turning thoreau on his head

LI likes to find out things that challenge what we thought we knew – especially if the challenge comes from the direction of what we think makes the most sense. Lately, there has been a lot of bustle made about Jared Diamond’s theories of the biological and material constraints on civilization. For those interested in such things, we’d urge you to pick up Charles Mann’s 1491. Mann is a journalist who has worked for Science and other magazines. His book is a great sweeping up of the new Americanist school that has emerged since the late fifties. This school takes its bearings from a demographic theory: the American continents were much, much more populous than the early 20th century anthropologists ever thought. The corollary is that the continents were de-populated. While the Americanist estimates of just how many people existed in the world Christopher Columbus bumped into, the old estimate of 10 million tops has long been trashed, and the new controversy is really about where to put the population between 40 and one hundred million. In other words, the New World was more populous than Europe.

This change in demographic perspective has been accompanied by a lot of archaeological, bio-historical and other work, all of it progressing in a sort of gamut of academic fire, as sides pepper each other with counter-evidence and withering put-downs of competence, ideology and the like.

The chapter that truly fascinated us in Mann’s book was about the Amazon. It presents a picture of the Amazon so different to what we are accustomed to that we had to check it out.

Mann presents the thesis held by more and more researchers that, far from being a thinly populated wilderness, the Amazon jungle is, in many ways, the result of human “terraforming.” That is, the composition of the jungle, and the odd emergence of a soil type that occurs nowhere else – terra preta – testifies to massive and continuous human ‘interference.” The Amazonian primitives, the slash and burn tribes – these are cultures that formed after the great dying. Far from being a people without history, the Yanomami, for instance, are a people who fled from the history bearing down on them, and adopted a nomadic life in the seventeenth and eighteenth century partly because their old agricultural lifestyle was no longer an option, and partly because the introduction of metal chopping implements meant that the forest would be used in a different way.

In a recent article by Raffles and Winkler-Prins, “FURTHER REFLECTIONS ON AMAZONIAN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY: Transformations of Rivers and Streams,”in the Latin American Research Review (2003) there is a nice summary of the point Mann presents at length in his book:

In this research report, we present both new and previously published material on the manipulation of Amazonian landscapes by local populations. We understand these data as contributing to an emergent body of work in Amazonianist social scientific scholarship that rejects the notion of a pristine rain forest and the associated ineffectuality of local populations, and instead proposes a more hybrid conception of a "natural-cultural" regional landscape (e.g., Balee 1989, 1998; Denevan 1992, 2001, n.d.; Hecht and Posey 1989; Raffles 1999, 2002; Roosevelt 1980, 1991; Smith 1995; cf. Demerritt 1994; Haraway 1997; Latour 1993). Part
of this argument is the claim that nature is socially constructed as a discursive practice and that the contemporary opposition between nature and culture is historically and culturally specific to post-Enlighterunent European thought (Latour 1993; Strathem 1981; Williams 1980). More
specifically, however, this body of research insists on the biophysical materiality of Amazonian nature, arguing for the recogrution of these landscapes as cultural in an older sense of embodying social labor, of being worked and transformed by humans (cf. Sauer [1925] 1963; Williams
1973; Doolittle 1984). It is this realist aspect of the argument that we build on and expand in this paper.
Recent empirical research suggests that the forests of the Amazon basin have undergone substantial manipulation and management since long before modem development of the region and, indeed, prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Researchers have documented
in detail the long-term manipulation of forest composition and species density (e.g., Balee 1994; Moran 1996; Roosevelt 1999,2000), with Balee, AMAZONIAN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY 167
for example, estimating that 12 percent of Amazonian forest is currently of "biocultural" origin (Balee 1989,14). In building a convincing account of region-wide, landscape-scale manipulation and transformation, scholars point to anthropogenic forests managed for the extraction of particular tree crops (Balee 1994), to trails planted with useful foods by traveling or semi-nomadic people (Hecht and Posey 1989; Posey 1985), to managed forest islands amidst a dominant savannah landscape (Posey1985,1992), and to the long-term use of what were once thought to be abandoned swiddens (Denevan and Padoch 1987; Irvine 1989). In addition,
studies of the anthropogenic origins of the extensive areas of black or dark earth soils known as terra preta do indio have revealed a sigruficant human contribution to pedogenesis (Smith 1980; Woods and McCann 1999; McCann, Woods, and Meyer 2001; Glaser et al. 2001; Petersen, Neves, and Heckenberger 2001) and researchers have also identified other types of soil management, including concentric ring agriculture and in-field burning (Hecht and Posey 1989), sediment trapping in the floodplain (Padoch and Pinedo-Vasquez 1999), and organic matter
harvesting (WinklerPrins).”

It is interesting, to us, that Derrida’s first challenge to what he called logocentrism is an analysis of the “writing lesson” in Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques that occurred in an Amazon Indian village. Levi-Strauss was certainly the mid-century’s representative of the idea that the Indians were people without history – instead, they were the people of structured myth. Myths being autonomous things, in Levi-Strauss’ ethnography, the search for historical linkage between myths and the historic existence of Amerindian cultures was one of those fatal quests, like looking for the Fountain of Youth, in which the researcher would simply get lost. Keeping nature and culture conceptually separate provided the basis for understanding culture itself – or rather, culture was the infinite task of making that separation. Mann’s mindblowing idea is that the wilderness was not just an “ideological” formation justifying the European conquest – it was, rather, a partial vision of the ecological reality left behind when a keystone species is knocked out of the system. The species, in this case, was the Indian, debilitated in a culturally annihilating way by sickness and mortality. The accounts of early settlers on the Eastern Seabord all pointed out that the land that they were settling seemed parklike – rather than overgrown forest, they encountered forests that had obviously been maintained, through culling fires, and cultivated farmland on the milpas principle of planting maize, beans and squash. But these early accounts were discounted as the decades went by, and the myth of the nomadic, hunter gatherer Indian was formed. Not so much a myth, one should say – rather, the hunter gatherer social form was a logical retraction to an economically efficient form of living in a landscape in which you are suddenly and horribly shrunk. Living like a remnant.

Mann uses two examples to make his case that the North American wilderness experienced by colonizers in the 17th and 18th century was a very different place from the one encountered by De Soto in the 16th century. One is the bison. When Lasalle came into the Southern Mississippi in the late 17th century, he recorded immense herds of Bison. Indeed, the Buffalo was reported from New York to Georgia in 17th and 18th century accounts.

This is in odd contrast to the chronicle of the Spanish explorers in the 16th century, particularly De Soto. In the same area that Lasalle found, one hundred years later, to be practically empty of humans and full of bison, De Soto found just the reverse. There were Indian villages all over the place, but his chronicler mentions not one bison, although he mentions other animals.

Similarly, in the 18th century, we have plenty of accounts of passenger pigeons. The passenger pigeons seem dominant, and incredibly plentiful. Yet in archaelogical digs in Illinois and in Ohio that turn up plenty of bird bones in settlements in the 14th and 15th century – bones of birds that were eaten – there are relatively few passenger pigeon bones. Mann speculates that the bison and the passenger pigeon populations exploded as the Indian population crashed. This would turn the way we think of the 18th century upside down – the settlement of the colonies was coincident with the growth of the wilderness, not vice versa.

This, to LI’s mind, is definitely a mindblowing thing. It would definitely turn that notion of pristine America, which we get from Thoreau, on its head.


Interior Design said…
interior home design seems to have a pretty thorough (sp?) on this