Where Antelopes Roamed

By Gregory McNamee
Sunday, May 31, 2009


Nature in America at the Time of Discovery

By Steve Nicholls

Univ. of Chicago. 524 pp. $30

In the late 10th century, a footloose Viking named Erik the Red led a colonizing party from Iceland to Greenland, where he established a settlement. From his new headquarters, Erik dispatched exploring parties to scout the nearby coasts. One of them reached what is now Nova Scotia. From there they sailed on and found a place they named Vinland. Native people, whom they called Skraelings (screamers), eventually drove the newcomers away, but not before they had established sturdy settlements such as L'Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

The Viking sagas tell us that the northerly realm is austere and unforgiving. Still, naturalist and filmmaker Steve Nicholls counsels in "Paradise Found" that "these places are far from barren; you just need to know where to look." In the new lands of the Americas, the Norsemen found vast colonies of nesting seabirds in nearly unimaginable numbers, great herds of ruminants, teeming shoals of cod, rivers choked with Atlantic salmon so thick that the observers could have crossed on their silvery backs without setting foot on water -- a treasure house that must have seemed inexhaustible.

We have many accounts of the end of that natural abundance on this continent, among the best of them Peter Matthiessen's "Wildlife in America," still indispensable half a century after its first publication in 1959. There are fewer accounts of that abundance at the time of the European arrivals, whether in the 6th century, with Brendan the Navigator, or a thousand years and more later with the Spanish in the Caribbean, the English in the Chesapeake, the French in Canada and the Russians in the Gulf of Alaska. The movement of peoples from Old World to New World brought a steady thinning of skies blackened with birds and of forests raucous with their calls, of lands that provided a huge larder of foodstuffs almost for the taking.

It is sobering to ponder, as Nicholls does, how much is gone. "We have diminished nature far more than most people know," he observes, and his book is a Homeric catalogue of that loss.

An early victim was the great auk, slaughtered thousands at a time, its last representatives "beaten to death by collectors in June 1844 on the island of Eldey, off Iceland, and their only egg destroyed in the struggle." We know so little about the deep-sea-diving great auk -- gone, as Nicholls remarks, long before Jacques Cousteau came along with scuba gear and underwater cameras -- that we can only guess at the depths of our ignorance. Indeed, in that regard, Nicholls finds room to nod understandingly at fallen bureaucrat Donald Rumsfeld for his musings on known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns -- matters, Nicholls notes, that trouble the writing of any history.

We know too little, but Nicholls has done considerable homework to enrich our store. He frequently finds just the right explorer's journal or pioneer's diary to give weight to his arguments: for instance, an early Anglo visitor to California who reported seeing 50 or 60 grizzly bears in a day, sometimes in groups. That is no exaggeration, though, as Nicholls remarks, for anyone used to the odd grizz or two skulking at the edge of Yellowstone or Glacier, "the thought of whole herds of bears is an extraordinary concept."

Extraordinary by any measure, too, is the utter remaking of the Everglades in just the last century -- for Nicholls carries his long narrative from the days of yore to the latest meadow-devouring big box store. That swampy land, "largely reviled and feared," has been burned, bladed, filled in, drained, paved over and terraformed by men whose names are now affixed to cities and counties. For all the boasts of the previous administration that the Everglades had been restored to its former glory, Nicholls sadly notes, "Around 50 percent of the Glades has been irrevocably lost, so there's no hope of recreating the whole original ecosystem."

And yet we have to try, and we have to keep on trying. Nicholls's book is an effort at making a blueprint of sorts, a plan by which to rebuild a house whose dimensions we can only guess at. The abundance of nature was what made American independence possible in the first place; our present poverty on so many fronts is a consequence of our maltreatment of that nature. But the knowledge of what we have done, chronicled so carefully in this lucid book, may be the first step toward recovering that squandered wealth.

McNamee is the author of "Otero Mesa: Preserving America's Wildest Grassland," among other books.

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