- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Where am I going? Usually to the next small airport, to park my rented car amid the acres of shimmering metal, to check my bags with Ozark or Comair or Skywest or Precision, to thank the dentured desk clerk for the return of my ticket, to emplane through Gate 1, to take seat 22F, to listen to the pilot confide intelligence about height and speed, to hear the door close, to watch the brown grass accelerate past the porthole, to see the water tower and high school football field and insurance skyscraper and freight yards and highway interchanges of Harrisburg or Madison or Tallahassee or Buffalo or Wilmington dropping away behind me, to detect the aircraft reaching cruising height in the great, continental, horizonless, cloud-flecked blue, and then to sink into the dream of American domestic aerial travel. I like, I positively crave, the undeviating sameness of America from the air. It is what America is about; it is the story of America.
For the American landscape that creates the flight of dream across its endlessly unfolding, neat, and productive geometry is the most rapidly constructed large artifact in the world. It is not, at close hand, beautiful as the English landscape that surrounds the village in which I live is beautiful. England really is a garden, whose beauty never ceases to entrance me, and I find nothing like it in the United States or Canada, where the seasons are too harsh, the hands of humans too few to give the landscape that temperate, trimmed, frost-free, succulent look and feel that pluck at English heartstrings. American hedges are rough, field boundaries straggle, woodland is choked with the debris of years of fall and rot, grasses are slow to green and lie long sere and yellow; under the microscope the American countryside is coarse and unkempt. It is from a distance, above all from an altitude, that the beauty of the landscape asserts itself, comes into focus, demands a response from the onlooker. The response I make is simultaneously aesthetic and historical and mystical. Mystical because, like the aerial photographers who have discovered the Mexican dust drawings too large to have been executed by any earthbound eye, I wonder how the haphazard work of farmer and forester can have combined to construct the work of art that the American landscape is; aesthetic because that landscape is a great work of art, a perfectly modulated pointillism of sepia and umber and ultramarine and viridian and ocher and auburn and sable and cobalt and Payne’s gray that alters with the play of sunlight and varies with the change of season but never, even under snowfall, loses its form and subtlety; historical because I know that every straight line, mathematical curve, sharp edge, softened gradient, flattened contour, raised hollow, rectilinear rivercourse tells of the effort of people’s labor on the face of the continent. It is impossible to re-create in the imagination what England must have looked like before the forest went four thousand years ago; it is impossible in America not to feel the power of the forest or the desert or the rivers lurking at the edge of what people have wrought, watching for a moment of inattention or a relaxation of effort, waiting to return.
Over the years the drama of the American landscape has ceased to be simply a spectacle. It has awoken in me a powerful and continuing curiosity in what it means for what I do. I am a military historian. Rivers, mountains, forest, swamp and plain, desert and valley and plateau: these are the raw materials with which the military historian works. In constructing a narrative, in charting the movements of armies, the facts of geography stand first.
It is not accidental that Champlain, the founder of French Canada, was a skilled mapmaker or that George Washington, the victor of the War of American Independence, was by profession a surveyor who had recorded the topography of wide areas of the backcountry over which he was later to campaign.
So when I look now at the American panorama from thirtyfive thousand feet, before my conscious mind unrolls a running list of speculations and questions. They are, I know, the same sorts of questions soldiers always ask in unfamiliar country. I continue to seek answers on the ground. How, I asked an interviewer as we sat in the offices of the Toronto Globe and Mail , with Lake Ontario under our gaze, did it connect for navigation with Lake Erie, since Niagara Falls was the natural waterway between the two? The Weiland Canal is the answer, but he did not know and neither then did I. Where is the South Pass through the Rockies, the gateway to Oregon and the Northwest, whose discovery opened settlement in the early nineteenth century? I thought I identified it from an airplane on a flight to Seattle, only to be told that it is so inconspicuous wagonmasters often missed it on the ground.
All these conundrums of intercommunication, still so difficult for the individual to solve from hazy memory of exact and available information, were total and almost impenetrable mysteries to the pioneers. They were solved only by dangerous and half-blind ventures into the great American forest, by laborious boat journeys up uncharted rivers, running rapids, portaging past shallows, by unguided voyages across lakes as big as seas, by pack trailing over into the featureless and apparent infinity of the Great Plains. Finally and miraculously, when the pieces of the jigsaw had been cut out one by one, they had been assembled into the man-made wonder of settled America. It is the most stupendous achievement of military as well as human history.