- September 17, 2020
As I write this, I am sitting here in Monacan land, in the foothills of the Shenandoahs. To my west are the Blue Ridge Mountains, the ancient spine of the Appalachian Mountains, one of the oldest ranges in the world, now enshrined in Shenandoah National Park, federal land. Almost 40% of the park has been designated as a “federal wilderness area,” which simply means that 40% of the land meets the qualifications to be legally considered wilderness 1 . Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway traverse the ridgeline, though the lands that are visible from the scenic byways are not part of these designated wilderness areas. It could be argued that very few Americans have truly seen this wilderness, as zones must be a roadless area of five thousand contiguous acres.2
The colonial imagination conceptualizes wilderness as the default setting of land on one end of the cycle of the land development spectrum. In other words, wilderness sits in virtual stasis until a human force acts against it. Thomas Cole’s series, “The Course of Empire” (1833-36) visualizes this cycle, beginning with “The Savage State.” Painted from east to west, the canvas spans the course of a day, from the morning to the stormy night. To the east, the sun rises on a turbulent bay, with a Native American man in the midst of the chase after a deer that is rushing into the darkness of the stormy evening. In the middle-ground to the west, a temporary settlement of tipis circle a community fire, whose smoke vanishes into the torrential downpour that dominates the western sky. Compared to the rest of the cycle, this is Cole’s darkest painting, alluding to the coming enlightenment that begins with his “Pastoral State.” Within this visual concept, which is far from empty, wilderness is represented as land that is absent of visible or significant traces of western, Christian human intervention. Virtually absent of people, thus absent of politics. The very declaration of this landscape as emptiness is itself a political act, and has been used for hundreds of years as violence against Native Americans through political doctrines such as the Discovery Doctrine, which was created in Europe in the mid-15th century and was later reaffirmed by Thomas Jefferson (whose Monticello home sits to my southeast) in 1792, to open the gates of the west to the citizens of the new nation.
“Hideous and desolate wilderness,” is how William Bradford, first governor of Plymouth Plantation described their landing point, Cape Cod, in 1620, “the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.” Like many apocryphal American history stories, the arrival story of the Pilgrims either downplays or omits the prior violence that was enacted through colonial imperialism. As the story is told, the settlers found the abandoned ruins of a Wampanoag village, on top of which they constructed their own. While this telling paints the abandonment of the village as a passive fact, around 1616, just a few years before the Mayflower landed on the shores of Massachusetts, a plague had wound its way down from the coast of Maine into Wampanoag country. Effectively wiping out 50 - 90% of the Wampanoag population, the Pilgrims found a devastated and suffering country that they mistook as empty wilderness, not for them to take, but rather given to them, ordained from divine providence. Over 300 years after Bradford decried Wampanoag territory as hideous and desolate, the Wilderness Act, was signed into law in 1964, ushering in an era of modern environmentalism spurred by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” The Wilderness Act codified wilderness as being an area that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”
In a sense then, wilderness is an aesthetic category, where the appearance of being devoid of people is more important than humans actually being absent from the scene. Evidence of this strange fact can be found throughout our visual culture, from the peopleless landscape paintings of the Hudson Valley School, to tourist photos of the Grand Canyon, where visitors wait their turn to take a photo that looks like Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Wilderness is a manifestation of nature that has been ascribed qualities of the sublime, which J.S. Mill has described, “always arouses a feeling that is more like terror than like any moral emotion.” It is against this enormous power and sense of vastness “that her [Nature] powers often relate to man as enemies, from whom he must by force and ingenuity get what little he can for his own use, and deserves to be applauded when that little is more than might be expected.”
In the colonial perspective, because wilderness is a default stage in the cycle of development, to return to default, people and their infrastructure must simply exit the landscape. Whether it’s through a catastrophic event such as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor failure, which created a 30km exclusion zone, or whether it’s through deliberate legal action, such as those areas demarcated in the Wilderness Act. Thomas Cole’s final painting, “Desolation,” in the Course of Empire more closely resembles the catastrophic exit of people from a place, where crumbling architecture is superseded by climbing nature. “Desolation” is the only truly empty painting in this series, with the viewer looking towards the east, from where they can expect the next batch of settler civilization to arrive and lay claim to this reset land.