The historian William Cronon, nom whose book Changes in the Land these quotations are taken, concludes: Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffed grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes, and wolves. In short, Indians who hunted game animals were not just taking the ‘unplanted bounties of nature’; in an important sense, they were harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating. When later generations of European colonists began to penetrate into the Midwest of North America, they came across a very different landscape: the prairies. The endless open spaces, inhabited by large herds of buffalo, seemed to them to be primeval. However, the nature of this landscape was largely the result of the burning practices of Indian hunters, who had been systematically burning down tracts of forest in order to create more grassland for buffaloes and other herbivores. As the historian Stephen Pyne observes in his book Fire in America, ‘except for the High Plains, where the short grass expanses were more or less determined by climate, nearly all these grasslands were created by man, the product of deliberate, routine frring’.Whenever, in our own time, a piece of prairieland was left to itself instead of being subjected to regular burning and grazing, the grasses were soon overgrown by trees and the prairie spontaneously reconverted to forest.
Fire and civilization - Johan Goudsblom