May 25, 2023 | By:

Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America

Dan Flores, Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Dan Flores, Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Fifty years ago, I read Wildlife in America by writer, naturalist, and explorer Peter Matthiessen. Published in 1959, it was my first exposure to the awful story of the near obliteration of wildlife over the past 500 years in North America. In the decades since, I have learned much more about this story in many other books and articles, but I’ve never encountered a work like Wild New World – nothing even close in the scope, depth, and analysis this fine writer and historian Dan Flores brings to this sad tale. While the basic facts have not changed, Flores is thoroughly versed in the many insights that scientists and historians have revealed in the fifty years since Matthiessen’s book, making this a fascinating read for those of us concerned about the fate of our wild neighbors past and present.

Flores calls his approach in this this book “Big History” which, he writes, “has advantages over conventional history. It can acknowledge that the destiny of a continent like North America lies not just with us but also with our fellow creatures and the longer evolutionary stream in which we all live.” Flores has written much conventional history in his career as an academic, professional historian, but in his recent work he has expanded his horizons to Big History, writing the acclaimed Coyote America and American Serengeti. These books, but especially Wild New World, are narratives “leavened with pathos” because while many of us care deeply about our wild neighbors, we are most concerned about our own self-interest which “accounts for where we are in the 21st century, with a continuing sixth, and massive, extinction of wild life forms underway in America and across Earth, and with at least some of us dreading the outcome.”

Flores takes us back to when tectonic plates were forming North America, then through a brief history of early life on the new continent. He explains how the Chicxulub asteroid crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula sixty-six million years ago setting the stage for this story by making it possible for mammals to survive, evolve, and spread across the continent and world. Following this “Prologue in Deep Time,” he describes what is known about how humans arrived, and then how the Clovis people spread across North America, hunting and killing animals like mammoths and other large mammals that had not encountered humans before and did not fear them. The result – the Pleistocene extinctions caused by human predation and the beginning of the North American assault on wildlife.

The Clovisian and Folsom peoples were making a living as they decimated populations of prey animals, but they learned that there were limits to the wild creatures they were harvesting. During a 3700-year hot and dry period, the last interglacial antithermal, the southern end of the Rocky Mountains where the Clovis and Folsom people had thrived emptied of the wildlife they had depended on. Flores writes, “Humans now had to learn to deliberately, carefully, manage their own numbers to avoid overshooting local resources when times turned bad.” He explains how Native people came to regard the animals they relied upon, especially predators, like Raven, Coyote, and Wolf, as worthy of respect. Overhunting was a problem for them, but after the Pleistocene extinctions, there were few human-caused extinctions in the “ten millennia of Native America.” Likely this was because Native people observed taboos. For example, “A widespread taboo among Native people banned molesting the adult birds on their nests. That taboo guaranteed survival for birds with the responsibility to create a new generation of pigeons.” Passenger pigeons had thrived in Native America, but things changed.

“Old Worlders” came to the “New World” and dismissed Native ceremonies as “Satan-worshipping superstition.” They “accelerated history,” setting in motion processes that rapidly changed North American nature in myriad ways. From the beginning they dismissed Native peoples they found in this “new” place, displacing them, and resulting in death for most of them. North America, inhabited by around four million people when the Old Worlders arrived, was depopulated by disease, releasing a surge in wildlife and leading the newcomers to indulge in the idea of “Virgin America,” which they set out to exploit with a vengeance.

You should understand this about colonial America. The loss of human life and the rebound of animal life set up much of our own subsequent story. As Native populations collapsed and struggled to rebuild and wildlife numbers soared in response, new people from distant shores were replacing the ancient inhabitants and becoming Americans. They saw all this freshly released abundance of wild creatures in terms of the main chance. Here was money to be made.

With unwavering belief in “the Great Chain of Being as the world’s design template,” and Genesis granting approval of self-interested human use of other animals, Flores observes that “Two million years of human carnivory had found its justification.” He asks,

How did people – the majority of them, at least – who had been cut off from nature and wildlife for generations, whose religion taught them that animals exist for human use, whose science told them that animals have no emotions or sensations, and who started their whole trajectory as evolved carnivores, anyway, react to that kind of abundance and diversity? The answer to that is the spine of a story that defines humanity’s encounter with America’s animals for the next three hundred years.

He tells this story in detail, describing what happened to beaver, deer, buffalo, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, Ivory-billed woodpeckers, and especially grizzly bears, wolves, and other predators.

Flores is not just descriptive – he is analytical, asking how this story of extinction and slaughter could have happened, coming up with some solid answers. The above quotations tell part of the story. Then there was the “true freedom” of philosopher Adam Smith, embraced enthusiastically by Americans. Smith argued that “self-interest could create a ‘natural economy’ where everyone ‘is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring both his industry and his capital into competition with any other man.’” Animals, in such a world, became commodities. Additionally, in the early 1800s, extinction was a new idea, and one which many simply couldn’t, or didn’t wish to, grasp. There seemed to be an infinite number of passenger pigeons and buffalo, so why worry? They couldn’t possibly disappear. Then Darwin came along and suggested that “Natural Selection meant that individual life competed for survival in a world of limits.” But limits didn’t seem likely, and in the quest for a sporting reputation, riches, or merely a living, who cared?

Flores’ explanation of why the buffalo, which flowed in vast numbers across much of the central North American continent, was nearly wiped out, is a good example of his deep and solid analysis. How could a species so well adapted and so numerous be brought to the edge of extinction? He lists many factors: wild horse herds, released from the Spanish in the Southwest and thriving, crowded their grazing niche; the Little Ice Age reduced grass; a severe drought hit the Southern Plains, and humans had occupied their ancient drought refuges; Old Worlder’s livestock were disease vectors for buffalo; market hunting on a vast scale with (for the time) high tech rifles, could mow them down indiscriminately; buffalo didn’t understand what was happening and stood there in the face of the long-range rifles, dying in droves; railroads made transport of buffalo parts easy, helping create markets for them, and blocking migration routes. This was a perfect storm of disaster for the species. Flores quotes buffalo hunter Frank Mayer who said of his part in this, “Maybe we were just a greedy lot who wanted to get ours and to hell with posterity, the buffalo, and anyone else. . . . I think maybe that is the way it was.”  Flores can be the dispassionate historian, but often in this book he is not – he is outraged. Responding to Mayer’s comment he writes, “There are two perfect words for their kind of callous disregard for life, for an attitude that regarded two or three years of returns worth leaving behind a putrid desert of rotting carcasses and blowflies and a deprived posterity.” Those words – “F…ing pathetic.”

Some Americans were concerned about the carnage, beginning in the mid-19th century. One was Henry David Thoreau, who lamented famously that “I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places.” Thoreau wished “to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.” But he could not, even in the mid-19th century. This phrase is the title of one of Flores’ chapters. Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, George Catlin, Spencer Baird, Frank Chapman, Ernest Thompson Seton, William T. Hornaday, Florence Merriam Bailey, George Bird Grinnell, Joseph Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, Olaus and Adoph Murie, and Rachel Carson, among many others, cared and acted in different ways to try and stem the slaughter, but it took a century and a half to bring significant change. Flores writes, “For decades compassion for wild animals had swirled visibly in American culture because Thoreau, Hornaday, Seton, and Florence Merriam had readers and followers. But with the dawn of the 1960s, the world cracked. Americans were reading Aldo Leopold, who encouraged us to think in biocentric terms.” Flores tells what led to this historic moment and passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, of which he writes that the Act “turned on its head a horrific four-hundred-year wild animal story in America.” But that is not the end of the story.

In the final chapter titled “A Species of Eternity,” Flores makes clear that wildlife is still in the crosshairs – literally. “Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve likely either heard about, witnessed, or lived one or more battles of the most visible and controversial endangered species recovery of them all. I mean, of course, our war over restoring endangered wolves to a nation where we were so stunningly successful in wiping them out.” That war goes on, driven partly by politics of left and right, by a rural/urban divide, and by continuing greed and ignorance. Decades of research have revealed how important top predators are to the health of ecologies, but the war on predators in general, and wolves in particular, has not ended. Flores joins conservation biologists, writing,

The continent’s ancient top predators had shaped every niche, every population, for the way other predators like cougars or coyotes or foxes functioned to what kinds of prey animals there were and how many, to the numbers of beavers in the streams, the songbirds in the valleys, the kinds of trees and grass that grew. If we wanted modern, healthy versions of old-time America’s ecologies, we had to bring wolves back. Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic almost came down to a single, delimited insight. Imagining an ecologically healthy America meant we had to start thinking like mountains that had wolves.

There may no longer be “wolfers,” or market hunters, mountain men “ransacking” the West for beaver pelts, rich hunters killing thousands of animals for sport as they did in the 19th century, or poisons being developed and applied by the federal government to kill “undesirable species.” But there are ranchers and farmers who see wild species as competing for “their” grass or preying upon their cattle or sheep, and who call in the U.S. government’s Wildlife Services to rid them of these pests. Despite growing insights from the “subversive” science of ecology and from conservation biology, we taxpayers continue to support a government agency that kills American wildlife in service to ranchers and others who, like buffalo hunter Frank Mayer, say to hell with posterity, endangered species, and anyone else.

At the end of his grim account of the Wild New World, Flores offers a few summary comments in an epilogue titled “How Are You Enjoying the Anthropocene?” He is not enjoying it because, like Thoreau, he knows what he is missing. He writes that when we Americans think about the fate of our wild animals, we blame it on many abstractions like “inevitable extinction” or “habitat loss.” None of us, we tell ourselves, are to blame. The truth, he says, is very different. We have “thought of living creatures as mere resources in an economy designed to enrich us, and that has produced one ugly, depraved story after another, a history of inhumanity perpetrated by ordinary Americans in the name of freedom and the market, its cruelty and barbarism as often as not endorsed by government and sometimes even carried out by its agents. This is how we de-buffaloed, de-pigeoned, de-wolfed America.” He concludes that “Our disruption of ecologies around the world isn’t just threatening wildlife extinctions. It’s posing an existential threat to our own species.” We may think we are an exceptional species, immune to what works on other species, but we are not. Science, he points out, is increasingly clear about this. It is in our enlightened self-interest to act, armed with the knowledge of what has happened to wildlife in the past, and resolved to learn what we can do to save it, and ourselves, in the future.

Wild New World is a big book, Big History, and deserves big attention. This is a history we must know. Flores points out that “If the generations that witnessed passenger pigeons blotting out the sun and saw Carolina parakeets flashing tropical color through somber forests have passed and their stories lost, then a world without them is free to strike us as entirely normal. Unless we know better. Unless we haven’t forgotten.” He isn’t mourning but is resolved “to experience what’s left.” And beyond that, in the act of writing this book, which must have been no easy task for someone who cares as much about wild life as he does, he is helping us to know better, and to not forget.

Get your own copy of the book here: Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America.

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Lisa M
10 months ago

Great article. Thank goodness for people like John. Miles. I have known about our government’s sanctified killing of top predators for many decades, and have signed hundreds of petitions over the years.
I quit the Sierra Club because they had picnics with barbecued meat and somehow did not see the relationship between eating beef and buffalo (grazing “for free”) on our federal lands) while at the same time permitting the massive slaughter of native animals such as wolves who live on that land–much of which is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. We the People, the taxpaying, nature-loving public, seem to have little power as the government continues to allocate millions toward extermination of our beautiful wild creatures.

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