Ecological Patterns, Land Use, and Right Livelihood

I have a kind of paralysis. I think many of us do. It comes when my ancient kitchen faucet leaks constantly—even with new washers—and I’m forced to replace it. It comes when a section of stovepipe rusts through. It comes, especially, when I can’t put off restoring our side porch any longer, and I look at the trees beyond our meadow, trying to decide which ones I will fell for the posts. I stand paralyzed at the task of selecting the least destructive option, paralyzed with reluctance at having to use more stuff. Is this what inventing a new culture is like, aching over every decision that will scalp over more forest or chew a new hole in the earth?

That constant twinge feels stronger than mere consumer guilt. I consume only a fraction of what I did ten years ago, but the ache is still there, and it’s wearing me out. So I’ve begun searching for patterns that can tell me when it’s appropriate to use things, when it’s justifiable to divert matter from the biosphere and geosphere and cycle it into my personal ecosystem. These patterns also provide a guide to right livelihood, as our jobs often affect the land more than our home lives.

I began my hunt for ecological patterns by exploring two of the sustainable systems I knew of: the indigenous cultures that dwelt in the Americas, Africa, and Australia for tens to hundreds of millennia; and natural ecosystems themselves. What are the dynamics, I wondered, that allow these systems to exist seemingly indefinitely, dynamics that are so patently lacking in our own economics?

Let’s take indigenous societies first. What level of resource use did these peoples deem appropriate and sustainable? Obviously, I can’t lump all native cultures together—there were hundreds in North America alone. But a simpler question may point us in the right direction. A people’s use of nature’s gifts and their regard for the environment are reflected in the land they inhabit. Thus we can learn much from asking this: What did our continent look like before Europeans arrived?

Before the Europeans: Myth and Reality

We could turn to our mythmakers for one answer. Longfellow tells us that before Columbus, North America was a “forest primeval,” in which “the murmuring pines and the hemlocks . . . stand like Druids of eld.” Historian Francis Parkman writes that in the 16th century, Verrazano surveyed from his ship “the shadows and gloom of mighty forests.” And my school textbooks said that a squirrel could travel from Maine to Louisiana without coming down from the trees.

Remember, though, that many of this country’s myths date from America’s early nationhood, which was the era of the Romantics: poets who described their hopes as often as they did reality. These idealists beheld a landscape whose use patterns had radically changed two centuries earlier with the arrival of whites. The Romantics extrapolated, from the thicketed remnants of eastern forest, a forbidding and impenetrable wilderness.

The truth is very different, and one that takes me into political incorrectness. Virtually the entire North American landscape had been extensively modified long before whites arrived. This landscape would not have existed had Native Americans practiced the deep ecology ideals mantled upon them by the New Age. I write this not to bash either Native Americans or New Agers, as I honor and hold many of the beliefs of both. But I am searching for truths that will guide my actions, and can’t allow idealism—however attractive—to mist my vision. What did North America really look like when the Europeans came?

Early European colonists wrote that from Maine to Florida, Native American settlements were surrounded by clearings of a few to hundreds of acres. Virginia was speckled with an estimated 300,000 acres of cornfields, some a thousand acres in extent. Major valleys, from the Shenandoah to the Ohio, out to Oregon’s Willamette and those on both sides of the Sierras, were maintained as open parkland by burning. The midwestern prairies, we are learning, were preserved in their treeless beauty more by human-set fires than by lightning. Upland forests in the East, the Rockies, and the Northwest were burned every few years to remove undergrowth and enhance game and food-plant habitat. These woods generally contained few late-succession species, but instead held an artificial array of relatively shade-intolerant trees such as oaks, walnuts, hickories, or Douglas firs. When whites halted the burning, the composition of these forests changed, and the tangle of undergrowth moved in.

All this was not much of a shock to me. Humans have long used fire for improvement of habitat. I just didn’t realize the extent: Burning by native people had altered most of a continent. I was particularly surprised to learn that indigenous people consumed certain resources on a large scale as well, particularly trees for fuel. In 1643, the Narragansetts, in what would become Rhode Island, asked arriving English settlers if they had come looking for firewood, a commodity in short supply. Verrazano’s logbooks, in contrast to Parkman’s romantic fables, describe Rhode Island as containing “open plains twenty-five or thirty leagues [75 to 100 square miles] in extent, entirely free from trees and other hindrances.” These plains were obviously human-maintained, since trees in New England, as the locals know, sprout the moment active clearing ceases.

Records show that the longer a native village had existed, the more distant were the nearest trees. The land around Boston harbor was so barren that the Pilgrims had to row to the harbor islands to gather fuel. And tellingly, iron axes were a valued trade item.

Our Changeable Views

These revelations came as an abrupt reality check, as I, like other guilt-burdened Euro-Americans, had lofted the original inhabitants of this land onto a tall ecological pedestal. The pendulum of our esteem has swung wildly: In contrast to the current view of indigenous people as deeply ecological, much of the early literature I read was written under a different, more vicious bias. A 1910 paper, by a forester who was unable to comprehend the enhancing role of fire, held particularly repellent phrases: “the Indian . . . was wasteful and destructive. . . . When he had abundance, he squandered like a pirate, and when want pinched, he stood it like a stoic.” The truth, centuries gone and diluted by white culture, is probably unavailable to us and lies somewhere between yesterday’s squanderers and today’s saints; it may lie on a different axis altogether, one which whites may never travel upon.

This ecological story is repeated on other continents. Australia saw an enormous increase in major fires with the arrival of the Aborigine about 40,000 years ago. In Africa, the savanna can only be maintained by a fire frequency far greater than what is natural. Recent evidence hints that the species makeup of the Amazon, too, has also been shifted by the indigenous inhabitants.

Humans long ago altered much of this planet, yet Gaia smiles on. I remain convinced that native cultures have an ecological understanding superior to ours, yet they modified entire continents without catastrophic ecological and climatological effects. Could it simply be in our nature to drastically modify our environment? As I researched, I began to suspect that western culture is not different from others in this regard, just frighteningly more effective.

Part of western culture’s efficacy at terraforming is due to sheer population size. Would a similar number of indigenous people wreak western-scale environmental havoc? This line of questioning made me ask how many people North America supported before whites arrived. Once again I’m striding toward controversy, as pre-Columbian population numbers have been stretched and shrunk to suit political purposes. Small numbers diminish the magnitude of the whites’ genocidal crime as well as the Native Americans’ ecological wisdom, while large numbers accentuate both.

The Force of Sheer Numbers

For most of the century, the official pre-Columbian population figure for the continent was a ridiculously small one million, a deliberately attenuated figure promoted by the authoritative anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (the father of writer Ursula K. LeGuin). Recently, estimates have ballooned as high as 100 million, but this number seems to me equally insupportable. This enormous figure was derived by taking solid data from a densely settled portion of Mexico and extrapolating it across all of North America, a method that clearly doesn’t match land use patterns or densities elsewhere (in 1500, China numbered only 80 million people; Europe, 40 million; the U.S. did not reach 100 million until 1920).

A reasonable figure, used by anthropologists and accepted by some influential Native American activists, is one derived by demographer Henry Dobyns from an exhaustive study of village sites, burials, and estimates of how many people can be supported by the types of agriculture and hunting used by Native Americans. Dobyns believes the human population of North America in 1500 was a minimum of 18 million. Even if the actual number were double this— 36 million—the per capita resource use and effect on the environment would have hardly been small: a continent was transformed by a population roughly a tenth the size of today’s. Western culture’s colossally destructive environmental impact may result more from sheer numbers and technology than from our land ethic. Fossil fuels and science have dismantled the governors that restrained the size, and thus the depredations, of other cultures. This is not a new idea, but it suggests that simply adopting the techniques, or the beliefs, of native peoples may not be sufficient to preserve planetary ecology.

Since I am not Native American, I can never truly understand the relationship between my home continent and its original inhabitants. But the native people modified the landscape from sea to sea—farming, cutting trees, burning forests and fuelwood, and gathering materials, in spite of an earth-based creed. A mischievous part of me wonders if some indigenous people have the same relationship with their religions that we do: Christian churches preach love and honesty, yet a brutally Darwinian economy rules our secular lives. Did shamans talk of Mother Earth while enterprising hunters fired the forests none the less?

This line of wondering gave me a clue toward achieving a right relationship with resource use. Contrary to the teachings of both the New Age and my grade school textbooks, many indigenous cultures were both earth-loving and landscape-modifying, and perhaps, with a proper spiritual outlook, I can be too. Though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rent a backhoe without an episode of soul-searching, I might harvest the trees for my porch with honor rather than shame.

Following Nature’s Pattern

For guidance as to what and how much to use, I turn to ecosystems for inspiration. My training is in biochemistry, and I remember the awe I felt when I first understood the interlacing webworks in my books that described metabolic pathways. I wished then, as now, that every engineer could be forced to study nature’s chemistry. Nothing in life’s seething stew is wasted. A carbon dioxide molecule pops off of a sugar here, and is corkscrewed onto pyruvate there. A wisp of energy puffs from the crack of a phosphate bond, and is commandeered to weld an atomic union nearby. Elegant, perfect, economical cycles, in contrast to technology’s non-stop arrow of degradation from source to garbage-dump.

Western engineers, when they bother to mimic nature at all, create immature ecosystems. In a landmark paper on ecosystem development, Eugene Odum pointed out some hallmarks of young ecosystems:

  • poor diversity of both patterns and species
  • little role for detritus in nutrient regeneration
  • linear food and energy chains (as opposed to multi-connected webs)
  • low levels of standing (perennial) biomass
  • high energy consumption per unit of biomass
  • high production and consumption of biomass per unit of standing crop
  • rapidly cycling, high levels of inputs and outputs

To me, these are a perfect description of factory farming. In contrast, mature ecosystems display just the opposite qualities in all those categories. To be sustainable, our culture must function as a mature ecosystem. Permaculture, by emphasizing perennials, deep mulches (i.e. detritus), and interconnections, kick-starts human-made ecosystems to a highly developed phase.

Mature systems rely on closed cycles, importing only enough to replace inevitable entropic losses. (These imports led me to ponder the way plant roots coax minerals from weathered rock. Perhaps, in addition to “everything gardens,” we can admit that “everything mines, a little bit.”) Developed ecosystems use huge amounts of resources, but materials are kept dancing in the biosphere rather than being dumped to a waste sink. This is where humans fail. Ecosystem health demands that recycling approach 100%, not the paltry 30% that cities hope for. (Here’s an example of nature’s efficiency: Ecologists found that in a mature forest containing 365 kg calcium per hectare in the biomass, only 8 kg need be weathered from rock each year. The remaining 357 kg (98%) is retained and recycled.)

The only limit to the amount of material that can be kept cycling is energy, provided toxins are degraded quickly. So, based on nature’s patterns, it may not be a crime to have a culture that manipulates large volumes of material, if recycling is near total and pollutants are kept low and degradable. Ecologically derived systems, self-regulated by their natural limitations of energy and matter inputs, will guide their own appropriateness. Western culture is far from any of that, but permaculture’s reliance on used goods and non-fossil energy is a good start toward mimicking a mature ecosystem. Ecosystems are not materially impoverished, and I don’t believe that ecological living demands that we stop using wood, metal, plastic, or semiconductors. We do need, however, to drastically curtail extractive industries, and recycle what is already in the technosphere.

Here we are then, then, in a heretical place. An earth-centered religion isn’t necessarily in conflict with technologies that modify the environment. And a culture, if it is based on ecological principles, can be materially abundant without guilt or environmental devastation. The key is to allow natural regulatory process to remain intact, and to listen to their urgings. Everything gardens, everything mines a little bit, and perhaps we can too.


Data on land use by indigenous peoples from:

  1. Barrett SW and Arno SF. 1982. Indian Fires as an Ecological Influence in the Northern Rockies. J Forestry, 80:647-651.
  2. Budiansky S. 1995. Nature’s Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management. New York: The Free Press.
  3. Day GM. 1953. The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forest. Ecology, 34:329-346.
  4. Maxwell H. 1910. Use and Abuse of Forests by the Virginia Indians.William and Mary Qtly, 29:73-103.
  5. Pyne SJ. 1991. Burning Bush. New York: Henry Holt.

Population data from:

  1. Braudel F. 1979. The Structures of Everyday Life. New York: Harper and Row
  2. Dobyns HF. 1993. Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  3. Jaimes MA (ed). 1992. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance. Boston: South End Press.

Ecosystem data from:

  1. Odum EP. 1969. The Strategy of Ecosystem Development. Science, 164:262-270.

Copyright 2003 by Toby Hemenway.

Published in Permaculture Activist No. 38.

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