Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery

Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery

by Steve Nicholls

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The first Europeans to set foot on North America stood in awe of the natural abundance before them. The skies were filled with birds, seas and rivers teemed with fish, and the forests and grasslands were a hunter’s dream, with populations of game too abundant and diverse to even fathom. It’s no wonder these first settlers thought they had discovered a paradise of sorts. Fortunately for us, they left a legacy of copious records documenting what they saw, and these observations make it possible to craft a far more detailed evocation of North America before its settlement than any other place on the planet.

Here Steve Nicholls brings this spectacular environment back to vivid life, demonstrating with both historical narrative and scientific inquiry just what an amazing place North America was and how it looked when the explorers first found it. The story of the continent’s colonization forms a backdrop to its natural history, which Nicholls explores in chapters on the North Atlantic, the East Coast, the Subtropical Caribbean, the West Coast, Baja California, and the Great Plains. Seamlessly blending firsthand accounts from centuries past with the findings of scientists today, Nicholls also introduces us to a myriad cast of characters who have chronicled the changing landscape, from pre–Revolutionary era settlers to researchers whom he has met in the field.

A director and writer of Emmy Award–winning wildlife documentaries for the Smithsonian Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and PBS, Nicholls deploys a cinematic flair for capturing nature at its most mesmerizing throughout. But Paradise Found is much more than a celebration of what once was: it is also a reminder of how much we have lost along the way and an urgent call to action so future generations are more responsible stewards of the world around them. The result is popular science of the highest order: a book as remarkable as the landscape it recreates and as inspired as the men and women who discovered it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226583426
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/01/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 536
File size: 667 KB

About the Author

Steve Nicholls has traveled the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean shooting wildlife films for viewers in the US and Europe, including Nature Tech, Alien Empire, Land of the Eagle, and Atlantic Realm. He has also been a producer for a number of series on PBS’s Nature. He holds a PhD in entomology from the University of Bristol.

Read an Excerpt

Paradise Found

Nature in America at the Time of Discovery

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 Steve Nicholls
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-58341-9

Chapter One

A Different World

For the last twenty-five years I've been in the happy position of earning my living by making natural history films, traveling the world to search out the rare and intriguing, working closely with local experts, from indigenous people to dedicated scientists, to bring stories from the natural world to as wide an audience as possible. Before that I've always been a naturalist, as far back into my childhood as I can remember, but, despite a lifetime of hands- on experience, nature frequently still surprises me, usually when I least expect it.

One such occasion occurred in Hungary, not long after it first peeked out from behind the iron curtain. Early in the morning I was driving toward the Kiskunsági Nemzeti Park when the urge to drink coffee forced me to pull over just outside a small village in the middle of what looked like undistinguished fl at farmland. As I unfolded myself from the small and cramped metal box that passed for a car, I was assaulted by a wall of sound. Well, perhaps most people would find that a slight exaggeration, but my ears are tuned by a lifetime's habit to hear birdsong, and what they heard on that day was truly spectacular.

Back home, in the southwest of England, the dawn choristers can certainly produce a wonderful performance, but I was astounded by the sheer volume and variety of those singers on the edge of the Hungarian Plain, a landscape superficially quite similar to that around my home. Thanks to the poverty of farmers unable to afford trailer loads of insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, I had just taken a step backward in time. As I sipped at a cupful of bitter brown liquid, I realized that my own backyard must once have sounded the same. And before I reached the bottom of the cup, my mind had wandered off around the planet, in contemplation of what nature must have been like a century ago, two centuries ago, five centuries ago. But just how different was this world of the past?

Most people are aware of recent extinctions: dodos from Mauritius, thylacines from Tasmania, great auks from the North Atlantic, passenger pigeons from North America. When you add to the tally all those obscure insects, spiders, mollusks, worms, and the rest, it is clear that the actions of humanity are drastically reducing the number of players in the game of life. Yet it is not all these missing species, these "gaps in nature" as Australian scientist Tim Flannery has called them, which make the natural world look so different now. If we really did have a time machine, I'm convinced it would be the sheer abundance of life that would startle any time traveler.

This is a much more elusive concept than extinction. Since extinction is an all or nothing event, you know, quite simply, that you will never see a living, breathing dodo or great auk. Abundance, on the other hand, is more subjective, reflected in something that has been called the "changing baseline syndrome." When, as children, we first become aware of our environment, we assume that what we see around us is the normal state of affairs. From that starting point, judging changes over our individual lifetimes is difficult enough; childhood summers always seemed warmer, butterflies more numerous, with more birds' nests and lizards to find. And maybe that really was the case. However, we are judging any changes against a different baseline from our parents, which is different again from our grandparents, and since we have no direct experience of their childhood baselines, our perception of how much has changed, our "gut feeling," must be somewhat incomplete. Over ten or twenty generations, the baseline can drift, unnoticed by most, until we step out of our time machine to stare openmouthed at a world we had no idea ever existed.

In the following chapters, I will paint a picture of what this world looked like in one particular corner of our planet: the North American continent. This is no arbitrary decision. It's a part of the world I know well; over the last twenty-five years, I've worked in nearly all the American states and Canadian provinces. But, more importantly, the changes that have so dramatically altered our world have been played out relatively recently here. It's only a little over five hundred years since European explorers stepped on to the shores of the Americas, and they've left us a vast legacy of documents that described the world they found, records that conjure up images of an extraordinary place, teeming with life.

Such visions of Paradise need to be seen through the filter of their historical context, since some were undoubtedly exaggerated, either for political or commercial reasons or simply for personal aggrandizement. Yet taken together, they do create a coherent picture of a very different world, and modern science points toward a similar conclusion. In the following pages, I will use recent advances in disciplines as varied as archaeology and molecular biology, to flesh out those firsthand historical descriptions. And the picture that all these sources illuminate is a startling one. In comparison to today, nature was vastly, almost unimaginably, more abundant, a perception that is key to understanding our modern relationship with the natural world. From fisheries management to the history of modern societies, the past abundance of nature turns out to be a crucial factor.

Humans, for all our technical ingenuity, are still firmly rooted in the natural world, yet the role that nature has played in shaping our history is often underplayed. In the first half of the twentieth century, ecologist and writer Aldo Leopold, often seen as the father of wildlife management, saw that history needed an ecological interpretation. Yet it is only in the last few decades that the interplay of nature and history has begun to be analyzed in a systematic way, giving birth to the discipline of environmental history. Understanding history is crucial to understanding the present and in planning the future. But, as a biologist, I would contend that all history is environmental. Every person ever born had to eat, and our ever- growing numbers depend on our waste products being recycled. Every action we take has some effect on the rest of nature, so we are as firmly entangled in the web of life as any other life form on the planet, whatever the view from a city apartment might look like.

Environmental historian Donald Worster has echoed Leopold's call but has also pointed out that to write an accurate environmental history means understanding nature not just in the present but in the past. So picturing this different natural world of the past is not just an idle exercise in speculation; it is vital in understanding our interactions with the rest of nature, a relationship on which—whether we like it or not—our ultimate survival depends.

Not that we are the first generation to notice that things have changed, or to try to create an image in our mind's eye of what the past might have looked like. In 1633, English traveler William Wood collected his observations on the landscapes of New England into a book called New England's Prospect. Wood described a land full of huge trees; luscious wild strawberries, currants, and gooseberries; vast forests teeming with a large variety of birds and mammals; and rivers so full of fish as to defy imagination. More than two hundred years later, naturalist, writer, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau came to live in these forests, at a place called Walden Pond, not far from his birthplace in Concord, Massachusetts. He had decided to live here alone in order to experience the wilderness firsthand, to learn to live deeply or as Thoreau himself puts it: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

He so enjoyed the experience that he stayed in his isolated cabin for two years and later gathered his thoughts into what became one of America's great classics of nature writing, Walden. During that time he came to know the woods of Massachusetts intimately. But later, when he picked up a copy of New England's Prospects he realized that his Walden wilderness was anything but. New England's prospect had changed considerably, and in a plaintive moment of realization, he wrote in his journal: "Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?"

One reason for writing this book is simply to evoke an image of a wonderfully different world, before it was "maimed," but that would be to grossly oversimplify the story. Inevitably such a picture raises two related questions that I will also address: why was it like this, and why isn't it now? The answers to these apparently simple questions are often surprising and will overturn some widely held beliefs. They will also take us into the intriguing area of human ecology in its broadest sense, a discipline that must draw on anthropology, social history, economics, and biology in equal measure.

Columbus didn't discover America; he simply ran into a continent already occupied by countless nations as varied in their lives as the ecology of the land they occupied. And, though many people still see the world that Columbus blundered into as pristine wilderness, the native people of the New World had long since wrought great changes in their land. This image of a land untrammeled by humans is such a powerful one that it became enshrined in American law when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into existence the Wilderness Act, allowing Congress to declare large blocks of land as "wilderness," in which, as well as other restrictions, no motorized vehicles or commercial activities are allowed. The purpose of the Act is, in its own words, "to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." But what was the "natural condition" of the land? Certainly not the land that Columbus "discovered." Columbus described the land he saw as "Paradise," but he didn't mean it was a virgin wilderness since he also described it as highly populated. Likewise, many of the areas now declared as wilderness under the Act were heavily managed by Indians and then later transformed again by European settlers. The Wilderness Act is an admirable sentiment, and any law protecting land from rampant development is to be applauded, but it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of past human ecology in North America, a view that has been termed the "Pristine Myth."

Yet this is still an oversimplification. The North American continent was vast, and population densities varied dramatically across different landscapes. Consequently, the effects of Indian management, intentional or otherwise, varied considerably. It is certainly true that the first explorers found a natural world of overwhelming abundance, but the extent to which this a truly "natural" abundance is another theme of this book.

It is also true that vast tracts of the continent were transformed quickly and dramatically after 1492. The reasons behind the overwhelming impact of the European invasion of the Americas and the subsequent sweeping changes that followed are also, ultimately, to be found in the different ecological relationships of people on the two continents. This intriguing story has been unraveled by Jared Diamond and summarized succinctly in the title of his book Guns, Germs and Steel.

In essence, thanks to their living on the largest land mass on the planet, endowed with a particularly suitable collection of plants and animals, humans on Eurasia were able to domesticate a larger variety of plants and animals than those on other continents. Eurasia was also unusual in its predominantly east-west axis, important because domesticates and associated knowledge could easily be transferred along zones of similar latitude and therefore similar ecology to fuel a kind of autocatalysis and a spectacular increase in both population and technology.

In Africa, and even more so in the New World, the essentially north- south orientation of the land masses produced bands of vastly different ecological zones that stopped such a rapid spread of agriculture. Built on the back of expanding agriculture, the more sophisticated technology of Eurasians translated into far superior weapons when they came face to face with the inhabitants of the New World. But the best weapon at their disposal was one they were unaware of—at least at first. Living in close proximity to a large variety of domestic animals, Eurasians became infected with a whole range of diseases that had jumped species and to which they gradually accumulated resistance. With no such long- term exposure, whole nations in the New World were wiped out by devastating epidemics when East met West. These factors set the stage for the inevitable transformation of the New World, but how that transformation actually happened is the final theme I will explore in the following pages.

The expansion of Europe into North America took place at a time when a new way of seeing the world was evolving in Europe, which is broadly encapsulated by the term "capitalism." The origins of capitalism have been much discussed but it's only recently that the role of ecology had begun to be incorporated into such ideas. According to environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, this philosophy of continual economic growth, a need for ever-increasing prosperity, is a relatively new phenomenon. Yet, its roots must run deep into prehistory, since, by definition, capitalism depends on the ability to accumulate capital and that only became possible when agriculture allowed humans to accumulate the most basic form of capital, surplus food, which could be traded for some form of currency.

The path that led to the modern capitalist paradigm of a free market economy seems to have begun sometime in the Middle Ages, though the forces that drove its birth remain unclear. Did medieval peasants laboring under a feudal system for their lords eventually degrade the land, forcing the evolution of a new kind of economy, or did capitalist entrepreneurs slowly force this philosophy on a reluctant society? These questions are beyond the scope of this book. However, the subsequent evolution of capitalism in North America emerges with startling clarity from the wealth of historical documents describing the reactions of Europeans to the different world they encountered on the far side of the Atlantic. The hugely abundant natural world of North America provided the raw capital to fuel the birth of new nations. Those same historical documents that allow us to build up a picture of past natural abundance also provide a stark and sobering illustration of the last five hundred years of our relationship with nature.

Environmental historian Donald Worster considers that one of the key ideas implicit in American history is that America was built in a rediscovered Garden of Eden, a Paradise of plenty. There are certainly plenty of "Edens," "Paradises," and "Gardens" scattered across the states, and such towns and cities continue the tradition of the very first European visitors to the New World who frequently described what they found as Paradise, often embellished to encourage others to follow. Yet in five hundred years, we have, in the words of Joni Mitchell, "paved Paradise, and put up a parking lot."

In the following chapters, I will describe the world that Europeans encountered when they crossed the Atlantic, their reactions to it, and the reasons for their subsequent impact. This long view of humans and nature will raise some important questions. How different were the relationships and attitudes of the original inhabitants of North America from the newcomers? What role did that play in the subsequent history of the continent? What can such a deep perspective bring to our modern environmental crises, and therefore how should an understanding of past abundance affect our approach to conservation?

I have arranged the chapters by environment, though with an eye to the broad sweep of historical exploration. Thus we start on the Atlantic coast and finish on the Great Plains. Each chapter is also structured around the chronology of discovery, exploration and exploitation of that environment though as an ecological history I have allowed biology to dictate the detailed structure where appropriate.


Excerpted from Paradise Found by STEVE NICHOLLS Copyright © 2009 by Steve Nicholls. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 A Different World

2 The Discovery of Paradise

3 Abundant Ocean

4 Sea of Whales

5 Living in Paradise

6 Angels from the North

7 Earthly Paradise or Earthly Hades?

8 Poll, Ben, and Martha

9 Souls and Furs

10 Gathering of Waters

11 A Sea of Islands

12 Islands in the Sea

13 La Florida

14 … To Shining Sea

15 Blessings Fit for the Use of Man

16 Rivers of Fish

17 Wilderness Cathedral

18 The Great Stillness

19 Devils in Paradise

20 A New World?


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