The fantasy of the Native American Eden
May 19, 1994
The place of Illinois’s presettlement peoples in 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 overexploited local timber, game, and soils, which led to economic 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, life safely below the surface. Annuals grasses are quick to colonize disturbed landscapes; this spurred the generation of annual plants whose seeds the Indians had learned to covet 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 tht 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. ■