Nature and Ambivalence About the Market Economy

As the market economy moved across the land, the comments of Audubon, Emerson, and Thoreau evinced a growing preoccupation with nature and its relation to humanity. In reaction to loss of the wild, poets, philosophers, novelists, and artists lamented the rapidity with which the country was being developed and eulogized sublime and picturesque vistas found in mountains, oceans, sunsets, and rivers.

Taken collectively, however, this body of thought betrayed an ambivalence between dismay at devastated nature and fear of nature's untamed wildness, both nonhuman and human. It moved toward preference for a middle ground, the cultivated garden, as prefigured in Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer. Crevecoeur maintained that people took their character from the environments in which they lived. Along the Atlantic coast, fishermen were energetic and independent, taking their "nature" from the boisterous ocean. Farther inland, people were simple farmers, nurtured, like plants, by the soil. On the frontiers, however, they donned buckskin clothing and lived by consuming the meat of wild beasts, taking on animal-like characteristics. Crevecoeur's ideal environment, therefore, was the middle ground inhabited by the simple farmer.

Explorers and scientists in the eighteenth century were among the first to record their appreciation of nature. Virginia planter William Byrd (1674-1744) described the delights of wilderness camping on a survey of the North Carolina boundary in his 1728 History of the Dividing Line, and depicted the Appalachians as ranges of blue clouds rising one above the other in vistas of increasing perfection. He lamented, however, that wilderness valleys lacked "nothing but cattle grazing in the meadow, and sheep and goats feeding on the hill, to make ... a complete rural landscape."15 Botanist William Bartram (1739-1823), after a trip through the southern Appalachians in 1773, reported that he was "seduced by these sublime, enchanting scenes of primitive nature." Similarly, in 1791, British publicist William Gilpin (1724-1804) found in American forests "the pleasing quality of nature's roughness and irregularity and intricacy."

An urban appreciation of nature also began to appear. The poetry of Boston's Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) delighted in the natural world as a rational, harmonious whole rather than a tumultuous wilderness. Arriving on a slave ship at age eighteen and studying ancient literature and Latin at the behest of her impressed mistress, she mastered the fashionable classical allusions and tropes that were conventions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—the nine muses including Calliope, muse of poetry; Aurora, goddess of the dawn; the sun as "illustrious king of the day"; and the "gentle zephyr," or wind. In "An Hymn to the Morning" and "An Hymn to the Evening" (1773), she evoked the beauty of nature, the transitory quality of life, and the power of God's action in the natural world. Presaging the more romantic nature poetry of Philip Freneau and William Cullen Bryant, Wheatley became the country's first published black poet.

The middle-ground ideal of the cultivated garden was most definitively articulated in the Leatherstocking novels of the upstate New York squire James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the most popular American writer of the early nineteenth century. He pitted the nature-nurtured nobility of backwoods scout Leatherstocking, or Natty Bumppo, against the artificiality of advancing civilization on the one hand, and against the barbarism and "wasty ways" of frontiersmen on the other. Although Cooper, in The Pioneers (1823), described with anguish the massive slaughter, for sport and market, that drove vast flocks of passenger pigeons into extinction, he was forced to admit, concludes literary historian Annette Kolodny, "that a non-exploitative white community, living harmoniously within the embrace of nature, was no longer a possibility."16

Nature's tensions and affinities with American market society were most deeply explored by the "transcendentalists." This coterie of clerics, poets, and philosophical essayists, centered in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts and led by Emerson, had absorbed in Harvard classrooms the abstruse philosophy developed in Germany by Immanuel Kant, as made intelligible for them by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It offered these youthful rebels an alternative to the soul-withering rationality of Boston's Unitarian commercial elite, which had leached away the passion and commitment that their forebears derived from the Puritan God. In place of Jehovah as ultimate reality, it posited transcendent ideas —those above the material world — that sustained and were mirrored in natural reality and implanted in every soul. Nature became the source of spiritual insight, as symbol or emblem of these ideal truths. Revering wilderness as bespeaking God rather than denigrating it as evil, like their Puritan ancestors, many tran-scendentalists came to feel that it should be cherished and preserved.

Thoreau saw this new faith as reinforcing the organic cosmology of rural America against threatening market forces. He was influenced, as well, by the romantic poets of Europe — Johann Wolfgang Goethe in Germany and William Wordsworth, along with Coleridge, in England — who viewed nature as a source of spiritual insights. In 1845 he "retired" for two and a half years to Walden Pond, just outside Concord, to think through, in this new way, the values of the natural landscape. Drawing also on folk and traditional cultures, on the sages of India, and on the Native American animist view that deities and spirits exist in all things, Thoreau published his masterpiece Walden in 1854. Here, luminously homely metaphor expressed an I-Thou relationship with nature that made plants and animals equal, animate beings.

Thoreau spoke of looking into the depths of Walden Pond — the earth's eye — as a means of absorbing higher truths. Acutely aware of how rapidly nature was disappearing under the aegis of the market, he wished to live lightly on the land. His beanfield exemplified his desire to save and restore nature by infusing subsistence farming with an ethic of preservation. If the land were left alone, the forest would return through the process of plant succession. Native plants and animals would reappear, and perhaps even the Indian would once again walk along the paths of a restored wilderness. The axiom "in wildness is the preservation of the world" distilled his personal wilderness ideal.

Walden Pond, for Thoreau, represented the middle ground between civilization and wilderness. Concord and Boston symbolized the market, Mount Katahdin (or Ktaadin) in Maine the distant wilderness. The railroad, which traveled along the edge of his pond, brought commodities and excitement from Boston and beyond, disrupting the serenity of his woodland retreat. But the pond was also a safe haven against the wild. On a trip to Mount Katahdin, Thoreau experienced the terror and loneliness of the wilderness and paused to ask, "Who are we? What are we?" Here nature, in contrast to the pastoral setting of Walden, was savage and titanic, inhuman and lonely. He relished the community, not just of people, but of other animals and plants in the middle landscape of Walden Pond.

Emerson took a different tack. Bred in the Boston bosom of New England's commercial elite and finding an audience for his lectures among the businessmen of northern cities, he strove to fuse enthusiasm for nature with enthusiasm for the market. "The Over-Soul" (1841) linked the human soul with "the eternal One," the transcendental "soul of the whole ... the univer sal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related." As offshoots of an "everlasting nature," we "see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animals, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul." The worship of nature as manifestation and emblem of the Over-Soul instilled in every human soul an appreciation for the earth as part of the "Unity" of all creation. But simultaneously, Emerson's great manifesto, Nature (1836), lauded "commodity" or usefulness to humans as one of nature's preeminent qualities, and his most popular lecture (and essay), "Wealth" (1844), rested on the proposition that man "is born to be rich" and will not "content himself with a hut and a handful of dried pease." The most moral individuals, it seemed to follow, were those "men of the mine, telegraph, mill, map, and survey" who "esteem wealth to be the assimilation of nature to themselves."17

As national sage, Emerson elaborated his vision of national destiny in "The Young American" (1844). "Trade planted America," he proclaimed, and trade was its high calling. "This great savage country should be furrowed by the plough, and combed by the harrow; these rough Alleghenies should know their master; these foaming torrents should be bestridden by proud arches of stone; these wild prairies should be loaded with wheat; the swamps with rice; the hill-tops should pasture innumerable sheep and cattle."18 Emerson's popularity at mid-century suggested that his commodifica-tion of nature was drowning out concerns about its degradation in a flood of exhilaration about progress.

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