header
Credit:

Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition

After closing the back cover of Aaron Sachs’ new book, Arcadian America, a reader will most likely struggle to find a category in which to place it. Is it a straightforward environmental history of the nineteenth-century United States, an intellectual history of developmental traditions in ante- and postbellum America, a condemnation of our present post-capitalist commercialism, or a memoir that examines Sachs’ own relationship to mortality? Arcadian America dallies in each of these themes, but refuses to be bound by niche compartmentalization; pages veer off to discuss paintings, literature, philosophy, and ghost stories. Sachs’ work breaks the standard “academic book”-mold and attempts to create a holistic image of early environmental thought in America that, he believes, should animate our current view of man’s place in nature. Antebellum environmental thinkers, whom Sachs terms “Arcadians,” sought to find “repose” in nature, a replenishment of the soul in direct contrast to the burgeoning market revolution that gained momentum around them. But Arcadians did not intend this repose to take place as infrequent sojourns; instead, they viewed the wilderness/civilization divide as non-existent. Humans could exist and thrive in wilderness, and in fact would lose their identity if they strayed from their natural roots.  

Central to Sachs’ argument is the prominence of death and cemeteries in early American environmental thought. Rather than marking a real-world demarcation between life and death, cemeteries, as envisioned by antebellum environmentalists, emphasized the rhythms of the natural world. Sachs studies Mount Auburn, the Boston-area antebellum cemetery, in depth, both in text and with his own boots. The cemetery’s planners envisioned families wandering through the wooded copses, finding opportunities for reflection and relaxation among the headstones, trees, and ponds. Interspersed throughout the historical narrative, Sachs’ own search for the grave of a brother who died in infancy adds immediacy to the text. Humans possess a desire to remember the dead, and the juxtaposition of the Mount Auburn planners’ conceptions of remembrance and the modern cemetery where Sachs finally discovers his brother’s grave helps drive home the striking shallowness of modern society that he portrays.  

Sachs charts the geographic borders of the Arcadian ideology running from New England to the Hudson Valley. Traditionally viewed as the home of American philosophical transcendentalism and literary romanticism, the region also marked the first wellspring of the American industrial revolution. Intellectuals and artists witnessing the rapid changes to both society and nature that the advent of market-based lifestyles inaugurated rejected what they saw as brash commercialism and the loss of community identities. One of the heroes of Sachs’ narrative, Andrew Jackson Downing (native of Newburgh and America’s original landscape architect), envisioned communal parks as a democratic locale, a reinforcement of the Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian republicanism, simply updated for the age of steam engines and the Erie Canal. Washington Irving and Thomas Cole added their artistic talents to the intellectual fervor, using pen and brush to create a world in which nature’s power manifested itself in landscapes of headless horsemen and blasted trees.  

And yet surrounded by the life-giving and soul-rejuvenating bounty of nature, death still interwove itself through the Arcadian ideal. Downing developed landscape plans for cemeteries in the Hudson Valley, while Irving contemplated the death and afterlife of Native Americans and Cole’s last painting centered on a cross-shaped headstone in the midst of a storm-roiled scene. Throughout his work, Sachs focuses on what he terms the “border region,” the murky metaphorical region between life and death, civilization and wilderness, and community and individual. Rather than a place to avoid, Sachs and the thinkers he focuses on find inspiration in this gray place-in-between. An observer of nature’s awesome power and redemptive grace, Sachs sees himself as part of a Cole painting, standing just outside the tree line, yet still dappled by its shade.  

Arcadian America’s longest chapter, “Stumps,” is also its best, a heartrending sojourn through war, death, and transformation. Having made the case that American Arcadians viewed wilderness as redemptive, Sachs portrays the Civil War’s Battle of the Wilderness as representative of the scar the conflict created in the nation’s psyche. The war’s industrialized violence ruptured the relationship between man and the republic’s natural world. Stumps, represented through both felled trees and felled men, symbolized the sublimation of nature’s power over the new American touchstone of progress. Paintings of the expanding western frontier no longer contained the aforementioned “place in-between.” They were replaced by acres and acres of stumps as homesteaders, attempting to put the war behind them, moved to dominate nature through hard work and technological improvisation. The war’s physical scars, the missing limbs, necessitated a new call-to-arms, as an upsurge in prosthetic advances evinced another form of progress in the postbellum era. Where man had damaged nature, be it to tree or man, he possessed the new-found ability to reform it to his own predilection.  

Always present amidst the text, death and cemeteries played a key role in the near-demise of the Arcadian mindset. Death during the Civil War became less a point in the natural rhythms of life and more a schism of loss in American society. The antebellum search for repose through the contemplation of death became transformed, as those that lost loved ones sought to understand and conceptualize death to assuage their loss. No longer did planners of towns and villages see cemeteries as integral to the communal dynamic of these spaces; they moved them to the periphery of the burgeoning burgs on the disappearing western frontier. Gone are the cemeteries that incorporate natural elements, like Mount Auburn; in its place, one finds the stark white headstones and grid patterns of rationalized progress. Sachs spends a large amount of his narrative in cemeteries, and he contrasts the welcoming natural spaces with the coldness of modern burials. By charting his experiences with life and death, Sachs pulls the reader into his own narrative, detailing the trauma of aging and birth in his life alongside his intermittent wanderings to placate guilt and redeem his soul.  

The book concludes with biographical studies of Gilded Age torchbearers of the Arcadian tradition. Rather than searching for the figurative border regions from generations before, they instead proposed land reform, denounced natural-resource exploitation, and decried income inequality. The book’s latter portions feel more formulaic and depend on the drama in Sachs’ life to move the narrative along. He does reserve the book’s last few chapters to reach the bombastic heights of commercialist criticism that he hints at in the book’s introduction. Sachs makes it clear that he sees the present day as a clear extension and grim caricature of the immediate postbellum era and its disavowal of the Arcadian ideal. The modern world’s rejection of death as an ever-present reality, need for immediate commercial satisfaction, and lack of a cultural foundation that unites the natural world with the human all signify the alienation of the modern American from the world around her.  

Arcadian America wanders much like the walks that Sachs describes in his book. As he meanders, so does the reader, moving from page to page through centuries of time and thought. Rather than a thesis-driven exploration of a particular idea, era, or theme, Sachs’ work feels like a journey, but not one taken by the reader. Instead, as one turns the pages, they have the sense that they are being allowed to tag along with the author as he plumbs his inner psyche and external relationships. For someone whose waking thoughts seem to be consumed with death, Sachs seems like a generally likeable companion. For those hoping to read about early American environmentalism, Arcadian America will provide the opportunity as long as they have the patience to contend with the author’s own life and rambling hikes. The better audience would include readers starting their own spiritual journeys or contending with loss in their own lives. Either way, Arcadian America offers more than just a glimpse into days gone by. It’s also a look into the future and, if you allow it, into your soul.

 

-- Andrew J. Forney, United States Military Academy

 

edit