October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
Few people have had so productive, so passionate, or so reckless a relationship with the land as we Americans. And we are what we are in good part because of that experience.
In the beginning the land was about all we had. It tested our courage and endurance, and gave scale to our ambitions. For a long time it provided nearly everyone with what used to be called elbow room, and men are alive still who remember when there were blank places on the map, spaces marked “unexplored.” What that meant in terms of the human spirit on this continent we may never fully appreciate.
But the land has also housed us, clothed us, and fed us better than any people in history. And it has given us power. If at times we fell to thinking of ourselves as a people specially blessed, perhaps we were not being altogether unrealistic, when one considers the natural heritage we had to work with.
In return we have celebrated our feelings for the land in countless songs and stories. We have drenched it with our blood and with the blood of those who had it and loved it in their way before we came along. We have raised institutions in its name. We have endowed its rivers and mountains, its lakes and plains and forests, with our most powerful myths, our most treasured values, and with the ghosts of our heroes. Huck Finn’s kind of freedom is forever part of the Mississippi. Lincoln forever haunts the prairie.
But of course that is only part of the story. For again and again, out of greed or indifference or plain stupidity, we have squandered resources, defiled and destroyed, and moved on. The land was so rich, so abundant, so very good, we believed, that there was just no end to its capacity to produce or to recover from our mistakes. “There’s always more where that came from,” we said, about almost everything. And often we were right, or so it seemed in any one man’s lifetime.
Now, however, in the last third of the twentieth century, we are thinking differently. Our prodigal waste, our burning and bulldozing, our poisoning of air and water, our mindless interference with the vital life cycles of plants and animals, are catching up with us. While our productivity and prosperity grow steadily, scientists keep warning of a terrible day of reckoning. Time is running out, they say, unless we mend our ways. But those of us who live and work in cities, which means a vast majority of us now, need do little more than take a deep breath to be reminded that things are not as they should be. As any thoughtful person realizes, we Americans and our land have reached a stage of crisis.
And it is with this in mind that AMERICAN HERITAGE has decided to add a special new department, to appear regularly in each issue. It will start in December, our fifteenth-anniversary issue, and will be called “The American Land.” Indeed, we sample the kind of thing it will do on page 52, by publishing excerpts from the diary of the great explorer of the Colorado River, Major John Wesley Powell, along with superb photographs by Eliot Porter.
Much of what we will be taking up in the new department will be in the cause of “conservation”—as long as it is understood that the word no longer means quite what it vised to. For while we will have much to say on the subject of conserving the wonders of our natural heritage, we will also be concerned with the restoration of the total environment. We intend, therefore, to confront such vital issues as water contamination, air pollution, and overpopulation.
Our approach very often will be by way of history, but it will be what might be called ecological history. We plan, for example, to describe such major historical events as the Dust Bowl, and we will tell the story not only in terms of its great human interest but also as a classic case study of an ecological backlash. We will be doing much the same with more recent tragedies, such as the Donora, Pennsylvania, smog of 1948 or the California oil spill of this year.
From issue to issue we will be writing about a number of fascinating people who have not been mentioned much in history books, but whose understanding of the environmental facts of life or whose forecasts of the future are only now being fully appreciated. Our scope will include the colorful, sometimes stormy, history of the conservation movement itself—its politics, economics, and significant controversies, past and present.
That we begin this new section at the close of the 1960’s seems particularly fitting. For future historians will doubtless point to this as the time when man first travelled far enough toward the stars to see with his own eyes his earth-home whole: a mere speck in space, but still his only home and the only source of life that we know anything about.
That man, if he is to survive, must solve the problems he has created here on earth is clear enough. Whether he will or not nobody knows. But we are confident the decision is still his.
Fifteen years ago this fall, when we were working on the very first issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE , Bruce Catton set forth an editorial faith that we still stand by. It reads in part:
… history after all is the story of people: a statement that might seem too obvious to be worth making if it were not for the fact that history so often is presented in terms of vast incomprehensible forces moving far under the surface, carrying human beings along, helpless, and making them conform to a pattern whose true shape they never see. The pattern does exist, often enough, and it is important to trace it. Yet it is good to remember that it is the people who make the pattern, and not the other way around.
We believe the American people have the will and the wherewithal to shape the pattern of their environment and to make of this land whatever they wish. We also believe that an understanding of what has gone before, the mistakes made, the experience gained, will be important in that process. And we think that as historians concerned for our total heritage we should raise a standard to which men of good will may repair.