Our Natural History:
The Lessons of Lewis and Clark
by Daniel B. Botkin
Oxford University Press, USA (April 16, 2004)
When it comes to nature and to understanding environmental issues, those who do not measure do not know. We live in the scientific and information age and think we are drowning in data and therefore we know what we need to know. But when it comes to environment — especially living things we care about in the environment — this is not true. Frequently we fail to measure what we must in order to solve an environmental problem. And even if we do, we often fail to use those measurements.
In taking a new look at the Lewis and Clark’s expedition, we need to it as more than a great adventure (which it was); we need to see it as a path to clear thinking about people and nature, the kind of thinking that is essential for the survival of both in this century.
When I began work on Our Natural History in the early 1990s, few cared about Lewis and Clark or their expedition. In fact, few that I met in my travels even knew about it. I had chosen to write about Lewis and Clark not because they were popular, which they weren’t, but because I had been fascinated by their journals which revealed them as excellent naturalists with exceptional abilities to observe and interpret nature around them, and gave insight into the realities of nature in the American West, a countryside that has entered our folklore and is filled with myths. It seemed to me that no other story could dramatize as well as these journals what a landscape unaffected by modern technology was really like. And no other explorers could tell us so accurately, with such amazing tales, how to think about, observe, and come to terms with nature.
By the end of the 1990s, Lewis and Clark had become popular, due in part to the excellent new edition of their journals edited by Gary Moulton, and Steven Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage, and in large part to the approach of the bicentennial of the expedition. In the past decade Lewis and Clark’s fame has grown. And so this new publication of Our Natural History takes place at a very different time in terms of the appreciation of their expedition.
Ironically, not that much has changed in the way we approach nature and in what we believe to be true about nature. When I wrote Our Natural History, I was living in Oregon, working on a project for the state of Oregon about the effects of forest practices on salmon. On weekends I would drive to Lewis and Clark sites, read their journal entries, and look at the countryside they had once seen. They measured every inch of the land they covered, always knew where they were. They approached nature like the best of modern ecologists. At the same time, they greatly appreciated the beauty of the countryside. Nothing illustrates this better than Lewis’s attempts to describe the Great Falls on the Missouri River, where he spent several days trying to find just the right way to describe the beauty he observed.
During the week, I pursued modern facts about salmon and forestry. The contrast could not have been greater. The state of Oregon’s water and fish and game departments did not know the length of the rivers they were in charge of managing, nor the size of those rivers’ watersheds. The state counted salmon on only two rivers south of the Columbia River, and therefore knew little about those salmon. At the start of my project, the state did not have a map of forest conditions. Logging permits were given out by counties, which did not record the location, area, or method of logging. How then could one analyze, scientifically, the effects of forest practices on salmon?
It wasn’t easy, but with ingenuity we found a way. Oregon did not know how many dams it had, nor which had fish ladders. Some scientists claimed that ocean currents and upwellings had specific effects on the abundance of salmon, but our review of the data showed these claims as empty handwaving. It was shocking to me that in the supposed age of science and information, when it came to environment we lagged behind those intrepid explorers of the early nineteenth century. All I could think woe to us! And we should learn from Lewis and Clark. That is what I hoped would happen when I wrote Our Natural History.
Review: Publishers Weekly
This intriguing volume begins with Lewis and Clark's search for a pass in the Rocky Mountain wilderness; it ends with the author's search for original prairie in Omaha, Nebraska. Botkin (Discordant Harmony: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century) describes the American West as seen by Lewis and Clark in 1804-06 and compares it with today's West as shaped by industrial civilization. It is a unique picture of frontier wilderness, interwoven with Botkin's own perspective on nature. He maintains that our present approach to environmental issues is based on faulty beliefs, mythologies and religious convictions. The records of Lewis and Clark are valuable for helping us understand what nature was like before we changed it. Botkin notes that we rarely approach conservation with the methodical intensity found in the explorers' journals. He has given us a fresh and welcome perspective on that historic expedition.