A letter from a Dutch sailor, written in 1624:
"We were much gratified on arriving in this country. Here we found
beautiful rivers, bubbling fountains flowing down into the valleys,
basins of running waters in the flatlands, agreeable fruits in the woods
such as strawberries, pigeon berries, walnuts, and also voor labrusten,
or wild grapes. The woods abound with acorns for feeding hogs and with
venison. There is considerable fish in the rivers, good tillage land;
here is, especially, free coming and going, without fear of the naked
natives of the country. Had we cows, hogs, and other cattle fit for food
(which we daily expect in the first ships) we would not wish to return
to Holland, for whatever we desire in the paradise of Holland is here to
be found. If you will come hither with your family, you will not regret
I found that at the always-interesting Lapham's Quarterly
. The passage reminded me of a remarkable book I read several years ago.
Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
(University of Chicago Press, 2009) was written by Steve Nicholls, an entomologist who has been director and writer of Emmy Award-winning wildlife documentaries for the Smithsonian Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and PBS. The book is a compendium of observations re North America from the time of European "contact" through the expansion to the Pacific. It is fascinating reading (though sometimes depressing when one considers what has changed).
Here are some of the notes I jotted down while reading the book, and a couple excerpts:
When the Vikings arrived at the New World, Atlantic salmon weighed 25-50#, were 4-5 feet long, and swam in 3000 rivers.
The waters off Labrador and Newfoundland were called the “Sea of Whales” because they were so abundant. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had been slaughtered in such abundance that their bones were piled on the shorelines. “there must have been in our estimate the remains of more than two or three thousand whales. In one place we counted ninety skulls of prodigious size.”
Oysters in Chesapeake Bay were a foot in length.
In the early 1600s the sturgeon were harvested: “in one day within the space of two miles only, some gentlemen in canoes caught above six hundred.” All the rivers of the east coast were thick with sturgeon – “in some rivers so numerous, that it is hazardous for canoes and the like small vessels to pass to and again…”
“Sycamores were often hollow, and large enough to shelter twenty or thirty men during a sudden storm.”
“There were spruce trees measuring twenty feet in circumference, while back in the Carolinas, explorers were frustrated in their attempts to shoot turkeys out of their roosts by the sheer size of the trees:
“We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns wer very good.”
Magnificent chestnut oaks, which these turkeys had wisely chosen as a roost, often rose sixty feet before there were any branches. So, while it’s easy to be impressed by the great tracts of forest carpeting the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians today, we should remember that these forests are nothing like the precolonial forests. Those first explorers found themselves walking through a natural cathedral whose green roof arched fifty or more feet above their heads…”
Bison roamed in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Kentucky when settlers arrived.
“The other commodity of the forests frequently commented upon was the superabundance of nut-bearing trees: pecans, walnuts, oaks, and, most abundant of all, the American chestnut. In the fall, these forests rained nuts. There’s some evidence that Indians spared valuable nut and fruit trees when clearing fields, or even planted them.”
The eastern forests sheltered wolves, cougars, and an abundance of bears. At a Canadian island, “The Bears, who are the principal inhabitants of this island, are so numerous that in the space of six weeks we killed fifty three
and might have destroyed twice that number had we saw fit.”
“Between 1700 and 1720, an average of nineteen thousand beaver skins were brought into the trading post at Fort Albany each year
… Lynx, too, were extremely abundant, to judge from records of skins shipped to Europe to keep the fashionable warm. Between 1853 and 1877, over half a million lynx skins were sold in London
Great Lakes salmon: “The superintendent of fisheries for Upper Canada witnessed some amazing spectacles: “I have seen them from 1812 to 1815, swarming the rivers so thickly, that they were thrown out with a shovel, and even with the hand.” At Wilmot’s Creek in Ontario, inhabitants “often hauled out a thousand salmon a night…”
Los Angeles Harbor was filled with coastal gray whales. One captain described three large pods “each above five hundred whales” that followed his ship for an hour.
Arctic foxes were incredibly numerous on Bering Island. On one single day, the crew killed sixty of them…“The foxes which now turned up among us in countless numbers, became accustomed to the sight of men and, contrary to habit and nature, ever tamer, more wicked, and so malicious that they dragged apart all the baggage, ate the leather sacks, scattered the provisions, stole and dragged away from one his boots, from another his socks and trousers, gloves, coats.
“It also seemed that, the more we slew and the oftener we tortured them most cruelly before the eyes of the others, letting them run off half skinned, without eyes, without tails, and with feet half roasted
, the more malicious the others became… At the same time, they made us laugh in our greatest misery by their crafty and comical monkey tricks.” (p. 322)
We won't even get into the bison herds here, or the billions upon billions of butterflies (sigh). And there were of course an equal abundance of "pests" like locusts:
In June 1875 Albert Child saw a “cloud” of locusts approaching. He was a scientist, so used the telegraph to send messages up and down the line to determine the extent of the swarm. The front was 110 miles long and it took five full days to pass over him.
I'll close with this magnificent quotation, also from Lapham's Quarterly, from The Great Gatsby
"... for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the
presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he
neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in
history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."