A previous post described the beliefs about land usage that settlers brought to New England, and the resulting impact on the environment. The same source material (Cronon’s “Changes in the Land”) provides a fascinating description of what Native Americans had been doing to “improve the land” since pre-Columbian times.
In southern New England they would burn large areas of the surrounding forest once or twice a year, creating forests that Europeans saw as “open and parklike.” The fires would consume all the undergrowth so that the result was “a forest of large, widely spaced trees, few shrubs, and much grass and herbage.” Wherever Native Americans in southern New England lived, the English traveler (1633) William Wood noted, “there is scarce a bush or bramble or any cumbersome underwood to be seen in the more champion ground.”
The fires rarely grew out of control since flames usually affected only the undergrowth and not larger trees. Although colonists understood that this burning expedited travel by foot and assisted hunting, they didn’t notice other effects, such as faster nutrient recycling into the forest soil, which allowed grasses like the little bluestem to grow more abundantly. The fires also favored blackberries, raspberries, and other foods that could be easily gathered, while hindering plant diseases and pests. As to fauna, Cronon explains:
By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species … especially those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffled grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes, and wolves. In short, Indians who hunted game animals were not just taking the ‘unplanted bounties of nature’; in an important sense, they were harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating.
The Native Americans caused significant ecological change, but to many people in the 1600s and 2000s these alterations are arguably improvements on the land. The concept of “improving the land” today probably falls in the category of conservation, but unfortunately fires won’t restore our forests to their bountifulness at the time of the pre-Columbian Native Americans.