By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
There is a particularly amusing cartoon from Gary Larsen’s Far Side. (Okay, it’s one of many.) Amid an untouched natural world, a huge glass specimen jar labeled “Humans” has broken open and its occupants, a man and a woman are running free. From the clouds a voice says, “uh-oh” as the new species scampers off to raise all sorts of unholy Ned with the environment.
This view of human impact upon the earth is quite modern and a far cry from attitudes during the 18th century. For people of that era the world was entirely created for their use and benefit:
“…So God formed man in his own likeness, in the likeness of God he formed them, both male and female…God said to them, “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it, mastering the fish in the sea, the birds of the air and every living creature that crawls on the earth. God also said. “See I give you every plant that bears seed all over the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit, be that your food…”
The Bible, (King James Version)
Genesis 1, 27-29
Considering the central role the Bible played in everyday and intellectual life, it’s a small wonder that the carte blanche spelled out in Genesis should have been the basis for human interaction with nature. And that interaction has proved exceedingly detrimental to the latter.
Read a firsthand account by Europeans of the “New World” and it is quite evident that the more thoughtful stood in awe at what they were seeing. That reaction was not universal, and armed with Genesis 1: 27-29 as their point of reference, such reverence that might have existed quickly gave way to rapacity.
Everything, animal, plant or mineral was there to be exploited to its fullest. In John Josselyn’s New-England Rarities Discovered (1672) various animals not found in England are described, but from the angle of a consumer, not a naturalist:
“The Raccoon…their flesh is somewhat dark, but good food roasted…The Beaver…Their Tails are flat, covered with Scales without hair, which being flead [flayed] off, and the Tail boiled, proves exceeding good meat, being all fat and as sweet as Marrow…The Moose Deer…The flesh of their Fawns is an incomparable dish, beyond the flesh of an Asses Foal so highly esteemed by the Romans, or that of young Spaniel Puppies so much cried up in our days in France and England…The Tongue of a grown Moose, dried in the smoak after the Indian Manner, is a dish [fit for] a Sagamore….””
Besides filling the stomach, animals were also unlucky enough to be regarded as sources of medicine: beaks of ospreys “excell[ed] for the Tooth-ach, picking the Gums therewith till they bleed”. Fresh goose fat cured the “Bloody-Flux”, beaver’s testicles [“Cods”] relieved “Wind in the Stomach”, while raccoon fat was “excellent for Bruises and Aches”. Not a good thing to be an animal when the human species was either hungry or feeling a mite under the weather.
Perhaps no animal suffered so much as the beaver, whose waterproof fur was desired for felt hat making. The Native people had hunted it before European contact, but not with the same intensity as afterwards.
“It appears, that the Indians of Canada did not give [beavers] much disturbance before our arrival in their country. The skins of the beaver were not used by those people by way of garments, and the flesh of bears, elks, and some other wild beasts, seemed, in all probability, preferable to that of the beaver. They were, however, in use to hunt them, and this hunting had both its season and ceremonial fixed; but when people hunt only out of necessity, and when this is confined to pure necessaries, there is no great havock made; thus when we arrived in Canada we found a prodigious number of these creatures in it.”
Journal of a Voyage to North America
Peter de Charlevoix
The market for beaver pelts upset the environment as populations were decimated and even extirpated. It disrupted the traditional relations and diplomacy among the various Native peoples as they sought to out-produce their neighbors: armed clashes between them became more commonplace.
Plants did not escape the eye of humans either. They eagerly were sought for their medicinal uses as well as food, perhaps even more so than animal substances. As modern medicine continues to search for the “silver bullet” for new versions of old diseases, their counterparts in the early modern period were on the lookout for plants that could cure or at least ease a host of illnesses.
How could one tell if a plant was beneficial? The natives might reveal some of their practices. But as everything was divinely ordained for human (especially Europeans) then they might have something akin to a label. The ‘”doctrine of signatures” held that there was a resemblance between a plant’s appearance and its efficacy in treating ailments. For example, the spots on liverwort (Hepatopsidae) appeared like “liver spots” found on human skin, ergo, it was to be used to combat said problem.
Even without a “signature”, every plant had to be of some service to humans, and Sir John Colbatch in 1719 decided that mistletoe (genus Viscum) had particular medicinal value:
“..It immediately enter’d into my Mind, that there must be something extraordinary in that uncommon beautiful Plant; that the Almighty had deign’d it for farther and more noble Uses, than bareyt to feed Thrushes, or to be hung up superstitiously in Houses to drive away evil Spirits; and that the Mistletoe …was capable of being serviceable to Mankind….I concluded a priori…that it was likely to subdue epilepsy….”
A Dissertation Concerning Mistletoe:
A Most Wonderful Specific Remedy for the Cure of Convulsive Distempers
While everything was served up for human use and consumption, there were some small indications that maybe just maybe some restraint might be in order. John Josselyn’s tract has small clues that there were limits to the gravy train, notably in that quintessential American fowl, the turkey:
“…and I have also seen threescore broods of young Turkies on the side of a Marsh, sunning of themselves in a morning betimes, but this was thirty years since, the English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed, so that ‘tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkey in the Woods…
There were even some prickings of conscience, in a way, as noted in The Spectator in 1711 (No. 195, Saturday, October 13) noted:
”Man falls upon every thing that comes his way, not the smallest fruit or execrence of the earth, scarce a berry or a mushroom can escape him.”
Of course, Richard Steele and his cohorts not taking a stand for conservation, but rather were inveighing against the gluttony that was accompanying the growing consumer society of late Stuart England. But no matter the reason, there is a note of concern, if not for nature then for the unchecked, voracious appetites of humans.
One very striking voice was actually by an individual who could be considered a naturalist. Peter Kalm journeyed from Sweden in the 1740’s to observe and learn all he could about North America. His travels through the Hudson Valley exposed him to a variety of plants and wildlife, some no longer encountered in the region either through extinction or extirpation. Kalm noted:
“But since the arrival of great crowds of Europeans, things are greatly changed: the country is well peopled, and the woods are cut down; the people increasing in this country, they have in part extirpated the birds, in part scared them away: in spring the people still take both eggs, mothers and young indifferently, because no regulations are made to the contrary. And if any had been made, the spirit of freedom which prevails in the country would not suffer them to be obeyed.”
Kalm’s voice would not be heeded, and many animals and resources were over-exploited. The “infinite resources” of North America were found to be anything but infinite. Locally, by the 1790’s the area near Old Saratoga was logged out. Within fifty years most of New York had been deforested. The world first encountered by Europeans two centuries earlier had been unmercifully harnessed and forever changed for the desires and benefits of humans.
As Earth Day is celebrated, it is worth noting that the change in attitudes of many humans toward the natural world is fairly recent. It is a recognition that the gifts nature are not just to be used in the here and now, and our actions today will determine if there will be a livable world tomorrow.