My love affair with nature has only been strengthened by the urban centers in which I’ve lived – Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago. The cars, the construction, the skyscrapers make me all the more fanatical about the idea of a wilderness untouched by human hands. And when I finally visited the Monteverde Cloud Forests of Costa Rica a few years ago, I was enthralled by the feeling of freshness. The sound of motors and human chatter had been replaced by leaf rustles and bird calls. And the smell of dirty urban cement was now the earthy odor of wet plant. I was thrilled to imagine that this was primordial earth, what the cosmos might have felt like before humans touched it. This is paradise, I thought. This is the Garden of Eden.
Award-Winning Author Charles C. Mann
And then I read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. How wrong I had been. We often like to imagine the Americas pre-Christopher Columbus as an Edenic paradise, suspended in time and history, traversed lightly by Indians who were in total harmony with Nature. Which, as Mann teaches us, is a tremendously flawed and dangerous delusion. The rainforest is what he calls an “artificial wilderness.” Native peoples managed, cultivated, and controlled it every bit as much as any farm or urban center. The fact that you can, for example, stroll through the Amazon Rainforest and pick fruit from the trees is because, as botanist Charles R. Clement puts it, “people planted them. [You’re] walking through old orchards!”
Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
And that’s before Europeans touched ground in the New World, bringing horses, cows, bananas, sugarcane – not to mention smallpox and malaria. The list goes on. This so-called Columbian Exchange profoundly altered whole civilizations and landscapes. (And it was a two-way street. There would be no tomatoes in Italian cuisine if they hadn’t first been transported from the New World. No marinara sauce - think of it!) None of this means that 1492 wasn’t traumatic. As we see in Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, whole civilizations collapsed when European explorers and conquistadors turned up with guns and diseases.
Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Long before what researchers call “first contact” (Columbus sailing the ocean blue is a famous instance, but Mann delves deep into the history of Cortes, Pizarro, and others), Native American civilizations radically manipulated their landscapes. Every couple of years, for example, they set fire to the Great Plains and Midwest prairies, dramatically increasing their size. “In all probability,” Mann has declared, “a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first.” As ethologist Dale Lott has pointedly put it: Lewis and Clark weren’t exploring the wilderness; they were traipsing through pastures cultivated by Native Americans. Our romance with America the Beautiful (its “amber waves of grain,” “purple mountain majesties,” and of course, the “fruited plain”), is also a romance with its indigenous peoples.
Mann is the author of several wonderful histories of science, including his books on the pharmaceutical industry (The Aspirin Wars), 20th century physics (The Second Creation), and endangered animals (Noah’s Choice). And, of course, he counters the romance of the edenic Americas with the sciences of anthropology, ethology, archaeology, and ethnography in 1491 and 1493. It was so tempting to let the illusion of raw wilderness sweep me away, but now Mann has swept me away with his global drama of whole civilizations, their rise, and their fall.
The next time I find myself in a beautiful piece of nature – on the shore of Lake Michigan, or the Painted Desert of Arizona, or, if I’m fortunate enough to make the trip, the Amazon rainforest – I’ll be hard-pressed to stifle that amazing, oh-so-rare feeling of inspired calm that I’m sure has something to do with my misplaced notion of a peaceful, untouched Nature-with-a-capital-N. But I believe Mann’s path breaking histories of the New World – before and after Columbus’ first contact – will also inspire. Because when we plant ourselves off the beaten path, far away from the sight or sound of buildings, highways, and farms, we won’t just be contemplating the modern civilization from which we’ve removed ourselves. We’ll be contemplating the much older civilizations that fashioned these landscapes. And our romance with Nature and the stories of American origins will also be a romance inflected by the history, science, and technology of Native American civilization.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
I discovered late in my travels, while chatting with a family in San José, that the portions of Costa Rican wilderness I’d roamed were secondary forest, meaning it had been cleared (probably burned or logged), and probably several times over. The primary forest that once existed had been replaced by secondary growth – lush and beautiful, but most certainly touched by humans. As Mann points out, the past, present, and future of human civilizations is written in the land. Each stalk of maize carries the mark of indigenous ecology in its DNA. So too, it harbors the promise of “next season’s growth.” We are not the first people to shape the land, Mann shows us, and we won’t be the last.
100: Sun, Oct. 14 12:00 - 1:00 PM
Tags: Charles C. Mann, 1491, 1493, Chicago Humanities Festival, America, Christopher Columbus, Americas