Guilty Consciences
The fantasy of the Native American Eden

Illinois Times

May 19, 1994

The place of Illinois’s presettlement peoples in both nature and in history has long been (as the term now is) contested. This column is one of several occasions on which I examined the myth of the Native American as steward of an untrammeled nature.

 

In their 150-year tenancy of Illinois, modern humans have diminished the state in every way, save for getting rid of the mosquitoes and the French. It is less comely, less stable ecologically, and biologically less diverse (although the number of major presettlement plant and animal species known to have been extirpated is surprisingly small). But all organisms alter their environments to a greater or lesser extent. Even those that do not shop at K-Marts seek (knowingly or not) to create ecological conditions advantageous to themselves, and in the process create conditions disadvantageous for other species.

A popular fantasy imagines the presettlement peoples of Illinois dwelling in a state of perfect consonance with nature. The authors of a recent major study of biodiversity in the Great Lakes invoked it when they wrote, "The Native American lifestyle was compatible with the natural systems of the basin."

In fact, Indian lifestyles were not especially compatible with nature, as the authors went on to make clear. Small bands of Illinois' early human occupants typically "moved on when resources became stressed." Moving on only works when there is not another band living on the place you want to move on to. It was their small numbers that were compatible with the natural systems of the Great Lakes basin, not their lifestyle.

Indians are widely assumed to be genetically immune to the virus of progress. But archeologists' findings have undone their reputation for living in mystical oneness with the land. Where pre-European people were subject to population pressures on resources similar to those faced by Europeans of the same era, they appear to have responded in the same general way. In those eras when native Americans settled in large towns they apparently dramatically and often ruinously over-exploited local timber, game, and soils, which led to economic and social stress and and perhaps political decline.
 

The fact that Illinois is the Prairie State is thought to be owed to the deliberate, prolonged manipulation of the environment by presettlement peoples for economic ends. They regularly set fires to herd animals, for example, or to keep the forest from regenerating in cleared fields.

 
Perhaps more importantly, the use of fire as a management tool encouraged the spread of grasslands. Fire kills off seedlings, and encourages plants like annual grasses whose growth nodes, unlike trees, lie safely below the surface. Annuals grasses are quick to colonize disturbed landscapes; this spurred the generation of annual plants whose seeds the Indians coveted for food. The prairies encountered by the first Europeans didn't know it, but the prairies that so startled them were as artificial an environment as today's grain farm.

Climate was the ultimate force in favor of the tall grass, so disturbing the landscape that it was vulnerable to takeover by aggressive exotics, much the way today's Illinois landscape has been taken over by alien exotics from Eurasia. (Scarcely a plant in a prairie is native to Illinois.) Burning expanded this natural range unnaturally, by perhaps as many as two million acres. Prairie is often denigrated as weeds by skeptical modern Illinoisans; it may be that the Indians who knew the forested Illinois thought the same thing.
 

The exposure of the Indian as a heedless steward of the land does not obviate the belief among environmental puritans that humans are a pox on the planet; indeed it underlines it by making ecological mayhem multicultural. But Nature itself is constantly undoing its Edens, at the cost of local extirpations, even extinctions of species of all types. Nature kills off species all the time. Many of the endangered species in Illinois are endangered because they were abandoned by a changing climate; boreal species were left clinging to life in canyon bottoms or caves, for example, which are the closest thing extant to the cool, damp spruce-and-hemlock world that left Illinois heading north millennia ago.

Globally, the species responsible for the most striking change in the past three billion years was not marauding humans. It was acyanobacteria, photosynthesizing microbes who created the oxygen-rich atmosphere we know today. Oxygen was poisonous to life forms that predated these photobionts, which might well have been decried as polluters had the former been able to stiffen their slime enough to pen a letter to the editor. The photobionts drove then-dominant anaerobic microbes either into oblivion or into exile, where they persist today in sulfurous gases or the guts of animals.
 

False analogy, some would say. The difference between the human and the acyanobacterial intervention in the planet's ecosystems is the unprecedented pace of the former. Species caught in the wake of human progress simply do not have the time to adapt to the new conditions, and so perish.

True enough—as the argument pertains to photobionts. But rapid catastrophic change is hardly new on the face of the earth. James E. Lovelock, author of the Gaia thesis, has noted that in the last nearly four billion years the earth has survived nearly 30 planetesimal impacts devastating enough to destroy nearly half the life then present on it.

 

Nature is heedless and profligate compared to the plow, the drainage ditch, the automobile exhaust pipe, even the atomic bomb.  As Lovelock put it in a 1989 address, "What we are doing now by way of pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems is by comparison a minor upset."

Yes, but . . .  Plants dying out because the climate changes is one thing. That's natural and unavoidable in any event, unless, as remains possible, humans change the climate too. But plants dying out because humans drained a bog—that's different.
 

Or is it?  Is avoidable change blameworthy? Only if one assumes that any change to nature is wrong. science cannot answer that question, but it can tell us that an unchanging nature is unnatural. And if human intervention in nature is wrong, is it wrong to attempt to restore plowed-up prairies, or protect endangered species?

 

The photobionts went about making the world safe for their own kind in blissful ignorance. To assume that they would have done differently—that they would have sacrificed their own prospects for other species, or for the good of the larger system—would have been unnatural in the extreme. The difference between us and the simpler animals is not the largeness of our brain or the cleverness of our tools but the guiltiness of our conscience. ●

 

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state

(Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated