restricted access Chapter One: An Injured Paradise

From: Green Planet

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[9] chapter one AN INJURED PARADISE I want to tell what the forests were like I will have to speak in a forgotten language —W. S. MERWIN About seven thousand years ago, much of the earth was a paradise. Many cultures have legends of a primordial paradise. One of these legends, familiar to people of the Western cultural tradition, is the Garden of Eden. This story provides an image of the original relationship between humans and the natural world: Eden was a garden planted by God himself, in which Adam and Eve, the archetypes of humankind, lived. It was a garden of inexpressible beauty in which even God enjoyed taking a stroll in the cool of the morning. A mixture of forested orchard and herbaceous field, Eden contained every tree and plant that was good for food and pleasing to the eye. That’s a fair picture of what the earth was like just before civilization. The world had not always been like this. At the end of the most recent ice age, about twelve thousand years ago, the northern continents experienced violent conditions. Glaciers melted and retreated northward , exposing land that had been scraped bare of life and topsoil. Strong winds carried dirt in massive dust storms. The glacial meltwater produced huge rivers. For example, the part of the Missouri River that today is less than a mile wide was ten miles across when the glaciers were retreating. In some cases, ice fragments blocked the water into vast lakes. When the ice blocks melted a little, floods of cold water would erupt from the lakes and scour thousands of square miles of land downstream. CH001.qxd 11/12/08 9:50 AM Page 9 But by about seven thousand years ago, warmth had returned; indeed, much of the earth was warmer than it is today. The forests and grasslands returned.1 The forests had assumed roughly their present geographical locations long before human civilization. For our species, these forests and fields were a type of Eden. They could not be considered a zoo, for many species of large mammals (most famously the mammoths and mastodons) became extinct right at the end of the ice age, but the forests and fields were an abundantly beautiful and productive garden. From this time right up to the present day, the climate of the earth has not undergone the sudden and violent changes that were so common during the past two million years. Archaeologist Brian Fagan has called these millennia of nice weather “the long summer.”2 The extent, and the appearance, of the forests just before civilization would have astonished us modern people if we could have seen them. Most noticeable would have been the large trees, many of them with trunks a yard or more in diameter.Today, when people visit remnants of ancient forests, they can be overwhelmed by these large trees.3 Examples include Tane Mahuta, the largest of the kauri trees of New Zealand (Agathis australis), whose trunk, at 150 feet above the ground, is 15 feet thick; the General Sherman tree in California, the largest giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), whose trunk is 36 feet thick at the base and still 14 feet thick at a height of 180 feet (fig. 1.1); one of the twenty-six California coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) known to be over 360 feet high; the giant baobabs at Morondava, Madagascar; the angel live oak (Quercus virginiana), with a massive crown of branches reaching to the ground on John’s Island, South Carolina; or some of the giant trees of Japan, such as the Jomon Sugi of Yakushima, the largest and oldest cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) in Japan. But trees of this stature were relatively common in the primordial forests that blanketed the earth after the most recent ice age. The forests also had healthy crops of small trees, because small fires created patches of open soil in which the trees and many other plant species could regenerate. Now, however, even these few remaining large trees, which have escaped the ax and are protected by national governments, may not be able to survive the higher temperatures and drought associated with green planet [10] CH001.qxd 11/12/08 9:50 AM Page 10 global warming (see chapter 3). A couple of generations from now, they may be only a memory. These primordial forests were found throughout much of the world. Much of England, which today consists mostly of open fields, was a Sherwood Forest...