Stopping by the Woods

By Becknell, Thomas | American Forests, November-December 1991 | Go to article overview

Stopping by the Woods


Becknell, Thomas, American Forests


So wrote Robert Frost in the early part of this century. Generations of American writers have been inspired by the woods. Though some, like the literary naturalists John Muir and Aldo Leopold, have described its natural beauty or clarified its environmental conditions, more often the creative writer, in stopping by the woods, has found there a renewed vision and clarity of purpose for life outside the forest.

America's first writers generally shunned the forest. William Bradford, from whom we inherit the stories of Plymouth Plantation and of the first Thanksgiving, viewed "the whole country, full of woods and thickets," as "a hideous and desolate wilderness." And St. Jean de Crevecoeur, a colonial farmer, believed that the woods were destroying the American character, turning responsible citizens into irresponsible hunters. "Something in the proximity of the woods," he wrote just before the American Revolution, "puts the gun into their hands" and "makes them neglect their tillage."

By the start of the 19th century, however, the forests had stirred the imagination of America's finest writers and artists. James Fenimore Cooper, one o four first novelists, wrote a series of five books that endure as the greatest epic of the American forest and frontier, The Leatherstocking Tales. Raised in Cooperstown, New York, on an estate his father had carved from the forest, Cooper understood the complex contradictions between progress and preservation. Among the forests and the clearings around him, Cooper perceived American values in conflict, and he sought to dramatize those conflicts in his fiction.

Cooper's hero is Natty Bumpo--also called Leatherstocking--whose rapport with the wood is so great that he seems to give the forest a human shape. But Leatherstocking's life in the woods is relentlessly threatened by the encroachment of civilization, until he is at last driven out to die alone on the prairies. "Woods!" cries the 70-year-old Leatherstocking at the end of The Pioneers. "I doesn't call these woods . . . where I lose myself every day of my life in the clearings."

Once among America's most popular authors, Cooper is seldom read today. Yet his work explores social and environmental complexities that remain fiercely relevant nearly two centuries later. In The Pioneers, for example, the issue of killing a deer out of season reveals a much deeper, irreconcilable division between the laws of the forest (by which Natty lives) and the laws of society (by which he is arrested and finally displaced). "But might makes right here," laments the ostracized woodsman.

While Cooper was creating these great legends of life in the woods, his friend William Cullent Bryant saw the forest as a cathedral. "The groves were God's first temples," he wrote in his poem of 1825, "A Forest Hymn."

Be it ours to meditate, In these calm shades, thy milder majesty, And to the beautiful order of thy works Learn to conform the order of our lives.

As a liberal Democrat, a lawyer, and an influential editor, Bryant vigorously fought for various humanitarian reforms. But his popularity as "The Poet of Our Woods" surpassed his political reputation as he encouraged men and women weary with toil to:

enter this wild wood And View the haunts of Nature. The calm shade Shall bring a kindred calm, and the sweet breeze That makes the green leaves dance, shall waft a balm To thy sick heart.

Other romantic temperaments were not so easily cheered. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, haunted by the ghosts of his Puritan ancestors, the dark woods around Salem, Massachusetts, seemed gloomy and mysterious. In Hawthorne's greatest tales, such as Young Goodman Brown," "Roger Malvin's Burial," or in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, individuals must confront their own psychological depths deep within the great, dark forest. How they come to terms with their guilt or sorrow or hidden motives of the heart, once they leave the protective cover of the forest and return to the community, is one of the most provocative and enduring themes in Hawthorne's fiction. …

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