Posts Tagged ‘Sublime’

Question 3: Wilderness as portrayed by Marsh and Muir

In both texts we read this week, wilderness is portrayed heavily. Interestingly, wilderness is presented in contrasting lights. In John Muir’s “The American Forests,” wilderness is seen as a religious experience, almost intertwining itself with the sublime trope we have seen earlier in the semester. George Marsh, on the other hand, uses pure logic and a scientific basis to present wilderness as a rapidly declining and unfairly treated commodity. Marsh’s rhetorical strategy presents wilderness through the light of contamination- the more humans impede upon our earth, the more wilderness is tainted, and, eventually, forever lost.

                John Muir’s presentation of nature follows Garrard’s discussion of “nature writing texts …as… “rhapsodic” celebration of natural beauty and wildness” (Garrard, 81) precisely.  Muir’s first sentence sums it up perfectly: “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted” (Muir, 145). Muir goes on to describe trees as “lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles” (Muir, 145). This intensely religious and rapturous discussion of nature in the first few paragraphs lulls the reader into a false sense that everything is “okay.” Although Muir later goes on to make a fervent argument advocating for the conservation and protection of our nation’s landscapes, it is seen as secondary to the celebration of the “lordly monarchs” (Muir, 145) discussed previously.

                Unlike Muir’s arguments, George Marsh discusses nature, and the almost ensured destruction of the earth, from a purely logical and scientific standpoint. After comparing the issues between human impact on the earth with that of lower animals, he begins to discuss the “partial reverse” (Marsh, 44) of earth’s destruction. Marsh states: “These achievements are more glorious than the proudest triumphs of war, but thus far they give but faint hope that we shall yet make full atonement for our spendthrift waste of the bounties of nature” (Marsh, 44). This discussion by Marsh, which basically says the way humans impact the earth means there is no possibility of saving wilderness, echoes discussion in Garrard’s book: “[A] construction of nature reinforces an idea of wilderness, in which any modification of the environment is a form of contamination… The ideal wilderness space is wholly pure by virtue of its independence from humans” (Garrard, 70-71). This idea brings to light the fact that Marsh is arguing the inevitability of earth’s downfall, in whole or in part, because of human’s destructiveness.

                Although both authors come from very different stand points, they both attempt to get the same idea across- that the way man is treating the earth has horribly negative implications for the future. The ways they go about this argument differ wildly, but their overall goal is the same: fight for our nation’s nature (what is left of it, at least) to be preserved for future generations.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocritism: The New Critical Idiom. Ch./Art: Wilderness p. 59-84. Pub. Routledge 2004

Marsh, George P. The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Ch./Art: Destructiveness of Man; Instability of American Life p. 33-55, 396-397. Pub. Arno Press 1970

Muir, John. He Atlantic Monthly. 70/178 Ch./Art: The American Forests p/ 145-157. Pub. Atlantic Monthly August 1897


Analysis of Wilderness in The Pioneers

In James Fenimore Coopers’s The Pioneers, wilderness is seen in a contrasting light as both an  awe-inspiring spectacle and as a simple, disposable tool to achieve personal gain. The author juxtaposes these two viewpoints throughout the text leaving the reader to wonder what the true purpose of wilderness was to the early settlers. Was it simply a means of getting what they wanted out of this unsettled land or was it more akin to the “romantic and picturesque” country we are introduced to at the beginning of the passage (Cooper 1)?

I was struck by the power and might of wilderness when Judge is explaining to Elizabeth how the pioneers struggled to gain footing in the “[rough] uninhabited mountains” while fraught with famine and failure (Cooper 236). He described the turning point in which “something like a miracle” occurred and “shoals of herring” flew through the territory enabling the settlers to survive (Cooper 238). This struck me as what Garrard would characterize as a sublime view of the wilderness because it seems that Judge is sincerely struck by the “overwhelming power” (Garrard 64) nature had and was in disbelief by the wonder of the “miracle” birds (Cooper 238). Taken alone, this solitary take on the passage would be well received. However, when paired with the careless slaughter of the pigeons we see later on in the text, the pioneers’ values about wilderness can be called into question. Although these birds were shown to be a nuisance to growing crops, forcing some settler to “sow [their] wheat twice, and three times” the spectacle of aimlessly shooting birds from the sky sharply opposes the respect for nature we see earlier in the text when Judge is describing the sheer miracle it was to have a few birds to eat (Cooper 251). Leather-Stocking put it best as a pure “waste of [God’s] creatures” (Cooper 251). The contrast of Judge’s description of the wondrous gift the wilderness provided when people were in need and the eventual manipulation and waste of such wilderness by killing these birds for game is hypocritical and puzzling.

Interestingly, Judge tells Elizabeth that “[those who hear about the settling of a country know] but little of the toil and suffering” that went into founding it (Cooper 238). Thinking back on the passage, it seems that all of the settlers should take Judges’s sentiment to heart regarding their views on the wilderness they inhabit. Perhaps they too have lost sight of the power and terror the wilderness once had over them and would be well off to keep this in mind before disposing of the wilderness around them for no purpose.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1958. 1-255. Print.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.