While spending too much time enthralled in the world of the internet, I came across a thread where someone was asking a general question about visiting America. The question came from a European who wanted to know where he/she should go and how they should spend two weeks in the United States. I was intrigued by what people might suggest, and by what others would think of as worthwhile and uniquely American. After clicking on the link to view the responses to this question, I found that the first handful of answers were all about the national parks. People stressed the worth and beauty of the national parks and suggested that these sites are not only worth visiting because of their beauty, but also because they are unique to American heritage. These comments immediately reminded me of our recent reading from Wilderness and the American Mind.
The reading, The American Wilderness, discusses the overwhelming desire of members of the New World to create their own culture, their own nationalism. While trying to develop a uniquely American culture to establish an identity for the New World, many agreed that what was most unique and desirable about this world was its wildness. It offered a vast wilderness where one could recognize “the hand of God.” This wilderness inspired the first sentiments of nationalism in the New World, and in turn, the development of its own culture through the creation of new styles of visual art and literature. For example, many of the stories of this time were seen as “preeminently American fiction because they bore the stamp of the unique in the American environment” (p. 76). However, this unique culture of wilderness that inspired a sense of national identity and pride was embraced with conflicting emotions. The people of the New World were still attached to the civilized society of the Old World; wilderness, rather than becoming a national identity, became something to be admired, but eventually conquered. Therefore, it seems that wilderness itself did not define American culture and nationalism, but rather the discovering of, and colonizing of wilderness became America’s true identity. America was established under the conflicted emotions of a people caught between worlds. Wilderness was a clean slate; it was not necessarily something to be a part of, or called upon as a national identity, but something to be altered to form a national identity.
The members of the New World wanted to announce their superiority as owners of a vast landscape, yet still secretly desired to be like Europe. New Americans, no matter how much pride they obtained from the notion that “their country was different: wilderness had no counterpart in the Old World,” still longed to be as civilized and established as Europe. Therefore, in a way, America established its culture on contradictory ideals. What was found most appealing and inspiring about the New World was the vastness and rarity of its landscape. However, the pride in wilderness was not solely an appreciation of its existence for its own sake; wilderness offered an opportunity to discover and establish a civilization. Therefore, National Parks may be seen as artifacts of a culture we claim to
have had, but abandoned for the pursuit of a more civilized, more European society.
On the other hand, this view may be too critical. Wilderness itself, as well as the concept of wilderness, plays a large role in American culture, but it is discouraging to realize how quickly it was disregarded by the pioneers. What would American culture be if we had continued to bask in the pride of the uniqueness of wilderness itself, instead of secretly trying to be like Europe? Our conflicting desires to be members of both wilderness and civilized society become clear when reading, Wilderness and the American Mind, and discovering what artists and writers were creating and thinking during that time. One example of this cultural expression may be found in the detailed descriptions of Fenimore Cooper’s, The Leatherstocking stories:
Leatherstocking […] was the ideal pioneer because he honored the wilderness and used it respectfully. Cooper put his condemnation of the exploiter into Leatherstocking’s mouth. […] While Cooper could appreciate the strength of Natty’s position, his own attitude was more complex. Attraction to the wilderness and sadness at its disappearance was only part of his thinking. Cooper knew that civilization also had its claims and that ultimately they must prevail. The elimination of wilderness was tragic, but it was a necessary tragedy; civilization was the greater good. […] The Leatherstocking novels gave Cooper’s countrymen reason to feel both proud and ashamed at conquering wilderness (p.77).
Cooper’s outlook leads me to question where we got the notion that one good must conquer the other, that one must prevail. After discovering Cooper’s feelings regarding wilderness and civilization, we may realize the beginnings of the wilderness concept which suggests that we are not members of wilderness, but still long to be a part of it. Thomas Cole also expresses this desire for both wilderness and civilized society: “The European experience led Cole to idealize a combination of the wild and the civilized […] Cole’s canvas implied the idea Henry David Thoreau accepted as axiomatic: man’s optimum environment is a blend of wilderness and civilization” (p. 81).
After analyzing the views of early American writers and artists, as well as realizing the unique role wilderness plays in American heritage, I am left wondering why we do not strive harder to have our cake and eat it too. I am constantly reminded of the theme of separation as it applies to society and nature. The natural world has been, and still seems to be a major aspect of American culture. However, we still seem to be struggling with the question of how to continue to grow as a society while at the same time sustaining and protecting the natural world. This thought brings me to various questions: what makes us think that we can only have one or the other; why did we ever have to make such a distinction between the success of civilized society and the existence of wilderness; why can we not think of ourselves as being members of the natural world, living and growing with it, not against it?