Shifting Baselines

​When my ancestor Jacob Cleek and his mother and brothers arrived in Philadelphia in 1732, they came to English colonies that were very lightly populated anywhere inland from the coast. Jacob was seven when they got to this side of the Atlantic.

​The Rhineland they left behind was densely settled. There wasn’t much left in the way of wildlife. The wolves and bears had been killed, and the forests were mostly managed for timber and useful forest products. 

​The American colonies they arrived at were settled on the coasts but thickly forested inland. The family eventually moved down the Shenandoah Valley south from Pennsylvania, and Jacob settled in Virginia. Virginia still had thick forests, and still had wolves and cougars and turkeys and deer. A variety of fish migrated up the rivers to mountain streams to lay their eggs, including eels and shad, although it was a bit far south for Atlantic salmon. 

​Much of eastern Virginia had already been settled, the woods mostly converted to farmland and much of the land using slaves and indentured servants to grow the great crop, tobacco (cotton’s supremacy was a half century away). The predators and much of the wildlife had already been decimated, but the rivers still ran with huge runs of fish and the passenger pigeons, perhaps the most numerous bird in all of history, still darkened the sky. The woods were full of American chestnut and elms. Carolina parakeets shrieked as they raided farmer’s orchards. There might have even been a few eastern bison, west of the mountains. Numerous and dangerous Indian peoples lived just beyond the mountain crests.

​That was Virginia in Jacob’s young adulthood. That’s the nature he knew. That was his baseline, the way he remembered it all as having been. He would have spoken English with a heavy accent from his childhood in Germany

​Jacob lived a long life, lasting until 1813. During his time, mill dams on streams had begun to block the upriver migration of eels. Jacob fought in the French and Indian war, and by the time he died, the Indian menace in Virginia was broken. For his grandchildren, the danger from hostile Indians was history, not part of the way they experienced Virginia and nature. Their conceptions of nature and the way things were dated to about 1800. 

​By the time of Jacob’s grandchildren’s grandchildren, the danger of Indians had shifted more than a thousand miles west. The last wolves and cougars were killed because they preyed on livestock. The ones left were west of the Mississippi. Most of the game was gone, and the good hunting of the old days had gone. There weren’t so many passenger pigeons, and there were few eels that made it up to the tributaries to spawn. There were a million Virginians, and things like steamboats, railroads and the telegraph came into being. Their concept of the world included those steamboats, the railroads, the telegraph. Their understanding of nature in Virginia lacked the presence of wolves or cougars, and whatever bison might have once been in the east were a century gone. Their baseline was vastly different than their grandparents of 1800, and would have been almost unimaginable to Jacob.

​Two or three more generations reaches to somewhere around 1915. Their baseline no longer included eels or the passenger pigeon. Dams stopped the eels and the last lonely passenger pigeon did in a zoo in 1913. The loud and colorful Carolina parakeets were long gone. Slavery had vanished two generations before. The Wright brothers had flown, and something called radio was being developed. Several million automobiles were on the roads. Some people still plowed with mules, but tractors were replacing mules in much of the country.The million living in the English colonies in Jacob’s younger days had grown to 80 million.

​The generation of my grandparents was roughly 1900-1930. There were no more eels migrating upriver. In Virginia, there were not many deer or turkeys left, and fishing was not as good as before. Almost every family had a car and a radio, and indoor plumbing was replacing wells and outhouses in rural Virginia. The billions of chestnut trees that Jacob knew as the lords of the forests were almost completely gone, due to chestnut blight. Dutch elm disease had been discovered and was beginning to kill elms, wiping out the best shade trees in towns and cities. Barn dances and church affairs were being replaced by movies and radio shows. The world they grew up in gave them a different baseline.

​By now, what a baseline is should be obvious. It’s the view of nature that you experienced as a child and young adult, the way you will think it always was.

​Baselines shift gradually over time. Three centuries ago in the US, the Atlantic coast was still full of codfish. The rivers were full of migrating eels, shad and salmon, old growth forests dominated the landscape and wolves and cougars lent the forests an air of danger Two centuries ago the wolves and cougars were gone. A century ago there was not much old growth forest left, and few fish migrated upstream. The stately elms shading American streets and the chestnuts that fed the passenger pigeons were dying. The passenger pigeon was gone.

​Today, wolves and cougars survive in places in the West. The immense buffalo herds are gone. Most of the rivers have been tamed by dams. Invasive species have migrated here just as surely as millions of people did: rock doves (the common pigeon), dandelions, Kentucky bluegrass, starlings, nightcrawlers, English sparrows, Asian carp, Burmese pythons, green iguanas and many more.

​The baseline of young people today about nature is impoverished. It’s hard to imagine the missing and the long gone—the Carolina parakeet, the old growth forests, the sea full of cod, Atlantic salmon.

​Baselines shift. Why is that a problem?

​People tend to have little knowledge of what their fathers and grandmothers and great grandparents knew. They assume that the way it is now is the way it has always been.

Shifting baselines blind us to the past and make it difficult to get people to consider any kind of remedy to bring back endangered species, preserve what is left of old growth forests or establish fishing moratoriums to allow a fishery to recover. Shifting baselines are entirely natural. But they impoverish our understanding of our past.

Deep knowledge, every day.
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Happy Reading.

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