Beyond, Beneath and Behind the Wild Frontier

By Joseph V. Siry

Mineraets Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Owen's Valley.

Parts of the essay's 30 paragraphs.

Paragraph                               sentence                                                                               Sources                                       


1          Turtle Island with a boundary between Indigenous and Europeans persists


2          misplaced sentiment for an imaginary condition of a landscape in "balance" that has never ecologically existed.


3          wild place desperately in need of reconnaissance, surveillance and modification. Nothing could have dispelled this illusion. Dense forests, enormously wide rivers, endless prairies, rolling plains, tauntingly high mountains and trackless deserts fed the fear that nature would devour human endeavors


4          de Tocqueville "Americans themselves .... march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature." Washington Irving,... have been dispossessed of their hereditary possessions by mercenary and frequently wanton warfare; and their characters have been traduced by bigoted and interested writers


5          American attitudes about nature were born of two very real struggles one against the natural history of the places settled and the other over the removal of the original inhabitants because wilderness became defined as the absence of human intrusion, permanent habitation, or influence.


6          George Catlin a nineteenth century painter of Indians and sympathetic chronicler of their demise in the 1830s observed "Many are the rudeness and wilds in Nature's works which are destined to fall before the deadly ax and desolating hands of cultivating man." From his sincere concern for the encroachment of American civilization on the Indians, Catlin articulated a need to preserve this condition of their existence. In 1832 he suggested the government create "A Nation's Park


7          the crucible of our democratic experience -- American civilization is for many writers different from other nation building exercises because the taming of the land also harnessed our cultural, legal and moral relations to a mythology


8          Illusions are important because they reveal the motives, beliefs, and values of the people harboring follies based on factual errors


9          Thoreau meant wild as "Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him." In the geography of our imagination lies clues to our failures to fully comprehend our mistakes, to correct our miscalculations, and to learn from our misjudgments. 


10       America as nature's nation was a civilization that Europeans carved out of the wilderness of the Americas.


11        This belief about the land as filled with inexhaustible resources and ample room to grow became an article of faith in America's commitment to democracy, commerce and technological innovation. In some respects Puritan concepts of mission were coupled to "Yankee ingenuity" and a faith in a classless society as articles of a bold American creed.


12        drawing near divinity," suggests Nash. A simplistic connection was made between the very soil and the goodness of the civilization engendered by agriculture and today by extension to the sanctity of wilder landscapes. Nash speaks for many who believe "wilderness....It's out biological and cultural mother."


13        Callicott concludes that "American Indian complaints that the very concept of wilderness is a racist idea." lies at the root of our failure to "envision ways of creatively reintegrating man and nature." Today in the US this attitude accounts for why Native Tribal Nation's are absent from most national parks and instead are sequestered on "reservations."


14        the act reads there was "much decay of the breed of so excellent a fishe." Furthermore the act's authors feared "the danger of an utter destroying and loss of them." Were turtles so important and then so scarce by 1620 that the penalty for killing young specimens was a fine of 15 pounds of tobacco? And was the Assembly so interested in the enforcement of this provision that 7.5 pounds of the this confiscated tobacco would be given to the informants?



15        the continent's natural flora and fauna would appear inexhaustible. But the idea that sea turtles would be taken in such quantities as to raise real fears of their local demise, in 1620, is also disturbing. Granted that Bermuda is at the northern extremity of the Gulf Stream's warming influences and that as a margin of turtle ranges in the Atlantic their demise might be due to natural and not strictly human causes. Nagging doubts remain about why this protection became necessary if a wild condition implies an abundance of resources.



16        the turtles are seagoing sentinels foretelling the existence of land beyond the horizon. As pilot lights to these strange and distant shores turtles remind us that the paths of history and natural history cross early meaning that nature cannot be removed from history if we are to better understand our past. History


17        Disturbance frequently causes the spread of certain pioneer species of grasses or shrubs or trees, for example, out of all proportion to what the size and extent of the species would be under undisrupted conditions. Seed eating birds for example are beneficiaries of spreading farms. Any seed that could exist say from corn would prosper as American settlers moved west..... Ecologically speaking the abundance associated by early travelers and settlers of North America was a consequence of the very peopling of the frontier by small farmers.


18        New England town a White Pine forest, not logged since the 1830s, was recently destroyed by a tornado, which led to a dispute in the town meetings about the future of the woodland. Magazine editor and author Michael Pollan as an example of the failure of the wilderness metaphor to assist us in devising proper land-use policies.


19        wilderness had become part of the problem" here: because "This forty-two acre forest of old-growth white pine trees close to the center of town... was one of the oldest stands of white pine in New England ...untouched since about 1800." Pollan in searching for a way out of the debate between wilderness preservationists and utilitarian developers says "I also began to wonder if it might be possible to formulate a different ethic to guide us in our dealings with nature... an ethic that would be based not on the idea of a wilderness but on the idea of a garden." . . .  Pollan believes that "Fire suppression is one of the more significant effects that the European has had on the American landscape."


20        California natives practiced irrigation by diverting seasonally flooded canals to water grassy areas so that they might grow a reedy grass from whose rhizomes, or roots, they crafted the frames of their cooking baskets. Anthropologists distinguish gatherers from agriculturists but these survivors of the arid regions blur that distinction.


21        Native peoples thrived agriculturally in the harshest of areas of the desert southwest because of the care they gave their corn, beans and squash even though it only rains less than 10 inches per annum.


22        Ecology and history fold neatly together to form a complex relation between natural objects and cultural designations. History as a literate pursuit to explain our origins and development is embedded in the natural history (ecology) of places where people depend on their surroundings for their survival, wealth and civilization. In this perspective the wild frontier is a cultural icon embroidered by our experience that also offers clues to how humans utilize nature to make sense of their experience, craft their material culture and leave behind traces of their occupation. Among the Arawak descendants of cultures indigenous to the America's in 1499, places are named according to the kinds of trees growing about their settled areas.


23        The ability of the nation to persist in fabricating more convincing fantasies about the frontier than it created believable descriptions is a disturbing truth about the American fascination with natural areas and the wide-open spaces of North America. While the tangible forests, rivers, swamps, glaciers and deserts of the continent gave rise to obstacles and opportunities, Americans have always measured their achievements, in part, with respect to the conquest of the land, the harnessing of its waters and the subduing of its resources. In the process of dismembering the fabric of life


24        Consider this spectrum of three related words: wild -- garden -- urban

                                           wild                            garden                               urban

                                           untamed                       plot of tilled earth           city as civilized

                                           state of nature                soil as a source                cosmopolitan

                                           evil                                edenic myth                    centralization

                                           biotic order                   domestication                  uniformity

                                          virtue                             agriculture                       public space

                                           disorderly                      divinely ordered              civic order


25        very different images of the appropriate origin and continuing locus of virtue in American cultural life: the wild, the garden, or the urban setting. Could all of these places have influenced the development.... Because American culture lacks a sense of longevity over time, we as a nation in search of a distinct cultural identity have seized on the myth of wilderness to explain our origins, attitudes and destiny


26        Americans have an impact on the planet thirteen times greater than a Brazilian person's impact on resources? The parochial insularity of American culture, our hostility to other languages and our self centered approach to foreign relations all can be understood -- in part -- by our myth of the wild frontier


27        founding Boston in the 1620s, thought of this settlement as a new Jerusalem set:

"As a city upon a hill" spreading a holy light in a dark, hostile land. Americans still consider their landscape's legacy as an exemplary beacon to others. Today the light metaphor stands for the democratic values, commercial freedom and personal liberties associated with the hill top city. But environmentally speaking national parks and wildlife refuges are also "shining examples" for the world of American optimism . . . Ecological integrity, meaning the proper functioning of a natural area, is at the foundation of a long-term, healthy economy. Obscuring this reality is the complexity of scientific thinking and the persistently widespread faith in manifest destiny.


28        Our search for identity led to a widely accepted myth: the wild frontier of boundless resources as a dominant narrative of human adaptation to the land. We do well to recall that "The land was ours before we were the lands," as poet Robert Frost reminds us. So American's have yet to find a decent metaphor to preserve and protect the variety of 231 distinct ecological associations that characterize the American landscape.


29        committed as a people to the biological restoration of significantly important ecological places such as the Everglades or the Great Plains because of the national park ideal and preservation tradition dating back to George Catlin and Henry David Thoreau in the 1830s and 1840s. Today many thinkers are beginning to realize what businessman and author Paul Hawken asserts when he writes "Nationally and globally, we perceive social and environmental decay as distinct and unconnected. In fact, a humbling design flaw links the two problems." By that he warns us "industrialism is extraordinarily inefficient."


30        We are late to recognize that truth because siren like the wild frontier myth still beckons Americans on our odyssey of self-discovery

A. No Balance of nature

B. Imbalance of settlement makes abundance seem normal

C. Patriotic images often confuse the ecological conditions, connections

D. We have two legacies not one of optimism based on abundance:

            1. Progress -- humans are an edge species

            2. Parks -- heritage preserved



There are 22 illustrations of either photographs or duplications of paintings and the photograph (#23) above of the Owen's Valley.


Newberry Library for images of the west by by George Catlin –

Thoreau reader, on-line –

National Park Servce –

Library of Congress – photographic collections –