The Elephantidae, the Flame and the Chainsaw - Wildfarm Release
Of all the animal kingdom, we mammals need grasses the most. From our cereal grasses, corn, wheat, oats and barley-- to the meadows and pastures that make the best butter and cheese. We swung from our arms out of trees onto grassy savannas on our feet, the birth of bipedalism.
Science tells us humans and mammoths shared the North American continent for about 6,000 years. This was the end of the Pleistocene, a period that lasted from 2 million years ago until about 11 thousand years ago, well before the advent of agriculture.
Indubitably, this was an exciting time to be alive and a time we shared with ten times the number of megafauna we have today. Salmon nine feet long, 14 species of pronghorn deer, 600 pound saber toothed cats and condors with a 16 foot wingspan, all cohabiting together in our own Serengeti. This epoch was truly a heyday for mammals, not just in North America but globally. The sheer magnitude of animal biomass dwarfed today's vast and biologically vacuous agricultural monocultures.
If you have a web device handy youtube elephant knocking over tree. Now imagine that scene repeated billions of times over millenia and you will see how the Elephantidae earned the title “kings of the savanna.” Paleo-ecologists describe how mammoths and mastodon, like their contemporary descendent, the elephant, push trees over and gorge on the tender new shoots and grasses. The result is a powerful cycle that initiates a unique ecosystem; african ecologist Norman Owen-Smith calls them the shapers of landscapes of plenty. Extending this pattern to american landscapes, these probiscideans would have created photosynthetic boom-towns for the acorn-chestnut-berry-tuber and grass polycultures where wild mammals (and their domestic proxies, pigs, goats, sheep, cows) and people could thrive.
With hooves, dung beetles and bazillions of soil microbes we mammals “plowed” trillions of tons of dung and urine into the soil. As any organic farmer knows, this is a potent recipe for a fertility that yields abundant harvests. The threat of predation by the smilodon, dire wolves and short faced bears kept ungulates - and probably us Homo sapiens - bunched together for protection which increased the tillage-like effect of hooves on soil - hat tip to Allan Savory.
Postulations of the whys and hows of the extinctions of North American Elephantidae are many and fiercely debated. But once they were gone the human response to their absence was obvious: only fire could replace the ecosystem function of our elephant king. Ask Karuk Nation members Bill Tripp or Frank Lake whose people depended on the Karuk Oak Savannas for millennia about fir encroachment. The relationship of these fire adapted, and dependent ecosystems to the pre-european peoples that lived across the americas is fascinating.
Today thousands of land managers and game wardens across the world practice prescribed burning for similar reasons. The grasses come back strongly, with adapted native species, reduced wood-load and healthy forage for wildlife. In the southwest ranchers even bulldoze and ‘ chain’ the pinon and juniper to mimic the action of fire on the landscape.
What might today’s farmers, gardeners and land managers glean from all this pleistocene ecology, especially those keen on decoupling from the fossil carbon grid? Well we can selectively harvest our woodlots for biomass to run wood gasifiers for heat, power and char production. Grazing animals on grasslands could permeate these woodlands. Herds of grazers (wild and domestic) pooping atmospherically derived carbon into and onto the soil, is a potent tool in fertility management and carbon drawdown. Soil scientists, Ratan Lal and Piet Buringh, talk about having lost somewhere between 80 and 500 billion tons of soil carbon to the atmosphere (oxidation). Imagine the return of the great herds to the earths’ billions of hectares of degraded grassland ecosystems; by some calculations we could bring atmospheric carbon down to pre-industrial levels in 40 years (Savory et al. 2015).
The chainsaw, growling icon of environmental destruction becomes a proxy for the elephant’s tusk-- helping us strike a better balance between the forest and the grassland. Ecological restoration thus becomes the key link to both food security and the maintenance of biodiversity.
In forestry there is a useful term for this process: release. The preferred trees are ‘released’ from competition for nutrients, sunlight and water. So called “ weedy trees” are removed for lumber purposes- but there could be other motives in the forest. Douglas fir trees that reach four hundred feet tall in parts of the west, can and will shade-to-death the oak savannas that provide a cornucopia of food for a tremendous array of species. The tallest oaks, by comparison, grow up to one hundred and fifty feet tall. Imagine if we were managing for the the oaks- what kind of abundance would be possible in a forest full of nuts. I wish for not only Oak release, but also Chestnut release, Hickory release, Hazel release and Pecan release.
We Homo sapiens, grass junkies that we are, cleared all but less than one percent of eastern primeval forests. In the west we are doing a bit better with four to seven percent respectively for extant old growth Redwood and Douglas Fir forests, and yet, still diminishing, as the architectural appetite for these ancient woods is fierce.
We need forests, both young and ancient, for beauty and timber as do countless species of bird, fish, insect, amphibian and other mammals. If we humans, and our non-human friends, are to survive and thrive we need stewardship that is grounded in stories of first nations as well as stories of science. We need stewards of the mosaic of forests and grasslands, polycultures, wild and domestic, for like it or not, by the undeniable impacts of our tremendous profusion, we are the new kings, we might as well be good kings.
Imagine a day when our children can walk out their back door and depending on their mood, choose to venture into a field of mixed vegetables, a food forest dripping with falling fruit, a grassland where the ancient drama of predator and prey unfolds, or an old growth forest where they might practice what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing.”
Learn to use a chainsaw, grow old growth forests, learn your grasses, study predator prey relationships, see every poop as another ½ pound of carbon moving from the sky to the soil and for the love of Pacha Mama hug a regenerative logger.