Wild All Around Us

When you think of the wilderness, what comes to mind? Is it a dark forest full of tall pine trees and howling wolves? How about a natural place that hasn’t been noticeably altered by humans? When you search the term wilderness on Google Images, the first several lines of results are of beautiful scenery, completely devoid of people. You have to scroll down pretty far through the mountains, fields of flowers, forests, and waterfalls to find any pictures with someone in them, and even then only single individuals are depicted, dwarfed by their surroundings. So what is the deal with wilderness? William Cronon, an environmental historian, proposes that it is merely a cultural invention in The Trouble With Wilderness.

Photo by Kirstin Webb

Cronon explains that people used to be afraid of the wild in its rawest form because that is where the “boundaries between human and nonhuman, between natural and supernatural, had always seemed less certain than elsewhere” (Cronon, 4). That it was a place where you could either meet the Devil or glimpse the face of God, both of which were terrifying possibilities. It brings to mind Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which young girls in a Puritan settlement are accused of witchcraft after dancing naked in the forest. Even more relevant, it is reminiscent of the first settlers in Jamestown! They considered the natives savages and built a fort to protect themselves from the wilderness and who, or what, might live in it. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, things changed. Nature was still considered a sacred place, but instead of being revered for being sublime it became, and remains to be, a quiet sanctuary from the happenings of civilization and modern society.

Opened in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States. It highlights the contradictory nature of our notion of wilderness because it is supposed to be free from human influence, yet humans ultimately decided whether or not to preserve it. Our hands are always in the equation in that sense, but our eyes are usually averted. We picture wilderness as a pristine place unaltered by human activity, conveniently forgetting that there were people on these lands long before Europeans arrived.

By romanticizing the wild as a sort of utopia, yet also excluding ourselves from its definition, we create a problematic dichotomy of good and bad. What is left of uninhabited wilderness being the good, and everything else being the bad. This results in the mindset that if how we live is neither pure nor wild, and cannot become so, then there is no point in trying to preserve or improve our environmental conditions. Why should people care about restoring vital habitats or reducing pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay? So many people live in the watershed that it cannot ever be completely restored, but donations to places like Shenandoah National Park can keep them protected and preserved!

Instead of idealizing the wild as a remote place separated from ourselves, we should consider it as just another part of the environment in which we live. The wood ducks in the Bay’s wetlands and the squirrels in your backyard are just as wild as the grizzly bears in Alaska, the only difference is that they have adapted to coexist with us, and us with them. If we saw our environment in this way, greater value would be placed on protecting and preserving the land on which we live as well as the land that we don’t, and Google Images might bring up a picture of a family fishing on the Chester river when you searched wilderness.

Photo by Kirstin Webb

Stalking One: One Story or Two?

What a house is made of and how it is constructed reveal both the cultural values and available technologies of a time and place. Since architecture physically embodies these things we are able to gain insight into the beliefs and behaviors of people in the past through archaeology. When coupling this understanding of the changes in the built environment with the changes of labor mechanisms, we can determine a cultural shift in how colonists viewed themselves and their environment.

Photo Credit: http://www.onehundreddollarsamonth.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Homes-of-Colonial-Williamsburg-Va4.jpg?e89db4

In the seventeenth century the houses were considered impermanent architecture because they were post-in-ground structures; there wasn’t a raised foundation, just basic wood framing covered in wattle and daub, with the posts buried in the ground, and a chimney and thatch roof. The insides of these folk houses were usually similar, with a large common room for cooking and daily life and sometimes a room where the residents would sleep. In smaller houses they would just sleep in the big room called the hall (Seidel).

The impermanence of the construction speaks to the mindset of the colonists. They were coming from England to make a profit and return home; they didn’t expect to be here long, so they didn’t go to much trouble in building lasting structures. Additionally, the steep, thatch roofs show that the colonists brought what they knew about house design with them from England since the steepness had no real advantage in the Chesapeake and required more timber to produce. The thatch roofing was also eventually replaced with shingles because the climate wasn’t as wet as it was in England, and the roofs often caught fire. The lack of privacy in these homes suggests a collective English identity, an us-against-the-world ideal where households had to stick together to make their fortune and return back to England.

After tobacco became a staple crop and indentured servitude gave way to slavery, which was a better long-term investment for planters, it is possible that the colonists developed more of a connection to the land, even if they just planned to be there temporarily for profit. For example, switching to slavery meant they wouldn’t have to give up any land to freed servants, showing that the settlers now saw long-term value in the land and saw themselves as the ones deserving to reap those rewards instead of just raiding land that wasn’t theirs.

In the eighteenth century there was the Georgian revolution when large, square, brick houses were built. They were very symmetrical on the outside and had a hallway on the inside with lots of separate rooms branching off of it, and personal bedrooms upstairs (Seidel). This established a permanent presence and dominance of the environment, as well as a sense of individualism. It was also a symbol of high status to be up to date with English fashions and styles, so there was still a connection to England, but as these kinds of houses appeared a separate identity seemed to emerge. Settlers of the New World were cozying down for good and in doing so became a group of people distinctly different from the British money-seekers of the past who came and left, and especially different from those English men and women who had never left the United Kingdom at all.

At the same time, the shift from tobacco to corn and wheat in the northern parts of the Chesapeake tidewater resulted in another shift in labor mechanisms. Slaves were freed and milldams and waterwheels were created to grind the corn for example. This shows even more direct control of their environment than having slaves cultivate crops because of the pure manipulation of natural resources to capture energy. In conjunction with the Georgian style houses, it is obvious that the colonists viewed themselves as the primary owners and rulers of the land.

Some of the colonists’ views did not change, however. For example, they didn’t ever see the intrinsic value of the land, only its instrumental value in potentially obtaining them profit (McCabe). They also didn’t seem to have an ethical issue with exploiting and owning other humans; instead they turned a blind eye to ensure that they had cheap labor and felt none the worse of themselves. John Burroughs would say those people were victims of petrification due to their lack of love and sympathy, that they became, “hard and callous, crusted over with customs and conventions,” (Burroughs 147).

Overall though, there is an evolution of colonists’ view of themselves and their environment from English citizens raiding the resources of a new land to a distinct group of permanent settlers who own and control the land. This can be seen through the changes in their built environment and their labor mechanisms.

Work Cited:

Burroughs, John. (1908). The Art of Seeing Things. Originally appeared in Leaf and Tendril. Pg147.

McCabe, Matthew. (2015). Introduction to Environmental Ethics [lecture].

Seidel, John. (2015). Tidewater Architecture and Town Planning [Powerpoint Slides].

Who’s On Top?

“Damn” by Kirstin Webb

While camping at Chino Farms last weekend, a five-thousand acre research farm that partners with Washington College, I contemplated the concept of humans controlling nature. I was enjoying the beautiful river scenery when I noticed the sharp contrast between the picturesque,  uncultivated naturalness before me, like a preloaded computer screensaver or National Geographic magazine cover, and the metal and concrete dam on the edge of it all. The rusty handle boasted of humans’ ability to control that river, adjusting its flow like a faucet. This made me wonder if humans really control nature as well as we think we do, as it seemed ridiculous that one faucet could be sufficient to control the whole river. After learning about the environmental factors that influenced the settlement of Jamestown a few days later, it became obvious that more often than not, nature controls us.

"Gateway" by Kirstin Webb
“Watergate” by Kirstin Webb

In 1606, one hundred and four settlers traveled up the Chesapeake Bay, made landfall, and established Jamestown. Captain John Smith became president in 1608, bringing some direction to the settlement and ordered a well to be dug. However, life during that period was incredibly difficult and the environment was uncooperative. One of the biggest droughts in history started just before Smith and the first settlers arrived and lasted until 1612, as evidenced through the close proximity of the rings on tree cores for those years. This dramatically affected corn and other crop production. People also got sick with diseases such as dysentery and typhoid fever from dumping human waste and trash into the river, which stuck around and leached into their drinking water. Additionally, there were the feelings of sluggishness and bloating commonly referenced in primary documents, which was due to salt poisoning from the settlement being located in the freshwater-saltwater transition zone. This means that in July and August the salt wedge seasonally intruded further upriver and saltwater got into the well. By, “ January 1608 only thirty-eight of the original settlers were still alive” and “fire destroyed most of the crude buildings in Jamestown and most of the freshly unloaded supplies” (Nash, 47).

Dubbed the Starving Times, the winter of 1609 was extremely harsh due to the occurrence of a mini-ice age and the population disintegrated from six hundred to just sixty in one season. People became so desperate as to eat their leather shoes and new archeological evidence has revealed that one man even cannibalized his wife. In previous years the Native Americans had brought the colonists food, but since they still hadn’t figured out how to provide for themselves after three years and the drought put strain on feeding their own tribe, the colonists were left hungry. Also, the relief expedition that was supposed to bring supplies to Jamestown was hit by a hurricane at sea and shipwrecked, leading to both the discovery of Bermuda and the starvation of hundreds of people. (Dr. John Seidel’s lecture The Jamestown Experiment: Clashes of Culture and Environment)

The illusion of having control over our environment through technology prevents us from acknowledging the awesome gravity nature has on our lives. Although in Cultural Materialism, Marvin Harris suggests that the foundations of culture are based upon our environment; that our first level of culture, which he calls the Infrastructure, is how we use technology to deal with the environment. It makes sense then that even though we can build dams like at Chino Farms or try to settle new territories like at Jamestown, nature always controls us in the end.

My Current Chesapeake Ethic

In Bay Country, Tom Horton references the importance of context in forming ethics, so I will examine how my contexts color my current Chesapeake ethic. Personally, when I think about the Chesapeake Bay I think about home. Not any particular living space, but the natural surroundings that are familiar to me. One place that has been important in shaping the sense of home that I view the Bay with is on the Wicomico River, at my grandparents’ house. I have crabbed with my grandfather there, and fished with him in the little tributaries and creeks across the river. I have grown up playing on their beach and exploring the nearby marshes at low tide. I have an attachment to the familiarity of that place, which is aroused whenever I interact with new areas of the bay region. My context of home, however, doesn’t strictly apply to myself, but also to the crabs and fish we catch and the minnows that congregate in the shallow waters near my grandparents’ beach. It is their home, too. One strong example that reminds me of this is the pair of osprey that return every year and hatch new young. I have watched as they feed their babies and teach them to fly. I have learned to whistle to them like my grandfather, and have a neighborly affection for them.

In the preface of Bay Country, Tom Horton states that,

“We bay dwellers move in a far richer and more extensive matrix of subtle relations and ancient connections with nature than we can yet explain or admit” (Horton, XIII).

For me, this connection between nature and the feeling of home has a spiritual component. For even with a scientific understanding of a place, we can be in awe of its aesthetic depth or uncomprehending of nature’s intricacies. Once when I was very young, my family was boating home in the evening after a fireworks show and there were magical splashes of green behind our wake from our disturbance of comb jellies- it was nature’s bioluminescent finale. Witnessing a display so remote as that reminds me that I am just a tiny particle in the infinite universe, and then I zoom back in and am amazed and grateful to be here. Viewing the bay with this lens allows me to have the, “greatly expanded appreciation of all the ways in which we and nature fit together,“ that Tom Horton says we need just as much as we need our religions. (Horton, XIII)

So, after examining the context with which I relate to the Chesapeake, I broke down my ethic into three categories: be aware, be grateful, and be open. The first means that I always try to be aware of how I’m affecting the bay: what I’m putting into it, how I’m using it, for recreation, relaxation, or for securing dinner, and how I’m either helping or hurting it, by perhaps causing erosion via boat wake or helping prevent erosion by planting grasses. The second category means I appreciate the resource by not taking too much, throwing back immature female crabs so they can breed for example, and caring about its health. Lastly, be open refers to the ethical necessity that I learn as much as I can about the Chesapeake Bay and the issues and controversies surrounding it in order to uphold the first two categories of being aware and being grateful. As John Burroughs says in The Art of Seeing Things,

“the eye sees what it has the means of seeing, and its means of seeing are in proportion to the love and desire behind it” (Burroughs, 158).

Since I consider the Chesapeake a home, it is in my ethic to educate myself and continually update my knowledge: to be be aware, be grateful, and be open.

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