America's single greatest claim to literary pre-eminence may lie in its writings about the natural world. Writers in every corner of the globe have always told stories of relationships among people, or among peoples and their gods. But Americans came to full literary consciousness while much of their land was yet to be deforested, drained, cleared, developed. It is the fraught relationship between man and nature that suffuses many of the best American novels, poems, and stories—and that many of the most eloquent and impassioned American essays take as their central subject.
The voices showcased here gave rise to movements. Out walking in the wilderness, birthing a million backpackers who would follow, Henry David Thoreau was the proto- environmentalist. And John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club (a forefather of modern NGOs), drew upon his ecstatic grammar of the wild to issue an urgent call that would inspire and be echoed by a million analogous groups around the world. America collided with nature, and it was these writers and thinkers who let out the yelp. But if some of these voices expressed apprehension and prodded readers to action, others comforted and supplied the balm. Annie Dillard offered a wry perspective on the planet’s profligacy, Sarah Orne Jewett contemplated—albeit a bit tremulously—the great chain of decay and rebirth, and John Burroughs (the single most popular nature writer in America for many decades) articulated his serene conviction that Charles Darwin could help us to see the divine underfoot.
At present, we find ourselves facing ecological damage that even these writers, so keenly attuned to the topic, could not have anticipated: the earth has become what one group of scientists has called the “anthroposphere,” its physics, chemistry, and biology now driven by our habits and desires. The reformist energy unleashed by the metaphors and images of our great green writers, which accomplished so much for so long, has mostly dwindled away. If we are to confront these new perils, and the endless consumption and carelessness that advance them, we need strong new writing about our responsibilities to one another, and about the possibilities that yet remain for delight in the natural world. We need the next metaphor. And if our history is a reliable guide, it will surely come.
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by Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist, philosopher, and author of such classics as Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” contributed a number of writings to The Atlantic in its early years. The month after his death from tuberculosis, in May 1862, the magazine published “Walking,” one of his most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.
It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class …
The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours,—as the swinging of dumbbells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!
Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors” …
I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape …
At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.
Volume 9, No. 56, pp. 657–674
By Sarah Orne Jewett
In 1881, Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett (who would later go on to write the classic novel The Country of the Pointed Firs) was moved by a journey along a local river to thoughtful musing on the ruthlessness of nature and the interconnectedness of living things.
At the head of tide-water on the river there is a dam, and above it is a large mill-pond, where most of the people who row and sail keep their boats all summer long. I like, perhaps once a year, to cruise around the shores of this pretty sheet of water …
The great gulls watch me float along the river, curiously, and sail in the air overhead. Who knows what they say of me when they talk together; and what are they thinking about when they fly quickly out of sight? Perhaps they know something about me that I do not know of myself yet; and so may the musk-rat, as he hurries through the water with a little green branch in his mouth which will make a salad for his supper. He watches me with his sharp eyes, and whisks into his hole in the sunny side of the island. I have a respect for him; he is a busy creature, and he lives well. You might be hospitable and ask me to supper, musk-rat! I don’t know whether I should care much for you if I were another musk-rat, or you were a human being, but I shall know you again when I see you by an odd mark in the fur on the top of your head, and that is something. I suppose the captive mussels in your den are quaking now at hearing you come in. I have lost sight of you, but I shall remember where your house is. I do not think people are thankful enough who live out of the reach of beasts that would eat them. When one thinks of whole races of small creatures like the mussels which are the natural and proper food of others, it seems an awful fact and necessity of nature; perhaps, however, no more awful than our natural death appears to us. But there is something distressing about being eaten, and having one’s substance minister to a superior existence! It hurts one’s pride. A death that preserves and elevates our identity is much more consoling and satisfactory; but what can reconcile a bird to its future as part of the tissues of a cat, going stealthily afoot, and by nature treacherous? Who can say, however, that our death is not only a link in the chain? One thing is made the prey of another. In some way our present state ministers to the higher condition to which we are coming. The grass is made somehow from the ground, and presently that is turned into beef, and that goes to make part of a human being. We are not certain what an angel may be; but the life in us now will be necessary to the making of one by and by.
Volume 48, No. 288, pp. 500–510
By John Muir
Years after westward-moving settlers had felled and burned much of the country’s woodland, the crusading naturalist John Muir urged Americans to safeguard the forests that remained. Spurred in part by Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt launched a major conservation program, creating the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and preserving millions of acres of American wilderness.
The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed to be favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe. To prepare the ground, it was rolled and sifted in seas with infinite loving deliberation and forethought, lifted into the light, submerged and warmed over and over again, pressed and crumpled into folds and ridges, mountains and hills, subsoiled with heaving volcanic fires, ploughed and ground and sculptured into scenery and soil with glaciers and rivers,—every feature growing and changing from beauty to beauty, higher and higher. And in the fullness of time it was planted in groves, and belts, and broad, exuberant, mantling forests, with the largest, most varied, most fruitful, and most beautiful trees in the world …
So [the forests] appeared a few centuries ago when they were rejoicing in wildness. The Indians with stone axes could do them no more harm than could gnawing beavers and browsing moose. Even the fires of the Indians and the fierce shattering lightning seemed to work together only for good in clearing spots here and there for smooth garden prairies, and openings for sunflowers seeking the light. But when the steel axe of the white man rang out in the startled air their doom was sealed. Every tree heard the bodeful sound, and pillars of smoke gave the sign in the sky …
Many of nature’s five hundred kinds of wild trees had to make way for orchards and cornfields. In the settlement and civilization of the country, bread more than timber or beauty was wanted; and in the blindness of hunger, the early settlers, claiming Heaven as their guide, regarded God’s trees as only a larger kind of pernicious weeds, extremely hard to get rid of. Accordingly, with no eye to the future, these pious destroyers waged interminable forest wars; chips flew thick and fast; trees in their beauty fell crashing by millions, smashed to confusion, and the smoke of their burning has been rising to heaven more than two hundred years …
Surely, then, it should not be wondered at that lovers of their country, bewailing its baldness, are now crying aloud, “Save what is left of the forests!” Clearing has surely now gone far enough; soon timber will be scarce, and not a grove will be left to rest in or pray in …
So far our government has done nothing effective with its forests, though the best in the world, but is like a rich and foolish spendthrift who has inherited a magnificent estate in perfect order, and then has left his rich fields and meadows, forests and parks, to be sold and plundered and wasted at will …
Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees—tens of centuries old—that have been destroyed. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods,—trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time—and long before that—God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools,—only Uncle Sam can do that.
Volume 80, No. 478, pp. 145–157
By John Burroughs
John Burroughs, a popular nature writer whose circle of friends included Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt, argued in 1908 that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution should be viewed not as an insult to the dignity of humanity but as evidence of the divine in nature.
When Darwin published his conclusion that man was descended from an apelike ancestor who was again descended from a still lower type, most people were shocked by the thought; it was intensely repugnant to their feelings. Carlyle, for instance, treated the proposition with contempt. He called it the “gospel of dirt.” “A good sort of man,” he said, “is this Darwin, and well meaning, but with very little intellect” …
One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in this life, and one that many persons never learn, is to see the divine, the celestial, the pure, in the common, the near at hand—to see that heaven lies about us here in this world … Why, we have invented the whole machinery of the supernatural, with its unseen spirits and powers good and bad, to account for things, because we found the universal everyday nature too cheap, too common, too vulgar. We have had to cap the natural with the supernatural to satisfy our love for the marvelous and the inexplicable. As soon as a thing is brought within our ken, and the region of our experience, it seems to lose caste and be cheapened …
It jars upon our sensibilities and disturbs our preconceived notions to be told that the spiritual has its roots in the carnal and is as truly its product as the flower is the product of the roots and the stalk of the plant. The conception does not cheapen or degrade the spiritual, it elevates the carnal, the material. To regard the soul and body as one, or to ascribe to consciousness a physiological origin, is not detracting from its divinity, it is rather conferring divinity upon the body. One thing is inevitably linked with another, the higher forms with the lower forms, the butterfly with the grub, the flower with the root, the food we eat with the thought we think, the poem we write, or the picture we paint, with the processes of digestion and nutrition. How science has enlarged and ennobled and purified our conception of the universe; how it has cleaned out the evil spirits that have so long terrified mankind, and justified the verdict of the Creator: “and behold it was good.” With its indestructibility of matter, its conservation of energy, its inviolability of cause and effect, its unity of force and elements throughout sidereal space, it has prepared the way for a conception of man, his origin, his development, and in a measure his destiny, that at last makes him at home in the universe.
The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is, “Look under foot.” You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the centre of the world. Stand in your own dooryard and you have eight thousand miles of solid ground beneath you, and all the sidereal splendors overhead.
Volume 101, No. 4, pp. 440–449
By Robert Frost
Though Frost’s first submission to The Atlantic was rejected, he went on to become a regular contributor, ultimately publishing thirty-one of his poems in the magazine. This poem, like much of his verse, paid homage to the natural world while teasing out hidden, sometimes darker, meanings.
I wonder about the trees:
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice,
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.
Volume 116, No. 2, p. 224
By Annie Dillard
In the summer of 1973, observing an especially fertile growing season outside her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the poet and essayist Annie Dillard waxed philosophical about the life cycle and the universal impulse to grow and reproduce. Her essay collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published the following year to widespread acclaim, earning her a Pulitzer Prize.
Now, in late June in the Blue Ridge, things are popping outside. Creatures extrude or vent eggs; larvae fatten, split their shells, and eat them; spores dissolve or explode; root hairs multiply, corn puffs on the stalk, grass yields seed, shoots erupt from the earth turgid and sheathed; wet muskrats, rabbits, and squirrels slide into the sunlight, mewling and blind; and everywhere watery cells divide and swell, swell and divide. I can like it and call it birth and regeneration, or I can play the devil’s advocate and call it rank fecundity—and say that it’s hell that’s a-poppin’ …
The driving force behind all this fecundity is a terrible pressure I also must consider, the pressure of birth and growth, the pressure that squeezes out the egg and bursts the pupa, that hungers and lusts and drives the creature relentlessly toward its own death. Fecundity, then, is what I have been thinking about, fecundity and the pressure of growth. Fecundity is an ugly word for an ugly subject. It is ugly, at least, in the eggy animal world. I don’t think it is for plants.
I never met a man who was shaken by a field of identical blades of grass. An acre of poppies and a forest of spruce boggle no one’s mind. Even ten square miles of wheat gladdens the hearts of most people, although it is really as unnatural and freakish as the Frankenstein monster; if man were to die, I read, wheat wouldn’t survive him more than three years.
No, in the plant world, and especially among the flowering plants, fecundity is not an assault on human values. Plants are not our competitors; they are our prey and our nesting materials …
Even when the plants get in the way of human “culture,” I don’t mind. When I read how many thousands of dollars a city like New York has to spend to keep underground water pipes free of ailanthus, ginko, and sycamore roots, I cannot help but give a little cheer. After all, water pipes are almost always an excellent source of water. In a town where resourcefulness and beating the system are highly prized, these primitive trees can fight city hall and win.
Volume 232, No. 5, pp. 69–77