Recently I have come across a few different articles that explain the difference between the idea of pristine wilderness, as Americans think of it, and how the people of pre-columbian America treated the world. Oldest of these is called "The Pristine Myth", and, besides examining the probable population density of the Western Hemisphere circa 1491, it explains the various ways in which the ancient peoples of this continent affected their environment, which was, in large part, to light it on fire.
Supposedly the fires that sustain the prairies were first set by humans, and likewise the forest landscape that English settlers moved through had been created by repeated burning of the underbrush. Modern Americans tend to think of the land as being either untouched and therefore inviolate, or touched and therefore soiled, judging only by their own example of mining the wildnerness to smithereens, and really do not understand what it means to live in harmony with the earth, assuming that it means to live lightly on the land, to yield and even to retreat entirely, perhaps to go extinct voluntarily. The use of fire as an agricultural tool suggests otherwise.
Harmony, after all, is two notes, differing in pitch yet complementing each other, each of them audible, neither clashing nor yielding. The resonance between the two makes something new. In the case of setting the underbrush on fire, one might say that the world is singing its note and humans are singing theirs, neither of them the same as they would be if they were alone.
Elsewhere (and alas, this recollection is unsourced) there was an article recounting how such fires were NOT unique to the Western hemisphere, but were, in fact, one of the first great tools humans had to make their environments more abundant for their needs. Burning the underbrush would drive out unwanted plants and allow for the promotion of more berries, among other things, as well as revealing the hidden burrows of smaller game. Fire could drive large game into traps or, most conveniently, off cliffs, and this may have been the preferred method of hunting before spears were ever invented.
The forest that exists under such methods of cultivation is not the forest I know, for the forest I know, as I stand before it, is an awful thing of dense underbrush, of green briars and rose briars, of plants with sticky seeds and vines that make a tangle I didn't notice until I walked into it. Sometimes I do walk into it and hope that I can duck under it and make it through, and it takes me five minutes longer than I expected. The forest I know is an unfriendly mess.
The forest I know has few berries, except at the edge. It is not abundant as I would call it, not a place I think I could forage. It does not sing in harmony with me. It exists unshaped for me or by me, and grows as it will.
The forest I know is a recent arrival, arising out of the ruins of the farms of New England, after their plowshares were taken to wider pastures in distant lands. Before, the horizon was far across the fields of corn, and here and
there were groves left for firewood. Before the English, in the years of the
Indians, the forests were great, and yet open beneath the canopy for being burned consistently. Now, the trees stretch their limbs over the stone walls, the only remnants left of the fields, and rose and greenbriar twine between the many saplings that shoot towards the light, as worms and beetles crawl through a litter of leaves that never disappears, only rots slowly as it is replaced year upon year. Now the cabins huddle within the woods, and the winding lanes to them have many blind curves. Now October spreads red and gold over all the land, the glory of sugar maples as they replaced the oak and hemlock and chestnut. Now the path through the woods is not a suggestion, but a law you break at your peril, for as soon as you realize you have made a mistake, you turn, and realize that the path has vanished from your sight, and may you find it again -- good luck.
Before, the horizon was far away in the hills. Now it is a hundred feet from you, in any direction, wherever you are.
These woods are not altogether new under the sun, for perhaps long ago, long, long ago, before humans knew these hills, the rose and the greenbriar ruled the shadows beneath the trees. But then the humans came and burned, for age upon age, and the forest was their partner, and it looked little like the arrogant tangle of now.
In that light, those who speak of the Anthropocene as a recent thing, as an emerging thing, are wrong. We have been reshaping the whole world in our image for a very long time. There are far too many people who would kill all and anyone to protect a Wilderness, never understanding that what they fight for is not truly natural -- for to put a wall between a people and a tract of land is to create a situation that has not existed in all the time our species has existed! No wonder the locals always refuse to keep away. They want to use the land, and roping it off is a damn waste of time, thank you very much.
No wonder the early advocates of American national parks were so often racist! They had built their idea of the wilderness out of their failure to understand the Indian way of using it. No wonder the World Wildlife Fund is sponsoring all manner of violence against poachers! It takes that much to maintain such an artifical system. No wonder the people who demand pristine wilderness now talk of wholesale slaughter! They have been led to believe that humans and the land cannot exist in harmony, so away must go the humans. They don't understand that woods and humans kept apart are both impoverished. The idea that the fiercest protectors of these "wild" lands are the people who live there never crosses their mind -- and they are not only left without local allies, but make plans that would see any potential local allies erased! What an awful waste of resources. No wonder the people who speak of wholesale slaughter also speak of making a pristine wilderness! Facists like their goddamn Liebensraum.
Meanwhile, I am left to disentangle my coat from the rose briar. It's tempting to grab a torch and burn all this underbrush but there's enough leaf litter around here to create a firestorm. I'll just have to bring a machete
next time I come.