Magazine article American Forests

Gone Are the Groves Elysian

Magazine article American Forests

Gone Are the Groves Elysian

Article excerpt

The forest met by the first colonists stretched from the barrier islands on which they landed 400 years ago--a hundred years after Columbus' triumph of persistence over sense-- to the prairies of the middle West. In the northern latitudes of what would become the coterminous United States, between Maine and Minnesota, an unbroken coniferous woodland prevailed, giving way to hardwoods as it moved to lower latitudes--beech, maple, oak, chestnut, elm, hickory, basswood, locust, magnolia, live oak, tupelo--in a largely unblemished blanket of green from the Lakes to Louisiana. Significantly, the effect of the indigenous peoples on the forest was observable but ecologically minimal.

The great eastern forest, where many of the aborigines lived, comprised four-fifths of the forested land in what we now call the lower 48, with the remaining one-fifth in the Rockies, the Sierra-Cascades, the Coast ranges, and other western mountains.

For the colonists, clearing the vast eastern forest was a form of redemption, according to British geographer Michael Williams in his definitive study, The Forest in American Life. The very size of it, he writes, "astonished and frustrated the New World pioneers." Because that forest was "impersonal and lonely in its endlessness," clearing it, in Williams' view, "was likened to a struggle between the individual and the immense obstacle that had to be overcome to create a new life and a new society."

Indeed, in 1646 or thereabouts, William Bradford, the Puritan leader, wrote in his History of Plymouth Plantation of the first landing at Cape Cod, wherein even the glorious colors of a New England autumn were viewed as fearsome and hateful: What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men--and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more godly country to feed their hopes; for which way so ever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.

There was, however, a contrary strain in the early settlers' apprehension of America's forested wilderness. By 1791 William Bartram, son of the Quaker botanist John Bartram, wrote as follows in his exhaustively titled Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Counttr, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws; Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of those Regions, together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians:

Proceeding on our return to town [Bartram writes], continued through part of this high forest skirting on the meadows; began to ascend the hills of a ridge which we were under the necessity of crossing). and having gained its summit, enjoyed a most enchanting view; a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkeys strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads or bounding over the hills; companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busy gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets, lay reclined under the shade of floriferous and fragrant native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jassamine and cerulean Glycenefrutescens..,

So entranced were the English Romantic poets with Bartram's descriptions that the New World forest images worked their way into what is now some of the most familiar poetry of the period, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" and William Wordsworth's "She was a Phantom of Delight" and "Ruth. …

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