Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Living In Tune With Nature

Ever try to walk silently through the forest, and wonder how in the world did those Indians do it? You can't go more than a few steps without stepping on dry twigs -- that snap! that was always a dead giveaway in the Leatherstocking books.

They burned out all the underbrush every year, sometimes twice a year. After the deer and other game were fattened, the Native Americans, at least in the northeast, would set the forest undergrowth on fire. This sounds as if it should set off the whole forest, but only because we now envision forests with many small and medium-sized trees as well. When the Europeans arrived, they marvelled at the vast forests with huge trees, and often called them primeval.

Dead wrong, really. Primeval forests are much messier, with brush, fallen trees, leaves and yes, twigs. But England no longer had much in the way of forests, and my ancestors leapt to a natural, but entirely wrong, conclusion. The New England forests were more like parkland, with movable space between large trees. Large trees with scorch marks on them, actually. Great visibility for hunting. Much easier to run through. Not that hard to move in silently.

It was a brilliant technique by the Pennacooks, Micmacs, etc. It was not the living in harmony with the nature that whackjob spiritualists think it was, of leaving things untouched, taking only what was necessary, and being a Pal of the Earth. It was something much smarter than that, much more likely to provide food for families and clans.

On the maple syrup part the Indians weren't so good. It was the colonists who discovered you could get sap with just a few slashes, rather than cutting around the whole trunk and thus killing the tree. Conservation of long-term resources in that way usually only occurs in conjunction with ideas of private property.


Old Wacky Hermit said...

You might like reading "1491" by Charles Mann. He goes into some detail about how the Indians manipulated their environment.

Assistant Village Idiot said...


jw said...

Yes, at least for the most part.

There is a skill to moving through raw forest relatively silently. Getting rid of hard soled boots is crucial. The biggest thing is placing the feet big-toe first and with a slide forward and sideways. Takes more than a bit of practice to do it naturally and without thinking.

That said, you're right about the forest burning, manipulation and clearing: Too few realize the extent that Eastern forests were manipulated.