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.
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.
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]
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.