Living my entire life in New Jersey I am very familiar with the standard lawn + 2 trees look of most front yards. While some go to greater extremes than others to take care of their property than others (these are usually the same people whose lawn runoff includes copious amounts of various pesticides), the look of having short grass and a tree here or there is essentially ubiquitous. Even when I took a course in environmental design analysis freshman year, despite all the various endemic bushes or flowers that could be planted the overall look that people go for is wide open spaces punctuated by some trees. Why is this so? In nearly every other aspect of life people have a wide variety of different tastes, the ability to customize and individualize increasing with technological advances, but yet we all seem drawn to the same type of living environment. The answer lies further back than many like to think about.
When I first heard about the concept of “Pleistocene memories” I can’t say I immediately subscribed to it. This is partly because of the way it was explained, making it sound almost like humans share a communal memory bank or the gravitation to similar habitat was some sort of meme, which to be honest made about as much sense to me at the time as psychic powers. The idea was exceedingly intriguing, however, and the habitats we create for ourselves seem to reflect our past as humans. The Pleistocene ranged from approximately 1.8 million years ago to about 11,550 thousand years ago, sandwiched between the Pliocene and Holocene epochs. This was an interesting time in evolution, some of the first Hominids (the Australopithecines) appearing in the late Pliocene, furthering the transition from the trees to land. The cradle for this evolution, of course, was Africa, and its appearance today gives us some clues as to what may have happened to drive the evolution of “Lucy” and her kind.
Think of an African Savannah today; lots of grass punctuated by a few trees here and there. Seems familiar, doesn’t it? I have yet to know anyone who prefers dry, tan grass and Acacia trees to a neatly groomed lawn with a maple or two, but even so the overall similarity is important. During this time when Hominids were still transitioning between being more chimp-like to more human-like, they walked the plains while still being able to climb up into the trees for safety or to rest. Deadly carnivores like saber-toothed cats were with us until the end of the Pleistocene, with other predators like cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas already present as well. To say the least, it was not a very safe time to be the living equivalent to spam: soft, pink, and not too many bones/horns/natural defenses. Such dangers could very well helped drive intelligence through natural selection; those who could outsmart their predators or even exterminate predators through weapon usage would be more likely to survive than those with lesser faculties.
Despite all our advances in technology and increases in intelligence since the Pleistocene, there is still something disturbing about some places at night. This past May I spent a week in Stokes State Forest in norther New Jersey, spending my nights in a lean-to normally used by boy scouts. There was nothing to illuminate the path back to my 3-walled resting place at night, the overabundance of black bears on my mind (I actually saw a 600 lbs + black bear gallop through the woods during my time there). I was fairly certain I would come to no harm, but nonetheless there was something primal in me that was not comfortable with being in the dark woods where I could not see what was around me nor escape up a tree (the lowest branches being well above my heads) should I run into danger. This isn’t the say the African savanna is safer by comparison, but it seems that being able to see a good distance in all directions and be able to scale trees that are not strayed far from would allow for better survival than having to be constantly on guard in the woods, where danger could be around every tree or rock.
I think children are more in tune to our comfort with trees than adults are, remembering me own adventures in the backyard dogwood tree. It was easy to climb with lots of low branches, and at one point I even removed the close-string from my jacket hood, tied it to a branch, and attempted to swing from the limbs (my mother soon put a stop to this). Of course, humans today are not nearly as adept in trees as our ancestors were, not being able to even compete with contemporary primates in the area of arboreal life, but there is something oddly alluring and even comforting in being able to scale a tree. Humans have long since eliminated most big predators from our areas of settlement (although ecological mismanagement has allowed bears, cougars, leopards, coyotes, and others to find niches among us) so the daily fears of our forebears is not experienced today but there is something about the way our brains are built that keeps going back to the environmental design of the savanna. We may not consciously think about it, but being able to see for some distance around a safe refuge seems to have evolved from an issue of daily survival to a design preference for our homes. This could be coincidence as well, but there is often more going on in our own minds and in our own history than many care to think about, and I for one see a little bit of an attempt to recreate the past in every over-managed, chemical-ridden lawn I pass by on my way to work every morning.