Climate change Gardening Nature ruminations

Relating to natural life today

In the last month I took a family vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains and read two novels about logging: Ron Rash’s Serena and Annie Proulx’s massive Barkskins. Here are some resulting thoughts about trees, creatures, and the people who inhabit their world.

The natural world in America is nothing like what it was

We fall into the trap of thinking that climate change is unprecedented in its destruction of the natural world. But it has a clear predecessor in the deforestation of the period c. 1600-1960, documented in Barkskins, during which nearly every tree in America was cut down, every forest razed, and most wildlife extirpated. The first two sections of Barkskins start with Europeans trapping all of the beavers, minks, and martens in the northeast. Only after the furs are gone do they move onto logging.

In Serena, the logging barons clear-cut the Smokies before selling the land to the government for a national park. Serena is fiction, but this part of the story is true. In the Smokies, we hiked to Avent Cabin, a structure built around 1850. It contains a picture showing its setting around 1920, when it sat in a clearing: all of the surrounding trees had been logged. Now the cabin is again back in the woods, as the regrown trees approach a century of age.

Of course, letting the land go wild again does not recreate the complex webs of life that existed before Europeans arrived. Keystone species like the American chestnut and the passenger pigeon are extinct and megafauna like moose and bear – characters in both novels – have limited presences. The city nature areas and state parks I visit are a sad joke compared to what they held five hundred years ago. At the end of Barkskins, a character muses about “dark diversity,” the species whose absences from an ecosystem can be measured. There’s a lot of that here.

Both novels do a good job painting the picture of natural splendor that was destroyed forever. As a Michigan resident, I particularly appreciated the Breitsprechers’ trip to survey the endless, towering white pines of this state. My family has stopped at Hartwick Pines State Park on our way up north, a tiny postage stamp of old-growth forest that escaped logging. It’s the closest we can get to experiencing what was once here.

Despite being once despoiled, the trees and wildlife in the Smokies were still beautiful by modern standards. This lifted my spirits. There’s something encouraging about the fact that we’re a hundred years past the low point for trees in the Smokies and moving in the right direction. When it comes to logging, at least.

When were my ancestors last indigenous?

As best as I know, my forebears came from various parts of Europe to the US and Canada over a hundred years ago. Once in the Americas, they lived in places that had been cleared of their native ecosystems. I wonder how far I would need to go up my family tree to find people who had lived for generations with the flora and fauna of their place, knowing them intimately?

In Barkskins, we follow a family of the M’kimaq, a First Nations people indigenous to what’s now called the Atlantic Provinces in the far northeast of Canada. The M’kimaq struggle to retain traditional ways as ecosystems are destroyed and settler ways like farming and wage labor take over. Interactions with native ecosystems include Mari’s plant medicines, Kuntaw hunting a bear with his sons, and men building weirs to trap eels, a hunting method practiced for thousands of years in cultures around the world.

What were the botanical medicines and eel weir-like hunting practices of my ancestors? That knowledge is long lost to me. Not that I could make practical use of it in Michigan in 2024, but it’s a part of me that’s missing.

What does it look like to be in touch with the nature of our places today?

And that’s where I am today. I lack traditional natural knowledge of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the place I’ve settled. Such knowledge would be moot anyway, since the non-human life that lived here for eons has been erased.

Yet I still crave to be in touch with life in this place, however shattered it may be and however ignorant I am. So what?

I started reading Earth in Mind in the summer of 2020, when the possibility of radical change was in the air and I still worked in K-12 education. Despite being published thirty years ago, much of the analysis is still spot on – in fact, it often hits harder for having called its shot so well. Like, the author thinks people are too atomized and spend too much time looking at screens in 1994?

I didn’t like the prose but I ought to pick it up again, as it addresses how people – including me and my family – might obtain adequate knowledge of and connection to the earth. In addition to book learning, I’m picking up other habits that give me some knowledge of place.

I’ll keep being curious about the plants and animals I encounter in my yard and neighborhood. The biodiversity may be meager from a historical perspective, but most of these creatures are new to me (and there sure are plenty of introduced species). Identifying them with the Seek and iNaturalist apps has been a magical way to learn these creatures when there’s no one to teach me. Maintaining my rain garden, starting seeds and planting acorns, eating introduced species — these are ways I can use my senses and get my hands dirty. What I learn is a random patchwork, but it’s something.

Eating things that grow around here is especially satisfying. Last year I made acorn brittle with my kid (this recipe, but we replaced the peanuts with acorns after leaching out their tannins). It was good! People around the world have eaten acorns for thousands of years. That habit and knowledge has faded. Now strangers on the internet share acorn foraging tips and cooking recommendations. Perhaps they too feel a desire to connect more deeply with their local non-human life.

Schools can and should play a role on this front. Learning about local ecosystems can be valuable, challenging, and fun. Our kids should learn to identify plants and animals that live in the Huron Valley watershed, watching them through the seasons and interacting with them directly, e.g., through citizen science, habitat preservation, and foraging.

I grew up a city kid and I’m still a city kid. I’m not going to indulge a fantasy of moving out to the wilderness and “going back to nature.” That’s not really a thing, anyway; as we saw above, almost everywhere in this country has been clear-cut and hunted bare from what it was. My place is here, in Ann Arbor. The original oak-hickory forests and other native habitats may be gone, but I still have the need to connect with what remains.

2 replies on “Relating to natural life today”

This is good! Thank you for writing it.

Was reminded of the Michigan Folk School, which I think you’d love:

Just knowing the names of plants and trees and animals is so huge to being connected to nature. It’s something I want to get better at!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *