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:Bison roamed in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Kentucky when settlers arrived.
“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…”
“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 (1925):
"... 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."
This jibes with Charles Mann's two books on the time of contact. Hard to work out what new information was most gobsmacking — that neither earthworms or mosquitoes are native, that China was making cheaper high-quality goods for export to foreign markets in Europe before Jamestown or that we may have already seen a demonstration of carbon-driven climate change.ReplyDelete
And the salmon references here match what I read in King of Fish some time ago. Every stream from New England north teemed with them. There were salmon in the Thames and every other English river. We traded a nutritionally-dense food source that came to us on a predictable timetable for factories and dams.
It must have been amazing in ways we can't imagine. Even now, Europeans come here to the PNW and don't understand that those forests on the map are in fact trackless and wild, even dangerous. Their continent was fully developed 500 years ago, no real wilderness to tame. What did the people of that time think of all this? There were redwoods topping 400 feet where parts of Seattle now stand, by some accounts.
Yes, I haven't got to 1493 yet, but I can't recommend Mann's 1491 enough. Should be required school reading imho.Delete
This abundance of food also goes a long way to explain the differences between "old world" civilizations and those in The Americas, differences often mistakenly (and by prejudice) attributed to notions of European superiority.
There's a great discussion on BBC History Extra with historian Peter Watson that relates to my comment on abundance and what that means: History Extra Podcast Jan 27Delete
I too would like to put in a plug for Mann's book: '1491'. Really interesting.Delete
o.k., o.k., you guys have convinced me. "1491" has been sitting on one of my "to be read" bookshelves for over a year now. I'll move it to the bedside table. But it's under that book about the history of night.Delete
Put '1491' ABOVE 'At Day's Close'. I thought '1491' was fascinating. I love non-fiction, especially history, and will read about anything. I was really excited to read 'At Day's Close' after hearing about it on NPR when it first came out. But I had a hard time finishing that book, not just because it was surprisingly boring, but because the author seemed so mind-numbingly annoyingly clueless. Honestly, the book is interesting only if you're interested in what it must be like to see into the mind of a writer who apparently has never left a modern big city filled with electric light. I don't think anyone who grew up in a rural area or has ever camped outside an RV park will learn anything.Delete
...But that's MY opinion. Like I said, I'm interested to hear yours. AFTER you're read 1491. Life is too short.
But wasn't one of the point of 1491 not that America was paradise, but that vast numbers of native Americans had died in waves of Smallpox since first contact and that's why there was so much plenty? The Indians weren't there to harvest the nuts, so the pigeons rose in the millions. The Indians weren't there to fire the forests and hunt the wildlife so the forests were wild and the wildlife plentiful.Delete
@Dan - that is almost one of the points of the book. The reason the Pilgrims landed and found a virtual paradise that was empty was due to disease wiping out a quite hostile tribe from the area. Many areas were depopulated by disease, however we also do have some excellent first-hand accounts of how large the native populace was in some areas prior to the epidemics (or at least the worst of them).Delete
What the early explorers saw was not an untamed wilderness, so much as a manicured garden suited to the natives' need (though in some places, a garden that had gotten out of control due to depopulation).
That quote from the Dutch sailor, however, reminds me of the myth-based sales pitches that were sent to Europe from the Midwest in the days of the homesteaders. Only the attractions were mentioned (and exaggerated). No trees? No water? Don't worry, Nebraska is still a paradise. Don't get me wrong -- Nebraska was a beautiful place, but not exactly in the ways they described it.
Oh, for sure, Kate. The Norwegians were famous for passing up all the top farmland in Ohio and Indiana in order to get to Minnesota because of letters from their relatives.Delete
I am reading a book called "Eating in America" which contains a good chapter on native american diet, flora and fauna. What shocked me were the descriptions of flocks of passenger pigeons that could be as wide as 1 mile and run 250 miles long.ReplyDelete
Here ya go...Delete
" “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…"ReplyDelete
I hope these individuals died miserable, prolonged deaths.
And by this, I'm referring to the men who inflicted the agony on the animals.Delete
That's hardly the worst thing that happened in history. And by wishing painful deaths on those men, you're making yourself worse than them, because you know about forgiveness.Delete
"That's hardly the worst thing that happened in history." How very dismissive of you. So it's acceptable to you to torture animals because of other things that have happened in history?Delete
"And by wishing painful deaths on those men, you're making yourself worse than them, because you know about forgiveness"
Yes, I know about forgiveness. The described actions, however, are unforgivable. There was no reason to inflict this sadism on the animals. And wishing is different than inflicting so I hardly think that makes me worse than these subhuman scum. But if you wish to think so, I really don't give a shit.
"Tending the Wild," about the California Indians' activities of that type: Amazon it. America was not a wilderness; at least the more hospitable parts (much of CA, for instance) were carefully shepherded to produce more of what people wanted.ReplyDelete
Absolutely true. Native Americans knew and applied the principles of grassland controlled burns and forest management.Delete
here's another spellbinding account:ReplyDelete
Denys, Nicolas. The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America, ed. and trans. William F. Ganong (Champlain Society, Toronto, 1908)
Please note this book by Nicolas Denys was written in the 1620's and only translated on 1908Delete
oops, I mean 1672Delete
A book I do and don't want to read in equal parts, but will anyway.ReplyDelete
*sigh* would have loved to see that world.....ReplyDelete