Americans today little appreciate how European settlement transformed the landscape of this continent. Before colonization, old-growth forests dominated the East, chestnuts and hickories and old oaks in abundance. Across the Midwest, the prairies stretched for thousands of miles. Today, the forests remain in scattered fragments or stands of young second-growth timber, recovering from logging; the prairies are all but gone.
European settlers looked on the American landscape as virgin wilderness, and set out to subdue it. They first erred, though, not in the attempt to subdue, but in their very perception of the land. Their understanding of North America as a wilderness ignored the sophisticated land management practices of Native Americans. Though Europeans perceived them as primitive hunter-gatherers, in fact Native Americans transformed the American landscape. They cultivated edible species in the Eastern forests, promoting the chestnuts that once ruled the forest. They burned the prairies to keep land open for buffalo herds. They modified waterways and caused erosion damage. Far from a virgin landscape, North America appeared as it did when Europeans arrived because of human intervention.
From my review of Charles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler, a book that shows we need not reject the human to heal the land.