2. Before 1895: Discovering Nature
"In Europe people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them; they are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight, the . . . march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature."
--Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America, from a trip in 1831
"The lands of the State [of New York], now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed." -- New York State Constitution Article VII, Section 7, ratified in 1894
The earliest American settlers often spoke in fearful tones of the wild lands that surrounded them. William Bradford reported that he stepped off the Mayflower in 1627 to a "hideous and desolate wilderness." For more than two centuries, his co-travelers in America regarded wild nature with revulsion, while they saw Western civilization as the world God intended. William Cooper, a settler in northern New York in the late 1700s, wrote that his "great primary object" was "to cause the Wilderness to bloom and fructify." When nature was written about in favorable tones, the praise was almost always couched in terms of rural husbandry, not wilderness. Early landscape painters commonly showed farm scenes with forest edges in the background, as if nature had been pushed into submission by the righteous farmer.
By the end of the Nineteenth Century, this attitude has been turned on its head. Loggers, hunters, and farmers began the century being portrayed as heroes in the battle against the dark wilderness; they ended it as "pirates of the forest" who plundered a defenseless Mother Nature. New York voters came to believe in protection so strongly that in 1894, they approved a new clause in the state Constitution designating hundreds of thousands of state-owned land "forever wild."
Two movements were at the root of this reversal. The first was a broad shift in public attitudes. Early in the century, a few artists and writers in Europe and New York City began portraying wilderness as a treasure unique to America. Near mid-century, urban design experts and physicians in New York and Boston began prescribing fresh air, sunshine, and the solitude of wide-open spaces for illnesses that ranged from consumption to insanity. Sanitariums were built in pastoral settings, including a vast mental hospital on Seneca Lake and a tuberculosis treatment center in Saranac Lake. Belief in the positive benefits of wild landscapes had become mainstream by 1883, when Niagara Falls became Americas second state park, and was confirmed in 1885, when the state created its Forest Preserve. During the latter part of the century, naturalists and moral philosophers even began arguing that mankind had an obligation to treat wild birds and animals in a humane manner -- and that nature had a right to exist that was separate from mankind.
The second movement was based in science and economics. New Yorks virgin forests were cut down rapidly and brutally, with severe side effects. In the 1860s, so much of the state had been poorly logged that erosion was pouring silt into the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, threatening a transportation network that was vital to New York City. In 1864, George Perkins Marsh gave voice to the growing concern. In his book Man and Nature, Marsh argued that many ancient civilizations had failed because they stripped the earth bare with little regard for the future. The book became a central rallying point for those who believed that uncontrolled logging would ruin the state. Severe fires in the logged-over land, many caused by cinders from passing trains, deepened the sense of alarm. In the end, the successful campaign for the Forest Preserve depended on a rare alliance between nature-lovers, physicians, and the Chamber of Commerce.