On May 2, 1497, Giovanni Caboto (a.k.a. John Cabot) secured a ship and crew from His Majesty the King of England (even though J.C. was Italian) and set sail from Bristol England across the expanse of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. 53 days later, on June 24th, Mr. Cabot and his crew made landfall somewhere upon the wild Newfoundland coast. Being only the second European explorers to set foot in North America (the first being Viking explorers 500 years earlier), Cabot and his crew ceremoniously claimed the turf for England and, as was done in those days, the Pope.
The North American landscape of 1497 was starkly different from the one we experience today. When Cabot and his crew “discovered” North America, they wrote of nearshore waters teeming with cod that could be caught by simply dropping a bucket. Much of the landmass was blanketed in uninterrupted forest till it gave way to the Great Plains that swept from the Mississippi to the Rockies and northward into Canada.
50 million American bison grazed on ancient prairies perched upon hundreds of feet of rich, living topsoil. The great Colorado River wove its way across America, carving out the landscape and emptying into the Gulf of California in a vast 2 million acre delta estuary packed full with birds, fish and marine mammals.
In Florida, one of the world’s most productive and largest freshwater wetland ecosystems flowed like a river of grass across the peninsula before emptying into the Bay of Florida. Offshore, coral reefs teemed with life and monk seals frolicked in the balmy Caribbean water.
Everywhere, the wild continent was pregnant with life. Concrete, glass and asphalt were nonexistent. Flocks of thousands of birds blackened the skies, and venerable green giants were the only outstanding features reaching up from an uninterrupted landscape. The continent’s First People had already inhabited this land for tens of thousands of years when the first Europeans arrived.
In 1565, the Spanish settled Florida at St. Augustine. In 1607, the English settled Jamestown, and in 1608, the French settled Quebec.
Once upon a time in North America, 5 billion small but highly edible birds known as passenger pigeons traveled in massive flocks that could darken the sky for hours. By the turn of the 20th century, a single pigeon remained, and they are all now extinct.
500 years ago, most of the eastern half of the United States and much of the land west of the Rockies was blanketed in old growth forests. By 1850, the forests were severely fragmented, and now only small patches in National Parks and the Pacific Northwest remain.
Today, the Colorado River rarely flows to the sea. Immeasurable tons of Midwestern topsoil have died and blown away. A toxic brew of pesticides and fertilizers flow daily down the river of grass, rendering the Florida Bay into a veritable dead zone.
The monk seal, eastern elk, Banks Island wolf, Tacoma pocket gopher, giant deer mouse, Labrador duck, great auk, slender-billed grackle, Vegas Valley leopard frog, Ash Meadows killfish, blue walleye, Maryland darter, American chestnut moth and hundreds like them are forever erased from the face of Earth. Thousands more await the same fate in the near future.
We did this. In the name of “civilization,” western culture has wrought more havoc across the face of the Earth than any species or natural disaster in all of history. But we continue. If anything, our pace of destruction accelerates, and we seem immune to the wisdom of hindsight. We drive past the carnage of western civilization in the comfort of our air conditioned, greenhouse gas spewing SUVs, lost in a reverie of text messaging, hairstyles, football games and other mundane distractions.
History shows we are capable of pushing species, rivers and entire ecosystems to collapse with barely a second thought. There is no precedent to believe we will ever change. What will we be thinking when the last tree is felled, the last innocent bird falls from the sky and the last fish chokes in a filthy sea? Humans were the most intelligent, pinnacle of evolution…sure.