The Wealth We Wasted

A. W. SMITH, who was born in Spain of British parents, lived in Russia as a boy and was educated at Shrewsbury and at Sandhurst. He served with the British Army throughout both World Wars. For some years he has made his home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he wrote his books, The Captain Departed and The Sword and the Rose, and a number of short stories which have appeared in the Atlantic. He has recently become an American citizen, and is today a Vice President on the staff of The Conservation Foundation.

by A. W. SMITH


IT is probably near-heresy to suggest that the pioneer forefathers may not have been well equipped to deal intelligently with the problems posed in their new environment. Many of their practices, so evil and so wasteful in the coldly superior light of the middle of the twentieth century, may have been forced on them by the demands of the moment. But these are not sufficient to account for the destructive waste which has been the habit of American pioneers up to our own times.

The early settlers — and the majority of later ones, too — were English. They came to a land which differed but little from England in climate and soil types. It had much the same pattern of precipitation. Winter might be a bit colder, summer rather hotter, but the same crops could be grown with much the same techniques. Yet the first settlers and their successors failed to bring with them any significant part of the great available knowledge of land use. They seem to have abandoned past experience almost before they started, together with any feel for land or sympathy for its needs.

These people came from a land of highly developed resource use, where the countryside was loved and appreciated for itself. It was the England of Tom Tusser, the farmer poet, who coined such pleasant and even truthful aphorisms as “March dust worth a ransom of gold”; “Sweet April showers spring May flowers”; “Calm in June sets corn in tune.” It was the England of Evelyn, of Izaak Walton and Cotton. And of the anonymous author who improved on Bernard of Cluny’s Jerusalem the Golden with a lovelier and longer version which includes what is clearly a trout stream among the important delights of the life to come.

Whether they came from motives of freedom or fortune, the early settlers seem to have been taken completely by surprise by what they found in America. The Jamestown Settlement, consisting of forty-eight gentlemen and four carpenters, were told quite plainly at the outset that they would be “banished men” unless they produced cargoes to the value of £2000 in the first year.

John Smith quickly disabused the backers. “Nothing,” he said, “is to be expected there but by labour,” and begged at the same time for thirty husbandmen, gardeners, diggers of tree roots, and so on. It is quite clear that the first Virginians had no knowledge of farming, and not the slightest intention of exerting themselves in hard manual labor.

The Pilgrims, so William Bradford says, were all “used to plaine countrie life and ye innocent trade of husbandrie.” Time and his subsequent prosperity may have dimmed his memory, for there seems not to have been a farmer among the lot of them. Certainly they came singularly ill-equipped. They had no stock and no seed. It was twelve years before the Colony even possessed a plow.

They were rather artlessly affected by native methods. The Indian practice of placing an alewife in each hill of corn captured their own and the imaginations of subsequent generations as a novel idea. Yet the composting of every kind of organic material was well understood in contemporary England and there was quite a literature on the subject. The excellent Jewel House of Art and Nature, published nearly forty years before, dealt with composting with the same kind of mystical exuberance shown by the organic enthusiasts of today, berating the English for waste and telling them to imitate “the Flemings who will not lose so much as the parings of their nails.” And remember that most of the Pilgrims had spent twenty years in the Low Countries, the home, then as now, of some of the best in farming.

The Pilgrims went to America for freedom, but the Plymouth Colony lost no time in making rules to govern every human activity, most of them with whipping-post penalties attached. One of their first ordinances dealt with forests and prohibited the cutting of trees without permission.

Early Colonial forest laws were mostly directed at the prevention of fire, which was destructive of life and property as well as trees. By 1648 the Bay Colony had laws forbidding the kindling of fires at unseasonable times, and a public whipping was the penalty if the substantial fine could not be paid. Perhaps these measures were not sufficiently effective, for in 1672 the penalty was made death for adult offenders. Seventy years later the death penalty was abolished and there was a return to a heavy fine and damages.

Fire was an overriding fear and the Indians were careless with it. The pleasant tradition that Indians had a kind of mystical regard for nature and all wild things seems to have been quite erroneous. The fire bunt — burning an area to drive or kill game—= was prevalent, at least until 1748, when stringent measures finally put a stop to it. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were compulsory forest laws in all the Colonies as well as coöperative fire fighting in the State of New York.

It is probably fair to assume that this body of forest legislation was not inspired by motives of conservation but was directed at saving the lives and houses, barns, crops, and livestock, of the settlers. Trees were still hostile and forests the enemy to be removed as expeditiously as possible. Only in Pennsylvania does there seem to have been any serious attempt to perpetuate ihe forest as such. There William Penn decreed leaving an acre of trees standing for each five acres cleared.

Lumber exports began early and the first shipment of Maine white pine was transported in 1605 in a ship commanded by Captain Weymouth. (Pinus strobus is still known as Weymouth Pine in England.) It was not until later in the century, however, that the Colonists started to do real business in forest products, including lumber, naval stores, and wood ash for soapmaking— which last was a traditional pioneer enterprise from the first settlements on.

For various reasons, partly wars and partly such things as the highhanded practices of the monopolistic Stockholm pitch interests, the supply of naval stores and masts from the traditional sources, the Baltic ports, became dangerously uncertain. Britain turned to the Colonies. The business possibilities looked so good to the Bay Colony that in 1694 the General Court voted to Their Majesties a promotional shipload at the Colony’s expense. In 1705 bounties were pul on masts, pitch, tar, and turpentine, and in 1708 the General Assembly of New Hampshire followed suit with a law forbidding unauthorized felling of trees more than 24 inches in diameter.

Masts were extremely valuable merchandise and a single slick might he worth £100 at Portsmouth. It was a business which called for heavy capital investment. Individual sticks, which might be 100 feet long and measure 15,000 board feet, with a dead weight of 20 to 25 tons, had to be twitched over the snow to salt water by ox teams. There they were loaded into specially constructed mastships fitted with bow ports to permit storage below decks. To protect and advance the trade, the Colonies themselves appointed mast agents, but the agents and the various ordinances reserving mast trees came to be unpopular as population pressures grew and the supply of well-grown trees receded from the coast. Eventually the agents and their broad arrow markings came to be regarded as symbols of Crown oppression.


FOREST lands do not normally carry any great wealth of fauna. The fruits, berries, and herbage on which birds and animals, including man, depend ultimately for food do not grow well in shade. The country to which the Colonists came was by no means all dense forest. There were open spaces of Indian cultivation, of old burns, and of swamps. The underwood of the mature climax forest was often fairly open, and live high crowns of magnificent trees let in a certain amount of light which encouraged the incursion of blueberries, raspberries, and bramble. There were also natural spaces. The toppling of one of those mighty trees would immediately render its majestic neighbors vulnerable to the next gale, and there must have been a vigorous upsurge of growth as wild grape and the various fruits and grasses competed for place in the newly created sunlight.

In these conditions America was a country rich in fauna. There were immense flocks of water fowl; the wild turkey ranged as far north as New Brunswick and the waters were literally alive with fish. All these phenomena are either gone or, at best, sadly depleted. A very few animals, such as the white-tailed deer, have, under protection, found the man-modified habitat so much to their taste that in many places today they are present in greater numbers than ever before. The early fathers wasted no time in attacking this rich store, and it was not long before their inroads became apparent in serious depletion. By 1694 the Bay Colony found it imperative to establish the first closed season on deer, and twenty-five years later prohibited the killing of deer for three years. Game bird protection was necessary almost as soon. New York established a game bird season in 1708, an example to be followed by other states, until by 1800 there were game laws in all the thirteen colonies.

The great importance of non-game birds and, more particularly, of predators and insectivores is a tenet of modern conservation thought which has still to gain universal acceptance. Yet Massachusetts instituted protection of non-game birds as early as 1818, while in 1850 Connecticut, New Jersey, and Kentucky introduced laws protecting predator and insectivorous birds specifically as such.

All this regulation was very necessary; indeed, there was too little of it and most of it was too late. Rural areas — certainly much of the Atlantic seaboard— wore more heavily populated than they are today. The overgrown stone walls crisscrossing what are now substantial woodlands bear out the evidence of the written records. And the records show, among other things, that there was little land in the more accessible parts of Massachusetts which had not been abandoned at least once by the end of the eighteenth century.

There is a good American tradition that the men who stood off the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord and, later, on Breed’s Hill were crack shots to a man. If this were so, the embattled farmers can have had but little previous practice on wild game. Thoreau described a man he knew who “still preserved the horns of the last deer killed in this vicinity and another has told me the particulars of that hunt in which his uncle was engaged.”Other animals too had disappeared from Thoreau’s Concord. A gray fox skin was bought by the store in January 1742-1743 from one John Melven for two shillings and three pence. “They are not now,” says Thoreau, “found here.” And when the solitary loon visited Walden Pond the Mill Dam sportsmen came out in gigs at the mere rumor of his arrival, with patent rifles, conical bullets, and spyglasses. Targets must indeed have been scarce by 1847.

By then the great westward movement was already a flood. Primed by population pressure it was speeded enormously by technical improvements, not least in farm machines. Perhaps the most basic was the self-scouring steel plow, which provided, for the first time, the means to break tough prairie sod. Vastly improved transportation -canals, roads, steamships, and railroads — took people in and brought out the cheap food for the growing factory populations of the Eastern States and Europe.


THE essential restlessness and nervous energy of the American people was — and to some extent still is—characterized by a lack of attachment to places. An abundance of cheap land discouraged a tradition of permanence. There was also a widely held belief that there was something derogatory about feeding the land. When a farmer arrived at that low point it was a confession of lack of fertility and a sure indication that it was time to move on to new and, therefore, better land.

The Detroit Courier played on that attitude in a stirring piece of promotional verse entitled “Come All Ye Yankee Farmers” and which was designed to attract new settlers to the Michigan territory then opening: —

And there’s your Massachusetts,
Once good enough be sure;
But now she’s always laying on
Taxation or manure;
She costs you pecks of trouble
But de’il a peek can pay
While all is scripture measure
In Michigania.

Coupling taxation with manure as equivalent burdens illuminates the sentiment of the day. The men of that age were not as advanced in the art of being governed as we are today. All taxation was suspect and the object of vigorous vocal protest. They felt the same way about the necessity for manure. When that came, a farm had touched bottom, and the farmer moved on.

This is not true of the many religious settlements, which almost invariably manifested an affinity for the land and its needs. Theirs is a fairly consistent record of good farm practice and maintained productivity. People like the Mennonites, Amish, and Dunkers in Pennsylvania, the Oneida Community in upper New York, various Lutheran and Other settlements in the Middle West, and many others made their localities into symbols of high farming. They had a common factor in their religiousness, but it was not this which made them into good farmers. They settled as communities where they intended to stay.

People generally went west to make money. They were not subsistence farmers and the land was going to be made to pay for their investment of labor, of hardship, and often of very little cash. With this commercialization the farmers began to think of themselves much more as a class, even as men set apart. Had not farming biblical sanction? “The Lord God took man and pul him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and keep it” and “Thou shall till the ground from which thou art taken.”

The cardinal point of the agrarian creed was the concept of complete economic independence of the farmer. “A farmer,” cried the Cultivator newspaper in November, 1838, “should scorn the doors of a bank as he would the approach of the plague or cholera; banks are for traders and men of speculation.” The banks returned the compliment. Only recently have they come to see that there is more to farming than a piece of land with a per-acre price tag attached. Bankers at last have begun to realize that rural business improves in direct ratio with the productivity of the soil. But the Federal Reserve System has yet to permit national banks to accept loans secured by forest land. This, however, may come with the provision of some sort of forest fire insurance.

With the almost hostile sentiment towards the city — and who shall say that. it was not returned in urban contempt for the hayseed? went a strong resistance to “book” farming coupled with an eager acceptance of advances in mechanical technology, attitudes which persist to this day.

It was not an easy land to which the settlers came, but it was new and it was richly fertile. They set about mastering it with enthusiasm, vigor, and ingenuity. The trees, the vast hardwood forests of the first area they encountered, were the first to go to axe and flame. After the trees went the grass seas of the prairie which had been inviolate until the means could be found capable of attacking them in the shape of the sod-busting plow. And with these things went too the passenger pigeon and the buffalo, whose passing we may mourn but, if we are honest, without too much regret. Something of the kind was inevitable if the West was to be opened at all.

In those days a man could start farming for himself with small capital. Land was cheap — quantitatively and, more important, qualitatively. Farm equipment requirements were uncomplicated. Tractive power could be bred. It could be fueled from the farm. Essential outgo was small. It was only to be expected that a man should try to reap as much as he could quickly, for he could always take his accumulated capital elsewhere. The homestead laws and other cheap land arrangements were essential for the development of the nation. But cheap and abundant land and falling costs of production owing to mechanical improvement led to drastic ruthlessness in resource practice for which we are paying today both in depletion and in an accumulation of bad habits.

Some of the bad habits are being shucked off more or less quickly. They have to be. Although it is still possible to homestead — in Alaska, for instance — there is no more cheap land, qualitatively speaking, and the time when an independent living could be made with little more than a strong right arm is long past. Nowadays a man setting out to farm must command considerable capital. A productive, well-stocked corn belt farm of 200 acres may need capital of upwards of $40,000 just to start. Or he must join the 30 per cent of American farmers as a tenant. Unless there are carefully drawn leases with security of tenure, reimbursement for improvements, and clauses for the maintenance of fertility, tenant farming is bad for the land. As the old English saying goes: —

He that havocs may sit,
He that improves must flit.

That greal, even unique, agency, the Soil Conservation Service. was established in 1935. The preceding years had been distinguished by a widespread and intense drought which, although it was to extend through the 1935 crop season, did in fact reach a climax in the previous year. A series of diastrous dust storms played havoc with the surface soil of the southern Midwestern regions, which were the hardest hit. Cropping systems had contributed to this major agricultural and social disaster and the S.C.S. set up a program to anchor the soil and to minimize the effect of a similar occurrence in the future.

The human implications of the drought became even more tragic by reason of the depression. The Department of Agriculture, accepting the necessity of enhancing farm income, had, under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, resorted to direct subsidies paid to farmers for reducing acreages devoted to important staples such as wheat, cotton, hogs, and so on. These subsidies performed their primary purpose but there were loopholes. It was possible, for instance, for an astute farmer simultaneously to get paid for reducing his acreage and, by heavier applications of fertilizer and more intense cultivation, to obtain an actual increase in yield.

This sort of thing, although rather unimportant in the emergency as it existed, contributed to the exasperation of those to whom the idea of subsidy was thoroughly distasteful. In about the last sweeping decision of the unregenerated Supreme Court, the Agricultural Adjustment Act was finally declared unconstitutional in the Hoosac Mills decision of 1936.

The Department of Agriculture, still faced with the necessity of enhancing farm income, decided to turn to practice oriented subsidy. No rightminded man, it was felt, could possibly attack conservation —even though its actual purpose was direct subsidy. The new act — the Agricultural Adjustment and Soil Conservation Act—must surely, they argued, be as unassailable as, in fact, it proved to be. Thus the Soil Conservation Service received its first really wholehearted boost from the parent bureau under the rather dubious circumstances of a slightly cynical device to beat a Supreme Court decision.

During the depression, the bottom dropped out of the land market as well as the market, for produce, thus providing the conditions in which conservation is least likely to be practiced. The mortgage payments must be met, taxes paid — somehow the family must eat. The land suffered from exploitation. The same thing occurred in the forests. In many cases the lumber companies had no course open to them but to produce or go out of business. In the effort to survive they cut hard, forcing down the price of their own product and thus hastening the end of a number of them.

Land scarcity, high land values, and the necessity for heavy investment in equipment and stock provide the atmosphere for conservation land use. And when there are also strong demand and high prices for farm and forest products the pressure to realize on resource capital is further eased. The owner is in the chips nnd can afford to work his property on a long-term basis. The big lumber and paper companies know this and they take infinite pains to protect their sources of raw materials. Of necessity they have heavy investments in plant and land. The area on which they can draw for raw materials is circumscribed, if only by the economics of the business. If they cut faster than trees can grow, a term is set automatically on their operations. They are fixtures, even if there were anywhere else for them to go.

People practice conservation when they can afford to and when they can foresee the pinch ahead if they do not. As long as there are new frontiers and new lands for exploitation, which is the same thing as saying when land prices are low, conservation land use goes by the hoard. This is the conclusion which history provides.

New frontiers might appear in our own time. The biochemist might find a way to make yeast proteins as cheap and as attractive as sirloin steak — in which case that highly inefficient converter of plant proteins, the beef steer, would quickly disappear from the landscape. Or the engineers might learn how to desalt the sea and turn fens of thousands of square miles of desert into cheap, productive, and easily worked land. Or the chemists might perfect their super fibers. These things are possible, and if one is to believe the eminent speakers at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, they are even imminent.

If these or similar new frontiers were to arise, there would be small need for land, nnd conventional resource users would inevitably turn to exploitation merely to make a living. But possible as biochemical and other solutions may be, there is only one wise course: to conserve and to use our resources with respect. If we do not, we are likely to be in for a long and hungry wait for the first test tube meal.