Wilderness

G

Guest

Guest
A read that sticks in my mind is the remarkable A NARRATIVE OF THE CAPTIVITY AND ADVENTURES OF JOHN TANNER by Edwin James. Published in 1830 it has long since entered the public domain and can be read online for free.

Here's the story of a boy captured by Indians on the late 1700s Kentucky frontier and his subsequent 4 decades as an Ojibway ranging between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods.

Captivity accounts are not uncommon. Louise Erdrich the highly regarded fiction writer and activist and herself a Native American, has commented, however, that the only one you'll ever likely see on the bookshelf in NA homes is Tanner's: it's honest and it's detailed.

Somewhere in the middle of this work sits a description of the nervousness in a hunting party which has deliberately committed trespass on the territory of the enemy Sioux.

The Ojibway knew all of their vast range intimately, as did the Sioux to the W know theirs and the Cree to the N and E theirs. In fact, all of Canada was equally spoken for. A map now published online by the gov't of Canada shows the historical population distribution of the country going back to the 17th century. It's was pretty even all over, not at all like today's.

These people knew their homelands, and it's hard to imagine that there was such a thing as wilderness. There were instead familiar places which afforded a people with what they needed to live. Their range was thought of as The Provider.

Historic populations were small by comparison to what we have today, but before European epidemics they were much larger than than we had long estimated them to be.

No matter. The historic people knew their homelands well. We on the other hand came to the game late, after the land had been drastically depopulated. This fact combined with our culturally derived attitude toward nature led us to view the bush as a hostile place and as one not fit for proper human habitation. Even today the absence of people is part of the definition of wilderness, and our very enjoyment of such places still is informed and inspired to a degree by the suggestion of an antagonistic spirit, of danger, of human AGAINST nature confronted in solitude.

To be sure Tanner's narrative demonstrates exactly the mortal earnestness of the period hunter's life in winter, but there is nowhere in it the position that the people viewed themselves as anything but a part of a providential community of many parts.

These days those who study such things have come to understand that the natives' message has always been, to borrow and adapt the late comedian Richard Pryor, "This Ain't No Wilderness. This Is A Neighborhood.".

Although I can't come up with the reference as I write, I remember an account of a native council of the late 18th century or early 19th century asked to explain what wilderness meant to them. The interviewers helpfully defined wilderness. After days the council made its pronouncement, which went something like, "We have never been to such a place. Sounds like Hell. Maybe it's over there were our enemies live."


L1100477_edited-4_zps545f76d7.jpg
 
Joined
Jan 30, 2013
Messages
53
Acer, very thoughtful write, we went 290+ miles in central Pa. Wendsday lots of F&I history I found alot of steams, some Amish tips on arrowhead hunting areas etc. One of the thoughts I had ,was it would have been beautiful to see the area before Raystown lake was made? Ravenwolf;
 
Joined
Feb 14, 2013
Messages
989
Ah...we've been down this road before. So it surely isn't wilderness. ;)

Well, to paraphrase an old saying - "one man's wilderness is another man's home". Or vice-versa. I'm convinced that wilderness is more a condition of familiarity than of physical substance. And equally convinced that such is not a necessarily permanent condition, one way or the other.

...After days the council made its pronouncement, which went something like, "We have never been to such a place. Sounds like Hell. Maybe it's over there were our enemies live."

Not knowing what the exact definition was, I would assume it read something like..."a place with no shelter, food, or familiar people....where strange and dangerous creatures live". For all the council would know, what was defined for them could have been a modern city (or worse, a city of that time). Would they know how to survive there without a guide? Other than the obvious aesthetic differences, the effect may be the same. And if you took these same people who's world travels were limited to what they could walk to and airlifted (or shipped) them to an entirely different wild environment (such as a native from the Gulf of Mexico region dropped into Death Valley), would it not seem unfamiliar and inhospitable to them?

Would such people even bother to go where it is known there is no food or shelter - regardless of what they called it?
 
G

Guest

Guest
RW, you get around. When do we get trip reports? I've heard people say, "Arrrgh! I was born too late. I would give anything to have seen this place in the _____ century."

I keep waiting for Stephen Hawking to make his prediction about the theoretical possibility that someday humans will be able to travel back in time.

Short of time travel, there's lots of seeing, reading, talking and thinking that can give a fair idea of what some places were like long ago. Having spent some time doing that, I've discovered that finding out about the past requires a close look at the present. And knowing a few things about the here and now of favorite places has gotten me, ironically, even more interested in their future than I am about their past.

Hey Steve

Yup, the same campaign. This time I might even get to conclude it nice and neat and also reveal why I'm on it.

Some things do not change. Your mind for "bullseye" questions and objections among them.

I'll do my best.


Exactly, "Wilderness" is all in the head. You've reasoned that the Indians knew the bush well and therefore they could not view it as a wilderness, and the colonists, on the other hand were in such a foreign situation that they could not help but see it as wilderness.

Well. Mostly the people who came here from Europe did not have an exceptionally tough time adapting to the environment once settlement had become firmly established along the coast. First, the place turned out to be something like Europe. There were new aspects, but essentially the people had hit the ground running and then had gotten some good coaching from locals. Very importantly, just about all of them who set off to push the frontier to the west in the 18th century, the heyday of "The Frontier", had been seasoned by years or generations in the more westerly farming communities, which depended on the resources of large, nearby tracts of undeveloped woodland. They knew the forest and how to get along in it. Even G. Washington was an pertinent example. An aristocrat from the tidewater Potomac, he was possibly the most widely experienced frontier traveler in the colonies. His aim was to make a killing in land speculation, and he scouted and evaluated investment potential in person. His journals are the observations of someone who knew a lot about the land he was looking at.


L1100223_edited-4_zpsd77c5471.jpg



This is the farm of friends. They've been on it since 1769. The old man told me that his founding ancestors, and everybody else, could predict land's farm potential by looking at, among other things, the form and speciation of the forest that grew on it.

They came in groups. In my friends' case 3 brothers came out and got the place going. In a couple of years the families joined them. From the beginning they had near neighbors, and further, the earliest farms in this valley and its tributary valleys were about 30 miles from the line of settlement in VA, which at that time had reached the eastern divide.

All of these people would have chosen land closer to VA settlement, but the high ridges of the divide stood in the way, locating the next valleys 30 miles to the west. That was a pretty big jump for the day. Usually the frontier advanced at something closer to mile by mile, and it definitely was a community type effort. Even the traders and trappers usually worked in pairs or groups.

Having set up and settled down, my friends' ancestors and their neighbors soon encountered the real difficulty in living on the frontier: the very upset Indians of Ohio with the much older claim.

For the most part settlers in the English colonies were farmers. The Indian traders and the trappers, who were a very sparse presence and who had preceded the settlers, were businessmen. None of these groups were at all martial, and when the Indian raids started around here they split back to VA. Between the early 1740s and the late 1760's WV twice got got completely cleared of traders, trappers and settlers. The place would stay clear for years and years, until the given war was over. My friends' people arrived on the 3rd try. This one stuck, the Indian society and military being pretty used up by this time.

Through all of this, which was more or less the common experience up and down the colonies, what people thought about where they lived was of two parts, the first of which they had brought with them from Europe: wilderness per se has a very strong effect on the body, mind and soul, and if you do not resist and don't get to work quick and are not careful in many ways, it will be your physical, intellectual and moral ruin. Considering the latter two points, they thought, look at the Indians.
That this attitude was universal and long lived, and that it was an almost unimaginably very big deal, can be picked up by reading period letters and period literature. Try Cotton Mather and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

When people came to settle the frontier they were out to destroy as much of the wilderness as they could and as quickly as they could. Wilderness was loathed. Farms, villages and towns were revered, and folks intended to turn all of the place into exactly that. Wilderness was to be assiduously fought, conquered and destroyed and in that struggle, they knew, was born opportunity for people who had had none in Europe and for which they had come.



Gotta go. More another day.
 
G

Guest

Guest
Something unexpected and extraordinary began to happen, in England and France primarily, during the 18th century. Namely, the European attitude toward wilderness began to do a 180.

For a long time the new idea was limited to the very highly educated social elites and those few in America who aspired to that ideal. Whereas formerly these people had not hesitated to express disgust at even the thought of vast tracts of unmanaged lands, seeing only financial and territorial opportunity in them, as the century went on their reaction increasingly turned to aesthetic, spiritual, physical and moral delight sometimes mixed with a little enjoyable fright. Wilderness was now cool.

Before this period of change people appreciated wildflowers, sunsets, fall colors and all of the other features that we enjoy today, but they were admiring them close to home, in domesticated areas. Way out in the bush the reaction was different. A revealing window into the transitional time is HISTORIES OF THE DIVIDING LINE BETWIXT VIRGINIA AND NORTH CAROLINA by William Byrd II of Virginia. Colonial aristocrat Byrd was a would be player in the world of the Brit crust but found an insurmountable obstacle in his colonial roots(as did G. Washington). Cosmopolitan and well educated nevertheless, here and there he included in HISTORIES the latest enthusiasm and vocabulary for the sensations and beauties of the wilds as he experienced them during 1720s surveying expeditions.

Today's reader, though, is surprised by the alternative and frequent appearance of the old attitude and vocabulary which uses "terrible" or "horrible" to describe the same region.

The emerging taste for wilderness was still at this time a romantic notion of people who did not spend much or any time in the bush. With his dashes literary fashion praising wilderness the ambitious Byrd was out to show the world that he was on the cutting edge.

The movement grew. The growing emphasis that the Industrial Revolution put on a literate population, as well as the new reach of the printing press assured that the trend might catch on.

That the new interest by the early 1800s was still limited to types who might today read THE NEW YORKER was demonstrated to Alexis DeToqueville, famous for DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, when he visited the the western frontier, then located in the northern midwest, to experience wilderness first hand. To the astonishment of the frontiersmen he claimed that he had come to experience the wild, and the wilder the better. Most thought he was crazy, but others suspected that he was a shrewd con artist: every last one of their type was out there for fur, land speculation or trade.

In the late 1700s even Daniel Boone had started talking about the beauties of wilderness. Or at least he had through the voice of a biographer. That he did in fact sometimes recline in the forest to look up and rhapsodize about the sublimity of the wilderness experience might not ever be determined. That he was more often and soberly quoted, however, as understanding his position at the forefront of the movement to convert those endless miles of forest into farms, towns and cities definitely matched the often described feeling of his peers.

Boone and the rest did frequently talk about the beautiful country out there, say KY, but their appreciation was outside of the Romantic ideal. They saw beauty in the promise of good trapping and farmland.

Maybe only these days do the philosophical descendants of Lord Byron("There is pleasure in the pathless woods;") and William Turner(the famous 19th century British painter who had himself tied to the mast of a sailing ship in order to experience a storm at sea) outnumber those of Boone.
 
Joined
Feb 14, 2013
Messages
989
Always enjoy reading your thoughts on wilderness, Acer.

Having read one biography on Boone, it seems to me that you have him figured about right. My impression is that he preferred the wilderness over civilization, but was usually intent on "taming" it to some degree (going on my memory, anyway).

I read recently (and I wish I could remember where) about an interview of a First-Nations chief who was answering a question about a nearby mountain top. His response was something to the effect of "we never go there - and why would we?" IIRC, he referenced the lack of food or other useful resources. I don't recall any reference to any term like "wilderness" though. I thought of you as I read this, and now I wish I had made some note to myself about where or who it was...

Interesting thing going on around here that you may have already taken note of. There is a political movement that has been simmering a while in these parts for the western states to take control of federal lands - including designated wilderness. It seems largely related to a general perception that the fed doesn't manage the land well (according to various perspectives) but fueled primarily by a (largely down-played) desire to put said lands into commercial use. Nothing new under the sun, eh?
 
G

Guest

Guest
Hi Steve,

I don't have any info on Boone's regret that he was an agent of the destruction of wilderness. I have read that he was very aware of being part of a very important and big movement to settle the North American continent. It has surprised me to read that most frontier people were similarly aware of their place in history. But then, there was this 800 pound gorrilla, the vast wilds sitting next to a thin strip of development east of the mountains. It's not surprising that people would be aware of it and talk about it and about what was up with the many who were going there. The legend was being made as it was being played out.

Some others did regret the destruction of wilderness even when most of the continent still was still viewed as wilderness. Latterly Thoreau, but many of those caught up in the Romantic philosophy felt that before him as early as the late 1770s and early 1800s.

I too have read a passage about the native who shrugged. Thoreau describes an incident in THE MAINE WOODS, his guideJoe Polis also declined to hike up Katahdin with Henry and his cousin. The guide chilled in camp for the day.

I have a pretty big home range, but I don't go to every square mile of it. I know the general layout of it all, but some places are important, others less so and some not at all important.

Back in the day of the late, great SOLO TRIPPING, someone assured me that there exits a human instinct to discover and conquer new lands. I'm not so sure myself that this "instinct" is more than a western European cultural matter.

That person told me that the natives were into exploration and adventure just as "we" all are. During the 17th century Beaver Wars the native nations did do a lot of exploring and conquering, notably the 5 Nations. Their motive was the seizure of other nations' trapping reserves. They had joined the market economy, and in true capitalist fashion, they were out to destroy the competion and would not stop at destroying the land too, which they, not the Europeans were the first to initiate on a large scale. With the beaver all but gone in many parts of its range within 100 years, the ecology of vast tracts was altered permanently. The beaver in these areas was that big a deal.

That kind of exploitation of place in precolonial times was not imagined, but very early native peoples di become part of the market econmy, were in direct competition for control of their land with Europeans and with neighboring nations, and with the drastic alteration of their economy came an equally drastic collapse of the social fabric. Most of the Indians east of the Mississippi, by the start of the 1700s were not their old selves economically, socially, politically and spiritually.

That effort to take control of federal lands is not unique to the US west. Maybe it's more developed there.

Here in WV you don't go far or long before you meet someone who wants to log the the whole national forest, including the wilderness and tradionally recreational areas. "Hate to see a tree go to waste...." etc. Here's the last few percents of the state's land area, where extraction is controlled, and they want that too.

Back on topic: the social sciences were the last areas of study to grasp the concept of objectivity. Most of what we call "history" written in the the 19th century was a celebration of the amazing fact thet western Europeans had the rest of the world in a bag.

Among professional historians a different outlook began to form in the early 29th century, and became earnest after WWII. Unfortunately, popular opinion on many subjects is still firmly rooted on the 19th centurury model.
 
Joined
Feb 14, 2013
Messages
989
Acer - the "exploration instinct" may be real - I don't know. But we certainly don't all have it. I have always wondered what is over he next hill, but I note that a large portion of society has never left their home area, and seeks no knowledge of outside places - or even where their home fits into the geography. Anyway - man does tend to wander for whatever reason.

And the environmental destruction wasn't limited to hunting/trapping. Early man also used fire to engineer his idea of the ideal environment (out here, anyway). Romantics argue that it was "land management" - but what is "management" other than attempting to control outcome or change a system? We only call it management when it fits our needs/desires. Others may perceive it as meddling.
 
G

Guest

Guest
C has an instinct to explore new shopping and restaurant districts. She's impressive. I have never felt much need to explore boreal forest and to paddle that zone, which so many on these pages see as an ideal. If I could figure out, on the other hand, a quick and dirty way to carry off 2 years exploring N and NW Amazon tributaries in my Bob Special, I'd do it. But that's because I have certain stuff I want to see and to do. I think it's the hope of specific rewards that is the instinct driving us, and during the great ages of exploration that hope was completely ambition and greed. Only by the latter part of the 18th century did people begin to profess admiration for seeing new wild lands for their own sake. Always these were scientists or those who were caught up in the Romantic outlook. Then the latter went middle class, and huge numbers of people began to idealize exploration. Before that people might like to find a lane or a pleasant woods in the country to explore, but wilderness, NO WAY. The aversion was not specifically about physical danger. Locations that were wild but not dangerous were looked at as waste land with no aesthetic or recreational value at all. They had negative value in fact. There was also the lingering superstition that these places were, if not the actual abode of the devil, at least a suspiciously close material expression of his values. No fun there.
 
G

Guest

Guest
Burning questions. Haaaah, Ha!!!!! Along with the second look that mid 20th century experts began to give the cultures and societies of indigenous peoples, there developed a new appreciation of their effect on the "natural" environment. The most provocative statement that I have seen so far claims that something like half of the tree species found in the Amazon basin are there because of human influence. Even in the Amazon. Wow! But the case can be overstated. A guy from the SW, Bonnicksen(spelling?) did a book about 10 years ago or so which looked at the influence of North American natives. I scanned only parts, so my impression is not authority, but what he said seemed to say that Indians had torched about the whole place. You can find lots of physical evidence that this was not so, and since he did his research their have been more and better studies. He might have relied too much on anectdote. During the colonial period there appeared lots of stories about the Indians as a society of pyros. The truth might have been more that the areas around their villages were heavily managed, but not the outlands. Even more, by the time most colonists got to see Indians up close, their socities were in desperate decline and one of the reasons was competition for land with the hugely numerous newcomers. The natives possibly were forced to open up places that before had not been much or at all developed. Therefore more burning than had been the custom. In any case, the opinion now seems to be that the vast larger part of the eastern woodlands probably were not managed by human firing. Also, "Indian" is too broad a term, having less descriptive value than "European": midwestern Mississippian agriculturalists from cities of 15-20K(or more) people, or boreal Cree hunter/gatherers with barely any agriculture and seasonal villages of a few hundred?
 
Joined
Feb 14, 2013
Messages
989
Don't know about the eastern societies - but the local lore here has it that early man did manage some areas with fire. And why not? We do it even now to clear dense vegetation and promote better feed for game animals. If we were utterly dependent on that resource, I would think it a natural idea to encourage a herd in a convenient location. Hardly a scientific way to look at it - I know. But it's not like we're talking about burning forests to the ground, anyway. The right time and place...a little meandering ground fire ain't so bad. I can't imagine that the thought would never have crossed their minds.
 
G

Guest

Guest
You are right in all that you said here. I didn't mean to claim that the Indians did not use fire as a management tool. I intended to say that today opinion on how widely they used it has drawn back from the position stating that virtually the majority of the eastern woodland had been managed by fire. Core areas in a territory were intensively managed, including the use of fire, but outside of these limited tracts, probably very little was attempted. There's utility and practicality factors. Some resources benefit from fire management and some don't: fire can improve deer browsing and grazing, but you don't want to burn up valuable vegetation which people use for food, household supplies, medicines and so on. And some game species prosper after fire and some do not. So every community had its land management plan, and these plans did not appear, in pre(European)contact times at least, to include near universal systematic burning. The practical side is that while some habitats possibly will ignite if you stare at them to long, many require lots of time and effort to manage by fire. The WV dept. of natural resources has been trying out game habitat improvement with fire. Their experience seems to be that these humid, moist mountain forest are very hard to keep burning. Bring lots of matches. And a short time ago I read that some of the forests in the Great Lakes region are suspected of having vegetation that is actually somewhat flame retardant. No free lunch.
 
Top