Imagining the Forest: Narratives of Michigan and the Upper Midwest

Imagining the Forest: Narratives of Michigan and the Upper Midwest

by John R. Knott


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How the meaning of the forest developed in the Great Lakes

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051649
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 01/28/2012
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Knottis Professor Emeritus of English and former Chair of the English Department at the University of Michigan. His books include Michigan: Our Land, Our Water, Our Heritage and Imagining Wild America.

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Imagining the Forest

Narratives of Michigan and the Upper Midwest
By John Knott


Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07164-7

Chapter One

What Was Here Before

The narratives of Schoolcraft and Agassiz, the source of David Burkett's vision of the primitive forests of Michigan in Jim Harrison's True North, provide useful starting points for attempting to understand how early explorers and European settlers perceived the landscapes they found. What did Schoolcraft and Agassiz see in their nineteenth-century travels? Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's narrative of his trip along the western shore of Lake Huron and the southern shore of Lake Superior as a member of the 1820 expedition led by Lewis Cass, governor of the Michigan Territory, offers the best record of his reactions to Michigan landscapes. The Cass expedition included soldiers, voyageurs, and Indians, making up a party of forty in three large canoes. Its primary purpose was to promote white settlement and economic development by implementing federal Indian policy in the Northwest Territory and surveying the trading activity of the rival British. As the expedition geologist, Schoolcraft gave much of his attention to geological formations and the potential availability of minerals, but his narrative also reveals aesthetic and emotional responses to the changing landscapes he observed. When the expedition proceeded north along the Lake Huron shore toward Mackinac Island, he saw the patchwork of cultivated fields and deciduous forests near Detroit gradually yield to denser forests of pine and hemlock mixed with birch and poplar. Later he responded enthusiastically to the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior, with its rocky headlands and seemingly endless forest, which came into view when he emerged into Superior from the St. Marys River, now the site of the Soo Locks.

Schoolcraft shows the characteristic nineteenth-century preoccupation with the picturesque and the sublime, complaining of the lack of "bold or sublime" features on the Lake Huron shore but delighting in "the picturesque views of northern scenes" that he found at Sault Ste. Marie, where he was struck by the contrast between the "snowy whiteness" of the rapids of the St. Marys River and "the deep green foliage of the hemlock, spruce, and pine." The high shores of Lake Superior in the distance added drama (95). In the wave-sculpted, sandstone bluffs of the Pictured Rocks on Superior's southern shore, Schoolcraft discovered battlements and towers comparable to those Sir Walter Scott saw in the mountain scenery of "The Lady of the Lake," betraying a fondness for architectural metaphor that he shared with others of his time, as well as a typical need to validate American scenery by describing it as rivaling European landmarks. If America lacked monuments and ruins of the sort that in Europe embodied a rich human history, it had natural formations such as the eroded sandstone of the Pictured Rocks that offered their own record of the passage of time. Schoolcraft was determined to do justice to this "grand" and "picturesque" scenery, which he characterized as unparalleled in America and compared to that of the Hebrides and "the romantic Isles of the Sicilian coast" (107–8).

Schoolcraft's romantic sensibility, nurtured by Scott's immensely popular works, emerges most clearly when he attempts to render scenes that he found particularly remarkable, but much of the detail of the narrative reflects his geologist's eye and his eager curiosity about fresh and unspoiled territory, uninhabited except for the Chippewa (an English corruption of Ojibwa, now used in legal descriptions of the tribe) his party encountered on Lake Superior and in villages or the rare fur-trading outpost. A canoe journey up the Ontonagon River to investigate a legendary mass of copper, culminating in a strenuous hike led by an Indian guide, yielded a more intimate and disturbing view of the forest. The scene that Schoolcraft found at the site of the partially submerged copper boulder, with rocks overhanging the roaring stream and fallen trees strewn along its high banks, presented what he perceived as "a mixed character of wildness, ruin, and sterility." The sense of alienation and shock that he conveys anticipates Thoreau's description of his experience of discovering a stark and forbidding landscape of a different sort near the summit of Mount Katahdin in The Maine Woods. Like Thoreau, Schoolcraft found an alien scene.

One cannot help fancying that he has gone to the ends of the earth, and beyond the boundaries appointed for the residence of man. Every object tells us that it is a region alike unfavourable to the productions of the animal and vegetable kingdom; and we shudder in casting our eyes over the frightful wreck of trees, and the confused groups of falling-in banks and shattered stones. Yet we have only to ascend these bluffs to behold hills more rugged and elevated; and dark hemlock forests, and yawning gulfs more dreary, and more forbidding to the eye. (123–24)

It was one thing to admire the native forest from a canoe, quite another to trek through it and try to imagine a continuous human presence in a place that seemed so inhospitable to civilization. Seen up close, the forest could appear disorderly, resistant to metaphors that would place it in a familiar aesthetic frame. When he climbs the bluffs that close in the river, Schoolcraft seems overwhelmed by dark hemlock forests that in their immensity and ruggedness evoke the terror sometimes associated with the sublime.

Schoolcraft's recollection of this occasion was no doubt influenced by the difficulty of making his way to the scene of the boulder and his shock on returning to the boats and not finding Cass, who had abandoned the hike and became lost on his way back to the river. His narrative also reflects the fact that he was writing primarily for a cultivated eastern audience, dramatizing his emotional reactions in ways that he thought would appeal to his readers. His companion, David Bates Douglass, who did not bother to revise his own account of the expedition when he discovered that Schoolcraft had rushed to get his into print, registered none of the dread of the forest that Schoolcraft expresses. Nor did Bela Hubbard, who found the view of the Ontonagon in the vicinity of the boulder, with its overhanging cliffs, "most wild and romantic." Another observer, the geologist Charles Whittlesey, described a very different emotional response to the forested landscape he found along the Ontonagon River, closer to the Superior shore, on a sunny fall day three decades after Schoolcraft's visit.

The sides and the bottom of the valley of the Ontonagon were brilliant in the mellow sunlight, mottled with yellow and green; the golden tops of the sugar [maple] tree mingled with the dark summits of the pine and the balsam. The rough gorges that enter the valley on both sides were now concealed by the dense foliage of the trees, partly gorgeous and partly somber, made yet richer by the contrast, so that the surface of the wood as seen from our elevation, in fact from the waving top of a trim balsam which I ascended, lay like a beautifully worked and colored carpet ready for our feet.

Whittlesey saw dense foliage and a rugged landscape with a mind-set that differed from Schoolcraft's, more attentive to the visual composition of the forest he surveyed from his high perch and primed to experience a sense of wonder at the intricate beauty of the scene. Both were trying to frame an unfamiliar, wild landscape in a way that would register its emotional impact. The differing reactions they convey mark the range of possible emotional responses, from wonder to something close to terror.

Louis Agassiz was a celebrated European scientist who had just been appointed Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard University when he led an expedition to Lake Superior in 1848, eager to begin his study of the natural history of his newly adopted country. His party included Harvard students, European naturalists, and a few "scientific gentlemen," one of whom, J. Elliot Cabot, wrote a lively narrative of the trip that complements Agassiz's scientific observations. The expedition was supported by a group of twelve voyageurs, a mix of French Canadians and Indians. Agassiz superintended the collection of specimens and with the aid of a portable blackboard that he insisted on bringing along gave periodic lectures on what they were seeing, faithfully summarized by Cabot. Like the Cass expedition three decades earlier, they encountered largely uninhabited country, in their case on the north shore of Superior where the transition to boreal forest was more apparent. This shore was marked by Indian lodges and mining camps, many unoccupied, and by Hudson's Bay Company posts with adjacent Indian villages at Michipicoten, the Pic, and Fort William.

Cabot, like Schoolcraft, calls attention to the grandeur and the "picturesque" qualities of the rugged shoreline, but he shows more self-consciousness about journeying into "the wilderness." He was fascinated by the primitive songs of the voyageurs, far removed from the chansons of Paris (as Agassiz observed), and by the exotic appearance of the Indians who approached them in canoes offering fish, reminding him of pictures of South Sea islanders. Cabot gives more particulars of the hazards of wilderness travel than Schoolcraft, including the clouds of blackflies that attack him and his companions during their forays away from the shoreline, yet he shows none of Schoolcraft's anxiety in the presence of an encompassing forest and the "ruin" of fallen trees. Although he comments on the impenetrability of cedar swamps and describes making his way through dense spruce woods littered with fallen birches, he gives no sense of being daunted by the obstacles he encounters on two longer excursions upriver and overland to notable waterfalls. Cabot shows a sharp eye for botanical detail, no doubt instructed in this by "the Professor," describing not only the varying composition of the forest but such vegetation as lichens, blueberries, Labrador tea, and carpets of moss in which he claims to sink up to his waist. Despite a growing awareness of the hardships of wilderness life, reinforced by seeing abandoned cabins whose furnishings testify to its loneliness and privation, he finds much to marvel at, including cliff faces striped with lichen, continuous forest, and an abundance of sturgeon and other fish (also remarked on by Schoolcraft). Cabot describes one sturgeon that Agassiz asks him to sketch as four to five feet long.

Cabot's wonder, apparent at many points in his narrative, is especially pronounced in his reflections on the quiet that he experiences in the forest: "Our little point was as silent as a piece of the primeval earth" (109). The occasional cry of a loon or song of a white-throated sparrow has for him "a wild and lonely character," giving him a feeling of entering a world startlingly remote from the civilized one of Boston from which he came: "It is like being transported to the early ages of the earth, when the mosses had just begun to cover the primeval rock, and the animals had not yet ventured into the new world" (124). Cabot's imaginative leap, stimulated by the strangeness of his surroundings and his awareness that he was standing on bedrock some five hundred million years old, suggests a desire to experience a much earlier natural order unmarred by either a native or a European presence, even by that of the animals. In the solitude and silence of the place, he experiences the illusion of having entered a timeless world outside the flow of history.

Cabot's sense of the wildness of the place is inseparable from his fascination with the primeval. The northern forest was alluring not only because it offered rich opportunities for the study of natural history that Agassiz encouraged but because he could perceive it as ancient and truly primitive, seemingly unaltered from its original state. Whereas the common tendency today is to describe the presettlement forest as "pristine" or "virgin," nineteenth-century observers were likelier to call it "primeval." Like Cabot on the shore of Superior, they imagined themselves connecting with a distant era through what they assumed to be an unchanging forest.Modern biologists would challenge the notion that a forest remains constant over time, having abandoned the model of a climax forest in favor of one that explains ecosystems as continually evolving in response to natural and human disturbances. The northern forests that Cabot and Schoolcraft encountered had changed radically since the withdrawal of the last glaciers approximately twelve thousand years earlier, from spruce after the ice receded to pine or oak as the climate reached its maximum warmth and then to the hemlock-hardwood forest of today's upper Midwest about three thousand years ago.

The popular image of the presettlement forest of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Lake Superior shore in the later nineteenth century actually owed more to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855) than to either Agassiz or Schoolcraft. Longfellow offered a poetic vision of the indigenous Ojibwa in their natural environment roughly two centuries before the expeditions of Schoolcraft and Agassiz and other nineteenth-century explorers, at the point of first contact with Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. His rendering of Ojibwa stories became the most popular American poem of the nineteenth century and generated pageants and staged readings that continued to be performed into the early twentieth century. The famous opening of his Evangeline offers a romanticized version of the northern forest that could be as easily associated with the Upper Peninsula as with the coastal Nova Scotia of that poem, neither of which Longfellow had in fact seen: "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight." For the subject matter of The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow drew heavily on the Ojibwa legends that Schoolcraft had adapted for genteel audiences in his Algic Researches (1839), with his half-Ojibwa wife Jane Johnston acting as translator. Longfellow conflated Schoolcraft's Manabozho with the historical Iroquois leader Hiawatha to create a godlike hero and benefactor of the Ojibwa who has none of the trickster qualities of the mythic figure whose exploits Schoolcraft had described. He forged a coherent narrative by selecting and elaborating on legends retold by Schoolcraft and by inventing such pivotal episodes as the marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha and the dramatic departure of Hiawatha with the coming of the Jesuits. Longfellow found a convenient literary model in the Finnish Kalevala, an early-nineteenth-century epic based on stories and songs of the folk, drawing also on George Catlin's images of plains Indians and Catlin's writings about his experience with them and mingling Ojibwa and Dakota traditions in his rendering of Ojibwa life.

Longfellow idealized the Indians he portrayed, locating them in a pre-contact past before the changes that by the time he wrote in the mid–nineteenth century had transformed many Ojibwa cultural practices. He presents a timeless idyll of Indian life, one that turns dark with the arrival of the famine and fever that kill Hiawatha's Dakota wife Minnehaha and abruptly collides with history in the final two sections portraying the appearance of the Jesuits and the departure of Hiawatha. Longfellow embraced the widespread notion of the vanishing Indian, a favorite tragic theme of nineteenth-century writers. He regarded the dispersal of the Ojibwa as a necessary consequence of the westward march of white civilization; Hiawatha counsels the tribe to welcome the "Black-Robe chief" and listen to the "truth" of his Christian message. Yet the poem ends on a strongly elegiac note, with Hiawatha's followers scattered to the west "Like the withered leaves of Autumn" and Hiawatha himself paddling away into a fiery sunset in his birchbark canoe, seeming to rise and fall in the distance as he merges with Lake Superior.


Excerpted from Imagining the Forest by John Knott Copyright © 2012 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 // What Was Here Before....................18
2 // Clearings....................33
3 // The Culture of Logging....................59
4 // Stewart Edward White and the Logger as Frontier Hero....................93
5 // Loss and Renewal....................123
6 // The Forest as Playground....................152
7 // The Forest as Ecosystem....................192
8 // Designing the Forest....................217

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