Cultivate Wildness

Thomas Rowlandson — “Dr. Syntax Sketching the Lake” — 1813

Cultivated Wildness

Another topic which came into sharper focus for me in conversations with Joe Viscomi is the incredible shift in the perception of nature which occurred in the romantic period. The mid-eighteenth century promoted the rise of gardening, but the gardens (particularly in France) were constructed to convey a sense of humanity’s conquest of nature. Carefully trimmed hedges in neat geometric rows— sculpted greenery to show how man had tamed the base nature of the wilderness. These gardens were not natural in any sense, other than in the presence of green objects. Of course, the translation of the bible into vernacular tongues set up a sort of oppositional value too: which had higher authority— nature untamed, controlled only by the hand of God— or the word, printed on a page and interpreted by humans.

The enclosure of common lands in England brought with it a sort of nostalgia for nature untamed. Gardening shifted its virtues from overt control, to a new sort of cultivated wilderness— the park replaced the commons. The rise of nature as a moral teacher was coincident with the fall of nature under the hand of man, and thus was born the desire for cultivated wildness. It was against this backdrop that modern book illustration developed, and the romantic impulse resurfaced after the waves of mid-eighteenth century moral abstraction from an imperfect source— a view of nature which few men had access to, let alone appreciation of. The “nature-lovers” of the romantic period were mostly city dwellers, who sketched their impressions from cultivated ground.

The situation in America was different. It was unenclosed, wild, and seemingly limitless. The American park system is constructed both of wholly prefabricated wilderness (of which Central Park in New York City is a prime example), carefully choreographed to appear wild— and fenced and improved natural lands, with roadway systems and easy access, like Yosemite. There is a mythic quality to the American park, but it is filtered through a European sensibility.

As McPhee points out in the first book of Coming into the Country, the concept of wilderness is foreign to those thrust from society into it. It’s a matter of unfathomable scale, of interconnectedness without end, which can never be fully subdued. The “natural” philosophy of the western tradition was ill-equipped to deal with the sheer expanse of mountains, lakes, and rivers of the America of the early eighteenth century. The primary tools of subjugation are the creation of parks, cultivated wildernesses where city-dwellers might visit and get “closer to god” through a flirtation with wildness. These days are little different; it takes a high-tech arsenal of camping supplies to even approach it— wilderness is always more comfortable in the mythic park around the corner. Few people want to wrestle a grizzly. They just want to inscribe the lessons of nature into a book.