Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reflections on Wilderness of the American Mind

Paul Fischer
Professor Mark Budolfson

Reflections on Wilderness of the American Mind: Introduction and Prologue

The nature of Wilderness has its roots in the Near East and took a new conceptualization with the spread of civilization to the barbarians of Europe. Primary influential factors included wilderness as a source of refuge for the purpose of religious freedom and coinciding demonization of the forces of nature located in the peripheries to human settlement. Use of the wilderness as a refuge from corrupt societal functions even lead to the excommunication of Peter Waldo, for example, in 1184. The value to such monks and seekers of religious freedom doubled as they often fostered a desire for the apostolic practices.
Of especial interest is the notion that the origins of wilderness in the Far East were fundamentally tied to the scarcity of water in the region. As the concept of wilderness as an object of fear progressed to the European winterlands, the Hebrew and Greek roots remained in words but a new fantastical folklore arose around nature. This varied dramatically based on the regional dispositions of tribes and communities. In the South a blood-drinker with anvil-sized breasts was the typification of the evil which lurked in the woods, while Northern accounts, in modern day Germany, represented a more mischievous demon who replaced others children with her own. These differences also reflect religious delineations between the regions and their ancient beliefs of the nature of good and evil.
Religious conceptualization of the Wilderness in the Far East attracted monks for an entirely different reason; ancient Chinese sought out the wilderness as intrinsic to the fundamental force of good which was believed to exist in nature. Artistic celebration of landscapes also predated Western attempts to accomplish this goal by over a thousand years. Kuo Hsi can be quoted to emphasize this point as, “haze,mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks” (Nash, 45).

A Wilderness Condition

Both of these former approaches have been discarded with the monotonous hack of the American pioneers’ axes against the pines, oaks and redwoods of various regions of the new world. Instead a utilitarian approach to nature became adopted. What was a refuge or a goal to attain became instead a battlefield. One sewn with sawdust in place of blood and toppled crowns in place of fallen flags.
The utilitarianism of the colonization of the new world fostered an appreciation which was new to Western approaches towards nature and that filtered home to Europe (Nash, 49). This is apparent in the work of a Londoner who had not yet set foot in the New World, writing of nature: “the melanchollyest eye in the World cannot look upon it without contentment, nor content himselfe without admiration.” This was not indicative of the dominant view of nature, however, and was perhaps a remnant of a misplaced belief in the existence of a second Eden in North America.
In an era of French magnificence and the organized garden redefining the boundaries and terminology behind nature, enumeration of the cross-distinctive wilderness and garden encompasses the naval demands of a new era. Just as the etymological notion of wilderness transformed radically to include the religious communities and tribes of Europe centuries before from the Near East, the vast expanses of oceans and land once off-limits now patrolled and battled for brought serpents and savages to the forefront of European writing at the time. Finally, a new perspective was brought to the intrusion of man upon wilderness and Yale’s president wrote in 1782 that proximity to the great woods tended to regulate inhabitants (Nash, 54). Establishing the nature of social constructs in the context of exploration had been born along with the United States of America.

Romanticism of Wilderness

By the late 1700s, the conceptualization of American wilderness had ceased to be one of conceptual clarity or necessity and instead became the manifestation of fashionable restraint. It became impossible to be considered a well groomed young man or woman in Europe without experiencing the wilderness first hand. Writers at the time lamented that “by virtue of Feathered beds and warm apartments, Mankind are the great losers” and that “In vain does the mind try to roam in the midst of cultivated plains… but in this deserted region the soul delights to bury and lose itself amidst forests… to mix and confound… with the varied sublimities of Nature” (Nash, 73-75). Comparisons with such unhappy exiles as Nebuchadnezzar evolved into fulfillment of religious and spiritual abandon.
As religion reeled during this period with the introduction of the industrial era and modern scientific thought, a generation of Romantic poets found spiritual solace and religious fulfillment in the woods. Estwick Evans wrote “how great are the advantages of solitude! -How sublime is the silence of nature’s ever-active energies! There is something in the very name of wilderness, which charms the ear, and soothes the spirit of man. There is religion in it” (Nash, 80).

The American Wilderness

Religion and patriotism played together in a way that may seem inextricable by modern terms. Thomas Cole predicted the wild shores would be covered with “temple, and tower, and dome, in every variety of picturesqueness and magnificence” (Nash, 105). In this way nationalism became a fundamental part of making art change the landscape. The Hudson School of landscape painting anticipated the architectural movements that would follow it eagerly. In some cases Congress paid artists tens of thousands of dollars to preserve the transient beauty of the American Wilderness on the canvass-based medium.
Patriotism and changing fashion sensibilities in Europe regarding the nature of the dark, the dank, and the gloomy illuminated efforts to bring civilization to the American frontier. As a gentlemanly trait, it became necessary for the young to look upon the mountains, streams and forests to consider themselves a well-rounded member of Boston’s society. Still, even with the changing tide from fear of the Native American tribal presence and the terrain to an eager quest for inundation, some Europeans such as Joel T. Headley even went so far as to proclaim the Adirondacks superior to “the Alps, so celebrated in history and by all travellers and admirers of mountain landscape, cannot… present a scenery more wild, more rugged, more grand, more romantic, and more enchantingly picturesque and beautiful,” (Nash, 98).
Henry David Thoreau: Philosopher

In front of others, Henry David Thoreau demonstrated a new understanding of preservation of civilization through the wilderness. Thoreau introverted the work of the Hudson River school and affirmed the intersection that occurred with the concurrence that “man’s optimum environment is a blend of wildness and civilization” (Nash, 105). Outdated terms such as pioneer and frontier were thrown aside and the new wilderness was prepared for embrace. Instead of being purely nationalistically American, pioneer, or native, the Transcendentalists found that nature and wilderness were the domain and within the reach of every individual.
To defend the half-savage approach, American idealization of the pastoral had to be redefined through establishment of a new equality between two extremes. This is combined in the utopia of Orestes Brownson, enabling “all the individual freedom of the savage state with all the order and social harmony of the highest degree of civilization” (Nash, 117-8). He fundamentally recast the early Romantic or nationalistic type sets as work to champion civilization, “Let me live where I will… on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness” (Nash, 108).

Preserve the Wilderness!
By the late 1800s, historians such as Francis Parkman, Jr. of Boston began to publish books such as The California and Oregon Trail that told of the breakage of the American Wilderness. A lawyer from Albany, Samuel H. Hammond, applauded the march in classic pioneer terms, declaring around a campfire, “the march of civilization has crossed a continent… making the old wilderness blossom as a rose” (Nash, 128). What was once described as the apocalyptic awakening of a virgin continent seemed to have some use for the bridles of civilization after all.
Parkman would fervently disagree, strengthening the language used to describe the decrepit destitution of American wilderness even on his deathbed at the end fo the century. Of 1873, he wrote, “cities… hotels and gambling-houses… polygamous hordes of Mormon…  and the disenchanting screech of the locomotive … [broke] … the spell of weird mysterious mountains” (Nash, 124).
Wilderness Preserved

One of the most memorable quotes from the book is from the debate surrounding the Yellowstone Act in 1872. While the Act would later be challenged, this established one of the earliest organized political efforts to protect the wilderness in the world. In order to ensure its passage one stated “in a few years, the railroad with its iron web will bind the free forest, the lakes will lose their solitude, the deer and moose will flee to a safer resort… and men with axe and spade will work out a revolution” (Nash, 140). That is the rhetoric that established national support for the environment.
These supporters would include at least one president later. In the meantime, a congressman, George G. Vest also describes the need for a “great Breathing-place for the national Lungs” (Nash, 137). These early methods are important, as well as the establishment of environmentalism as a platform sustainable by successful politicians, even if it was not yet a mainstream condition, this could certainly be described as “watershed” argument.

John Muir: Publicizer

As one of the most conflicted figures in environmental history, John Muir successfully reassigned the transformation of the movement and helped to define the boundaries within which it would exist. He was conflicted, however, both because of his work that gained unprecedented success, and because of the converging European ideas that were reaching American conservationists. “Muir could no longer hope the reserves would remain wild” (Nash, 161), and in establishing the early environmental movement concessions had to be made, even to recognize new trends such as responsible harvesting of lumber instead of leaving land to the grip of wilderness.
Like Thoreau, “at the outset John Muir and his followers tried to keep a foot in both camps, recognizing the claims of both wilderness and Civilization to the American Wilderness” but was frustrated by the desire of Americans for expansion. As a rising power, even Yosemite National Park only won on a technicality, demonstrating a new method of environmental defense from within the woodwork to be sure, as the thirst for raw the resources of lumber and hydro drowned out the calls of such early environmentalists.

The Wilderness Cult

One of the early supporters of the wilderness was Teddy Roosevelt, who gained political support by writing about his experience working to conserve in “The Winning of the West” and campaigned widely for the newly found topic. This was part of a larger trend described earlier in which the wilderness was returning to popular mainstream culture in the United States. “Before the 1890s it was generally assumed that because the frontiersman was good… the wilderness was bad” (Nash, 186). If John Muir was the publicizer of the natural assets of the land, then Roosevelt became a champion for the effort.
Political efforts for the environment also entered a new era of deliberation, and this was demonstrated in the battle for Yosemite National Park. Ironically, as President, while giving an ear to Muir, he also spelled doom for early efforts to establish permanent protected wilderness. In order to sustain national resources such as lumber that reflected the general power of the nation, it was necessary to allow responsible harvesting and other practices that environmentalists such as Muir grew to loath.

Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy is the site of a proposed reservoir at Yosemite National park. Roosevelt’s true colors came to display here as he turned a cold shoulder to preservationists who decried the effort, and the planned motor park and dam that accompanied it. Roosevelt was like most, in that “very few favored the dam because they opposed wilderness” but instead were ignorant of the demands of the wilderness and to the risk that would be posed by the work (Nash, 205). The success in fighting this effort marked an important use of expert testimony that would become typical of not just environmental movements, but political action in general. Through catching the technicalities and exaggerations of claims in regard to the efficacy of the reservoir in addressing severe water quality issues in a nearby town, environmental leaders were able to claim an important and lasting victory.
Given the natural support of the American people, “the first task of the Preservationists was to capitalize on the wilderness cult and replace ignorance with anger” (Nash, 188). It would be a difficult task indeed to turn a few dedicated into the mainstream success that followed in coming decades.

Aldo Leopold: Prophet

Perhaps an engineer by trade, and one who took longer than most to recognize their potential, Aldo Leopold came to be known as among the most defining names in the history of the environmental movement. Like Einstein, it is probable that he would have spent his days in obscurity and performing a technical job in engineering or perhaps military work had a few articles on wildlife that he wrote had not received massive national attention in his mid-20s. He recognized a critical moment in the development of the wilderness in which “needed was a new criterion which would redefine a progressive environment as one that valued and preserved its remaining wilderness” and seized upon it to expand the goals of conservationists beyond the city parks and organized lumberjacks to include the demands of wilderness (Nash, 212).
One component of this was the incorporation of wildlife into the definition of wilderness, something that would prove important later as critics complained that wilderness had no being or beneficiary, but claims should be made on behalf of the animals there instead.

Decisions for Permanence

Leopold’s work was not lost when he passed away. Instead, innovative and groundbreaking efforts to confront the opposition remained the norm for environmentalists. The ability to use the opposition’s tools to obtain objectives is demonstrated in the Colorado River Storage Project. In addition, the use of precedent through complementary fields can be seen with the exhibition of the Dinosaur National Monument.
When an attempt was made to dam the Grand Canyon, arguments were made for the efficacy of a coal plant instead. The strength of preservationists who rallied to save the national landmark is apparent in the final verdict that, “the burden of proof… rests on the dambuilders” (Nash, 258).

Toward a Philosophy of Wilderness

Finally environmentalism had reached the mainstream political movement that composes a facet of nearly every political platform, as is the case today. Arguments still remain, such as the extent and nature of wilderness. No one argues for the existence of the movement anymore, though with the exploration of space politicians came close by claiming Mars as America’s wilderness why do we need more? With the elevated levels of carbon dioxide on that planet, it may well be the best example of how important pre-emptive environmental stewardship can be.
It is interesting to note the changes that have occurred in the movement bring up new questions, for example “with the approach of the 1990 centennial of the ending of the frontier, they began to think in more general and systematic terms. As the viewpoint that had to be answered, the modern case against wilderness deserves more scrutiny” (Nash, 263). The frontier has already closed, but somehow the wilderness remains open and it would be advisable to keep this trend the case.


Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American mind. Yale University Press, 2014.

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