Alienation or Intimacy?: The Roles of Science in the Cultural Narratives of Gifford Pinchot and John Burroughs

By Warren, Julianne Lutz | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), December 2007 | Go to article overview

Alienation or Intimacy?: The Roles of Science in the Cultural Narratives of Gifford Pinchot and John Burroughs


Warren, Julianne Lutz, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


America is still at heart, a business-oriented society.... We are still naively sure science and technique will heal the wounds and sores we leave on the earth, when in fact those wounds are more malignant than ever. Perhaps we will never be at perfect peace with the natural order of this continent, perhaps we would not be interesting if we were. But we could give it a better try. (Donald Worster, The Dust Bowl 8)

By the end of the nineteenth century it had become obvious to those paying attention that many of the ways Americans were using nature were destructive. In response two parallel yet fundamentally unalike American conservation narratives emerged. These developing narratives were about promoting good relations between humans and the rest of nature. They dealt with, in the words of Walt Whitman: "the most profound theme that can occupy the mind of man ... the relation between the... Me, the human identity of understanding, emotions, spirit, &c., ... on the one side ... with the Not Me, the whole of the material objective universe and laws, with what is behind them in time and space, on the other side" (895). (1) While each of these two stories was concerned with people using land well--soils, waters, plants, and animals--each was based on quite different ideals of progress--that is, upon different wants and values--varying, in particular, in their emphasis on the material facet of the world.

The unfolding of both tales has continued through the twentieth century and into the present day, though the more materially-oriented one has prevailed as the main story-line in American culture. The predominant narrative has emphasized industrial development and capitalist economic growth. In pursuing these goals it has become a story of increasing alienation--of parts of nature from each other; of parts of nature from the context of nature as an integrated whole; and of humans from nature. The subordinate narrative, on the other hand, which has been largely an effort to counter some of its competitor's perceived failings, has included the preservation of a broader constellation of cultural concerns, including emotional and spiritual ones. It has become a story about intimacy--in terms of acknowledging the interconnections among parts of nature; of parts of nature forming integral wholes; and of humans closely related to and dependent upon the rest of nature.

As each narrative differs in its goals and values--particularly on its emphasis on the material facet of the world--each also differs in the ways it incorporates the methods and knowledge of scientific inquiry. While the roles of science may vary within different cultural contexts, however, science itself remains a tool in either case for describing the physical facets of the world. It can be powerful in doing so, but that is all it can do. Science can help in describing past and present conditions of material nature and in predicting trends into the future to varying degrees of reliability. When the question of what should be arises, the inquiry necessarily steps beyond what science alone can help us to understand (Leopold 226; Freyfogle and Newton 863).

One person who gave articulate public voice to the prevailing narrative of conservation at the turn of the twentieth century was Gifford Pinchot--first chief of the United States Forest Service serving under President Theodore Roosevelt. Much scholarship has focused on the contrast between Pinchot's viewpoints and those of naturalist and adventurer John Muir. Muir was well-known for his deep aesthetic, moral, and spiritual appreciation of wild nature and for his efforts to set aside wild nature parks intended to exclude most human activities. The differences between these two men often have been cast as the American conservation-preservation divide. Less attention has been paid, however, to the important writings of a good friend of Muir's--John Burroughs--and his expressions of what had become an alternative cultural narrative. …

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