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Wilderness and the American Mind
By RODERICK FRAZIER NASH
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2001 Yale University
All rights reserved.
Old World Roots of Opinion
The land is the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness.
European discoverers and settlers of the New World were familiar with wilderness even before they crossed the Atlantic. Some of this acquaintance was first-hand, since in the late Middle Ages a considerable amount of wild country still existed on the Continent. Far more important, however, was the deep resonance of wilderness as a concept in Western thought. It was instinctively understood as something alien to man—an insecure and uncomfortable environment against which civilization had waged an unceasing struggle. The Europeans knew the uninhabited forest as an important part of their folklore and mythology. Its dark, mysterious qualities made it a setting in which the prescientific imagination could place a swarm of demons and spirits. In addition, wilderness as fact and symbol permeated the Judeo-Christian tradition. Anyone with a Bible had available an extended lesson in the meaning of wild land. Subsequent Christian history added new dimensions. As a result, the first immigrants approached North America with a cluster of preconceived ideas about wilderness. This intellectual legacy of the Old World to the New not only helped determine initial responses but left a lasting imprint on American thought.
The value system of primitive man was structured in terms of survival. He appreciated what contributed to his well-being and feared what he did not control or understand. The "best" trees produced food or shelter while "good" land was flat, fertile, and well watered. Under the most desirable of all conditions the living was easy and secure because nature was ordered in the interests of man. Almost all early cultures had such a conception of an earthly paradise. No matter where they were thought to be or what they were called, all paradises had in common a bountiful and beneficent natural setting in accord with the original meaning of the word in Persian—luxurious garden. A mild climate constantly prevailed. Ripe fruit drooped from every bough, and there were no thorns to prick reaching hands. The animals in paradise lived in harmony with man. Fear as well as want disappeared in this ideal state of nature.
If paradise was early man's greatest good, wilderness, as its antipode, was his greatest evil. In one condition the environment, garden- like, ministered to his every desire. In the other it was at best indifferent, frequently dangerous, and always beyond control. And in fact it was with this latter condition that primitive man had to contend. At a time when there was no alternative, existence in the wilderness was forbidding indeed. Safety, happiness, and progress all seemed dependent on rising out of a wilderness situation. It became essential to gain control over nature. Fire was one step; the domestication of some wild animals another. Gradually man learned how to control the land and raise crops. Clearings appeared in the forests. This reduction of the amount of wilderness defined man's achievement as he advanced toward civilization. But progress was slow. For centuries the wild predominated over the precarious defenses thrown up against its influence. Men dreamed of life without wilderness. Significantly, many traditions located paradise on an island or in some other enclosed area. In this way the wild hinterland normally surrounding and threatening the first communities was eliminated. Wilderness had no place in the paradise myth.
The wilds continued to be repugnant even in as relatively advanced civilizations as those of the Greeks and Romans. The celebrations of nature, which abound in classical literature, are restricted to the cultivated, pastoral variety. The beautiful in nature was closely related to the fruitful or otherwise useful. The Roman poet of the first century B.C., Titus Lucretius Carus, spoke for his age in De Rerum Natura when he observed that it was a serious "defect" that so much of the earth "is greedily possessed by mountains and the forests of wild beasts." Apart from the areas man had civilized, it "is filled full of restless dread throughout her woods, her mighty mountains and deep forests." Yet Lucretius took hope because "these regions it is generally in our power to shun."
Turning to history, Lucretius drew a grim portrait of precivilized life in the wilderness. Men lived a nightmarish existence, hounded by dangers on every hand and surviving through the ancient code of eat or be eaten. With obvious satisfaction, Lucretius related how the race escaped this miserable condition through the invention of clothing, metals, and, eventually, "ships, agriculture, city walls, laws, arms, roads." These enabled man to control wild nature and achieve relative security. Cultural refinements and "all charms of life" followed the release from the wilderness.
When Lucretius, Horace, Virgil and their contemporaries confessed their love of "nature" and expressed a desire to leave the towns for a "natural" way of life, they meant the pastoral or rural environment. Lucretius, for one, applauded the efforts of the first farmers whose labor "forced the forests more and more to climb the mountain-sides." This made room for the cultivated landscape that was so highly prized. It consisted of "fields, ... crops, and joyous vineyards, and a gray-green strip of olives to run in between and mark divisions, ... adorned and interspersed with pleasant fruits, and fenced by planting them all round with fruitful trees." If this was the ideal, wilderness could only be forbidding and repulsive.
While inability to control or use wilderness was the basic factor in man's hostility, the terror of the wild had other roots as well. One was the tendency of the folk traditions of many cultures to associate wilderness with the supernatural and monstrous. There was a quality of mystery about the wilderness, particularly at night, that triggered the imagination. To frightened eyes the limbs of trees became grotesque, leaping figures, and the wind sounded like a weird scream. The wild forest seemed animated. Fantastic creatures of every description were thought to lurk in its depths. Whether propitiated with sacrifices as deities or regarded as devils, these forest beings were feared.
Classical mythology contained a whole menagerie of lesser gods and demons believed to inhabit wild places. Pan, the lord of the woods, was pictured as having the legs, ears, and tail of a goat and the body of a man. He combined gross sensuality with boundless, sportive energy. Greeks who had to pass through forests or mountains dreaded an encounter with Pan. Indeed, the word "panic" originated from the blinding fear that seized travelers upon hearing strange cries in the wilderness and assuming them to signify Pan's approach. Related to Pan were the tribe of satyrs—goat-men of a demoniacal character devoted to wine, dancing, and lust. They were thought to appear only at night and then solely in the darkest parts of the forest. According to Hellenic folklore, satyrs ravished women and carried off children who ventured into their wilderness lairs. Sileni and centaurs completed the Greek collection of forest spirits. These monsters had the torso and head of a man and the body and legs of a goat or horse. Usually, they were represented as carrying a club in the form of an uprooted tree which also served as a reminder of their favorite habitat. In Roman mythology satyrlike figures appeared as fauns and also lurked in thickly wooded regions.
In early folk belief, the wildernesses of central and northern Europe also swarmed with supernatural beings. Some were worshipped, but generally with the fear characteristic of the attitude of the unsophisticated toward the incomprehensible. Others received classification as demons and cohorts of the devil. In the Scandinavian countries, for instance, it was thought that when Lucifer and his followers were expelled from heaven, some landed in the forests and became Wood-Sprites or Trolls. Many of the medieval European monsters were lineal descendants of the man-beasts of classical mythology. Russian, Czech, and Slovak folklore spoke of a creature living in forests and mountains with the face of a woman, body of a sow, and legs of a horse. In Germany, when storms raged through the forests, it was widely believed that the ghostly Wild Huntsman was abroad with his pack of baying hounds, riding furiously and killing everything in his path. Man-eating ogres and the sinister werewolves were also identified with wild, remote regions. While in certain circumstances forest beings, like the elves, could be helpful to men, most were considered terrifying and added to the repulsiveness of wilderness.
Among the Anglo-Saxons, from whom most of the first Americans descended, there were long traditions of locating horrible beasts in the wilderness. The Beowulf epic of the eighth century brought together many of these legends. The heart of the story is the conflict between two gigantic, blood-drinking fiends and the tribes that Beowulf led. As the action unfolds it is apparent that wilderness was a concept loaded with meaning for the early Middle Ages. Throughout the poem the uninhabited regions are portrayed in the worst possible light—dank, cold, and gloomy. The fiends are said to live "in an unvisited land among wolf-haunted hills, windswept crags, and perilous fen-tracks." Bravely Beowulf advanced into this wilderness and below "a dismal grove of mountain trees" took his revenge on the monsters.
The most important imaginary denizen of the wildernesses of medieval Europe was the semi-human Wild Man. His naked figure, covered completely with thick hair, appeared widely in the art, literature, and drama of the period. Immensely strong, he was frequently portrayed in the tradition of the classical sileni and centaurs, grasping an uprooted tree. According to folk tradition, the Wild Man lived in the heart of the forest as far as possible from civilization. He was regarded as a kind of ogre who devoured children and ravished maidens. The character of his mate varied from place to place. In the Austrian Tyrol and Bavarian Alps, the Wild Woman was imagined to have enormous size, tough bristles, immense pendulous breasts, and a hideous mouth that stretched from ear to ear. Further north in Germany, however, she was thought to be smaller and somewhat less fearsome in appearance. Her principal offense was stealing human babies and leaving her own offspring in their place. Along with the other forest demons, the Wild People invested the gloom of the wilderness with a terrifying eeriness that proved difficult to dispel.
The Judeo-Christian tradition constituted another powerful formative influence on the attitude toward wilderness of the Europeans who discovered and colonized the New World. The authors of the Bible gave wilderness a central position in their accounts both as a descriptive aid and as a symbolic concept. The term occurs 245 times in the Old Testament, Revised Standard Version, and thirty-five in the New. In addition there are several hundred uses of terms such as "desert" and "waste" with the same essential significance as "wilderness" and, in some cases, the identical Hebrew or Greek root.
Uninhabited land where annual rainfall was less than four inches dominated the geography of the ancient Near East. Such area included a strip of land beginning just west of Jerusalem and paralleling the Jordan River and Dead Sea. From here the desert sprawled southward into the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia. Without advanced technology, men could not survive for long in such an inhospitable environment. In order to distinguish it from the "good" land which supported crops and herds, the ancient Hebrews used a number of terms which have been translated "wilderness."
Even in places where the rainfall was above the crucial four inches, existence was precarious. An unusually dry season could wither crops and turn arable land into desert. In these circumstances men naturally hated and feared the wilderness. Moreover, since the amount of rain was beyond human influence or understanding, it was reasonable to give its variance a religious explanation. Drought and the resulting wilderness were thought of as the curse dispensed by the divine power in order to show his displeasure. God's approval, on the other hand, meant an abundance of life-giving water. The baptismal rite, for instance, was a symbolic ceremony that the climate and geography of the Near East made meaningful.
The Old Testament reveals that the ancient Hebrews regarded the wilderness as a cursed land and that they associated its forbidding character with a lack of water. Again and again "the great and terrible wilderness" was described as a "thirsty ground where there was no water." When the Lord of the Old Testament desired to threaten or punish a sinful people, he found the wilderness condition to be his most powerful weapon: "I will lay waste the mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.... I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah became parched wastes of salt pits and thorny brush as a penalty for the sins of their citizens.
Conversely, when the Lord wished to express his pleasure, the greatest blessing he could bestow was to transform wilderness into "a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs." In the famous redemption passage in Isaiah, God promises that "the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad ... for waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert." To "give water in the wilderness" was a way God manifested his care. It was a fitting image for a people so fearful of the desert.
The identification of the arid wasteland with God's curse led to the conviction that wilderness was the environment of evil, a kind of hell. There were several consequences. Like that of other cultures, the Hebraic folk imagination made the wilderness the abode of demons and devils. Among them were the howling dragon or tan, the winged female monster of the night called the lilith, and the familiar man-goat, seirim. Presiding over all was Azazel, the arch-devil of the wilderness. He was the key figure in an expiatory rite in which a live goat was brought before the chief priest of a community who symbolically laid upon it the sins of the group. The animal was then led to the edge of the cultivated land and "sent away into the wilderness to Azazel." The ritual has significance not only as the origin of the conception of a "scapegoat" but as a demonstration of the Hebrews' opinion of wilderness.
This idea of the immorality of wild country is also evident in the Old Testament treatment of the paradise theme. From what little we are told about the Garden of Eden it appears to have been, in the tradition of other paradises, the antipode of wilderness. "Eden" was the Hebrew word for "delight," and Genesis represents it as a pleasant place, indeed. The Garden was well watered and filled with edible plants. Adam and Eve were relieved of the necessity of working in order to survive. Fear also was eliminated, since with one exception the creatures that shared paradise were peaceable and helpful. But the snake encouraged the first couple to eat the forbidden fruit and as a punishment they were driven out of the Garden. The world Adam and Eve now faced was a wilderness, a "cursed" land full of "thorns and thistles." Later in the Scripture, Eden and the wilderness are juxtaposed in such a way as to leave no doubt about their original relationship. "The land is like the garden of Eden before them," wrote the author of Joel, "but after them a desolate wilderness." And Isaiah contains the promise that God will comfort Zion and "make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord." The story of the Garden and its loss embedded into Western thought the idea that wilderness and paradise were both physical and spiritual opposites.
The history of the Israelite nation added another dimension to the Judeo-Christian understanding of wilderness. After the Exodus from bondage in Egypt about 1225 B.C., the Jews under the leadership of Moses wandered in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for an alleged forty years. The Old Testament account emphasizes the hardships encountered in this "howling waste of the wilderness," yet the desert experience was immensely important to the tribes of Israel. During these years the God their fathers had worshipped revealed himself as Yahweh and promised to be their special protector. In the heart of the wilderness on Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments which created a covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Thereafter the Lord demonstrated his protective power by the miraculous provision of water and food. He also promised that if the Israelites remained faithful to the covenant, he would allow them to escape the wilderness and enter Canaan, the promised land of milk and honey.
Excerpted from Wilderness and the American Mind by RODERICK FRAZIER NASH. Copyright © 2001 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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