Engineered Ecosystems on Land

From a Western or colonial view, humans engineer machines, and nature is kept preserved in parks. Even Western agribusiness only gives you two choices: bulldoze a forest to create a farm, or turn it into a preserve. But Indigenous people have a more “collaborative” relation with their fellow nonhumans. Native practices created a sort of cyborg ecology; an intertwining of human agency and nature’s agency. This is sometimes called the “anthropogenic landscape” or “engineered ecosystem.” European colonists who arrived in the New World and claimed to discover “nature’s untapped bounty” were actually seeing landscapes in which Indigenous and nonhuman agencies had been shaping each other for centuries.

One of the most important means of making engineered landscapes was controlled burns: researchers have found more than 60 Indigenous uses for fire in vegetation. For example, mistletoe on oak trees kills the moss that deer eat; deliberate burns in oak forests protects oak and brings back deer for hunting. In California today many oak forests have been dying because the fires that would have kept them healthy are repressed. In the Midwest, controlled burns kept prairies from being overgrown with shrubs and trees, and fostered more food plants such as raspberries, strawberries, and huckleberries, and medicinal herbs, and fabrication plants such as reeds for baskets.

Modern agribusiness tends to use monocropping (one optimal form of corn for example). Native practices such as controlled burns do the opposite, encouraging biodiversity, or farming through “agroecology”. For example ethnobiologist Gary Nabham reports:

“On one occasion, I asked a Hopi woman at Munqapi if she selected only the biggest corn kernels of all one color for planting her blue maize. She snapped back at me, “It is not a good habit to be too picky... we have been given this corn -- small seeds, fat seeds, misshapen seeds -- all of them. It would show that we are not thankful for what we have received if we plant just certain ones and not others.”

Nature is a trickster, giving you a flood one year and drought the next. Only a diversity of genetic resources allows you to respond to Nature’s diversity of tricks.

Indigenous peoples viewed the ecosystem itself as a diverse “mosaic” with patches in various stages and shapes. Anishinaabe elders of the Pikangikum nation in Ontario describe fire as having its own agency, and the need to understand the interactions with ecosystems and people as changing in both space and time. The fire itself would be on scales of days to weeks. The time for plants to recover enough to create good harvests might be a year, followed by a decade before shrubs return; after that it's time for another burn. For big game like caribou the effects might have peak benefit after half a century, so memories from elders must be passed on. Ecosystems bind relations between different generations of people, not just plants and animals.