Aldo Leopold: The Ecologist and the Story of Job

Aldo Leopold. A Sand county Almanac and Essays on Conservation from Round River. Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz. Oxford University Press. 1966.

Image from Maxpixels.net

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

 – Aldo Leopold, Round River

Reading Aldo Leopold’s ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac, with my college classmates at our 50th reunion this fall, I made an unexpected connection to a much older story that also concerns humans’ relation to the wilderness. In an earlier blog post (https://nearctictraveller.blog/2019/06/26/the-book-of-job-traveler-in-a-strange-land/), I compared Job’s comforters’ understandings and Job’s understanding of God’s creation. Their conventional wisdom cannot satisfy Job, who has directly experienced disaster that he is certain cannot be punishment for any transgressions on his part. Misfortune pushed Job beyond the boundaries of human society, into “the place of the jackal.” When the voice from the whirlwind opens his eyes, Job sees that the world which God’s created works in ways that defy his and his friends’ concepts of right and wrong. 

Aldo Leopold also was forced to give up the comfortable sense humans know best what is right in the natural world and that all is manageable for human benefit. Leopold began his career as an ardent proponent of controlling wildlife for what he viewed as human interest, but also with an openness to a deeper experience of wild things. His revelation came on a mountain, far from human society. As he describes it, the fading of the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying she wolf revealed that his understanding had been too simple. In “Thinking like a Mountain,” he acknowledges that although he once sought to exterminate them, he came to recognize that wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, like Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, have a place in the world.  

Unlike the Job of the story’s ending, Leopold is not able to recover what he has lost. On the other hand, his suffering is neither so physical nor so personal. Instead, suffering comes from a growing recognition that the world’s wealth of ecological communities are being lost to human progress.

In the essay on cutting down an old dead oak tree for firewood, he uses the saw’s progress through the annual rings of the tree to recount all that has been destroyed over the century and more since the tree first grew. It’s a history of extirpation of many species, of vast changes in the landscape and of a few uncertain steps to save some of the remainder.

Like Job, Leopold wants to rebuild our human life on a new foundation of knowledge: the way the world works is deeply counter to our conventional wisdom. He makes this especially clear in his essay, “The Land Ethic,” where he calls for a new standard for judging our actions in relation to the ecological community. In the Old Testament, the voice out of the whirlwind commands Job to consider behemoth, “whom I made as I made you.” Behemoth and the other beasts described in that passage are as much a part of the world as Job and his friends. As he came to understand ecology, Leopold was similarly convinced that we are not a separate, privileged species, above the rest of the ecological community, but ordinary members and citizens of it. In other words, we are all in this together. 

Like all living things, we must live by exploiting other lives, at least to some extent. Unlike others, we can ask ourselves whether there are limits to exploiting the natural community beyond which we will be less just and less happy as a human community. Leopold cannot say for certain what those limits should be, though he can see plenty of examples of wanton and careless destruction that we do too little to prevent. What he feels sure of is that we ought to preserve at least some of all the components that make up the ecological community and that we ought to regard ourselves as part of it, not its masters.

The Book of Job wraps up the story neatly, I would say a bit too neatly, in the end. Is that because as some think, the redacted version has been made to fit into a conventional framework of religious piety, however bizarre that seems to make God’s actions? In any case, Leopold can have no such replacements for his losses, because they are not his alone, and it will take generations to stop the losses and begin to recover. For instance, the United States passed The Endangered Species Act, on paper one of our strongest environmental laws. Implementing it, however, has been an uphill battle against both lack of scientific understanding and determined resistance by those who must forego immediate gains. Even as we make incremental progress, habitat destruction, climate change and pollution are endangering ever more species.

The sentiment expressed in Round River is as true today as when Leopold wrote. To learn ecology is to come to realize how extensive the world’s wounds are. Let us hope that they can be healed.

The Book of Job, Traveler in a Strange Land

The Book of Job: a New Translation with In-Depth Commentary by Robert D. Sacks. Kafir Yaroq Books. Green Lion Press. 2016.

Robert D. Sacks’s new translation of and commentary on the Book of Job is a wonderful contribution to our understanding of this deeply strange and interesting book. In my notes, I want to highlight just a few particularly fascinating points:

The translation includes many extended glosses on words that are used in unfamiliar ways, to unravel the difficult ideas that the poet is trying to convey. For example, Sachs makes an extended comment on the familiar biblical passage(s) about future generations being responsible for the sins of their fathers. He says the word translated as“sins” or ”iniquity” is actually better rendered in English as something like perversion,and he cites several other places where this word appears that make this clearer. Then he refers to a couple modern examples of the sorts of wrongs he thinks are meant to be understood, one of which is slavery in the United States. I find that makes a lot of sense; the whole problem of slavery and its aftermath is a perversion of which Americans are often unconscious or in denial. Furthermore, one can assume this burden simply by becoming a citizen of this country; even recent immigrants, by joining American society, acquire the responsibility. The same, Sacks says, applies to the debt we owe Native Americans. [See my post on Exiles of Florida ]

 A second point, central to the story, is the contrast between Job’s friends’ understanding of his sufferings and his own sense of injustice. The friends connect what has happened to the received wisdom of the tradition, which assures them that a good man cannot be made to suffer unjustly. Job is convinced that he has done no wrong. He has begun to see a world that is, in its workings, quite likely to inflict misery and loss on even those who have done nothing wrong by the traditional standards, and even on those whose conduct has been exemplary. He begins to think that for his suffering to make any kind of sense, he has to exile himself beyond the boundaries set by the tradition of orderly, civilized human life. Beyond lies a wild place, the “place of the jackal” or the “shadow of death.” The fourth speaker, Elihu, urges him not to venture there, because no human can face the raw power of God; Job must simply submit and hide himself from such terrors. Still, Job insists he wants to know what it is he has failed to grasp.

Job gets his answer from the voice out of whirlwind: the marvelous chapters 38-41 lay before him the sublime beauty and terror of the world before and beyond the human. Central to this wonder is the revelation that God caused all this to come to be by allowing things to develop according to their own generating, birthing and nurturing principles. Sacks points out that while there is some reference to God making and measuring out boundaries, there is much more emphasis on things developing by their own internal causes. He says that here we get the idea of nature, working autonomously, giving birth to a vast range of beings that do not conform to man’s needs or sense of what is right, but exist free and for their own ends. Some are untamed versions of domestic animals like asses and oxen; some are wild and fierce even when used by man, like the war horse; some appear to be laughably foolish, like the ostrich, and some, behemoth and leviathan, are simply beyond human power. What is revealed by the voice is a world beyond the human, one that man can never tame and whose sublimity means it would be unjust to do so even if it were possible. In this, Sacks argues for the sacred character of wild nature. We can and must learn from it, but we can’t control it. The poet of Job is the quintessential ecologist.

[As an aside, I have always liked the Revised Standard Version’s identification of Behemoth and Levithan with the hippopotamus and crocodile. Both existed in Israel, the hippo until the Iron Age (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005316) and the crocodile until the 20th century, so it seems reasonable to think that they were known to the Job poet. I think that ties in well to the idea that although some these beasts (including the ostrich, according to Sachs) are tamed by humans, there is much that is beyond what humans can manage. Somehow, it seems better to end with something palpably real, if exotic, rather than mythical, as behemoth and leviathan are often depicted. It is surely wrong to imagine leviathan as a whale: whales aren’t covered in plates or scales and don’t sprawl in the mud except if dead or helpless.]

Sachs makes another point here: leviathan, “king over all the sons of pride,” although utterly awe-inspiring, is closed up in his impenetrable armor – nothing gets through to him. He rules this realm by the shear weight of his power. Job is the opposite: he is open and can see and absorb the wonder of the natural. By being open to the beauty and terror, Job comes to understand both the other and himself. He can operate in his human realm through love and understanding. In the end then, Job returns to the human world, where he helps his friends atone for their ignorant advice. He is able to receive condolences for the loss of his children and his suffering, and he can rebuild his fortunes.

Sacks ends by pointing out that Job’s acceptance of the importance of the birthing and nurturing power of the womb, expressed in many of the images from chapters 38 to 40, produces a change in how he treats his daughters.  He gives the three an inheritance alongside his sons, in contrast to the prevailing custom that daughters get only dowries. This, I think, is an example of what Sacks means by saying that the voice from the whirlwind has revealed to Job a realm that operates by laws unlike the received human tradition, and Job must remember those lessons as he rebuilds his life in the human world. I like his observation that Job has become aware of a realm in which he is utterly insignificant, which, however, contains possibilities for “love and laughter” that can inform the world in which Job matters very much.

The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.

Looking for the Logos of Life VIII: Organism and Superorganism

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. Harper Collins. 2016.

IMAGE: Wolbachia inside an insect cell

Who are we really? A question with a thousand answers, one being that we metazoan animals are large collections of cells, descended from a single fertilized egg cell, and organized into tissues, organs and systems, forming an individual. But, like any other object that contains nutrients and and energy ( and we contain a lot of both) we are also a good habitat for other kinds of living things, especially small, unicellular ones. In fact, there are more cells in our body of other kinds, with different DNA and different ancestry, than there are human cells. Most of them live in our intestines, but there are lots in and on every surface exposed to the outside, from our scalp to our toes.

What are they doing? Until 1676, when van Leeuwenhoekdescribed seeing microbes for the first time, we knew nothing of these guests on and within us (nor our own cellular structure) Cell theory did not become a standard tenant of biology until the mid-nineteenth century, and the germ theory of disease followed decades later. For a considerable period after that, microbes enjoyed very bad press, but it gradually emerged that these organisms were in fact mostly benign and possibly even essential to our well being.

We are not alone, of course: microbes are everywhere on and in plants and animals, including in microbes themselves. This book nicely recounts what has been learned about the manifold, complex ways microbes, especially bacteria, are woven into the fabric of the biosphere.

From the way bacteria form the luminescent organs of squid to how the sugars and antibodies in mothers’ milk regulate development of human infants’ digestive and immune systems, nourishing some bacteria and discouraging others, Yong shows the many ways animals depend on symbionts.

With the development of fast and cheap genome sequencing techniques, we can now characterize the microbiome, as it is called, for many organisms in detail. What has emerged is what Darwin described in his famous image of the tangled bank: an intricate network of ever evolving relationships among multitudes of actors, all struggling to survive and replicate under varying circumstances. Since we also know that gene sequences are exchangeable, just like energy and nutrients, from one organism to another, it is not too surprising to read of frequent exchanges among the microbes and sometimes between them and their hosts.

We also know, thanks to Lynn Margulis, that we still carry the highly evolved symbionts that first came together to build our eukaryotic cells from prokaryotic bacterial cells, a billion and more years ago. Our energy transforming mitochondria are the best known example, along with plants’ chloroplasts.

Not all relationships are benign: apart from acute and chronic infections, some fatal, there are lots of suggestive associations between for example, gut microbes and obesity, autoimmune disease and cancer. But at least we aren’t insects or worms, who frequently have their tiny lives disrupted by the almost ubiquitous Wolbachia, a bacterial symbiont that can twist their sex and reproduction in bizarre ways, but in other cases provides essential nutrients the host can’t make or facilitates the bugs’ own parasitic relations to plant or animal victims.

All this has practical implications, of course. If we could understand the workings of our relationships to microbes, we might be able to control some of the pathologies mentioned above. We might be able to provide better alternative nutrition for infants whose mothers can’t or won’t nurse them. We might be able to modify other organisms or build artificial ones to better suit our needs (see the review of Underbug in Science) for chemicals, food, etc. Of course, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as witness the current interest in “probiotics,” whose benefits are largely unproven, or the even grosser move to fecal transplants. I’m not sure we are ready to safely manipulate our own microbiomes yet.

On a sounder footing, there are pilot studies of using Wolbachia to control the spread of dengue fever by mosquitos. Wolbachia prevents mosquitoes from carrying the virus, so releasing Wolbachia infected mosquitoes has been successful in reducing transmission of the disease. On the other hand, using antibiotics to kill symbiotic Wolbachia that enable filariasis worms to attack humans has resulted in the first successful treatment for elephantiasis.

The key thing, as my microbiologist father passed on to me from his idol, Theobald Smith, is to understand the ecology of the symbiotic relationship. In the Wolbachia-filaria relationship, there is a bit of love hate. Specifically, the worm has to have its own ways of stopping Wolbachia from becoming a parasite instead of a mutualist. If we could learn to manipulate those natural controls, we might have a way to trick the worm into eliminating Wolbachia and hence, ending its own ability to survive in its human host. Then even people who can’t take a long course of powerful antibiotics could be cured.

So much for the practical implications, of which these examples are just the tiniest hint. What does this new understanding tell us about the logos of life? Are there profound consequences for our self understanding in the realization that we contain multitudes?

I think that nothing here undermines the basic Darwinian conception of evolution by natural selection. Exponential growth (resulting in a struggle for existence) and genetic variation in populations lead to natural selection within these communities of organisms. The question seems to be what are the units on which selection acts? In the case of symbionts transmitted from parent to offspring and that can’t be expelled, it is likely, as is obvious with mitochondria, that the partnership as a whole must be what is acted on. Where the partners are acquired from the environment and can be lost and replaced, it seems to make more sense to think of coevolution, with each as a component of the environment of the other.

It’s reasonable to think that there must be a spectrum of such relations from purely casual and opportunistic to completely integrated. Is there a tendency for relationships to evolve towards complete integration? Lynn Margulis seemed to think so; she believed that such symbiogenesis was a more significant phenomenon than natural selection. I think that the logic of the process indicates otherwise. Self replication is the fundamental process; integration occurs when divergent lineages converge because of mutual advantage in the struggle for existence.

The accompanying loss of independence doesn’t matter. Very few organisms are totally independent of others. Research suggests that most animals are parasites, if we include plant parasitic herbivores, and so they require a host or hosts to survive. Even scavengers and plants rely extensively on fungi and bacteria to release nutrients. Many fungi, in turn, are dependent on symbiosis with plants. That’s probably the main lesson here: the biosphere is a web of interdependent organisms, and the best way to live is with as much help as possible. As Red Green says, “we’re all in this together.”

Note: Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, also deals with symbiosis and the lives of some of the most socially integrated of organisms, the termites. Termites provided some of the earliest studied examples of complex symbiotes: the amazing protists in their guts possess a whole array of bacterial symbiotes themselves that enable them, and hence the termites, to digest wood. The so called advanced termites have gone another route, letting gardens of fungi in their giant nests do the work of digestion, just like the equally remarkable leaf cutter ants.

This book deals mostly with the many lines of research inspired by termites, more so than the details of their ecology and evolution. Still, it is a fascinating story about how we humans are expanding our own possibilities by looking closely at complex organisms. For more, see the review in Science.

Discordant Visions

The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

I listened to the Audible edition, which was read with a great effort to sound dramatic and to pronounce every foreign name or word with a perfect accent, both of which I found distracting.

What is the right term for the series of issues that came to public attention in the last half of the 20th century? That is, those that involved the increasing human population, economic growth and intensive exploitation of the natural world, climate change, pollution, etc? Collectively, they can be characterized as “environmental,” but to say this was the era of environmentalism doesn’t exactly fit. Many of those involved would reject the label, “environmentalist,” seeing themselves as biologists, economists, social scientists, or ecologists in the narrow, scientific sense. The older label, “conservationist,” would fit some, but not all those involved. I don’t have an answer to the problem of saying in a word what this book is about.

Mann tries to sum up the tensions and perplexities of this broad historical phenomenon by following the lives and careers of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. The first was a conservationist in the old sense, involved with groups like Audubon and author of an influential book in the late 1940s, Road to Survival, a neo-Malthusian polemic on population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. He was a major influence on Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the book often cited as the major impetus behind Earth Day 1970. The second was a midwestern born and educated plant breeder who developed wheat resistant to stem rust and then added further improvements that greatly increased yields. First in Mexico, then in other developing countries, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this work became the basis of the green revolution, and Borlaug received a Nobel prize.

Mann treats these contrasting stories as exemplars of the familiar dilemma: can science and technology allow us to keep expanding human demand, or do we need to reduce demand, primarily by stopping population growth and cutting our per capita consumption? He considers this in relation to four domains that he labels earth, air, fire and water, that is, food and agriculture, climate change, energy generation and water supply. For each he describes the “wizard,” approach – Borlaug – and the “prophet,” approach – Vogt. He takes us through technological solutions being developed by modern day wizards, and then tells us the views of modern day prophets, who say these solutions won’t work and who propose “greener,” more “sustainable” solutions of their own. At the end, he attempts a synthesis, but it is not clear whether there is a way to reconcile such starkly contrasted views. What I found interesting was not so much the contrast as the similarity between their conceptions of the way through the difficulties, or even catastrophes, they envisioned. Both saw the critical decisions as coming from the top, through national or international governing bodies, staffed by experts, although the experts in the two cases would be applying very different principles.

The trouble with this is that such solutions quickly lose sight of human values like equity and freedom. The green revolution greatly increased food supplies, but also largely destroyed small farmers’ lives and led to the growth of the developing world’s mega cities, with their sprawling shanty towns. Attempts to rein in growth often seem to place the heaviest burdens on the poorest people, while protecting the lifestyles of the already well off. At best, affluent folk get a steady bombardment of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda, along with promotions for exotic ecotourism destinations.

Economic liberalism and the global market economy have no use for restraint, so if there are limits to growth, it’s hard to see how the free market society can avoid hitting up against them. If there aren’t any limits, as many still insist, at least in the immediate future, does that mean we should continue to allow things to develop? In an earlier post, Climate Change, Equity and Security, I considered how a sustainable future might be possible, if more attention were given to equity in development, through the imposition of clear and simple limits (on speed, on emissions, etc.) to restrain the growth of inequity and waste, while leaving room for individual freedom and innovation. Likewise, efforts to constrain the growth of economic inequality could also ease some of the current threats to the global environment. Poverty seems to me to be a major driver of population growth, because it delays the demographic transition that rich countries have gone through.

People certainly need the vision, knowledge and advice of scientists like Borlaug and Vogt, but I’m not sure that they alone can offer solutions to the complicated collection of problems that result from human flourishing on Earth. The economic miracle of the green revolution, coupled with humanity’s incredible endurance, has enabled us to escape the catastrophe that Vogt foresaw, but it seems very clear to me that sooner or later we will exhaust nature’s resilience and human patience. Whether it is grain, meat, cars or human souls, more can’t always be better. We need to think more deeply about what we really need from the Earth and how, as free people, we can sustain our life together.

Despite the limitations of his either/or framework, Mann makes the stories of these two men interesting enough for a good read. You can enjoy those parts of the book, and skip the earth, air, fire and water, if you like.

When Worlds Collide

The_Conquest_of_Tenochtitlan

The Conquest of Tenochtitlan  And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before. . . .I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world…. But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing. True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1580)

1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2006 by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2011 by Charles C. Mann

These two books form a pair of inquiries, first into what the New World, comprising the nearctic and neotropical biogeographic realms, were like prior to the coming of Europeans (and Africans) after 1492 and second into what the resulting “Columbian exchange,” wrought in biological and cultural terms across the world.

Mann collected the latest scientific and historical evidence from a wide range of first hand sources, mostly working archaeologists, anthropologists, demographers, historians and others. He traveled through North, Central and South America to see the discoveries that are changing our notions about the human population of the Americas from the end of the ice ages to the present. He revisited the first hand accounts of the earliest European explorers, who often reported densities of human settlements that were disbelieved by those who followed just a couple of generations later, after European diseases had depopulated vast regions. He recounts the epic battles of the scientific past: how new discoveries were often flatly denied by the powerful authorities of the time, even in the face of hard evidence. Some academic scientists took all the credit for discoveries which were originally made by amateurs and lay people. The history of Native Americans has been contested ground for centuries, and now the Native Americans themselves are becoming more deeply involved, not always, as far as I can see, on the side of the best science. This may partly be blamed on postmodern and post colonialist concepts of truth, but a lot is simply the difficulty of making sense of the evidence. Betty Meggars, author of Amazonia: Nature and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, which I greatly admired as a young ecologist, is an example of someone who, at the time 1491 was published, opposed the idea that humans could have lived in the Amazon Basin in large settlements with permanent, as opposed to shifting agriculture. I think her basic ideas about ecological limitations are sound, but it seems as if she was refusing to see that the ecology of the Amazon forest was more complex than was understood in the 1970s. Since those early days of the save the rainforest movement, we have learned a lot about the Amazon and other forests that contradicts ideas about primeval forests, undisturbed for centuries, being what Europeans encountered as they ventured to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Many environmentalists are reluctant to accept these findings, because they rightly fear that they could be used to justify unregulated exploitation by destructive modern methods. Still, I see no use in denying hard won understanding. I, for one, accept the idea that across the earth, humans have played a much greater role in  shaping the landscape and for a longer time than we previously believed. Mann’s detailed accounts of the latest understanding of life of Native Americans prior to 1492 point to just how much was lost in the collision between the peoples, plants, animals and diseases of two formerly isolated realms.

Mann’s second book, 1493, takes up the story to try to see how this fatal, but pregnant, collision transformed the rest of the planet. Central to this was trade: the rapid exchange of all sorts of goods, including new crops, new livestock and unfortunately, new pests and diseases across the globe. The trade was facilitated by the new sea routes opened up, especially the Spanish route from Mexico to Manila, made possible by the vast deposits of silver and gold in the new Spanish colonies. Chinese silks and porcelin flowed east to New Spain and then Europe, while silver, especially, flowed to China. Along with the coin went crops like maize, chili pepper and sweet potato, whose conquest of Asian diets Mann details. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, sugar, tobacco and later, cotton began to flow to Europe, made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans. Transplanted Europeans, their crops and their livestock began to replace the native populations from Argentina to Quebec, remaking the landscape in a melded version of the old and new. Escaped slaves formed a crucial part of the ecological and cultural heritage of areas like Brazil and the southeastern US (see my post on Exiles of Florida).

All this history and ecology, so different from what I learned in school, and even as a graduate student forty years ago, is a reminder that very little of our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit can be taken as fixed and certain. Perhaps my favorite bit of revisionist history in either book is the notion that the famous passenger pigeon did not darken the skies in vast flocks containing billions of birds back before Columbus. Instead, it rocketed to huge numbers when the demographic collapse of Native Americans led to a regrowth of deciduous forest across formerly densely inhabited landscapes in eastern North America. How do we know they were not so abundant back in the day? Because passenger pigeon bones are scarce in archeological sites from pre-Columbian times, despite the historical fact that the birds were good to eat and easy to obtain in the early 19th century.

There were surely be further developments in this fascinating field of inquiry, but for now, these two books are not a bad place to begin.

Life with Lepidoptera

Peter Marren. Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

This was subtitled “Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies,” when it was first published in the UK in 2014. The Chicago edition has a preface for American readers, making some comparisons between the American and European faunas. He briefly mentions the great American collectors of the nineteenth century (see my post from February 2015) and introduces his favorite butterfly lover, Vladimir Nabokov, to whom he will return  throughout.

Marren begins with personal recollection and reflection on his early days as a butterfly collector: the joys of pursuit and capture, the thrill of discovering a new species to add to his collection and the less easily expressed delight of simply being alive and out in a world inhabited by beautiful, delicate beings.

In discussing this aesthetic joy and recounting the history of the long fascination that butterflies have exerted on the minds of human beings, Marren does a great job of presenting the collectors, artists and writers who left behind a record of their pursuits. Among those he most admires are the Rothschilds, who have probably done more for entomology than any of the other great families of England. Nine different members are listed in his index. His account of the lives and works of the many notable painters and engravers of butterflies, from the late Renaissance to the 21st century, reminds us of the enormous labor involved and the many disappointments and financial failures that dogged their efforts. It is very helpful to have a computer or tablet handy while reading this chapter, so you can search out examples of work by Moses Harris (see example above) Henry Noel Humphries, F.W. Frohawk, Richard Lewington and David Measures. The book itself has only monochrome illustrations of butterflies in the chapter headings.

I was rather less taken by Marren’s attempt to write a literary, cultural and psychological history of the passion for butterflies. The familiar identification of the soul (psyche) with a butterfly and the various ways butterflies appear in poetry do not seem to add up to much in terms of understanding human responses to the natural world. Nor do his forays into mythology make compelling reading for me. His accounts of the people who established our understanding of the lives of butterflies are much more interesting. The tribulations of women who shared the passion are especially telling: from Lady Glanville whose interest in butterflies was grounds for suspecting her sanity and thus contesting her will, to her successors in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, who contributed much to entomology, despite a “men only” attitude among most organizations and institutions.

One of the best features of this book is Marren’s fascination with the names that people have given to butterflies over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Here, I think his cultural reflections are on firmer ground. Besides, the names are just amazing and fun to wonder about. Why is a beautiful flying insect called a red admiral or a golden hog? He also comments on how names and naming conventions have changed over the centuries. Luckily, we have the Linnean system to impose a more or less uniform system so serious students can keep things straight.

Marren also does a fine job of describing the butterflies themselves and their habitats all across England and Scotland. He talks about the plants they rely on and the plant communities they inhabit, with much attention to how changing ecology, driven by modernizing agriculture and the rise of suburbs, have affected species, some for the better, but more for the worse. His 12th chapter on butterfly monitoring and preservation efforts is one of the best reflections on the dilemmas of trying to maintain and protect natural habitats that I have read in a popular work.

Marren chronicles the decline of butterfly collecting as a hobby and even as a scientific endeavor in Great Britain. More and more areas prohibit collecting, and more and more of the public is openly hostile to the idea of killing and preserving butterflies. Marren’s own collection from his youth in the 1950’s and 60’s was accepted by the Natural History Museum, because well-documented specimens from the latter part of the 20th century are scarce and valuable records of the state of the fauna, which help scientists today understand how things have changed. The anti-collecting bias of many current environmentalists and natural history enthusiasts is understandable, given the decline of so many species, but largely misguided, at least if they care as they claim to, about protecting these natural wonders. We need more solid documentation, not less, for butterfly populations, and although photographs and even unvouchered reports can be helpful, serious conservation needs specimens to verify what it is that is there and to enable us to trace the shifting makeup of populations. As Marren makes clear in his chapter on efforts to save England’s butterflies, simply trying to freeze things in place is a sure route to failure. Too many organizations and agencies, at least here in my home state, still seem to think that way, though.