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James Fenimore Cooper: Pioneer of the Environmental Movement

Hugh C. MacDougall
(James Fenimore Cooper Society)

This talk was first written in April 1990 for a program on Earth Day; it has been given, with minor changes, before a number of audiences in the Cooperstown area since. This version was given in 1999 to the Adirondack Club in Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

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When the first European settlers came to Northeastern America in the early 1600s there was one thing they were sure of: the forest was a bad place, to be transformed into fields, villages, and towns as rapidly as possible. There were two reasons for this:

To begin with, from time immemorial, we Europeans had been brought up to believe that the forest was not primeval, but just evil -- the home of monsters and spirits, a place to be entered only upon necessity, and left as quickly as possible. All of our folk lore, down to the tales of the Grimm Brothers, is filled with stories about the dangers of the woods -- countless generations of children were brought up on them.

Another reason to dislike the woods was that in the more developed parts of Europe, such as England, the remaining forests had become pleasure grounds for the nobility. Think of our stories about Sherwood Forest. Only kings and nobles were allowed to hunt; poachers from the lower classes were ruthlessly dealt with by an army of wardens and gamekeepers. Even worse, ordinary farmers were forbidden to protect their lands from marauding wild animals; by law they had to sit by helpless and watch the crops on which their survival depended destroyed.

From a practical point of view, the early settlers had reason to hate the forest. Clearing heavily wooded land with hand tools is a gargantuan task -- and most pioneers went through a period of severe hardship, even starvation, before they could clear enough land to grow the crops that were to feed them. And, of course, it was the home of both possibly antagonistic Indians and of carnivorous animals that could endanger their lives and livestock.

So many settlers in the woodlands of Eastern North America had a triple grudge against the wilderness: it was an inherently dangerous place; it represented the hated privileges of the aristocracy; and it posed an immediate danger to their new homesteads. Not surprisingly, within a comparatively few decades, the wilderness and its animal life had virtually disappeared from New England and, soon after, from the settled portions of New York. By 1850 the fields in this part of New York extended to the tops of all but the most inaccessible slopes, and it had been years since a deer had been seen in Otsego County.

How did these attitudes change; how was what we now call the environmental movement born. An important part of the answer can be found in the works of a novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, who spend over half his life and writing career in Cooperstown, here in Otsego County.

* * * * *

James Fenimore Cooper: Prophet of the Environmental Movement

The environmental movement, as we know it today, is founded on three basic principles:

All three of these environmental concerns were first graphically expressed to the American public almost two centuries ago by James Fenimore Cooper, in two of the Leatherstocking novels published in 1823 and 1827, The Pioneers and The Prairie. In promoting these ideas, Cooper was supported by two friends: the artist Thomas Cole, founder of the so-called Hudson River school of landscape painting, and the poet William Cullen Bryant. Between them, the novelist, the painter, and the poet sought to educate an America which would only later begin to accept their message.

The Pioneers introduced two of the three fundamental ideas of the environmental movement: the conservation of natural resources for man, and the beauty of nature and the wilderness.

Throughout The Pioneers Judge Temple expresses his concern that the thoughtless settlers of Templeton will destroy the very resources on which their life depends: the trees, and especially the sugar maples, that fill the woods, the schools of fish that teem in Lake Otsego, and the migrating passenger pigeons that fly past the village every Spring.

Early in the novel, Judge Temple finds his servants burning maple wood in the fireplace, and exclaims:

"How often have I forbidden the use of the sugar-maple, in my dwelling. The sight of that sap, as it exudes with the heat, is painful to me.... Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine, to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extent. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel." [p. 105]

When his nephew accuses him of being "a little wild on such subjects," Judge Temple responds:

"Is it wildness...to condemn a practice, which devotes these jewels of the forest, these precious gifts of nature, these mines of comfort and wealth, to the common uses of a fire-place?... The instant the snow is off the earth [I will] send out a party into the mountains, to explore for coal." [pp. 105-6]

A few chapters later, when Judge Temple encounters Billy Kirby, a gigantic tree- chopper from Vermont, fatally injuring the maple trees as he taps them for their sap, he protests:

"It grieves me to witness the extravagance that pervades this country,...where the settlers trifle with the blessings they might enjoy, with the prodigality of successful adventurers. You are not exempt from the censure yourself, Kirby, for you make dreadful wounds in these trees, where a small incision would effect the same object. I earnestly beg you will remember, that they are the growth of centuries, and when once gone, none living will see their loss remedied." [p.228]

Billy Kirby expresses the views of most American frontiersmen:

"Why, I don't know, Judge.... It seems to me, if there's a plenty of any thing in this mountainous country, it's the trees.... I know you kalkilate greatly on the trees, setting as much store by them as some men would by their children, yet, to my eyes, they are a sore sight at any time.... I have heern the settlers from the old countries say, that their rich men keep great oaks and elms, that would make a barrel of pots [of potash] to the tree, standing round their doors and humsteads, and scattered over their farms, just to look at. Now, I call no country much improved, that is pretty well covered by with trees. Stumps are a different thing, for they don't shade the land..." [p. 229]

Judge Temple tries to reassure Kirby that his concern with trees is purely practical, saying:

"Opinions on such subjects vary much, in different countries..., but it is not as ornaments that I value the noble trees of this country; it is for their usefulness. We are stripping the forests, as if a single year would replace what we destroy. But the hour approaches, when the laws will take notice of not only the woods, but the game they contain also." [p. 229]

Still later, when the villagers net thousands of fish from Lake Otsego, only to let them die and rot on the lakeshore, Judge Temple is appalled:

"This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence. These fish,...which by to-morrow evening, will be rejected food on the meanest table in Templeton, are of a quality and flavour that, in other countries, would make them esteemed a luxury on the tables of princes or epicures. The world has no better fish than the bass of Otsego: it unites the richness of the shad to the firmness of the salmon.... But, like all the other treasures of the wilderness, they already begin to disappear, before the wasteful extravagance of man." [p. 259-60]

In The Pioneers, it is Judge Temple who preaches conservation of natural resources for practical use. But Cooper also tried to teach his many readers the second principle of the environmental movement, that of preservation of nature for its own sake. In The Pioneers, this view is represented by Natty Bumppo.

For Natty Bumppo nature is itself a thing of wonder and beauty. He is not opposed to using the gifts of nature; indeed, he is a crack marksman and a keen hunter, but he believes that to destroy life without a purpose is wrong. When the settlers massacre the annual flight of migratory passenger pigeons, leaving the ground littered with dead and dying birds, Natty exclaims:

"It's wicked to be shooting into flocks in this wastey manner.... If a body has a craving for pigeon's flesh, why! it's made the same as all other creater's, for man's eating, but not to kill twenty and eat one. When I want such a thing, I go into the woods till I find one to my liking, and then I shoot him off the branches without touching the feather of another, though there might be a hundred on the same tree." [p. 247]

At the time Cooper was writing, in the early 1820's, the old idea that the forest was just a dark, unpleasant, and dangerous place began to change, and once again Cooper's novel The Pioneers showed the way. Only a few miles north of the bustling and growing city of New York stood the almost pristine wilderness of the Catskill Mountains; by the early nineteenth century Fulton's invention of the steamboat suddenly made the Catskills easily accessible to travelers and to that new breed we call tourists.

Washington Irving had popularized the Catskill Mountains--without actually visiting them--in romantic tales like Rip Van Winkle. Shortly before writing The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper did visit them, apparently staying at a primitive inn overlooking the Hudson River just above the town of Catskill. And when, in The Pioneers, Natty Bumppo is asked whether he has ever seen anywhere as beautiful as Lake Otsego, he replies, in a passage that was to become very famous:

"I can say that I have met but one place that was more to my liking.... Up in the Cattskills...there's a place...that I used to climb to,...that would well pay any man for a barked shin or a torn moccasin.... The place I mean is next to the river, where one of the ridges juts out a little from the rest, and where the rocks fall for the best part of a thousand feet, so much up and down, that a man standing on their edges is fool enough to think he can jump from top to bottom....
     "But there's a place, a short two miles back of that very hill, that in late time I relished better than the mountains; for it was kivered with the trees, and nateral.... There's a fall in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness. But that hand that made that `Leap' never made a mill! There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow, afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat-rock, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain.... There has that little stream of water been playing among them hills, since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it.... To my judgment...it's the best piece of work that I've met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man's life." [pp. 292-94]

The Pioneers was published in 1823. Two years later, in the summer of 1825, an unknown and inexperienced young artist named Thomas Cole, who had undoubtedly read The Pioneers, visited the place. There he painted three landscapes, one of them portraying the falls, today called Kaaterskill Falls, that Natty had described with such feeling. The three paintings, placed on exhibit in a New York City store window, were eagerly purchased by influential New York artists. Thomas Cole's landscapes, in which panoramic vistas of nature seem to overwhelm the tiny human figures, luminous skies and clouds suggest the proximity of God and heaven, and verdant foliage combines with dead trees to remind man both of youth and of mortality, struck an instant and appealing note to a society in transition from the cool rationalism of the late Eighteenth Century to the emotional romanticism of the Nineteenth.

Cole would return again and again to the Catskills, and was followed by a series of other landscape artists, inspired by the same vision of the sublimity of the natural wilderness, who came in time to be called the Hudson River school, and whose landscapes depicting the wilderness dominated American art for half a century. What became America's most popular resort hotel, the Mountain House, was built on the site of the inn Cooper had visited, overlooking the Hudson Valley, and survived until it was bulldozed into rubble in 1963. The idea that nature was beautiful had finally found roots in America, and though the pioneers on the frontier continued to lay waste to the land, the foundations of the second principle of the environmental movement had been laid. No guidebook to the Catskill Mountains thought of omitting Cooper's description from The Pioneers, the passage that launched America's new view of its wilderness heritage.

But The Pioneers laid the way to a further concern, which James Fenimore Cooper would spell out a few years later in The Prairie. The careless and wasty ways of man not only threaten his resources and the natural beauty around him, but puts in peril his very existence. This theme was first raised in 1824 by the young but promising romantic poet James Cullen Bryant. Bryant was still living in his native Massachusetts, but that summer he visited New York City and got to know the young novelist James Fenimore Cooper. They were to become lifelong friends.

After reading Cooper's latest book, The Pioneers, with its descriptions of the wilderness and of the American Indian, Bryant wrote a series of romantic poems including one called "The Indian at the Burial Place of His Fathers,." in which an Indian visiting his father's grave finds it an open plowed field with his father's bones scattered among the furrows. He muses on the destruction of the beautiful forest in which his ancestors had lived, ntoes the drying up of the streams caused by the clearing of the trees, and wonders how the White invasion of America will end. The last four verses of Bryant's poem are as follows:

They waste us ay like April snow
   In the warm noon, we shrink away;
And fast they follow, as we go
   Toward the setting day
Till they shall fill the land, and we
Are driven into the Western sea.

But I behold a fearful sign,
   To which the white man's eyes are blind;
Their race may vanish hence, like mine,
   And leave no trace behind,
Save ruins o'er the region spread,
And the white stones above the dead.

Before these fields were shorn and tilled,
   Full to the brim our rivers flows;
The melody of waters filled
   The fresh and boundless wood;
And torrents dashed and rivulets played,
And fountains spouted in the shade.

Those grateful sounds are heard no more,
   The springs are silent in the sun;
The rivers, by the blackened shore,
   With lessening current run;
The realm our tribes are crushed to get
May be a barren desert yet. [p. 67-68]

In The Prairie, his second environmental novel which was published in 1827, James Fenimore Cooper built on Bryant's poem, and pondered the fate of an America seemingly bent on destroying itself. The Prairie is set in the barren plains of Nebraska in 1804, just after the Louisiana Purchase had acquired for America the vast grasslands beyond the Mississippi River. But the prairie of the novel is not a realistic place; rather, Cooper uses the idea of the prairies to forecast the future of the America whose wasty frontier customs he had described, and deplored, in The Pioneers. As Cooper describes it, the treeless plain of Nebraska is unfit for human habitation, except for wandering tribes of Indians. Natty Bumppo, now an ancient and decrepit old man reduced to trapping for a living, has crossed the continent to the Pacific Ocean and returned, and early in the book he says of this wasteland:

"I often think the Lord has placed this barren belt of Prairie, behind the States, to warn men to what their folly may yet bring the land!... And yet the wind seldom blows from the east, but I conceit the sounds of axes, and the crash of falling trees are in my ears." [p. 24]

When a scientist, Dr. Battius, argues that the desolation of the prairie cannot have been caused by man, because there are no ruins of ancient cities as in Egypt and the Holy Land, Natty responds that this is only because this man-made desert is so much older that even the ruins have fallen into dust:

"They are gone. Time has lasted too long for them... [The cause of] these changes on the face of the 'arth itself, and for this downfall of nations...is their morals! their wickedness and their pride, and chiefly their waste that has done it all!... I have lived long...and I have seen much of the folly of man; for his natur' is the same, be he born in the wilderness or be he born in the towns.... Now if man is so blinded in his folly, as to go on, ages on ages, doing harm chiefly to himself, there is the same reason to think that he has wrought his evil here, as in the Countries you call so old." [p. 240]

As for himself, Natty has fled the waste and destructiveness of his fellow Americans, to seek the wilderness, but everywhere the axes of the choppers have followed him. "I had heard," he says, "of these vast and naked fields, and I came hither to escape the wasteful temper of my people." [p. 213]

How will it end? Natty's conclusion, as given by James Fenimore Cooper, is not a hopeful one:

"What will the Yankee choppers say; when they have cut their path from the eastern to the western waters, and find that a hand, which can lay the 'arth bare at a blow, has been here, and swept the country, in very mockery of their wickedness. They will turn on their tracks, like a fox that doubles, and the rank smell of their own footsteps, will show them the madness of their waste. Howsom'ever, these are thoughts that are more likely to rise in him who has seen the folly of Eighty seasons, than to teach wisdom to men, still bent on the pleasures of their kind!" [p. 76]

So concluded James Fenimore Cooper in 1827. 175 years ago he tried to teach his fellow Americans the three principles that generations later have come together to form the environmental movement: that our natural resources are not inexhaustible; that natural beauty, wilderness, and wild creatures and plants must be preserved; and that failure to heed nature's warnings may spell our own destruction.

America accepted these principles only gradually. Beginning after the Civil War, we began to be concerned about the exhaustion of our natural resources and the depletion of our forests. In the 1890's, the wilderness movement was born, and with it the development of our National and State Parks and a concern for the preservation of wildlife. After World War II, we began to listen seriously to influential books like William Vogt's Road to Survival and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, that called attention to the threat of a polluted world turned to barren desert. Perhaps the generations of American readers who read The Pioneers and The Prairie did finally learn from them. In any case, James Fenimore Cooper, tried hard to warn us.

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