“The American people sees itself advance across the wilderness, draining swamps, straightening rivers, peopling the solitude, and subduing nature,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835. That’s largely how we still think of nineteenth-century America today: a country expanding unstoppably, bending the continent’s natural bounty to the national will, heedless of consequence. A country of slavery and of Indian wars. There’s much truth in that vision. But if you know where to look, you can uncover a different history, one of vibrant resistance, one that’s been mostly forgotten. This Radical Land recovers that story. Daegan Miller is our guide on a beautifully written, revelatory trip across the continent during which we encounter radical thinkers, settlers, and artists who grounded their ideas of freedom, justice, and progress in the very landscapes around them, even as the runaway engine of capitalism sought to steamroll everything in its path. Here we meet Thoreau, the expert surveyor, drawing anticapitalist property maps. We visit a black antislavery community in the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York. We discover how seemingly commercial photographs of the transcontinental railroad secretly sent subversive messages, and how a band of utopian anarchists among California’s sequoias imagined a greener, freer future. At every turn, everyday radicals looked to landscape for the language of their dissent—drawing crucial early links between the environment and social justice, links we’re still struggling to strengthen today. Working in a tradition that stretches from Thoreau to Rebecca Solnit, Miller offers nothing less than a new way of seeing the American past—and of understanding what it can offer us for the present . . . and the future.
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About the Author
Daegan Miller has taught at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his writing has appeared in a variety of venues, from academic journals to literary magazines. He is on Twitter at @daeganmiller.
Read an Excerpt
At the Boundary with Henry David Thoreau
We wonder whether the dream of American liberty Was two hundred years of pine and hardwood And three generations of the grass And the generations are up: the years over We don't know
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH, Land of the Free
A steel-guitar breeze, shimmying through willow's whips, makes them sigh, involuntary and vital. But for the accidental planting of a willow's fertile catkin in the mud at water's edge, the dominant sound on this stretch of the Concord River wouldn't have been sylvan, but a round, liquid purling mixed with the labored rumbling of wagons, carts, and coaches on the two straddling roads to the south and west. A willow loves water, and when its embryonic seed came to rest on the Concord's bank, an improbably hair-thin root called the radicle emerged first, and burrowed downward, against the day, seeking the river, finally to mingle its rooted permanence with the water's ever-changing flow. Aboveground, the tree's fingerlike leaves yearned for the morning sun even as the willow cascaded down over the bank, providing shade, the illusion of permanence, strings for the wind to sound.
When Henry David Thoreau stood under this tree behind his dear friend William Ellery Channing's house, in the summer of 1859, readying his boat for the day's river adventure, the wind would blow; and when it did, he heard a harp, or sometimes a violin — an impossible, and therefore sublime sound, one he groped for the right words to describe, finding them only in repetition and revision: "It told me by the faintest imaginable strain, it told me by the finest strain that a human ear can hear ... that there were higher, infinitely higher, planes of life which it behooved me never to forget." Or maybe he heard nothing at all. Maybe he was too busy pitching notebooks and field equipment over his boat's gunnels and chatting with Channing about which channel of the river they would spend their day observing. Maybe the willow went unheard, but it wouldn't have gone unnoticed: Thoreau often shot his gaze toward the significant notch he had cut low in the tree's trunk earlier that summer.
Thoreau stood on a river's bank in the midsummer of 1859 contemplating a ragged wooden gash because he was being paid to survey the river, and that notch was the key to gauging the river's height. Although Thoreau is now remembered mostly as a romantic nature writer, in his own time and place he was a highly trained, well-regarded, disciplined though eccentric land surveyor. It was a job he often loved. He was good at it — he had the right temperament — and he had been hired to survey the river because it flooded. In twenty-two miles the Concord fell only thirty-two inches — it was very nearly a pond — and any additional water heaved the river up and over its banks before gravity's current slowly siphoned it out to sea. This was a good thing, and the annual springtime deluge was the town's lifeblood, because the flood always rolled back, leaving behind it a thick, black nutrient-rich muck spread all across the bottomlands, whose field grasses grew fat and sleek on nature's bounty, perfect fodder for the farming town's livestock.
But in 1798, in the predawn haze of the industrial era, a century-long fight for the Concord began when the Middlesex Canal Corporation downstream at Billerica increased the height of an old mill dam that had been flung across the river in 1704. Later upgraded yet again in 1851 to service a mill, this improved Billerica dam jacked the water's level higher through Concord, impeding the river's already-sclerotic return, keeping the waters unnaturally high well into the summer, ruining the hay, threatening the town's livelihood, and setting in motion a wave of lawsuits and petitions to the state legislature, which always seemed to be resolved in the interest of the mills and their capitalist owners, lasting throughout the nineteenth century.
At the root of each dispute over the river's water was an argument over the meaning of improvement and its near cousin, progress. Improvement could mean the cultivation and refinement of human qualities, but it also had a material connotation: that to improve the earth was to mix one's own labor with it, to cultivate untouched, wild nature into an Edenic garden, and thereby to claim it as one's own. This was the preferred usage of the "improvers," those farmers who advocated for a scientific approach to husbandry that emphasized conservation, personal rectitude, and practices akin to what we might now call permaculture. There were improvers throughout Concord, and they even had an organization, the Concord Farmers' Club.
Yet, the word improve was diverging from its agrarian roots, developing into something with the flavor that the word currently holds: new, improved technological, economic, advancement. And Concord's improvers found themselves surrounded on all sides by these capital-minded lovers of Progress, because Thoreau's corner of Massachusetts was also ground zero for American industrial capitalism and its textile-mill-based Industrial Revolution: the American factory system had gotten its start with the famous Lowell mills in the early 1820s, on the Merrimack River, just upstream from the spot where the smaller Concord joined its faster-flowing cousin.
By 1859, the dam at Billerica had passed into the hands of a textile-factory owner named Charles Talbot, and soon after, upstream farmers noticed that floods flooded deeper and longer than ever. However much Talbot's dam checked the flow of the already-languid river, its effect was magnified many times over as dozens of mills periodically released their water into the river, in effect flooding Concord from both ends. Finally, the growing city of Boston needed clean water for its teeming, increasingly industrialized masses, and that water had to come from somewhere — which turned out to be the overworked Concord watershed. To compensate country folks for the water diverted toward the city, the Boston Water Board constructed a number of ponds up and down the Concord's spine whose timed releases would keep the Concord's levels uniformly high, even during periods of drought. Concord's farmers were predictably incensed by all of this and convinced that the culture of industry conspired to swamp their livelihoods: "These lands," began one familiar with the debate, "are the most valuable in the State, for farming purposes, there is no doubt. ... [I]t seems too bad that they should be rendered almost worthless, merely to accommodate a few old mills."
And so a riddle threaded its way through Concord: what is the best use of a river? To power mills that would churn out cheap commodities, aid the growth of towns, yield fantastic profits for their owners, and help usher in an age of modern industrial capitalism; or, as Concord's farmers argued, to grow a productive, profitable, improved farming landscape? It was just such a question that Thoreau, who stood straining to catch the quick words whispered by a willowy witness, was hired to answer.
Thousands of trees similar to Thoreau's willow have dotted the American landscape inscribed by thousands of ax-wielding men. From the moment of European footfall, surveyors have been cutting marks into trees to lash the chaotic, polyphonic story of the landscape into one coherent narrative, just as Thoreau cut his mark into the willow to hear the Concord speak and so solve its riddle; Thoreau and his tree were both inheritors of a much longer history whose deep context was, in Thoreau's own day, spreading its way across the continent. As America steamed west on rails of iron, there was always a surveyor in the vanguard, and the pantheon of American heroes includes many a man who navigated his way into the history books with map and compass: Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark — even George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln spent time with surveying's tools.
Though blazing a tree with an ax was as old as surveying itself, the connotation of every mark began to change with Thomas Jefferson's Ordinance of 1785, a law that proved foundational to the growth of the infant nation. In the colonial era, land had been settled haphazardly, but Jefferson sought to bring order to territorial expansion through a streamlined, efficient process of rationalized surveying and cartography. A new nation, in the New World, needed a method of self-invention. That's why Americans, beginning with Jefferson, inscribed the national grid — which now stretches from the streets of Manhattan, across the checkerboard of the Great Plains, all the way to the beaches of California — onto the land. Anchoring this imaginary, crosshatched latticework to the earth were the witness trees standing sentinel at the corner of many six-mile-square townships, America's building block.
Today, the grid might seem so obvious as to appear natural, but it was truly revolutionary for its time, and it caused a stir upon its introduction to American soil in the late 1670s when William Penn brought the idea to his mid-Atlantic colony. Penn and his surveyor general, Captain Thomas Holme, dreamed of a city — Philadelphia — with orderly, well-mannered streets converging always at right angles. Their shared vision was a response to the twin scourges of plague and widespread fire — the wages of ignorant city planning — that swept through London in 1665 and 1666. But the City of Brotherly Love was to be modern and rational, immune to pestilence and safe from inferno, both banished by the almost magical power of the intersecting line. The design was daring in its unnaturalness, yet it seemed to work, and by the 1780s, would-be town forefathers across the new nation were modeling each of their own little cities upon a hill on Penn's innovation.
But it wasn't until after independence, when Jefferson latched onto the idea as a way to ensure orderly continental settlement, that the grid took on truly national proportions. The grid's greatest appeal was that it was powerfully abstracting: it transmuted real, impossibly complicated land into simple squares on a map, all of which looked the same; this abstraction allowed for clarity, for a welcome relief from the headaches, political intrigue, and disenfranchisement that seemed to come with the traditional system of settlement and surveying that had long characterized Jefferson's South — a free-for-all of indiscriminate corruption by "surveyors" whose only claim to qualification was their claim to being qualified. In the colonial era, it wasn't at all uncommon for the same exact parcel of land to be sold to many different buyers at the same time, and legal wrangling over who owned what clogged Southern courts for decades. Jefferson's plan, therefore, was to map the land before settlement, to pinpoint its resources and divide the nation's territory into uniform squares, then to parcel them out intelligently to deserving yeoman farmers. And, like Penn before him, Jefferson was guided by faith:
Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. ... It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.
The Republic's very soil was composed of democracy, Jefferson writes, and in those who tilled it and planted it, who fed its transubstantiated body to their children, who rooted themselves in it, in these people lay the hope of the nation and of the world. "We have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman," he wrote — this was what made America exceptional. But without the grid to ensure fair and equal distribution, none of Jefferson's democratic, agrarian utopia would come to pass, and the sylvan "manners and spirit" of the people would sour and rot from the twin cankers of urbanization: landlessness and wage dependency. It was the grid — clear and rational and simple — that would show the country the way back to Eden.
By the mid-nineteenth century, surveying — and its first cousin, exploration — was the stuff of breathless excitement, and one can feel the thrill of discovery breeze through the era's popular culture. It's there in J. N. Reynolds's 1839 story, Mocha Dick; or, The White Whale of the Pacific, an account of Reynolds's sailing expedition to Antarctica, during which he heard tales of a great white whale that rammed whaling ships, a tale which Herman Melville later spun into his massive Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). When Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle debuted in 1845, it became the "Victorian equivalent of a bestseller," and the daring surveyor-explorers, especially those who headed expensive, ambitious, multiyear projects that scoured the American West, were counted among the leading men of their age: the John C. Frémonts, F. V. Haydens, John Wesley Powells, Clarence Kings, and George Wheelers. They were the romantic geographic surveyors of the 1840s to 1870s who crossed deserts, starved on mountain peaks, plumbed the Grand Canyon, and their reports often read like adventure tales of strangeness, hardship, and sublime beauty. It was into this cultural current that Thoreau launched himself, just twenty-four years old and looking for a vocation, in 1840.
Thoreau loved the Concord River, and he would come to pursue the discipline of surveying with an obsessed intensity in part because it allowed him to learn the river's daily rhythms, its hardly noticed secrets. The river was wild and ultimately unknowable in its ever-changing habits, and yet surveying, Thoreau was convinced, would help him fix its living likeness. By the 1840s, Thoreau was exploring surveying's farthest and most arcane corners — the unsolved mysteries of terrestrial magnetism; the discipline's remote history; the best, most finicky methods of ensuring a compass's accuracy — and he quickly became a passionate scholar of surveying whose research went far beyond his daily tasks of measuring property boundaries and town lines, laying out woodlots, and planning roads.
It's not entirely clear when Thoreau learned the art of surveying, or why — although surveying was often taught as part of a mathematics course, and when Thoreau and his older brother, John, opened a school in 1838, it was one of the subjects they covered. But he did learn, and though he had some help from one of the town's older surveyors, Cyrus Hubbard (who periodically lent the upstart tools as well as, one imagines, trade advice), Thoreau was at root a bookworm. So he did what any bookish person does — he went to the bookstore. One day, he came home with Charles Davies's Elements of Surveying.
Like many surveying manuals from the period, Davies's Elements rhythmically drummed into its reader the never-varying importance of exactitude, a cadence that guided Thoreau's footsteps in the field. Davies issued strict commandments about the importance of ascertaining precise declination — the ever-changing difference between true north and magnetic north — and the proper habits of taking a sighting, both rituals that Thoreau observed strictly, in all kinds of weather, during all times of the day, always wary lest inattention corrupt the precision of his instrument. The authority of the compass was of such importance to Thoreau that by 1851 the language of surveying bled evermore into his prose, even into one of his most famous essays, "Walking," which retains the earthy scent of the field: "When I go out of the house for a walk," he wrote, "I ... inevitably settle southwest. ... My needle is slow to settle, — varies a few degrees, and does not always point due southwest, it is true, and it has good authority for its variation, but it always settles between west and south-west."
This obsession with accuracy and variation earned Thoreau his reputation as one of Concord's premier surveyors, and it was this reputation that got him his job surveying the Concord River, in 1859. He had been hired on June 4 by Simon Brown, an elite, improvement-minded farmer and the chairman of the Committee of the Proprietors of the Sudbury and Concord River Meadows, an organization that arose both in response to Talbot's grass-killing dam and in hopes that the State of Massachusetts's newly appointed Joint Special Committee, which had been formed to look into the flooding issue, would finally rule in the farmers' favor. Brown hired Thoreau to measure and catalog the width of each bridge that crossed the Concord between Sudbury and Billerica, the characteristics of every pier that might jut its obstructing pylons into the water, the history of each bridge's construction and improvement, and the character of the falls at Billerica itself. Doing so, Brown's committee hoped, would help prove that "the great oppression and spoliation to which we and our fathers have been so long subjected" was the fault of industry (and more specifically, the fault of Talbot's dam at Billerica), not sluggish nature.
Excerpted from "This Radical Land"
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Table of Contents
When the Bough Breaks Act One: At the Boundary with Henry David Thoreau Act Two: The Geography of Grace: Home in the Great Northern Wilderness Intermission Act Three: Revelator’s Progress: Sun Pictures of the Thousand-Mile Tree Act Four: Possession in the Land of Sequoyah, General Sherman, and Karl Marx Enduring Obligations Acknowledgments Abbreviations Used in Notes Notes Index