Review: Isabella Tree on ”Wild New World”
The future of conservation, and our own survival, depends on busting some of the most stubborn myths that have embedded themselves in Western belief systems—ideologies that have, for centuries, steered us down a course of overexploitation of our planet’s resources. In his latest book Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals and Peoples in America, Dan Flores fully takes on the challenge. It makes for uncomfortable reading. But facing these demons has never been more crucial, and in Flores’ deft hands the facts, fortified by the latest findings in ecology, genetics, and archaeology, fly off the pages in vivid and fascinating detail.
Foremost is the myth of “Virgin America” promoted by the early European settlers, and the lifeblood of subsequent generations of pioneers. To seventeenth-century Europeans, America seemed an untouched continent. True, there were hunter-gatherers (“Indians”) already living there but they were few and far between and seemed to have had little impact on nature. Seemingly infinite expanses of wilderness were teeming with exotic wildlife in numbers the Europeans could scarcely compute—a cornucopia ripe for the taking. A frenzy of killing ensued and, by the 1900s, barely three centuries later, the new settlers had driven millions upon millions of mammals—including elk, buffalo, mule deer, beaver, bears, mountain lion, and wolves—to the brink of extinction, and the passenger pigeon, ivory-billed woodpecker, great auk, and others into oblivion.
What those early Europeans failed to realize, Flores tells us, is that devastating Old-World diseases spread by Spanish explorers a century earlier had reduced the population of Native Americans by 90 percent, from around 5 million to about 900,000. Villages with a sophisticated cropping system based on maize, beans, and pumpkin had been obliterated. The profusion of game the Europeans encountered was due, in part, to the release of native hunting pressure.
The Spaniards had encountered a very different America, “less like a virginal Eden-of-the-Animals than a place long lived in and a bit used.” The continent had already undergone a pervasive ecological transformation. The European invasion was, in a grim way, history repeating itself.
Humans may have entered America as far back as twenty-five thousand years ago, but somewhere around thirteen thousand years ago a particularly successful wave of adventurers colonized the continent, changing the ecology forever. Clovis people, characterized by sophisticated weapons, hunting dogs, fire, and a penchant for driving herds of animals over cliffs, unleashed themselves on America’s unwary megafauna. Forty-five species, including mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and giant beavers, were, in Flores’s account, driven to extinction in less than two thousand years. Their loss demolished an ecology that had evolved over millions of years, resulting in a “catastrophic shift” to a depleted and simplified state, where smaller creatures like bison, elk, and deer prevailed.
The lesson of overkill in deep history seems even harder to absorb than the devastating impact humans have had on biodiversity in recent history—and are still having. Somehow, we yearn to know of a time when our species lived in harmony with nature. We long for the Garden of Eden. We look to climate, or something else, to blame for the loss. Yet time and again, across the planet, when humans entered a new environment they wreaked havoc. Driven by fear, cultural prejudice, and unrestrained greed, they failed to understand these wild new worlds, and to read the warning signs.
Eventually, though, as the natural life-support systems around them collapse, humans do draw back from the abyss. Indigenous peoples the world over, including Native Americans descended from Clovis people, learned to live with deep empathy for their natural environment—as Flores beautifully describes in his chapter “Raven’s and Coyote’s America.”
And that, we must hope, is what is beginning to happen now, across the planet, as the consequences of the Old-World mindset become too visible to ignore. There may be many people in America, descended from the European pastoralists, still bent on extirpating the wolf—some of Flores’ passages about the fate of the wolf are almost too painful to read—but the lessons from Yellowstone National Park, where wolves have proved themselves a keystone species, herald a powerful shift in perception.
Back here in Europe, the original cesspit of predator hatred and trigger-happy hunting from which the pilgrims and pioneers drew their conviction, we can offer a glimmer of hope. After centuries of absence, bison, beavers, bears, lynx, wolverines, and wolves are rising Phoenix-like from the ashes. With broad public support and tighter protection, Europe now has double the number of wolves in North America, an area twice its size, with half its population. Germany—the source of the infamous Red Riding Hood fable—has over a hundred packs of wolves. The Old World is, at last, attempting to recover a wild new world.
Isabella Tree is the author of Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm and co-author of the forthcoming Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding, Big and Small. She is the manager, with her husband Charlie Burrell, of the Knepp Wildland Project, a 3,500-acre formerly farming estate in Sussex which they have endeavored to return to its natural ecology.
Wilding was reviewed for Book Post in 2020 by Natalie Angier.
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