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Investigating America’s Environmental Experience

Updated on September 7, 2016

American Landscape

The American landscape has undergone profound environmental changes. Parallels between the changing landscapes and the evolutionary ideas of preservation and conservation among people from different backgrounds are evident when investigating America’s environmental experience. These two counterparts are observable when examining the known historical stances taken among different groups that have inhabited the United States during the last several centuries. These include:

 Native Americans = Preservation.

 Colonists = Nature is something to be feared or conquered.

 Colonists = Modern wilderness movement (nature preserves life).

 Conservationist / Preservationist (modern sustainability).

Native Americans

A glance into Native American spirituality and their cultural norms is essential to appreciate the indigenous peoples’ attitude regarding the landscape of the United States. Native Americans were gathers who lived off the land migrating with the seasons and the herds that they hunted. Robert Marshall’s “The Problem of the Wilderness” is able to give insight into just how untouched Native Americans had left their landscape after an incalculable amount of time. He writes, “…the wild animals still browsed in unmolested meadows, and the forests still grew and moldered and grew again precisely as they had done for undeterminable centuries”(Marshall, 1930). Native American culture did not endorse the use of land for any reason other than to live in moderation for purpose of sustainment. Overall, the indigenous people of the United States were able to live off the land without transforming its landscape for quite some time. It is unclear if the Native Americans would have used the term preservationist to describe themselves, but in fact, that is what they were.

Moreover, Native American literature gives an ominous account of the years that followed the first settlers’ arrival in the United States. Eventually, Native Americans were evicted off their land and sent to reservations. Chief Seattle gave a speech in which he spoke about the Wests’ quest for individualism and the irreversible manipulation of nature and the landscape of the United States. This speech unarguably came from Native American cultural norms that are based upon the all the elements of the Earth. For instance, the definition of Native American spirituality is, “A system of beliefs that is based in nature and the Earth, rich with the symbolism of seasons, weather, plants, animals, earth, water, sky, and fire, with an overarching principle of an all-embracing, universal, and omniscient Great Spirit” (Weizmann, 2012).



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Remarkably, after countless eras of preservation the transformation in American landscape did begin. This can be marked by the colonization of Jamestown during the early 16th century. The first settlers began land transformation through means of clearing forests and cutting back grass lands. Rather quickly, land was utilized for agricultural purposes. Existing Native American foot trails were widened adequately to accommodate the horse and wagon. Soon animals were being slaughtered and trapped for their furs, great trees were cut and used for ship building and molasses was traded in the Caribbean for slaves from Africa. The molasses and slaves were then taken by sea to the colonists in America where the slaves worked the land and molasses was made into rum. One of the reasons that slavery became prevalent in the United States was because of the need for laborers to work in the agriculture fields. Eventually, the colonists made their way west settling territories in much the same manner that Jamestown was established. This includes invasive actions such as:

  • Deforestation

  • Agriculture

  • Infrastructure

  • Commerce shifts to the forefront with the triangular trade.


Colonists’ Modern Wilderness Movement (nature preserves life)

Eventually, another attitude did arise among the colonists, preservation. Arguably, this outlook can best be described by Thoreau. He wrote, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world” (Thoreau, 1862). It is obvious when one reads “Walking” that Thoreau is disenchanted by the landscape of the land. He even tells the audience, “I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village” (Thoreau, 1862). This is an opposite attitude from the early colonists who were fearful of the wilderness and its’ wildness. Similarly, Robert Marshall considered nature to be a habitat which could fulfill mankind, too.

Conservationist / Preservationist (modern sustainability)

Ultimately, the United States became industrialized. The Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on land transformation in the United States. It has created a need for statutes such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Conservation, and Liability Act and numerous other laws. These laws are needed due to a lack of socially responsible leadership by leaders (public and private), community members and individuals.

Furthermore, focus on the preservation or conservation of Earth is essential today. Some schools of thought may even suggest that attitudes, conservationist and preservationist, have similar goals or an interconnectedness that makes them closely related. It is a certainty that the American landscape will never resemble the wilderness it once was before colonization took place; however, with the help of conservation and preservation perhaps the landscape will not perish all together. Feasibly, change will occur and facilitate the restoration of diversity among the many threatened ecosystems and biospheres.


Evans Boddy. (2012). The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Kelly, Martin. (2012). Triangle Trade.

National Geographic Education. (1996-2012). Native American Collection

So That We Are Better Able. (2012).

Weizmann, Limor. (2012). Environmental Foundations and Principles.

Word Press. (2012). Pioneer homestead, Chatham.


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