Posts Tagged ‘fire management’

Learning from the Black Goat

December 8, 2017

Here’s an interesting article by Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living and working in Nazareth, the capital of the Palestinian minority in Israel: ‘In age of forest fires, Israel’s law against Palestinian goats proves self-inflicted wound for Zionism‘. He writes:

A ban by Israel on herding black goats – on the pretext they cause environmental damage – is to be repealed after nearly seven decades of enforcement that has decimated the pastoral traditions of Palestinian communities.

The Israeli government appears to have finally conceded that, in an age of climate change, the threat of forest fires to Israeli communities is rapidly growing in the goats’ absence.

The goats traditionally cleared undergrowth, which has become a tinderbox as Israel experiences ever longer and hotter summer droughts. Exactly a year ago, Israel was hit by more than 1,500 fires that caused widespread damage.

The story of the lowly black goat, which has been almost eliminated from Israel, is not simply one of unintended consequences. It serves as a parable for the delusions and self-destructiveness of a Zionism bent on erasing Palestinians and creating a slice of Europe in the Middle East.

The whole story struck me as a rich commentary on the conflicts between landscape rewilding and the ‘human ecology’ of traditional land-use and the cultures built on multi-generation subsistence practices. It serves as an extreme example of where conservation ideology can lead, as well as the dark urges it can serve, if no attention is paid to the human role in ecological systems, and if projects are forced through against the will of the people who actually inhabit those landscapes. Consequently it raises questions about the relationship between rewilding and ethnic cleansing and whether it’s even possible to have one without elements of the other.

It appears that, following the war in 1948 which created the state of Israel, the settlers were keen to plant a number of new pine forests. The stated aim was advertised as a noble environmental mission, to ‘redeem the land,’ create ‘a greener world,’ and to ‘make the desert bloom’ but there were several ulterior motives served by the policy:

The trees were fulfilling an important Zionist mission, in the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers. They were there to conceal the rubble of more than 530 Palestinian villages the new state had set about destroying […] making it impossible for the refugees to return and rebuild their homes.

Additionally, the pine was useful because it was fast-growing and evergreen, shrouding in darkness all year evidence of the ethnic cleansing committed during Israel’s creation. And the forests played a psychological role, transforming the landscape in ways designed to make it look familiar to recent European immigrants and ease their homesickness.

Finally, the falling pine needles acidified the soil, leaving it all but impossible for indigenous trees to compete. These native species – including the olive, citrus, almond, walnut, pomegranate, cherry, carob and mulberry – were a vital component of the diet of Palestinian rural communities. Their replacement by the pine was intended to make it even harder for Palestinian refugees to re-establish their communities.

However, these plans were frustrated — so it was claimed — by Bedouin herders, grazing sheep and black goats (aka Syrian goats) in marginal areas around the Negev desert and the hills of Galilee, and the ‘environmental damage’ caused when they allegedly ate up the young pine saplings. In response a ‘Plant Protection’ law was passed in 1950 which sought to outlaw the goat and paved the way for mass culling of the herds:

[Ariel] Sharon created the “Green Patrol”, a paramilitary unit of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, whose tasks included seizing and slaughtering the Bedouin’s black goats.

Palestinian community activist Maha Qupty notes that in the first three years of the Green Patrol’s operations, the number of black goats was slashed by 60 percent, from 220,000 to 80,000.

But again the motivation had more to do with ethnic cleansing and land theft, made apparent by a 1965 Planning and Building law which, in addition to the assault on their subsistence base, made Bedouin homes illegal and denied them access to public services, with the intention being ‘to pen the Bedouin up in a handful of urbanised “townships”, forcing them to abandon agriculture and become casual labourers in a Jewish economy’. Israeli leaders publicly admitted this at the time without apology, as Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff in the IDF, commented:

We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat – in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction … this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.

The result?

Of the 90,000 people from 95 tribes living in the land of the Naqab on the eve of the Nakba, only 11,000 from 19 tribes remained by 1952. They were concentrated in an area equivalent to 10% of the lands they previously owned. [‘Naqab’ is the original Arabic name for the Negev desert; ‘Nakba’ is what Palestinians call the 1948 war and their ensuing violent colonisation.]

And the ecological consequences? Well, maybe pictures say it best:

 

Cook notes that, whereas there had been several Palestinian villages on Mount Carmel accompanied by a population of around 15,000 goats before the 1950 ‘Plant Protection’ law and the abuses of the Green Patrol, by 2013 goat numbers were down to 2,000 and thick pine forests disguised where the villages had been cleared. But the facade is vulnerable. The Aleppo Pine (called ‘Jerusalem Pine’ in Israel) favoured in the plantation schemes is very fire-prone, and the risk increases with arid conditions which are expected to worsen with global warming. The Mount Carmel fire of 2010 destroyed nearly 10,000 acres of forest, killed 44 people and caused the evacuation of 17,000 more, with the problem only likely to get worse in the future. Even hardline Israeli politicians have now started to reconsider the role of goats in preventing the build-up of flammable scrub, eating seeds and thinning out pine saplings, although it seems likely the remaining Bedouin herders will continue to suffer discrimination in different forms even if their subsistence practice now — finally after nearly 70 years — has the occupier state’s stamp of approval.

*****

So… how do we square all this with rewilding philosophy and practice going forward? My personal bias, born and raised in a North European temperate climate, is towards trees and forest cover, so visually I prefer the image of the forested Mount Carmel to its eroded, scrubby-looking appearance of 123 years ago (although admittedly the fire blazing through it indicates something’s not right!). But investigating the history and prehistory of the Negev region tells me that trees have been a rarity for at least the last 10,000 years, including a couple thousand years of hunter-gatherer occupation before domesticated grazing got underway. Pistacia khinjuk (a small tree in the cashew family) and Tamarix species are recorded, but the predominant species have been herbs and grasses in the Chenopodiaceae, Cruciferae, Gramineae, Liliaceae, Compositae and Artemisia families, with Plantago species apparently coinciding with ‘periods of livestock breeding in the central Negev desert’ at various intervals from around 5,000 years ago. So it appears that the Arabic systems of pastoralism or fruit and nut orchards where appropriate are the best systems for the region in the absence of mass irrigation or petrochemicals — if humans are to maintain a presence there at all, that is.

This brings us to the question of sustainability. Anarcho-primitivist rewilding philosophy rails against the domestication of plants and animals, including the pastoral context which most often goes hand in hand with field agriculture (eg: through trade relations). Apart from the damaging effects it has on the domesticated species and on the humans domesticators themselves, it creates a dividing line between ‘us’ (humans and the small band of species who completely depend on one another) and ‘them’ (all the other species ‘out there’ which compete with, frustrate, even predate on ‘us, in here’), leading to conflict, antagonism and eventual wars of extermination on any species which undermines the domesticating practices, or the expansion of those systems. It may be possible to sustain a certain population of pastoralists and their livestock indefinitely in any given area, but at what cost to the wildlife? Predators shot, trapped or poisoned, other grazers displaced, loss of 3-dimensional tree- and shrub-based habitat, erosion and disturbance of soil, disruptions of fertility cycles, etc etc. Domestication gives humans the option to expand food production — and their subsequent population — at will, and history has shown that, under these subsistence strategies, there is no upper limit which they will not attempt to push through in their never-ending quest for expansion. Witness the recent estimates that ‘83% of the global terrestrial biosphere [is] under direct human influence’ and ‘36% of the Earth’s bioproductive surface is “entirely dominated by man” ‘ and tally that against the extinction crisis currently well underway among all walks of life. Theoretically it might be ‘sustainable’ to reduce planetary biodiversity down to just humans and rice, but that’s not a world I’d want to live in!

What if we look at human practices, domesticated or otherwise, which enhance biodiversity and improve habitat for other species – regenerative, rather than merely sustainable practices as Toby Hemenway and others have described (‘How’s your marriage?’ ‘Oh, it’s sustainable…’)? Many people around the world make this claim already, whether we’re talking about coppicing, hay meadows, hedgerows, hunting, selective harvesting, managed grazing or small scale burning, both in indigenous and market-society contexts. The trouble is that it’s always a subjective judgement: an improvement for one species will inevitably worsen conditions for another. Maintain an open forest canopy and light-loving plants and animals will thrive but those that like it dark and damp will suffer. Keep meadows, heaths and moorlands open through grazing or burning and the wildflowers, grouse and pollinating insects will thank you but the Birch trees and associated secondary woodland species will curse you under their breath. Burn under established oak trees and you’ll get a good crop of acorns but the insect populations, along with the targeted acorn weevils, will plummet. There’s a good article about this by ecologists Hambler & Speight, looking at conservation practices in the UK and Europe. They make the point that local biodiversity might not be the best measure of an ecosystem’s true value:

High diversity of habitat is clearly an undesirable general goal: the costs and benefits depend on the scale of the habitats. A diverse park or garden may have more landscape or educational appeal than a dense, dark oak or spruce monoculture, and more species of vascular plants – but more specialist, vulnerable, and globally rare species could inhabit the woodland. Mud and sea lochs may not be diverse, but are important habitats. […] Common habitats should not be created from rare ones to increase diversity.

A further problem with habitat diversity is that it may be created at the expense of large, homogeneous blocks of habitat, and therefore more edges are created, between small habitat fragments. In some circumstances, edges are beneficial, but a rapidly increasing scientific literature suggests organisms of the edge and matrix around a habitat can be inimical to those of the interior.

The claim for black goats in Israel/Palestine is that they browse away the woody plant materials that would otherwise build up and potentially fuel catastrophic wildfires. I don’t know if this would also be the case without the pine plantations adding to the fuel load. Probably to a lesser extent. Further it is said that their browsing habits are important for:

[…] controlling the growth and spread of trees and shrubs, which thwarts the growth and ultimately the existence of herbs and wildflowers, in turn leading to the disappearance of animals and birds that need open spaces to live in. One ecological study carried out on Crete examining the effects of goat grazing in inhabited areas found that places where goats regularly grazed had 46 types of wild herbal plants, whereas others only had 10. (ibid.)

I couldn’t find that study but this paper (pdf), taking a broader view of the goat’s positive and negative environmental impacts around the world, argues that its reputation as a ‘black sheep’ for causing habitat degradation is not deserved, as goat herds are often brought in only after the land has already been overgrazed by sheep or cattle, and where they have caused damage this is most often due to mismanagement or accidental release of feral populations into sensitive environments. On the plus side it states that:

[…] moderate goat grazing is considered valuable for the conservation of pastures dominated by native or endemic species in Tenerife Island (Fernández-Lugo et al., 2009), and negative effects on plant diversity are expected after goat grazing abandonment in pastures which sustain endemic plant species in La Gomera Island (Arévalo et al., 2011). […] Furthermore, goats having a potential positive impact on vegetation regeneration and biodiversity improvement (ElAich and Waterhouse, 1999), they have returned to several unmanaged grasslands around Europe with aims of conservation of the biodiversity (Ferrer et al., 2001; Muller,2002). They can also contribute to preserve ecosystems like heather, moor, marsh wet meadow and other unique biotops present in protected areas (Martyniuk and Olech,1997).

Other examples include improving mountain plantlife after cereal cultivation and managing chalk grasslands for specific butterfly populations. So far so subjective… It discusses the impacts that goat herds have on other wild mammals sharing the same forage, pointing out that in many cases the wild species are able to live alongside due to slight differences in range or food preferences. A powerful example of the damage-through-mismanagement case can be seen in the Loess Plateau restoration project in China. One of the main causes of environmental damage was unrestricted grazing of goat herds. When they were penned up and more tightly managed the area was able to recover and benefit from all the other restoration efforts. See this documentary from around 17:30:

Interestingly this resulted in drastic changes in the whole climate, with trees, dammed water sources and terracing arresting the moisture that formerly would have just run off, carrying a load of the topsoil with it. It’s an artificial plantation, but judging from pictures it’s difficult to imagine it catching fire (though I’m sure protracted drought would make it more likely). Also, unlike the Israeli plantations the area actually has a history of temperate forest cover, further supporting the appropriateness of the restoration efforts.

Loess Plateau, September 1995

Loess Plateau, September 2009 – source

It would be hard to argue that this doesn’t show an objective improvement of the land and an example of the kind of thing civilised humans should be doing across the planet to repair all the damage they have caused over the centuries and millennia. The only misgivings I had after hearing about it had to do with a) the involvement of the World Bank (what’s in it for them?) and b) the massive amount of government funds needed to get the ball rolling, 250 million dollars, without which the local farmers would never have had the time to spare for such slow-return activities. The above documentary showed one illuminating quote from a farmer during the early stages of the project: ‘They want us to plant trees everywhere, even in the good land. What about the next generation? They can’t eat trees.’ [22:50] You can sort of see his point, even if he’s wrong about being able to get a direct or indirect food crop from trees: is it feasible or sustainable to have an entire farming population employed in non-food-producing activities over a period of years, just doing repair work? Where’s the money come from to support this venture? But yes, it also illustrates how the over-reliance on a few species of plant or animal domesticates can paint your imagination into a corner, explaining the shrieks of outrage that farmers everywhere direct towards ‘unproductive’ rewilding projects. They mean unproductive for (civilised) humans, who have a God-given right to total dominion over every acre of the planet. They fail to account for all the indirect benefits that nondomesticated landscapes can have for their systems if given half a chance, but further they fail to see the possibilities for direct human involvement in rewilded landscapes and don’t remember that formerly this was every human being’s mode of existence.

It’s good to see a continued human presence as landscapes are repaired, indeed with people leading the way with the restoration efforts. Also I like that food production is still a key part of the end result, and that it hasn’t simply turned into a recreational tourist zone. That’s what troubles me about the trend in landscape rewilding movements in Britain and Europe, which seem to have a ‘pristine wilderness’ ethos that bars direct human involvement, except for in the alienated role of an outsider, visiting, taking a picture, participating in an organised leisure activity, then going back home to the city. See this Rewilding Europe video for example:

The only people featured engaged in any kind of subsistence activity are the old man using a donkey to pull a small plough, presumably to represent the old-time farming which no longer has a place in the modern world, and a beekeeper near the end as one example of the ‘business, jobs and income’ that rewilding can provide. The rest are young professionals with spotless outdoor clothing and expensive-looking cameras, just there to enjoy themselves and look at the scenery. Something important is definitely lost under those bland phrases ‘Large parts of the countryside in Europe are being abandoned … Young people are leaving for the cities … We can turn these problems into a historic opportunity’. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Rewilding Europe are actively driving this process, merely benefiting from the vacuum left after farmers sell up and leave because of no longer being able to compete on the world market, among other reasons. Nonetheless it seems to fit a sad pattern that space only opens up for rewilding projects where for some reason the countryside has been depopulated. Places that spring to mind are:

  • Scotland (after the Highland Clearances)
  • The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia (after Germans were expelled following WW2)
  • Chernobyl (after the nuclear reactor explosion)
  • The demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea (after the Korean War)
  • The Chagos Islands (after expulsion of native islanders by the British)
  • The expansion of forests following population crashes in the Americas after first contact by Europeans and Eastern Europe after the Mongol raids

You can see how claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from farmers might not be total paranoia, whether they’re blaming rewilders, other environmentalists or conservation charities and their influence, such as it is (or rather, such as they perceive it to be), on government policy. Their life is enough of a struggle as it is, without a bunch of know-nothing outsiders telling them what to do, what not to do, or even that they shouldn’t be there at all.

I guess you have to ask what the land itself would want, in each circumstance. Maybe in some places it would be happy for farmers and their domesticates to continue their traditional practices; maybe in others it would like to see humans decamp totally and allow the wild communities to recover on their own and create their own self-willed ecological relationships; maybe in some circumstances it would appreciate the re-introduction of some former lost species or the periodic control of an invasive; or maybe it would welcome the re-introduction of humans, not in an exploitative capacity but playing a keystone role in their own right. People who have lived and worked in that particular place for a long time will have the most relevant knowledge about what can and should be done there to make things better, assuming they’ve kept a basic sensitivity and not become tenant exploiters for outsider interests. However, in the long run it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this expansion of civilised humanity and their domesticates; this appropriation of every available stretch of land; this great hoovering up of every last photon converted by the plants into the basic building blocks of life has to be stopped and put into reverse. Furthermore this whole mode of production which operates by basically stealing biomass from the rest of the living community to fuel the growth of just a handful of species has to end. Just look where we are now:

 

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‘The Environment of Early Man in the British Isles’

February 12, 2014

https://i0.wp.com/www.pendleburys.com/shop_image/product/166557.jpg

I recently learned a lot from reading this book, which was recommended by a commenter under one of George Monbiot’s rewilding articles. It was published back in 1975 so I’m not sure how much of it still holds true or whether there has been much development or debunking of the theories he presents from various scientific disciplines in the time that has elapsed since. But I can say that it made a lot of sense to this reader, who found it eye-opening, provocative and highly informative (if a little heavy-going at points) nearly forty years after it was written.

The main thing it got me thinking about was this polarisation of whether human cultures are ‘meant’ to exist in a largely open or closed environment – basically the choice between grasses and trees which we talked about before. Evans makes clear that this isn’t a simple delineation between forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and field-based farmers. In fact there have been very large differences in the patterns of subsistence adopted by hunter-gatherers in this land even before the arrival of agriculture, around 6,000 years ago, heralded the more active management of the land with which we’re familiar today at its totalitarian extreme. The main cause for these differences was the background climate, to which prehistoric man adapted along with all the other creatures in the surrounding ecology. Evans separates them into two main types – the Upper Paleolithic (old stone-age) cultures, who hunted herds of large game feeding on the grasslands that prevailed during the glacial Devensian period between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago:

In the Mendips, pollen analysis of cave deposits indicates values of between 25 and 40 per cent trees and shrubs, mainly birch and willow. An environment of park tundra—scattered birches in a generally open landscape, but with denser woodland in the sheltered valleys and ravines—can be envisaged for much of Britain at low altitudes. A fauna similar to that prior to the Full Glacial was present with large herbivores predominant. Horse and reindeer appeared early in zone I [beginning 14,000 years ago]; elk was present by zone II [10,000 years ago], and in Ireland […] the Allerød period [ie:  zone II] is characterized by the giant Irish deer. But the mammoth, wooly rhinocerous, hyena and lion were all absent, for some reason not having been able to return to Britain after the glacial maximum […]

In Britain, faunal evidence suggests horse often as important or even more important than reindeer for food and raw materials [haha!]. Abundant herds of horse were probably available along the upland/lowland contact zone as indeed they would be today in the High Altai of Mongolia were it not for modern man […] The tundra vegetation, on which low temperatures and a short growing season were limiting factors, was not directly exploitable for food on a large scale by man, although seeds and berries were doubtless eaten. But the reindeer and the horse were ideally suited to it and it was through these animals that man’s livelihood was largely gained. (pp.51-3)

and the Mesolithic (middle stone-age) cultures who lived in the forested environment favoured by the more temperate climate of the ‘post-glacial’ which began around 10,000 years ago and continues to the present day:

Man responded to these changes variously. He adopted his methods of hunting to the pursuit of individual animals rather than herds and began to make greater use of the bow and arrow. He widened his range in the quest for food and became less specialized, pursuing a grater variety of animals than in the Ice Age. It is inevitable too, although we have little evidence for this, that a more varied plant diet was exploited than was possible in the sub-arctic tundra.

The earliest forest-dwelling Mesolithic culture in Britain is the Maglemosian, named after the type sit of Maglemose (literally ‘big bog’) in Denmark. It is classically associated with forest, marsh and reed-swamp habitats, and, as far as we can tell, adapted readily to the changed environment of early Post-glacial times […] The best-known Maglemosian site is Starr Carr where the main animals exploited were red deer (80 examples), roe deer (33), elk (11), ox (9) and pig (5), a fauna reflecting the prevailing forest vegetation. Other animals present were the pine marten, hedgehog, hare, badger, fox, beaver, and domestic dog. (pp.87-8)

Of course, these differences depicted among modern humans (Homo Sapiens has been in Britain for around 40,000 years) probably apply to the different cultures among earlier subspecies, Neanderthalensis, Heidelbergensis and Antecessor, (among others?)  who would have lived through similar swings in climate and either changed their subsistence accordingly, migrated to more favourable climates or become locally extinct. For example the recent news of human footprints and artifacts discovered in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, and dated to between 800,000 and a million years ago, mentions a background climate where:

[…] the local vegetation consisted of a mosaic of open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). Alder (Alnus) was growing in wetter areas and there were patches of heath and grassland. This vegetation is characteristic of the cooler climate typically found at the beginning or end of an interglacial or during an interstadial period. (from the original paper)

In other words much closer to the kind of environment where we can expect subsistence on herds of large herbivores rather than smaller forest-dwelling individuals.

Evans wears his prejudices on his sleeve when it comes to describing what the resulting human cultures were like, and appears to see a narrative of progress linking the open-environment people of the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic farmers, with the woodland Mesolithic people presented as an unfortunate intermediate stage where nothing much happened, possibly because their environment wasn’t ‘challenging’ enough. Compare the concluding paragraphs to his chapters on the two periods:

The Later Upper Paleolithic peoples endured in western Europe for over 4000 years. With their cave art, their carvings, their tools and weapons of extreme beauty, their sophisticated annual migratory movements and their possible near domestication of the reindeer and the horse they drew from Western Europe and gave to it a fitness and a legacy which was not to be surpassed until the introduction of agriculture—and some would say never. The possible future of these communities had the Late-glacial environment been maintained is totally speculative. But there is little doubt that the Post-glacial amelioration of climate and the eventual spread of mixed deciduous forest drove the reindeer herds northwards and broke up one of the finest and most successful life styles ever known. (p.54)

[…]

This then is the environmental background to the early Post-glacial hunting communities of Britain—a warming climate, a rising sea with yet marshy extensions to the east and links with Europe, an increasing variety of game and plant food, and the spread of all pervasive forest—conditions quite different from those experienced by Upper Paleolithic man. These changes may have had a very great psychological impact on man, the equable conditions and diversity of habitats and food supply both obviating the need for specialization and also retarding development […] it is a fact that not only in Britain but in Europe as a whole Mesolithic man has left little of artistic wealth. We have few clues to his beliefs, and burials, apart from a few examples such as the horrible nests of human skulls at Ofnet in Bavaria, are rare. There is nothing of the brilliance of the Upper Paleolithic hunters living as they were in the stimulating landscape of the Ice Age, nor anything of the vital urgency with which later farming communities were to settle and cultivate the lands of western Europe and the British Isles. (pp.89-90)

This may relate to his personal politics which he lays bare at the end of the final chapter, which left a bad taste in my mouth for several days. After describing the horrors of soil erosion, whereby, because of agriculture and the removal of field boundaries, hedges etc. ‘[w]e are, in effect, returning to an almost ‘Late-glacial’ landscape of steppe, pasture and bare ground, with processes of physical erosion—dust storms and ‘solifluxion’—rife’, the topsoil ‘lost, literally in a day’ through wind erosion, he then questions the value of environmental organisations and conservation efforts, asking:

Do we have the right to lay down the requirements and attempt to mould the environment of the future? And in doing so, are we not betraying earlier, and more important, future generations of man? […]

By attempting to maintain the environmental status quo are we not denying ourselves and our progeny the opportunity and the ability to exploit challenging new environments both created by our own industrial and agricultural needs and by natural climatic shifts? Evolution depends on environmental stimulus, and the most successful groups of man have arisen in response to specialized simplified environments. If man had declaimed in the past at the felling of the forest he might still be at the Mesolithic stage of development. If there had been one of the specialized periglacial habitats, the brilliant Upper Paleolithic may never have emerged. And had there been none of the rigours of a cooling Pleistocene climate, there may well have been no man. (pp.186-7)

I don’t think this can be forgiven just because it was written the 70s. There’s some seriously insane thinking going on here, alongside the falsity of viewing evolution in terms of linear progress. Maybe he’d appreciate the ‘challenging new environment’ of the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, or defoliated, dioxin-laced Vietnam, or a tar sands trailing pond, or an ocean stripped of phytoplankton because of the greater acidity caused by excess CO2 in the atmosphere?

Canadian oil sands sitefancy a ‘challenge’? – source

He doesn’t appear to understand that civilised man has already done more than anyone to ‘mould the environment of the future’ – a largely desertified, if not entirely dead planet, but, unbelievably, his ire is directed at environmentalists who are trying to check this destructive ‘simplifying’ process. What gives them the right to try and preserve the rich, generous biodiversity that the natural world has tried so hard to bestow us with?

Anyhow, back on the subject of open vs. closed environments, there may yet be some truth to Simon Fairlie’s comment about ‘the health of the human psyche’ depending on ‘keeping land open to wind and sunlight’ which I criticised at the above link. Remembering the story the photographer Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (pdf) about trying to introduce his Scottish wife to the pine forests of his native Idaho, I assumed that this was an attitude born from an abused landscape:

The instant we climbed out of Idaho sagebrush and into a dense stand of pine, in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, I knew something was wrong. Mairi fell silent. Her pace slowed. I glanced over my shoulder to find the distance between us filled with shadow and half-light. She had hunched her shoulders and dropped her head. She moved with the wary posture of stalked prey. As she passed through a saber of light I could clearly see the fear in her eyes. I waited for her, but she walked past, pointed to a clearing, and by way of explanation, whispered, “too many trees.” Neither of us had known, until that moment, that Mairi held a secret dread of wooded land.

I felt as if I’d failed her, unable to convey the closed-in sense of sanctuary I’d always felt in that forest, the way, even as a child, the thick mat of pine needles and jigsaw bits of bark felt luxurious under my feet; the way the trees provided shelter against wind and mid-day glare; the way sounds were both softened and clarified; the way air held the sweet scent of pitch and the flutter of wings.

On the scree and boulder slopes above tree line, the tension drained from her face. She looked off into a landscape she could again understand: open country, treeless country, country filled with nothing more than grass, rock, and sky. It was only later, after peering more deeply into her Highland past, that we learned forests were part of her history, too, a forest lost to centuries of forgetting.

But the evidence shows that even woodland people also value open landscapes, whether we’re talking about the Native American practice of using fire to maintain the so-called ‘Oak Savannah’ habitats*, rainforest people clearing temporary patches to grow manioc and other vegetables, or the density of prehistoric artifacts found around ancient floodplains or other areas such as lakes or coastlines kept open through ‘natural’ causes:

spey

Over the past 200 years, rivers like the Thames have been embanked to prevent flooding, and the flow of water controlled by locks and weirs. Formerly their course were braided, i.e. split up into several channels which meandered over a broad flood plain […] For agricultural peoples such a system of braided channels is wasteful of land, and artificial control has been imposed at various times in the past on river systems in the most heavily farmed areas of the country. But from the point of view of Lower Paleolithic man such conditions were ideal. They provided tracts of open ground in an otherwise forested country with the obvious advantages of defence against predators such as the lion, and of concentrating herds of game such as deer, oxen, horse and elephant attracted to the river valley for water. The variety of habitats—open water, reed swamp, woodland, and, as we shall see, at one stage, grassland—together with the variety of game animals both large and small obviated the need for specialization in hunting and food-gathering techniques, and presented man with what was probably a relatively congenial existence. (pp.3-4)

Perhaps climate change-induced flooding of the kind which low-lying areas in Britain have been recently experiencing will force a return to this kind of habitat?

Somerset flooding

There is also some evidence for the use of fire in the opening up or maintenance of favourable hunting grounds. Apparently the man to check out is Ian Simmons, who wrote a 1996 book called The environmental impact of later Mesolithic cultures. Earlier writings of his having to do with the relationship between fire and the ‘vegetation changes associated with Mesolithic man in Britain’ and ‘Environment and early man on Dartmoor’ (both published in 1969) are summarised by Evans thusly:

simmons

Forest glades around springs and streambanks are seen as initial nuclei of open ground, created by animals coming to drink. The dual attraction to Mesolithic man of both water and game in these areas was probably exploited, and their enlargement by burning a logical follow up which in turn would have attracted more game animals. Game avoidance of the area or overkill by man may then have led to desertion of the clearing and subsequent regeneration of woodland. (p.97)

Where this happened on poorer soils it is seen as evidence that Mesolithic people were capable of permanently degrading the land in certain areas to the point where the trees wouldn’t regenerate and only heath- or moor-type plant communities could survive.

Fire is also mentioned whenever the discussion turns towards Hazel – higher representations of which in the pollen records are said to represent either spontaneous or human-encouraged conflagrations because ‘Hazel is a fire-resistant tree, springing up readily from burnt stumps’ (p.81).

[A.G. Smith, 1970] argues that the prevalence of hazel during the Boreal period [increasing warmth 9500-7500 years ago]  may too have been engendered by the continued use of fire. It is perhaps significant that the hazel maximum in the Post-glacial falls at a much earlier stage in relation to the climatic succession as a whole than in previous interglacials.

The purely climatic origin of the vegetational changes in the Boreal/Atlantic transition [‘climatic optimum’ starting around 7500 years ago] has also been questioned, largely on the grounds that they are so often exactly synchronous with layers of wood charcoal and Mesolithic flint artefacts […] A secondary hazel maximum occurring around the Boreal/Atlantic transition, and occasionally coinciding with an increase of herbaceous pollen, is perhaps further evidence for widespread human interference with the vegetation at this time. (pp.100-1)

Herbaceous pollen, eh? This has echoes of the Indian practices we mentioned before*, in which fire is used to favour the growth of ‘bulbs and greens’ under a relatively open tree canopy – Hazel coppice, both in their neglected and actively managed states, around where I live have a lot of ground flora, probably due to the greater amount of light filtering through (although I understand he may not be saying the tree & herb pollen came from the same sites). Unfortunately Evans doesn’t consider that Mesolithic people might have been deliberately managing stands of Hazel for a nut crop, as more recent research has begun to explore†.

I felt a weird, nagging sensation while studying the many charts comparing the pollen representation of various plant species in the archaeological record. Here’s a simple one detailing the transition to Neolithic cereal farming at Barfield Tarn, ‘a kettle hole on the south-western edge of the Lake District’ (p.111):

pollen

Evans talks about the decline of Elm, which most researchers accept as diagnostic of the rise of farming, whether through introduced diseases, use as fodder for livestock until exhausted or deliberate clearance (as it often occupied the soils most suitable for cultivation). In this diagram the trees, with the exceptions of Oak and Elm, don’t appear to suffer that much from the ‘two episodes of land use’ although we are assured that ‘[r]egeneration of woodland did not occur’ (perhaps after the depicted period?) Anyway, what struck me as a forager looking at these diagrams is that, while I make extensive harvests from trees themselves, most of the plants that I would consider useful in a culinary sense – Plantain, Dandelion, Sorrel, Fat Hen, Nettle and mustard species – only become prevalent along with the grasses and cereal crops favoured by the Neolithic farmer/herders. I too have adapted to an open landscape! In reality, unless we accept the active fire management scenario described above (or the more passive attraction to ‘naturally’ open spaces), it seems likely that these ‘weed’ species were, if not entirely absent from Mesolithic diets, then much less abundant in their environment than they are today. Chris Thomas of York University’s biology department has made similar points (pdf) drawing on his knowledge of butterflies, summarised here by Mark Fisher:

[Thomas] sought to ask why so many animal and plant species in Britain, and in some other parts of northern Europe, are restricted to open habitats when the majority of the landscape would naturally be forested? He observed that most open-country species would have survived the mostly wooded state of the mid Holocene in the open areas of inland and sea cliffs, dunes, coast and lake shores, and possibly river-valley grasslands, fen, bog and mire, as well as above the tree-line, without the need to invoke major modification of the vegetation by large herbivores. They would have colonised twice: in the early Holocene after the ice receded but failing to persist once tree cover asserted, and then again after the trees were cleared for agriculture. Thus what ever the date of arrival, current distributions largely reflect recent conditions. In addition, the rates at which we see modern distributions adjust to new environmental conditions are sufficient to allow most animal species to assume new distributions within Britain in a few hundred years if conditions change. Current distributions thus reflect recent anthropogenic habitats far more strongly than they reflect the longer-term history of natural populations. (‘What is rewilding?‘)

Evans has plenty to say about the effects of agriculture once it arrived in Britain, and he charts the various technological developments that ensued as well as the negative environmental impacts it had, especially on the soil. He follows these effects right through to the historical period and the modern day, often showing how patterns of land use laid down in earlier times often strongly influenced the organisation of human settlements which we recognise today. Perhaps I’ll come back to explore this properly another time, but for now suffice it to say that nothing in this book has fundamentally altered my understanding of agriculture as ‘a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event’ (to use the words of Oak enthusiast David Bainbridge).

[Above images print-screened from the google preview of the book]

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* – ‘There was considerably less chaparral and underbrush [in aboriginal times], due to the Maidu practice of burning off the areas near where they lived each fall and winter. They preferred an open, grassy, oak savannah habitat for several reasons. Open country is much easier to travel in than country with thick underbrush; it is easier to find game and harder for enemies to sneak up on the camp. More bulbs and greens grow in such an environment, and it is easier to gather acorns on bare ground.’ – anthropologist John Duncan, quoted in Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild, p.288

† – for example: ‘The Late Mesolithic phase is defined by the repetitive application of fire to the woodland to encourage a mosaic of productive vegetation regeneration patches, consistent with the promotion of Corylus [Hazel] and to aid hunting. In this phase, weed species including Plantago lanceolata [Ribwort Plantain], Rumex [Dock/Sorrel] and Chenopodiaceae [Fat Hen/Good King Henry] are frequent, taxa which are normally associated with the first farmers.’ (from the abstract to ‘Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic forest disturbance‘ – anyone with access to the full paper please get in touch!)

Fertility – Less or More?

June 22, 2012

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:

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I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.