North America’s lost abundance
Two new reviews of Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery begin by offering a picture of the North American wilderness before European settlement—rivers teaming with more salmon than water, “colonies of nesting seabirds in nearly unimaginable numbers,” and “great herds of ruminants” grazing their way across endless plains—a far cry from the American landscape that most of see today. But while the reality of this unspoiled natural habitat maybe forever lost, both reviews point out that in Paradise Found Nicholls has managed to successfully reproduce its fascinating history. With the benefit of the copious records left behind by the first European settlers, Nicholls employs both historical narrative and scientific inquiry to produce an enthralling description of just what an amazing place North America was and how it looked when the explorers first found it. But more than a celebration of what once was, as Gregory McNamee notes in the Washington Post , Nicholls’ book also serves as a potent reminder of how much we have lost along the way, and an urgent call to action for future generations. McNamee writes:
Nicholls’s book is an effort at making a blueprint of sorts, a plan by which to rebuild a house whose dimensions we can only guess at. The abundance of nature was what made American independence possible in the first place; our present poverty on so many fronts is a consequence of our maltreatment of that nature. But the knowledge of what we have done, chronicled so carefully in this lucid book, may be the first step toward recovering that squandered wealth.
And Bill McKibben writes in the Boston Globe:
This is a book worth owning, especially since our attack on abundance has happened just slowly enough that we’ve readjusted our sights (“changing baseline” is Nicholls’s phrase) with each generation, never really letting the sheer horror of it all sink in. If we had a time machine, he insists, “I’m convinced that every person alive today would be overawed by the true vitality of nature.” Books like this are as close as we’re going to get.