Thoreau's Sense of Place

Essays in American Environmental Writing


Copyright © 2000 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-720-6

Chapter One

RELATING TO PLACE "Between Me and It"

Believing in Nature Wilderness and Wildness in Thoreauvian Science LAURA DASSOW WALLS

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"In Wildness is the preservation of the World"-so runs the oft misquoted line from Thoreau's essay "Walking." Why "Wildness" and not "Wilderness," as the line so often appears? What does the difference signify? In context, Thoreau clearly identifies "wildness" not as a distant place but as a quality, something ineffable and strange and raw at the heart of the most common experience: "Life consists with wildness." It need not, then, be housed in a "wilderness"-yet it is hard to dissociate the two concepts, to accept one without the other.

The history of their entanglements leads us into nineteenth-century natural science, the domain that by asserting control over all things sought to transform the wild into the tame. Science, it is commonly assumed, can perpetrate such conceptual violence because it doesn't "believe" in nature-has reduced the world of nature into objects and forces, on which science acts with impunity and without conscience. In "Walking," Thoreau counters such assumptions with an avowal: "I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows." 3 In an age of science, is it still possible to "believe" in forest and meadow and corn-growing night?-in a nature that grounds moral values, lifts us into spiritual transcendence, promises personal and social redemption?

Only, it is often implied, to the extent that one repudiates science, which is said to be at war with belief, with faith. This assumption makes Thoreau's involvement with science difficult to accept as integral to his poetic and spiritual self. Yet in the nineteenth century, it was entirely possible and even necessary to "believe" in "Nature," an affirmation inseparable from Nature's source in a Christian God and from science as the appointed interpreter of God's meaning. This answer, though, raises further and more difficult questions: In which nature shall Thoreau believe? For he had a number of choices. In Baconian nature, so crucial to nineteenth-century America and romantic science, the forest and meadow and corn-growing night were agents of God, intended to contribute to the use and improvement of humanity so long as humanity should in turn serve as nature's servant and interpreter. In an even older trope of natural theology, forest and meadow and corn-growing night would be hieroglyphs, words in God's "Book of Nature," the symbolic key to the Book of Revelation: one would believe in them less for themselves than for the divine message they carried. However, a newer romantic natural theology, finding this system too static, sought to animate it such that forest and meadow and night would be thoughts of God, billowing through the evanescent material world; to believe in them was to believe in God's power and in the stark fullness of the Law that surged and sorted the particles of matter. In various ways, all these modes presumed that forest and meadow were to be believed in not for themselves alone but for something higher, something they served or translated or embodied. Yet it was also possible in nineteenth-century America to claim nature was its own reason for being-that the dark forest and the dank meadow and the mysterious forces of the night were the powers and presences of a self-generating and self-directing material nature not immediately responsible to God and perhaps, therefore, not immediately responsive to human will-a willed nature, a wild nature, a nature unpredictable and even a little frightening.

None of these choices was innocent. Belief in Bacon's nature allied one with imperialist nation-building, and reading the traditional book of nature meant reading the world as theological doctrine. Romantic nature updated the theology but enforced the hierarchical social organization, naturalizing it in often bitter or anguished reaction to the radical threat posed by subversive Continental materialists, who by taking God out of nature apparently reduced man to the level of the beasts. Thus, to "believe in nature" was not to escape from the domain of society and politics but to declare one's own political allegiances, one's ideology. The romantics were right: there is no way to see nature apart from the idea by which nature is made visible to the mind-there is no innocent eye. And in modern Western industrial society, the ideas which mediated visions of nature were inseparable from science, the embodiment of those ideas in the physical world and the organizing center for notions about nature, self, and society.

Thoreau's belief in nature has, in a process detailed recently by Lawrence Buell, led to his installation as the founding father of environmental thought in America. I would add that Thoreau's participation in science maps a range of conflicts and potentials in environmental thought. In brief, I argue that Thoreau arrived at a radical view of nature as a self-generating, creative agent by incorporating Humboldtian protoecological science into traditional and romantic forms of natural theology. The protoecology of Alexander von Humboldt showed Thoreau ways of valuing "wildness," while the ideology of the more mainstream natural theologies made "wilderness" a cultural necessity; rather than sacrifice either one, Thoreau saw the two working in concert, each completing the other. The concept of "environment," which emerged during Thoreau's lifetime, is the site at which these distinctions are intensified into contradictions: is humanity a part of nature, intervening and participating in an ecological system? Or is it exempt from nature, which is pure only in the absence of human will, design, and desire? These questions are related to the construction of modern science, occurring also during Thoreau's lifetime: was science to be democratic and participatory, or a specialized province restricted to the virtuous few? How is the two-culture split between literature and science related to the disappearance of science from a common shared culture, and the emergence of a form of literature recognized as "nature writing"? The following can only sketch some speculative answers, directed first to the bifurcation of science, then to some implications for the concept of "environment," which was for some brief period the common ground for both literary and scientific writers.

The bifurcation of science can be traced to Kant, who had declared that natural history, which "systematically ordered" the facts of nature, was separate from true natural "philosophy," which revealed the "primal, internal principle" by which facts were constituted. Post-Kantian natural historians sought to elevate their field of knowledge to the level of a true science by discovering the necessary self-evident and self-constitutional principles according to which all objects in nature were formed, making sublunary nature just as "Newtonian" as the stars. Yet a self-evident nature can reflect only truths of the self. The environmental tradition insists on the otherness of nature, in a newer, "empirical" tradition which deliberately countered romantic rationalism. This tradition can be traced back to a road suggested, but not taken, by Kant. In teasing science apart from natural history, Kant did raise the possibility of an empirical, historical natural science, and although he excluded it from science proper, not all of his followers agreed. Alexander von Humboldt took the alternative pathway, not to replace but to complete the kinds of knowledge being developed by the "rational" sciences, and so developed an "empirical" alternative which appealed strongly to Thoreau.

Humboldt offered an empirical science analogous to a narrative "Civil History," a composition which would show the "simultaneous action" and "connecting links" of all the forces which pervade the universe, including deep space and all of geological deep time (since the description of what is could hardly be separated from what was), as well as, most surprisingly, the agency of the perceiving mind as well, since without the mind the external world has "no real existence for us." Humboldt leaves no doubt that nature, from remotest nebulae to arctic lichens, from the primal cooling earth to the weather of the hour, exists entirely apart from us; yet that relation is radically asymmetrical: our mental existence is inseparable from our existence as beings in and of nature. The dualism that splits mind from nature, ME from NOT ME, collapses into a subtle interplay of mind, emotion, sensation, force, life, matter, and history, in a field of almost infinite density and complexity.

The kind of science Humboldt advocated-exact, detailed, holistic, and interactive field studies which gathered and collated a dazzling array of data from all points of the globe-is now in retrospect identified as protoecological. For although Humboldtian science never dominated the Anglo-European mainstream, one of its most visible legacies has been the study of the interaction between animals, plants, and their physical environment which emerged in the 1890s under the name of ecology. In adapting Humboldt's global program to his own localized field studies, Thoreau too was pioneering this as-yet-unnamed science; and although his work did not directly influence its creation, Thoreau was part of its founding. Indeed, later generations of professional ecologists honored Thoreau's scientific work by citing it and incorporating it into their own, even as it was ignored or slighted by literary critics.

What made Humboldt's ideals difficult to accept on his own terms was the implication that nature was not the product of divine design but self-generating. Hence, order was not dictated rationally from above but emerged cooperatively from below, from the collective interactions of constituent individuals. This implied that nature was not just analogous to, but actually was, a historical process subject to chance and contingency, hence inherently unpredictable and non-Newtonian. Thoreau's Journal becomes a massive gloss on this basic concept. Darwin, after first redefining evolution in Origin of Species (1859) as a historical rather than a progressive process, went on in The Descent of Man (1871) to propose even more radically that natural organisms actually made themselves through their own aesthetic choices. If wild meant "willed," as Thoreau proposed, Darwin's was a wild nature indeed. What inspired all three was the conviction that the natural world was real on its own terms, and mattered, both for itself and for the cultivation of human self-identity, culture, and civilization.

Debates over science, then, were really debates over broader historical, cultural, and philosophical issues. The strongest connection between science and general culture was through religious belief. In the centuries before Darwin, science was that realm of knowledge which sought to understand the workings of God's creation, making it a powerful way to affirm and extend religious doctrine. Francis Bacon, virtually the patron saint of nineteenth-century Anglo-America, had called science the "faithful handmaid" of religion, and the goal of Baconian science was to show how humanity could acquire the power of God and apply such power to human purpose, "to command nature" through obedience to her laws. Bacon's pronouncement that knowledge was power became the watchword of nineteenth-century natural philosophers from Coleridge to Humboldt, Herschel to Emerson. Indeed, Emerson ends Nature with a ringing Baconian declaration: "The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation,-a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God,-he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight."

Such language is troubling today. The power to command nature obviously implies the ability to alter nature in wide-ranging and catastrophic ways, but the danger seems curiously invisible to nineteenth-century eyes, even as they looked out on the ravages of an industrializing and urbanizing global economy. What did they see, that they could be so blind? I would submit that only when the power of humanity to alter nature becomes evident is the modern concept of "the environment" possible. A number of intellectuals, scientific and nonscientific alike, recognized at least as early as the 1830s that humanity was indeed remaking nature in fundamental ways. Yet why not sooner? And why was it decades before those with the ability to "remake" acknowledged the potential to "destroy"?

The answers grow out of the fundamental assumption that God had designed a harmoniously functioning universe, an "economy of nature" composed of a balanced exchange among various species and their environment. It might seem that the undeniable fact of extinction showed that the "balanced" economy had already suffered devastating change, both in the geological past and in recent human history, but eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century writers had several ways to dismiss evidence of extinction, evidence they might have taken as proof that humanity's impact on nature is permanent: extinction is, as they say, forever. John Playfair, for example, notes in 1802 that species, even whole genera, of animals "are extinguished." Yet he adds, "It is not unnatural to consider some part of this change as the operation of man. The extension of his power would necessarily subvert the balance that had before been established between the inhabitants of the earth, and the means of their subsistence." Humanity "subverts" the balance of nature-yet the destructiveness of human impact is absorbed as another "natural" force. Playfair concludes that "a change in the animal kingdom seems to be a part of the order of nature"; even the shells and corals of the former world don't resemble those of the present. Human agency, even catastrophic human agency, is swallowed up by the balancing power of nature. The conclusion is built into the premise: humanity, which commands nature by obedience to its laws, can hardly step outside of nature's grand, cyclic, self-correcting, and continually regenerative economy.

The current usage of the word "environment" was introduced into the language by Thomas Carlyle, who in Sartor Resartus (1836) parodied both the "economy of nature" and those who espoused it. Given that the evidence of humanity's power to radically reshape the global environment was increasingly hard to dismiss, Carlyle's rhetorical reform inverted the relationship of man to nature. From a small part of a greater whole, humanity became the greater whole of which nature was but a part. Carlyle had noted in 1829 as a "Sign of the Times" that "We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highway; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils." The dynamic equilibrium of powers which characterized Humboldt's thought is taken up and intensified in Carlyle's parody into a play of "Force" which dissolves all matter and bears it forward in its resistless path. Humanity must become the agent, not the victim, of such forces: "Earth's mountains are leveled, and her seas filled up, in our passage: can the Earth, which is but dead and a vision, resist Spirits which have reality and are alive?" Humanity is no longer merely the pinnacle of a stable and cyclical creation, but its continuation and completion. The directionality of historical change has destabilized the circular dynamic, and humanity appears instead as the culmination of an essentially linear narrative.

As Carlyle shows, a new vision of global imperialism was emerging. Scientists like Lyell and Darwin were beginning to investigate the extent of human alterations of the face of nature, but the insight was not limited to scientists. Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes narrates a fundamentally environmental history of a natural region by documenting, as Lee Sterrenburg shows, a nature profoundly affected by humans. By Wordsworth's day, many of the Lake District's aboriginal mammals were already listed as extirpated species. Wordsworth's historical review makes clear that "Because of these human-induced extirpations, we can never again return to nature's primaeval or original state-even in theory.... No romantic cognitive apocalypse will ever bring back the wolf, the boar, wild bull, the leigh and the forest ecosystems that supported them at the time of early Celtic settlement." Instead Wordsworth narrates an environmental history, which relies on "feedback between human-affected ecosystems and Wordsworth's views of nature." This attention to the feedback between human activity and the natural ecosystem generates a startling new insight into a historical nature. Sterrenburg notes three ways in which the Wordsworth of Guide to the Lakes moved beyond the Wordsworth of the 1802 "Preface." First, humanity operates not through a remote "science" but as an immediate agent in nature's history, through "everyday social activities like mining, woodlot enclosures, and cattle grazing." Second, a greater degree of feedback among conceptual categories such as "poetry," "nature," "science," and "man" means that such categories are no longer isolated from one another; furthermore, "instead of an organism endowed with presence, 'nature' becomes more of an invisible system endowed with constraints and possibilities," which receives and emits a continual stream of messages as forests are cut down and non-native species introduced. Third, "Wordsworth speaks as an activist and a preservationist," arguing that "land should be managed in an ecologically responsible way" in order, as Wordsworth says, "to 'preserve the native beauty of this delightful district.'" One consequence of these insights is the new role Wordsworth sees for poetry, which now "evaluates and adjudicates human changes in the landscape," no longer declaring veiled or absolute presences but mediating "ecological trade-offs."


Excerpted from Thoreau's Sense of Placeby RICHARD J. SCHNEIDER Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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