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Sunday, January 21, 2007

CREATURES OF EMPIRE by Virginia DeJohn Anderson

The “creatures” in question are English domesticated livestock, brought to the American continent in order to replicate English lifestyles, but instead -- quite parallel to the people -- being changed by the new surroundings while alarming the indigenous American people. The animals brought new diseases in their bodies and the seeds of new plants in their dung, both with immediate impact on the indigenous lives. The colonists found it impossible to replicate English practices of herding and fencing so the animals constantly wandered off, and the Indians tried many strategies in attempts to accommodate, eliminate or finally accumulate these animals.

By now it’s almost conventional to contrast the New England colonies with their tight little communities over against the sprawling plantations of the Virginia and Chesapeake settlers who lined the riverbanks where their tobacco fields were laid out. It works well as a means of illumination and a reflection on how terrain controls customs.

The New Englanders built their houses close together, sometimes on a peninsula that could be barricaded, and pastured their animals in fields or communally on what they considered “waste” or, if there were enough space, on commons within the township. They hit upon the strategy of stranding their animals on islands where there were no predators and leaving them to cope on their own. To the minds of these uptight folks, Indians were not “using” their land and therefore should not be concerned by ownership issues. (A woman in Valier not long ago told me seriously that nineteenth century national grabs of prairie land were entirely justified by the fact that the Indians were just ignoring it. I guess she meant that they never branded their buffalo.) Ownership was a big concept for Puritans. They had the idea that if they could persuade Indians to keep cows, they would become “Christian” because they would have to keep the regular schedule that milking them demanded. Unfortunately, the Indians were lactose-intolerant and preferred to just eat the cow, which they considered a sort of deformed deer.

The Chesapeake colonists became obsessed with tobacco, so much so that livestock -- in a climate much more hospitable and among forage more suited to them -- were left to their own devices. Soon they had formed herds and “gangs” which began to devolve back to their feral forms: small, rangy, shaggy, and elusive. Tobacco and corn exhausted the soil, but instead of conserving the manure of livestock in order to restore it, the colonists imitated the Indians by using “long fallow” -- that is, simply cutting new fields out of the forest. Both the southern need for new fields and the New England need for more grazing, plus the continuing influx of people from Europe, meant that the Indians kept getting pushed back and back. Sometimes disease simply and suddenly -- if conveniently for the Europeans -- decreased the tribes by ninety per cent.

This book covers the period of animal law development that still carries over into our practices with domestic animals, though now we’re much more concerned with pets. The first “pounds” were for stray cows, horses and pigs. Pigs were the major problem of those days. They were not the little pink talking porklets that we know from the movies, but big wild savage creatures that could seriously injure if not kill old people and children. They could confront a wolf and win. The major preoccupation was who owned what -- land, animals, crops -- with the Indians not even recognizing the basic concept of “owning.” Nevertheless, their attention was focused when pigs broke into their corn fields or herds of horses trampled through their villages -- sometimes driven by vengeful whites. These were agricultural people whose women tended their fields with hoes, in contrast with the English male plowhands who used oxen to break the soil in long rows. At least they would have done that had the soil not been so stony.

In the New England communities where people lived close enough together to snoopervise each other and had the double authority of governors and churches to guide their behavior, bestiality was a problem, especially when the population was mostly young male immigrants with no partners. One unfortunate young man was convicted of molesting a sow when the community judged that her piglets looked just like him. Further south in the Chesapeake community, the pigs were too wild and mean to be trifled with and, anyway, the day’s activities were distributed out across the landscape. Anyway, they measured virtue by prosperity.

Gradually over years customs of marking animals by notching ears and painting or branding, an accumulation of fenced boundaries, and the complete rout of Indians wore practices into familiar grooves. But even today, more than three hundred years later, the issues of those early days persist, especially in terms of pets and the territoriality of homes where no agriculture exists. The marking of animals by collaring or tattooing is still controversial and incompete. Animals still go feral. People who invited the animals to be dependent in the first place fail to supply basic food and shelter, to say nothing of the guidance and encouragement that domestic animals require. Which stud bred which female is still an issue. And so on.

In an unexpected reveral of domestication, at least in Montana towns with leash laws and fenced yards, large animals have begun to re-colonize neighborhoods, notably deer and sometimes bears. The consequences are quite beyond raccoons and possoms meddling in the garbage cans. Deer and bears can inflict real damage. Coyotes have never really left cities like LA which have wilderness tracts running through them, but wolves are again preying on livestock in the way the colonists so despised and feared. Arguments inflame communities, this time between rancher and ecologist.

The great advantage of this book is that it gives us a long perspective on humans, animals, agriculture and land. Like the ground-breaking “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England” by William Cronon, this book about animals challenges us to recognize our assumptions and face our realities.

“Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America” by Virginia DeJohn Anderson. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-515860-1

1 comment:

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Hi Mary. Just wanted to say hi. I'm still reading, just not much to say. Except, this book sounds fascinating. My sister is a vet tech in Portland, OR, she'd love it.