- Witnessing the Wilds of Early America
In October 1812, when John James Audubon, his seven-months-pregnant wife, Lucy Bakewell, and their infant son were returning on the Ohio River to their home in Henderson, Kentucky:
The autumnal tints already decorated the shores of that queen of rivers, the Ohio. Every tree was hung with long and flowing festoons of different species of vines, many loaded with clustered fruits of varied brilliancy, their rich bronzed carmine mingling beautifully with the yellow foliage, which now predominated over the yet green leaves, reflecting more lively tints from the clear stream than ever landscape painter portrayed or poet imagined. … Leisurely we moved along, gazing all day on the grandeur and beauty of the wild scenery around us.(OB 1: 29)
In this essay, entitled "The Ohio," he goes on to depict the natural beauty and original bounty of a vast wilderness as yet undiminished by the increasing [End Page 553] number of "emigrants, from distant parts, in search of a new home" (31): "The margins of the shores and of the river were at this season amply supplied with game. A Wild Turkey, a Grouse, or a Blue-winged Teal, could be procured in a few moments; and we fared well, for, whenever we pleased, we landed, struck up a fire, and provided as we were with the necessary utensils, procured a good repast."
Published in 1831, "The Ohio" is an early work of American nature writing and just the sort of portrait of the original wilderness he called on Walter Scott to create five years earlier, when he himself was yet incapable of it. During his December 12, 1826, evening journal reverie, alone and far from home in Edinburgh, Scotland, he called on the writer he most revered at that time with an emotional plea:
Oh, Walter Scot, where art thou? Wilt thou not come to my Country? Wrestle with Mankind and stop their Increasing ravages on Nature & describe her Now for the sake of Future Ages—Neither this Little stream—this swamp, this Grand sheet of Flowing Watter, nor these Mountains will be seen in a Century hence, as I see them now. Nature will have been robd of her brilliant charms—. … Oh, Walter Scot, come, Come to America! Sit thee here. Look upon her and see her Grandeur now. Nature still nurses her, cherishes her, but a Tear flows in her eye, her cheak has already changed from the Peach Blossom, to sallow hue—Her Frame Enclines to Emaciation, her step is arrested. Without thee, Walter Scot, unknown to the world she must Die.
He wants Scott to make a record of the beauty, "her brilliant charms," and the grandeur of the American wilderness he had lived in for over twenty years before articulating this plea. But the result he hopes for is extraordinarily unrealistic: to "stop their Increasing ravages on Nature." Read literally, this is a call for a cessation of at least the unsustainable settlement activity in the Ohio River Valley. (He also temporarily entertained an unrealistic belief in the power of nature writing to change settlers' behavior: the phrase "& describe her Now for" was originally in the manuscript journal "by describing it for," implying that Scott's wilderness portrait might move settlers and land developers to restrain their more wasteful and destructive ways [1826 Journal 443n348.1].) Thus, in 1826, Audubon, one of the most experienced witnesses of American wilderness, already registers the conflicted feelings of many Euro-Americans toward the natural beauty [End Page 554] of North America: they are drawn to it and love it but must diminish it to live their lives in it.