It is astonishing how much damage humans have done to America in some 400 years. Vast forests have vanished, and concrete creeps over everything. Too many people, too much greed and heedlessness. And it is only getting worse. Now not only have we lost much of the natural environment, but the climate is also going.
One cannot help pondering that when reading the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman
(1821-1873), particularly his And Change with Hurried Hand. He is not as “poetic” a writer as those generally found in the standard anthologies, and I would be surprised if most of you have even heard his name. He has that “Victorian” sound in his verse, but with a touch of wildness to it. I will discuss it in parts, but we may begin by saying that Tuckerman looks at the landscape surrounding him and realizes how greatly it has changed. Imagine how astounded he would be to see what has become of this country in our much later time!
And change with hurried hand has swept these scenes:
The woods have fallen, across the meadow-lot
The hunter’s trail and trap-path is forgot,
And fire has drunk the swamps of evergreens;
He tells us that change has all too quickly altered the landscape. The trees — the forest — that once was there is gone; there is no more hunter’s trail, no animal path along which to lay traps, and the evergreen-filled swamps that once were there are gone, dried up as their trees were lost to fire; whether by “burning over,” or whether the trees were cut for fireplaces, he does not tell us. But we know that many swamps –like the Limberlost in Indiana (once covering some 13,000 acres) were lost because their trees were cut for lumber, and others were deliberately burned over and drained. It has taken many generations for humans to begin to appreciate the need for natural wetlands.
Yet for a moment let my fancy plant
These autumn hills again: the wild dove’s haunt,
The wild deer’s walk. In golden umbrage shut,
The Indian river runs, Quonectacut!
He tries to imagine the place as it once was: the hills golden and red and brown with vast autumn forests; wild doves in the trees, wild deer stepping along their trails. And through banks shaded by trees golden with autumn runs the river as it was — an Indian (Native American) river with an Indian name — Quonectacut. This is the Connecticut river that rises near the Canadian border, and flows south through New England and through Tuckerman’s own Massachusetts, emptying eventually into Long Island Sound. But to the original inhabitants it was Quonectacut — “The Long River.”
Tuckerman continues imagining the landscape as it was:
Here, but a lifetime back, where falls tonight
Behind the curtained pane a sheltered light
On buds of rose or vase of violet
Aloft upon the marble mantel set,
Here in the f0rest-heart, hung blackening
The wolfbait on the bush beside the spring.
“But a lifetime back” — Only a human lifetime before, there was no house with its marble-mantled fireplace. its “Victorian” furnishings and its curtained windows letting in a few rays of light to shine upon rose buds or violets set in vase atop the mantle. Instead of the house, there was only the deep, shadowed heart of the ancient forest, and among the trees a spring beside which stood a bush holding bait (meat) to catch or poison wolves — an odd and unpleasant, but effective, way of conveying in words the wildness of the land at that time.
The speed of change that once seemed rapid to Tuckerman has now gained a dizzying pace, requiring constant adjustment on the part of humans who once saw little change in centuries.
I sometimes think what an amazing place North America must have been when Europeans first happened upon it. Seemingly endless woodlands and grasslands, great herds of bison, flights of birds that would darken the sky in passing.
The Salinas Valley, about which John Steinbeck wrote so eloquently in the beginning of his novel East of Eden, holds some of the finest agricultural land in the West. Now, however, its water table has been polluted with artificial fertilizer nitrates, and each year more and more of the valley is covered in housing developments and shopping malls.
It is appalling to read what humans are doing to the earth for money. Radioactive pollution of water, air and soil from nuclear energy, and now fracking, which shatters subsurface rocks and disturbs and pollutes the water table to toxic levels. One could go on and on. But the really sad thing is that humans continue to behave as though consumerism is not an ever-increasing self-destructive spiral, and they continue to treat the natural world, in our oil and gas addicted society, as if it is merely something to be utilized and turned into cash by any means possible, and not the very source of our existence and our only means of survival.