Friday, October 31, 2003

All hallows eve

Here are some of the names of the ancient megaliths scattered through the countryside of England and Wales: The Pipers; The Hurlers; The Merry Maidens; Long Meg & Her Daughters; Arthur's Spear; The Robber's Stone; Harold's Stones; The Devil's Arrows; The Devil's Den; The Twelve Apostles; The Giant's Grave; The Bull Stone. In centuries past, while the educated “knew” that these were the work of the Druids, the Romans, or the Saxons, for the folk each monument was linked to some supernatural actor or event:
“The Merry Maidens were girls who instead of going to church on the Lord's Day, went for a walk in the fields. Demons disguised as musicians appeared and began to play dance music, whereupon the maidens recklessly began to dance and enjoy themselves. As their dancing became more and more wanton, a bolt of lightning struck them and the girls and the fiends were turned into stone.“

“The Devil's Den is reputed to be haunted by a gigantic white dog, with glowing red eyes like burning coals. It is apparenty kenneled beneath the tomb. The nearby West Kennet long barrow is also haunted by a huge white dog with red ears. At sunrise every midsummer's day it follows a ghostly priest into the barrow.”

(Quotations from Megaliths by David Corio and Lai Ngan Corio)
I grew up in a part of the northeastern US which, though solidly suburban (it is even more so now) still displayed to the careful observer a discernible imprint of a rural past: abandoned orchards and half-buried foundations among the second-growth woods, stone walls that no longer held anything in or out. I spent a fair amount of time wandering among such traces, navigating not by road signs and property lines but by visible landmarks (“the main hill,” “the brown dock,” “the cow pasture”) — which may in part explain why to this day I am slow to learn street names and often give poor directions. They formed a kind of transitional zone, both in time and in space, between the landscape of human occupation and what we imagined as wilderness (childhood itself, is of course, another kind of transitional zone), and I think it is such zones, rather than say, the deep old-growth forests, that are most conducive to enchantment.

The neighborhood had its local lore, some of it possibly handed down from an earlier time, some of it spontaneously generated from the imagination of childhood. The older kids would relay such things — and much worse, no doubt — to tease and horrify the younger, the more gruesome the tale the better. Most of this is now irretrievable to me, and even what little remains is broken into fragments, embellished by my attempts to shape them into coherence — but then, doesn't the survival of folklore owe as much to the tangled process of forgetting, improvising, and mangling as it does to faithful handing down from one generation to another?

There was one story — attached to an old barn that was still standing but had lost its agricultural purpose — about which I only remember that it had to do with some terrible wasting affliction of horses. (Was it a natural or supernatural affliction? It made no difference: in the mind of children the two are as yet undivided.) Another, which I remember a bit better, was connected to a small water tower at the top of a hill, in which a creature was said to silently lurk, emerging only in certain times of drought, when it quenched its thirst by draining the bodies of whatever animal it encountered (a squirrel, a dog … a child?) There must have been many others; some sort of legends or inventions must have surrounded the house-sized boulder, universally referred to as Transylvania, that was tucked into the woods by the end of the lake. But if so they have descended into the substratum of memory.

There was also, a few miles away, the Leatherman's Cave; but in this case the name derived from a historical figure, a late 19th-century vagabond who wore a hand-tailored leather coat. I've seen a photograph, and his wanderings are amply documented; still, without written records how easily it would have been for his actual story to become obscured, leaving only vague rumors attached to his former digs.

Urban and suburban areas have their own folklore, as Jan Brunvand and others have documented, but it rarely seems rooted in particular places. Modern urban spaces are too transparent, their occupation too transitory, to hold onto a mystery for long. But I suspect that, even for children “out in the country,” the landscape is now largely disenchanted, done in by television and the more efficient horrors of movies and video games. It's a great loss.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Woodland (II)

Yesterday I revisited William Cronon's ecological history of New England, Changes in the Land, and — borrowing some additional ideas from the mammalogist Tim Flannery — examined Cronon's argument that the state of the “primeval” forest encountered by the first European settlers in the Northeast was in fact the end-result of a long process of co-evolution in which plants, animals, and Native American hunters and agriculturalists were all actors. Before the peopling of the continent some 12,000 years ago or so, the North American landscape had been shaped by an assemblage of large grazers and browsers, mostly now extinct, including giant sloths, mammoths and mastodons, and a larger version of the bison. The large herbivores kept the growth of vegetation in check, promoting relatively open woodlands and the proliferation of “edge” environments, and their extirpation, possibly by hunting, would have prompted an increase in forest density as well as a loss of habitat diversity. When the Europeans arrived, however, they commented on the open, “parklike” appearance of the southern New England forests, for by then the Native Americans, in order to encourage the population of species useful for hunting and foraging, had learned to reshape the woodland to their own purposes through the widespread setting of fires. The deep aboriginal Northeastern woodlands, seem, at least in southern New England, to be a myth.

Some parallel ideas emerge in a New York Review of Books article (as it happens, written by the same Tim Flannery) that includes a review of a new book by Franciscus Wilhelmus Maria Vera with the title of Grazing Ecology and Forest History. In Flannery's summary:
In our childhood, we all heard fairy tales about the European wild wood, which is portrayed as a gloomy wilderness where column-like trunks soar above the dank, entangled forest floor. But Vera argues that, except on some mountains, such forests never existed in Europe. Instead they are the invention of the foresters and ecologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who both created the first such forests by excluding grazing animals from forestry reserves, and spread the myth that the forests were somehow natural. […]

In Roman times, Vera points out, northern Europe abounded with great mammals such as aurochs, bison, tarpan, and elk, whose grazing prevented the forest from becoming dense and continuous. Many plants in the underbrush had evolved spines and thorns to protect themselves from the browsers and grazers, and it was these thorny plants that acted as protective nurseries for trees such as oaks. Outside their defensive palisades the forest was reduced to meadow, and so a woodland mosaic resulted. It was, Vera argues, a vegetation pattern that survived well into medieval times, for domesticated cattle, horses, and wild pigs continued to act as their wild ancestors did, both in creating meadows and in perpetuating the oak woodlands.

It has long been argued that Europe's greatest biodiversity is found not in its forests but in environments modified by human beings. Richest of all is the oak forest, a woodland environment that has long been thought of as resulting from the introduction of grazing herds into the primeval forests in medieval times. Vera argues instead that the oak forest is a relic of a pre-agricultural Europe, and thus it is the true primeval European environment. The only change, he contends, was that the herds of grazing animals that maintained it became domesticated, a development which did not substantially affect its structure.

Vera thinks that belief in the existence of the illusory primeval European forest is leading to environmental catastrophe. The last remnants of oak forests are being choked to death by trees because, in an effort to return them to what the environmentalists see as “nature,” grazing by domestic stock has recently been prohibited in them.
The idea of the “primeval” European forest is a powerful presence in our folklore and literature. (Also, more disturbingly, in our national mythology: see Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory for some interesting material on the role of the myth of the forest in virulent forms of German nationalism.) One biography of the Brothers Grimm is entitled, fittingly, Paths Through the Forest. But were the looming woods of folklore ever a reality? No doubt there will be disagreement with Vera's thesis, but if he is right the history of the European forest may need to be rewritten, in order to reflect more fully the series of interactions — between wild animals, livestock, and human beings — that have shaped it. The dark woods of our collective memory may reveal more about our own interior landscapes that about the way things really were.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Woodland (I)

Looking out of my window, and over the rusty or — now — snow-covered roofs of the warehouses that are the closest buildings to our office, there is a fine view of wooded hills in the distance; on some winter afternoons the sunsets over the ridge can be spectacular. The rural aspect of the view is, actually, a bit misleading, for hidden beneath and behind those trees are subdivisions, railway tracks, and a busy parkway. It's true, though, that we're fortunate to overlook a landscape that is “still” forested, and has not yet been divvied up for McMansions and shopping centers.

I say “still” in quotation marks because much of the woodland here is, in fact, second growth; photographs from a century ago often show large open fields where today there are dense expanses of trees. This was once dairy country, and until a few generations ago much of the area — all but the swampiest bogs or the steepest rocky hillsides — was parcelled out into farms that supplied milk for the growing population of New York City. At some point the economics shifted; land close to the city became more valuable for housing, and at the same time better transportation made it possible to ship agricultural products from counties farther north or west where land was cheaper. When the local farms shut down some of the farmland was developed, other tracts were preserved as parkland or watershed, and some fields just went fallow waiting for the right buyer and the right use. Walking through the woods, even in the extensive forested acres of the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation to our north, you can still see the farmers' old stone walls, silent evidence, like the ancient Indian mounds of Ohio and the South, of a culture that no longer exists. The reforestation of the area — along with leash laws — has brought corresponding changes in wildlife populations. Deer, once glimpsed only rarely, are now seen as a plague, the wild turkey has returned, and coyotes — not originally native to the region at all — are increasingly common.

The immigrant agriculturalists from Europe who colonized New York and New England in the 17th and 18th centuries were not, of course, the region's first settlers; neither were they the first people to transform the Eastern woodlands. Two decades ago, in a stimulating, brief book entitled Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon surveyed the prospect initially encountered by European settlers:
One must not visualize the New England forest at the time of settlement as a dense tangle of huge trees and nearly impenetrable underbrush covering the entire landscape. Along the southern coast, from the Saco River in Maine all the way to the Hudson, the woods were remarkably open, almost parklike at times. When Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay in 1524, he found extensive open areas and forests that could be traversed easily “even by a large army.”
The relatively open condition of the southern New England woodlands was due to the deliberate use of fire by Native Americans. Not the passive Arcadians Europeans often imagined them to be, the Indians in fact were active agents in shaping — one could easily say cultivating — the forest for their own purposes:
The effect of southern New England Indian villages on their environment was not limited to clearing fields or stripping forests for firewood. What most impressed English visitors was the Indians' burning of extensive sections of the surrounding forest once or twice a year. “The Salvages,” wrote Thomas Morton, “are accustomed to set fire of the Country in all places where they come, and to burne it twize a yeare, viz: at the Spring, and the fall of the leafe.” Here was the reason that the southern forests were so open and parklike; not because the trees naturally grew thus, but because the Indians preferred them so. As William Wood observed, the fire “consumes all the Underwood and rubbish which otherwise would overgrow the country, making it unpassable, and spoil their much affected hunting.” The result was a forest of large, widely spaced trees, few shrubs, and much grass and herbage. […]

In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the “edge effect.” By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species. […] Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffed 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.
But if the “parklike” woodlands were not aboriginal, neither were the denser forests they replaced. In The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples, Tim Flannery describes how, before the arrival of humans, a now-vanished assemblage of “megafauna,” including giant sloths, mammoths and mastodons, and a larger version of the bison, once dominated the continent. Like the elephants, rhinos, and the like of the Old World, these massive grazers and browsers would have imposed strict limits on the growth of vegetation. Furthermore, by creating disturbed “edge” environments by means of their wallows, trails, fallen trees, etc. they created conditions favorable to a host of smaller animals and herbacious plants. The relatively rapid extinction of the large herbivores some 12,000 years ago — possibly (it is still debated) at the hand of human hunters — prompted an increase in forestation and a corresponding decline in ecological diversity, and led, Flannery thinks, to the widespread shifts in the distribution of smaller mammals that have been documented in the following millennia. The burning witnessed, much later, by early European visitors, was therefore a kind of partial compensation for the lost effect of the large grazers.

The present condition of the woodlands of the Northeast U.S., then, can't be explained in terms of a simple opposition between “wild” and “developed” land, but must be understood as the outcome of a specific series of historical changes, in which herbivores, Native Americans, colonists, and suburbanites have all been actors. None of this is to suggest that, since there is no “natural” state to preserve, we should have no reservation about strip-mining (or strip-malling) what open space remains. It does, though, argue for a more complex model of the human-natural interactions that have shaped the landscape. Tomorrow I examine a somewhat parallel argument, this time relating to the deep forests of the European past.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Urn burial

What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and counsellors, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarism; not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the provincial guardians, or tutelary observators. Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their relicks, they had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as emblems of mortal vanities, antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices.
So Thomas Browne, in Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, regarding the unearthing in a Norfolk field of several dozen urns containing ancient Roman burial remains. Browne's point, as I read him, was that the careful interment of the Romans' ashes had come to naught: their names had failed to survive them, and so their lives, their deeds, their kin, were lost to human knowledge for eternity, and no historian could ever restore their identities. The ashes in the urns were now mere stuff, matter without a trace of the spirit it once contained.

t has always struck me as a little surprising that Browne thought, on the other hand, that “what song the Syrens sang” was not similarly “beyond all conjecture.” The enigma was an old one: according to Suetonius, the emperor Tiberius was fond of stumping the grammarians of his time by posing the same, unanswerable, riddle — the one about Achilles, as well. If Browne had a possible solution in mind, though, he apparently kept it to himself. (And thus left it to our own time to resolve: according to the Coen brothers, the sirens sang “Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby.”)

Stonehenge is the most famous ancient site in Britain, but as far as I know historians cannot retrieve even a single name of one of its builders. We can't even guess at what language they may have spoken or who their leaders or heroes may have been; all we have are sarsens and bones and beads and a few vagaries about “Beaker folk” and “the Meldon Bridge period.” This from peoples who inhabited Britain for millennia and constructed monuments that required the cooperation — voluntary or not — of countless laborers.

In a way, our ignorance of those very things that must have seemed most important to the ancients — their speech, their affiliations, their memories and desires — smooths out the terrain of the past and enables us to interpret its contours more clearly. We see the long, slow processes at work: the gradual supplanting of one people by another, the advent of technology, the decline or increase in the productivity of the land, and we can deliberate the reasons for the changes we observe. From this vantage point, whether a certain chieftain died in battle or survived, whether a famine or epidemic compelled a family to abandon its home, has no visible effect.

Today, in an age when seemingly everything is documented, we scrutinize every twist and turn in our own procession; we speak of the “hinge” of history, of “decisive battles.” But do we really know? The Battle of Antietam may have been decided by the finding of a package of cigars, and Five Forks by Gen. George Pickett's fondness for shad, but would the North have eventually won the war in any case? If the North had lost, would the difference it would have made as the future unfolded still be discernible after a thousand years, or five thousand, or would it survive, at best, only in the fine print of a rarely perused chronicle of “ancient” events?

Sometimes history reclaims a parcel from the vast terrains of the unknown past. Browne could not have known that the decipherment of hieroglyphics would restore to us names that were “but pyramidally extant” in his own day. Letters of Roman soldiers stationed in Britain have been found; we can trace a little, from reading them, of ordinary lives that would otherwise have been long ago subsumed by time and decay. But the general trend towards oblivion remains; whatever our efforts to record and ponder our affairs, to “make provision” for our names and deeds, the long view will eventually lose sight of us.