Our mythology claims that we are a nation carved from the wilderness. The pioneers pushed through trackless forests to “people” a continent, facing bears, wolves, mountain lions, and Indians along the way.
If you raise any objections to the preceding list of menaces, you will be accused of political correctness and other sins against true patriotism. After all, the myth tells us, while Indians are people, they were few, scattered, and primitive. They eked out an existence just a small step above the animal level. They were at the mercy of natural forces and had to get by on what they could scrape up from nature. They had little impact on the world around them.
The myth feeds the national ego. The pioneers had to be courageous, persevering, resourceful, and industrious to survive on the real frontier. On our mythological frontier, only superhumans had a chance. The myth also disposes nicely of a serious historical problem. If this was an empty land just awaiting our arrival, then we don’t have to face any awkward questions about what happened to the people who used to live here.
Historians have been poking holes in this national myth for generations, although little of their work reaches the high school textbooks where most of us learn our history. Historians know that people were scarce in eastern North America after 1600 because diseases brought by the newcomers wiped out most of the indigenous population. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, they moved right into an abandoned Indian town. They were able to bring in a crop for the first Thanksgiving because they could plant without first having to go through the arduous work of clearing the land. They also had help from an Indian named Squanto, who spoke English because he had been to Europe at least once and possibly twice–the second time courtesy of European slave traders.
While the historians chipped away at one aspect of the myth, biologists, anthropologists, and geographers have been attacking it from their perspectives. The historians tell us that the natives were more numerous and much better organized than our mythology allows. The imprint of humanity on the landscape in the form of towns, farms, and trails was widespread. Now the scientists are telling us that the landscape itself was to a considerable extent a human creation.
The story they tell begins with a new understanding of fire, the first great force applied to the landscape by humans. In the 50s the overwhelming consensus was that fire was a wholly destructive force. How could people apply fire to the landscape repeatedly without killing everything, themselves included? Racist assumptions about ecological understanding possessed by the Indians raised the level of skepticism about whether the indigenous people had made deliberate use of fire as a land-management tool.
But during that decade, scientists investigating the use of fire published strong challenges to the prevailing view. Here in the midwest, John Curtis, in The Vegetation of Wisconsin, recognized the importance of fire to the health of the tall-grass prairie and also drew on a variety of historical sources to show that burning the prairie was an annual practice of Native Americans.
In the years since Curtis wrote, biologists have discovered that fire plays an important role in sustaining many terrestrial ecosystems. The anthropologists have been looking at ways that burning helps people draw their sustenance from the land, and that investigation has lead to the realization that burning is only one of a number of techniques that Native Americans used–and in some cases, still use–to gain the resources they need.
The most intriguing discussion of the subject I have found is in an anthology titled Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Edited by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson, the book presents papers by 22 anthropologists on subjects ranging from fisheries management to the ways Native Americans maximized sources of fiber for making baskets.
Europeans had a special disdain for the California Indians, perhaps because the Californians did not employ conventional agriculture. Early historical accounts by both Spanish and Anglo writers are filled with scathing remarks about the general ignorance, shiftlessness, and stupidity of the natives. Today’s anthropologists can read between the lines of these accounts thanks to a century of interviews and studies by their predecessors and the ecological knowledge developed by biologists. Now we can surmise that the native Californians did not adopt agriculture because it would have been a step down. Why tie your whole future to a handful of domesticated crops when you can draw on dozens of different wild plants that thrive because you manage the land in a way that makes them thrive?
Early Spanish expeditions were met by natives bearing gifts of foods the Spaniards described as “tamales,” although they were not made of maize. The grains in those tamales were native grasses. The Indians used many species; some, according to the Spanish accounts, had seeds as large as kernels of corn. The suppression of fire, which began more than 200 years ago under the Spanish, combined with the introduction of exotic species, may have driven some of these grasses to extinction. Others hang on in tiny corners of their former range.
The Spanish wrote of Indians setting fires to drive game, but the use of fire to control animals was more subtle than that. The chaparral landscape in the southern part of the state is a mixture of shrubs and herbaceous plants. On lands that have not been visited by fire for some years, the tough-leaved shrubs take over, driving out the grasses and wildflowers. Deer find little to eat in these unburned lands. Fire knocks back the shrubs and stimulates the growth of herbaceous plants. The fresh green grasses–and the tender leaves and stems of new sprouts from the shrubs–draw all the deer in the neighborhood. The Indians burned the chaparral in patches. Deer were attracted to the patches, so the people always knew where to find deer.
Acorns were a staple for California Indians. They ground them into flour for baking or ate them in gruel. Acorns–especially the acorns of the black oak group–are high in tannin. As a result they are bitter and mildly toxic, but the Californians developed a leaching process that got rid of the tannin.
The Californians used fire as a way to promote the growth of oaks. In many parts of the state, the oaks would have been overtopped and killed by pines if fire had not kept the pines down. But they did not plant any oaks. The time between planting and acorn production could be 50 years, much too long for even the most farsighted planter. Anthropologist Helen McCarthy quotes a Mono woman’s laughing reply to the question of why she did not plant any oaks: “I would be dead before it was grown. Let the blue jays do the planting; it’s their job.”
California Indians are famous for their basketry. They weave cradle boards for children, cooking baskets that are actually waterproof, giant storage baskets for keeping food through the winter. (It does seem that those contemptuous early observers would have realized that people who needed food storage baskets the size of 55-gallon drums did not need agriculture.)
The baskets are mostly made of the stems of shrubs, and to get a good crop of stems you need regular burns. Without burning, shrubs tend to grow in short stems with lots of lateral branches. Making a basket out of these things is a real project, because the short stems have to be woven together before they can be combined to make the basket. According to Kat Anderson, who contributed an essay to the collection, “Branches from wild plants bear the marks of age–they are gnarly, insect-infested, and crooked, with cracked, mottled, moss-covered bark. A cooking basket made with such branches would never hold water.” Burning produces tall, straight stems with few branches, ideal material for good baskets.
Some of the finest basketry is woven from the roots of sedges. These grasslike plants spread by growing roots laterally. The roots give rise to new shoots, and eventually the connection between the mother plant and her offspring is severed by the death of the root. The basket makers know that the best roots are between one and three years old. They want long, straight roots. Roots develop curves and kinks when they run into hard soil or rocks, so the basket makers work the soil to make it easily permeable and remove rocks to help the roots stay straight. A bed that is harvested regularly is more productive than one that is neglected.
The California natives quoted in Before the Wilderness are very clear in their belief–a belief validated by long experience–that people can live on the land without destroying it. And, like the blue jay with its acorns, we humans have a job to do, a task to perform to keep the whole biosphere humming. If we don’t hold up our end, things will fall apart. Kat Anderson quotes Grace Tex of the North Fork Mono: “A plant with a purple flower would come out like daisies. We’d dig the bulb before it flowers and eat it like a potato. There used to be lots in those days. Nobody’s digging them like they used to–that’s why they’re not as plentiful.” o