I want to propose a way of looking at American geography: as a physical map of ideas about nature, freedom, and what makes life worth living. American law shapes different tracts of the country to different ideas about nature’s value. The wilderness idea (more about this just below) has its acreage. You can hike into that idea, spend the night, get to the highest point of it, get lost and frustrated or rapturous in it. The parks system consecrates some astonishing places to the capacity for wonder, which, along with personal vigor and mental health, became a touchstone of federal lands policy around the beginning of the twentieth century. The national forests, managed by a professional corps of scientist-bureaucrats, are a 190 million-acre set-piece of the idea of productive nature rationally managed in the public interest, and of the limits of that idea. These are the easy cases, but already they cover a huge amount of land, a legal and practical geography that is also a taxonomy of ideas.
The less obvious examples may also be the more interesting ones. The farmland of the Midwest is private property, but it, too, is a kind of landscape architecture, expressing an idea of nature, with law as the architect’s tool. By subsidizing certain crops (notably corn and soybeans), declining to regulate much of the often-severe pollution from large-scale and conventional agriculture, and permitting enormous concentration of economic power in companies that sell agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) and process farmers’ products (slaughterhouses, factories for cereal and corn syrup), the law has modeled a landscape devoted to serving human appetite with the vigor of a providential machine. Moving east, the strip-mined hills of southern Appalachia are now landscapes of pure extraction, with no pretense of regard for the (beautiful) shape of the hills before they are wrecked, and none that this is, like the ideal farmland, meant to be an inhabited place. Because of the language of the Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act and courts’ interpretation of the Clean Water Act (which are instances of the country’s larger embrace of cheap energy regardless of its carbon content and other “incidental” harms), this is very nearly a one-time-only landscape, used as people would use a world they intended to use up before they and their children outlived the chance to enjoy it.
Thoreau, who famously wrote that he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, was too much a punner to miss the false etymology: de libere, to live from freedom, freely. Even if the pun were unintended, the opening pages of Walden are about freedom, not nature. These are the passages where the author justifies the book’s existence, tells readers what it has to do with their lives and how it might help them to understand, or solve, problems they know, or suspect, that they have. What Thoreau said there was that we could not know yet what it meant for us to be free: in an era of technological revolution, we might soon find forms of consciousness as revolutionary as steam power, as revelatory as opening a continent. And because experience obediently answered the ideas that came before it in our minds, we would have to change our minds, first, to enter a new world. He offered his account of a year in the woods as a sojourn with the mind, dedicated to uncovering ways in which it might become different, and carry us – and the world – with it.
Senator Frank Church, a progressive Idaho Democrat (and, in that, a reminder that even the recent past is sometimes another country) explained his support for the 1964 Wilderness Act, which eventually preserved more than 107 million acres of federal land from logging, drilling, mining, and development, in this way: without wilderness, the country would “become a cage.” Church’s phrase was stark, but the idea was not new. For more than three decades, advocates for wilderness had been calling the experience they sought to keep alive “wilderness freedom”: the chance to be alone in a place mostly unmarked by human action. Without wilderness freedom, Church seemed to say, there would be nothing that would count as freedom. He almost certainly did not mean that; but he did seem to mean that something alive and important would die, some necessary potential give way to blank impossibility, and that freedom was the word for what would disappear.
[one big idea]
The wilderness idea was a radicalization of the case for preserving the most spectacular places as national parks, open to all. John Muir, the most important early publicist of this idea, called it a consequence of the discovery that wildness was a necessity, without which most Americans in the industrial, democratic society of the later nineteenth century could not hope to be among “the sane and the free.” Muir had learned a lot from both Thoreau and Emerson – he deliberately sought to claim their prophetic mantles as bard of the California landscape – and the strand of freedom that he and Frank Church both announced seems to have been one that Emerson had proposed as an American ideal: to honor only the constraints indigenous to one’s constitution, one’s self.
That idea, of freedom as authenticity – a loaded word, but let it have Emerson’s meaning for now – attached itself to nature in the Transcendentalists. Both Walden and Emerson’s first major work, Nature, elaborate the idea that the whole organic world is a mirror, a homologue, a symmetrical answer to the mind, not simply because we project our ideas onto it, but because we and it body forth the same ur-principle of order and intelligence. To encounter it is to encounter ourselves. And not only ourselves as we are day to day, but ourselves in a purified, clarified, vivified form – as we were meant to be, as we would be if we could shake off all the accretions of convention and habit. To free the mind and learn what it could be, as Thoreau urged doing, an American had to go to the woods. And America, for the same reason, had to ensure that there would be woods to go to.
It is pretty generally recognized that, at different times, Americans have imagined nature in different ways: as a boundless stock of wealth; as a threatening and alien power to be conquered; as a stable and harmonious whole, peaceably existing in a climax condition of maximum fecundity; as a vulnerable and unstable system, easily disrupted or wrecked; or as an avenging force, punishing our sins like the avenging God of a jeremiad. And it may not surprise most thoughtful people that a Romantic strand in American life, with some kind of tie to the Transcendentalists, embraces an adamant ideal of freedom as authenticity and is uncommonly fond of big trees and bigger rocks. One point of this essay is to suggest that this Romantic idea of freedom has had more than an affinity with conservation and environmentalism: again and again, one of the reasons to preserve and value nature has been that it helps us to be free in this way. Another point is larger: that all of these historical ideas about nature have been very basically involved with ideas about freedom. Not surprisingly, what matters most in nature has recurrently been what the observer thought most important in his own life and relations with others. All the American natures have also served American freedoms.
What the continent meant to its early European claimants was almost literally utopian – utopian made topographic, no-place suddenly rendered as a continental landscape. It was the chance to make real, for some generations, a fantasy of unbounded wealth and orderly freedom.
To appreciate this, consider the use that John Locke, writing toward the end of the seventeenth century, made of his State of Nature. That was, he wrote, a condition of perfect freedom and perfect equality. But its purpose was not to vindicate either value in the England of Locke’s time. Rather, it was to show how political order, with all its hierarchy and constraint, could legitimately have arisen from a condition of freedom and equality. Of course, Locke wanted to show the limits of legitimate government, partly to justify certain forms of Parliamentary resistance against the Crown; but the right of resistance that he embraced and elaborated was there to protect life, property, and constitutional arrangements in an orderly society – something much more straitened and unequal than the freedom and equality that prevailed in the State of Nature.
Locke’s famous account of property has the same logic. He imagined the State of Nature as a world of plenitude, unowned and open to all comers. In that condition, anyone could enclose a plot of land and make it bloom, without detriment to the interests of others – for there would be “as much and as good” left over for the next person. Here, too, the point was to show how a system of unequal private property could arise, with no harm to anyone’s rights, from a world in which all things were held in common. In the England where Locke wrote, the natural right to acquire open land was extinguished by the law of property, and the duty to leave enough for others was an archaic memory, or imagination, of a time before political society. That, too, was as Locke intended. The utopia of freedom, equality, and plenitude lay somewhere behind the known world of scarcity, inequality, and constraint, and, as Locke presented it, justified the known world.
Then the utopia became real, for those who could seize a share of it. Locke had observed that, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” thinly populated and unclaimed (as he imagined the continent), but he seems not to have considered seriously the converse: in America, so understood, the world was “beginning” again – a beginning that takes quote marks because it was, specifically, the origin that Locke portrayed, and which many settlers came to embrace.
This history is too large and complex for a short essay, so accept a brief formulation. People born into a world already owned, where everything was someone’s property, could now make (as it often seemed to them) something from nothing, wealth from sheer will and labor, married to the yielding and unoccupied earth. And, in time, people born into a world already ordered discovered that, with an ocean on one hand and a continental interior on the other, they could make good the other Lockean fantasy and rewrite the terms of political order itself – a revolution in which political order was not inherited but made, law not interpreted but written. (It was a refrain of debates on restive New England that the colonists, if driven too hard, would simply retreat westward, as if withdrawing into the State of Nature itself.) Interpersonally, in the vast space between man-and-nature and man-and-sovereign, the new continent seemed to mean the freedom of a practical equality: escape from the world of lords, farmers, tenants, and servants, enforced by the finitude of acreage and its private ownership, into a world of freestanding yeomen. A possibility dawned of threefold freedom: in relation to a land one whose riches one could claim and use; to government, now imagined as the creation of a shared political will; and to others, joint venturers in a rebirth of natural liberty, and equality, and, yes, natural property.
Of course I am describing an imaginary, a shared way of understanding social and political life, and I trust readers to trust me to remember how many kinds of people were left out of this ideal, both as practiced and as imagined. But the point is that it became a viable imaginary, not just the narrative and conceptual prop it had been for Locke, because there was a continent for it. For the imaginary to work, that continent had to be seen as Locke had described nature, as evidence that God wanted us to be rich and happy but wanted us to work for it, and had accordingly granted the world to “the industrious and the rational.” Under this conception of nature the Declaration of Independence invoked a right to settle land west of the Alleghenies; that jurists and theologians claimed that Native Americans could have had no more legal claim than deer or wolves on lands they merely inhabited, but did not improve; and the Supreme Court, faced with Indian land claims, washed its hands and settled its conscience as best it could by observing that the alternative to genocide would have been “to leave the continent a wilderness.” More colloquially, it was in this vision that settlers and their governments came to call their development “reclamation,” as if the fallen world were restore when Americans made it bloom.
When the federal government created national forests, parks and, later, wilderness, it imposed the Progressive and Romantic landscapes on this earlier one. It is no surprise that Westerners resisted by invoking the Declaration of Independence and denouncing Washington for making them colonists rather than citizens. Living on a providential landscape of citizen labor was a part of what it meant to be free in a way that seemed then to be coming under threat. It was also part of the meaning of living under a government you recognized as your own, and to whose community you could be central, rather than a (geographically and psychically) faraway manager. The first colonists had become citizens partly by insisting that their woodlots could not be reserved for the King’s ships, and their westward movement would not stop at a line drawn in London. Westerners of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sounded these themes again as competing conceptions of American freedom laid incompatible claims on a single terrain.