The Terror of the Wilderness


Most people who have reflected at all upon the known history of the Americas, particularly North America, have been impressed one way or another with its dominant quality of fierceness. After that early, first blush of paradisial imaginings, stained by the lush colors of the tropic islands and the defenseless peoples found thereon, a somber mood of misgiving settled over the questing Europeans, filtered their perceptions, filtered at last into the bleached bones of their accounts of exploration. This was not paradise after all, but a tangled, hostile wilderness which had to be savaged to the extent that it was itself savage.

By the time of the establishment of the English colonies it was simply standard to describe America as a “fierce and howling wilderness” peopled by the skulking, interchangeable forms of wolves and savages, and it is not the mere tribute of chronological antiquity that has made William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation a classic of our literature: Bradford’s narrative bristles like a wilderness itself with the adjectival reactions of a civilization’s enraged, baffled disappointment with the lands it had found. What could they see, as Bradford so rightly asks, “but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men?” No solace to be had from such lands, such peoples, a whole country “full of woods and thickets, represent[ing] a wild and savage hue.”

Later observers, coming after Bradford, after the settlements had been perilously established, then defended, and finally extended ever deeper into the wild gloom, remarked not only on that gloom but on the fierceness of the settlements and the settlers themselves. Astonished Britishers and Frenchmen described the wild haste and abandon with which these New World pioneers pursued their work as well as their sports, bolting gigantic quantities of steaming food, draining flagons of fiery punch or rum. Before the spectacle of New World civilization the representatives of the Old flinched in awe.

And then, of course, there was that fierce hand-to-hand combat always joined on the edges of the settlements, the combat with the vast, untamed wilderness itself. Foreign observers and American witnesses alike were astonished by the incredibly rapid transmogrification of a Stone Age landscape into that of a “civilized” nation—as Westerners had come to define that: settlements almost monthly hacked out of seemingly endless groves of timber; raw, palisaded stockades and cabins; towns hammered together on rolling grasslands like some ghostly precursors of instantly assembled movie sets; and, finally, in what Lewis Mumford has so rightly termed the ultimate assault on the natural world, the continent’s rocky bed blasted and quarried; rivers dammed and bridged; railroad ties laid and clinched.

In addition, while all of this was changing the face of the continent, there was the ongoing, fiercely unremitting struggle with the aboriginal inhabitants, who resisted with equal ferocity the white incursions into their homeland.

All of which is now a commonplace assumption of our cultural heritage. We accept as natural our fierce history and its manifest consequences—our landscape, our popular heroes and sports, even our current position as gunrunners to the arsenals of the world.


Like so much else in the history of the West this response to the New World and its aboriginal inhabitants is in part the bequest of Near Eastern antiquity. Living their hard, narrowly marginal existence in an environment that gave so little, and that but grudgingly, those ancient desert peoples naturally developed an abiding notion that Nature was in itself hostile to man’s efforts to live. Particularly was this so of the seminomadic herdsmen whose deep ponderings and parched, leathered yearnings gave vent to the sacred traditions that were to be the spiritual lifeblood of Western civilization. Beyond their small settlements, their water, shade trees, and arable, improved land, lay darkness, dry desolation, death. Thus Genesis , which commences our spiritual history, dramatizes the adversary relationship of man and environment: man placed in a paradise strongly suggestive of a Mesopotamian walled garden and ordered to subdue his natural surroundings and establish dominion over them; man punished by expulsion from the lush garden into the inhospitable, threatening outer world where only sweat can mean bread. And thus also throughout the Old Testament—particularly in the Pentateuch where the mythology’s basic creed is stated—wilderness is consistently used as a metaphor for spiritual decay, the darkness of nonexistence beyond the Lord’s way, death itself: the Scapegoat, bearing its intolerable burden of collective guilt, is sent to the wilderness, that wilderness itself out of which the Lord will deliver His people into the light and life of His protection. When Moses speaks to the nation, huddled on the plains of Moab and poised for an attack upon the pagan Canaanites, he reminds them that their God, His way, is life and civilization, all else wilderness, for it was the Lord who found Jacob in a desert land,

and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.