As I look down where my red earth stained boots tread I see it! A rubbery, dark brown fungal growth emerging from the side of a twig no larger than the width of my index finger. I crouch down to the tree-shaded ground to have a closer look. Soft, velvety fuzz adorns the top of the emerging growth that looks nearly identical to the ear of a small, brown mammal. I pick up the twig and turn it slightly revealing the smooth underside of the mushroom. With a smile I glance towards the cloudy sky where I gaze upon the signature canopy leaves of the iconic tree whose nuts provided light to the people of this region for roughly a thousand years.
I close my eyes and extend my heart in all directions, connecting with all around me to share my intentions and to humbly request their permission for the harvest.
Five years earlier:
I raise a 16-pound iron digging stick straight up into the air, stab it down into the soil, and swirl it in a circle to create a conical cavity as Dr. Art Medeiros excitedly speaks of the interconnectedness of the species in this endangered forest he helped to revive. He carefully places a young native tree’s taproot into the narrow hole created by the digging stick and lovingly packs the soil back around it. I eagerly ask him about the cloud ear fungus I often see in forests during the cool, wet months and he excitedly talks about its important role in decomposition of fallen wood and how this species is a native mushroom to the Pacific islands.
Being native to the Pacific islands means that this fungus could have only arrived here by one of three ways: either by the winds, the wing of a bird, or by a wave. Did some mushroom spores get swept up and away in a storm system from a far away continent and amazingly land on fallen wood here? Did an exhausted golden plover, escaping the seasonal frigid cold of a temperate land, have touched down here with spores in its feathers? Could a mushroom – or its mycelium – have survived thousands of miles of open ocean waves on a log to land on these shores and upon maturity eject its spores here? I have seen cloud ear growing on a driftwood log sitting upon a windward beach. I think about all the cloud ear mushrooms I often see on fallen candlenut twigs and logs… could it have even first arrived here on a canoe centuries ago? All possibilities, I suppose.
Today, people are filled with the excitement of all that fungi offer to us and to the ecosystems upon which we have emerged, shape and rely on. Their excitement renews my passion for fungi as well as my passion for finding, propagating and caring for the native mushrooms here in these Pacific islands.
The past couple of days have filled me with excited eagerness. The cooler weather is bringing life-giving moisture to the local mountain slopes by my house. After many months of dryness, I can almost feel the joy of the plants as they prepare themselves to quench their thirst. As a farmer, I am happy that the crops my friends and I have planted over the past season get to drink the living waters that are plentiful once more.
In nature, over 90% of plants form symbiotic relationships with soil-dwelling fungi. These fungi wrap around and snuggle up inside the roots of plants to avail themselves of the sugars they produce as a result of plants’ symbiotic relationship with our local star – the sun. In exchange, these root-symbiotic fungi – known as mycorrhizae – transport nutrients from the surrounding soil and give them to the plants. For every meter of tree roots, there is an associated kilometer of mycorrhizae reaching out in all directions beneath our feet into the surrounding environment. Amazingly, these fungi can mine rocks and pass minerals along to the plants they are in mutual relationship with – minerals that are absolutely necessary to the plant’s ability to thrive in the natural world. When ambient moisture levels are high, as they are right now, these mycorrhizal fungi are essential for collecting and giving living water to their plant friends. This ancient fungal-plant symbiosis – which has arisen from billions of years of co-evolution – is an essential relationship for nearly every plant on this blue-green planet.
With the ambient moisture levels high, I wake up in excitement each day to go out and admire wild mushrooms appearing from below. I smile as the humidity clings to my body knowing what is emerging on the mountainsides surrounding me: not dozens, not hundreds, not thousands, but millions upon millions of mushrooms swelling up from the soil. As you read this, I am packing my gear and preparing myself and my family to visit the wild spaces.
The scout’s legs were churning at full speed, feet pounding the well-worn, wide road into town from the river banks, adrenaline racing down his spine. It was his duty to let his superior know immediately of any consequential, unplanned activity occurring on the river. As he approached town, armed guards nodded at him and parted to make way as he sprinted towards commander Arripuna’s headquarters. Arripuna, the leader of an enormous, populous, forested area, was just finishing his final town meeting of the day when he saw his scout approaching, so he beckoned him forward to speak. The scout, despite severe shortness of breath from the miles-long run, began to recount what he had just seen rowing down the mighty river: a watercraft unlike any other with a wide hull and outfitted with tree-sized masts and several rowing oars on each side. The men aboard this unusual vessel wore reflective armor that glared in the light of the sun and was as inflexible as turtle shell. Arripuna furled his eyebrows skeptically at some of the more outrageous details as his scout still gasped for breath. The strangers were making their way downstream as fast as the rapid currents and their oars could take them, the scout added. As the sun set and the evening wore on, Arripuna’s disbelief of his initial scout’s report began to fade as more accounts began to trickle down from upstream -from the great towns of the Omagua- corroborating similar events as well as physical encounters with the oddly dressed newcomers.
MAY 1543 COMMON ERA, SPAIN
Brother Gaspar de Carvajal stood beside Captain Francisco de Orellana in a marble courtyard, lending the moral authority of the Church as they both defended themselves against charges of rebellion, desertion, and treason brought by the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies and Charles I, the King of Spain.iKing Charles’ mood swung from vengence to wonder as he listened to the Spanish explorers who had recently returned from the rich lands across the ocean West of Portugal. They told stories of vast cities in the tropical jungle of the South American continent along a river so large that at times one could not even see the other bankii, an unbelievable abundance of food: birds, fish, turtles, corn bread, yuca, too many kinds of fruit to listiii, artistic enameled pottery of very vivid colors and beautiful drawingsiv, and an entire town lead by warrior women.v While some court members chuckled at the mention of women warrior leaders, the court scholar duly noted this fact. Europeans would later liken these warrior women to the so-called Amazon warrior women of the ancient Grecian mythological stories and dub the river that Orellana and his men traversed Amazonas. The Council of the Indies perused Brother Gaspar de Carvajal’s hand written book on the journey, Account of the Recent Discovery of the Famous Grand River which was Discovered by Great Good Fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana, as he spoke. Carvajal had presented it to the Council at trial as evidence that he and his fellow travelers were still loyal to the crown. His account included exhaustively detailed notes concerning the dense population of people they encountered along the banks of what came to be known throughout the world as the Amazon River. At one point on the river, the men encountered over five hundred miles of continuous population, including “very large cities”.vi Ultimately, the king and Council were so convinced by the sincerity of Carvajal and Orellana, as well as the evidence they presented, that they named Orellana governor of the Amazon region and sent him back to the river with two new boats and hundreds of men.vii
So began the saga of events when the European world collided with the Amazonian world. For over four centuries, most people never knew of the flourishing, pre-European-contact civilization in the Amazon described by Carvajal as the sole copy of his book gathered dust on a library shelf in Spain.viiiInstead, the Amazon Basin has been -and continues to be- described with adjectives such as “virgin,” “wilderness,” and “untouched” even by respected academics. In fact, as late as the 20th century archaeologists such as Betty J. Meggers went as far as to argue that the Amazon Basin could never support a large human population nor social complexity due to its poor agricultural soil quality and lack of reliable protein sources.ix According to many archeologists, for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the Amazon was only ever the domain of small bands of so-called “primitive hunter-gatherers”. Adding weight to this line of reasoning was the
fact that European missionaries, arriving in the Amazon Basin decades after the Orellana expedition, only ever mentioned these small bands of people. By the time of the missionaries, the image of the so-called “noble savage” was conjured up to describe the inhabitants of the Amazon Basin: people whose lifestyle was dependent on being part of the forest, not people who altered or managed their environment for their benefit and growth as so-called “civilized peoples” do. Instead, they lived in small roaming groups, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. As a result, Amazonian inhabitants themselves were considered “wild”. It was supposed that they had not learned how to domesticate animals and plants as the “civilizations” of the Levante had done over ten thousand years ago. Centuries of writers conjured up images of the Amazon as a vast, untouched wilderness, capturing the world’s imagination. For hundreds of years, many anthropologists and historians built their careers on this premise. In the 20th century, Amazon map maker Alexander Hamilton Rice Jr. described the people there as “scattered tribes eeking out an existence”.xYet Carvajal’s 16th century account -not published until the 19th century and available to people worldwide in the public domain much later- shakes the very notion of the Amazon as “pristine wilderness” to its core.What Carvajal described from his journey down the river in 1542 -vast settled cities, fine artwork, food abundance- went against absolutely everything everyone living outside the Amazon had been taught and were teaching about the region for the past three centuries. In fact, Carvajal’s account was so contradictory to established history, that historians in the 20th century have claimed that he and Francisco de Orellana must have flat out lied about there being a large human population in the Amazon to the Spanish Court in order to secure governorship of the region. Yet the narrative of a pristine jungle inhabited for millennia by small bands of hunter-gatherers is rapidly unraveling now that Carvajal’s account is being more closely studied and as a steady outpouring of new facts have begun to emerge from the world’s largest river basin…
1949 COMMON ERA, MARAJÓ ISLAND, BRAZIL
Betty Meggers shook her head in disbelief. She and her team of archeologists had just dug up exceptionally large pieces of pottery in the Amazon Basin; pottery from a 4,900-year-old culture too large to be transported around by a hunter-gatherer group and the art too fine to have been painted by a “primitive” people. Steeped in the primitivist Amazonian narrative, Meggers argued that this pottery must have been created by emigrants to the Amazon from a higher culture. Perhaps they came from the region of modern-day Colombia,emigrants who only stayed in the Amazon region for just a brief time, she declared.xi Today, with several more decades of uncovered pottery and careful study of Amazonian ceramics,modern archaeologistsare challenging Meggers assertions. Pointing to carbon dating that is placing the pottery within a 900 year time-frame, much longer that previously thought, archaeologistsare now asserting that the Amazonian people likely did create this elaborate pottery.xii Today, this very debate over the origins of these fine ceramics proceeds. But what did the first European in the region see? Here is Brother Gaspar de Carvajal’s 1542 first-hand account of Amazonian pottery:
In this town were houses of pleasing interiors with much stoneware of diverse forms. There were enormous pitchers and vases, and many other smaller containers, plates, silverware, and candlesticks. This stoneware is of the best quality that has ever been seen in the world, and even that of Malaga does not equal it. It is all enameled with glass, of all colors and the brightest hues. Some are drawn to frighten, but on others, the drawings and paintings are delicate depictions of nature. They craft and they draw everything like the Romans.xiii
Peering closer, more and more signs of sweeping, complex civilizations in the Amazon Basin continue to surface. Archaeologist Michael Heckenberger continues to astonish himself and his colleagues. He and his team continue to unearth evidence of not only dense populations in the Amazon Basin, but actual urban planning replete with earthworks, roads, geoglyphs, dams, and fishponds. It appears that the sophisticated, ancient fishponds – like those of the Kuikuro people from Xingu region of the Amazon – likely did generate a reliable source of protein that could have sustained the large population evidenced by the grand plazas and roadways that Heckenberger and team have been unearthing in recent decades. The earliest European account of the region seems to confirm this. In 1542, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal described a village of the Amazon they encountered as “having a great quantity of food, such as turtles in corrals, a lot of meat and fish, and so much abundance to be able to feed a lot of men,” acknowledging that they had plentiful protein beyond just subsistence quantities.xiv He also describes “many large-sized roads that went inland from the river-side village”.xv Using the latest aerial techniques alongside his digs, Heckenberger is constantly uncovering roadway connections between various ancient city sites in the Amazon Basin.xviWhen placing Heckenberger’s findings alongside Carvajal’s account, the multitude of confirmations of the tales of Francisco de Orellana and his men are striking.
The soils that Michael Heckenberger and his colleagues excavate are also shining some light onto how an abundance of food can be grown in a rainforest. A secret long known by indigenous peoples, as well as many farmers and gardeners of Brazil is now beginning to spread out of the region: extremely fertile soils known as terra preta (aka: Amazonian dark earth) arescattered across vast regions of the Amazon.xviiTerra preta soils have been used for decades to improve crop production and garden soils. Extraordinarily, these dark earth soils are so nutrient rich that the lands in which they can be found can be farmed over and over again, producing large, healthy crops without adding fertilizer inputs, despite what Betty J. Meggers and others have for decades claimed about tropical soils being infertile. Some people even sell terra preta as potting soil.xviii For many years, soil scientists assumed that a winter season would be necessary to create such deep, rich soils. Their reasoning went as follows: the leaves and twigs from the trees in temperate regions would fall to the ground during the Autumn and rot during the Winter and turn into soil. In contrast, when organic matter falls from the trees in the tropics, the fungi on the forest floor almost immediately consume the material and make the nutrients available to the next living beings with no season of tree dormancy. According to this reasoning, deep, rich soils, therefore, do not develop in the tropics. All the biology essentially stays above ground. Thus, it has been widely believed for centuries that agriculture -which requires soil- is not possible in the tropics. And therefore, in the absence of food-surplus-generating agriculture, large populations cannot be reached nor sustained in the tropics. But new studies are unraveling this narrative. From a vast body of research that has recently emerged studying the origins of terra pretaxix, we now know that the people of the Amazon actually created this dark, fertile soil, and some -like the Kuikuro people- are still creating it to this day.xxThe process of creating it goes roughly like this; beginning nearly five thousand years agoxxi, people started throwing their food scraps, green yard waste, and broken pottery all together into large piles. Then, they would eventually char these piles using a charcoal creation technique. These charred earths became what is today considered one of the best possible soil amendments for growing large, healthy plants.xxiiNowadays, soil scientists understand that microscopic open pockets are created in the charred plant matter, creating a habitat for a vast array of living soil microorganisms such as bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa and nematodes.xxiii
These microorganisms are so necessary for the sustainability of healthy, fertile organic soil, that they in fact define the difference between “soil” and “dirt”. Dirt being simply sand, silt, and clay; essentially minuscule, sterile pebbles. While soil, on the other hand, includes organic matter, minerals, and an entire ecosystem in miniature: a complex, living food web of tiny critters that naturally work together in symbiosis to make nutrients available to plants. Scientists have started mapping where Brother Gaspar de Carvajal reported seeing Amazonian settlements in 1542 and searching for Amazonian dark earths in these locations. As it turns out, wherever Carvajal mentioned there being settlements, anthropologists and soil scientists have in fact found terra preta there.xxivBased on the currently discovered Amazonian dark earth sites, it is now estimated that an area twice the size of Britain was settled by Amazonian people before the arrival of Europeans to the region.xxv
What paleontologist Alceu Ranzi saw in the grasslands sent a chill racing down his spine as he flew over an unforested region of the Amazon. He swiftly grabbed for his camera to photograph what were surely unnaturalfeatures upon the landscape. These features would later be identified as ancient, ruler-straight roadways,builtcauseways, canals, settlement mounds, forest islands, ring ditch sites, raised fields, fish weirs, and even reservoirs.xxviToday, decades after Ranzi’s initial flights over the region, anthropologist Clark L. Erickson and his team carefully study these geometrically-precise earthworks. Erickson specializes in landscape geography. Over the past several decades, he and his team have continued to uncover human-created earthworks in the Amazon that date back thousands of years. As the Amazon is rapidly deforested at the same time as satellites are taking high-resolution imagery of the region, more and more of these earthworks are being revealed regularly. Erickson posits that the earthworks may have been used as irrigation control for large-scale agriculture projects by the ancient indigenous people that once inhabited the region.xxvii Based on his archeological findings, he estimates that these human-made agricultural fields probably cover hundreds of square kilometers and some are thousands of years old.xxviii Curiously, Erickson describes what he calls “forest island mounds” in the midst of these large
, terraformed, Amazonian savannas. In these forest islands he and his team always find vast quantities of potsherds: busted up pieces of pottery. Interestingly, they also almost always encounter what he calls “chocolate agroforestry” plots within the forest islands. It appears that the cacao tree, from which chocolate derives, was not only domesticated by the civilizations of Mesoamerica (the Olmec, the Maya, and the Atzec), apparently it was domesticated by Amazonian people as well. Many generations ago, people began to select for the best tasting and best yielding cacao pods, and replanted their seeds to grow new trees with similar desirable traits, thus beginning a process of plant domestication by the human population of the region. Researchers are finding that plenty of other plant species from the Amazon seem to have had a very long relationship with human settlement as well: the rubber tree, brazil nuts, various palms and fruit trees, and even tropical cotton (Gossypium barbadense).xxixIndeed,consistent with the findings of modern anthropologists, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal also wrote of his 1542 voyage down the Amazon River that the people there “had very fine cotton clothing,xxx” as well as “many kinds of great fruitxxxi“.
The uncovering of artistic pottery, urban cities with massive roadways connecting them, fertile soils, monumental earthworks and domesticated plants are not only confirming Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Orellana’s story of their travels down the Amazon River in 1542, these findings are shifting the very foundational assumptions of what people from outside the Amazon Basin understand about the history of human habitation of this region as well as how so many people were able to live there. For centuries people have claimed that the Amazon was sparsely populated before the arrival of Europeans, that it was unsuitable for large sedentary populations of people due to poor soils and therefore, it was only ever populated by small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, and that the Amazon has thusly existed as an unused and pristine “wilderness”. Nowadays, with a torrent of recently uncovered facts from historians, anthropologists, soil scientists, epidemiologists, and ethnobotanists, some estimates now claim that up to 6 million people lived in the Amazon Basin before Europeans arrived.xxxiiIn comparison, England’s entire population was at around 2.6 million in the year 1500 CE.xxxiii
But what happened to all these masses of people in these large population centers in an area that has for centuries been nearly completely covered by a tropical rainforest? We now know that the people of Europe themselves appear to have played a major role in creating the conditions for the germs that caused plagues of epidemic proportions to thrive as a result of their particular form of confined-animal agriculture. Unlike the peoples of the Americas, Europeans kept large numbers of domesticated animals in confined areas, oftentimes even in cities near large concentrations of people. Some of the germs that make animals sick jumped the species barrier and started infecting humans, and they did so at epidemic scales. As a result, disease outbreaks wiped out massive populations in Europe.xxxiv These infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans are known as zoonoses.xxxv For example, the flu virus originates from pigs and birds (eg. domesticated chickens), while measles, tuberculosis, and smallpox came to humans from cows.xxxvi As the peoples of the Americas had no masses of domesticated animals packed into their population centers before contact with Mediterranean, monoculture agriculturalists, they had no zoonoses, nor did they have the immunity necessary to survive zoonotic disease infection. Upon contact with European peoples who carried with them these diseases originating from large-scale, confined-animal agriculture, it is now estimated that over ninety percent of the peoples of the American hemisphere were wiped out by these zoonotic plaguesof Mediterranean and European origin.xxxvii Human population estimates of the pre-European-contact American hemisphere continue climbing as more and more archeological sites are uncovered. Current estimates stand in the tens of millions of people in the Americas and possibly even higher than the population of Europe at the time.xxxviii
The large 16th century populations of the Amazon described by Brother Gaspar de Carvajal and confirmed by today’s recent studies, means that Amazonian peoples must have been growing and gathering quite an abundance of food. But without agriculture to create such an abundance of food, how did the population numbers of the Amazon get so high? As a the original, sedentary Amazonian peoplesare no longer around to tell us how they reached a population that numbered into the millions, if we want to know how it was done we must put the puzzle pieces together ourselves using an interdisciplinary approach. We must take into account the oral histories of surviving Amazonian peoples, study art history, soil science, geography, history, anthropology, and the ethnobotany of traditional agroforestry. One possible puzzle piece is that the sedentary Amazonian people may have been sophisticated forest gardeners.xxxix They appear to have been domesticating various plant species by intentionally selecting them for their best traits.xl Domesticated Amazonian plants include over eighty-five woody species such as brazil nut, ice-cream-bean, Amazonian grape, all manner of fruit-bearing palms such as açaí, as well as non-food agroforestry crops like the rubber tree and tropical cotton for clothing. Individual species could even serve for multiple uses as is the case with the maripa palm (Attalea maripa) which -in addition to having edible fruits- was used in the construction of darts for blowguns, sleeping mats, torches, kindling, as well as for use as thatching.xli It has also been uncovered that oil from certain palm tree seeds and edible larvae cultivated in palm trunks are sources of protein for people.xlii With such an emphasis on domesticating an impressive array of woody species, the people of the Amazon were likely cultivating vertically-stacked woody gardens around their homesteads. That is, they grew vertical polycultures with understory shrub plants -such as cassava- growing in the shade of overstory fruit trees, while spiritual plants -like the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi)- climbed up the tree trunks. This style of vertically-stacked woody gardening likely createda habitat for all sorts of animals to nest in the garden. Such an animal habitat in their woody gardens likely served as an additional source of protein, natural fertilizer, and possibly even companionship. In the same hemisphere, the benefits of the ancient polyculture horticultural technique of growing corn, beans, and squash together in the same spacial footprint – developed in North America and known as the Three Sisters – are today quite well understood.xliii The three distinct species of plants, when planted together, mutually help one another out. While growing together, they form a beneficial, symbiotic companion planting. So it should therefore not come as much of a surprise to those who already know about Three Sisters that there are likely South American counterparts to this polyculture gardening practice.
Designing gardens of productive perennial plants stacked in a vertical fashion is today practiced around the world as a category of advanced gardening known as permaculture.David Holmgren, the co-originator of the term, defines permaculture as “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature to yield an abundance of food, fiber, and shelter for the provision of local needs”xliv. After delving deeper into traditional gardening techniques of various peoples around the world, permaculturist Toby Hemenway described some types of traditional gardeners as “horticulturalists”xlvan additional category of how humans relate to their environment that he proposed to be added to the two traditional categories of “hunter-gatherers” or “agriculturalists”. According to Hemenway, these people may do some hunting and some gathering, and they may also practice some domestication -as the Amazonians appear to have also been growing domesticated corn according to Carvajalxlvi– but mainly, horitculturalists tend semi-wild plants and animals. They were not -and are not- so much hunter-gatherers, nor farmers as they were -and are- sophisticatedgardeners. Carefully-curated, vertically-stacked, fauna-rich forest gardens might have been cultivated to grow nearly all of the food, fuel, timber, fiber, medicine, and spiritually significant plants together in the same relative footprint as a diverse polyculture garden. Such intentional, vertical stacking creates an enormous abundance of useful plant matter, possibly bountiful enough to sustain a large population. This horticulturalsystemwould likely have been perceived as simply wild jungle to Mediterranean Europeans and not the productive garden that it was, as Mediterranean agriculturalists were used to seeing their domesticated plants grown in vast monoculture crop farms, amber waves of grain from horizon-to-horizon. The cities that Francisco de Orellana and his men saw along the Amazon River in 1542 were likely what Heckenberger refers to as Amazonian “garden cities,” cities which also included urban planning, earthworks, roads, and fishponds.xlvii Had Orellana stumbled upon a civilization of gardeners?
We also know from Brother Gaspar de Carvajal’s 1542 book that the Spaniards did not appear to have any knowledge whatsoever of the edible flora in the Amazon Basin. Because they had run out of food and did not know how to get it in the jungle, during their seven month journey down the river nearly all the food they ate was obtained from the indigenous people living there. The few days that the Spaniards did have to fend for themselves, they wandered around digging up and eating unknown roots of unidentified jungle plants hoping not to be poisoned by them and even resorted to cooking and eating their own leather belts and shoe soles!xlviii In fact, on page 6 of Carvajal’s book, he relates that the Spaniards were so excited when the first village of Amazonian people that they happened upon offered them an abundance of food to eat that they hugged them and gave them the clothes off their backs.xlixWas this it? Could this gift of clothing, likely with European germs, have been one of the first proverbial matches that lit the massive fire of epidemic disease in the Amazon, the critical moment of first transmission of European zoonotic diseases to a population who had absolutely no immunity and massive roads and waterways of communication between their villages, towns and cities? Europeans would not again write about their ventures into the Amazon until decades after Orellana and his men, leaving plenty of time for the introduced Mediterranean diseases -such as smallpox, influenza and others- to rip through and wipe out over ninety percent of the settled population.l Such a devastating epidemic event, along with having to flee from European expansionist wars, forced conscription and slavery,li may have utterly undermined their ability to remain living a sedentary lifestyle as it likely removed the population base necessary to sustain such a way of life. The few people remaining likely fled into the forest, and reverted back to nomadism.lii Thus, the Amazonian people very well may have evolved from hunter-gatherers roughly 10,000 years ago, to forest-gardening horticulturalists sometime before European arrival (possibly even thousands of years before European contact)liii, and devolvedback to a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, perhaps as a consequence of having to flee the newly disease-ridden urban centers of their Amazonian cities, slave traders and the cruelty of the conquistadors.liv
As the Amazonian people fled, their domesticated and semi-domesticated forest garden plots, full of plants which have had their evolution guided by the purposeful, human selection of certain traits, may have been spread by means of reconstruction by these horticultural refugees when they moved to other areas, as well as by mammals and birds that continue spreading the seeds of their forest garden plants to this very day. As the people of the Amazon Basin had focused on perennial plant propagation, such as the aforementioned eighty-five long-living, woody species, and because their curated forest plots were vertically stacked, mimicking the patterns of a natural forest, these plots harbored the potentiality of surviving without the help of humans far into the future. Some of the smaller forest garden plots may have been reclaimed by the untended, wild plants of the rainforest. Perhaps both scenarios, the spread of domesticated species into some areas and the reclamation of wild species into others, played out to varying degrees depending on the environmental factors of the area and the sizes of the original garden plots. Indeed, many of the once-tended Amazonian forest gardens are today feral, meaning they exist in the wild, yet they descended from domestication. One recent study “found that human influence is exclusively responsible for about half of the explained variation of the abundance, relative abundance, richness, and relative richness of domesticated species in the southwestern and eastern regions” of the Amazon.lv As Clark L. Erickson puts it, “instead of viewing Amazonia as a pristine form of nature, it is therefore more accurate to conceive of it in the same way that we would conceive of a garden.”lvi Consequently, large swathes of what we today refer to as the Amazon Rainforest may in fact be feral, human-created forest gardens.lvii
In contrast to these human-created forest gardens that supported millions of people in the Amazon Basin, the peoples of the Mediterranean supported their populationswith agriculture while creating a curious ecological trajectory for themselves with their methods of farming. Year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium Europeans tilled the soil, for over ten thousand years. Not only that, they tended to plant crop after crop of the same grains over and over again in the same place. This degenerative, monocultural form of agriculture exhausts the soils of its nutrients, while plowing exposes all the life of the soil food web to the relentless radiation of the sun and beating of the wind, thereby degrading -and eventually depleting- the soil’s fertility and its ability to grow anything at all. The long term effects of such agricultural techniques are bleak. What once was referred to as the “Fertile Crescent” is today a desert where people battle for access to fresh water and for the last remaining pockets of fertile soil.
What’s more, the plow-monoculture agriculturalists exported these farming habits to the so-called New World, where in short order they turned the fertile Great Plains of North America into a dust bowl. Today, these plow-monoculture agriculturalists are lighting enormous fires in the Amazon rainforest to clear the way for the repetition of this very destructive practice of creating massive monoculture crops for export: beef, soy, sugarcane and timber, while – in contrast – indigenous communities and small farmers are producing over 70% of the food for Brazil’s internal markets.lviii
Yet, there is a verdant glimmer of hope. With the recent wider acknowledgments of their innumerable, incredible feats, indigenous peoples are regaining pride in their traditional systems of knowledge and land management techniques and they are uniting against these patterns of monocultural expansionism. Simultaneously, permaculturists are spreading the ideas of regenerative forest gardening in its many forms – from the tropical climate techniques of syntropic agroforestrylix to the colder, temperate climate techniques of agroforestrylx, Whitefield permaculturelxi, forest agriculturelxii, and edible forest gardenslxiii. In a hyper-connected world, ideas and techniques are being shared between traditional gardeners and modern gardeners at lightning speed, and a new fusion of techniques is emerging which could point the way to a regenerative future. As folks start look to nature once again, and to the varieties of ways humans have interacted with nature historically, more people now are learning that we can have a positive impact on our environment, and they are choosing to do so.
Careful study of history is showing that both the Amazon Basin and the Mediterranean Basin each supported artistic cultures and sizable populations for considerable periods of time even though they chose two very distinct agricultural tracks. Understanding what we now understand to be true about these two regions, it is becoming clear that there are now -at least- two very distinct models for agriculture: we can either produce our food, fuel, timber, medicine, and fiber plants by erasing functioning ecosystems and replacing them with massive monoculture crops thereby further desertifying the planet. Or we can grow those plants in localized, small-to-medium scale, stacked forest gardens, creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems as well as habitats for animals while generating rainlxiv and cooling the atmosphere.lxv
The choice is ours.
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“Forests or Deserts: a Choice” by Loxley Clovis
First published in Permaculture Design Magazine, February/Spring 2020 (No. 115) issue.
viii Shockingly, according to the Miguel de Cervantes Virtual Library, copies of Carvajal’s book were not made available to the public until the 19th century when it was finally published by the Royal Academy of History in Madrid, Spain. And it wasn’t until forty-four years later that the errors in the aforementioned transcription were corrected.[i] Today, no one knows exactly why this story was not widely published until three centuries after it was written. However, one explanation may be that since Carvajal mentioned the fertile abundance of the land as well as the presence of gold and silver[ii], it is possible that the Spanish Court might have suppressed the story from the public’s view by not widely publishing the account for geopolitical reasons. Perhaps they did not want other European powers to find out about the riches in the region so that the Spanish Crown could get an earlier colonial foothold in the Amazon Basin.[iii]
xiv Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación. p. 17. In addition to their presence along the Xingu in the South, earthworks related to fishpond construction have also been uncovered in the East, constructed by the Marajó people at the mouth of the Amazon River, as well as in the Southwest Amazonian region of Acre. Human-made fishponds capable of providing abundant protien are continuing to be discovered all over the vast Amazon region.
xxxiv Payne, Stanley G. (1973). A History of Spain and Portugal: Volume 1. The Library of Iberian Resources Online. https://libro.uca.edu/payne1/payne15.htm. See also: Kohn, George (ed.). (12 May 2019). Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present (3 ed.). InfoBase Publishing.
xxxix As Erickson put it, “the romantic imagery of Amazonia as a natural wilderness belies a very different reality. Namely that of a land domesticated by humans. In Amazonia native peoples created a domestic landscape resulting from both intentional & unintentional actions. They managed the environment through a variety of techniques that included transplanting, culling, & controlled burning. Instead of viewing Amazonia as a pristine form of nature, it is therefore more accurate to conceive of it in the same way that we would conceive of a garden.” Erickson, Clark L., (12 March 2015). Pre-Columbian Monumental Landscapes in the Bolivian Amazon.
xl Levis, C. et.al. (3 March 2017). “Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition.” Science.
xli Henderson, Andrew; Gloria Galeano; Rodrigo Bernal (1995). Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08537-4. Macía, Manuel J. (2004). “Multiplicity in palm uses by the Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador”. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 144 (2): 149–59. Posey, Darrell Addison (1985). “Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems: the case of the Kayapó indians of the Brazilian Amazon”. Agroforestry Systems. 3 (2): 139–58.
xlii Erickson, Clark L. (May 2008). Culture amidst the Pristine: The Anthropogenic Forests of the Bolivian Amazon.
xliii Mt. Pleasant, Jane (2006). “38”. In John E. Staller; Robert H. Tykot; Bruce F. Benz (eds.). The science behind the Three Sisters mound system: An agronomic assessment of an indigenous agricultural system in the northeast. Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary approaches to the prehistory, linguistics, biogeography, domestication, and evolution of maize. Amsterdam: Academic Press. pp. 529–537.
lii As one Txapanawa man recounts in a Channel 4 [UK] documentary, the oral history of their tribe is that they did not always live in flight as nomads. (23 February 2016). “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon”. See also: (24 February 2016). “‘First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon’ – Survival responds to new documentary”. https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/11153.