2. Before 1895: Discovering Nature
From Hell to Heaven
European intellectuals who visited the new United States sometimes echoed the early American settlers disdain for wild lands. But other visitors who followed the Romantic tradition were entranced by the vast empty spaces of the New World. Rene de Chateaubriand, who spent part of the winter of 1791-2 in northern New York, wrote that the absence of roads, towns, laws, and kings filled him with "a sort of delirium . . . in this deserted region the soul delights to bury and lose itself amidst boundless forests."
Upper-class New Yorkers were the first to see Chateaubriands point of view. In 1830, Manhattan and Brooklyn had a combined population nearing 300,000. During that decade, the area around New York Harbor surpassed Mexico City to become the largest and wealthiest urban center in the New World. Sheltered from the wild in their offices and drawing rooms, the citys elite began seeking enlightenment in the Romantic manner. Charles Fenno Hoffman, editor of American Monthly Magazine, found a "singular joyousness in a wilderness" and added, "I have felt among some scenes a kind of selfish pleasure, a wild delight, that the spot so lovely and so lonely. . . bloomed alone for me." In 1836, Hoffman published "Wild Scenes Near Home: or Hints for a Summer Tourist," essentially the first travel article about the Adirondacks.
Many reporters followed Hoffman into regions of the state that were still beyond the reach of all but the most determined traveler, and the reading public developed an appetite for tales of wilderness adventure. In 1849, New York Tribune reporter Joel T. Headley announced that the great woods were "better for me than the thronged city, aye, better for soul and body both." He promised that anyone with "a love for the wild, and free" could enjoy an Adirondack vacation "and come back to civilized life a healthier and better man."
As the citys population exploded in the 1830s, the quality of its air and water deteriorated. A wave of immigrants from Ireland and Germany quickly overwhelmed low-income neighborhoods near the mills and wharves. In 1842, a landmark public health report by a local physician, John H. Griscom, cited tenements where 50 people shared a single privy, and basement apartments that were "living graves for human beings." Conditions in upper-class neighborhoods were not as bad, however, and decision-makers ignored the problem until a cholera epidemic seized the city in the summer of 1849. Over 5,000 died in Manhattan. Many of the wealthy fled for the fresh air and clean water of surrounding countryside. It is likely that many of them waited out the plague while reading a wilderness novel by James Fenimore Cooper.
Between 1823 and 1841, starting with The Pioneers and continuing with the series Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper wrote searchingly about the wilds of New York and the men who lived in them. Coopers hero, Natty Bumpo, was a mouthpiece for the Romantic belief in the sanctity of the wild. But Bumpo went further, also saying that the woods bred honest men while city-dwellers were prone to decadence. Bumpos speeches made Cooper into a national literary hero. But later interpreters have pointed out the authors personal belief that civilization was inevitable and the loss of wilderness a tragic necessity. Cooper saw the transition from wilderness to civilization as the conflict of two moral goods, with civilization prevailing.
Painters, like popular writers, had a great influence on popular attitudes early in the Nineteenth century. Before photography was widely available, the most prominent American artists put their newly-completed canvases on public display in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, often stimulating intense debate. A particularly influential movement in landscape painting began in 1825, when an unsuccessful Ohio portrait painter named Thomas Cole began hiking into the Catskills with sketchbook in hand. Cole continued producing increasingly popular wilderness scenes, and the Hudson River School he founded grew in importance after his death in 1848.
Coles canvases represented a basic change in attitude. He portrayed wild land that was under assault from settlers, and in the writing that accompanied his work he bemoaned the vanishing wilderness. One of his students, Frederick Church, eventually produced canvases that showed no trace of human activity whatsoever. Another student, Ashur B. Durand, wrote to his colleagues in 1855 that they should not go abroad, but paint America first: the "untrodden wilds, yet spared from the pollutions of civilization, afford a guarantee for a reputation of originality that you may elsewhere long seek and find not."
The belief that pastoral settings were needed for health and well-being became public policy in 1858, when 840 acres of pig pens and sheep pastures were converted into a park for New York City. After years of delay and political log-rolling, the design contract for Central Park was awarded to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Central Park was a departure from most urban parks of the day, which were organized around marching grounds, playing fields, or race tracks. In contrast, Olmsted and Vaux wanted to give rich and poor a respite from the frantic, filthy city. They produced a natural-seeming landscape of curving drives and meandering paths. Visitors were presented with a series of artfully arranged pastoral landscapes that encouraged them to contemplate nature.
Olmsted was also among the first Americans to call for the preservation of wild land for its aesthetic qualities. In 1863, he wrote a report for the California legislature on the uses of Yosemite Valley, which would become the nations first state park a year later. Once again, he argued for the therapeutic benefits of wilderness: "The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system."
Olmsteds recommendation to leave Yosemite alone was well ahead of its time. He was ignored by the legislators, who soon allowed sheep to gnaw the Valleys pristine grasses. Yet his words had a lasting effect on those who heard them, and the influential designer continued to advance his point of view. He was a leader in the campaign to protect the Adirondacks. He was also instrumental in the creation of New Yorks first state reservation at Niagara Falls, a public purchase made to save the falls from private developers.
Other prominent Americans also spoke in praise of untouched nature. In 1858, Ralph Waldo Emersons poem "The Adirondacks" memorialized his trip to the Philosophers Camp, a getaway for wealthy and prominent men established by William J. Stillman at Follensbee Pond. In 1857, Paul Smith settled in the area that now bears his name and began building the hotel empire that brought thousands more into the northern woods. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, rail lines extended further into previously inaccessible areas. In 1869, a tourism craze was triggered by the publication of the Rev. William H. H. Murrays Adventures in the Wilderness. And in 1871, a Catskill farmer named John Burroughs published his first essay. Over the next 50 years, Burroughs and his Western counterpart, John Muir, would become celebrity spokesmen for the sanctity of nature.
Burroughs became well-known for his artfully written descriptions of the birds, insects and flora near his Delaware County farm, and from a nearby cabin he named Slabsides. He entertained hundreds of prominent visitors at the farm, traveled the country, and even took camping trips with industrialists like Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford. Yet his writing also contained pleas for nature-worship that became more radical as his popularity increased. In 1920, a year before his death, he wrote: "When we call the power back of all God, it smells of creeds and systems of superstition, intolerance, persecution; but when we call it Nature, it smells of spring and summer, of green fields and blooming groves, of birds and flowers and sky and stars."
New Yorkers were also in the forefront of the movement to extend some legal protection to animals. In 1866, Henry Bergh organized the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and drafted a "Declaration of the Rights of Animals" to support the cause. Bergh, a wealthy former diplomat, wrote and pushed a law through the New York legislature that forbade all cruelty to animals, domestic and wild. He also enlisted Henry Ward Beecher, the most prominent clergyman of the day, to endorse his mission, which Beecher defined as advancement of "the rights of animals."
While the Humane movement did not have any explicit connection to environmental affairs, it was still an important development. As historian Roderick Nash notes, humane activists like Bergh "deserve credit for making the first stumbling steps away from a definition of moral community that began and ended with human beings."