Keystone of the Savanna

Last year I wrote this paper for the class Archaeology of Wisconsin. It’s basically the background premise for my dissertation, and will end up in some form in the first chapter.

Keystone of the Savanna: Humans and the Evolution of Midwestern Holocene Ecosystems


At the time of nineteenth century Euro-American settlement, the American Midwest consisted of diverse, functional, and productive savanna ecosystems. Prairie grasses, flowers and shrubs carpeted the earth beneath and between widely-spaced groves of open-grown nut-producing trees such as oak, hickory, chestnut, and walnut. For nearly 10,000 years, these savannas supported a diversity of plants, animals, and human cultures, many of which are now endangered or extinct. To fully appreciate the history, ecology, and evolution of these ecosystems, I argue it is critical to include the story of the peoples who once inhabited the savanna: people who were not just passive inhabitants, but keystone species. Through their burning, hunting, gathering, and horticulture, Aboriginal Americans helped shape and maintain the structure and function of Midwestern ecosystems. This paper will review and analyze archaeological, anthropological, historical, and ecological literature in order to tell a story of an ecosystem and the people who shaped it – the keystones of the savanna.

A Brief Ecological and Human History of Eastern North America

This paper is focused on the unique temperate savanna ecosystems that evolved in Midwestern North America during the Holocene, the geologic epoch of the last 10,000 years since the ice age. The region that once supported these ecosystems extends in a broad arc across the Midcontinent from Southern Canada to Texas in what ecologists refer to as the “Eastern prairie/forest transition” (Curtis 1959; Anderson 1983; Nuzzo 1986), and I’ll focus more specifically on the  “prairie peninsula” region of the Upper Midwest (Transeau 1935). I use the word “savanna” generally to describe grasslands with scattered trees. Inclusively defined, I consider savanna, to encompass a variety of states ranging in tree cover density from widely spaced open-grown “openings” and “parklands” to nearly continuously canopied “open woodlands.” The unifying factor is the continuous groundlayer of grasses often diversely assembled at varying densities alongside flowers, legumes, and shrubs, underneath and between the trees.

Paleoindians in Pleistocene savannas

Pleistocene North America consisted largely of savanna ecosystems for at least the last 10 million years (Axelrod 1985). Large herbivorous mammals consumed and trampled massive quantities of woody vegetation, creating a dynamic mosaic of open grassy and wooded patches. In a closed forests, not enough sunlight reaches the floor to support grasses. These manufactured savannas with mixes of wooded and grassy areas, supported browsers and grazers alike promoting habitat and species diversity at multiple scales (Owen-Smith 1988). Mammoths, Ground Sloths, and Giant Beavers helped shape spruce savannas of northern latitudes, while mastodons, proboscidea, camels, and horses shaped the oak and pine savannas of southern North America and Central America (Owen-Smith 1988). These megafauna were keystone species (Paine 1969) whose behavior disproportionately influenced ecosystem structure and function.

As the glaciers of the last ice age began melting at the end of the Pleistocene, a culture of Paleoindian peoples archaeologists refer to as, “Clovis,” rapidly colonized the warming Americas. Mobile family bands exploited the immense quantity and diversity of large mammals that had evolved here in the absence of humans. These animals were hunted and processed with weapons and tools from a unique and widely-shared toolkit (Stoltman and Barreis 1983). By the end of the glacial retreat a few thousand years later, Pleistocene megafauna were extinct. Most scholars today recognize both human hunting and climate change as significant drivers of these extinctions (Barnosky et al. 2004; Gill et al. 2009; Lorenzen et al. 2011). Regardless of the cause, however, this extinction event had drastic consequences for the ecosystems of North America and the peoples that would make a permanent home here.

Archaic and the Holocene savanna

In the absence of mega-herbivore grazing and browsing, forests rapidly replaced savannas in an instance of what ecologists refer to as “ecological release.” One major consequence was the simplification of fine-scale savanna mosaic ecosystems into broad-scale zonal vegetation leading to further species loss (Owen-Smith 1988; Johnson 2009). In general, forests flourished in the Eastern U.S., while grasslands spread in the more arid West (Axelrod 1985). In between the forest and grassland biomes, was the prairie-forest transition zone (Curtis 1959; Anderson 1983; Nuzzo 1986). This is where Midwestern Holocene savannas formed 8-9,000 years ago, when a dryer climate with increased seasonality led to the migration of oak and hickory from the south and prairie vegetation from the west (Gleason 1922; Winkler et al. 1986). This climate was conducive to frequent fires, favoring the fire-adapted grasses, flowers, and oaks we now identify as the oak savanna.

Midwestern Holocene savannas were highly diverse and productive through complimentary combinations of organisms and processes from their grassland and forest counterparts. The continuous ground-layer of grasses and flowers provides forage for bison, elk, and deer, seeds and roots for small mammals and birds, and nectar for insects. Shrubs such as hazelnut and plum provide habitat structure for birds, small mammals, and insects, vegetation for deer and elk, and high-quality fruits and nuts for mammals and birds. Oak and hickory trees provide habitat for birds and insects and immense quantities of high-quality nuts for many birds and mammals, including humans. It was here that Paleoindian peoples, no longer able to follow and hunt large Pleistocene mammals, settled into more local ecosystems, utilizing a much more diverse set of relatively immobile plants and smaller animals (Stoltman and Barreis 1983; Bonnicksen 2000; Delcourt and Delcourt 2004).

Archaeologists recognize several distinct successive cultural traditions in North America based on differences in patterns of persistent inorganic materials such as pottery and stone tools present in their excavations. The Archaic tradition immediately followed the demise of Clovis, and lasted from 8,000 to 3,000 years ago (Stoltman 1997). A number of significant cultural trends, technologies, and adaptations took place in this period. Communities were able to sustain themselves in much smaller territories by scheduling hunting, fishing, and gathering activities to take advantage of times of maximum seasonal availability: summers fishing rivers and lakes, autumns in the upland savannas, and winters in rock shelters hunting deer (Birmingham and Eisenberg 2000). Tools and technologies were developed including stone axes for cutting trees, fishing implements, and stone grinding tools for the bulk processing of acorns and nuts. Increased trade led to regionally integrated economies. Archaeologists have found shells from the Gulf Coast, obsidian from Wyoming, and copper from the Upper Great Lakes appearing in late Archaic contexts (Birmingham and Eisenberg 2000). These are often found associated with increasingly elaborate burial contexts present 3,000 years ago at the end of the Archaic (Theler and Boszhardt 2003).

The development of several new sets of trends, technologies, and adaptations have led archaeologists to recognize a distinct material tradition, the “Woodland.” Traits signifying the transition from Archaic to Woodland include pottery, earthen burial mounds, and plant cultivation,  although each moved into different regions at different rates depending on their perceived desirability (Theler and Boszhardt 2003). Human cultures continued to flourish throughout the Woodland, and the Archaic process of localization continued as peoples increasingly tended gardens of newly domesticated species producing large oily and starchy seeds. Communities became more and more sedentary, although seasonal hunting and gathering remained important. Regionally integrated economies continued to develop in the Midwest culminating in the Hopewell interaction sphere of the Late Woodland (Stoltman and Barreis 1983).

The rise, fall, and ascendancy of agriculture

Fully sedentary cultures did not develop until the “Mississippian” tradition replaced Woodland traditions in the Midwest 1,000 years ago. Mississippians were materially distinct in their use of shell-tempered pottery and heavy reliance on maize agriculture, and culturally distinct in their hierarchic social organization, settlement patterns, and religion (Green, 1997). In parts of the Upper Midwest the “Oneota” tradition developed simultaneously, displaying a mix of Woodland and Mississippian characteristics. Mississippian shell-tempered pottery and maize cultivation were integrated into Woodlandesque egalitarian communities where traditional hunting and gathering activities remained important (Schroeder 2004).

Just prior to fifteenth century European contact, the Mississippian culture collapsed, and much of the Upper Midwest seems to have experienced massive population decline (Green 1993; Milner and Chaplin 2010). Causes of this event remain a mystery, but depopulation and social reorganization continued and accelerated with the waves of European diseases that soon followed, resulting in the tribal systems familiar today. Many tribes including the Siouan-speaking Ho-Chunk and Ioway, and Alogonquan-speaking Ojibwe, Menominee, Fox, Miami, Potowatomi, and Illinois continued to persist in the Upper Midwest until the time Euro-American settlement began in the early nineteenth century. These tribes were semi-sedentary, extensively practicing agriculture, as well as gathering, and engaging on long-distance communal hunts (Brown and Sasso 2001). European newcomers brought a near-death blow to the peoples and the savanna ecosystems that had been co-evolving in the Midwest for nearly 10,000 years.

Armed with steel plows and axes, the first settlers began to farm the savannas. Trees were cut to furnish wood for house construction, fences, and fuel. Fertile soils, packed with organic matter furnished by the growth, death, and burning of countless prairie plants, were plowed and planted with annual grains. By the end of the century, the Upper Midwest would become the Nation’s breadbasket (Cronin 1992). Lands too steep or barren to plow were heavily overgrazed or left alone. Euro-Americans did not use fire as the Indians had, so any uncultivated areas quickly grew up in forest tangle in another example of ecological release (Muir 1913, Curtis 1959).

Nowacki and Abrams (2008) describe this process of transition from open savanna to closed forest as “mesophication.” They define these as two alternative stable states with separate sets of stabilizing feedbacks. The closed canopy of mesic forests keeps the ground dark, wet, and nutrient rich, promoting shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant mesic species. The grasses and leaf litter of savannas provide fuel for frequent low-intensity fires, opening areas and promoting fire-tolerant and shade-intolerant prairie and savanna species. Widespread mesophication occured in the Eastern U.S. following early Indian depopulation, and it has been suggested that this forestation was so significant that the increased carbon sequestration significantly reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide, playing a role in the fifteenth century “little ice age” cooling event (Nevle et al. 2011).

The Midwest savanna had thus been a climatic-vegetation anomaly for the previous 5,000 years when its climate was sufficiently moist to support closed mesic forests (Nowacki and Abrams 2008) as its climax vegetation community (Clements 1916). This anomaly is generally explained by frequent low-intensity fires and although there has been some debate, most ecologists attribute the origin of these fires to the regular burning activities of American Indians (Gleason 1922; Curtis 1959; Anderson 1990). When these fires ceased to burn, Midwestern savannas rapidly converted to mesic forests (Muir 1913; Cottam 1949; Curtis 1959; Nuzzo 1986).

American Indians had become keystone species of the Midwestern savanna, helping to create the very ecosystem that provided their sustenance. So critical were they to the existence of the savanna, that Indian removal immediately precipitated its collapse. While fire was certainly one of the most potent tools utilized by American Indians to shape their ecosystems, hunting, gathering, and horticulture also played significant roles. In addition to these material dimensions, Indian worldviews were also important; where humans were seen as one species among many others with which humans engage in reciprocal relationships, both materially and spiritually (Deloria 1992; Salmon 2000). The remainder of this paper will review archaeological and ethnological literature to explore the various ways Aboriginal Americans shaped and interacted with Holocene savanna ecosystems in the Upper Midwest.

Keystone of the savanna

Just as the grazing, browsing, and trampling of giant herbivores had opened up and maintained Pleistocene savannas, fire maintained the open structure of Holocene savannas. These were not the high-intensity canopy fires which rapidly consume entire forests, but rather low-intensity ground fires which cleared out understory vegetation leaving canopy trees intact. Over time, frequent burning of this latter type, promotes fire-tolerant, shade-intolerant prairie/savanna vegetation at the expense of fire-intolerant, shade-tolerant mesic forest vegetation. These fires were the disturbance that prohibited ecological succession to mesic forest climax, and promoted the vegetation we consider native to the Midwestern tallgrass prairie and oak savanna (Curtis 1959; Abrams and Nowacki 2008).

The timing, frequency and geography of fires over time constitutes what ecologists call a “fire,” or “disturbance regime.” Transitional between forest and grassland, savannas require intermediate levels of disturbance – too many fires and the trees can’t regenerate, too few and the forest takes over. In fact, evidence indicates that the Central Great Plains are a relatively recent phenomena resulting from excessive burning of former savanna (Axelrod 1985). Specific aspects of appropriate disturbance regimes for savanna maintenance are dependant on complex local topographic, vegetation, season, and climate conditions. Springtime fire may be deadly to a hillside covered in scraggly oak seedlings following a decade of drought, but critical for oak survival in competition with mesic species following a wet decade. While lightning may have been the ignition source in the arid early Holocene, humans have been the fire-starters for at least the last 5,000 years of a humid Midwestern climate where rains generally accompany lightning storms (Sauer 1975; Stewart 2002).

There are hundreds of documented reasons Aborigines fired the landscape (Pyne 1982; Williams 2001; Stewart 2002). In his exhaustive review, Williams (2001) condenses these into eleven inclusive purposes: hunting, crop management, improving growth and yields, fireproofing areas especially around settlements, insect collection, pest management, warfare and signaling, economic extortion, clearing areas for travel, felling trees, and clearing riparian areas. Obviously, there were many reasons that different Indigenous peoples utilized fire for different purposes under different environmental constraints. But like other aspects of their lives, there may have been motivations other than strictly utilitarian. Anthropologist and prominent fire scholar Henry Lewis (1989: 16) relates that “habitats that are overgrown and susceptible to conflagrations are considered to be ‘dirty’ or ‘wild places’ where people have neglected or foresaken their responsibilities to take care of them.” Regardless of the extent of their feeling of responsibility toward the land, Native peoples extensively utilized fire with significant ecological impacts.

These anthropogenic disturbance regimes shaped the evolution and development (Anderson 2002) of the Midwestern Holocene savanna ecosystem. Pyne (1982, 79) observes that “so extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah.” Williams (2001: 2-3) concludes that the overall purpose of burning was to “promote a diversity of habitats…which gave the Indians greater security and stability to their lives.” Intermediate disturbances are generally known by ecologists to promote high levels of species diversity (Paine 1969; Grime 1973).

Not only did these anthropogenic fire regimes promote the diversity we now associate with pre-settlement ecosystems, but also its productivity. Firing promotes the growth of many fruits such as cherry, plum, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, crabapple, and hazelnut attractive to humans and the animals they hunted (Brown 1991; Curtis 1959). The grasses and herbs that grow following fire are more nutritious and attractive to grazers such as deer and elk. And because these animals also consume acorns and nuts in the fall, savannas could support much higher large mammal populations than either forest or grassland. Abram and Nowaki (2008: 1124) speculate that, “the conscious use of fire by Midwest Indians to create grazing habitat and partially control large herbivores probably represents the most extensive form of prehistoric management anywhere in the USA.” While there is little doubt as to the the effects of such widespread burning, hunting, gathering, and horticultural activities also played a role in shaping savanna ecosystems.

Hunting, Gathering, and Horticulture

From Clovis to post-contact, hunting remained an important aspect of Aboriginal lifeways. Throughout the Holocene, a diversity of animal species were hunted. In their review of archaeological sites across Southwest Wisconsin, Theler and Boszhardt (2003) identify 43 mammal, 51 bird, 34 fish, 22 reptile, amphibian and crayfish, and 39 freshwater mussel species associated with Archaic, Woodland, and Oneota contexts. Nearly two hundred animal species were hunted, fished, gathered, and utilized as food and/or materials. These species reflect the diversity and productivity of Midwestern Holocene savannas. The most frequently hunted and important food and material source was the white-tailed deer.

Deer remains were the most abundant in all of the archaeological contexts reviewed by Theler and Boszhardt (2003). These animals were obviously both abundant and heavily utilized. Given increasing human population densities throughout the Holocene, and the skills of Native hunters, it may seem as though some sort of conservation measures must have been practiced in order to maintain sustained ungulate populations. The opposite, however, may have been the case. In his review of archaeological and ethnographic evidence, Kay (1994) shows evidence that hunters followed strategies opposite to those considered necessary to population conservation including the preferential killing of prime-aged and female individuals. Neumann (2002) conclude that Natives in the East and Midwest hunted as “non-prudent” predators, selecting young fawns and females in spring. This is exactly the hunting strategy which most reduces prey fecundity. These hunting strategies might help explain the extent to which Native populations shifted their settlements across the landscape.  Perhaps local over-hunting of deer followed by human abandonment allowed for local deer population recovery. This would facilitate regionally sustainable meta-populations of deer, and allow for cyclical settlement patterns. Over-hunting of local game populations coupled with declining fertility of agricultural fields over time, likely dictated village relocation schedules (Krech 1999).

Oscillating numbers of ungulates would have had varying effects on vegetation growth and structure. Deer are generalist browsers known to impact the population and community dynamics of herbaceous and woody vegetation. Deer browse woody saplings, especially those of oak species, meaning that sufficient deer densities prohibit oak regeneration (Waller and Alverson 1997). Widespread ungulate hunting may then have assisted in the continuing regenerative capacity of savanna oaks. Deer also consume the acorns and nuts of the mast-bearing savanna trees, putting them into direct competition with humans for a critical resource.

One of the most important resources for Archaic, Woodland, and even post-contact tribes, were the nuts from oak, hickory, and walnut trees. Not only were these rich in carbohydrates and fatty acids, but were plentiful in Eastern and Midwestern woodlands and savannas (McShea and Healy 2003). Behavioral strategies and processing technologies such as stone-grinding tools were developed in the Archaic to exploit this abundant, nutritious, and geographically extensive resource (Moore and Dekle 2010). In the southern Midwest, increased availability of deer and mast during the early Holocene transition from mesic forest to open savanna led to a shift from Archaic hunter-gatherer-forager to collector settlement strategies (Strafford et al. 2000).

Open-grown nut-bearing trees experiencing full sunlight are much more productive than their forested counterparts. Selective cutting to open up around hickory trees can increase nut production by as much as 500% within a decade (Munson 1986). It has been suggested that Native peoples intentionally managed nut-tree stands as early as the Archaic (Moore and Dekle 2010) by thinning undesirable vegetation and cutting individual trees maintaining groves of regularly-spaced trees (Asch 1994; Bonnicksen 2000; Delcourt and Delcourt 2004; Abrams and Nowacki 2008). These behaviors would have not only maximized nut production on the savanna, but would also impact plant and animal community dynamics.

Thinning and clearing vegetation represents a direct manipulation of plant community dynamics, favoring some individuals and species over others. Doing so in order to maintain productive groves would have changed light intensities on the ground, one of the main drivers of savanna understory vegetation dynamics (Leach and Givnish 1999). Perhaps even more ecologically consequential is the indirect impacts of increased stand productivity. Increased productivity of nut trees would not only provide increased resources for people, but for many other animals such as deer, elk, turkey, squirrels, and raccoons. Each of these were preferentially hunted, perhaps because of their direct competition for such a valuable resource, leading to what Neumann (2002) describes as a “mast competitive network” with humans regulating the network as keystone species. Savannas thus furnished valuable resources to its human inhabitants directly through nut production, and indirectly by supporting many other animals important to indigenous diets. Besides nut trees, Indigenous Americans harvested and utilized many other plant species for food, fiber, medicine, dyes, and ceremonial purposes.

Because of rapid decomposition of organic material in the humid Midwest, there is little archaeological evidence of prehistoric uses of plants in America. There have been many ethnobotanical studies, however, which demonstrate some of the plants and their uses. One of the most rich and comprehensive ethnobotanic records from the Upper Midwest can be found in the work of Huron Smith among the Ho-Chunk of Wisconsin (Kindscher and Hurlburt 1998). Smith cataloged nearly 150 plant species and their uses. While many of these were specialty plants cultivated in garden plots, many were harvested in the wild. Harvesting wild-grown plants obviously impacts their population and community dynamics. It is easy to imagine the excessive harvesting of certain desirable species leading to their local extinction. It seems as though some Natives had a very different outlook.

Pomo Indians of California insist that harvesting by humans enhances the growth of those species. One of their elders, Mabel McKay explains, “When people don’t use the plants, they get scarce. You must use them so they will come up again” (Bonnicksen 2000: 109). The Assiniboines of the Upper Midwest used methods of harvesting prairie turnips which facilitated their growth and persistence (Bonnicksen et al. 1999). It is likely that many gathering strategies evolved for different species allowing for both the efficient harvest of desirable materials and the promotion of local populations.

Horticulture is simply the process of plant cultivation. The most obvious form of horticulture is that of direct agriculture, the first evidence of which appears 5,000 years ago when floodplain gardens growing several varieties of squash first appeared in Illinois river valleys (Asch and Asch 1985). By 3,800 years ago, intentional selection had led to noticeable difference in the size of several oily and starchy seed-producing annual floodplain species archaeologists refer to as “the Eastern Agricultural Complex” (Smith and Yarnell 2009). This complex includes bottle gourd, sunflower, marsh elder, little barley, and two varieties of chenopod. This kind of floodplain agriculture would have required the burning or clearing of forest vegetation, and would have likely lead to soil erosion (Peacock 1998). These activities continued to intensify with the culmination of floodplain farming occurring with Mississippian maize-dependant societies. Extensive maize fields are thought to have caused nearly as much erosion as historic Euro-American agricultural practices (Neumann 2002). Indigenous horticultural activities included not just the cultivation of fields and garden plots, but also the transplanting and naturalizing of desirable species into appropriate environments.

Wild rice was widely utilized by Indigenous Americans in the Upper Midwest. French fur trader Nicolas Perrot noted that the Assiniboines regularly sowed wild rice which they would harvest and store in underground caches (Blair 1911). The former abundance of wild rice in Southern Wisconsin lakes (Brown 1927), outside of its normal range further North, is further evidence of intentional seeding and cultivation. Another heavily utilized aquatic plant was American lotus, which produces edible tubers and seeds. Its presence in the Upper Midwest is also thought to be due to Indian propagation, perhaps near villages (Curtis 1959; Brown 1991). In New England, Iroquois are thought to have transplanted and cultivated several food and medicinal species including groundnut and leek (Day 1952). There is also evidence that Aborigines planted trees.

Some early settlers remarked that Indians planted acorns (Neumann 2002). Dorney and Dorney (1989) describe a curious stand of white oak near a historic Indian village around present day Green Bay, Wisconsin. The area is surrounded by mixed conifer-hardwood forest with no other populations of oaks nearby. The authors conclude that Indian planting was responsible for the presence of the oaks. Day (1952) reports that Chestnut are found associated with Indian village sites in Ontario and are thought to have been planted. The Iroquois are thought to have planted Canada Plum and Kentucky Coffeetree due to their association with village sites. Not only were Indians likely planting desirable trees, but they were also likely intentionally selecting seeds from trees with particularly desirable traits (Martinez 1993). Aboriginal activities thus promoted the abundance and distribution of desirable fruit and nut-bearing trees. As Abrams and Nowacki (2008: 1134) suggest,

Native Americans profoundly impacted the distribution and importance of mast and fruit trees and tallgrass prairie as a primary food source through both active and passive means, and that they ubiquitously impacted these vegetation types at the regional and biome levels (not only at the local level).

These authors conclude that the massive oak and hickory savannas and forests of the Eastern U.S. were a result of Native American planting, cultivation, and burning.


The savanna ecosystems of Midwestern North America encountered by Euro-American settlers were the result of nearly 10,000 years of evolution through the Holocene with humans as keystone species. Through their burning, hunting, gathering, and horticultural activities, Indigenous Americans transformed much of North America into diverse, functional, and productive savanna ecosystems. These ecosystems were ideal for human habitation, supporting diverse and abundant plants and animals for food, fiber, fuel, medicine, and materials. They also provided myriad ecosystem services such as water purification, groundwater recharge, and carbon sequestration. The subsequent demise of these savanna ecosystems were thus just as much a result of Indian depopulation and forced removal, as any direct Euro-American actions on the land. Even the areas neglected by settlers transitioned from savanna to closed forest.

The oak savannas have since disappeared (Leech and Ross 1995). In their place are monocultured fields, mesic forests, and urban sprawl. None of these provide the diversity and ecological functionality of the former savannas. Our croplands provide food, but only at an immense cost to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. We continue producing immense quantities of corn because of the machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides afforded by fossil fuels. We have substituted fossil fuels for functional ecosystems as the source of our food. And as these fuels and their derivatives become more scarce and expensive, our industrial agricultural and food system becomes increasingly vulnerable. When the oil runs out, functional ecosystems will be necessary for human survival (Hobbs and Harris 2001). In order to learn how to restore our degraded ecosystems to support human existence, it will be critical to understand how former ecosystems functioned.

The ecosystems of the Midwest that developed since the glaciers melted can not be understood without explicit consideration of the role humans played in their evolution. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from these ecosystems and the people that inhabited them is not in their specific management practices, although there is certainly much to learn. Instead, I believe an important lesson is that we, too, are keystone species, living in and off of the ecosystems around us. Our Western worldview of humans as separate from nature along with the complexity of our modern society means that we mostly do not see the impacts of our behaviour on these ecosystems. But those impacts are real nevertheless. We are a part of and shape the ecosystems around us, whether we acknowledge it or not. By acknowledging this, we are thus empowered to envision the way we would like to see those ecosystems take form and the roles we will need to play in their development. Author and poet N. Scott Momaday (1970: 53) writes,

I am interested in the way that a man looks at a given landscape and takes possession of it in his blood and brain…We Americans need now more than ever before – and indeed more than we know – to imagine who and what we are in respect to the earth and sky. I am talking about an act of the imagination essentially, and the concept of an American land ethic.

In the Midwest, we have the climate, soils, and hydrology capable of supporting functional ecosystems with remarkable diversity and productivity. But nature alone will not supply such abundance. We have to acknowledge and take responsibility of our role as keystones and engage in the process of imagining and shaping our world.


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In the Tool Shed

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the toolshed

Our lives have changed a lot since moving out to the farm. We went from living in a large 3 bedroom apartment on Orton Park in Madison, to living in a tent through the summer, and now living in a tiny off-grid cabin, which we affectionately refer to as “the tool shed.”

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fun with drywall

The tool shed is a small shack built a few years ago by a former farm intern. We’ve spent the last few months renovating, adding windows, finishing drywall, painting, and building all sorts of shelving, benches, bars, hangers, and hooks. We had to condense our former kitchen, living room, dining room, office, bedroom, and closet into one small room.

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new windows

Now we’re done. It’s well insulated, and the small wood stove keeps us nice and toasty. Candles give us light at night. We’ve got room to store our essentials, and space to eat, lounge, and stretch. I have shelves for my book and a desk where I can write my dissertation.

We’re loving each and every one of the 150 square feet in our lovely little toolshed.

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the office
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library, bar, and dining room
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kitchen and pantry
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living room
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Chaotic Urban Garden and Spontaneous Squash

This summer we decided to turn the lawn of Preston’s house into a vegetable and flower garden. As we were building the raised bed, several of our neighbors stopped by to question what we were doing. When we explained, we got some weird looks. One neighbor even yelled “Everyone knows raised beds don’t work!” Well, we didn’t let that stop us from trying.

We cut back the sprawling cedar bushes and built raised beds out of scrap lumber and some limbs from a bur oak tree cut down in Orton Park last fall. We ripped up and turned over the sod, placed the frames on top, and filled in with top soil. We used some seedlings that we were growing for our larger community garden plot. Instead of doing rows of single species, we decided to plant a little bit of everything.

So we planted several heirloom tomato varieties, several different peppers, eggplant, ground cherry, garden huckleberry, okra, kale, swiss chard,  basil, oregano, thyme, chamomile, nasturtiums, borage, and snailflower, with marigold all around the borders to keep the bunnies at bay. We organized it all to maximize sun capture with the tallest plants in the middle and back and the shortest on the sunniest front sides. For a boost, we gave every plant a handfull of rich vermicompost from our worm bin.  For tomato stakes, we stripped the bark off the cut cedar limbs. Along the house and on the side we planted hazelnut shrubs, saskatoons, raspberries, lemon balm, and tobacco.

In the terrace in front of the sidewalk, we ripped up the grass and planted prairie plants, huckleberry, and sunflowers. With all these flowers came lots of insects. Honeybees, bumble bees, native mason bees, moths, and butterflies. We even had some dragonflies visit from time to time.

Despite its chaotic appearance, the garden was amazingly productive. The tomatoes, especially the sungolds,  kept producing copiously till the end of September. They had even crept out of the raised bed and eventually took over another square meter or so of lawn. Our house was supplied with herbs, veggies, and herbal teas all summer. We had given up on our okra, which had disappeared underneath the sprawling tomatoes until one day in late July it exploded up and produced gigantic fruit. So big, that it ended up falling over under its own weight.

The most impressively productive plant in the whole garden, however, was the butternut squash. It ended up taking over the entire rest of the lawn. Every 5 feet or so, it would put down more roots, and send out more flowering and fruiting shoots. This one individual plant ended up producing over 100 lbs. of squash! And the craziest part is that we didn’t even plant it. The squash seed must have come from our worm compost. I was worried that it would end up being some weird hybrid with inedible fruits, but they turned out to be delicious butternuts. Another crazy thing about the mondo squash plant that took over our yard, is that it shaded the grass and kept it moist and lush all summer long, when it otherwise would have dried up in the drought. Thank’s spontaneous squash!

The funnest part about the garden was sitting inside and watching people’s reaction when they’d walk by. Some would give weird looks and walk away. Others would stop and stare in disbelief. One guy was walking with his girlfriend and they stopped to check it out. They were figuring out what all the different plants were, and were particularly impressed with the squash. The guy said, “wow, everyone should be doing this.” Then he said it again. Then he literally shouted, “everyone should be doing this!!” We agree – and hope the neighbors could hear.

Objectivity in the Anthropocene

Bill Cronon and Don Waller
Bill Cronon and Don Waller

Last week an event was held on campus called Conservation in the Anthropocene where Bill Cronon and Don Waller revisited the wilderness debate their mid-90’s manuscripts The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, and Getting Back to the Right Nature, respectively, helped kindle.

Bill argued vociferously for the importance of recognizing the extent to which we are a all a part of nature (look in your refrigerator!); that our pretentions of separation lie at the root of the environmental crisis. He provided historical context, describing the depth of this perceived separation in Western thought. Don argued the importance of large-scale conservation for the protection of species diversity in a changing world. He stressed that we need more objective science in order to predict and manage habitats and ecosystems to protect and maintain biodiversity.

Then a paradox jumped out at me. Objectivity requires that the observer be removed from the system of observation, achieving a god-like, detached and unbiased perspective.  Isn’t this myth of objectivity then, itself a direct extension of the perceived separation from nature so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche?

The purpose of objectivity is to achieve prediction. In simple systems, when we are far enough removed, we get away with the myth. We can predict outcomes when there are a few moving parts inside a closed and stable system. This works well in physics and chemistry, but not ecology.

And we’re talking about ecology in the Anthropocene. There are no “natural” ecosystems left. Humans are a driving force of nature and, as ecologists, we have to account and take responsibility for that. We are integrally embedded in the Earth’s complex ecosystems we need functioning to survive. What role does prediction play when confronted with uncertainty in the understanding necessary for its maintenance?

The world is changing fast and, from our perspective, uncertainty is growing just as fast. Our climate is changing and species are moving around all over the place. We’re in the midst of what ecologists call “no-analog” or “novel” ecosystems. The current configurations of plants and animals all around us have no historical precedent. In this context, how does science make predictions? How does it inform land management and public policy? How can we conserve species diversity when our food requires the destruction of all their habitats? Aren’t these value-laden questions? Can we really “objectively” study conservation when conservation itself is a concept ripe with (often conflicting) values?

We need historians like Bill reminding us of historical patterns and contexts surrounding the difficult decisions we face today. We also desperately need scientists and conservationists like Don, studying ecosystem processes and the effects of humans on the landscape.  Science is obviously of great utility. But what kind of science? A science that acknowledges our deep connectedness and relatedness, requiring direct participation in and accountability to our systems of observation? Or one that requires our pretended unbiased separation from our systems of observation?

Since the enlightenment, we’ve been able to get away with pretending otherwise, but not anymore. Now we are not only embedded, but in our current form, we are destroying the ecosystems we will need to persist. From Gaia’s perspective, we’ve gone malignant. Full exploitation of tar sands (for oil for cheap food) is stage 5. From our perspective, there’s no reason to worry as long as we have cheap food. But how long can that last?

The Anthropocene concept seems to be challenging modern science’s most prized possessions – objectivity. We need an ecology that can restore the functioning of our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in ways that support humanity’s sustainable (and joyous) existence (requiring services provided by the persistence of all Earth’s species!). Leopold said that “The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.” I would argue almost the inverse: “the science of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the art of land health is yet to be born.” Objective science on the land has given us a very predictable and productive industrial agricultural system. Land health will require science too, of course.  But if we put the myth of objectivity to rest, how does that science function? What are its methods? Might it look more like art?

Ecologists have gotta figure this out soon (from my subjective perpective). As if our grandchildren’s futures depended on it.

What is an Ecosystem Worth?

There’s an entire scientific field of inquiry which has emerged to answer this question. Ecological Economics. They have a journal, an annual conference, and slews of papers regarding methodologies, technologies, and strategies for valuating ecosystems and the services they provide. What is desired is the ability to put a dollar value on ecosystems, so that conservation budgets can be established, or so they can be compared to the values of potential developments. In this way, ecological economists seek to put a price tag on nature, either to justify it’s conservation in the face of development, or, justify its development if the conservation value is not high enough. Often, this evaluation is determined by asking people how much they’d be willing to pay to preserve it. How much would you be willing to pay to preserve the Amazon?

The most famous ecological economics paper was written by a team of scientists let by Robert Costanza, then at the University of Maryland. This paper set the value of all of Earth’s ecosystems at $33 trillion/year. Whoa,  that’s a lot!

But is there a problem with reducing Nature’s value into dollars? What are dollars? What other dimensions of value are worth evaluating in ecosystems?

Hmm, these are hard question. Let’s look at something a little smaller; a little easier to grasp. How about an acorn.

What’s an acorn worth?

bur oak acorns

Probably nothing. Oak trees produce acorns in abundance every year. No one really ever uses them. Squirrels eat them and tuck them away underground, but certainly no where near all of them. Deer fatten on them in the fall, but it’s not like they don’t have enough corn around to eat anyway. Anyone can walk outside any fall day and pick one up off the ground for free. But why would you want to do that? Although nutritious, tannins make them bitter. Leaching the tannins out of them is possible, but any rational cost-benefit analysis makes this practice not worth the effort. Yes, from any rational utilitarian perspective, the value of a single acorn is zero.

But let’s look at that acorn from another perspective. That acorn has the potential to

grow into an oak tree. If it’s lucky, or well-cared for, that tree may live 500 years. Each day of its life it will draw water from the ground and transpire it into the atmosphere, cooling the earth around it and creating a micro-climate desirable for grazing animals, humans, and certain plant communities. It will produce millions of acorns which will help feed hundreds or thousands of squirrels, deer, and turkey. A few of these acorns are likely to germinate and establish as trees themselves, providing all those services throughout their lives. As generations continue, these trees will have the capacity to adapt their DNA to changing environmental conditions. Who knows what their progeny will look like 5 million years from now. Regardless of their appearance, however, they are likely to still be feeding and providing services to surrounding plants and animals as they have continued to do throughout their 20 million year evolutionary history.

From this perspective, the value of one acorn is essentially infinite. It has infinite generative and adaptive capacity. Hmm, this is quite different from a value of zero.

So if the value of an acorn is infinite, how much more valuable is a functioning ecosystem as a context in which acorns can grow into oaks feeding animals, transpiring, reproducing, and evolving. What is the value to us, as humans, to be able to eat food produced in ecosystems functioning on their own, running on real-time solar energy, without fossil fuels, pesticides, or fertilizers? How much would you pay for that?

Infinity +1?

Is money the best way to try to value ecosystems? To value nature? To value life?

What do we hope to accomplish by putting a finite price tag on an infinitely-valuable ecosystem? Are we simply justifying and expediting its exploitation and destruction?

Martin Buber on existentialism, fulfillment, and becoming native

If we had power over the ends of the earth, it would not give us the fulfillment of existence which a quiet devoted relationship to nearby life can give us.  If we knew the secrets of the upper world, they would not allow us so much actual participation in true existence as we can achieve by performing, with holy intent, a task belonging to our daily duties. 
The people we live with or meet with, the animals that help us with our farm work, the soil we till, the materials we shape, the tools we use, they all contain a mysterious spiritual substance which depends on us for helping it toward its pure form, its perfection.  If we neglect this spiritual substance sent across our paths, if we think only in terms of momentary purposes, without developing a genuine relationship to the beings and things in whose life we ought to take part, as they in ours, then we shall ourselves be debarred from true, fulfilled existence.
The highest  culture of the soul remains basically arid and barren unless, day by day, waters of life pour fourth into the soul from those little encounters to which we give their due; the most formidable power is intrinsically powerlessness unless it maintains a secret covenant with these contacts, both humble and helpful, with strange, and yet near, being.
excerpts from “The Way of Man”, by Martin Buber, Citadell Press, New York, 1964.
Thanks for sharing, Mom!


What Kind of Nature Are You Trying to Preserve?

“He who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than a tree. He owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theatre of evolution.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Greetings. You know me as Quercus macrocarpa, or bur oak, although the people that once gathered my fruits and nurtured my young here called me piksi. We were once the most common tree of this region and the backbone of ecosystems that supported many kinds of plants, animals, insects, fungus, and bacteria. My fruits once nourished deer, elk, turkeys, passenger pigeons, prairie chickens, and people. Everything is different now. A single family of squirrels are the only recipients of my bounty. The people that live here no longer eat my fruits, tend my branches, or maintain a landscape in which I or the kind of plants and animals I support can thrive. You see, we oaks love sunshine. We can not grow or reproduce in the shade. Look around. Sunlight no longer reaches the ground.

Notice my fractal geometry, perfectly evolved to capture sunlight. Feel these scars on my trunck where my limbs once spread out into the surroundings, turning the sunlight into food, and sending water from the earth back to the sky, cooling the ground below.  I am dying.  Maple, ash, locust and buckthorn have crowded me in. Without sunshine, my once-strong limbs have withered and fallen. The cool breeze from the lake no longer blows through, and the stifling humidity of the summer stresses my vascular system making it difficult for me to breath. These leaves sprouting from my trunk are my last gasp for sunlight. Since my seed has found no sunshine, I am the last of my kind here. What kind of nature are you trying to preserve?

Sustainability Narrative Narrative

This semester I’m TAing a class in Integrated Liberal Studies called Contemporary Life Science. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. The other TA @jellencollins and I came up with a sustainability narrative assignment which our students recently completed. They had to interview four people including one professor, trying to get a diversity of perspectives. They had to ask their interviewees several tough questions including “What is sustainability? Are we sustainable now?  If not, can we transition to a sustainable society, and how? What can we as individuals do about it?”

Students were then required to analyze the responses they fielded, looking at similarities and differences and underlying themes. Then they had to write their own response to the questions. In class this week we had discussions about their interviews, and their own opinions. These were the most exciting and engaging discussions we’ve had all semester. Several major themes emerged from these discussions, so I decided to write my own meta-analysis based on their responses and our discussions along with my own response. I posted it on our course website, but decided to repost it here. Because it all comes back to that one nagging question. How do we live here?

what is sustainability? 

The most common responses revolved around perpetuating a certain way of living indefinitely. Notions of balance and equilibrium.  Not consuming more resources than the earth can generate. But when asked what are we trying to sustain, there seems to be a glaring paradox. We are mostly saying that we want to sustain our current way of life, which we all agree is unsustainable. Hmm…

One of the most often mentioned obstacles to achieving sustainability was overpopulation. There are just too many people on the planet. But the problem isn’t really that there are too many people, but that all those people are really poor and want to have our level of resource usage and material comfort. Earth just doesn’t have enough resources for everyone to enjoy our level of consumption. Sorry southern hemisphere.

So with 7 billion on the planet today, it’s obvious we can’t sustain our current standard of living. So then we must sacrifice material consumption for the benefit of human kind and the rest of the planet, right? But using concepts like “sacrifice,” simply reifies the desirability of our current way of living. But are we really happy with the way we live?  I mean, McDonalds and Wal-mart are open 24/7 selling loads of food and stuff. But does convenient and cheap equal satisfying and fulfilling? Several folks pointed out that often the most successful people, making the most money, consuming the most resources, are often the least happy. But yet we still all want to make more money, consume more stuff. What’s wrong with this picture?

Human nature, you say. We’re social animals evolved in hierarchically organized societies where the ones with the most wealth were the most successful – reproductively and socially. The caveman with the most meat gets the most cavewomen. The scientist published in Nature gets the most respect from other scientists. We’ve all experienced these instincts. We want to fit in, we want people to like us, we want more stuff. If I just get the new igadget, people will think I’m super cool and want to hang out with me. But often when we get that stuff, we realize we still aren’t happy. There’s a moment of panic. “I thought this would make me happy, but I still feel lonely and empty.” This moment is usually fleeting though, because it’s painful.  And  so we usually push it away and forget all about it. We quickly figure out the next thing that we really need to be happy. And of course, this isn’t always something material. “If only she liked me!” Usually these “if only ___” qualifiers to happiness are things/events/relationships that stroke our ego. Make us feel liked, special, and important. But it seems like our egos are pretty insatiable. Even after the temporary ego rush – getting compliments on your new clothes, making the crowd laugh with your funny joke, getting that new iphone – we still want more. More clothes, more laughs, more gadgets.  Do you see the positive feedback here?

So we gotta make money to buy more stuff, so we gotta work in jobs we probably don’t like. And we’re stressed out and overworked, and we don’t have time to think about being sustainable. Even if we want to. We gotta get to work. I don’t have time to cook breakfast today, give me that McMuffin. Why do I have a stomach ache?

Are we happy?

My definition: Sustainability is a word without a clearcut meaning. It means different things to different people. It can’t be reduced to one single meaning. And I think that is exactly why the word is so powerful. It inspires us to imagine better ways of living our lives, organizing our societies, and relating to the environment. To me, sustainability means living within your local ecosystem, coevolving with the other plants, animals, insects, fungi, and bacteria, in a way that perpetuates the functioning of the whole biotic system.

are we sustainable now?

Nope. We have no connection to our local ecosystem. Our food comes from all over the globe. We do not and can not see the social and ecological ramifications of our decisions. We can’t see the slave laborers with third-degree burns on their arms from spraying pesticides on our bananas. We don’t see the families displaced from their traditional homelands and forced into the slums, sold out by their governments to multi-national agribusiness. We don’t see the dead fish, birds, insects, in our farm fields and polluted waterways. Except in Madison, where we can smell the dead fish even if we can’t see them. The point is, that as long as people do not and can not see the social and ecological consequences of their behavior, how can we expect anyone to change?

The reason consequences are so difficult to see is that we live in such a complex, global economy. And of course there are some benefits of living in such an economy. Computers and the internet are powerful technologies that have the capacity to unite and catalyze change. So I’m not talking about going back to the stone age. But computers represent a small percentage of the stuff we consume. Top on the list, in terms of volume, is food. There is absolutely no excuse for globalized food systems. We humans are pretty clever, and have figured out how to grow most things in most places. And we absolutely should. This is the biggest step toward connecting with your local ecosystem. Eat food from it, so you know where it came from and how it was grown. Better yet, grow it yourself. Then you can be sure. But food isn’t the only thing. Clothes, furniture, jewelry. How much more would you appreciate these things if you knew not only the materials and where they came from, but also the person who crafted them. We’ve lost crafts. Makers of fine items who take pride in their work and see their craft not just as the production of stuff, but also the creation of art. We’ve sold them out, so we can get more stuff for less at Wal-mart. But at what cost?

can our society become sustainable? how?

Yes! Theoretically, we could become vastly more sustainable in a very rapid amount of time. Unfortunately, we have built ourselves into urban and rural environments which will make the transition difficult. We don’t really know how to do much without lots of oil. And we all know that oil won’t last forever. I think we need to start large construction projects all over the world, taking the last of our oil, and using it to create infrastructure that doesn’t require it. I could go on and on about ways I’d do that, but use your imagination. We also need to start growing food all around us. And in that process, reconnect with our local ecologies. We need to be not just buying seeds to plant, but saving them and planting our own. In this way we consciously interact and coevolve with the species that we depend on. There are lots and lots of things to do, but I think you get the point.

what can we as individuals do about it?

I think the most significant thing we can do is to find ways of being genuinely happy. Ways to live materially, socially, and spiritually fulfilling lives. Thats it. Nothing to do directly with resources or population. Nothing to do with sacrifice. Actually, it’s quite the opposite of sacrifice. Living a fulfilling life is all about finding ways to create and appreciate value in the world around you. But we have to be honest with ourselves. Just buying more stuff won’t cut it. Overconsumption is a sign of a lack of happiness. Contant egostroking won’t fulfill us. We need to find fulfillment not just in our own satisfaction, but in the well-being of the whole planet. Because we’re all in this together. You and me, peasants in Afganistan, the birds, the bees, the fungus under the trees. Realizing our interconnectedness allows us to connect with our true ego; not separate from nature but integral.

To me, happiness comes from being able to appreciate the beauty and perfection of life. I can’t appreciate this beauty with a TV dinner. But watch me eat a dinner of garden veggies in homemade pesto. Or sitting and watching bumblebees pollinating rosebushes. Or engaged in a philosophical conversation with friends. These are the moments that make life worth living. And they can’t be bought. Only created and enjoyed – by us.

We need to create value in the world around us, and its up to us to define that value. And it probably won’t be defined in dollars. Unfortunately, that means that for now, it’s difficult to make a living creating real value in the world around us. I want to make a living restoring degraded ecosystems so that they are not only healthy, but provide material goods and services to people. Right now we only define value in terms of dollars, and we don’t put dollar values on ecosystem services, so I can’t make a living creating this kind of value. For now. But I’m working on it.

What do you value? Now go create it! And help bring about a world where we can all thrive by creating real value as we define it, not just in dollars. Because I don’t think dollars will be worth much for long. But that’s another story.

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Bringing Balanoculture Back (or how to eat an acorn)

napping under bear mound oaks
napping under bear mound oaks

I was sitting under a giant bur oak tree on the bear mound hill in the Vilas neighborhood. I had been dozing for a while when the tree started laughing. “What’s going on? Are you laughing at me?” I asked. Of course she was. “Crazy human! You’ve cut down most of my kind, plowed up all the grasses and flowers and poisoned the insects. You plant your own grass instead, and you turn it into food that makes you unhealthy. Why?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “My people have been clearing land and planting grasses for 10,000 years. It’s how we became civilized. How else can we feed ourselves?” I asked.

She replied, “Don’t you know that we oaks fed your kind for much of your history as a species? Look at these seeds scattered around your feet. They’re full of nutrition and easily harvested and stored. Why do you need to deforest, plow, and cultivate? There could be plenty of food for you if you help keep the land open, make sure we get plenty of sunlight, and allow us to regenerate. All my brothers and sisters have either been cut, or are now choking in a forest because the fires no longer burn to keep the land open, and they are sick because they no longer get the sun they need. Our kind will soon be gone from this place, and if you continue plowing for food, yours will be too.”

When you’re ready to listen to the trees, you gotta be ready to hear what they have to say.


“Balanocultures were among the most stable and affluent cultures the human world has ever known.”         -William Bryant Logan in Oak: the Frame of Civilization

Balanos is Greek for acorns, and balanoculture was coined in an article by David Bainbridge to describe cultures who derive significant subsistence from acorns. Bainbridge argues that prior to the granocultures that emerged with the advent of agriculture, societies in the Middle East, China, Mexico, and California, were largely dependent on acorns as a staple crop. Gathering and processing time for acorns is minimal relative to the labor required to grow annual cereal grains. He argues that the domestication of goats which prefer to browse oak seedlings, rising populations afforded by abundant acorns, and the cutting of trees for fuels, led to the demise of the great oak woodlands of the Middle East and China and the balanocultures they supported. Immediately following was the emergence of agriculture and the birth of granoculture.

sketch of California Indian harvesting acorns
sketch of California Indian harvesting acorns

In California and the Eastern United States, American Indians utilized acorns as a staple food source for at least the last 8,000 years. Here in the Midwest, Indians actively discouraged mesic forest succession, maintaining oak savanna/woodland for several thousand years as an ecological anomaly. Without their burning (and likely silvicultural) practices, oaks would have vanished from the region as modern climate patterns took hold 3,000 years ago. When the first European settlers arrive here, oak savanna was the most prevalent ecosystem in the Midwest. Nearly 90% of Southern Wisconsin was oak savanna in 1850. Today the savanna ecosystem is functionally extinct.  

Even though the Midwest has lost more than 99% of its oak savanna/woodlands, there are still plenty of good oak, hickory, and walnut trees around. We’re lucky in Madison with groves of giant white and bur oak trees common on campus and around the city, especially in parks like Orton, Olin, and Vilas.

how to eat an acorn

Acorns are abundant, and exceptionally nutritious; full of protein and fatty acids. But they don’t come free. You gotta harvest, leach, shell, and dry them before you can eat or cook with them. It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s fun, an excuse to explore new places, and the results are delicious and satisfying.

cap city trail harvest
cap city trail harvest

harvest: The best place to harvest is under open-grown trees with short-grass understory. Many oaks are in mesofied woodlands where dense brush makes harvesting difficult. Parks are a great place to start, because they often keep the grass mowed. I found this nice grassy area in a bur oak grove along the capitol city bike trail. Acorns everywhere. In less than an hour, I filled up a milk crate and my backpack.

cracking and shelling hickory nuts and acorns
cracking and shelling hickory nuts and acorns

shell: The next step is to crack the acorns and remove the nutmeat. I dumped some of the acorns and spread them out on the driveway. Then I took a large block of wood and pounded the acorns, cracking the shells. Any large blunt object, like a stone, would work. With the right amount of force, you can crack the shells without pulverizing the meat. Then, I went through by hand, separating the meat from the shells. I read that some Indians would dump pulverized nutmeat and shell into a pot of hot water and the shells float while the meat sinks. Brilliant.

makeshift river
makeshift river

leach:  All acorns have tannins. But members of the white oak tribe (white oak, bur oak, swamp white oak, chestnut oak, many more in California) have fewer tannins than members of the red oak tribe (red oak, black oak, etc.) Tannins are plant defense compounds which are bitter and cause sickness if eaten in sufficient quantities. So acorns need to be leached; white oak much less than red. Indians would often place baskets of acorns in rivers or streams. Flowing water quickly removes tannins. As skeptical as I am of our tap water, I trust it a bit more than the Yahara River. So I chopped up the nuts in a food processor, and placed the grounds into a pot with water. Chopping increases the surface area in contact with water. Swirl the grounds a bit and the water turns brown. These are the tannins. I stirred, drained off the brown water, and replaced with fresh water several times a day. By the 4th day or so the water stayed clear and the tannins were gone. You could leach in several hours by boiling them and continuously changing the water. But this would be water and energy intensive, and you’d probably lose some of the good oils in the process.

dried chopped acorns
dried chopped acorns

dry: Next you have to completely dry out the grounds. If you don’t, they’ll get rubbery and eventually mold (learned that the hard way). Drain the water from the pot, and spread the wet chopped meat somewhere to dry. I used a baking stone in the oven for a day or two. Placing them on a screen outside would work well, too, just watch out for squirrels. Once dry, they’ll store for a long time.

balano chocolate chip cookies
balano chocolate chip cookies

eat: Acorns are great on their own. A little sweet and a little nutty. Roasting on a fire or in the oven is also great. I’ve been using them in granola, chocolate chip cookies, and pie crusts. They add subtle nuttiness and substantial hardiness. Grind finely and they’re a great flour substitute in most baked goods. Coming up next is acorn flatbread.

viva la balano!


Bainbridge, David. 1985. The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective. Ambio 14(3): 148-151.

Logan, William Bryant. Oak: The Frame of Civilization. W.W. Norton, New York: 2005.

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Inedible Edibles: Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter

highbush cranberry viburnum along the Yahara River
highbush cranberry viburnum along the Yahara River

Highbush cranberry isn’t a cranberry at all. It’s a viburnum – a native understory shrub – and is prolific both in urban and natural areas. These are just now ripening around Madison, and so I grabbed one to eat on a recent walk with Tehya.

I immediately spit it out. Way too tart. Even fully ripe. Not bitter so much, just really, really tart. But these shrubs are everywhere, and they produce copiously, so I wasn’t ready to give up.

Tehya heading out for a swim
capital city trail apples

Despite their seeming inedibleness, I gathered a quart or so of ripe berries off shrubs lining the Yahara River. I had just gotten back from a bike ride on the Capital City trail where I had gathered several bushels of apples from my favorite neglected apple trees. So I quartered the apples and threw them in the crock pot with the cranberries, a cup or so of honey, and grated cinnamon and nutmeg. After a couple hours, I stirred the mix, mushing up the fruit. It was still pretty tart, so I added another cup of honey. After 8 hours, I mixed the mush in a strainer to remove the seeds and skins. What was left was a wonderfully sweet and tart (but not too tart) apple butter. I canned some of it and the rest I used to bake zucchini bread and on french toast. I’m sure there are many other ways to use this seemingly inedible fruit, but this one works well. The tartness can be toned down by cooking the berries in sugar or honey, and compliments well sweet fruits like apples. Next, I’m going to try cooking them down in port to make a cranberry sauce. Fall turkey season is right around the corner.


-According to Plants for a future, these fruits can cause sickness if eaten in sufficient quantities raw. That would be really difficult though; these berries are tough to eat raw.

-Look out for nightshade vines which may grow up through the shrub itself. These also produce bright red berries which are toxic.

Ripening nightshade berries alongside cranberries. Watch out!