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The journals of Lewis and Clark regale with one of the great tales of American history. As with all American history, it’s filled with contradictions. The journals document the great vast wilderness surrounding the Missouri River at the beginning of the 19th century. A wilderness completely disappeared only a century later. It is also a wonderful picture of the the peoples then occupying this land, the first peoples, the human migrants from Asia who made their way to the Americas beginning at least 15 thousand years ago.
Two centuries later, the documenting of the lives of some of the last predominately hunter-gatherer societies not just in America, but of the entire planet, is invaluable. Today, only a scattered few such societies remain in Africa, South America, and some of the islands in the Pacific, such as Papua New Guinea. For the overwhelming majority of the history of Homo sapiens, hunting and gathering was life. Only in the last ten thousand years did farming and pastoral life develop, a technological change. It has only been in the last two centuries that industrial technologies completely transformed the agrarian landscape.
What's simply amazing about Lewis and Clark's journals are their descriptions of the wildlife populations. These animal populations allowed the Dakota (the French designated Sioux), Cheyenne, Arikara, Pawnee, and large number of other plains' cultures to lead their lifestyles. Two months into their journey up the Missouri, near present Sioux City Iowa, Clark writes,
“I went with the men to a creek dammed by the beavers about halfway to the village. With some small willows and bark we made a drag and hauled up the creek and caught 318 fish of different kinds, i.e. pike, bass, salmon, perch, red horse, small cat, and a kind of perch called silverfish on the Ohio. I caught shrimp (crawfish) precisely of the shape, size, and flavor of those about New Orleans and the lower part of the Mississippi. This creek, which is only the pass or strait from one beaver pond to another, is crowded with large mussels. Very fat ducks, plover of different kinds, are on these ponds and rivers.”
The next day, Clark writes, “Capt Lewis took 12 men and went to the pond and creek between camp and the old village and caught upwards of 800 fine fish.” The creeks were choked with beaver ponds. Today, such a creek is more likely strangled by pig feces.
Proceeding a couple more days journey up river, the Missouri makes a hard left, west into the heart of the Great Plains, the vast largely treeless American savanna running from Mexico into Canada. Here, the intrepid explorers first view the vast populations of large mammals the plains nourished. Herds of buffalo that Lewis remarks, “although hard to believe could see 3000 at one view.” The buffalo shared the space with herds of deer, elk, and antelope or “goats” as they called them. “Our hunters killed four goats, six deer, four elk and a pelican and informed us they saw in one gang 248 elk.” The next day Clark writes, “I walked out on the hills and observed great numbers of buffalo feeding on both sides of the river. I counted 52 gangs of buffalo and three of elk in one view.”
Wolves roamed the plains following the herds and, for the first time recorded by Americans, an animal to become iconic with the American West, coyotes, which they wrongly consider a type of fox. They have yet to encounter their first, always ferociously inhospitable resident of the plains, the brown or grizzly bear, which they called “white.”
The expedition is filled with awe for the animal populations they see. The editor of this edition of the journals writes, “The Americans were used to eastern woodland conditions in which game had become relatively scarce.” Today, we can fantasize about living on Mars better than imagining America's waters and plains holding such wild abundance, just as then populations of Europe, Jefferson described as “piled upon one another,” could never envision the wild Europe of their long dead ancestors. Similarly, most Americans today are completely incapable of considering a former landscape studded with small farms. This is a symptom of all technological development, an inability to in anyway conceive of a past before contemporary technology reshaped the landscape we are accustomed.
This forgetting of the past, the inability to understand how we lived or come to live, confines our thinking on the future, resulting in a crippling incapacity to meet the challenges we face in regards to changing the present industrial forged landscape. All talk of change begins with where things are and attempts to figure how we keep it much the same way by just doing things differently. A great current example is the mad rush to electrify everything as some sort of way to effect change. This is a recipe for failure. We need to look at change literally from the ground up, a 21st century land reform. Not simply what's traditionally considered land reform in regards to agriculture, though that certainly is a component, but an encompassing reform of the entire industrial landscape shaped in Lewis and Clark's wake.
The Los Angeles Times has several recent articles with thinking and actions required to begin addressing how we reform the present landscape. The first starts with the most essential component for all change, abandoning the ultra-consumption, waste as wealth lifestyle. It's a nice article on first steps to ending the tyranny and instantaneous landfill supply of packaging.
“At a growing number of places around Los Angeles, there is a new category of bulk products: personal care and home cleaning items such as hand soap, moisturizer, toothpaste tabs, shampoo, laundry pods and all-purpose cleaner.
“They’re called refill stations. Almost all of them are woman-owned small businesses. And they all want you to rethink what a trip to the store looks like.
“Here’s how it works: You bring your own containers from home.”
It's a start, an easy one at that. It is a practice that needs to become culturally de rigueur, not just for the items mentioned, but most things bought and sold.
The second piece, directly tied to traditional land reform, is California's attempt to begin mass composting, unsurprisingly behind schedule, but moving forward. Organic food matter put in landfill is wasted twice, first as garbage and then lost as a means for enriching the land it was pulled from, thus needing to largely be replaced chemically. In landfills, organic matter breaks down into methane, a potent climate gas. Collecting the organic matter, composting, and then putting it back into farming, gardens, and landscaping is land reform. At an appropriate scale, composting will also require a rethinking and restructuring of our current fossil fueled soaked agriculture practices. In doing so, we need to keep in mind the failure of much American recycling due to not requiring manufacturers to use recycled content in all their processes. Directly tied to this is maybe Americans' greatest contemporary sin, and that's saying something, food waste. The EPA estimates “every year in the United States, approximately 31% (133 billion pounds) of the overall food supply is wasted.”
Next, a pleasantly surprising interview with the current head of Southern California's Metropolitan Water District. Having briefly been actively involved 3 decades ago in California water policy and following closely since, it's the best thinking I've ever heard from a person in a position of water power in California. He doesn't even mention desalination, but focuses on conservation and recycling, both requiring a restructuring the established water infrastructure.
Finally, an Op/Ed imagining a future where “not only have electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles replaced gas-guzzling cars, but many people have forsaken car-ownership altogether.” Key is “forsaken car-ownership.” America needs no more fundamental land reform than a restructuring of the transportation system presently centered around the automobile, requiring a corresponding transcending of our production and distribution systems. Unfortunately, the author falls into the speed trap promoting an electric train service from LAX to the Valley “in only '37 minutes.” Key to much 21st century land reform is realizing we can dramatically slow down, an understanding in the end no one is going anywhere.
All these practices and ideas find commonality in they go against America's established ethos and practices of hyper-consumption. Americans have an entrenched faith that more stuff is better — better for the economy, better for each individual, better for all. As one of my sisters said to me the other day, “Americans like their stuff.”
Knowledge of the past can help break the constraints of the present just as emphatically as any vision of the future, helping reimagine what’s possible. This knowledge is part of a seeming infinite abundance of information that allows us, as all biological systems do, to more efficiently utilize, particularly in comparison to established industrial practices, the planet’s very finite supplies of matter and energy. Information is key to fundamental land reform.
It is estimated America’s Great Plains once sustained 50-60 million buffalo. These great populations nourished the Dakota and other peoples, removing the people from the plains meant killing the buffalo. The new American nation did that to the point of extinction for both buffalo and people. Today, no hunter-gatherers remain and less than 2% of the American population is actively engaged in agriculture. Our near future isn't on Mars, but radically reforming how we engage with this planet’s lands, waters, and atmosphere, a future requiring far more imagination and possibility.