Life Webs


Changes in the Land

changesinthelandThe brilliant book Changes in the Land, written thirty years ago by the historian William Cronon and said to have launched the field of environmental history (though Cronon modestly demurs), set me thinking about  what we mean by sustainability. Specifically, were Indian practices sustainable?

Cronon describes the land management practices of the New England Indians as of the time the English colonists began to arrive in the early 1600s, as well as the colonists’ practices, and the changes during the colonial period as the Indians dealt with the colonists and the colonists dealt with reality.

The outcome was horrifying. The Indians were largely exterminated, and the once-bountiful region was stripped and depleted of its resources. By the early 1800s, agriculture had moved west and New England was shifting to an industrial economy. Where the Indians had lived off the land for thousands of years, the English made it unproductive in a mere two hundred years. People still lived (and live) there, of course, but only as a part of a complex, global economy that is based on depleting resources in other, once-bountiful regions.

The colonists did not intend these results. The first settlers wanted to improve their own lives a little and not have to work quite so hard as they did in England. Early explorers’ (overstated) reports described the land as fantastically rich. Colonists imagined they could sustain themselves easily and make extra money trading with the Indians for furs and other commodities they could ship back to Europe.

Instead, they killed most of the Indians with germs they didn’t know they carried. (There was no germ theory of disease. Pasteur was not born until the nineteenth century.) They devastated the land because they tragically misunderstood how the Indians had managed it and what effects their own practices would have. In fact, they believed their industrious habits would improve land the Indians had neglected out of sheer laziness. This belief, as Cronon points out, sustained their ideology of conquest.

How the Indians Lived

Saying that the Indians lived off the land is somewhat misleading – it suggests that, as the English believed, the Indians simply feasted at the banquet that nature served up. But New England was not a wilderness. Even the tribes in what is now Maine, who did not practice annual agriculture, managed the land by burning the forest understory in their hunting grounds. (They also managed themselves by moving around in an annual cycle to the places that offered the greatest abundance in each season – something the English, with their fixed habits and household-level property boundaries, could not do.)

Tribes in southern New England, in addition to hunting and gathering, grew the famous Three Sisters – maize, beans, and squash. Contrary to the legend, they did not plant fish to fertilize their crops. They also had no draft animals, which typically fertilized fields in European agriculture. So even with legumes adding nitrogen to the soil, fields were exhausted in eight to ten years. Indian women would simply clear new fields and allow the forest to regrow in the old ones.

Indians throughout the entire area burned vast numbers of trees for warmth, in both winter and summer. Even the colonists were amazed by this – one of them wrote that the Indians used fire the way they used bedclothes. In fact, the Indians assumed that the English had crossed the ocean because they had run out of trees for fuel in their own land (which, as Cronon points out, was not far from the truth).

Sustainable or Not?

In several important senses, Indian practices were sustainable: The tribes had apparently occupied the same land for many years before the English colonists arrived. By late winter, they would be hungry, but outright starvation was rare. They apparently had no historical memories of things having once been better (as they did after the English began despoiling the landscape). Though Indian land management altered the ecology – for example, trees that regrew from their roots after girdling or burning, such as chestnut and oak, were favored, and some areas became deforested altogether – the levels of biomass and biodiversity, the two standards of ecological health, were both high.

Yet Indian practices – though they depended only on living resources, not on fossil resources – were far from energy neutral. If you keep open fires burning year-round, day and night, you take far more energy out of the environment than you can put back in. Exhausting fields every decade works only when you have plenty of land. So what made these practices sustainable is that the Indians kept their population density low (by what mechanism, Cronon is not sure) and didn’t even think of accumulating material goods, which their nomadic habits would have made impractical.

Today, with 7 billion people on the planet and little room to move, sustainability has to meet a higher standard. Humans make up such a large proportion of the ecosystem – and we take so much more than we give – that we can’t simply depend on the land’s ability to heal itself after we move on. We can look to indigenous practices for inspiration, but only for inspiration. We have to be way smarter than anyone had to be in the past.


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Trapping Water

Hugelculture swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Hugelkultur swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Our property is a long, narrow, wooded strip that slopes gently from a ridge to a creek. At least, that’s what its mirror image on the west side of the creek looks like. On our side, two large, flat, cleared areas interrupt the descent. One is the site of the old gravel mine, near the creek, and the other, closer to the ridge, is the house site. The state Department of Environmental Conservation “restored” the gravel mine some years ago, and now it’s a brushy meadow. Later, in 2009, we built a house near the top of the hill. The east side and part of the south side of the house are built into the hill and buried in mud. This is good for keeping the house cool in the summer. But there’s still a bare, steep, muddy slope above the house and another, steeper muddy slope above the meadow.

Neither of these slopes is an urgent problem. We’ve seeded them both with rye and clover to slow the erosion, and weeds are spreading there as well. The slope above the house drains into a ditch behind the house, which meets up with some other drainage ditches and empties into a pond below the house. (At least we call it a pond; it was dug about a year ago but has yet to fill up for more than a few hours at a time. Except after a heavy rain, it’s a deep crater with a puddle at the bottom.) The lower slope has no drainage, but whatever washes down it goes into the meadow, which may benefit from some extra dirt. Parts of the meadow are still quite gravelly.

But the Hudson Valley is rainy and is particularly prone to what are called “large rain events.” Sometimes, as much as six or seven inches of rain falls in as little as an hour or two, according to our official rain gauge, a ruler in a five-gallon bucket. So, drainage ditch or no drainage ditch, nutrients wash out of the soil, make their way down into the creek and eventually flow into the ocean, where they produce “dead zones.” Considering that the muddy slopes are mostly clay already, we don’t want to lose any more nutrients. Here, as in the rest of the world, topsoil is vanishing at an alarming rate and must be made up with chemical fertilizer derived from petroleum – in no way a sustainable solution.

Hazelnuts in the Mud

Ultimately, we need trees on these bare slopes – trees that will hold the water with their roots. Right above the house, in particular, we need fruit and nut trees that won’t grow large enough to damage the house if the wind blows them down. (North-facing slopes, which we have, are actually good for flowering trees, though not for much else.)

I’m thinking a row or two of hazelnuts would be just right above the house. They are small enough not to fall on us and will produce a delicious, edible crop conveniently close by. Hazelnuts were once an important part of this ecosystem – and they still grow wild in our county, according to the USDA plant database – but I have never seen any around here. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t here, even on this property. Completing the census of what’s growing here is one of my projects for this coming year.)

But how can we plant hazelnuts on a muddy hill? What will keep them from washing away, and what nutrients will feed them?

In many cultures, slopes are terraced for planting – which is, frankly, a lot of work. Similar approaches promoted by permaculturists involve digging swales, or ditches, along the contour lines, or plowing into the subsoil at a slight angle from the contour lines using what’s called a “keyline plow.” Those methods also require a lot of work as well as heavy earth-moving equipment.

DIY Terracing

What I’m trying – based on Jerome Osentowski‘s ideas, as reported in the wonderful permaculture book Gaia’s Garden – is a do-it-yourself terracing/swaling method. Instead of digging holes in the mud, I’m building up berms along the contour lines with rows of rotting logs. The logs should act like sponges, catching and slowing the water as it runs down the slope and giving it more time to sink into the earth. (If this works, that pond will never fill up.)

In addition, as the logs rot, they return organic matter to the soil, providing nutrients for the hazelnut trees or whatever we eventually plant there. Rotting logs actually make a great base for raised garden beds (this method is called hugelkultur, which you can pronounce in either the German or the English way); following the hugelkultur method, I can pile leaves, compost or rabbit manure on top of the berms before planting trees on them.

Fortunately, we still have plenty of wood from the trees that we cut down to build the house. (The house is concrete; we didn’t use the wood for building.) Some we gave away to people with wood-burning stoves, but the rest has been sitting in piles behind the toolshed for several years, not doing anything particularly helpful. On nice days, when I have a spare hour, I carry logs from the pile and build them into berms. It’s cheaper and more fun than going to the gym. And maybe, in a few years, it will turn the muddy slope into a lush garden.