Bachelor of Arts
Peter J. Betjemann
Raymond Carver, Alaska
It has often been remarked that the writings of early American nature writers have led to current day environmental protection, and individual nature writers (such as John Muir) have long been connected to American environmentalism. In Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement, Daniel J. Philippon points out, "In at least five separate cases, a nature writer was prominently involved in the formation and development of an environmental organization," and goes on to give the examples of Theodore Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett Club, Mabel Osgood Wright and the National Audubon Society, John Muir and the Sierra Club, Aldo Leopold and the Wilderness Society, and lastly, Edward Abbey and Earth First!
Despite this, not all critics view the American early environmental movement as entirely benevolent. In Nature's State: Imaging Alaska as the Last Frontier, Susan Kollin argues that the discourse of early American environmental consciousness is closely connected to the discourse of American imperialism and expansionism, all of which were concurrently occurring. Kollin comments, "the environmental discourse shaping Alaska cannot be separated from the nation's larger expansionist concerns and its historical development." And a little later on, she writes, At the turn of the century, however, a movement also arose that expressed concerns about the proper uses of that national landscape. During this period, frontier discourses helped shape environmentalist rhetoric, and ecological projects became closely linked to U.S. expansionist enterprises. Further, Kollin posits that "nature tourism" (visiting places for their natural scenery, not for their urban life) is closely tied to imperialist sentiments, explaining "Alexander Wilson points out that in hindsight these nonindustrial uses [i.e. setting land aside for national parks] have largely turned out to be tourism, an activity that shares much in common with the imperialist adventure by advocating an "unquenchable" appetite for the 'exotic' and 'unchartered.'"
Taking a third view, this essay will argue that the language of early writings about the Alaskan natural world (focusing on ones by John Muir and Septima M. Collis) were not only purely environmentalist or imperialist, but rather, early nature writings seem to employ the language of distance and disconnection between man and nature. This vocabulary (one that often uses certain aspects of the traditional sublime convention to highlight the purity and vastness of nature) is not restricted to the two writers discussed. After all, just as it is inevitable that writers will use the language of their culture in their writing, it seems that Collis's and Muir's representations of Alaskan nature very much reflect the values and attitudes of late 19th century America.
Silberblatt, Renata Perri, "What's Really in Alaska?" (2005). Honors Papers. 470.