The Rape of the Wilderness: If Europe Venerated Old Cathedrals and Roman Ruins, America's Great Monuments Were Its Mountains and Forests. but Bush Follows Another Strain in the US Tradition Which Sees Nature as a Resource to Be Exploited

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), May 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Rape of the Wilderness: If Europe Venerated Old Cathedrals and Roman Ruins, America's Great Monuments Were Its Mountains and Forests. but Bush Follows Another Strain in the US Tradition Which Sees Nature as a Resource to Be Exploited


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


May was the month in which the west was won. On orders from President Jefferson, the great American pioneers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St Louis on 14 May 1804, and followed the Missouri River across the Great Plains into the uncharted west. In doing so, they helped to define America both as a nation of hardy frontiersmen untroubled by the obstacles of nature and as a land of Romantics wedded to the wonder of the great outdoors.

Two centuries later, a very different president is attempting to define a very different America: more bellicose, purposeful and partisan. Rather than safeguarding the United States mapped out by Lewis and Clark, George W Bush has spent the past four years dismantling his nation's environmental heritage. He has allowed roads into virgin forests, gas exploration in national parks, and maintained the sacrosanct rights of drivers of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) to cheap petrol. In so doing, the self-styled cowboy from the barren ranches of Crawford, Texas, has aligned himself firmly with the frontier strain of American identity.

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The natural environment has always been contested terrain in the story of the US. From the earliest western encounters, the New World was recorded as a place of extraordinary beauty. Christopher Columbus believed he had arrived on the "nipple" of the earth, which reached closer to heaven than the rest of the world. The moral virtue, the godliness of America, was reflected in its seductive coastlines and fertile plains. Such natural innocence contrasted favourably with the corrupt, spoilt world of what Donald Rumsfeld would later christen "old Europe".

However, the Puritans of the 17th century and revolutionaries of the 18th did not adopt such a reverential attitude. The settlers of Virginia were determined to tame the savage wilderness and cultivate the earth for the glory of God. Similarly, the radicals of Pennsylvania revered science above nature. If America was to break free of the Old World, then the republic's natural riches must be exploited in the name of progress. In the north, that signalled industry; in the south, a landscape of ordered plantation.

But as America attempted to create itself as a nation, the natural environment started to command more lofty sentiments. Against the strains of a Romanticism that championed human relationship with nature, the continent's woods, swamps, plains and mountains were imbued with a richness beyond their mineral wealth. In Europe, people might have venerated medieval cathedrals or the ruins of Rome, but in the New World they celebrated their wilderness as a font of patriotism. In these primeval settings could be found the key to the American character: the individualism, the egalitarianism, the creativity.

In 1864, at the height of the American civil war, Abraham Lincoln appealed to this ideal by making a symbolic attempt to unite his fractured nation. Deploying what remained of his presidential authority, he handed over the rugged wilderness of the Yosemite Valley to the state of California for use as a public park. Once regarded as a godless settlement of Indians worthy of clearance, the valley now testified to a new conception of nationhood. Lincoln's gesture was designed to suggest there existed an America beyond the present divisions, uniting north and south, and it could be found in the extraordinary natural environment.

But it was the artists and writers of the emergent nation who most fulsomely celebrated their physical heritage. The Hudson Valley painters successfully crafted a sublime image of America as a modern Eden. Today, in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the grandeur of Thomas Cole's epic landscapes--the oxbow rivers, fecund valleys and plunging ravines--still offer a sense of the profundity and magnificence of America.

Meanwhile, from the swamps of Concord, Massachusetts, the philosopher-poet Henry David Thoreau conjoined the American tradition of nonconformity with the rugged space and brittle wilderness of the natural environment. …

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