Voices in the Wilderness


The other day, I stumbled on a pair of headlines whose proximity to one another spoke volumes: “Palin: U.S. troops sent to Iraq on a ‘task that is from God,'” and “Ice shelf the size of Manhattan breaks off.” It was a rude reminder that even as the Earth heats up and the planet’s living systems unravel, a virulent strain of the body politic is keen to perpetuate oil war in the Lord’s name. Tellingly, these same folks propound a strikingly shortsighted “alternative” energy solution: “Drill here! Drill now!”

The good news is that the United States has a rich tradition of resistance to unholy plunder. As the anthology American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau makes abundantly clear, each generation since the mid-19th century has produced visionary dissidents who have sounded the alarms of a planet in peril. Such truth-telling has made environmentalism the buzzkill of consumer culture, but also spawned important reforms.

The bad news is that despite prescient observations and clear-eyed prescriptions, often rendered in heart-wrenchingly lovely prose, the lions of the environmental movement-Muir, Leopold, Carson, et al.-have been unable to halt the runaway train of American excess. The captains of “progress” have had singular success branding the prophets of doom as “whack jobs” while keeping the land safe for big box stores and genuflecting oil pumps. Meanwhile, toxins poison the water and air, wildlife species decline, and temperatures rise.

American Earth comprises some 100 writings sure-handedly selected and introduced by editor Bill McKibben. Individual entries take a variety of forms, from book excerpts, essays, and speeches to straightforward reportage, memoir, and even poetry. Organized chronologically, they offer a vivid view of the state of the natural world through the years, and of the evolution of environmental thinking and activism.

From the get-go, as multiple authors reveal, Europeans set upon the New World like a swarm of locusts. In his seminal essay “On the Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” historian Lynn White Jr. locates the source of the problem in a Judeo-Christian cosmology that sets man and nature at odds, giving the former dominion over the latter and the license to subdue it. Environmental historian William Cronon sees religious tradition as a philosophical backstop to pure, unadulterated greed. “Hopes for great windfall profits had fueled New World enterprises ever since the triumphs of Cortes, and were reinforced by traditions as old as the Garden of Eden,” he writes in Changes in the Land, his book exploring New England Indians’ relationship to the environment.

American Earth

Once the deluge of dominion had commenced, it seems nothing could turn the tide. The newcomers brought with them firearms, farm implements, cattle, and crops. European man “instinctively cleared away everything unfamiliar to him,” writes Donald Culross Peattie in a 1936 piece called “Birds That Are New Yorkers.”

“The buffalo was monarch here, but wild, untamed, unpedigreed, and the white man preferred domesticated, servile cattle . . . He upset the balance of nature, and never since has he been able to restore it.”

Not everyone was content to silently acquiesce to the destruction of the natural world. In 1841, the celebrated artist of Native American scenes, George Catlin, issued a scathing denunciation of the slaughter of Great Plains bison-carnage that hastened the demise of the Indians who depended on them. Buffalo hides had become all the rage among Easterners, who wore them as robes and hung them as ornaments on their sleighs.

“It is not enough in this polished and extravagant age, that we get from the Indian his lands, and the very clothes from his back, but the food from their mouths must be stopped, to add a new and useless article to the fashionable world’s luxuries,” Catlin writes in Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.

In 1864, as the Civil War raged, George Perkins Marsh, a former Vermont congressman serving as U.S. ambassador to Italy, called attention to a more insidious and damaging conflict: humankind’s “warfare upon all the forms of animal and vegetable existence around him.” Decrying the rampant deforestation that was destroying the fertility of the land, Marsh writes: “The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even the extinction of the species.” Marsh’s landmark book Man and Nature struck a nerve, leading to the creation Adirondack State Park in New York and changing the way many people thought about their environment.

But most Americans were less interested in conservation than in striking it rich. Even as Eastern populations swelled, the territories west of the Mississippi held out the promise of fresh beginnings. In America, there was always another frontier where the rugged individual could stake his claim, prove his mettle, and amass great wealth. As the nation prospered, many saw evidence of a divine hand at work. Manifest destiny-the idea that the nation was fated to stretch from sea to shining sea-became at once a siren song and the national creed. Even Walt Whitman was caught up in the fever of westward expansion, as reflected in his 1874 poem, “Song of the Redwood-Tree.”

Fresh come, to a new world indeed, yet long prepared,I see the genius of the modern, child of the real and ideal,Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America,heir of the past so grand,to build a grander future.

“Broad humanity” cleared more than just the ground. Passenger pigeons-which once numbered in the billions-were still relatively plentiful in the latter half of the 19th century, but wholesale slaughter by folks with a taste for pigeon pie, along with habitat loss, were taking terrible tolls. Indiana-born author Gene Stratton-Porter recalled her father forbidding her brothers from hunting the birds. “He said that so many were being taken that presently none would be left,” she writes in Tales You Won’t Believe. “That such a thing could happen in our own day as that the last of these beautiful birds might be exterminated, no one seriously dreamed.” The last known passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The decimation of forests and fields was no less frenzied, reaching such a fevered pitch that even Gifford Pinchot, the pro-growth first chief of the Forest Service who believed nature existed to be exploited, lamented the loss of thousands of square miles of fertile soil, prairie, and woodlands. Much of the country’s eroded soil ended up choking waterways like the Mississippi, which by the early 20th century was absorbing some 400 million tons of sediment each year. Pinchot estimated that half the value of public lands was lost to overgrazing, while some 100 billion feet of timber were being consumed every year, far outpacing the rate of new growth.

With the increasing destruction emerged a new generation of environmentalists, none more influential than Sierra Club founder John Muir, who captured the public’s imagination with his ecstatic musings about the peaks and meadows of California’s Sierra range. Defending Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley from a proposed development project, Muir writes: “Nature’s sublime wonderlands . . . have always been subject to attack by despoiling gain-seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, . . . that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great. Thus long ago a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer . . . ” The Tuolumne River was dammed in 1923, flooding Hetch Hetchy.

The list of casualties has only grown as humankind’s swelling ranks have obliterated more and more special places. If history is any guide, those determined to keep global temperatures down, save the Florida panther, reform industrial agriculture, keep Big Oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or simply enjoy their local open space sans Wal-Mart, will need to steel themselves for a long and difficult fight.

The great land grab of American history adds up to one thing, says guru farmer Wendell Berry: ignorance. “All the great changes, from the Indian wars and the opening of agricultural frontiers to the inauguration of genetic engineering, have been made without a backward look and in ignorance of whereabouts,” he writes in 1987’s Home Economics. “We have never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing.”

Berry famously forsook an international life of letters to return to his native Kentucky to farm the land his forebears had nearly destroyed. In reconnecting with a particular patch of earth and lovingly tilling it back to life, Berry found his path to ecological salvation.

“A destructive history, once it is understood as such, is a nearly insupportable burden,” he writes. “In order to affirm the values most native and necessary to me-indeed, to affirm my own life as a thing decent in possibility-I needed to know in my own experience that this place did not have to be abused in the past, and that it can be kindly and conservingly used now.”

Like Berry, many of the writers collected in American Earth grapple with issues of place. Henry David Thoreau spent a life in reverent contemplation of the fields and forests of Concord. Caroline Henderson offers a gritty account of her family’s fight to ride out the storms of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Aldo Leopold gleans timeless wisdom from the Wisconsin wilderness. And Barbara Kingsolver finds peace in the hills of Appalachia and the Arizona desert. The book’s title is itself an invitation to reflect on place. At first blush, the words ring with the majesty of purple mountains and fruited plains. But there’s a strong whiff of colonialism as well. And a potential oxymoron. For wherever Americans have dwelled, the earth has tended to fare badly.

This “reverse King Midas touch,” as organizer Denis Hayes called our toxic presence in a 1970 speech marking the first Earth Day, contrasts sharply with Native American stewardship. Historian William Cronon, in his study of New England Indians, demonstrates that the oft-cited harmony between Native Americans and nature is more than a happy cliché. The Agawam and other agricultural peoples most definitely altered the landscape with their seasonal plantings of corn and consumption of firewood, but the changes they wrought tended to perpetuate life throughout the ecosystem.

M. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa writer, says the essential harmony between Indians and the land reflects a reverence for place, nurtured over thousands of years, a connectedness that stands in marked contrast to the white man’s culture of restless mobility. “The Native American’s attitudes toward the landscape have been formulated over long periods of time, a span that reaches back to the end of the Ice Age. The land, this land is secure in his racial memory,” Momaday writes in the essay “A First American Views His Land.”

Of course, to the victors go the spoils of material wealth . . . and official memory. Nearly 100 writers are featured in American Earth, with selections from 1837 to 2007. It’s not until 1976 that we hear from Momaday, one of a small handful of non-whites to appear in the volume. This lopsided arithmetic is no mere oversight on McKibben’s part. From the earliest days of the movement, environmentalists have been a homogenous bunch with an unfortunate tendency to overlook or even disdain working classes and minorities. As director of the New York Zoological Society, William T. Hornaday was proud to display a pygmy from the Congo alongside an orangutan and other apes in the zoo’s monkey house. Muir himself alternated between celebrating Yosemite’s Native Americans and deriding them as “dirty” and “lazy.”

Attitudes like these, coupled with outright indifference, have created friction between mainstream environmentalists and minorities, who to this day suffer from disproportionately high levels of pollution in their communities. (In Dumping in Dixie, excerpted in the book, Robert Bullard refers to the transmogrification of the so-called NIMBY phenomenon into PIBBY, or place-in-blacks’-backyard). Nonetheless, environmentalists are increasingly embracing “diversity,” understanding that their long-term success hinges on cooperation with Latinos, blacks, Asians and other growing constituencies.

Blind spots and historical prejudices notwithstanding, environmentalists have achieved an impressive legacy of conservation victories, including the system of national parks, wildlife refuges, and national forests; the Endangered Species Act; and the landmark clean air and water protections that we enjoy to this day (despite the unremitting efforts of the current administration to roll them back). American Earth includes the text of one of the country’s most celebrated pieces of environmental legislation, the Wilderness Act of 1964.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the act reads.

Introducing the Wilderness Act, McKibben states, “Congress has never before or since been as poetic, as philosophical, or as selfless and farseeing.” It has never before been so cynical-or realistic-either. As much confession and cry for help as legislation, the Wilderness Act says, in effect, that we cannot be trusted to coexist with nature without ruining it.

Not all is doom and gloom in American Earth. Edward Abbey’s broadside against industrial tourism in the national parks is pure caustic joy; Bob Marshall’s account of his search in the 1930s for the source of Alaska’s Clear River crackles with excitement; Rick Bass’ description of the resettlement of wolves in the lower 48 is nothing short of spine-tingling: “They’re filtering south, even as you’re reading this-moving through the trees, mostly, and eating a deer about every third day; they’re coming down out of Canada . . . “

In the hands of an able writer, beauty can crop up in the oddest places. “In junkyard as in wilderness there is danger: shards of glass, leaning jacks, weak chains; or rattlesnakes, avalanches, polar bears. In one as in the other you expect the creativity of the random, how the twisted metal protrudes like limbs, the cars dumped at acute, right, and obtuse angles, how the driveways are creeks and rivers,” writes Janisse Ray, evoking the ecology of her “cracker childhood” in Georgia.

American Earth also contains pop culture curiosities such as a piece by P.T. Barnum decrying unsightly billboards, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Gary Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra.” Also included are song lyrics by Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and Marvin Gaye; and speeches by LBJ (on signing the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, a thinly veiled love letter to Lady Bird and her zeal for protecting natural beauty), Teddy Roosevelt, and Al Gore. There is a smattering of visuals, including photos by Ansel Adams and R. Crumb’s nifty cartoon, “A Short History of America.”

But the heart of the work lies in the lyrical prose of Thoreau, Leopold, Berry, and a number of lesser known luminaries who draw from the Earth a wholesome wisdom that appeals to the best angels of human nature and offers-dare I say it?-seeds of hope.

Threats to the planet’s ecological integrity are perhaps graver
than ever. But the
environmental movement is more mature. Author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken likens the rise of a robust, international movement to an immune response, “social antibodies attaching themselves to pathologies of power.” Environmentalism, he says, is nothing short of the planet’s attempt to defend itself.

“Five hundred years of ecological mayhem and social tyranny is a relatively short time for humanity to have learned to understand its self-created pattern of systematic pillage,” Hawken writes in 2007’s Blessed Unrest. “What has changed recently, and has offered evidence that hope may be a rational act despite the onslaught of countervailing data, is the use of connectivity. Individuals are associating, hooking up, and identifying with one another. From that meeting and experience they are forming units, inventing again and again pieces of a larger organism, enjoining associations and volunteers and committees and groups, and assembling these into a mosaic of activity as if they were solving a jigsaw puzzle without ever having seen the picture on its box. The insanity of human destructiveness may be matched by an older grace and intelligence that is fastening us together in ways we have never before seen or imagined.”

John Suval is a writer in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, and co-founder of Waxwing Media (www.waxwingmedia.com).