A scant note on abundance

Extinction is forever. The Anthropocene Extinction we are living through is much discussed, but in this discussion something gets lost as we attempt to save the last hundred or thousand members of a particular species of charismatic megafauna.

That something is the antithesis of extinction. It is the incredible abundance of animals and plants that once filled the ocean, air, land. Especially in the Americas, which half a millennium ago were saturated, ripe, with animal and plant life. But already by the middle 19th century, Henry David Thoreau could rightly ask amid the farms and woodlots of eastern Massachusetts, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” Two centuries earlier, William Wood, in his New England’s Prospect of 1633, a book Thoreau read, detailed the abundance like a catalogue of wonders Thoreau could only marvel at.

The salmon, eels, green turtles, Eskimo curlew, Carolina parakeets, and all the seals and whales, the oysters…. We remember the history of the herds of buffalo, the clouds of passenger pigeons, but these were only the beginning of that vanquished richness. (Buffalo and pigeons, btw, are thought by some to have been so numerous because the Native Americans who had hunted/managed them were decimated.)

These thoughts were conjured by Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery, a heartbreaking record of slaughter upon slaughter, echoing Peter Matthiessen’s earlier Wildlife in America (1959). Nicholls’ central point is that each generation only knows what it sees itself; this becomes a shifting baseline for comparison; the sense of abundance is lost, even incomprehensible.

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