- Historic Sites
The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
It is an expression of neither neoromanticism nor twentieth-century primitivism to remark that by contrast the mythologies of aboriginal America counsel acceptance of the natural world, wild or cultivated, and that though often in the presence of a newness that was terrifying, the aborigine was apt to find his salvation in surrender rather than in resistance. That, of course, is the essence of their myths of culture heroes, those men and women who set their faces and their steps away from the camps or towns, who went into the wildernesses of other worlds wherein they found themselves and so found the gods and their secrets of living. These myths, so central to the lives of the tribes, had their everyday analogues in the puberty rites and in the vision quests of individuals. In these, the questers faced their inner anxieties in isolation, drawing support and strength from their traditions which told them how spiritual triumph must come from within.
In this connection I have for some time been drawn to a myth of the Iroquois, that six-nation confederacy that has so much to tell us of the virtues, the high excellences, of the American aborigines, as it does also of the blackest depths of the human heart where cruel vengeance waits for release. In the tribal past, these fierce lords of the north woods probably practiced cannibalism, but they also had marvelous theories of dreams, grand statecraft and statesmen, and artistry in their beautiful embroidery. And this:
Once there was a young hunter lost in a snowstorm in the woods. Blinded by snow-flakes and darkness falling through twisted tree trunks, he stumbled into the yet deeper blackness of a sheltering cave to wait there for light and the end of the storm. But suddenly out of its deepest recesses came the confused sounds of a demon: sounds of a singing stream suddenly changed to the mad tumble of a cataract; soft and then mournful sighs of wind. And then a huge, cavernous voice spoke to the awed hunter crouched at the cave’s entrance. He had chanced into the abode of the last of the Stone Giants, cannibalistic predators who in the mythic past had all but destroyed the Iroquois with their carnivorous raids but who had themselves been destroyed through the intervention of Ta-hahia-wa-gon, Upholder of the Heavens. All but one. This one had crept away to this cave of desolation to live on in acts of monumental destructiveness, rearranging the Allegheny landscape in his fits of abandoned passion. None had seen him and lived to tell of it, for his very glance would turn one to stone. And yet the words he now spoke to the lone hunter, the words booming out of impossible depths, were not a death sentence but instead words imbued with life.
I shall spare you, the giant said, for I know you have come here in trouble and not to kill. And therefore I shall teach you great secrets. “From here you will go forth, free to live with the animals, the birds, and the fish. All these were your ancestors before you were human, and hereafter it will be your task to dedicate your life to their honoring!” The Stone Giant sent him on his way with these words:
It is perhaps impossible to make too much of such a narrative, for its fellows are found in the traditions of tribes all over the Americas, witnesses to the majesterial beauties, the tones, tempers, and moods of two vast and unscarred continents.
And yet these same features caused the newcomers to fear and resist this New World, its flora and fauna, and its inhabitants who succeeded—God knew how!—in living apparently unaided in the very heart of wildness.
Another fear must be added which is not primitive, only misguided—the betrayal of history. By this I mean that any real acceptance of the New World, any acceptance of the aborigines’ independent existence, or, far worse, any desire to merge, mingle, marry the New World and its inhabitants—any of these attitudes or desires—were nothing less than surrenders to the temptations of the wilderness. Thus they had to be seen as betrayals of God’s plan for human activity. They were betrayals of thousands of years of civilization, reversions from the path of history (that is, the record of the achievements of Western whites) into the jungle of pre- or anti-history.
And so no more loathsome object could be imagined in this New World phase of civilization’s triumphant march than an individual who seemed to have surrendered to the call of the wild, to have met the New World on its turf, not on the geography of Europe.