- Historic Sites
The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Regarding this spiritual map, it seems useful to think of Freud and Jung, both of whom hypothesized that the radical experiences of a people’s far past could be encoded within the minds of succeeding generations—though, of course, Freud could not accept Jung’s theory of how such inheritances might be transmitted, preferring “memory traces” to Jung’s “collective unconscious.” Yet whatever these great minds’ theoretical disagreement, it appears in this regard at least that the general thrust of their speculations is unassailable. Looking at Western civilization’s historiography, cartography, iconography, and folk traditions during its Middle Ages, it seems clear that Westerners were critically, crucially unprepared for the looming encounter with the New World—unprepared by their very preparation. The experiences and the reactions of the old desert peoples, of the Greeks, of the Romans and their encounters with the savage tribes of Germany, the fenny landscape of Britain—all this had entered the mind and marrow of Western men, preparing them, captains and spear-carriers alike, to resist the New World and its inhabitants, insisting fiercely that every newness be made over into an older image or else be obliterated.
As just one example, though a crucial one to be sure, of what is meant here, let me mention the mental phenomenon of the Wild Man of the Middle Ages as he is described by Richard Bernheimer in his book of that title.
This hirsute figure of medieval folklore is a direct descendant of those ancient, shaggy satyrs and night demons who haunted the uncharted spaces of the mind of the Near East, and his image was strengthened in the folklore of Greco-Roman writers and their disciples, the early Christian cosmographers. The Wild Man, like the satyrs and demons, lived far from the light of civilization, lurking amidst the twisted shadows of the European outback. His life therein was so brutish as to be all but animalistic, and like the animals he was free of restraints and trammels, so free as to be insane. He had no knowledge of the True God—which is just a more precise definition of insanity—and he was darkly sexual in intention and inclination, desiring nothing so much as to carry off the fainting white maiden to his woody lair and marry her (in Bernheimer’s euphemistic description). So large did this figure loom in the imagination of that time that his presence can be discerned in places as various as French romances, German minstrel songs, the words of Spenser and Cervantes, the tops of love caskets, on stove tiles, tapestries, candlestick holders, and drinking cups.
His significance here is simply this: that shocking and depraved though he is, bestial as may be his behavior, yet he bears some terrifying relationship to civilized man. Thus he must be either civilized or murdered.
Of course, it is clear now that the Wild Man was but the imaginary precursor of the very real American aborigines, and the spring festivals of a Europe as yet ignorant of those it would style “Indians” are dark with the promise of real capture and real genocide: for in them the symbolic pursuit and killing of the Wild Man prepares the way for the advent of spring itself. In a grotesque parody of primitive seasonal rituals, the civilized Westerner here paid unwitting tribute to his inherited belief that the death of wildness meant also the regeneration of life. The joyous dance of triumph over the remains of the Wild Man becomes the civilized analogue of the loathsome scalp dance.
Speculations such as these lead one almost inescapably to the conclusion that the truest way to regard the whole phenomenon of discovery and conquest here in the Americas is as a clash of mythologies. It is for this reason that the New World’s first major historian, Flemish engraverpublisher Théodore de Bry, remains so significant a source of information about those first moments when whites stumbled across something they were not looking for. De Bry’s engravings are crammed with the iconography of sixteenth-century Christian mythology. For example, in his justly celebrated engraving of Columbus on his first voyage out, the explorer’s feet are planted resolutely on the planks of his ship, itself the culminating artifact of over a century of accelerated technological ingenuity, and he is shown armed with the other artifacts—the charts, armor, guns—that would make discovery and conquest possible, and armed also with the West’s accumulated mythology, which would make conquest and destruction inevitable. In the setting history provided de Bry there is nothing really contradictory in the appearance here, on the flag the Admiral holds, of the Christian savior hanging from the cross of our regeneration, and the sea nymphs and sea monsters, the satyrs and griffins, who dance in the cross-hatched waves. Though there is nothing in the attitudes of these mythic figures to indicate a resistance to newness, yet in the posture of the Admiral himself there is a resoluteness, a settled sternness that could know nothing of surrender or even of humbled acceptance. Perhaps de Bry invests his central figure with the attitude he sensed in his civilization, or perhaps he simply had the. benefit of a century of hindsight (the engraving appeared in 1594) and knew already how it had turned out with the New World, knew how perfectly appropriate it had been to have had this stiff-necked Genoese lead the first shocking assault upon those unsuspected, unsuspecting shores.