The Midwest from Mastodon to Madison: a brief look behind and ahead

The upper Midwest encountered by Euro-American settlers was a diverse savanna mosaic of prairie, woodland, marsh, lake, and river ecosystems, sustaining diverse cultures of American Indians. The plant and animal communities of this landscape were products of co-evolution with humans since the glaciers melted here 12,000 years ago. Through frequent burning, grazing herd control, and plant horticulture, Indians helped to create and maintain these ecosystems, interacting within them as a keystone species.[1] There are no historic analogs for these ecosystems, no “natural” savanna. This is not to say that there was never savanna here without humans, in fact, this area, when unglaciated, was likely of the savanna form for the last 35 million years.

diverse herbivore communities maintained savanna form

North America, prior to the pleistocene human invasion, contained astonishingly diverse savanna mosaics, with considerably more faunal taxa and biomass than African savannas today. These savannas, however, were created and maintained, not by Indian burning, but by many herbivorous mammals including 32 genera of now-extinct megafauna.[2] Giants such as mastodons and sloths consumed wide swaths of woody vegetation, opening up the ground to sunlight so grasses could grow and support herds of camels, horses, and giant deer. Large keystone predators such as the short-faced bear, and saber-toothed tiger, controlled herbivore populations and thus the relative balance of woody and herbaceous vegetation. These animals coevolved with diverse plant, insect, fungal, and bacterial communities for millions of years, through many glacial cycles, completely in the absence of any homo species.

The Clovis peoples crossing Beringia into North America 13,000 years ago may not have been the continent’s first human inhabitants, but they were certainly its most successful pioneers. Clovis spear technology allowed for efficient hunting of the large herbivores lacking evolved defenses to human predation. Highly mobile Clovis bands quickly colonized North and South America and subsequently drove the megaherbivores to extinction. Climate change may have been an additional driver, but the primary role of humans is becoming widely accepted. Bison, Elk, bear, and deer were the only remaining large herbivores, the bison and elk being relatively new arrivals from Asia, with evolutionary memory of humans. The obsolescence of the Clovis culture led to a flourishing of local cultures as family groups began to settle down in local ecosystems. One unique feature of these newly emerging cultures throughout their subsequent 12,000 years of evolution, is the extent to which they created and thrived in savanna mosaics. But instead of large herbivores as the main controllers of woody vegetation, it was humans and their fire.

All over North America from Maine to California, Indians were known to manage the landscape with fire.[3] Without fire or the herbivory of large mammals to control woody vegetation, savannas would have experienced a catastrophic shift to a closed-canopy mesic forest climax state. In this process of mesofication, shade-intolerant, fire adapted savanna vegetation is overtaken by shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant mesic forest vegetation. Relative to savanna mosaics, mesic forest is more homogenous, less diverse, and less functional. For the past 5,000 years, the climate of the upper midwest has been wet enough to support these mesic forest climax communities.[4] Instead of allowing succession to complete its course, however, Indians actively suppressed widespread mesofication, just like the megafauna, with fire instead of teeth. Indian burning regimes increased habitat heterogeneity, biodiversity, and ecosystem functioning, stabilizing savanna as opposed to mesic ecosystems. In a sense, these Indian-maintained ecosystems were less functional than their pleistocene savanna predecessors. Less solar energy was transformed into high quality animal biomass and information (DNA), with more primary production lost to entropic smoke. However, these ecosystems were way more diverse and higher functioning than any now on the continent, and were highly productive for their human inhabitants.

Perhaps the most sustaining food crops throughout the long history of Indian habitation in North America, were the mast of oak, hickory, and chestnut. These nuts and acorns were abundant, easily harvested, non-perishable, and highly nutritious. When managed in the open-grown form, hickory trees can have increased mast production of 500%.[5] Maintaining open-grown groves would have provided a considerable return on investment, especially considering that nuts left behind were eventually consumed in the form of deer, elk, or turkey. Herds of elk, bison, and deer followed patterns of human fire on the landscape, grazing the pulse of nutritious grasses and wildflowers growing  on recently burned land, they created self-reinforcing grazing lawns.[6] In the summer, groves of open-grown oaks provided shade and transpirational cooling for grazing herds and humans alike. Humans weren’t the only predator of these species, but shared their role with wolves, cougars, foxes, eagles, hawks, and badgers.

Shrubs such as prairie plum, sweet crabapple, hazel, raspberry, blueberry, gooseberry, and currant provided fruits and nuts for bears, elk, deer, and humans alike. Hundreds of prairie and savanna wildflower species provided leaves, roots, tubers, flowers, fruits and seeds for food, medicine, and spiritual ceremony. Upland savannas were interspersed with lowland marshes, streams, and lakes full of shellfish, aquatic plants, fish and waterfowl. These aquatic systems existed in productive, clear-water states, where nutrients were regulated via biotic control by herbivorous and piscivorous animals and humans. Indian burning and herbivore grazing kept nutrient cycles tight in upland areas, minimizing nutrient run-off into the lakes. This landscape contained a wide variety of abiotic environmental gradients including topography, shade from trees, and soil texture and moisture. These gradients provided the context whereupon patterns of burning and grazing, pollination and dispersal, hunting and horticulture, over millennia molded and shaped the diverse and functional savanna mosaic encountered at settlement.

The upper midwestern landscape now consists of corn and soybean fields, degraded woodlots, silt-laden streams, eutrophic lakes, and urban development. Deer are the only large mammals we can support, due largely to easy access of agricultural corn. We do have cows and pigs, but instead of grazing them on pastures, we raise them inside confined feeding operations where they are fed all that corn and soy. But because they didn’t evolve to eat grain or live in confinement, those animals get sick. In order for them to survive these conditions long enough to gain the fat necessary for us to eat them, we inject them with antibiotics. Extremely cheap meat is available as a result, and we Americans eat a lot of it. The once fertile soils, along with the the fertilizers now necessary to grow anything in them, erode off the fields and along with the effluent from those confined livestock operations, leech into our streams, rivers and now eutrophic lakes. This runoff doesn’t stop in the Midwest, but continues its path down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico, where the dead zone continues to grow and where Wisconsin soil reaches its final resting place.

The only areas not in agricultural production remaining here are generally the most marginal for that purpose, and are often set aside as parks, preserves, or refuges. Acknowledging the ecological destruction inherent in our agricultural system, we have graciously set aside these areas as “natural,” places safe from man’s devastative actions. Unfortunately, removing human activity also removes the fire and grazing interactions necessary for savanna maintenance. Instead of remnant savannas, these landscape of the once open-grown oaks have filled in with shade-tolerant mesic vegetation such as buckthorn and maple. These species are self-reinforcing and decrease nutrient cycling while increasing soil nutrient saturation, shade, moisture, and humidity. These conditions prevent oaks and savanna vegetation from regenerating, and ultimately result in the extermination of those species. Intensive agriculture and mesofication have exterminated and subsequently replaced savanna mosaic ecosystems.

Gone are the diverse aquatic plants, fish, and invertebrates. Gone are the bison and elk, badger and bees. Gone are the cultures that once flourished inside nature’s fertile and flexible bounds, cultures with no words or concepts to separate themselves from that nature. For what was human spirit without that of the bear, the raven, the corn mother, the morning star, and the rising sun? Indians were not passive actors living lightly in a wilderness. Instead, they actively created and managed the ecosystems they inhabited–diverse, functional, and productive ecosystems in which their cultures could thrive. They were able to create and maintain these ecosystems because their worldview saw themselves not as separate, but as integral parts of nature, enabling them to perceive and observe the ecological consequences of their actions, not just materially and objectively, but spiritually as well. Western cultures are largely inept at both fronts. Western epistemologies often force discrete and dualistic categorization, limiting the extent that we can envision ourselves and nature as a whole, and making the perception of material and especially spiritual human-ecological relationships exceedingly difficult. Not only are we epistemologically impaired, but our ability to evaluate the social and ecological consequences of our actions is exceedingly diminished within the vast complexity of global society.

When we eat a banana, we don’t see the indigenous families forced off their traditional lands and into the nearest slums by corrupt governments selling that land to global agribusiness corporations. We don’t see the workers with third degree burns on their arms from applying pesticides to those banana trees, nor do we see the effects of those pesticides as they accumulate in our bodies’ ever-growing fat reserves. When we eat meat, we don’t see the soil eroding from the corn fields, the pharmaceutical injections in the cows, the turmoil in the middle-east from the oil production required to produce the fertilizer to grow the corn to feed the cows, or the children living near the confined animal feeding operations, sick because their groundwater is contaminated from the effluent running off that operation. When we drink coffee we don’t see the deforestation, the pesticides, okay, I think you get the point. But it’s not just that we aren’t aware of these consequences, but that there are few alternative choices. Because corporations compete largely upon their ability to sell products at the cheapest price, and free-trade agreements have gotten them into most resource-rich and labor-filled third-world countries with lax regulations, successful corporations and the products they produce are almost necessarily ecologically and socially destructive. Alternatives, such as fair-trade coffee, and organic produce are start, but are prohibitively expensive or unavailable, especially for lower classes, and those that don’t live in a liberal bourgeois paradise (nothing wrong with that) like Madison.

Our civilization no longer relies on functioning ecosystems for survival. Instead, we substitute the goods and services those ecosystems once provided — food, fiber, fuel, clean water and fertile soil — with fossil fuels. Ecosystems around the world are collapsing into dysfunctional states, along with the disintegration of many of the world’s indigenous cultures. With each collapsed ecosystem we find ourselves more reliant on fossil fuels, and every disintegrating culture erases from memory alternative ways of living, thinking, and being human.

The future is not determined. We will create it. And I don’t know about you, but I want a future where people eat lots of different kinds of good food grown in good soil. We need to once again create healthy, functional, and productive ecosystems all around us. Ecosystems that provide material subsistence and spiritual enrichment. But this will only happen if we take an active role engaging with the land. Here in the midwest, our rural landscape is largely depopulated with a few farmers managing most of the land. Recreating healthy ecosystems in the place of corn fields and neglected woodlots won’t happen by leaving the land alone. Instead we need people on the land, lots of them. People dedicated to learning and engaging with their local ecosystems. These are the green jobs of the future. Only they won’t be “jobs” in the traditional sense. Resilient rural communities will emerge where goods and services are traded more-or-less locally based on locally emergent systems of currency and trade. What will these rejuvenated landscapes look like?  My guess is more like a savanna mosaic than corn field.

yummy paw paw
yummy paw paw

There are no easy answers or panaceas to the problems we face. But we don’t face them alone. We are human beings with the capacity for great intelligence, compassion, collaboration, and spirit. We need to envision ourselves not as separate, but as integral parts of nature. We need to make informed decisions that support our planet’s social and ecological health. In the absence of corporately produced goods and services that meet this criteria, we need to make them ourselves. We must stop buying (literally) the present and start building the future. We need to take responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our actions. If you knew all it took to get the bananas to the shelves of your local grocer, would you still buy them? If not, what are you going to do about it? Perhaps you could cultivate paw paw, or “Indiana banana,” anachronistic trees producing fruits meant to entice long-vanished megafauna, but equally enticing to the human palate. Here is your chance to make like a mastodon.  If you knew that your bank was a major contributor to the housing collapse, bailed out with your tax dollars, and a major siphon of your wealth from the broader economy into the upper classes, would you cancel your account?  If so, what would you do with your money? Are there opportunities in your community to invest in socially and ecologically beneficial enterprises? If not, there should be, and its up to us to create them. We need to decide, how do we live here? And then create that life, that community, that ecosystem, that future – together.


[1] Delcourt, P. and H. Delcourt. Prehistoric Native Americans and Ecological Change. Cambridge University Press, 2004; Kimmerer R.W. 2000. Native Knowledge for Native Ecosystems. Journal of Forestry 98(8): 4-9

[2] Johnson, C.N. 2009. Ecological consequences of Late Quaternary extinctions of megafauna. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276: 2509-2519; Pinter, N., Fiedel, S., and J.E. Keeley. 2011. Fire and vegetation shifts in the Americas at the vanguard of Paleoindian migration. Quaternary Science Reviews 30: 269-272.

[3] Anderson, M.K. Tending the Wild. University of California-Berkeley Press, 2005; Pyne, S. Fire in America. University of Washington Press, 1997; Stewart, O. Forgotten Fires. University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

[4] Winkler, M.G., Swain, A. M., and J. E. Kutzbach. 1986. Middle Holocene Dry Period in the Northern Midwestern United States: Lake Levels and Pollen Stratigraphy. Quaternary Research 25: 241-243. 

[5] Munson, P.J. 1986. Hickory silviculture: a subsistence revolution in the prehistory of eastern North America. In Emergent horticultural economies of eastern woodlands. Edited by W.F. Keenan. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Ill. pp. 1-20.

[6] McNaughton, S. J. 1984. Grazing Lawns: Animals in Herds, Plant Form, and Coevolution. The American Naturalist 124(6): 863-886.