unnatural history

We saw an interesting program last night on TV. Part of the “Unnatural Histories” series on BBC 4, it looked at the Amazon rainforest.

I was quite fascinated by this, as it questioned the sense of the Amazon as pristine wilderness, an iconic idea beloved of both colonialists and environmentalists for different reasons. The program looked at a great amount of evidence for the part played by ancient human communities in the shaping of this environment (the traces of which persist harmoniously to this day), while also busting the myth that the area did not support developed human civilizations.

Geometric, aligned earthworks buried beneath the forest, “black earth” amidst the characteristically and naturally leached soil of the Amazon – found to be the work of human communities, alternative models of urbanism, and a shaping of the forest ecosystem stimulated by human activity and then perpetuated by wild life. An early conquistador recorded an extensive and beautiful civilization along great stretches of the Amazon river, one which disappeared due to the devastation of introduced European infections. For centuries this was considered a fantasy, but now this looks like the real story.

This is a quite different sense of human influence upon Nature than we are used to, and a different sense of what civilization would look like, for we are so habituated to the idea that human equals either “bad” or a dominating and overpowering “good, or that the mark of civilization is the edifices it leaves behind.

What does it mean, when a great civilization can so harmonize with its environment that when it goes, we have to look so hard to see that it was even there?

It reminds me in a sense of our strange ideas of human greatness, that someone is great when they leave a mark, and a failure when they apparently don’t. Yet we are so poor at reading narratives which aren’t a drama, as if life really were a novel or a film. What if your mark is to shift life just a little in the context of your environment?  What if you are unperturbed by impermanence? Who is actually a success in our unnatural history? What do you call a complexity that we just don’t value?

But it is also a quite different sense of Nature, one not pure and endangered (or threatening and feral), but mixed, seeded with a human influence which is yet not alien, a Nature that responds, reflects and assimilates the human current.

So many delightful questions seemed to incubate in this program. Not least, a story of Nature and civilization strangely ignored at times by both sides of a polarized environmental argument, in their love affair with an Eden that had to be pristine and untouched, in order to be either exploited or protected.

By lubasi (Catedral Verde – Floresta Amazonica) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons



    • I agree Isaac, we are part of Nature, and not inherently bad, and we clearly had a different story to the present one ecologically, in places like the Amazon. I think all the indications are that we were just as inventive and ingenious then, as productive of culture, and of a different kind of culture in some respects. I don’t want to idealize things, like a “golden age” or something, but there are a lot of questions. Thanks for your comment.

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