AWE Season One Episode Six: Past and Present
So far, in this first season, I’ve introduced the topic, and talked about how to be a naturalist and how to respect your senses and intuition. For each of these two facets of respect, I have offered practical ideas and considerations, whether with taking your very first steps into identifying something, or through taking a very different nature walk to the one you might be used to.
Here, I want to address modern perspectives of respecting nature, and those which our ancestors would have followed, combining these and suggesting ways in which each can be used to restore balance to wilder places.
Let’s begin by looking at those who came before us. This is something heavily romanticised, the idea of the noble savage, at one with nature—an uncomfortable hangover from days of colonial past.
Were our ancestors always careful, walking softly wherever they trod? Yes, and no.
No, because when a semi- or fully-nomadic tribe would move from one spot to another, or an extended family group leave behind their winter hunting grounds, they would also exit a natural landscape substantially altered.
A large number of humans living in an area creates a lot of mess. We cannot escape this fact. There are issues with faeces, with constant footfall, with over-gathering and over-hunting. If you could go back in time and see such a camp, freshly abandoned as the people moved on—perhaps to the salmon spawning grounds, or to gather the berries upslope in high summer—you would recognise the scene as similar to those areas of, for example, National Parks, closest to the bigger car parks. Bare earth, few understory plants, damage to trees, missing deadwood, and lots of poop. There would be no empty bottles or cans, or blowing bits of toilet roll (or that held down by rocks—a pet hate of mine), but otherwise it would feel familiar.
We can, however, also argue that yes, all of this was balanced by one simple reason.
Our ancestors understood their actions and accepted them as a part of nature.
They knew they could not return to the same winter trapping area, year after year, they knew that there would be nothing there to trap. Similarly with hunting—there are examples of groups who would hang the skulls and bones of the animals they gathered on a tree, so each member would know what to hunt, preventing over-harvesting. To understand this process of cyclical damage and repair meant that those ancestors were both better prepared, in order to survive themselves, and also stewards of the lands upon which they lived.
The tendency to romanticise these peoples, whether in more recent periods, such as those who lived (and still live) in what are now the Americas, or those who inhabited Europe, Africa, or Asia ten thousand or more years ago. It is all too tempting to consider them as existing in pure harmony with their world, ignoring the fact that a tribe of humans needs a lot of food, water, and fuel to stay alive. Yes, there were more abundant resources, yes, there were sometimes species which are now extinct, and yes, the ancestors knowledge of the land far, far, outweighed our modern efforts but it does them an injustice to somehow consider them as Tolkien’s elves, gently tending their forest charges, keen to remedy any damage, flitting and floating through the woods in some sort of halo of light.
Instead, we should see them as the apex predator they—and we—are.
And what does a predator do? It hunts, and it kills.
Prehistoric people would have respected the animals they lived off, along with the fish runs, the bounty of coastal lands, the plants and flora they could utilise on a daily basis and the water which provides life to all—and they would have respected it fully aware of their impact, aware of their place at the top of the food chain as no other species ever has.
Indigenous hunter-fisher-gatherers have always been made out as scapegoats, perhaps from the time of the very first farming or pastoralist communities. It is far easier to fear and blame the unknown—just look at the fear travelling people cause, even now, “Keep your doors locked and children close, the gypsies are camping nearby.” Yet the state of ecological and environmental depletion much of our world finds itself in today would have been alien to those ancestors. Imagine what they would have thought, had they witnessed the aftermath of a clear-cutting forestry regime, or could smell and taste the acrid air of a polluted city, or witness animals kept penned in cages?
A whale, whether beached on the shore or hunted with canoe and primitive harpoon, would have provided a tremendous bounty, but modern whaling, for “scientific research”? I suspect that would have been as sickening for them as it is for many of us.
I could go on, listing examples and, indeed, in the draft of this piece, I did. Yet, as I typed, one key point presented itself—these are all questions of scale, as is almost every problem our species currently faces. And this question of scale could be measured with a currency of greed—where there is money to be made, nature always takes second place.
That, perhaps, is the key difference between hunter-fisher-gatherers and ‘us’. Money.
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