Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

In Pursuit of Logic: Part IV of V

Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

Left alone, Nature is beautiful, as it has been for millions of years. Without us.

A fair number of people are threatened by that independence.

Long before hominids diverged from their ape brethren and began the evolutionary journey to consciousness, the ebb and flow of habitat decorated the mountains, the foothills, and the coastal plain of what would become California, with soft grass, aromatic sage, dense chaparral, and walls of wood. Grizzlies roamed, jaguars courted, Wrentits sang, horned lizards waited, and walking sticks walked on all six. Adapting to herbivory, drought, and fire, the greenery thrived. Dormant seeds waiting for the right signal to burst open with life. Thick bark to protect from frequent, little fires; thin bark where fires were too hot to put up a fight – why waste the energy? Sparse forests, dense forests, denser chaparral for mile upon mile upon mile.

Life, habitat, and countless creations of the evolutionary journey everywhere.

Then we arrived. Humans. Years of fascinating research, from genetics to footprints, has helped us approximate our arrival to North America around 23,000 years ago, give or take. For a while, our impact was minimal.

Fifteen thousand years ago the climate began to dry, deserts expanded, the chaparral began to retreat. A teenage girl found herself trapped (or perhaps laid to rest) in the tarry, sticky mess in what would become the La Brea tar pits about 10,000 years ago. Cultures grew, diversified by the same geographic features that isolated, then created, new populations, then new species, across the Californian landscape. The diversity of human language and culture in California was rivaled by only the island landmass that would eventually be known as New Guinea.

First Americans coming across the Artic land bridge
Coming to America. Mural at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, Mexico.

As with all other places humans have discovered, Europe, New Zealand, Easter Island, our impact on the California environment grew until we pushed vulnerable species toward extinction. In our trash dumps (shell middens) along the coast and rivers, bones of large animals and easily captured prey, piled up at the lower, oldest levels. As the pile grew, remains of lower calorie catches replaced the richer ones, then at the top, lowly mollusk shells. We picked off the easy protein sources that had no fear of us at first, then moved on to the rest. It’s what humans do and have always done.

We used fire to encourage the plants we wanted near our settlements, remove the ones we didn’t, kept the beasts at bay, and as a tool of war to burn down villages inhabited by those who offended or competed. We created stories that helped us explain the world we saw, changing, as stories do, with each telling.

Five hundred years ago the human world of California began to change dramatically with an invisible enemy. The first wave begun far away, in the 1520s, after it decimated the Aztec Empire, brought to the Americas by another group of humans, the Spanish conquistadors. Smallpox. Beginning in 1777, murderous epidemics spread from Spanish colonial centers along the coast throughout much of California. Measles. Viral Influenza. Cholera.

It was estimated by physiologist Sherburne F. Cook that as much as 60% of the loss of California’s Indigenous population was the result of these diseases. War and outright slaughter were responsible for the rest, a well-established human behavior that became increasingly deadly as more effective weapons developed – unspeakable butchery given pause only after one side no longer stands. By 1880, the census recorded only 16,277 Native Californians remaining of an estimated 310,000 just prior to the mission period, a number that does not consider the impact of earlier epidemics.

The land was met with similar amounts of violence. With plows, livestock, and more fire, additional human arrivals from Europe accelerated the transformation of the landscape to suit their needs and desires, different than before, but in pursuit of the same goal – opportunities and survival.

European settlers migrate across America
“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1862. Mural, United States Capitol.

There’s More to Nature

John Muir, among others, but Muir was one of the most successful, said stop, look, and embrace the intrinsic nature of Nature – Nature for itself, and for ourselves.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
– From The Mountains of California

Muir was also one of the first to condemn the government’s brutal policies against Native Americans, becoming an active defender of Native American rights as a member of the Sequoya League.

Others followed. Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower.

We’ve thankfully protected many of the wilder corners of the land from human selfishness, and created national parks, one of America’s greatest ideas. However, continued protection requires constant vigilance.

The Social Animal

The damage humans have caused Nature is so obvious, one would think it would be a simple matter to provide the facts and get on with the fix.

But we, all of us, are complex animals, with an enhanced level of consciousness that allows us to not only ponder and reflect upon what we see, but also modify the way we see and the memories we keep after we do, or think we did – we embellish, create, ignore, justifying how we see ourselves and what we believe, unconsciously shaping our memories in self-serving directions, by individuals, families, and entire cultures. Religious dogma is altered to suit the times, political history is filtered through propaganda, and traditional knowledge is recreated after loss, with the change forgotten, then viewed as if it had always been.

As defenseless, naked apes, our survival depended on the group, not just for collaboration, but for accumulated cultural knowledge. What we know, what we have, has been collected over generations. Understanding the complex processing of food to make it edible, such as acorns or cassava, is not unlike knowing how to build a computer – it all depends on the library of knowledge culture has allowed us to accumulate over time. Attempts to go it alone, without accumulated cultural knowledge, can prove deadly as it has for Africans who consume cassava. The Indigenous cultural knowledge from South America on how to properly detoxify cassava failed to make it across the ocean.

As a consequence, being part of a group, being accepted by the group, is essential. It means embracing the group’s stories, ways, and perceptions, no matter how well they reflect what really is, was. The divergent individual risked being kicked out of the tribe, which meant a much shorter life. Alignment with the tribe meant survival. We don’t do alone well.

And so, it remains. While we face exaggerated levels of tribal thinking and behavior today (our group is better than your group), such has happened many times before. But throughout it all, in spite of it all, we have continued to advance, improve our conditions, increase our lifespans, to understand the nature of the world.

The mental and physical advancements we have achieved since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago (which may have had more to do with fermenting alcohol than growing food) have been stunning. The discovery of reason, of logic, of science, have paired with ethical discoveries involving individual rights, personal freedoms, acceptance of cultural diversity, and the rights of non-human beings are nudging our species into the next stage of our evolution, one that will truly reflect the meaning of our full Latin name – Homo sapiens sapiens, or a really wise, wise man.

However, as with all advances, we are, and will continue to be taking steps backward due to distractions, sometimes accidental, but more often than not, intentional.

For those of us who have deep connections with the natural environment, the focus on advancing the rights of the other living things we share this planet with, on their habitat, on Nature, is of utmost importance. Those rights are essentially based on a single fundamental principle – the right to be left alone, to live freely without human interference. Conflating human-centric concerns in pursuit of these rights distracts us from our mission.

A Burrowing Owl being left to be an owl. Always alert. Always curious.

Allowing wild animals and plants to be free of us is a difficult principle for humans to accept, much less advocate for, because it challenges our anthropocentric view of the world. And as is our wont as Homo sapiens (without the second wise), we are especially talented in justifying our own selfish desires, no matter the illogic.

The Sierra Club has employed Orwellian doublespeak to justify their new focus on human needs, unrelated to protecting the natural environment, calling it environmental justice. California State Parks labelled the mastication and burning of native habitat in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park as restoration, funded by corporate carbon credits. And wildfire agencies and research institutions have co-opted Native American culture to justify the logging, clearance, and burning of millions of acres of habitat, causing large-scale destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, the direct antithesis of Native American cultural burning practice aims – the production and replenishment of food and fiber.

As the Karuk have expressed in their document, Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Need for Knowledge Sovereignty,

“…it is impossible—as well as unethical—to attempt to remove traditional ecological knowledge from its original context. Efforts to extract knowledge are a form of cultural appropriation that erodes the very foundations of tribal life.”

Redefining Nature to Suit Human Needs

As we illustrated in the beginning of this essay, we are all human, whether we walked across the Arctic land bridge 23,000 years ago or came over in ships across the Atlantic Ocean. We are all capable of wonderful and horrible things, given the opportunity. Our various groups differ in customs and beliefs, but not in our ability to self-justify. The moment we allow hubris to gain the upper hand, convincing ourselves that our group is better than their group, we start traveling down the road that leads to wasted conversations, anger, and much worse.

But to the point of this essay, allowing ourselves to get wrapped up in our human identities distracts us from the mission at hand – fighting for the right native plants and animals have to being left alone.

Over the past few years, this right has been compromised by an extremely successful redefinition of what’s wild, what’s natural in California and elsewhere. The new definition being promoted by wildfire agencies and others involved in habitat clearance efforts is at its very root, unnatural:

The natural landscape is a managed landscape, one that serves the needs of humans. Nature is a clogged mess that must be thinned and cleared by humans to remain “healthy,” to prevent “bad” fire, and to bring back “good” fire, i.e. fire that is preferred by humans.

One wonders how the chaparral, the forests, and all the life within, were ever able to survive without us.

This redefinition is robotically repeated without question in nearly every wildfire news story (and online comments), by politicians, fire agencies, and some environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, a group that has made millions of dollars selling carbon offsets to protect habitat that has already been protected.

As with any successful advertising campaign, the sale is closed by tapping into the emotions, in this case fear and guilt. Using images of burned towns and forests, we are told that, “the wildfire would have never happened, or would have been much smaller or less severe, if we had been burning the landscape on a regular basis like Native Americans once did,” a people the dominant culture has done its best to eliminate.

Including Indigenous People into the campaign ties the bow, a successful form of cultural exploitation that has been used by those in power too sell everything from tobacco to Keep America Beautiful.

As is the case for all closely held beliefs, the redefinition of Nature is impervious to fact checks:

  • By definition, human interference of Nature is artificial.
  • Large, high-intensity wildfires have always occurred (in both forests and chaparral) and are primarily dependent on climatic conditions, not vegetation accumulation.
  • There were massive wildfires long before European contact, during another period of warming and drying between 800-1300 AD.
  • There is no evidence that any group of humans have ever been able to prevent or stop a wildfire during extreme fire weather conditions (low humidity, high temperatures, strong winds, all magnified by long-term drought).
  • Indigenous Californians used fire locally to foster the growth of food and fiber products, not to conduct landscape scale habitat clearance projects or in an attempt prevent large wildfires.

The Human Species is the Problem: It’s All of Us, Not One of Us

How do we help people understand that wild Nature is best without our meddling, our “management?”

First, we need to respectfully stay on topic and not succumb to distractions. This was the theme of our essay on Sierra Club’s diversion into racial politics. But equally important is humility, and the awareness that no one, no one group, is innately superior to the rest. History is littered with multiple individuals, and multiple groups, who once believed they were. Time proved them wrong, from Athens, to Rome, to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, to the Chumash coastal village of Syujtun, and someday, Washington D.C.

Secondly, as humans, we must accept that we are all subject to toxic myopia. We must entertain the notion that we, you, might be wrong and accept that, as we spin our stories, we embellish and create memories that are often far removed from what actually happened.

This is why science is so important.

As Tavris and Aronson write in their book, Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me,

“Scientific reasoning is useful to anyone in any job because it makes us face the possibility, even the dire reality, that we were mistaken. It forces us to confront our self-justifications and put them on public display for others to puncture. At its core, therefore, science is a form of arrogance control.”

All ideas, opinions, theories, and stories, sacred or not, must be subject to puncturing, traditional, conservative, or liberal, without fear of retribution. As humans, no one has a corner on self-serving behavior. Otherwise, we risk being seduced into thinking our answer is the right one and that everyone else needs to think the same, or else.

And we need to remember that science itself is a human endeavor. It’s the process that science subjects ideas to over time that provides the tonic to arrogance.

“Love was long since represented as blind,” Thomas C. Chamberlin wrote in 1819, “and what is true in the personal realm is measurably true in the intellectual realm. Important as the intellectual affections are as stimuli and as rewards, they are nevertheless dangerous factors, which menace the integrity of the intellectual process… There is an unconscious selection and magnifying of the phenomena that fall into harmony with the theory and support it, and an unconscious neglect of those that fail of coincidence. There springs up, also, an unconscious pressing of the theory to make it fit the facts, and a pressing of the facts to make them fit the theory.”

All scientists need to remember Chamberlin’s warning. Especially those who promote the idea that stories, no matter the source, are equivalent to science.

And finally, we need stop, take a breath, and look both ways. Recognize everyone else thinks they’re the center. Then cross the street.

“Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy and needs feeding.”

In Pursuit of Logic Part I: We’re Getting Indigenous Burning all Wrong

In Pursuit of Logic Part II: Alien Shrubs from Mars

In Pursuit of Logic Part III: When Factual Arguments Fail – Nearly Always

THE CONCLUSION – In Pursuit of Logic Part V: Science Prevails, Wisdom will Lead

5 Comments on “Native plants and animals have a right to be left alone.

  1. Thanks, Rick;  I’ve always thought that native plants and animals have a to need water, too.  We’ve drained aquifers, affecting surface water and springs.  Nature should be accounted for when doing groundwater management and water allocations. I just finished a book by Richard Carrico; Strangers in a Stolen Land. His historical documentation described our area in relation to the tribes, Spanish, Mexican and European immigrants was eye-opening. Another use of fire by the tribes was to corral wild animals into canyons and areas they couldn’t escape so they could kill them more easily for food. I hadn’t realized that. They also traded seeds so they could grow food plants from other areas, thereby introducing non-natives (possibly), but good food producing plants. The Europeans wiped out their hunting and agriculture when they brought all the livestock. That’s why the native americans were reduced to paupers… they’re means of survival was wiped out. The book showed how humans are really mean. If you haven’t read it, I can mail it to you. Pam Nelson.

    • Carrico’s book is a good one. The Ecological Indian and The Comanche Empire are also good books that discuss similar issues. Native Americans had a deep connection with the land, but they also were fragile humans like the rest of us.

      • Actual scientific evidence of Native American burning is very weak, and dependent mostly upon “stories.” Science is about questioning, not believing romantic regurgitations.

  2. Pingback: August 2022 End Notes | Alexander S. Kunz Photography

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