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View From This Wilderness

January 18, 1998|FRANK CLIFFORD | Frank Clifford is a Times' environmental writer

In 1836, nearly half a century before Congress began debating the idea of wilderness preservation, artist Thomas Cole captured the tension that to this day characterizes Americans' attitudes toward the great outdoors. In Cole's painting "The Oxbow," a meandering river divides the canvas into two opposing views of nature. On the left is a raw, storm-lashed scene of untamed countryside, and on the right a sunny, pastoral vision of cultivated fields and tidy farmhouses.

Cole was part of a new breed of artists and writers who gave romantic expression to a young nation's passionate attachment to its land. His work celebrated the American landscape in both its wild and domesticated forms and did not take sides. Still, the romanticists were setting the stage for epic land-use battles to come. Influential American thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were ascribing a value to wilderness, to trees and rocks and free-flowing water, that had nothing to do with their worth as commodities. In wild forests and mountains, as nowhere else, Emerson believed, humankind is confronted with the signature of the Almighty. "In the wilderness," he wrote, "we return to reason and faith."

Over time, "The Oxbow" became emblematic of a deep rift in American society, between those who thought like Emerson and those who believed, as the Puritans had, that wilderness is a Godforsaken place and that though the Almighty may have sent his people there, he expected them to turn it into an orderly and productive abode.

Americans' complex, often contradictory relationship with nature is the subject of a number of recent books about some of the places where explorers, missionaries, adventurers, settlers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists and government officials have acted out dreams of empire that the geography of the New World inspired. In the Adirondacks, along the Hudson and Columbia rivers, in the Rocky Mountain region and in lands that now make up the national park system, the authors follow people driven by a moral vision--Jefferson's, Emerson's or others'--and examine the consequences it had for the land.

In his rich social history of America's first wilderness, "The Adirondacks," Paul Schneider argues that despite a century-old commitment to conservation, society remains deeply divided over what is the highest and best use of its remaining undeveloped land. "The story of this century has been the struggle," Schneider writes, " . . . to find an acceptable definition of wilderness that can survive our culture's seemingly insatiable desires. . . . The proper meanings and uses of wilderness are not yet settled."

Though echoing "Wilderness and the American Mind," Roderick Nash's influential study of the same intellectual territory, Schneider's shared conclusions are grounded in an original account of a place that fostered many of the material and spiritual ambitions Americans have had for their land since colonial times. Six million acres of rivers, lakes, mountains and forests in upstate New York, the Adirondacks looked no different from the rest of the land west of the Hudson River. With thousands of savage souls to be saved and a fortune in beaver hides to be made, the New World was a land of boundless opportunity for early missionaries, trappers and traders who could endure its torments. To the European colonists, it was "hideous and desolate," "a thick, anti-Christian darkness . . . inhabited by Iroquois 'demons.' "

Yet, barely half a century after the Iroquois had been driven out, Schneider writes, Americans were viewing the wilderness through the beatific gaze of Cole, Emerson and other romantics, and the Adirondacks had become America's first outdoor salon, attracting painters, philosophers and assorted visionaries. John Brown, the abolitionist, ran a farm there in 1848 that was a haven for freed men and fugitive slaves.

Writers of the time likened their wilderness experiences there to being in church. Schneider quotes from Joel Headley's 1849 paean to the Adirondacks as a place where "Nature and the Bible are in harmony." The romantics were the spiritual precursors of John Muir and other wilderness champions who would use much the same language to ennoble the politics of preservation. But as Schneider points out, the region's remarkable durability has had less to do with the stirrings of a new wilderness ethic than with the intractability of land that would not yield to the plow or to the pastoral yearnings of settlers, who bypassed it for flatter, more fertile country to the west.

When devastation finally did seem to be at hand, as loggers laid waste to more than 1 million acres within the Adirondacks, the reprieve came in the form of an economic decision to protect a forested watershed that was the natural reservoir for cities downstate. "The creation of the Adirondacks Forest Preserve in 1885 and the Adirondacks Park seven years later," Schneider concludes, "was justified in purely utilitarian terms."

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