Nature, Attitudes Toward
NATURE, ATTITUDES TOWARD
Nature serves a cultural function as both a window and a mirror: it allows us to look into a physical world that transcends human limitations, but it also reflects the values, assumptions, ambitions, and fears we bring to our perception of it. Significant changes in American attitudes toward nature between 1754 and 1829 reflected larger changes, such as those brought by population growth, improved transportation, land ordinances and agricultural development, shifting relationships with Native American peoples, and westward expansion and exploration. Changes in how Americans viewed nature served as a leading cause, as well as a leading effect, of the growth of the nation.
By the mid-eighteenth century the American view of nature was characterized by a duality that, arguably, still exists: on the one hand, Americans were proud that the wilderness of North America was vast, lovely, and rich; on the other, they prided themselves on their ability to subdue, control, and transform nature to suit their own economic and political goals. Although Americans of this period had in some ways moved beyond the adversarial relationship to nature that had characterized their predecessors, they were deeply committed to a concept of progress that simultaneously celebrated and destroyed the natural world. As Thomas Hallock notes in From the Fallen Tree (2003), descriptions of "republican landscapes" commonly reveal this tension, demonstrating that Americans of the period had to grapple with the "paradoxes of expansion" (pp. 5, 4). As Americans intensified their subjugation of the North American wilderness, so too did they heighten their praise of nature and, by extension, their faith in nature as the agent of a great national destiny.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, three major cultural forces were especially important in changing American attitudes toward nature. First, older traditions of natural history were being displaced by a newly secularized and professionalized practice of scientific inquiry. Second, a rising tide of nationalism was claiming American nature as a cultural resource that would ensure the prospects of the young nation. Third, the European landscape aesthetics of the beautiful, sublime, and romantic took root in America, profoundly influencing the ways Americans understood and described nature on their side of the Atlantic.
the rise of science
For colonists living before the mid-eighteenth century, religion was the dominant cultural framework within which nature was understood. But whereas in 1721 the Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663–1728) could argue that comets were created by God as a place to keep sinners for an eternity of punishment, by 1754 the influential Swedish botanist Linnaeus (1707–1778) had already published early editions of his Systema Naturae (1735)—a revolutionary text that set forth a comprehensive system of taxonomic nomenclature and thus encouraged the professionalization of scientific practice. The rationalism at the heart of the American Enlightenment also helped push nature out of the shades of folk superstition and into the light of reason then being focused by the lens of science.
Before the rise of professionalized science in the mid-eighteenth century, misconceptions about American nature were surprisingly common. Because the complexities of bird migration were not understood, for example, many believed that swallows hibernated underwater or even, as some had it, on the moon. Some scientifically incorrect folk beliefs—such as the widely held view that snakes captured their prey by use of a paralyzing gaze—persisted into the late eighteenth century. As science professionalized, errors were corrected, new species discovered, known species better understood, and the mechanisms of migration, feeding, and breeding clarified. There were also substantial changes in how the mechanisms of the cosmos were understood. For example, while Professor John Winthrop (1714–1779) was strongly criticized for introducing the ungodly system of Newtonian science at Harvard College in the 1740s, in 1769 American astronomer David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) was celebrated for accurately recording the transit of Venus across the Sun using an instrument of his own design.
Although Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) were not professional scientists, their approach to natural history reflected the new attitudes toward nature that characterized American thinking at the turn of the nineteenth century. In sending the Corps of Discovery on its transcontinental voyage in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) had instructed that "your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy," and he prioritized the methodical collection of data concerning minerals, fossils, flora, fauna, and weather. Despite their lack of scientific training, Lewis and Clark were able to provide a treasure trove of new information, including descriptions of many previously unknown species such as the grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, coyote, and jackrabbit. The observations of plants, animals, and minerals they recorded ultimately made their journals a national epic—one that helped persuade Americans that nature would be at the core of their nation's future.
nature's nation: american nationalism
Perhaps no cultural force was as powerful as nationalism in changing the way nature in America was perceived during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even after winning independence from England and establishing a new government, Americans remained insecure about their national identity, with many continuing to identify strongly with British culture into the nineteenth century. As it became increasingly clear that political sovereignty was necessary but not sufficient to inspire a unique cultural identity, Americans began to search their home landscape, history, and customs for material that was distinctively American and might therefore help unify the new nation. Americans soon realized that while their nascent arts and sciences could not compete with the long-established traditions of European culture, they did have one resource that Europe did not have and could not acquire: the vast wilderness of the American continent. Consequently, Americans began to see nature in their homeland—the powerful rivers, oceanic prairies, and lofty mountains—as something promising, rich, and uniquely American. They began to believe that national character was shaped by contact with wilderness and that national prospects could be measured by wilderness, and, paradoxically, the subjugation of it.
The assumption that nature would provide a foundation for a great culture was not, however, widely accepted—especially among Europeans, who had a stake in maintaining the inferiority of the upstart Americans. Instructive in this regard is a famous disagreement between the influential French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), and Thomas Jefferson. Buffon asserted his "theory of degeneration," which claimed that American plants and animals (including, by implication, humans) were no more than degenerated and degenerating versions of their European counterparts. Jefferson, who was keenly aware not only of the bias and inaccuracy of Buffon's theory but also of its damaging implications for a budding American culture, explicitly challenged the theory in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Here Jefferson used the tools of Enlightenment science to carefully document the impressive sizes of American animals and to compare them to their (almost invariably) smaller European counterparts. Rejecting Buffon's implication that American prospects were weak because American nature was weak, Jefferson argued instead that the impressive diversity and size of American animals actually prophesied the bright future of the young country. America, he argued, would be a great nation long after the "wretched philosophy" that would have ranked its people among "the degeneracies of nature" was forgotten. Jefferson's nationalist science was endorsed by Charles Willson Peale, the curator of the first American museum of natural history, who spoke from the leading edge of American natural philosophy when he claimed that "natural history is not only interesting to the individual, it ought to become a NATIONAL CONCERN, since it is a NATIONAL GOOD."
the romantic wilderness
Changes in the American attitude toward nature were also conditioned by evolving environmental aesthetics, including new ideas that entered popular culture through landscape painting, literature, and philosophy. Among these important new landscape aesthetics was Edmund Burke's 1756 distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful, according to Burke, described emotions stirred by pastoral landscapes, while the sublime characterized the ennobling feeling of awe inspired by the grandeur of wilderness. Because America was the land of the mighty Mississippi and Niagara Falls, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, Americans were quick to embrace the aesthetic of the sublime as a means to valorize the wild expanses of their country. Following Burke's idea to its American conclusion, they further asserted that the American sublime—a mode of enthusiasm and inspiration specific to the grandeur of the American land—would also have an ennobling effect upon American character and civic institutions.
No eighteenth-century American writer expressed the beauty and sublimity of the American land more eloquently than did Quaker botanist William Bartram (1739–1823), whose Travels (1791) described his observations of nature during four years of solitary wandering in the American wilderness. Although trained as a naturalist, Bartram was a gifted writer whose perceptions of the natural world were filtered through the appreciative landscape aesthetics Burke helped introduce to America. "If we bestow but very little attention to the economy of the animal creation," wrote Bartram, "we shall find manifest examples of premeditation, perseverance, resolution, and consummate artifice." And the range of Travels is remarkable: Bartram captures both the delicate beauty of rare flowers and the sublime roar of bellowing alligators; he describes plants and animals using the precision of the scientist but animates his descriptions with the lyricism of the poet. Bartram prefigured important changes in the American attitude toward nature in that his approach to the natural world was based in science but inspired by a deep belief in the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic power of nature.
That belief in the power of nature also signaled the ascendancy of romanticism, a literary and philosophical movement that began in Europe but had, by the turn of the nineteenth century, struck roots in American soil. Romanticism celebrated individualism, imagination, and nature, and thus complemented the new cultural values Americans embraced as the Jacksonian era dawned. The Romantic enthusiasm for wilderness also demonstrated how radically American attitudes toward nature had shifted during the past century. While they still worked with plow and saw to bring nature to the yoke, by 1829 Americans were creating a vibrant nationalist culture that identified nature as the locus of divinity for a new national religion—a secular faith that would dominate American cultural production up to the Civil War.
Hallock, Thomas. From the Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics, and the Roots of a National Pastoral, 1749–1826. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by William Harwood Peden. New York: Norton, 1982.
Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. Journals of Lewis and Clark. Edited by Frank Bergon. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Peale, Charles Willson. "Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Natural History." In Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden. Edited by Michael P. Branch. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Michael P. Branch