Friday, February 10, 2012

Bringing Wilderness Home

Originally published February 7, 2011

Two stories. One declares emphatically, with no trace of doubt: everything belongs to us. It is a story of conquest and control and ownership. This is our story, what I call the central organizing myth of our culture. All the land on the continent belongs to someone. Our land belongs to us. Not to you, not to the trees, not to the deer, not to the mosses, not to the ferns, not to the ruffed grouse. No one but us has any claim to it. We have the full force of a government and, should push come to shove, unprecedented killing technologies under the rule of law that we can call upon to defend our rights of ownership.

The other story says more humbly, more socially: we belong to the land. We are one part of the community of life. More specifically, we belong to the forest, for on our land forest is the ecology that life organizes itself into. We—Tanya and I and our two children—were born into the first story, so by birth, upbringing, and cultural habit, it is our story. But we prefer the other story, and we are trying to find ways to more fully make it ours.

On land all over the planet some version of these two stories is being played out. Look and listen to the land anywhere, and it’s usually not difficult to discern which story has the upper hand. On our land, our 8 acres on the coast of Maine, variations on these two stories have defined the landscape and the people on it for the past 12,000 years. Before that the land was under ice up to a mile thick, and before that, if current archaeological evidence holds, the land was truly a wilderness, unpopulated by human beings for all the rest of its history.

When the explorer Verrazzano landed on the coast of Maine in 1524, he noted that the natives didn’t cultivate the ground. This made them unusual among the tribes the explorers and early settlers encountered, for everywhere south of here on the Atlantic coast the natives grew corn, beans, and squash. But the Wabanaki people who lived here, specifically the Penobscots, got all their food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. It’s no romantic exaggeration to say they lived lightly on the land. They kept their populations quite low, somewhat under one person for every two square miles. The seafood of the coast and summertime foraging would have supported much higher numbers, but in winter they depended on hunting inland game for food, and that set the upper limit to their numbers. 

They modified the forest, but only to the extent of taking what they needed for firewood and to build their wigwams, birchbark canoes, baskets, pots, and other implements. Explorers noted that the forests here were very dense with conifers taller than any trees in Europe. There is no argument that the Penobscot lived within the ecological limits of the land. Or, put another way, they were the last people here who didn’t live on the land as if it were a frontier or depend on other frontiers to survive. When they were finally driven off the land in the 18th century, they left little trace of their long history here. The forest was old growth, and the landscape was so close to a “natural” state that if we didn’t know better we would call it a wilderness.

Further back down the coast, in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island, tribes such as the Wampanoag and Narragansett kept the forest open by burning off the underbrush in spring and fall. Early explorers and settlers frequently commented on the open, park-like character of much of the forest. This modification accomplished two things: it made hunting easier, and it increased the populations of game animals and shrubs with edible fruit, such as blackberries and blueberries. Along with the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash, this allowed for population densities five to ten times higher than in downeast Maine. As in Maine, this economy existed within the ecological limits of the land, though the native ecology was modified to such an extent that no one mistook it for a wilderness, though its “natural” abundance was a theme of early colonial writings.

I’ve already described the agricultural practices of the colonial settlers who flooded into Maine in the years following the American Revolution. In brief, they cleared forest for grain crops and pasture, cleared more forest for firewood and building materials, and cleared yet more forest to make money, since wood was their most reliable cash crop. There is a famous painting by Blue Hill’s first minister, Jonathan Fisher, who was something of a Renaissance man. It shows the village and environs in 1824: fields, pastures, fences, an orchard, the nascent village and off in the upper left corner the last remnants of the native forest. This kind of field culture, imported wholesale from Europe, was capable of supporting about forty people per square mile. How long it might have done so is moot. (Thumbing through an early history of Blue Hill, I count the average number of children in a farm family at about ten—they needed a frontier, and a pretty big one at that). The late spring and summer of 1816 was a brutal one for farmers, with killing frosts in every summer month. The year is known in Maine lore as “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” One result was that Maine farmers came down with “Ohio Fever,” a general exodus of farmers from New England to the Midwest that never really ended. Although Maine’s frontier itself was still expanding, Ohio and Indiana were the new new frontiers: Ohio’s population doubled in six years; Indiana’s almost tripled.

Like the English settlers, we own our land. We are the inheritors of those traditions of land use and claims of ownership. To a certain extent, we get to choose the story we live on our land. But only to an extent.  If I had to choose one of the three worlds outlined above to inhabit, I would choose the Wabanaki’s without doubt or hesitation. Perhaps on the basis of the food alone, although the personal freedom and relative leisure would count very high too, as would the sense of belonging to an intact ecology and a stable culture not teetering on the brink of collapse. But that is an idle daydream. Our numbers alone have foreclosed the possibility of living as a hunter-gatherer in a near-wilderness. 

But what about possibilities of bringing wilderness home, of cultivating it? This immediately will seem a contradiction, I know, but that may say more about our culture and its uneasy relationship with the wild than about any inherent conflict between wilderness and cultivation. 

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, creating formally designated wilderness areas protected by law. Its definition of wilderness is brief, and worth quoting in full:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

I’ve been thinking seriously about those words and the relationship between cultures and the wild green world for a couple decades now. To a large extent it has been the material of my adult life ever since I left graduate school in the mid-90s. There was a time when I believed in the power of those words to protect wild, intact ecologies from the ravages of our economic juggernaut, but somewhere along the way I lost that faith. The act puts up fences and signs that read “keep out,” but fences and signs can come down, and I have little doubt that when we get desperate and really need what’s inside those fences, come down they will. And as Bill McKibben argued so eloquently and persuasively more than twenty years ago in “The End of Nature,” now that we’ve altered the atmosphere and the climate, no place is beyond the effects of our destructive economic arrangements. 

But what strikes me most about those words, beyond their ultimate inadequacy to protect, is their deep pessimism about the human place in the world. The Act assumes that any place inhabited by people will be degraded by that fact alone. This is undoubtedly a sound premise in the world dominated by a frontier economy, where every ecology it touches is in fact degraded or destroyed. But as a general principle the Act’s argument is flawed. It has nothing to say about the Wabanaki. Did they trammel the earth and the community of life? There is no evidence to suggest it. What about the Wampanoag and Narragansett? They certainly altered the landscape, in some places considerably, but none of the settlers who saw that landscape described it as degraded or destroyed. In fact it’s generally recognized that they increased the land’s diversity. But where the Act’s definition may fail us most terminally is in its refusal to consider the power of imagination to find another way. Like Genesis, it tells us that we are flawed. The only redemption it offers is the opportunity to visit a magnificent, pristine place, a reminder of the unsullied beauty of a world without us.

We reject that vision. We plant a hazelnut. It is wild, native to the eastern forest. We eat the nuts. So do the squirrels. We plant an American plum. It is wild, native to the eastern forest. We eat the plums. Some fall to the ground and wild turkey or bear eat them. We plant some cranberries, some blueberries, walnuts, hickories, chestnuts. We eat some.  Birds and animals eat others. We plant Jerusalem artichokes, chokeberry, elderberry, grapes, ostrich fern, milkweed, giant solomon’s seal. We eat some.  Birds and animals eat others. All are native to the eastern forest. We are cultivating a hunter-gatherer garden, modifying but not eradicating the forest ecology. Not so different from what the Wampanoag and Narragansett did, but more suited to our greater numbers. We are growing wildlife and insects and biological diversity. We are bringing wilderness home. We buy less food. We need fewer fields. Who will say to us or our children or our grandchildren in 50 years that this place isn’t wilderness? Maybe it won’t be in the strict, technical sense, but then it never was. People lived for millennia as part of the wildness—so will we. It will be here and it will be alive. With or without us.


There are good native gardening books and good wild foods foraging books, but I don’t know of any book dedicated to cultivating wild native foods. The few forest gardening books available do include some of these species (not all), but focus much more on mimicking forest structure and ecology. This isn’t a flaw, just a different emphasis.

A few of the books we consult frequently, in addition to the forest gardening books I’ve listed previously:

“Native Plants of the Northeast” by Donald J. Leopold
“Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas W. Tallamy
“Noah’s Garden” by Sara Stein
“Nature’s Harvest” and “The Forager’s Harvest” by Samuel Thayer

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