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The Garden and the Wilderness
And they shall build houses and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards and eat the fruit of them.
We have changed the land and much else.
Little more than five hundred years, a mere tick of the geological chronometer, has passed since the "Discovery" opened a fresh and verdant new world to the Europeans.
Let us begin by briefly suggesting what North America would have looked like to a late-fifteenth-century European who, through some feat of wizardry, could have soared like an eagle across the continent.
He would fly from the east over millions of acres of dark forest, a long line of densely wooded mountains behind the coastal plain, a thousand miles of lush, green prairie. He would see long, wide rivers that made their European counterparts look like modest creeks and vast inland seas empty of traffic save for a few solitary canoes. He would pass over a chain of soaring, snowcapped mountains, deserts punctuated by dreamlike pinnacles and deep canyons, a final chain of high mountains, and then a last narrow coastal area, filled with trees in the north and sere in the south. Beyond would be a wide blue ocean, stretching to who knew what fabled lands. Every detail of the landscape below would be vividly etched through the sparkling air.
Wherever our imaginary adventurer went, he would see few indications of human occupation. Occasionally, thin plumes of smoke from cooking fires would call attention to a Native American village in a small clearing in the woods. Gliding over the glittering white coastal beaches, he might, from time to time, see a line of women gathering shellfish or the wild grapes that grew in profusion along the coastal marshes. At wide intervals, his eye may be drawn to a field ablaze with fires set by tribes to prepare land for their crops of maize, beans, and squash. Above the prairie he might spy, if his eyesight was keen, small groups of men stalking herds of bison that covered the plain like a black carpet. He might also see a band of hunters or warriors walking in file along a narrow footpath through the forest.
Alighting, he would certainly be impressed by the great height and girth of the trees surrounding him. He would sniff appreciatively at the crisp, fragrant air and, looking upward from a clearing in the forest, would admire the deep, vivid blue of the sky. Pausing at the bank of a swiftly flowing river, he would notice how clear it was and would stoop for a drink of the clean, sweet water. If it were the proper season, he would be astonished to see streams thick with salmon and shad, or he might gaze with amazement at a thirty-foot-long sturgeon lying motionless in a deep pool next to a shaded bank. If a shadow suddenly passed across the sun, he would look up to stare at an immense flock of passenger pigeons, their noise, as someone would write much later, sounding from a distance like the ringing of bells. He would delight in the abundance of beaver and, being European, might calculate the price their pelts would fetch in London or Amsterdam. Venturing onto the prairie, he would note the great variety of flowers and shoulder-high grasses. He would look with a hunter's eye at the uncountable deer, antelope, elk, bear, and bison, and at the waterfowl that swarmed by the millions to the shallow ponds that dotted the prairie. This game, and the fish he could easily pull from the lakes and streams, along with some corn and beans he might obtain by trade with the Native Americans he encountered, would make up his diet in this pristine new world.
When the sun fell, our first European would light a fire against the profound darkness of the night. Sitting on the ground, staring into the flames, he would be surrounded by a deep silence, broken, perhaps, by the manic call of a loon, the scream of a panther, or the primal howl of a pack of wolves.
Judging by the records left by European explorers and settlers who would soon follow him to North America, our imaginary adventurer was somewhat overcome by the sheer immensity and, to him, emptiness of the continent. He was frightened by the wild beasts, the tribesmen he could think of only as fierce savages, and the unknown perils of the dark forest. He was lonely, isolated at the edge of an alien realm. But he also had an exhilarating sense of freedom, of openness, of opportunity that contrasted sharply with the sense of limits he had left behind in closed-in, crowded, class-ridden, resource-poor Europe. He was at the threshold of a new life in a fresh, endlessly promising, and abundant new world.
Left to nature—the forces of wind, water, ice, and heat—and to the spare economy of the Native Americans, there would have been little perceptible change in the landscape during the brief cosmic moment since the beginning of the mass migration of Europeans to the Western Hemisphere. The evolution of organic life is a central element of natural change in the landscape.
But the alien invaders did not attune themselves to the continent's natural rhythms. They sought to subdue the land and its people and, employing enormously powerful tools, to impose dominion over nature itself.
As a result, the continent has changed almost beyond recognition in those brief five hundred years. The general contours of the continent, the mountains, the great rivers, the plains, are more or less as they were in the fifteenth century. But virtually all the landscape has been dramatically altered by human activity. The once clear air is opaque from pollution. The magnificent ancient forests have been replaced for the most part by thin, scattered second- and third-growth woods. The wild rivers have turned brown and are tamed by locks and dams. The mountains are scarred by mining and the clear-cutting of their trees. Much of the land is encrusted with cities and wide highways. The natural line of the horizon is broken by smokestacks; skyscrapers; and radio, television, and telecommunication towers; and the sky itself is busy with airplanes and helicopters. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith has observed that America has largely become a place of public squalor in the midst of private affluence.
We are increasingly replacing the natural world with what the social ecologist Murray Bookchin called a "synthetic environment." We have tried, he said, "to bring the laws of the biosphere into accordance with those of the marketplace." We are dependent for our food, our health, our livelihood, the shape of our landscape, and the composition of our air and water on a bewildering array of complex technological, corporate, and governmental systems over which we as individuals have little or no control and which we largely do not even understand. As the ecologist Aldo Leopold pointed out, our civilization is racing far ahead of the slow pace of evolution. The process of evolution tends to elaborate and diversify whereas our technological and economic systems tend to reduce and simplify the biological world. "Man's invention of tools has enabled him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity and scope," Leopold observed.
How have we ourselves changed? How have we reacted to the profoundly altered relationship between ourselves and the natural world? The question is much more difficult to answer in our complex civilization than it was for our fifteenth-century European. However, when we can jet across the country between lunch and dinner or telephone a business associate three thousand miles away in a matter of seconds, the continent no longer seems immense or mysterious or filled with unknown promise. It has been pointed out by Kenneth Boulding, among others, that with the photograph of the small blue Earth against a background of immense space now fixed in our minds, we can no longer think of our planet as anything but finite and vulnerable.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed the thesis that the American character, indeed, the history of America, was forged by the frontier, the ever-advancing line where civilization confronted nature. Each move forward, he argued in his seminal paper The Significance of the Frontier in American History, provided a clean slate and free land where the advancing Americans would develop an independent spirit and a democratic society.
While Turner's thesis is challenged by many historians, there is also ample evidence that the closing of the frontier has affected us profoundly—although our profligacy suggests that many Americans delude themselves that the frontier and its vast resources are still there, just beyond the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Over the past century, we Americans appear to have lost much of our faith in the notion of limitless opportunity, much of our optimism and independence. We feel the paradox of a society that is constantly expanding its control over nature while individuals lose ever more control of their own lives in the artificial environment that has replaced nature. "Can any man look at the subway rush and then speak of those jammed midges as 'lords of creation'?" asked the historians Charles and Mary Beard. From the expansive literature of Melville and Whitman, which took up the great themes of human existence in a world of nature, we have moved to the urban, self-obsessed angst in the novels of Philip Roth and the minimalist world of Donald Barthelme, from which nature has been evicted. From the inviting, romantic landscapes of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand we have moved to the tortured abstractions of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
Hurtling through the air in the cabin of a jet plane at 30,000 feet, sitting in the dark during a power failure, wheezing from the smog during a temperature inversion, immobilized in our powerful cars by gridlock during rush hour, we experience a sharp twinge of anger and helplessness. We sometimes wonder if the machine that now sustains us will someday go permanently out of whack and bring our civilization tumbling down. With Bill McKibben and others, we mourn the end of nature and feel a deep sense of longing for a world with places unspoiled by the works of humanity.
We have, of course, also gained much as we have brought nature under our control. Our labor has been eased, our food and shelter have become more secure. We have reduced the scourge of illness and disease and substantially expanded the number of years we can expect to remain alive. We can communicate and travel over great distances in short periods of time. We can peer into the heart of the atom and into the remotest reaches of the universe. We are able to manipulate the building blocks of life itself.
But the edifice of civilization we have imposed on our natural landscape is quite obviously in disrepair. We have been acting out the classic cartoon image of a man sitting on the branch of a tree and sawing it off behind him.
Let us trace the path that led us into this complex and dangerous predicament. Then we will describe how a great number of Americans have united in a broad social movement called environmentalism—a movement that is attempting to build a desperately needed but difficult and obstacle-strewn road out of this predicament.
Geography as well as history began to change when Christopher Columbus anchored his little fleet off the island of San Salvador. The Western Hemisphere, peopled but touched relatively lightly by human activity, began at that moment to be transfigured. The very fabric of nature on two great continents was to be rewoven by an alien culture.
Like most of those who freely followed them across the western ocean, Columbus and his company risked the voyage to the New World for what they could take from it. They came for gold, for a trade route to the spices of the Indies and other riches of Asia, for land, for goods to sell, for glory, for adventure, for religious and personal freedom, to convert the heathen to Christianity. None came for love of the wild new landscape they had stumbled upon.
And yet, from the very first encounter, there was a certain ambiguity about the way the Europeans viewed the New World. Columbus's journal, as abstracted by Bartolomé de Las Casas, records that on November 3, twenty-one days after his first landfall, Columbus climbed a small mountain on Cuba to take the lay of the land. When he returned to his flagship, "he said that all he had seen was so beautiful that his eyes would never tire beholding so much beauty, and the songs of the birds large and small." The bold and ambitious adventurer was clearly touched by the loveliness of the strange landscape.
The entry for the following day, however, revealed that aesthetics was far from Columbus's chief interest. "This people is very gentle and timid, naked as I have said, without arms or law; these lands are very fertile ... they have beans and kidney beans very different from ours, and much cotton ... and a thousand other kinds of fruit that I can't describe; and all should be very profitable."
In the first days of Europe's conquest of the Americas, a relationship with the land was established that has endured five centuries. It was beautiful, this exotic New World, but beauty was hardly a consideration when compared with the profit that could be made from it. To the conquistadores of Spain, the gentlemen adventurers of England, the seigneurs of France, and those who followed from the grasping, masculine culture of Europe, America was a virgin land, a land to be admired, even loved, but to be deflowered—forcibly when necessary—to satisfy the passions that drove men westward.
It is more than half a millennium since Columbus sighted land, but this ambivalent attitude toward America's landscape and its resources still colors our use of the natural world. We still profess our love of the land and its treasures, but our love rarely interferes with our abuse of them.
Although the explorers, adventurers, and settlers came to seize whatever riches and opportunities the land had to offer, it was what they brought with them, far more than what they took, that changed the face of the continent forever. What they brought was Europe—two thousand or more years of Western history, customs, prejudices, and methodology. They brought European agriculture and its alien crops and domestic animals. They brought European technology, philosophy, religion, and aesthetics, a market economy, and a talent for political organization. They brought European diseases that decimated the native people. They also brought with them European ideas of what the New World was—and visions of what it should be.
One radiant vision that thoroughly captivated the thoughts of Europeans in the seventeenth century and their American descendants was the image of the garden. The discovery of America offered a miraculous opportunity for restoring the Eden of Genesis, for realizing Virgil's ideal pastoral landscape in a new, unspoiled world. The discovery had opened a wide door, Leo Marx noted, to "a new life in a fresh green landscape.... Inevitably the European mind was dazzled by the prospect. With an unspoiled hemisphere in view it seemed that mankind actually might realize what had been thought a poetic fantasy."
North America north of the Rio Grande was already settled by several million indigenous peoples grouped in many tribal societies. Scholars disagree on the number, but it was no more than 20 million and probably under 5 million. Over the centuries, the indigenous people had created their own complex cultures. But the European mind saw only an empty land that offered a chance to create a quiet, fruitful, bucolic life free of the poverty, turmoil, complexity, and decadence of England and the Continent. It was the ideal of the peaceful shepherd living a life of contemplative plenty in a setting of natural but tamed beauty. If the garden was a myth, it nevertheless exercised a powerful hold on the European mind and continues to this day to color the American perception of our landscape.
This pastoral myth, this vision of an idealized America, remains one of the faintly heard grace notes of the modern environmental movement even now, in the twenty-first century. To many of today's environmentalists, the image of what America's true landscape ought to be still continues to inspire dreams of a greener and safer future.
Excerpted from A Fierce Green Fire by Philip Shabecoff. Copyright © 2003 Philip Shabecoff. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Foreword to the Second Edition
Chapter 1. The Garden and the Wilderness
Chapter 2. Subduing Nature
Chapter 3. The Awakening
Chapter 4. Keepers of the House
Chapter 5. Saving Ourselves
Chapter 6. The Environmental Revolution
Chpater 7. Saving Land
Chapter 8. Saving Life
Chapter 9. The Search for Pax Gaia
Chapter 10. The Counterrevolution
Chapter 11. The New People's Army
Chapter 12. The Third Wave
Chapter 13. Ebb Tide
Chapter 14. Rebuilding the House