Ecological systems and the water resources

Circular 414-D




In ancient Sparta there were two principal classes of society, the citizen and the helot. The citizen was trained principally to be a warrior. The helot, a serf, was the tiller of the land but could be called to military duty. The history of Herodotus makes it amply clear that making war was the biggest business of the times. Because the Spartans were always marching off to war with someone, they found the landbound position of their city, located as its is in a small central basin nearly surrounded by mountains, somewhat of a disadvantage. When they were under attack, of course, this situation was a favorable one inasmuch as a seaborne enemy had to march inland to come to grips with the Lacedaemonians. The relatively small size of the independent states meant that the Spartans had no direct access through their own lands to the sea.

There is evidence that the Spartans reached an agreement with surrounding states concerning a free corridor. There would be maintained by all the Grecian states of the Peloponnesus an access route stretching essentially from Sparta to Corinth, through which a marching army could have access to a seaport. As a secondary benefit, this no man's land, which in our western lingo might be called a stock driveway, allowed merchants and their caravans to move freely between the flourishing trading port of Corinth and the inland cities to the south and west.

Apparently one portion of the agreement between the states with regard to the use of this access zone was that there should be no permanent agricultural or grazing in the driveway. As a result, through several centuries B.C. during which there was high population density in the Aegean area, one strip of land was exempted from the pressures of grazing, lumbering, and agriculture which characterized most of the rest of the landscape. Today this driveway maintains a forest cover. In contrast, mountainsides nearby with an even larger annual rainfall support hardly a tree.

It is not entirely apparent why subsequent centuries did not see this area denuded. Even with the scanty details known to me it seems clear that the peculiar history of this one area potentially offers us a greater insight into some aspects of forest and land conditions of classical times than extant written records. The several references to sources of timber and cutting of forests contained in the vivid chronicle of Herodotus are valuable, but they lack species identification for the most part. Though rich in human understanding and psychological insight, his history strongly resembles the travel sagas of the Spanish Conquistadors of our Southwest, who had no real eye for "country." Even a careful reading of the works of early travelers such as Coronado, Garces, and Espejo, gives no picture of the nature of the country, its vegetation, or its rivers.

To describe a biota there is no substitute for a sample. It is logical to ask what one might want to know which would require the preservation of a sample. Whether such a question is asked at all is a reflection on the stage of intellectual maturity of a civilization. We take for granted that there is social gain in the erection and maintenance of a museum of fine arts, a museum of natural history, or a historical museum. Sooner or later we should be mature enough to extend this concept to include a "museum" consisting of samples of land types as nearly as possible unaffected by man.

Additional publication details

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USGS Numbered Series
Ecological systems and the water resources
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U.s. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Washington, D.C.
6 p.
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Presented before the Sixth Biennial Wilderness Conference, sponsored by California Academy of Science, San Francisco, Calif, March 20-21, 1959
Conference Title:
Sixth Biennial Wilderness Conference
Conference Location:
San Francisco, CA
Conference Date:
March 20-21, 1959