A Heritage In Peril

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Coming from an Old World intensively cut over, cultivated, and grazed by domestic animals, Europeans were awed and often overwhelmed by their first glimpses of North America—the clouds of sea birds enveloping rocky islands off Newfoundland, the waterfowl crowding sandy beaches and inland rivers, the stately forests with their “tribes” both feathered and furred that knew not the yoke of man.

 

Coming from an Old World intensively cut over, cultivated, and grazed by domestic animals, Europeans were awed and often overwhelmed by their first glimpses of North America—the clouds of sea birds enveloping rocky islands off Newfoundland, the waterfowl crowding sandy beaches and inland rivers, the stately forests with their “tribes” both feathered and furred that knew not the yoke of man.

The Vikings and such latter-day explorers as Verrazano, Cartier, and Champlain encountered the deciduous eastern forest, where trees towered in parklike splendor, twenty feet in girth and one hundred feet high, over a forest floor nearly clear of brush. Luxuriantly cloaked in grapevines from head to foot, these giants showered down acorns and other nuts, including the finest chestnuts ever tasted, and the meadows brimmed with wild oats, strawberries, and flowering peas. The sweetest songsters in these woods were not nightingales, as in Europe, but shy wood thrushes, hidden among the tangles.

During the seventeenth century, English visitors to Virginia found “goodly tall Cedars” and counted “14 severall sorts of sweete smelling tymber trees,” on whose seed crops depended large flocks of wild turkeys, parakeets, and passenger pigeons “so thicke that even they … shaddowed the skie” from the beholder.

When Henry Hudson dropped anchor in New York Harbor in 1609, he found Manhattan a “very good woodland” with grassy glades and “fresh water running through it, pleasant and proper for man and beast to drink.” Atlantic salmon and whales were to be found as far north as the future site of Albany, up the river that would bear Hudson’s name. In the clear tidal rivers of the coastal plain, fish and shellfish were in great store, and often grew to immense proportions. The seventeenth-century English writer John Josselyn attests in New Englands Rarities to oysters nine inches long, which had to be cut in three pieces before they could be swallowed, and sturgeon sixteen feet long.

No one could yet guess the extent of the eastern forest, covering a third of the continent and populated, according to Myers’ Early Narrative of Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, by such mysterious creatures as the “Possam . . . having a false belly to swallow her Young ones” and “that Remarkable Creature the Flying Squirrel, having a kind of skinny wings, almost like those of a Ban.” The hills then harbored not only foxes and deer but wapiti, moose, wolves, cougars, bobcats, lynxes, and fishers. In the swampy lowlands, otters, muskrats, and beavers sported. The vistas of autumn, unbroken by cultivated fields, presented to Thomas Pownall, geographer and colonial governor of Massachusetts, “an Appearance beyond Conception.” Having known fewer and less spectacular deciduous trees in their native lands. European settlers were constantly amazed by the displays of color, especially the clear reds and deep scarlets of maples, rising hill oxer hill, as in an amphitheatre.

The southern fringes of this forest were very early glimpsed by Spanish conquistadors. Though they sought golden cities that they could not find, they were nonetheless impressed by the southern pines, “well proportioned and as tall as the tallest in Spain,” and the hammocks of tropical forest, rising like islands on the watery prairies of Florida, “very difficult to travel and wonderful to look upon.”

Marching north from Mexico in 1540, Coronado’s men discovered the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and endured the monotony of the Great Plains—the trampled sod, the herds of bison that they called “hunchbacked cows,” and the big sky all around. Some sixty million bison ranged from the Rockies eastward into the woods of Georgia and Pennsylvania; Coronado later told his king that “there was not a single day that I lost sight of them.”

As for the west coast, it was not reached by land until the Spanish decided to colonize California, and sent Gaspar de Portolá as its governor in 1767. North of San Francisco, Portolá came upon the redwoods and realized for the first time the grandeur of the tallest trees in the world, three hundred feel high and so massive that “eight men all holding hands could not span one of them.” Since seamen never sailed more than one hundred miles up the Columbia River, they also missed the wild beauty of the Cascades, unexplored until Lewis and Clark opened up the great spruce and fir forests of the Pacific Northwest in 1805.

At the time of these discoveries, North America was unexploited except by Indians, whose numbers never rose much above a million. Only where their towns were heavily clustered along the coasts, around the Great Lakes, and in the Southwest did the natives of the continent leave some lasting mark on the land.