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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

When America was Young

Air Date: Week of

Author William MacLeish discusses his recent book The Day Before America. It's a survey of the continent's ecology in the years before the European settlers arrived.


CURWOOD: If wolf reintroduction is successful, Yellowstone will be a tiny reminder of what America was like before the appearance of Europeans. In fact, before the idea of America even existed. What those first Europeans saw before the forests began to be cleared, before most of the wildlife and the indigenous people were extinguished, intrigued author William MacLeish. His brilliantly crafted new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent.

MacLEISH: They saw pine trees, let's say 5 or 6 foot through and a couple of hundred feet high. They caught cod up to 200 pounds. There were jaguars in Florida; there were bison and elk in New York. There were millions upon millions upon millions of passenger pigeons. And when they roosted, they roosted in such great numbers that they broke the branches off the trees, and this is unbelievable stuff.

CURWOOD: But the landscape hadn't been untouched, though, when the Europeans came.

MacLEISH: Oh, absolutely not. One of the defining characteristics of the human being is that he or she is very curious and has these extraordinary attributes of opposable thumbs, and the three pounds of meat at the top of the neck which thinks pretty well. And you get going with these folks and they're, what they're trying to do, they want to meet their needs as best they can. How do they do it? And they've been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years. They set fires. Extremely good at this. This was diminished because first of all, the large, the mega-fauna, so called, the mastodons, the mammoths and the short-faced bear, very large mammals, were all gone. So there was a depletion in diversity between 12,000 years ago and 500 years ago. And of course an enormous depletion in diversity between 500 and now.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, Bill MacLeish, what sorts of values did the Europeans bring with them about natural resources?

MacLEISH: They brought with them at least 8,000 years of development in agriculture. Domesticated animals and the domesticated plants came together as an engine of survival, if you will, that moved into northern Europe, and the result was a remaking of the landscape of northern Europe. And another result was the creation of surpluses, storable surpluses, that would last the winter.

CURWOOD: Wealth.

MacLEISH: Wealth. Wealth meant towns, villages, kings, armies, new ways of thinking. Man the rational was coming into the idea of markets, the idea of surpluses, of a trade, and of acquisition, mostly of acquisition. And this is what came went to North America.

CURWOOD: And how would this affect what they did here?

MacLEISH: They looked and they saw the plenty here. And I think what happened to many of them is that they set about immediately turning what they saw into what they had been used to seeing in Europe. It's interesting to note, for example, that what took Europeans, let's say in northern Europe, 2005 years to accomplish in the way of transformation of landscapes, it took New Englanders, the early New Englanders, 250 years: one tenth of the time.

CURWOOD: My guest is William MacLeish; his new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent. And I want to ask you to assess, what you would see either the success or the failure of Europeans in North America.

MacLEISH: Success is a strange kind of a thing. It is no more permanent than failure. And we have set records that still remain in terms of city building and creating new forms of agriculture. All of this. And new forms of culture. And a huge economy, the most successful economy ever. And the question is, how far can you go? There are limits; there always are limits.

CURWOOD: So in Darwinian terms, in European mercantile terms -

MacLEISH: Yes -

CURWOOD: America is absolutely the biggest success story ever.

MacLEISH: No question about it.

CURWOOD: In native terms, though, not so? You have some references in your book where natives see the European exercise as a failure.

MacLEISH: Yes; this is a passage from the Native American writer Vine DeLauria, Jr., in a recent essay. Now he says, "In spite of severe oppression, almost complete displacement, and substantial loss of religion and culture, Indians have not been completely defeated. Indeed, the hallmark of today's Indian psyche is the realization that the worst has now passed, and that it is the white man, with his careless attitude toward life and the environment, who is actually in danger of extinction. From an Indian point of view, the general theme by which to understand the history of the hemisphere would be the degree to which the whites have responded to the rhythms of the land. The degree to which they have become indigenous. From that perspective, the judgment of Europeans is severe."

CURWOOD: Do you agree?

MacLEISH: I do. I think we are still living on the land; we are not living in it. Our cultures, our religions, our ethics, put us apart. And I find that a very dangerous place to be.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much for joining us.

MacLEISH: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Bill MacLeish's new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent.



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