2. Envisioning Restoration: Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924)
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42 2 Envisioning Restoration Gene Stratton-­ Porter (1863–1924) I enter a swamp as a sacred place — ​a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature.  — ​Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.  — ​Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Inversnaid” Gene Stratton-­ Porter’s prescient appraisal of midwestern ­ environmental history informed her work as naturalist, photographer, novelist, and conservationist . Her lifelong aesthetic and spiritual appreciation for nature was deepened through a keen awareness of ongoing ecological decline. Born in 1863, she witnessed the escalating pace of landscape change on the edge of settlement and development in Indiana at the end of the nineteenth century. The trajectory of her career progressed from reverence for verdant wetlands to lament for destruction of such vital habitat. The disruption of the region’s natural ecological communities awakened in her an environmental consciousness that gave rise to a commitment to stewardship. Single-­ handedly, she set out to document the immense biodiversity surrounding each of her own two homesteads. In the process, she was moved to advocate for preservation of the region’s native species, culminating in the reintroduction of plants on her property known as Wildflower Woods — ​a monumental undertaking that resembled Aldo Leopold’s 43 Envisioning Restoration: Gene Stratton-­ Porter­ legendary experiment restoring ravaged farmland along the Sauk River a generation later. While much of her writing seems to constitute an ode to an older order, taken as a whole her life’s work anticipated many of the tenets of modern ecology. Still, her contribution to American nature writing and ecological thought — ​especially the ethical imperative of preserving the biodiversity of species — ​ has yet to receive the level of recognition it deserves. Biographers such as Judith Long go as far as to compare Stratton-­ Porter’s contribution to conservation to that of her contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, who lauded her achievement as an advocate for the preservation and restoration of natural landscapes.1 She is arguably a seminal figure in midwestern nature writing by virtue of her keen appreciation of environmental history, and is widely credited with influencing subsequent generations of environmentalists, including Rachel Carson.2 Like American nature writers from Thoreau to Leopold, she advocated conservation through preservation  — ​ as well as restoration through the reintroduction of indigenous species. Beyond acknowledging that the natural world provides us with material sustenance, she championed the spiritual benefits of nature, echoing the sensibilities of Transcendentalists she admired, and even ascribing a divine presence to what she deemed wild. In fact, the ele­ vated tone of lyrical passages in her novels and essays alike conveys reverence , even suggesting that she perceived nature as sacred.3 Her personal creed might well be likened to the following ideals expressed at the close of Walden: Our village life would stagnate if it were not for unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need a tonic of wildness.... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor.4 She believed time in the natural world to be profoundly restorative — ​a potent remedy for physical illness as well as emotional distress — ​and hoped that her writing might inspire readers to discover the solace of nature for themselves. Nature, she suggested, might even be likened to an educational institution of the highest order, teaching us moral values. She subscribed to a founding principle of the Nature Study Movement:5 contact with nature provided balm for the maladies of modern, industrial living. In fact, 44 Nineteenth-century Artist–Naturalists she incorporated elements from the educational movement into A Girl of the Limberlost, while characters in novels such as The Harvester attributed virtues such as caution, courage, and patience to childhood experiences in the natural world. Moreover, she sought through her own devotion to nature — ​ like many of her contemporaries during the Progressive Era  — ​to contribute to the ethical and spiritual development of children while re-­ instilling cherished national values such as independence and self-­ reliance. By helping to popularize a proto-­ ecological perspective, Stratton-­ Porter’s writings contributed to a growing public awareness of environmental history — ​ and served as a precursor to...


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