The Natural West

  • Sabertooth tiger

  • Wolf

  • Bison

  • Camel


Dan Flores, the A.B. Hammond Professor of History at the University of Montana, in Missoula, lives on a 25-acre ranchette some miles outside that small city, in the foothills of the Sapphire Mountains. To walk from those foothills to the nearby Forest Service wilderness areas, which he does often with Wily, a canine hybrid that is more wolf than dog, he must pass through heavily roaded and scalped private timberland.

Those treks take the pair from his private, foothills land - land that has been biologically exhausted by previous owners and is now close to barren due to weeds - through mid-elevation industrial forests, and then up onto national forest land.

Even on this relatively healthy communal land, he does not see grizzlies, or blackfooted ferrets, or wolves. Nor does he see bison, although an estimated 30 million of those animals trod North America's grasslands about 150 years ago. Also missing are camels, a dozen species of horses, giant sloths, tigers, the true bison, and many other large animals that were here until the forebears of the American Indians crossed the Bering Strait 10,000 years ago and wiped them from the earth.

We learn these and other things about Flores and the American West in The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. The book's 10 chapters were written and rewritten over the last 20 years, and the author apologizes to his mentors for what he calls "a less-than-expeditious move toward publication."

Flores need not apologize; the 20 years of writing and rewriting and rethinking have produced a first-rate book.

Like those hikes that Flores takes, the most difficult part of this book is its first pages, where he undertakes to establish his intellectual base and scholarly credentials. But even here, in this overly self-conscious beginning, he has fun, starting with C. Glendinning's book, My name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization. Her thesis, like those of some of her fellow ecopsychologists, is that our best hope lies in going back to the pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, pre-consumer cultures of hunters and gatherers.

Flores thinks differently.

"Perhaps we are (sick). But I wonder. Reading fairly broadly in history and studying Native American environmental history more closely have left me more than mildly skeptical of a tenet of faith among cultural interpreters: that there is a Golden Age of environmental balance and harmony in the human past, and that all we have to do to create environmental sustainability is to pirate those ancient lessons."

Flores notes that Karl May, in the early 1900s, gave Europeans an ongoing romantic vision of the American West with his Old Shatterhand novels. But the intellectual captain of this movement is the late Paul Shepard, who wrote in Coming Home to the Pleistocene and The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game that our distant forebears made a fatal error when they shifted, millennia ago, from hunter-gatherer to agriculture. By abandoning the joy of the chase for the drudgery of the plow and the assembly line, Shepard wrote, they doomed countless generations - including ours - to slavery and joylessness.

Flores doesn't quarrel with Shepard's love of the Pleistocene, but he asks the question Shepard dodged: Why did we give up the bright-hued wonders of Paleolithic life for the gray of Neolithic life? Flores' answer is an ever-growing population.

Flores suggests that if you take the longue duree, the long view, you find that in the 15,000 years before the agricultural revolution, hunting-gathering homo sapiens swarmed out of Africa, Europe and Asia into Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and virtually every island chain in the Pacific. As we spread, presumably driven by our growing population to seek new green fields, we wreaked destruction on native fauna that today's extractive industries can only dream of.

In North America, the Clovis and Folsom cultures quickly wiped out upwards of one hundred large native species. Flores calls this great extinction "ecologically the most significant transformation to occur since humans have been here." When Europeans came into the American West late in the ecological day, they "discovered" a land missing 73 percent of its large animals. In place of horses and camels and tigers were circumpolar species such as the grizzly, and Eurasian exotics that also had crossed the Bering Straits; these species had evolved with hunting man and could survive where the camels and horses and sloths could not.

"Pristine," Flores suggests, is relative and problematic, a term best used ironically, or about some irretrievable past.

Flores is not alone in thinking along these lines. In the March 2002 Atlantic, Charles C. Mann wrote about the growing number of scholars who have something to say about our two continents just before Columbus. The trend among those contentious scholars, he concludes in "1491," has the Americas populated by over 100 million people who had immensely altered the landscape. In the Amazon, some research suggests the residents had learned to make its thin, lateritic soil produce, and had converted about 10 percent of that landmass to fertility when the white man's diseases wiped out 96 percent of the two continents' population.

This is controversial stuff. To suggest that the West was - how shall we say it? - "intensively managed" before the white man arrived raises hackles. Many of us want to believe in a pristine past, where the land looked much like our wilderness areas. Perhaps because Flores knows this, he is very even in his presentation. He avoids provocation without avoiding hard issues.

He also doesn't think that what pre-Columbian man did to these continents 11 millennia ago excuses what European-Americans have done for the last two centuries, especially on the Great Plains, where an entire grassland ecosystem has been removed and replaced by industrial agriculture.

But never mind his sincerity and scholarship. Isn't Flores handing those who would further exploit and damage the earth a loaded weapon? By saying that the New World was already damaged goods in 1492, isn't he removing environmentalism's major ideological weapon: the myth of pristine land that attracts so many to the protection of the West and Alaska? Won't we be lost without the benchmark of a pre-Columbian reality to restore the land to?

Flores comes closest to addressing these questions in a final, synthesizing chapter about land restoration. Should the weed species, the interloper bison bison, be reintroduced? Or does restoration require reintroduction of horse and camel and tiger closest to those extinguished 10,000 years ago?

Flores doesn't have answers for those broad questions. But he does have an answer for his 25-acre patch of land: Try everything in the toolbox, from pulling to mowing and spraying chemicals, to kill monocultures of exotic weeds and allow native grasses and forbs to return.

So perhaps Flores does have a general answer for us: a mix of pragmatism and romanticism. We know what we want. We want the world to have been an Eden before the white man came. We want the Indians to have lived in a pristine wilderness. We want weeds to vanish of themselves once we stop abusing the land. Flores is with us in this romanticism. Why else would he hang out with a creature that is part wolf? Why else would he live near Wilderness areas?

But he is also a scholar who follows his research where it leads him. And that scholarship has produced a wonderful and engaging book because he is torn in two directions: toward the romantic and toward the evidence.

The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, by Dan Flores, University of Oklahoma press, 2001. Hardcover: $29.95. 304 pages; 1 color, 20 black-and-white illustrations.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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