Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
by Steve Nicholls
University of Chicago Press, 524 pp., $30.00
Steve Nicholls is a wildlife film producer and through practicing his art has seen a lot more of nature than most of us ever will. Alarmed by the declines he had perceived in twenty-five years of looking at the natural world through a lens, he turned to writing to lay out a sweeping panorama of what North America has lost in the centuries since the first explorers wrote back to their European sponsors of an exuberant nature so bountiful we can no longer imagine it.
Nicholls is by no means alone in attempting to convey these concerns to a wider public. David Wilcove’s The Condor’s Shadow (1999) covered some of the same ground, as have other less finely written books. What distinguishes Paradise Found is its comprehensiveness and region-by- region approach. The result is a well- researched and readable book of twenty chapters, eighteen of which recount the history of discovery, exploitation, and, finally, exhaustion of the wildlife resources in North America. We move chronologically from the earliest discoveries along the East Coast to the extractive economies that made possible the rise of the colonies, then across the North to the Pacific, finally ending in the mid-continent prairies, the last region to be settled.
Originally from the UK, Nicholls has a Ph.D. in entomology, so he possesses a deep understanding of natural processes that serves to enrich both his filming and his writing. His message is conveyed on two levels, emotional and philosophical. The emotion is a restrained outrage at the wanton and often savage slaughter of wildlife—cod, salmon, seabirds, curlew, beaver, bison, passenger pigeons, sea turtles, oysters, seals, walrus, and on and on. One feels it viscerally. And that drives home the philosophical point that all the excess and destruction were ensured by the cast of mind of the European colonists, the conviction that God created the wealth of nature expressly for man’s benefit.
Europeans thought of themselves as separate from nature whereas Native Americans believed they were part of it. The European mindset created a willful blindness to the consequences of overexploitation and justified mind-blowing profligacies, such as squandering cartloads of salmon or passenger pigeon squabs to fatten pigs. All the while capitalism and the pull of markets provided irresistible incentives to maximize short-term profits. The combination of attitudes and markets was deadly, and continues to be, as we well know but seem powerless to correct, for the juggernaut of heedless overexploitation continues wherever untapped resources are still to be found.
I recently traveled across a small African country. Everywhere I went, foreign commercial interests were exploiting resources after signing contracts with the autocratic government. Prodigious logs, four and five feet in diameter, were coming out of the virgin forest, oil and natural gas were being exported from the coastal region, offshore fishing rights had been sold to foreign interests, and exploration for oil and minerals was underway in the interior. The exploitation of resources in North America during the five-hundred-year post-discovery era …