- Historic Sites
The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
No. White civilization’s salvation here in the Americas, its chance for a spiritual regeneration through the confrontation with newness, would have been to accept and understand the Indians: to appreciate their unique, often beautiful adjustments to their lands of living. And regeneration might also have come through a selective borrowing of aboriginal cultural traits, especially habits of mind, most especially that crucial humility before the vast space of the continents, and a sense of the fragile interconnectedness of all life. Furthermore, a mingling of the races might in time have produced a truly new race considerably unlike the one that Crèvecoeur and countless others never tired of claiming we already were.
In fact, examples of such mingling do exist, not in folklore but in history. They exist in the captivity tradition, and in those dread, cautionary tales of vanished expeditions.
Cabeza de Vaca, one of the four survivors of that fantastically bungled Narváez expedition of 1527, wrote what might be the first New World captivity narrative. In it he told in sparse words of survival during eight years of wandering, and of slavery and starvation among the tribes of the Gulf Coast. And yet well as such a narrative might have served white ends, it seems clear that de Vaca’s redemption occurred some time before he re-emerged into the light of civilization in 1536. You have to look carefully for it in his Relación addressed to “His Sacred Caesarian Majesty,” Charles v. But it is there, as Haniel Long divined it in his interlinear companion to the Relación . For this man and his companions survived that eight years sojourn by transforming themselves from conquistadores into healers. They started out indiscriminately murdering the natives and laying waste the landscape, and were reduced at last to eating the putrescent corpses of their own dead. Later, however, the men moved among the tribes as life-bringers, life-enhancers. And once they had accomplished this transformation, the closed thickets and dense marshlands of the wilderness opened as if by magic. The whole country opened, revealing to their startled eyes complete tribes singing their praises, dancing their arrivals and departures. Unwittingly and perhaps even against conscious intention, de Vaca and his companions had tapped the uncharted spiritual reservoir of the New World, insuring their way through what would otherwise have been impenetrable hostility. Where once they would have been met by arrows, now they were greeted with offerings of food.
And so, by the time de Vaca and his companions reemerged out of the interior darkness of the wilderness into the light of Nueva España , they had become convinced of something few of their countrymen would have been prepared to see: that the Indians like the whites were children of one Great Spirit. Not many years after this the Spaniards would hold a full-dress debate at the royal court at Valladolid where this proposition was actually the issue, though as Lewis Hanke writes in his account of that remarkable cultural phenomenon, a decision was never rendered. Here in America in 1536 such a notion of spiritual brotherhood could not even have been a question, for as de Vaca and the others stepped out of the woods they saw their countrymen at their accustomed work, driving a slave coffle through a ruined landscape that had once been home.
Then, too, beneath the bones of the legend of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, still popularly assumed to have been butchered to the last infant by Powhatan’s savage henchmen, we can also glimpse what might have been.
When Governor John White finally returned to the forbidding coasts of Roanoke Island in 1590, three years after having gone back to England for supplies, he ordered a trumpet sounded across the water to the island in the agreed-upon signal. But its tinny echo went lonely and unanswered. Some English airs were then struck up on deck, their foreign sounds sent toward the only bit of land on that whole, huge coastline where they could hope to strike familiar ears. Nothing.
When they finally could get ashore through the heavy swell, they found the sure signs of destruction, desolation: an empty palisade, discarded boxes and cases, muskets with their locks rusted into inutility, books busted open and swollen as if infected by the land with some fatal disease. Nothing else but the deeply incised letters on the palisade: CROATOAN .
But on that nearby spit, there was nothing, either, and now the full, horrid gloom of the wilderness seemed to swoop down about the searchers: the wilderness, its savage inhabitants, had swallowed whole and without trace this entire colony of civilization. Sickened and terrified by this, White weighed anchor and turned his back on such a land, and at that moment the Lost Colony entered legend as one of those grim, cautionary tales that powerfully conditioned succeeding efforts at settlement.