Review: Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands

By Holton, Graham E. L. | Electronic Green Journal, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Review: Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands


Holton, Graham E. L., Electronic Green Journal


Review: Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands By Ann Vileisis Reviewed by Graham E.L. Holton Institute of Latin American Studies, La Trobe University, Australia Ann Vileisis. Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999. 433 pp. ISBN:1-55963-314- X (cloth); 1-55963-315-8 (paper). US$29.95 cloth; US$19.95 paper.

When the Puritans arrived in America they found its chaotic landscape of swamps incomprehensible after the orderliness of the English countryside. Swamps became seen as sinister places, in which the sinful Indians' familiarity was a sign that this new landscape was evil. A similar set of beliefs was developed in the south where the coastal plain swamps presented even greater challenges. Taming the chaotic landscapes of wetlands became a religious duty to create Christian order for public service and commercial gain. Timber, furs, and agriculture meant the economic exploitation of the wetlands' resources. The rich soils of the newly drained wetlands saw the rise of a remarkable agricultural productivity. This great familiarity with swamplands saw a causal link between wetlands and disease, in which cultivation unleashed the miasmic gases that caused outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria.

The ballad of the "The Lake of Dismal Swamp" was written in 1803 by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a man who had become crazed when the woman he loved had died, and went off into the Dismal Swamp to find her. This image of a place of fear and dread changed as the wealth of the former wetlands began to be exploited. This change in mood was captured in the writing and paintings of 19th century travellers such as Henry David Thoreau. In June 1840 Thoreau recorded his experiences on the Mississippi, which he saw as a metaphor for the vitality and exuberance of life, in a landscape that was evidence of divine creation. His essays were published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862, describing the swamp as a sacred place. T. Addison Richards' Romantic Landscapes of 1855 held a new fascination for the intrepid traveller.

The Romantics' regret for the loss of pristine places inspired an interest in the enduring wetlands as a place where one could get to know God's creation first hand. Romanticism in America challenged the longstanding tradition of regarding swamps as worthless real estate. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the famous Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), wrote Dred, A Tale of the Dismal Swamp (1856), using the landscape as a physical and allegorical backdrop for her anti-slavery novel. Stowe's swamplands represented indolence and chaos that threatened the Northern states' industriousness and morality. For the South, swamplands had aroused a fear of slave uprisings since the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831. In September 1856, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published the adventures of David Hunter Strother in Virginia's Dismal Swamp, in which this exotic landscape no longer threatened, but was an intriguing place of great beauty.

Martin Johnson Heade began painting the expansive salt marshes of the Atlantic coast in 1860; the first to so for the landscape's own sake. Heade saw a balanced relationship between people and the natural world. He completed over a hundred marsh paintings before his death at age eightyfour. The writer and illustrator A.R. Waud conveyed memorable visual images of the Louisiana Cypress Swamp in Harper's Weekly of December 8, 1866. Waud's cypress forest with its Spanish moss, decaying tree trunks, and lily pads portrayed the new image of swamp landscape to an American audience recovering from the horrors of the Civil War. …

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