Man’s Role

Decades ago, back in the early 1950s when I was a toddler, a group of prominent academics from various disciplines were invited to present papers at a symposium. The papers were compiled and published in 1956; the theme of the symposium and the title of the resultant book was “Man’s Role In Changing the Face Of The Earth”.

I once had a copy (in two volumes) of a paperback re-issue of that book. Much of it I found to be unreadable, but Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer’s contributions stood out, because he could actually write well. Good prose is to this day uncommon in the manifold effusions originating in academia. Several of the essays were illustrated with aerial photos included in order to illustrate the big changes our species had wrought upon the “face of the earth”.

Reading these essays and looking at the ancient low-resolution aerial photos in the book I was impressed by the attitudes of the symposium contributors. They tended to share a placid assumption that the changes in the world’s landscapes were about as severe as possible, and that man’s ingenuity would soon ameliorate the troubling problems. Sixty years later it has become evident that the changes during the subsequent decades have exceeded their comfortable assumptions by an alarming margin.

When these scholars were pontificating the world’s rain forests were still largely intact. There were still large tracts of Midwestern tall-grass prairie. There were no shopping malls or fast-food restaurants. The final assaults upon the remaining forests of ancient Northwestern trees, organisms which predated European occupation and influence, were still to come.

So where does a sensitive observer hang out these days? In Arizona, certainly not in the wildly-developed and hot lowlands near Phoenix and Tucson. Up in the mountains, perhaps, where the need for non-human wildness is balanced with the presence of a select few, other folks with similar inclinations.

Larry

4 comments on “Man’s Role

  1. Bev Wigney says:

    Each spring and autumn, as I cross North America, I am astounded at how much development has taken place along every road that I travel. Bear in mind that I choose routes that should be taking me through the wilder parts on the continent. However, For mile upon mile, I see new oil wells, pipelines, wind turbines, solar arrays, power corridor towers, vast open pit mines, feed lots for beef cattle and compounds for dairy cattle, irrigation canals, aqueducts, sewage settling ponds, and on and on. It is probably not possible to support the rapidly multiplying populations of this planet without exploiting almost every last acre of the so-called wilderness. To quote a line from a well-known song, “Where will the children play?” – not to mention the flora and fauna.

  2. Darrell says:

    There are some interesting studies in this realm. On work was titled “Changes in the Land” as I recall. Also the name Perkins pops up as well. There was another work by Cronyn (sp?) I think, detailing the significant impact American Indians had on the environment before the Old World arrivals, mainly in the use of fire on a massive scale to clear and alter the land. Supposedly early English explorers were struck by the “park like” appearance of the woodland in the American east (in contrast to brushy Britain) , notably in New England. Systematic burning cleared the underbrush and large trees grew rather open tracts (this practice was done to encourage deer populations and possibly to discourage unwanted plants and insects as well. However when the vast bulk of the Indian population died off on the eve of European settlement, the land reverted to the brushy state later generations took for “natural”. Interesting study.

  3. Darrell says:

    Here’s the work . . . I was a bit confused (forgetful) on Cronon’s name spelling.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changes_in_the_Land:_Indians,_Colonists,_and_the_Ecology_of_New_England

  4. Larry says:

    I’d forgotten about Cronon, confusing his work in my erratic memory with a book by May Watts about changes in the Midwestern landscape.

    Both of these books emphasize the role fire played in making a landscape “user friendly”. Here in the Southwest months without rain perform the same task!

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