Homegrown Environmentalism - San Francisco State University



Homegrown Environmentalism - San Francisco State University
Homegrown Environmentalism: 20th Century Regionalism And Its Contribution To The
National Preservation Of American Wilderness
A Thesis submitted to the faculty of
San Francisco State University
In partial fulfillment of
the requirements for
the Degree
Master of Arts
Sophia Cruz Montano
San Francisco, California
January 2016
Copyright by
Sophia Cruz Montano
I certify that I have read Title of Culminating Experience by Sophia Cruz Montano, and
that in my opinion this work meets the criteria for approving a thesis submitted in partial
fulfillment of the requirement for the degree Master of Arts in Humanities at San
Francisco State University.
Cristina Ruotolo, Ph.D.
Laura Garcia-Moreno, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Homegrown Environmentalism: 20lh Century Regionalism And Its Contribution To The
National Preservation Of American Wilderness
Sophia Cruz Montano
San Francisco, California
The notion of the west as the fertile ground for an awareness of environmentalism is due
in part to the arts and humanities of the 19th century. Thoreau’s Transcendentalism and
Turner’s Frontier Thesis parallel and influence the literary works that support the
preservation of America’s wilderness. Close readings of works by John Muir, Mary
Hunter Austin and Wallace Stegner, along with the art work of Thomas Moran, will be
analyzed for their interconnectedness and their affiliation with the aforementioned
philosophy and theory. Found at the core of their works are themes of independence,
retreat and spiritual renewal. It is argued that these regionalist artists have propelled the
environmentalist cause into the 20th century with their spiritual calls for preserving the
land that has contributed to a unique American landscape and identity. Now in the 21st
century, the tenets of spiritual renewal and American independence that were once
intrinsic in the perception of nature have given way to the notion that the American
wilderness is a creation of our culture.
I certify that the Abstract is a correct representation of the content of this thesis.
/ / 5~
Chair, Thesis Committee
I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the San Francisco State University
Humanities Department. Their faculty’s love and knowledge of the Humanities supported
my ambition. I also thank my fellow classmates and colleagues for their constant
inspiration and motivation. A special Thank You needs to be made to my family, who
have instilled in me an appreciating of our nation’s natural wonders, starting with my
grandfather. My identity as a Californian would not be the same without the civic pride
and responsibility he instilled in me. The support my parents showed in allowing me to
explore the world as the ultimate place of learning has fueled my inspiration and bounded
my heart to all things Home. Lastly I thank my partner for his unwavering support and
encouragement in Chasing The Dream.
List of Figures..............................................................................................................................vii
Notions of W ilderness.................................................................................................................. 1
The Trouble with W ilderness......................................................................................... 3
The Age of Thoreau and T urner.....................................................................................7
Moran and The Hudson River School.........................................................................15
Regionalism as the W est’s Voice ............................................................................................ 20
John M u ir........................................................................................................................22
Mary Hunter A ustin....................................................................................................... 26
Wallace Stegner..............................................................................................................31
Retreating into the W ild..............................................................................................................34
The Perils of the Sublim e............................................................................................. 37
R eference......................................................................................................................................41
1. Figure 1 Moran, Thomas. The Grand Canyon o f Yellowstone. 1872. Oil on
Canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Washington D.C.........................3838
2. Figure 2 Moran, Thomas. Chasm o f the Colorado, 1873. Oil on Canvas.
Smithsonian American Art Museum. Washington, D.C...........................................39
3. Figure 3 Moran, Thomas. Mountain o f the Holy Cross. 1875. Oil on Canvas.
Autry Museum of Western Heritage............................................................................40
Beyond the moments in America’s history that have rendered the west significant,
I think about the artists that made its wild places accessible and immortal. John Muir’s
exploration of California’s Sierra Nevada expressed a sacred ideal that has shaped the
notion of wilderness since the 19th century. Ansel Adams’ photography encapsulates the
west’s natural wonders and its extremes, from black to white. And Maynard Dixon’s
idealized images of the west at sunset, overlooking the plains and canyons of any given
western state, will pale in comparison only to the real thing. The vistas and landscapes
found in the wilderness are among the many inspirations for its preservation. Yet, the
spiritual rejuvenation experienced by nature writers and philosophers of the 19th century
have the most lasting impact on the American environmentalist movement. John Muir,
Mary Austin and Wallace Stegner have contributed to the notion of the wilderness as a
mecca for spiritual and personal renewal, and their call to steward the land respectfully
has become a National cause.
The western wilderness has been popular since before it was declared closed at
the end of the 19,h century. In the past century scholars and theorists with varied interests
have explored the role wilderness and the frontier play in America’s short history.
Disciplines ranging from history to cultural studies have been impacted by their theories,
and by the mid-late-20th century ecocriticism emerged as an academic field in response to
the changing perception of America’s wild places and the burgeoning environmentalist
movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Ecocriticism is the formal interdisciplinary study
ofliterature and the physical environment, and although the works studied in this field
span different genres and decades, their unifying quality is their focus on nature and
environmental concerns. The questions raised in the field of ecocriticism inform hose
explored in this thesis. Scholars and theorists in this field ask what literature, arts and
humanities have to contribute to our understanding of an evolving environmental
situation. They also address the non-human world as it is constructed by cultures, and in
turn how those cultures are constructed by their non-human nature. I ask the same, and
trace the trajectory of modern environmentalism from its roots in Transcendentalism and
the ‘ideology of wilderness’ to the letter read around the world to protect wilderness from
the recreational use to which it has been subjected. A leading figure in the field, Cheryl
Glotfelty first described ecocriticism as expanding our immediate world to include the
natural world that surrounds us and exploring the connections between nature and
culture. It is both theoretical and critical, and straddles both literature and land, human
and non-human.1 While many historians, theorists and scholars of ecocriticism have
discussed the important works of Muir, Thoreau and other nature writers explored in this
thesis, I will add my voice to the conversation by charting a path from environmentalisms
most recognizable beginnings in Transcendentalism to the modern call for actions beyond
conservation and preservation. Utilizing Thomas Moran, John Muir, Mary Austin,
Wallace Stegner, and William Cronon, I will explore the 19th century origins of the
'Glotfelty, Cheryll. “Introduction.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, (p. xii)
sublime in nature, its influences on national preservation campaigns and ultimately the
crossroads we have been led to between reverence and responsibility.
After the first glimpses of ecocriticism, came the 1990’s and William Cronon’s
essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. His essay
serves as an important critique of the idea of wilderness, and the role humans play in
shaping and living in the natural world. Looking upon nature as a sacred space has
supported many an environmentalist cause from the conservation of national monuments
to the preservation of endangered species. Yet in his essay, Cronon questions this
century-old tenet and expels the popular belief that the American pristine sanctuary
wilderness is the last remaining place human civilization has not yet infected, asserting
that the wilderness of which we speak, the American wilderness, is in fact a creation of
human culture.
Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from
humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation-indeed,
the creation of very particular human cultures at very
particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine
sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched,
endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a
little while longer be encountered without the
contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product
of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by
the very stuff of which it is made. (69)
Cronon explores the popular notion of wilderness as an unpolluted refuge for human
relief, and introduces his conceptual argument against this ‘ideology of wilderness’. In
doing so, he traces the way man has perceived nature, from its biblical description full of
terror and bewilderment in the 18th century to the reclaimed, Edenic wilderness of the
late-19th century, identifying the concepts of the sublime and the frontier as the source of
this transformation. In continuing his explanation, he states, “O f the two, the sublime is
the older more pervasive cultural construct,” and one of the most important expressions
to come from romanticism, while “the frontier is more peculiarly American. The two
converged to remake wilderness in their own image, freighting it with moral values and
cultural symbolism that it carries to this day” (72). To gain such an influence, the concept
of wilderness had to become sacred, it had to be loaded with deep cultural values, and for
some today it still is sacred.2
As wilderness came to embody something awesome and inspirational, it was also
becoming domesticated, due in part to the popularity of primitivism; The belief that the
best antidote to the ills of a refined, civilized life was a return to a simpler, more
primitive way of living. Cronon asserts this was embodied most strikingly in the national
myth of the frontier. Most commonly associated with historian Frederick Jackson, the
myth of the frontier had been a part of the American cultural traditions since before his
classic 1893 academic statement, which will be explored to a greater degree shortly. Yet,
according to Cronon, to see the frontier as a place of national renewal and religious
redemption is to see it as the quintessential location for what it means to be American.
2Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. Uncommon
Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.
Cronon further disrupts the ‘ideology of wilderness’ when he warns against
setting too high a stock on wilderness. His principle objection is that it may teach us to be
dismissive of the humble places and experiences in distant lands and lands close to home.
He writes, “Any way of nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from natureas wilderness tends to do-is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior”
(87). He stresses the importance of recognizing the non-human elements in nature,
recognizing that there are living things in this world that have their independent,
autonomous reasons for existing. Because of this, Cronon hopes we will think carefully
about the ways we use nature, if we have to use it all. For the most part, I agree with
Cronon’s argument; I believe the American wilderness as we know it today, the National
Parks, State Parks and Monuments, are reflections of what we want wilderness to be, and
having the expansive lands as a model for the sublime only desensitizes us to the dignity
and importance of our everyday environment. But I am also guilty of holding nature to
the dangerous standard of which Cronon speaks, as most everyone who loves nature is. It
was this standard that established the National Parks Service, and it was this standard that
inspired some 19th and early 20th century artists to venture into the relatively unknown, or
more commonly known as the west.
Life in the west is often affiliated with agricultural production, environmental
studies and outdoor adventure. I suppose that could be said of any inhabited land, but my
thesis speaks to the notion of the west as fertile ground for an awareness of
environmental practices, due in part to the arts and humanities focused on landscape and
wilderness at the turn of the 20th century. Philosophers, writers, and American historians
were enthralled by the west by the m id-1800’s, and in many ways this scholarship
promoted the agrestic lifestyle the west supported. Thoreau’s Transcendentalism urged
the American public to find meaning in life through direct contact with nature and
Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” talked about the west as the single most important factor that
makes us Americans as opposed to Euro-Americans, forever tying our identity to the
west. With these theories in mind, I will study regionalist works by artists of the 19th and
20th century to see to what extent and in what ways they reproduce this intellectual
A span of Regionalist works, in print and paint, lend themselves to the study of
the relationship between land and people. Since the late 1700’s the American frontier has
been a popular theme in literature and art, and the works produced give immense insight
to the experience of place and people. Regionalist artists from the turn of the 20th century
bring alive the regions their works focus on, composing transformative works about the
nature of their land that had the power to sway Congress and popular opinion. I will trace
the affiliated roots John Muir, Mary Austin, Wallace Stegner, and Thomas Moran have in
century philosophy and theory in an effort to determine what a half century of
regionalist writings and artwork can teach us about the development of the ecological
culture in the west.
Environmentalism began to emerge in literature early in the 17th century as
colonists started to explore and settle the lands as far west as Virginia. New approaches to
cultivation required new uses of language to explain the phenomena they encountered.3
Later, in the 18th century, Jared Elliot began to publish essays in his pamphlet Field
Husbandry in an effort to reduce inefficiency and waste in colonial American farming
methods. More closely tied to the works presented in this thesis are those that came from
the nineteenth century. The emerging Transcendentalist philosophy, the Frontier Thesis
and artwork produced by the Hudson River School of painting celebrated the unique
relationship the American people had with their land. The American wilderness, with
lush forests, wild animals and unlimited miles of land to settle assured the colonists of
their close relation with God. As an early generator of American environmentalism,
Henry David Thoreau’s books and lectures invite us to find a purpose in life through
direct contact with nature while celebrating individualism. While identifying the elements
of Thoreau’s Transcendentalism and Turner’s Frontier Thesis that are present in the
environmentally-focused art and literature of the 20th century, a prominent spiritual theme
courses through the works that will lay the foundation for an American environmentalist
culture that incudes conservation, preservations, and reservation.
Conservation and preservation, although used interchangeably, are two different
modes of environmental protection. According to the National Parks Service, both terms
3Mazel. David. A Century o f Early Ecocriticism. (p.20)
involve a degree of protection, but how that protection is employed determines the
difference. Generally speaking, conservation seeks the proper use of nature and is
typically economically motivated, while preservation recognizes the inherent value of
nature and seeks the protection of nature from human use. From the mid-19th century to
the mid-20th century both practices were in fashion, evident from the varied artists and
their works present in this thesis. However, unless specific to the point at hand, I do not
find it necessary to argue the difference between the two, but instead find it necessary to
understand that the two movements are equally reflected by these artists. Deriving from
the Unitarianism of Boston during the early nineteenth century, Transcendentalism took
hold of American philosophy with its intellectual and moral fervor, or what Emerson
would call ‘new consciousness’. The roots of Transcendentalism, according to the
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, reach far back into American religious history
growing out of Calvinism and American Puritanism. Transcendentalist philosophy would
never become a religious movement because of its lack of followers, however
transcendentalists did think of themselves as Christians and often articulated their
philosophy within a Christian theological framework. Although the founders of
Transcendentalism were members of the Unitarian church, their movement was one that
rejected the stalwart rationality of their church while seeking a more intense spiritual
experience. The Transcendentalists believed that communion with God was not solely
dependent upon the orthodoxy or virtue of Unitarianism, but instead upon one’s inner
striving towards spiritual communion with the Divine. The philosophy was particularly
inspired by the English and German Romantics who celebrated the imaginative, the
metaphysical and the individualism of the age, while rejecting tradition, objective facts,
and the conservative voice that came from the Age of Reason. Elements of Romanticism
are present in Transcendentalist philosophy, particularly the emphasis on the nonrational, personal and political liberties, and the sublimity of the natural world. The
elements of personal liberty and the natural world would occupy the works and lectures
of Thoreau, and his philosophy resounded in the American writers that came after him,
particularly those who bowed in the face of nature.4
Thoreau lived nearly his entire life in his small hometown of Concord,
Massachusetts. Bom in 1817 dying in 1862, he lived a simple and quiet life, attended
Harvard, worked as a teacher and land surveyor, built close bonds with his friends and
family and remained unmarried. His intellectual life flourished in the small town, more
notably, on the outskirts of the town, where he spent two years in self-exile exploring the
limitations of his life in quiet desperation. While on this existential quest, he grew fond of
the nature that surrounded him in the woods by Walden Pond, and his closeness with
nature inspired his philosophical theories. His longstanding theories explored the
interactions between the natural environments and the human condition and strengthened
4Finseth, Ian F. “American Transcendentalism”. Excerpted from “Liquid Fire Within M e”: Language, Self
and Society in Transcendentalism and Early Evangelicalism, 1820-1860
his belief that nature holds a spiritual value. He actively tried to make philosophy his way
of life and in doing so acquired an understanding of nature from a variety of sources. It is
easy to identify him as a Transcendentalist, naturalist and a Romanticist, however at
times, all seem too broad to effectively measure his works.
His vision was also
influenced by an eclectic assemblage of ancient and eastern conceptions of nature and
philosophy, but because of his varied influences, he is a difficult philosopher to classify.
As one of the forefathers of environmentalism, Thoreau was a self-taught
naturalist who learned to observe and document the natural phenomena surrounding him
in Concord. He wrote daily in his journal about his findings, and would collect specimens
for Louis Agassiz, a trained European biologist, who introduced natural history to
Harvard after Thoreau had left. Thoreau’s work explored the natural world through a
Transcendental lens. He believed nature holds the ultimate truth because it was united
with God, and as such, nature expressed symbolically the spiritual world that worked
beyond the physical one. Thoreau’s invocations of nature are best represented in Walden
where he utilizes the minute details of plant biology to explore the fragility of life;
The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire,—"et
primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata,"—as if
the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning
sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame;—the
symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long
green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer,
checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again,
lifting its spear of last year's hay with the fresh life b elo w ..
. . So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts
forth its green blade to eternity. (310-311)
Thoreau’s works beautifully describe the intricacies of nature, the juxtaposition of life
and death and the primordial law that rules both the human and natural world. His poetic
form takes direction from nature, tracing nature’s rhythm onto his words. He looks to
nature for poetic and intellectual inspiration, but also for confidence. If a blade of grass
can triumph over the bitter cold, and live forever in the glow of perpetual youth - So too,
can I! By expanding human life to the realm of the natural world, Thoreau not only binds
our two worlds together, he also lays the foundation for the study of eco-criticism.
As a Transcendentalist, he believed the universe was divided into two
designations; the soul and nature. A principle belief of Transcendentalism the reliability
of human consciousness, a belief based on the conviction of immanence, the idea that
God dwells in the soul of the individual. Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience”, "The
only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right"
(Reform Papers, 65). This conviction, while supporting his belief in a Divine force
revealed in nature, also supported the notion that all men had an equal chance of
experiencing and expressing divinity directly, regardless of wealth, social status, or
politics. Fundamentally, he and other like-minded Transcendentalists held that nature and
man were inherently good, and the social institutions of religion and politics in particular,
corrupt the individual. The individual, he insists, is never obliged to surrender conscience
to the majority or to the State.
Although the Transcendentalist movement was spearheaded by the Unitarian
clergy men who preceded him, Thoreau’s Transcendentalism recognized the sanctity of
nature, while also giving authority to the individual. Thoreau’s lectures and essays
represented his philosophical, social and environmentalist identity, and his major works
Walden (1854) and Civil Disobedience (1849), were the first works by an American
writer to gain worldwide appeal. He experienced Transcendentalism, the Victorian Age,
the Civil War and the Westward Expansion, he saw the fall of Romanticism, the rise of
Realism and probably read for the first time John O ’Sullivan’s term ‘Manifest Destiny’ in
the papers of 1845. His timely position within America’s history informed his writings
which were rich with awe for his natural environment and contempt for a far reaching
government. His was a style that would influence an evolving environmentalist
movement, one page and one step west at a time.
Concurrent with the age of Transcendentalism in the eastern United States, the
western frontier provided independence, opportunity and traditions that would influence
the character of the nation. The prominent American historian Frederick Jackson Turner
(1861-1932), whose Frontier Thesis had an enormous impact on American scholarship
and identity, argued that from the colonial era to the end of the 19th century, the frontier
has influenced our democracy, character and expectations. Although he was not the first
to call attention to the frontier, Turner was the first to theorize its significance. It is also
important to note that Turner had Transcendentalist leanings, and like the Concordian
philosophers he declared that man can rediscover the world’s foundations ‘filled with
life, with meaning, with dignity’ (qtd. in Simonson 20). Like Thoreau, Turner believed
that nature could liberate a person from pettiness and allow them to grow to full measure.
Both lectured on the vital forces that lie beneath nature and civilization and they both
choose their ‘place’ in nature to ruminate on these vital forces.
In American consciousness, the west symbolized hope. In Beyond the Frontier,
Harold Peter Simonson argues in favor of Turner’s thesis, stating that it was the frontier
that made America an open society from the beginning. Because individuals thought they
could move west, because they had a west they could move to, social mobility became
one of America’s distinguishing marks. He goes on to discuss how this mobility nurtured
optimism, the west becoming a symbol of hope. This process came to mean progress,
making the west synonymous with the American Dream.5 The ‘ideology of the west’ and
the myth of the frontier previously examined with Cronon, are in full effect at this time
in history. The disruption of these notions would not become popular until the 20th
century since the criticism had yet to develop into an organized field. But the interplay of
place and self was a popular theme in the literature and scholarship of the 19th century
and Turners Frontier Thesis was among the first to critically explore the underlying
connections between place (the frontier) and self (Americans). His theory is rooted in the
(im)migrants’ physical and symbolic journey west, where they shed their ties to European
5 See Simonson, especially chapters 2 and 9, for an insightful overview of Turner’s Frontier Thesis and the
West as myth and symbol.
institutions and rediscover their primitive energies in the unsettled lands of the west,
thereby reinventing themselves with a vigor, independence and creativity that were the
source of American democracy and national character. 6 Since Turner first introduced his
theory, the ‘ideology of wilderness’ and the frontier myth have been tenets of the
environmentalist movement since the late 19th century. Turner would claim that the
frontier would close by the 1890’s, meaning there would be no free land available to
explore or settle on the continent. This crisis sowed the seeds of preservation, compelling
the public to save the lands crucial to the making of a nation and its people. The frontier
may be gone, but the experience could still be had if wilderness is preserved. Turner, I
will argue, like Thoreau was important to the development of the environmentalist
movements that came later. While Thoreau, and many others, proselytized the sacredness
of wilderness and nature, Turner’s theory equated wilderness with ‘Americanism’, thus
compelling future generation to be stewards of a land and a national identity.
Soon after the emergence of Transcendentalism and before Turner’s Frontier
Thesis, the Hudson River School of painting produced exemplar images of the sublime,
unexplored landscape of the nation. Evolving from the Dutch landscape paintings of the
17th century and the Romanticism of the era, the School depicts the American landscape
as a pastoral, serene setting. The artists often idealized these settings, highlighting the
bucolic country alongside the rugged wilderness. Typically, the artists of the school
6Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. Uncommon
Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, (p. 76)
Transcendentalist philosophy of the time. Although they were active in seeking out
extraordinary landscapes, their works were often a synthesis of multiple scenes composed
to enhance the already rich landscape for an inquisitive public. In addition to compiling
idealized images of nature and its environment, the artists of the Hudson River School
infused their works with a reverence for its mysticism. The degree to which each
individual artist recognized sublime divinity in nature varied, but their awe for nature
penetrated the canvas, transferring to the audience an esteem for the nation’s natural
The capacity of these artists to transform life into art led to profound
representations of a wilderness that was quickly becoming a commodity for railroad
magnates, the burgeoning tourism industry and the eager homesteader.
Thomas Moran, the nation’s premiere painter of the American landscape at the
turn of the century, was one painter who had the ability to capture the beauty of the
wilderness as well as the attention of Congress in 1872. His major piece, The Grand
Canyon o f the Yellowstone (see figure 1), set into motion the makings of the National
Parks Service and displayed the range and grandeur of the Western frontier on large-scale
canvases. His works are among America’s valued collection at National Museums, they
grace the walls of federal buildings, and were published in hundreds of periodicals. This
was the era of government surveys, and the systematic exploration of deserts and forests
revealed a great wealth of amazing natural resources.7 Although Moran was never
classified as an environmentalist —the term and movements were not yet established, he
never spoke about the conservation or preservation of the land, he did not spend years
living among the wilderness in search of his identity as it relates to nature, like other
pronounced environmentalists — the works he produced did prompt the establishment of
federally preserved lands as well as familiarize an entire nation with their unrivalled
natural and scenic heritage.
Thomas Moran was born in England in 1837 and immigrated to New York with
his family at a young age. He expanded upon the family’s trade as artists and honed his
skill as a painter with the Hudson River School of painting. The artistic endowments
Thomas Moran made to the nation were solidified when he partook in a geological survey
in 1871 headed by Ferdinand Hayden, the director of the United States Geological
Survey. During the forty days spent exploring the Yellowstone region in Wyoming,
Moran documented numerous sites alongside fellow renowned artist photographer,
William Henry Jackson. M oran’s masterpiece from his first expedition, The Grand
Canyon o f the Yellowstone, is his rendition of a spectacular view of the Lower Falls
through a deep chasm in the yellowish sulfur-stained rocks, hence the name
‘Yellowstone’. ‘Yellowstone fever’ had already taken hold of the nation, with reports of
7Heald, Weldon F. “Thomas Moran: Depicter of Western Grandeur” Montana: The Magazine o f Western
History, pp. 42-53.
the majestic geology of the area appearing in the pages of Time and Harper’s.8 Moran
spent long days studying the geology and the way light played with the colors of the
canyon, making sketches and framing photographs for Jackson, so as to have irrefutable
and multiple views. His painting captured the texture and drama of the setting, providing
the interested public with an expression of Yellowstone’s wonders. As a result of the
powerful images Moran created while in the guard of the U.S. geological surveys,9 he
earned the nickname ‘Father of the National Park System’ due to the tremendous
influence he had on Congress who vowed to set aside vast amounts of land in the west as
National Parks.
The 1872 exhibit of Moran’s, The Grand Canyon o f Yellowstone, set New York
abuzz with the excitement of a national jewel on display. The patrons that attended the
exhibit were wealthy industrialists and railroad magnates looking for canvases that
depicted the lands they hoped to develop. Upon entering Clinton Hall, viewers looked
upon a canvas that measured seven by twelve feet, a feat Moran knew would generate
excitement. Moran intended the immense size of the canvas to be a selling point, but the
stature was appreciated as a tribute to the majesty of Yellowstone as well. Moran once
wrote of his piece, “The motive or incentive of my "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone"
was the gorgeous display of color that impressed itself upon me. Probably no scenery in
8Johns, Joshua. “The Lure of the West”. Thomas Moran and the American Landscape. Web.
9 Known as T h e Great Surveys’, Moran participated in the 4 major geological surveys of his time:
Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, and The Mountain of the Holy Cross in Colorado.
the world presents such a combination. The forms are extremely wonderful and pictorial,
and, while I desired to tell truly of Nature, I did not wish to realize the scene literally, but
to preserve and to convey its true impression” (qtd. in Anderson 16). As an artist, Moran
wanted to represent the absolute beauty of the landscape, presenting the Grand Canyon in
Yellowstone from a vista that drinks in the scenery. The Grand Canyon opens in front of
the viewer, as if they were standing on the mountain’s ledge with the artist. The perilous
position looks across the valley and into the valley, with green foliage breaking through
the rocky peaks, teetering on the edge of the cliffs. M oran’s representation of the canyon
benefits from the size of the canvas, utilizing the majority of its height to depict the
immense gorge and the muscular mountains with the valley walls growing tall. The
valley glows with a golden yellow, and as its peaks rise to the top of the canvas, the
yellow hues blend into the ethereal, pillowing clouds that stretch far beyond the horizon.
At the apex of the valley’s canyon, earth, wind and water incorporate into the same hazy
element flowing down the gorge as a waterfall, meandering through the basin, and
eluding the viewer’s gaze. The painting radiates from its sun drenched and rigid peaks,
suggestively displaying the treacherous nature alongside the phenomenal beauty of the
American wilderness. I do not believe Moran, working as an artist employed by travel
magazines, approached his subject with an environmentalist agenda. He may have had a
personal respect for the magnitude of wilderness, but there is no documentation to
support this assumption. Regardless of his personal stance on preservation, his works
were utilized to establish the first preserved lands in the United States.
M oran’s use of color and technique effectively displayed Yellowstone’s wonders
to an audience whose appetites for a grand display had been whetted by the directors of
the railroad industry, the lore of the west and the growing desire to be part of something
independent from their Euro-American heritage. Moran produced three larger than life
canvases that focused on the west and its natural wonders. In addition to The Grand
Canyon of the Yellowstone, M oran’s other great works were Chasm o f the Colorado
(1873), and Mountain o f the Holy Cross (1875). These two works, like his first, were
products from the U.S. geological survey expeditions he accompanied while working as a
magazine illustrator. Consistent with the times, M oran’s works addressed the public’s
relationship with the wilderness and the growing demand to preserve the lands that reflect
our American character. He had once declared that the compelling force behind his work
was ‘being true to our own country, in the interpretation of that beautiful and glorious
scenery with which Nature had so lavishly endowed our land’ (qtd. in Heald 53). So
impressive were M oran’s reproductions of American natural wonders that the selling of
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone went for $10,000 to the U.S. Congress in 1872 as
the first landscape painting purchased. His second piece from the trio was also purchased
by Congress for the then astronomical price of $10,000.
Thomas M oran’s paintings have a greater history than gracing the walls of the
Senate lobby; they have contributed to the preservation of land, a national identity and
the establishment of National Parks. Long before the establishment of the National Parks
Service in 1916, Hayden utilized M oran’s works in persuading Congress to set aside
Yellowstone country as a public reservation. Congress lobbied for its preservation until
President Ulysses Grant designated it a public reservation in 1872, canonizing
Yellowstone as the very first National Park. Moran continued to accompany geological
surveys out west, always painting a landscape more beautiful than the real thing;
Yosemite, Wyoming, The Grand Canyon. His contemporaries were producing similar
heroic landscapes, elaborating on the natural wonders and the American wilderness.
These art works were among the first images of the western wilderness many people
would see, and the idealized images fostered the pervading ‘ideology of wilderness’ of
which Cronon speaks. Thomas Moran and the Hudson River School of painting had a
long lasting effect on the development of environmentalism, providing for us the first
images of America’s absolute beauty, and generating a response to preserve and maintain
it for future appreciation.
Succeeding the artists of the Hudson River School of painting were the Nature
and Regionalist writers who also documented a growing America. The Gold Rush of
1849 attracted an amazing crowd of 300,000 people, making their way west by ship, by
road and by foot. The passing of the Homestead Act in 1862 and the completion of the
Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 greatly aided in the continuing westward expansion.
Immigrants moved into the crowded cities to take advantage of new urban industries and
an economical way of living: and the agricultural landscape was becoming mechanized,
allowing families to not have to chiefly rely on their own farm production for sustenance.
The American landscape was changing, and artists that span from the late-19th century to
the mid-20th century supplied the public with works that celebrated the local terrain of
western America. Mary Austin, John Muir and Wallace Stegner have contributed to the
library of environmentalist literature with their auto-biographical, semi-fictional
narratives that focused on the characters, topography, dialect and customs of California,
Montana, and Wyoming. They wrote of the far-reaching frontiers, chronicling the
nation’s stories and building a national identity. As a sub-genre of Realism, Regionalism
often utilized sentimentality and nostalgia, composing a literature that explored the
essence of humanity in nature.
For organizational purposes, I utilize the term
‘Regionalism’ as an umbrella term for the literary works explored here. Muir, Austin, and
Stegner have produced works that are associated with differing schools of thought and in
different eras and generations. Yet, the call to preserve land and its resources, the western
regions as the settings for their narrative, and their sublime experiences in nature are
commonalities in their work. Apart, they could stand alone in the fields of Regionalism,
Nature writing, or eco-biological history. Together, they run the course of the developing
environmentalist movement. The artists depicted for their audience a west they had come
to know as their own with the events, stories and people that circulated in their frontier
towns. Taking a nod from Thoreau, they poetically wrote about conservation and
preservation as a way of life necessary for survival and what emerged was a synthesis of
authentic experience and creative imagination. The leading Regionalist writers introduced
environmentalism to America’s popular culture when they purposefully celebrated nature
while exhibiting contemporary environmentalist theory.
The environmentalist movement of the early to mid 20th century had its greatest
ally and conduit in these Regionalist writers. The works produced were widely published
and were often the topic of interest in national journals and magazines. Harold Peter
Simonson said it wonderfully when he wrote, “Something happens when a talented artist
or writer captures the feeling for a place. We sense authenticity, a truth of pattern and
energy inherent in the object but distilled, intensified, shocking us into recognition”
(.Beyond the Frontier, 145). Muir, Austin and Stegner had the ability to transfer to their
audience a sense of place and connectedness so profound it conjured national awareness
of the burgeoning issues of forestation, irrigation and land settlement in the west.
Regionalist artists had the ability to ‘shock us into recognition’, as Simonson wrote, and
what they actually did was help us recognize the meaning of ‘roots’. They helped to
establish the notion that ‘place’ and ‘self’ are not mutually exclusive, but instead are
affected by each other.
The mysticism in Transcendentalism was utilized by nature writers for the better
part of a century, and Thoreau’s life philosophy continued to have an influence on the
writers that came during his time and after. John Muir (1838-1914) is perhaps this
country's most famous and influential naturalist and preservationist. He taught the people
of his time and ours the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural heritage.
His personal and determined involvement in the great environmental questions of his day
remain an inspiration for environmental activists everywhere. Muir was devoted to his
religion, one that was rigidly and strictly instilled in him by his father, and equally
devoted to experiencing the natural world. For Muir, the two were one in the same,
leading him to write in a letter to his brother David that in Nature he has Religion and in
Yosemite, his Church.10 Although Muir was mountaineering out west and writing his
journal a couple decades before the emergence of Regionalism, his works are closely
aligned with the other artists in this thesis due to his engagement in transcendentalism,
his preservation efforts and the lasting influences he had on the landscape of California
and the National Parks Service.
By the end of the 19th century John Muir had traveled extensively through the
American south, New York, Cuba and San Francisco, keenly observing nature and
reconciling his Calvinist self with his Romantic self. In My Boyhood and Youth, Muir
claimed that his enthusiasm for nature was present from childhood, deriving, he felt, from
"’Simonson, Harold P. Beyond the Frontier: Writers, Western Regionalism and a Sense o f Place, (p. 31)
a "natural inherited wildness in our blood" (qtd. in Simonson 42). While attending the
University of Wisconsin he had an affinity to the natural sciences and studied Botany. In
diversifying his studies, Muir also studied Emerson, Thoreau and the Concordian
philosophers as well as Wordsworth, Longfellow and other Romantic poets. He often
quoted Wordsworth, and took seriously to Emerson’s teachings and lectures, later
meeting the philosopher in Yosemite in 1871. Muir exhibits in his works a configuration
determination. His works were his own, and other than a few magazines publishing his
ecology-based articles, Muir did not necessarily intend to write for the masses. His
substantial book, My First Summer in the Sierra, is in essence his journal, a daily record
of his personal experiences and observations. Although he wanted others to know the
transcendent experience Nature provides, he did not believe himself to be the person to
preach it. His works were published later in life, and his humility kept him from taking
up serious literary pursuits. As Simonson wrote in Beyond the Frontier, “The truth seems
to be that writing for publication filled him with frustration and despair. ‘No amount of
word-making,’ he [Muir] said, ‘will ever make a single soul to know these mountains’”
(qtd. in Simonson, 34). M uir’s identity as a writer was limited; He was a scientist, after
all, but his words had the power to affect the National landscape along with having the
passion to ascribe to the wilderness as a holy vision.
Muir led the fight to preserve much of the beautiful land in the west, establishing
California’s Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia redwoods of the Sierra Nevada as National
Parks, even before there was a National Parks Service. He wrote as whimsically as a poet
for pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, he served as president of the Sierra Club, and
laid the foundation for the creation of the National Parks Service in 1916, two years after
his passing. In a journal from February of 1915, “John Muir: Naturalist” was published
honoring the memory of John Muir, reminding us of our indebtedness to his life’s work.
It reads:
It is to this man that America owes its preservation of many
of her most attractive beauty spots, that the greed of other
men would have mangled and destroyed for financial gain.
The setting apart of national reservations with their vast
solitudes and elemental violences has placed the American
people perpetually in John M uir’s debt. Fight for them he
had to do many times with soulless corporations and
legislative indifference, but he won out in the end, and they
remain to the people as a monument to his sagacity and
foresightedness and ardent love of nature. (1)
The impactJohn Muir had on the national landscape is matched only by the influence his
hadon environmental movements in this country. The works he published in
magazines spread his vision of a healthy environment for future generations and the
likeminded public helped to propel this vision to a reality. The Sierra Club, a national
organization established by Muir in 1892, has served to protect America’s natural
resources and national parks. Since its inception, it spearheaded the establishment of a
new National Parks and National Wilderness Preservation System. Schools across the
west don his name while his works are at the core of their required reading lists. To say
we are indebted to Mr. Muir is to say the least. Ultimately john Muir has influenced our
national identity and his life’s work has impacted our American traditions.
As a contemporary of Emerson, M uir’s experience with Transcendentalism was
likely. In addition to appreciating a philosophy that praises nature as God’s dwelling
place, the Pantheism in Transcendentalism spoke to Muir as a relief from the overly-rigid
theology he had grown up with. Pantheism was a concept that was taking America by
storm in the early 19th century, even before the popularity of Transcendentalism.
Pantheism is the ancient belief that God is not a transcendent person, but instead is
present in all of nature, dwelling in all living things. Although Transcendentalism was the
leading Philosophy of the time, Pantheism laid the foundation and M uir’s invocations of
the divinity of nature displays his passion to care for its preservation. In a speech he made
to the Sierra Club in 1895, he stated, “Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine
trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be
got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in
the way of forest preservation would vanish” (Muir). This can be said of all the artists in
the thesis. Their works did not necessarily maintain hypotheses or scientific calculations
(for the most part), but instead ‘painted’ a picture of America’s natural wonders so
passionately and beautifully that the modem notion of the west is incomplete without the
influence of at least one of these individuals, either on the preservation of land today, or
in our notions of the western frontier at the turn of the century.
One author in particular stands alongside John Muir as a profound regionalist
writer, although her recognition as such is limited. Mary Hunter Austin established
herself as a Regionalist writer in the Thoreauvian tradition of American nature writing.
As a regionalist writer, she is in a field dominated by women writers, yet by contrast, as a
nature writer she is in a field dominated by men who produced works inspired by great
philosophical and scientific texts. Like Thoreau, she straddled literary worlds and
produced works that narrated the confluence of social and ecological issues. The Land o f
Little Rain (1903) is considered a major work of American nature writing. In this
compilation of short stories, Austin links together her stories of the desert and all its
inhabitants. She values the nature of the desert and exhibited each small being as an
integral part of the whole with a poetic understanding.
Mary Austin was born Mary Hunter in 1868 in Carlinville, Illinois, the fourth of
six children. Austin was the daughter of a Civil War Army Captain, her mother, a fiercely
religious woman of Scottish- Irish descent, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship.
After her father passed and she separated herself from her mother, she followed her
brother out west. Taking advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 which encouraged
Westward migration with the promise of landownership, they settled in the San Joaquin
Valley in central California. It was there she began to distinguish herself as a writer in a
field dominated by men, breaking away from late nineteenth century gender codes. The
tradition of environmental nonfiction, the production of scientifically based and
philosophically inspired text, was a genre commanded by men. She defied the limitations
placed upon her because of her sex in many ways; venturing west into the frontier as a
single woman, supporting herself and her disabled child after her loveless marriage
dissolved, sustaining her body and mind in a desert environment that was presumed a
death trap, and ultimately her ability to produce works critical to the country’s definitions
of wilderness. In doing this, she fit the portrait of Progressive Era women in America as
of the
philosophically, she served as a counter figure to those woman conservationists whose
role as activist rested on their attempt to maintain their middle-class values of ‘true
woman-hood, the home and the child’.11 Instead, she re-ordered the traditional concept of
home to include all the outdoors. The Land o f Little Rain documents this re-ordering of
the home beautifully as she crusades for both spiritual rejuvenation and water
conservation. The reordering of the home to include all the outdoors may seem like a
small step, or merely an adjustment in space, especially in the early 1900’s. However, it
is a profound reordering of the relationship between place and self. To recall the earlier
discussion of eco-criticism, in 1996 Cheryl Glotfelty had described the burgeoning and
growing field of eco-criticism as our immediate world expanding to include the natural
1'Blend, Benay. “Mary Austin and the Western Conservation Movement: 1900-1927”. Journal o f the
world that surrounds us. Nearly one hundred years’ prior, Mary Austin was expressing
the same sentiment.
Although many of her works explore the social dynamics involving gender, race
and the environment, The Land o f Little Rain is considered a major work of American
literature and established her as a poetic nature writer. In this compilation of short stories
and essays, she explored the life within the dessert valley of eastern California. Her work
examined the creatures she found living in the dessert, the flora and fauna that thrived in
the arid land, and the people that sustained the elements. The opening essay, “The Land
of Little Rain” describes in great detail the California desert valley better known as Death
Valley. At the turn of the century, the valley’s reputation as a deadly, arid environment
preceded it. Death Valley was a transient land, difficult to settle and hardly irrigated.
Although native people have been there since at least the last Ice Age, the mining camps
and boom towns of the late 19th century came and went, mostly in favor of a burgeoning
tourism industry further west.
It is in Austin’s seemingly uncomplicated nature writings that she explores the
intersection of human/nonhuman relations and definitions of the natural. To ignore this
intersection is to miss the rewarding quality of Austin’s writings. She opens her first story
by placing the reader in the Country of Lost Borders, land east of the Sierras, and
immediately defines the parameter within which she wants the reader to identify with the
land. She writes, “Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears
upon the maps, but the Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land
that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not
proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil” (“Land of
Little Rain”, 4). First, Austin authorizes the native name for ‘desert’, Country of Lost
Borders, to be a richer identity of the region. Utilizing native names in place of EuroAmerican names rearranges our perception of the terms, injecting the ‘desert’ with a
Pantheistic quality and increasing its value as a living land. She claims the name ‘desert’
is simply a placeholder on the map of the U.S. that connotes inhospitable conditions and
life threatening environments. However, The Country of Lost Borders is host to a
multitude of life. Austin’s essay successfully endows the desert with the power of life; it
can give and it can take.
Austin continues to express the ways the desert environment is the maker and
keeper of its own natural laws. Unlike the rest of the orbiting earth, Austin asserts that the
desert only experiences three seasons, summer, winter and spring. Summer in the desert
lasts from June to November, when it lies hot, still and unbearable. Winter spans from
December to April, scant rain and snow supply the desert valley with its drink. For the
single month of May, the dessert valley experiences its Spring, with dessert flowers that
adapt to the seasonal limitations and beautifully blossom and bear fruit. At this point in
her essay, Austin introduces humanity into her desert ecosystem, both as a way to
connect man to the land and as a way of trumping man in comparison; She writes,
The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations
to the seasonal limitations. Their whole duty is to flower
and fruit, and they do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance,
as the rain admits. It is recorded in the report of the Death
Valley expedition that after a year of abundant rains, on the
Colorado desert was found a specimen of Amaranthus ten
feet high. A year later the same species in the same place
matured in the drought at four inches. One hopes the land
may breed like qualities in her human offspring, not tritely
to ‘try’, but to do. (Austin, 3).
I find this part of her essay to be a spring of critical delight! First she explores the ability
of the desert’s ecology to survive, even when the resources are limited, and she does so
with a great appreciation and awe for nature. Second, she disparages the human species
for their lack of self-preservation and their inability to adapt to nature as profoundly as
desertflora and fauna.
Third, despite her disappointment in humans lack
sustainability, she links human’s and nature together by referring to man as nature’s
offspring. In a matter of a few lines, she has questioned man’s ability to thrive, but
reminds us that we do have the ability and right to thrive because, like the desert ecology,
we live by the laws of nature, too. And while Thoreau said it with more spiritual filigree,
it is in seeing nature’s reflection in ourselves, being in communion with God through
nature, that we are eternally connected to it.
The Land o f Little Rain brought environmental awareness to the colonization of
the west, and as a regionalist writer Austin delivered this message with a dialect that
favored the integrity of these communities. She privileges Native American place names
over Euro-American names because of their ‘beautiful fit [and because they do not]
originate in the poor human desire for perpetuity’ (The Land o f Little Rain, preface). She
believed the flexible Native American practice of ‘naming’ had a greater capacity to
capture regional likeness. The eloquently expressed place names are among the many
influences the native inhabitants lent to environmentally conscious regionalists. In his
essay “It All Began with Conservation”, Wallace Stegner similarly writes “The Indians
stressed the web of life, the interconnectedness of land and man and creature. Chief
Luther Sanding Bear of the Ogala Sioux put it this way: ‘Only to the white man was
nature a wilderness and only to him was land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’
To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the
blessings of the Great Mystery” (Marking the Sparrows Fall, 122). Austin, and many
environmentally conscious writers that came before and after, had notions of nature that
followed the tradition of natives and their interconnected relationship with all life.
Austin details the miniscule ecological and biological life inhabiting the desert.
The details lend authority to Austin’s works, and in turn to her crusade for the
environment. Like Thoreau, Austin’s regional narratives comment on the relation
between literary, scientific, and social conventions and environmental actualities. Both
writers are known for their annoyance with the material inclinations of their
contemporaries, their outrage for the environmental abuse of the regions they loved, and
their intolerance for utilitarian concepts of nature. Another writer who follows in the
tradition of Thoreau is Wallace Stegner. Wallace Earle Stegner was born February 18,
1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa. A self- proclaimed rolling stone, Stegner lived on many
frontiers during his adolescent years. His father shuttled the family through Washington,
North Dakota, Montana, Nevada and Saskatchewan before settling down in 1921 in Salt
Lake City. In his prestigious career, Stegner was twice a Guggenheim Fellow, held
lectures at Harvard, and was head of the creative writing program at Stanford. He was a
novelist, historian, essayist, environmentalist, critic and teacher who pursued the truths
that lay behind the mythology of the American west. Many of his works expressed his
preservationist stance, calling for a federal program to protect the few remaining wild
places and promoting respect for the western landscape. His most prominent piece of
non-fiction writing is “The Wilderness Letter”, a poignant statement about the
environment that was used to introduce the bill that established the National Wilderness
Preservation System in 1964. His passion to protect the western landscape are themes
that are eloquently expressed throughout his life’s work.
Wallace Stegner’s young life on the frontiers of the west significantly influenced
his later works. It was not until his teenage years that he experienced life off the frontier.
His autobiographical essay, “Child of the Far Frontier”, expresses the benefits he has
reaped from his childhood. He writes:
...and when I walked past my first lawn, in Great Falls,
Montana, I stooped down and touched its cool nap in awe and
unbelief. I think I held my breath - I had not known that people
anywhere lived with such grace. Also I had not known until then
how much ugliness I myself have lived in. Our homestead yard
was as bare as an alkali flat, because my father, observing some
folklore fire precaution, insisted on throwing out the soapy wash
water until he had killed off every blade of grass. Still, there are
some advantages to growing up a savage. (Marking the Sparrows
Fall, 7)
As a product of the American earth, l2one of the advantages he had was understanding the
wilderness and our need as humans, better as Americans, to keep it wild. During his
lifetime he advocated for a broad environmental ethic - a human responsibility to take
care of the land he wrote so knowingly about. His literature followed in the Regionalist
and Thoreauvian tradition of seeing the wilderness as a source of spiritual inspiration and
renewal for man and his works have gone on to influence national policy on the matter of
preserving and conserving the nation’s most precious resource.
O f all the compassionate and pious observations Wallace Stegner has written
about nature, his most profound is a letter written to the Wildland Research Center in
regards to their participation in the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission’s
report. At the time, the US government was assessing the recreational and utilitarian uses
for the fast dwindling wilderness when Stegner voiced a concern that was heard the world
around. He introduced the wilderness idea (Stegner’s italics), the notion that the
wilderness is a resource in itself, independent from its recreational capacity. He writes,
“I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character
and that has certainly shaped our history as a people” (“Wilderness Letter”, Marking the
12 Wallace Stegner refers to himself as such in “Child of the Far Frontier”, Marking the Sparrows Fall, p.6.
Sparrows Fall 112). The idea of nature being an element of our identity is a sentiment
shared by nature and regionalist writers since Thoreau. It has also been a major argument
for environmentalists since just as long. Stegner’s early experience with wilderness is
awe-inspiring, Susan Tyburski states in her paper “Wallace Stegner’s Vision of
Wilderness”, “Thus wilderness was a source of religious inspiration and renewal for
Stegner. He suggests that...the uncivilized natural world communicate[s] the secrets of
existence to those who are perceptive enough to listen” (135). Stegner found the
wilderness to be a source of religious inspiration and renewal. He believed the wilderness
was a place to rediscover the human soul and he fought for the preservation of the last
wild lands in the west because like Turner, he too, believed it was the wilderness that
made us Americans.
A prominent theme that runs through the works presented here is the removing of
oneself from society and journeying into nature. The literary narrative of retreating to
nature has a long standing and important place in American history, especially as it
pertains to environmentalism. In her essay “Putting History at the Core: History and
Literature in Environmental Studies” Kathryn Morse wrote, “As an ideological
wellspring for colonial settlement, for American Romanticism, and for the wilderness
parks movement at every stage, that narrative has constantly shaped and reshaped what
Americans have done with the physical world around them ...The retreat narrative is
central to American intellectual identity and history” (68). Although M orse’s essay goes
on to make the argument that history alone, as opposed to literature, can provide us with a
more diverse environmental history, her focus on the concept of retreat lends itself to this
thesis. Retreat, for the artists mentioned here, was not for the mere enjoyment of natural
surroundings, but instead it was necessary for the soul’s purification, and in turn, for their
capacity to appreciate and preserve the natural world that has allotted them such insight.
In recalling My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir documents his spiritual awakening
among the ‘temples’ and ‘holy mountains’ of the Yosemite Valley. His use of religious
terminology denoted the transformation he underwent while amidst the wilderness, and
his keen observations influenced legislation pertaining to the National Parks and Forests,
gifting future generations with a deep and vivid knowledge of our mysterious national
landscape. For the artists mentioned in this thesis, communion with nature was necessary
in understanding their purpose. From Henry David Thoreau to Wallace Stegner, the call
to know and preserve nature was indistinguishable from knowing and preserving
themselves. They traversed the country, climbed the peaks of mountains, and inhabited
the arid desserts of the west. As individuals, they found in Yellowstone, the Sierra
Nevada or Yosemite a well-spring of spiritual rejuvenation, and as antecedents of the
modern environmentalist movement, their works transfer a passion for preserving the
I am guilty of subscribing to the notion of the sublime wilderness. And I would
like to believe a great number of people who love nature subscribe to the notion, too. In
tracing the trajectory of environmentalism, it was the notion of the sublime wilderness
that initially inspired its efforts, and it is the same notion that has sustained its efforts
today. However, we would be reckless in our stewardship of the environment if we do
not heed Cronon’s warning against placing such a high premium on wilderness. Without
our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of
others, teaching us to be dismissive of those humble experiences.13 After all, it was the
humble experiences of Thoreau and Muir, Austin and Stegner that have guided the past
century of environmentalism. It may serve us well to leave ourselves open the humble
experiences that can guide our environmentalist efforts well into the 21st century.
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