towering giants and let the sunbeams shine in.  When metal axes came into common use, lumberjacks could reduce vast tracts of primeval forest into rotting stumps and erosion gullies.  Early villages and cities were built with the mutilated carcasses of countless tree people.  The rise of civilizations would not have been possible without innovative advances in unsustainable forest mining and soil mining. 

George Perkins Marsh was a brilliant American hero that few modern folks have heard of.  He published Man and Nature in 1864.  This gentleman from Vermont served as the U.S. Minister to Italy.  While overseas, he visited the sites of many once thriving civilizations in the Fertile Crescent.  What he observed was terrifying and overwhelming.  Each of them had seriously damaged their ecosystems and self-destructed in similar ways.

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 offshore islands.  He saw the sites of ancient forests, formerly covered with three to six feet (1-2 m) of precious living 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 temporary prosperity they were creating on their one-way joyride to oblivion.  In a noble effort to cure blissful ignorance, he fetched pen, ink, and paper and wrote a book to enlighten his growing young nation.

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 (like today’s climate emergency).  A radical shift to intelligent behavior would not have been good for the highly unintelligent lifestyle.  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 limited, and flash floods are less likely.

Deforestation dries out the land.  Lake levels drop, springs dry up, stream flows decline, and wetlands are baked.  Back 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 14 centuries later, 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 of essential knowledge. 

Walter Lowdermilk was deeply inspired by Marsh’s work.  In the 1920s and 1930s, he visited China, Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  His mission was to study soil erosion, and write a report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  They created a short booklet that was very readable and filled with stunning photographs.  Over a million copies of it were printed.  Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years is available as a free download. [Link]

Industrial Wood

Marsh generally discussed the environmental impacts of deforestation that he had observed at the sites of extinct or wheezing civilizations.  These catastrophes were usually the unintended consequences of clearing forest to expand cropland or grazing land.  Over the passage of centuries, clever people discovered many new ways that dead trees could be used to generate wealth and power. 

John Perlin wrote an outstanding history of deforestation.  It’s a modern book (1989), and much easier to read than Marsh.  It devotes more attention to the political, military, industrial, and commercial motivations for forest mining.  It visits locations including Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, Cyprus, Rome, Venice, England, Brazil, and America. 

Dead trees were used to build houses, bridges, temples, and palaces.  Wood was made into fences, docks, wagons, furniture, tools, and barrels.  It heated homes and fueled industries that produced metal, glass, bricks, cement, pottery, lime, sugar, and salt.  Staggering quantities of wood were consumed by industry.  Very importantly, wood was used to build cargo, fishing, and war ships.  Navies sped the spread of colonies, empires, trade networks, and epidemics.

Cultures that mindfully limited their numbers, and continued living in a low impact manner, had no future.  Their thriving unmolested forests looked like mountains of golden treasure in the eyes of civilized sailors cruising by — and civilized people cannot tolerate the sight of unmolested forests; it drives them nuts.  In other words, if you didn’t destroy your forest, someone else would. 

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 (10-13 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?

Shortages also affected the use of firewood.  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, and population grew, limits spoiled the party.

If Perlin’s work sounds interesting, but you can’t get his book, a similar book is available as a free download.  In 1955, Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter published Topsoil and Civilization.  Readers are taken on a neat journey, during which they discover how a number of ancient civilizations destroyed themselves.  The free PDF is HERE.  It is not available in some countries, for copyright reasons, but I once saw a pirate copy on Google.

New World Forest

Richard Lillard described how early European visitors experienced the ancient forests of North 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.  The intense experience of perfect super-healthy wildness was surreal, overwhelming, 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 absolutely silent, a spooky experience that bewildered the white folks.  They saw vast numbers of chestnut trees that were nearly as big as redwoods. 

British visitors to early settlements were stunned to see amazing luxury — wooden houses, sidewalks, fences, and covered bridges!  Commoners were free to hunt large game because the forest was not the exclusive private property of anyone.  In the old country, their diet majored in porridge.  Now it could major in wild grass-fed meat.  Commoners were free to cut as much firewood as they wished, and keep their cottages warmer than the castles of royalty.  Michael Williams mentioned one winter night when the king of France sat in his great hall.  He was shivering as he ate dinner, the wine in his glass was frozen. 

William Cronon noted that settlers with sharp axes went crazy on the forests, cutting them down as if they were limitless.  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 as the great Chicago fire, 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.  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 bone 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.

Paul Shepard wrote, “Sacred groves did not exist when all trees were sacred.”  In 1990, I chatted on an internet bulletin board with a Shawnee man named Nick Trim.  He talked about a project 300+ years ago, along the Mississippi.  In a kindly gesture, some French soldiers were teaching the Shawnee how to build log cabins.  This required cutting trees.  The natives were very nervous about chopping down living trees, because they were often home to spirit beings, the little people.

To avoid spiritual retaliation, a respectful process was essential.  They knocked on each tree, described the situation, and explained why they wanted to take lives.  This was followed by a ceremony, prayers, and apologies to the trees.  Then they waited a day or so, to give any spirit residents adequate time to find a comfortable new home.  This took so long that the French lost their patience, and the project ended.

Peter Wohlleben, a German wood ranger, developed an extremely intimate relationship with the forest he cared for, and wrote a precious celebration of his love for it.  Modern folks who spend most of their lives in civilized space stations almost never get to know the tree people.  Some do not eat meat because they sense that animals have souls.  In an interview, Wohlleben conveyed a deeper understanding.  Killing an animal is the same as killing a tree.  He once oversaw a plantation of trees lined up in straight rows, evenly spaced.  It was a concentration camp for tree people.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Grassland Rewrite

Greetings!  The following is a rewrite of samples 23, 24, and 25, which were originally posted way back in 2019, when I was young and innocent.  The revised version is shorter, clearer, and adds new factoids.  I hope that as my editing process moves into newer sections, fewer tweaks will be needed, and the blessed finish line will arrive before the sun burns out.


The family of life is solar powered.  Incoming solar energy is received by green plants, who use it to produce sugar.  This process is photosynthesis.  It converts solar energy into a form of chemical energy that plants and animals must have to survive.  Animals acquire this energy by eating plant material, or by dining on plant-eating animals. 

Photosynthesis splits water molecules (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.  Then, in a fancy magic act, hydrogen is stirred together with CO2 to make a sugar called glucose (C6H12O6).  The process results in some leftover oxygen atoms, which are released to the atmosphere.  Notice that animals exhale the CO2 needed by plants, and plants exhale the oxygen needed by animals, a sacred circle dance.  Plants use the sugar to fuel their daily life, or they can convert it to starch, and save it for later.  Plants can also make fat, protein, and vitamins.  They’re much smarter than they look.

The act of snatching carbon from the air, and incorporating it into living plant tissues, is called carbon fixation, or carbon sequestration.  As more carbon gets sequestered into the plants and surrounding topsoil, then less of it remains in the atmosphere.  This is great, because too much carbon in the atmosphere can lead to catastrophic climate juju, like the freaky changes that are beginning to bludgeon the family of life right now.

There are four primary terrestrial biomes: grassland, forest, desert, and tundra.  Grasslands are communities of different plants — primarily grasses, mixed with a wide variety of sedges and leafy forbs (wild flowers and herbs).  These mixed communities maximize the capture of solar energy, make better use of soil resources, and create rich humus.  Humus boosts soil fertility, and helps retain moisture.  Some plants also convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is essential for all living things.  Others are good at retrieving essential mineral nutrients.

There are maybe 12,000 species of grass, and they grow in many tropical and temperate regions.  Some are able to survive extended droughts, or long winters.  Grasslands have two modes, productive and dormant.  In warm climates, they are dormant during the dry season, and recover when the rains return.  In temperate climates, they are dormant during the frosty months, and green when the soil thaws. 

Following an intense disturbance, grasslands can recover in 5 to 10 years — far faster than a wrecked forest.  Evolution has done a remarkable job of fine-tuning grasslands for rugged durability.  They can recover more easily after wildfires because only a third of grassland biomass is above ground, and most vulnerable to flames.  Plants send roots far underground, to acquire moisture and nutrients.  Some roots grow as deep as 32 feet (10 m).  The seeds of many grassland species can remain dormant for an extended period, postponing germination until appropriate conditions return.  Some seeds can survive a hot and slippery ride through an herbivore’s gut and remain fertile, enabling the colonization of new locations.

Grass and Herbivores

Grassland communities run on carb energy that moves from species to species, up and down the food chain, and enables the existence of the family of life.  Large grass eating herbivores were a favorite source of nutrients for our prehistoric ancestors.  For the effort invested in hunting, they provided the biggest jackpots of meat.  Our strong desire for these animals, and our ongoing dependence on them, eventually resulted in some hominins evolving into Homo sapiens, the last surviving hominin species.

It’s important to understand that herds of large herbivores do not usually reside in forests or jungles.  Large body size can be an important advantage on grasslands, but a disadvantage in dense woodlands.  In terms of vegetation, forests contain much more plant biomass than grasslands, but most of it is elevated out of the reach of hungry herbivores.  On the other hand, grasslands annually produce much more new biomass per acre than forests, and it’s conveniently located close to the ground.

To herd critters, grassland looks like a candy store where all the goodies are free and delicious.  Grasslands are the best place to dine on high quality greenery, hang out with friends and relatives, produce cute offspring, and enjoy a wonderful life of fresh air, travel, and adventure.  Consequently, grasslands are home to far more large animals.  I would expect that most land-dwelling megafauna species originated in grasslands.

Grass and Hominins

The Miocene Epoch spanned from 23 to 5.3 million years ago.  It seems that the early Miocene was wet and warm, and many ecosystems were forests.  Much of Antarctica was covered with temperate forest 20 million years ago.  Later, maybe six to eight million years ago, it got cooler and dryer, and a different type of ecosystem evolved and expanded — grasslands.  Compared to forests, grasslands generally need less precipitation to survive.  Today, the Earth’s forest area is 80 percent smaller than it was in the Miocene’s golden age of trees.

This transition had a significant impact on the human saga.  As forests shrank, there was less habitat for our tree-dwelling ancestors.  A number of forest species tumbled off the stage forever.  Some primates moved onto the savannah, and figured out how to survive as ground-dwelling primates, in open country.  They included the ancestors of baboons and humans.  Humans are hominins, primates that walk on two legs.  About four million years ago, hominins originated on the savannah grasslands of tropical Mother Africa. 

Our tree-dwelling ancestors were primarily frugivores, fruit eaters.  They ate stuff that grew or lived in trees.  When they became ground-dwelling critters, they needed a new diet.  Large herbivores became a popular choice.  Hunting was the path to success, and grassland was the place to be.  Consequently, as humans migrated out of Africa, and colonized the world, they preferred to select routes that majored in grasslands.  Their journey took them to grasslands in the Middle East, and then Europe. 

Barry Cunliffe noted that a vast steppe grassland began in Hungary and ended in Manchuria, providing a grassy highway that was 5,600 miles (9,000 km) long.  As an added bonus, the steppe was largely carpeted with vegetation that was drought-resistant and frost-tolerant.  Once established in northern Asia, intrepid pioneers were eventually able to wander from Siberia, over the Beringia land bridge, and then explore the incredible Serengetis of the Americas.

In 1872, Kansas senator John James Ingalls celebrated the power of grass.  He wrote: “Grass is the forgiveness of nature — her constant benediction.  …Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated.  Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal.  …The primary form of food is grass.  Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.”

Super Grass

And now, the plot thickens.  There are several ways that photosynthesis fixes carbon in plants.  The conventional process is called C3.  It produces a compound that has three carbon atoms.  The turbocharged process is C4, and it produces a compound that has four carbon atoms.  Maybe 85 percent of the plant species on Earth are C3.  Their method of carbon fixation is simpler and less efficient than C4.  Both types are very old, but when climate change favored the expansion of grassland, C4 species got an important boost.

Elizabeth Kellogg studied C4 plants.  In one experiment she found that, under ideal conditions, C3 plants could theoretically capture and store up to 4.6 percent of the solar energy they received, while C4 plants could get up to 6 percent (30 percent more).  In other words, provided with the same inputs of sunlight and water, C4 produces more calories than C3 — carbs that fuel the family of life.  They also produce more root biomass, which increases their tolerance for drought and fire.

Kellogg calls the C4 process a turbocharger.  While only 3 percent of flowering plant species are C4, they account for 23 percent of all carbon fixation in the world.  Of the 12,000 grass species, 46 percent of them are C4, and they include corn (maize), sugar cane, millet, and sorghum.  (Mad scientists are now trying to alter DNA to make rice C4 too.)

There are four conditions under which C4 plants have a big advantage — high temperature, high light, low moisture, and low nutrients.  Because they need less water, C4 plants better conserve soil moisture, so their growing season is longer in arid regions.  Kellogg wrote, “In the last 8 million years, C4 grasses have come to dominate much of the earth’s land surface.” 

C3 grasses are better adapted to moist forest floors and limited sunlight.  They are less able to thrive in arid grasslands.  Out on the savannah, C4 grasses enjoy some important advantages.  When conditions are right, they are able to manufacture generous amounts of chemical energy (sugar), and this increases their odds for survival.

[Important!]  The big picture here is that climate change radically altered the family of life.  It encouraged the substantial expansion of grassland, which boosted the expansion of C4 grasses, which propelled the evolution and expansion of large grazers and carnivores, which boosted the global tonnage of living meat, which set the stage for the arrival of our hominin ancestors.  Today’s climate crisis seems likely to unleash far bigger changes in something more like the blink of an eye.

Grasslands can support more large animals than forests.  Grassland megafauna migrated and settled on five continents (not Australasia).  Around the world we find varieties of horses, bison, elephants, antelope, deer, hyenas, wolves, bears, and so on.  Grasslands support far less biodiversity than rainforests, which are home to fantastic numbers of different species.

Graham Harvey, a grass worshipping wordsmith, noted that growth is actually stimulated by grazing and fire.  In a brilliant design, new blades of grass emerge from growing points located close to the ground, where they are less likely to be damaged by hungry teeth or passing flames.  The faster that grasses can send up new blades, the more sunlight they can capture, the more sugar they can make, and the happier the whole ecosystem becomes.  Joy!

Another benefit of grazing is that herbivores often nip off the rising shoots of woody vegetation.  If trees and brush were allowed to grow and spread, they would compete for sunlight with the grasses.  Then, the herds of hungry herbivores would have less to eat, and so would the carnivores that adore red meat.  Herds religiously offered their deep gratitude to the grass people by lovingly depositing nutrient rich manure and urine all over the place.

Grass eaters are called grazers.  Browsers are critters that eat leaves, woody shoots, bark, and saplings.  Some species are both.  The elephant family loves to dine on young green leaves, and they sometimes knock trees down to get them.  Each day, elephants eat 550 pounds (250 kg) of grass and leaves, and then turn it into magnificent fertilizer.  Giraffes are top feeders that specialize in leafy vegetation that elephants and rhinos are too short to snatch.

Browsers can limit the expansion of trees and woody brush, but they aren’t fanatical mass murdering exterminators.  Savannah ecosystems are grasslands dotted here and there with trees and shrubs.  Grass provides food for the grazing herds, and woody vegetation nourishes the browsers — and it provides shade and hiding places.  Home sweet home!

Harvey concluded that, in many ways, humans are creatures of grass country, like the bison, hyenas, and vultures.  We still are.  We take immense pride in the brilliant triumph of humankind, but if we turn off the spotlights and loudspeakers, and pull back the curtains, we see that the Green Mother of this grand and goofy misadventure is our intimate and enduring dependence on grassland ecosystems.  Grass is Superman’s momma.

Manmade Grassland

All flesh is grass, but grass is not limitless.  In the old days, there were no hunting licenses, rules, bag limits, or game wardens.  The hunting fad was able to grow until it eventually smashed into rock solid limits.  Flesh is not limitless.  Folks began missing dinners, and going to bed with growling tummies.  Overshoot is never sustainable.  Too many hominins spoil the party.  The 100% guaranteed, always effective, least popular cure for overshoot is die-off.

Another cure is migration, pack up and move.  This medicine worked for thousands of years, as folks colonized the regions uninhabited by humans.  Eventually, the happy hunters learned a painful new lesson: Earth is not limitless.  Shit!  What now?  Cultural taboos that limited reproduction could provide some pressure relief.  So could perpetual inter-tribal warfare, bloody the competition whenever possible.  Cleverness is the persistent gift and curse of humankind.  It conjured another idea, a magic wand call the firestick.

Shortgrass prairie grassland needs between 10 and 30 inches (25 to 76 cm) of annual precipitation.  Most of its plants are less than one foot (30 cm) tall.  Tallgrass prairie needs more than 30 inches (76 cm) of annual precipitation.  In tallgrass, prairie plants can sometimes grow up to 13 feet (4 m) high — tall enough to hide a horse.  Tallgrass can produce far more food for grazing animals, which enables larger herds.  However, the precipitation needed by tallgrass is also adequate for the survival of forest.  While browsing and grazing helps to maintain open grassland, it’s not enough to fully prevent the existence and spread of forest. 

When Big Mama Nature gets in a stormy mood, she sometimes ignites wildfires with lightning bolts.  Fire can be a good tonic for the health of grass.  It burns up accumulated dead foliage and debris, allowing more solar energy to empower the grass people.  Also, with the dead junk burned away, the exposed ground warms up faster when the snows melt, enabling the growing season to begin earlier.  Soon after fires end, tender green shoots emerge from the ashes.  Fresh greenery looks heavenly to the grazing critters, and hunters love grazing critters. 

Jill Haukos noted that fire happily stimulates the growth of fresh new grass, but it has zero concern for the health and safety of trees and shrubs.  Grass productivity is 20 to 40 percent higher on burned land, compared to unburned.  When tallgrass prairie is deliberately burned every few years, it will not transition to forest, because the seeds, sprouts, and saplings can’t survive the cruel abuse.  Natural wildfire doesn’t faithfully follow regular burn schedules, but regular manmade fire is able to trump the tree people.

Wild folks clearly understood that maintaining extensive grasslands improved their hunting.  By deliberately controlling nature, they could eat better, and feed more bambinos.  So they did.  For hunters, fire was a powerful beneficial servant.  For the rodents, birds, and insects of the grassland, fire could be a viciously powerful master.  Shepard Krech mentioned that when the first humans settled Hawaii and New Zealand, they cleared the land with fire, driving many bird species extinct.  Is it OK to rubbish a thriving ecosystem for selfish reasons?  Only human desires matter?

Haukos wrote about bison grazing in tallgrass prairie.  Hungry herds have little interest in seeking un-grazed locations that are covered with lots of old and skanky low calorie grass.  They much prefer fresh new grass, and they pay close attention to recently burned landscapes.  “Bison maintain large grazing lawns.  They return again and again to the same ‘lawns’ to eat the new growth of grass, which is highly nutritious.  These areas may look overgrazed but actually have new growth continually, providing the nutritious grass bison need, even if only one inch high (2.5 cm).”

The practice of using periodic burns to maintain and expand superb grazing land is often called firestick farming, because it uses burning to increase the harvest of life-giving meat.  It is a powerful, easy, low tech way to benefit large game.  Alfred Crosby noted that firestick farming had transformed much of six continents long before the first field was planted.  Let’s look at a few examples.

North America

The chilly Pleistocene ended about 11,700 years ago, with the arrival of the warmer and gentler Holocene era that we currently enjoy.  Ice sheets melted and retreated, creating space for tundra.  As the climate further warmed, expanding prairies displaced regions of tundra.  Prairie ecosystems can support more complex biodiversity, as different communities of species adapt to different mixes of soil types, moisture, and climate.  Where changing conditions favored the existence of trees, forest expanded.  Forests tend to trump grassland, because they allow less sunlight to reach the ground.  Once established, a forest can thrive for thousands of years, if not molested by murderous terrorists.

One way or another, Native Americans learned the benefits of grass burning.  They understood that regular burning could inhibit forest regeneration.  As centuries passed, tallgrass regions expanded, much to the delight of large herbivores, and hungry hunters.

Stephen Pyne wrote that when white colonists were settling in the eastern U.S., the western portion of the Great Plains was shortgrass prairie, too dry to support forest.  But much of the eastern portion was tallgrass prairie.  It had rainfall and soils suitable for forest, but over the centuries, Native Americans had gradually pushed back forest territory to greatly expand the prairie.  They maintained this highly productive prairie by burning it every few years, to kill young saplings.  It provided excellent habitat for bison and other delicacies.

Burning was a common practice in many regions of North America.  By A.D. 1000, the expansion of manmade tallgrass prairie had enabled bison to migrate east of the Mississippi River watershed for the first time.  By the 1600s, several million bison lived in a region spanning from Massachusetts to Florida. 

Shepard Krech wrote that along the east coast, there were oak openings (meadows with scattered trees) as large as 1,000 acres (404 ha).  Manmade grasslands in the Shenandoah Valley covered a thousand square miles (2,590 km2).  He noted that Indian fires sometimes had unintended consequences, when they exploded into raging infernos that burned for days, sometimes killing entire bison herds, up to a thousand animals. 

Lamar Marshall described the relationship between the Cherokee people and the bison.  The tribe resided east of the Mississippi River, and lived by farming and hunting.  Legends suggested that bison did not live there until sometime around A.D. 1400.  By then, the natives had significantly expanded grassland for hunting, and cleared forest for farming.  Game was especially attracted to rivercane pastures (canebrakes) that were burned every 7 to 10 years.  Marshall provided a map showing how huge North America’s bison range was in 1500. [Look]

Michael Williams noted that as the diseases of civilization spread westward, Indians died in great numbers.  They had zero immunity to deadly and highly contagious Old World pathogens.  Diseases spread westward far faster than the expansion of settlers.  Consequently, the traditional burning was sharply reduced, and forests were returning.  In 1750, they may have been bigger and denser than they had been in the previous thousand years.  When whites eventually arrived to create permanent agricultural communities, the happy regrown forests had to be savagely euthanized.

Arlie Schorger wrote about the vast manmade tallgrass prairies of southern and western Wisconsin, and the last bison killed there in 1832.  Some prairies spanned 50 miles.  Prairie was almost continuous from Lake Winnebago to the Illinois border.  Natives had been expanding and maintaining grassland for a very long time.  In 1767, white visitors observed “large droves of buffalos” on the fine meadows along the Buffalo River. 

By and by, devastating epidemics hammered the indigenous people who had maintained the grassland and hunted the bison.  Regular burning sputtered out.  The last bison seen crossing the Mississippi River, and entering Wisconsin, was in 1820.  By 1854, dense groves of 25 year old trees were joyfully reclaiming their ancestral homeland.  Unfortunately, these recovering forests had a bleak future, because they stood directly in the path of a rapidly approaching mob of merciless pale-faced axe murderers.  Shit!

Over the passage of centuries, the tallgrass prairies created topsoil that was deep and remarkably fertile.  Then came the settlers, with their plows and ambitions.  Plows are magnificent tools for destroying soil, and creating permanent irreparable damage.  Walter Youngquist wrote, “In the United States, half the topsoil of Iowa is now in the Mississippi River delta.”  Today, tallgrass prairie ecosystems are in danger of extinction, maybe one percent of them still survive.  Exotic freak show grasses like corn and wheat are far more popular and profitable than the indigenous tallgrass.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond mentioned his visit to a wee remnant of the ancient prairie that had somehow survived the plowman invasion, an old churchyard in Iowa.  It was surrounded by land that had been farmed for more than 100 years.  He wrote, “As a result of soil being eroded much more rapidly from fields than from the churchyard, the yard now stands like a little island raised 10 feet (3 m) above the surrounding sea of farmland.”


Bill Gammage described the Australia that British colonists observed in 1788, when they first washed up on shore.  That landscape was radically different from what it is today.  Early white eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks.  In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich.  Oddly, the Aborigines who inhabited the beautiful park-like Australian countryside were penniless illiterate bare-naked Stone Age antifascist anarchist heathens.  Their wealth was their time-proven knowledge.

In 1788, large areas of Australia had been actively managed by firestick farming, which greatly promoted habitat for the delicious critters that the natives loved to have lunch with.  The Aborigines used both hot fires and cool fires to encourage vegetation that was fire intolerant, fire tolerant, fire dependent, or fire promoting.  Different fires were used to promote specific herbs, tubers, bulbs, or grasses.  When starting a fire, the time and location was carefully calculated to encourage the desired result.  According to Gammage, most of Australia was burnt about every one to five years.  On any day of the year, a fire was likely burning somewhere.

The natives generally enjoyed an affluent lifestyle.  They had learned how to live through hundred-year droughts and giant floods.  No region was too harsh for people to inhabit.  Their culture had taboos that set limits on reproduction and hunting.  During the breeding seasons of important animals, hunting was prohibited near their gathering places.  Lots of food resources were left untouched most of the time, a vital safety net.  The Dreaming had two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it.

The white colonists were clueless space aliens.  Their glorious vision was to transfer a British way of life to a continent that was highly unsuited for it.  Australia’s soils were ancient and minimally fertile, and the climate was bipolar — extreme multi-year droughts could be washed away by sudden deluges.  But, they brought their livestock and plows and gave it a whirl.  They believed that hard work was a virtue.  The Aborigines were astonished to observe how much time and effort the silly newcomers invested in producing the weird stuff they ate.

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

Without burning, insect numbers exploded.  Without burning, fuels built up, leading to new catastrophes, called bushfires.  The Black Thursday fire hit on February 6, 1851.  It burned 12 million acres (5 million ha), killed a million sheep, thousands of cattle, and countless everything else.

Mark Brazil shared a story that was full of crap.  In Britain, cow manure was promptly and properly composted by patriotic 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.

Anyway, a continent inhabited by Stone Age people was substantially altered by firestick farming and hunting.  The Australia of 1788 was radically different from when the first humans arrived.  We’ll never know if continued firestick farming would have eventually led to severely degraded ecosystems.  Some serious imbalances can take a long time to fully develop.  Many attempts to deliberately control and exploit ecosystems have spawned huge unintended consequences over time.  The ultra-conservative indigenous kangaroos and wallabies were not control freaks, they simply adapted.

Gammage was fond of the Aborigines, because they were highly successful at surviving for a long time in a challenging ecosystem.  He was much less fond of the British colonists who, with good intentions, combined with no wisdom, were highly successful at rubbishing it. 

Baz Edmeades viewed the entire Australian experience through ecological glasses.  Fire reshaped the continent.  When humans first arrived, the north coast was home to dry forests that majored in araucaria trees.  Before long, they were displaced by fire-promoting forests that majored in eucalypts.  The original dry forests went up in smoke.  Extremely low-tech Stone Age people substantially altered the ecosystem.  We may never have a clear understanding of the early extinctions of the vertebrate megafauna and giant reptiles.