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Revisiting history: Before Columbus

Joel Stonington
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Charles Mann’s latest book has brought into the public consciousness the idea that the Americas before Columbus were not the empty wilderness many of us believed them to be. “It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere,” writes Mann in “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.” “Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.”Mann kicks off the Aspen Writer’s Foundation’s winter speaker series Friday, Jan. 20, at 5:30 p.m. at the Given Institute.”If you get bored listening to the droning lecture you can look at the pictures,” said Mann of the event, the first of six lectures in Winter Words 2006. “I have some great photos of Native American impact on the environment. I didn’t take them so I can say that. These other people’s pictures are really great.”The ideas presented in “1491” show that civilizations and cultures were more highly developed and populated than is commonly thought. “There are historical accounts,” he said. “As people have begun surveying the Amazon in great detail, it seemed to me evident that there was a long human presence there.”A further revelation is how much the land has changed over time.”I grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest,” said Mann. “It was kind of a remote place. I always wondered about the people who lived out there first … Gradually as an adult, it dawned on me, that at least part of this land could not be untouched wilderness. In reality, hardly any of it is what you would call untouched wilderness.”But looking at historical records, Mann came to believe that leaving the land untouched might not be as helpful as managing it.”If you think of wilderness, then all you can do to help it along is to stay away. But people want to help and participate,” he said. “It’s much more a thing of how can we fix this, how can we help create something that’s really beautiful?

“Many native cultures thought of it this way: What do we want this place to look like tomorrow? Let’s make it. It’s a pretty impressive record.”In “1491,” Mann explains how the Wari people in Peru decided to terrace the entirety of a major canyon. “It’s really kind of eye-popping,” he said. “It’s not wilderness. But it’s a really wonderful place to be, immense, rich, lush and beautiful.”Another example of this tension can be found in the San Francisco peaks in the Colorado Plateau, which are sacred to the Hopi and Navajo, Mann said. Here, a controversial ski area is hoping to pump treated wastewater for snowmaking. “Would you use reclaimed sewage water for a baptism?” he asked. “This just seems to me to be totally dumb. The Forest Service says it’s treated, so it’s not dirty. However, it’s a very big deal to the Hopi and the Navajo.”And though he believes there likely always will be tension, Mann continued, “If there’s anyone who deserves a break, it’s the Indians. They haven’t been cut one in the last 400 years.”It is not just ideas of the land that have to be reconsidered after reading Mann’s book, however. It is also hard to view the first peoples in the Americas in the same light. “I think that there is a profound tension,” said Mann, mentioning the numerous conflicts in the United States over Native American sacred sites as an example. “They are special, they were here first. I don’t think that the tension is capable of being resolved easily, though I think we could manage it a lot better than we do.”

Mann grew up in rural Washington and went to school at Amherst, in Massachusetts, where he earned an “interdisciplinary, muddled, ’70s degree in math and biology.”After a couple of years in Rome working for the International Daily News, he returned to the United States and began freelancing. He is now a correspondent for Science, The Atlantic and Wired magazines. “1491” is his fifth book. “Sometimes I wonder where the next check is coming from,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride. I was just thrilled it came out. It’s certainly done better than anything that’s had my name on it.”In process of researching and writing “1491,” Mann said his thinking about Native Americans was altered. It didn’t, however, change much about how he sees modern-day America. “This is a pretty amazing country,” he said. “We really screw up every now and then, as in slavery. But we also do really terrific things. Sometimes, like anyone else, I look at the stupidity and arrogance and think, ‘Oh, my God.’ But please, put me on the side of the optimists.”

2006 Winter WordsCharles MannFriday, Jan. 20, 5:30 p.m.at the Given InstituteFrank McCourtSaturday, Jan. 28, 5:30 p.m.at the Wheeler Opera HouseAnn Patchett Wednesday, Feb. 15, 5:30 p.m. at the Given InstituteLorraine Adams Thursday, Feb. 23, 5:30 p.m.,at the Given InstituteKent Haruf Saturday, March 4, 5:30 p.m. at the Given InstituteJames PattersonSaturday, March 18, 5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera HouseJoel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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