Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation

By Karl Jacoby | Go to book overview
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EPILOGUE
Landscapes of
Memory and Myth

Once an event takes place, it lingers on in “the present of things past”: memories preserved in the human consciousness. Memory, however, is rarely an impartial record keeper. Details can fade over time. Understandings can shift as individuals reimagine the past in light of current concerns. The powerful can attempt to advance their own visions of the past, dismissing those whose recollections they find threatening or inconvenient. In the case of American conservation, memory formation and policy making evolved in tandem with one another, for in justifying their programs, many of the movement's leading proponents found it useful to offer a vision of the past to which conservation emerged as the only logical response. With rural folk seldom possessing the same means by which to disseminate their own versions of events, the accounts put forth by Marsh, Fernow, Pinchot, and other early conservationists have come to occupy a prominent place in American popular memory. Even today, they shape our understanding of conservation, supporting a number of myths about the movement's early years that deserve closer historical scrutiny. 1

The first of these myths is perhaps the most pervasive: the belief that prior to the advent of conservation, rural folk, in keeping with the supposed rugged individualism of the American frontier, did as they pleased with the natural world. In Gifford Pinchot's words, “The American people had no understanding either of what Forestry was or of the bitter need for it. …To waste timber was a virtue and not a crime. In fact, as we have seen, country people fashioned a variety of arrangements designed to safeguard the ecological base of their way of life. In the

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