Early Christian Perspectives on American Nature: The Dissenting Views of James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper

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Early Christian Perspectives on American Nature:

The Dissenting Views of James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper

By Alfred Kentigern Siewers, Bucknell University

[Given 10.24.11 to the Nature, Philosophy and Religion Society of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Philadelphia]

James Fenimore Cooper’s five novels of the Leatherstocking Tales (The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers and The Prairie), and his daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper’s book of nature-writing Rural Hours, both featured the headwaters of the Susquehanna River at Cooperstown, NY, the Leatherstocking Tales in arguably the two most important novels for the series, The Deerslayer and The Pioneers. The Pioneers has been called by scholars America’s first environmental novel, and Rural Hours has been hailed as the first book of nature-writing by an American woman. Together they left an influential legacy for early American views of nature, yet an alternative perspective often neglected in recent times. Their environmental legacy from the start was out of sync with American views of technological progress, manifest destiny, and an emerging transcendental approach to wilderness that ironically helped to enable environmental destruction. That the Coopers’ writings reflect a traditional Christian worldview, and a conservatism not identifiable on our current political spectrum, also helps to explain their relative obscurity in current environmental discourse. But there are three reasons today that impel a re-reading of their combined legacy in light of environmental criticism: 1. They expressed a philosophy of nature emphasizing the integrity of human culture and physical environment, a central issue today in a time of rapid global urbanization on an unprecedented scale. 2. In focus on the flora and fauna of the Cooperstown area they exemplified lessons about environmental experience now highlighted by the emerging field of ecosemiotics and its effort to bridge the gap in scholarly studies between work on human symbolism of all types and attention to the physical environment. 3. Their writings suggest bridges between Christianity and environmentalism sought particularly by many people of faith and also many environmental activists in the United States today.

On the shores of Otsego Lake, one can see how both Cooperstown and the lake form the National Register historic district called the Glimmerglass Historic District. The District uniquely follows the imaginary geography of the elder Cooper’s Leatherstocking series and the viewshed related to it, in which Glimmerglass is the fictional peri-contact name for the lake as a mirroring confluence of sky, water and forest. The Mohawk name Otsego variously translates “rock place,” “rendezvous place,” and “welcome water.” All those meanings, together with the metonymic “Glimmerglass,” sum up the role of the lake as a clearing reflecting the sky and forest, and as the headwaters of the Susquehanna with its fmeeting rock at the outlet of the river, immortalized in the Leatherstocking Tales. Looking over the miniature finger lake and hearing of the historical district based on fictional landscape, one experiences a remarkable example of overlay landscape in American culture. The entwinement of imaginary and physical geographies as a landscape marks many indigenous cultures--the Dreamtime of Australian aborigines, the Otherworld of the Celts, landscape as story in Haudenosaunee traditions of Lake Onondaga also in upstate New York, bowdlerized by Longfellow. Yet even the story of Creation in the Hebrew Genesis tells of Paradise as lying among four major Near Eastern rivers. Likewise the elder Cooper’s Glimmerglass emerged from Native traditions and early Insular Christian traditions, as well as from the physical landscape itself.

Of Glimmerglass, Natty Bumppo, the Leatherstocking, asks in The Deerslayer, “Have the governor’s, or the King’s people given this lake a name? If they’ve not begun to blaze their trees, and set up their compasses, and line of their maps, it’s likely they’ve not bethought them to disturb natur’ with a name.” The lake has no official name because it hasn’t been set down on any official map yet, his companion Hurry replies. “I’m glad it has no name,” responds Natty, or, at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always fortell waste and destruction.” Hurry explains that each Indian language has different vocabularies and names for places, but adds that for his network of friends “we’ve got to calling the place the Glimmerglass, seeing that its whole basin is so often fringed with pines cast upward from its face, as if it would throw back the hills that hang over it.” As Hurry and Deerslayer move across the lake their canoe “lay on the glassy water, appearing to float in air, partaking of the breathtaking stillness.” And “The echoes repeat pretty much all that is said or done on the Glimmerglass, in this calm summer weather.” (pp. 534-5). The Glimmerglass stands as mirror, window and clearing for the coming together of earth and sky in the forest, and of mortals and immortals, to use Heidegger’s four terms for the encounter with place as an experience, for regioning as ontological that we can hear imagine in a geographic overlay as well.

Natty is to meet his Native American friend Chingachgook at the outlet of the Susquehanna. “Has that no Colony name yet?” he asks of the river. Hurry replies, “No doubt, Deerslayer, you’ve seen the Susquehannah, down in the Delaware country?” “That have I, and hunted along its banks a hundred times.” “That and this are the same in fact, and I suppose the same in sound. I am glad they’ve been compelled to keep the red men’s name, for it would be too hard to rob them of both land and names!” “Deerslayer made no answer, but he stood leaning on his rifle, gazing at the view which so much delighted him. The reader is not to suppose, however, that it was the picturesque alone, which so strongly attracted his attention. The spot was very lovely, of a truth, and it was then seen in one of its most favorable moments, the surface of the lake being as smooth as glass, and limpid as pure air, throwing back the mountains, clothed in dark pines, along the whole of its eastern boundary, the points thrusting forward their trees even to nearby horizontal lines, while the bays were seen glittering through an occasional arch beneath, left by a vault fretted with branches and leaves. It was the air of deep repose, the solitudes that spoke of scenes and forests untouched by the hands of man, the reign of nature, in a word, that gave so much pure delight to one of his habits and turn of mind. Still, he felt, though was unconsciously, like a poet also. He found a pleasure in studying this large, and, to him, unusual opening into the mysteries and forms of the woods, as one is gratified in getting broader views of any subject that has long occupied his thoughts. He was not insensible to the innate loveliness of such a landscape, either, but felt a portion of that soothing of the spirit which is a common attendant of a scene so thoroughly pervaded by the holy calm of nature.”

Natty experiences the lake as iconographic relationship, mirror and window, echoing both native and early Insular Christian beliefs influential on the fictional cycle. Scott L. Pratt in his book Native Pragmatism outlines the influence of Woodlands Indian ethics on Euroamerican culture in four areas: First the Iroquois notion of orenda or power infused in nature, second the Algonquinan wunnégin, a kind of landscape orientation of openness toward many points of view on the same multiplicitous “nature”; third, a logic of place, involving making judgments based on context rather than from theoretical matrices. And fourth, the logic of home, as a result of displacement of Indian nations, adapting the logic of place to changed physical situations. Taken together these four aspects of indigenous worldviews lie behind a tradition of native overlay landscape influential on the elder Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Their author found them echoed in accounts of Indian cultures by John Heckewelder, a Moravian Christian missionary and Cooper’s primary source for northeastern Indian cultures.

The mainly positive take on Indians by the Moravians expressed by Heckewelder also points elsewhere to patristic Christian roots of the overlay landscape. The Moravians in their late medieval roots in central Europe shared Trinitarian and ascetic orientations with early Irish Christian writers. The latter helped shape the Insular tradition of the overlay landscape known as the Celtic Otherworld, which influenced the so-called “green world” tradition in early English literature from Chaucer to Spenser and Shakespeare, on to the Burkean sublime and Romantics like Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott, many influential on Cooper. In the Leatherstocking Tales, diverse cultural semiospheres, or meaningful cultural environments such as Iroquois and English cultures, overlap within shared ecosemiospheres or eco-regions, such as the Eastern Woodlands, Great Lakes and Prairie. Those ecosemiospheres for Cooper in turn overlapped in and shared a Creation infused by God’s gifts, or what church fathers called uncreated energies. “Many gifts but one nature,” Natty Bumppo said. This proverbial saying was type and shadow of the cosmology of the Leatherstocking Tales, in which creation’s many gifts or energies find their source in a mysteriously apophatic nature or essence of God. The divine is experienced by personal relationship with His energies. The relative openness of the Moravians to native culture and their awareness of the importance of storytelling in landscape (in the form of journaling) related to the Trinitarian and ascetic sense of cosmological relationships they shared in part with early Insular traditions.

One famous illustration of the Celtic Otherworld was the sense of the sea as a spiritual realm. This was expressed in the Hiberno-Latin philosopher John Scottus Eriugena’s ninth-century work on nature, with its adaptation of writings by the Greek church fathers St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory the Theolgoian, and St. Dionysius the Areopagite. The image of the desert as a spiritual sea to early Christian ascetics in the East transferred to the sea in the British Isles. Later, in the Middle English and Elizabethan periods, partly under Welsh influence, this textual imagery of the spiritual Otherworld transferred to the countryside generally and ultimately more specifically the forest in works such as The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Nights Dream. The elder Cooper frequently quoted Spenser and Shakespeare in chapter epigraphs to the Leatherstocking Tales and was hailed as the American Scott. His work clearly reflected the influence of what Northrop Frye called the English literary green world with its older origins in the Celtic Otherworld. Those again meshed well with the author’s interest in Moravian Christian traditions explicit in the Leatherstocking Tales, and his background in a meld of Quakerism and traditional Anglicanism. Much of The Pathfinder, for example, describes the forest as a sea infused as creation by gifts or energies of the divine, and a similar sense of the Great Lakes as reciprocally mirroring this image of the forest-sea. Both express an overlay of spiritual gifts and creation. The strong triadic emphasis in the Trinitarian theology of the early Irish, as with the Moravians, emphasized a sense of energy in nature rather than the Scholastic sense of analogy; the non-filioque Trinity in the theology of Eriugena and the Moravians finds a modern secular echo in ecosemiotics as an alternative to Saussurean semiotics.

Indeed, poetic overlay landscape, laying imaginary geography onto physical environment, reflects developments in the contemporary field of ecosemiotics. Ecosemiotics studies the interrelation between human culture and physical nature and grew out of biosemiotics, which developed primarily around the Baltic in the 20th century. Biosemiotics seeks to redefine the definition of life as the making of meaning and exchange of information. In doing so it echoes earlier Christian patristic views, sometimes called “pansemiotic,” of the cosmos as constituted by logoi of the Logos, or uncreated energies of God, associated with the words of the Word or harmonies of the Harmony, or stories of the Story (depending on the translation of logos). The notion of the physical world as a kind of unfolding iconography or iconographic book heavily bases both the Leatherstocking Tales and Susan Fenimore Cooper’s nature-writing. It is implicit also in notions of experientially reading nature in Indian cultures familiar from Heckewelder and other influences on James Fenimore Cooper, in which ideas of the manitou of the Manitou show some parallels to patristic Christian pansemiotics. The key is that the sense of energy or gift amid the experience of symbol and environment forms a personal relationship including the participant reader/audience in landscape. This is a bit different from emphasis on analogy as the basis for cosmology found in Scholasticism and even later in Emerson’s “Nature” (although not always completely separate in spirit).

The Estonian ecosemiotician Timo Maran explains the interaction of overlapping cultural semiospheres within overlapping physical environments or ecosemiospheres through his concept of “nature-text.” A nature-text, or landscape narrative that flows across text and physical geography, involves a four-aspect relationship of author, reader, environment and text. The concept draws on the nineteenth-century American Charles Peirce’s semiotics, which itself shows parallels to both Native and early Christian thought. Peirce’s model of the sign included environment, as what he termed object, as an element in the semiosis or the making of meaning through signs. Rather than seeing the exchange of meaning as bifurcated between signified and signifier only, in arbitrary internalized meaning, as in Augustinian-derived and Saussurian semiotics, Peirce’s model thus opened up semiosis as including relationship with physical environment, a triadic rather than a binary model of the sign. It involved Sign or text, environment or Object, and what Peirce called Interpretant, which is the equivalent of Maran’s elements of reader and author combined in a landscape tradition.

We see this semiotic model of Peirce’s exemplified by overlay landscape itself. For example, in the Leatherstocking Tales, there is the Text of the stories, the environment or Object of the physical geography of Otsego Lake and related regions, and the imaginary landscape tradition of Glimmerglass, the imaginary geography melded with the physical environment as Interpretant. Peirce’s triad echoes the notion of the Trinity without the filioque found in both Moravian and early Insular texts, in which, following a recent commentary, “the word proceeds from the mind according to the meaning.”

Susan Fenimore Cooper also shaped an overlay district based in Christian cosmogony, drawing in part on themes and insights from her father’s writing, but especially on her own entwined reflections on the eco-region around Otsego Lake and on nature as enveloped in the divine. The central metaphor of her Rural Hours is that of the garden. She encourages horticulture and related biblical practices such as gleaning as building community. She writes that “gardening is a civilizing and improving occuption in itself…it usually makes people more industrious, and more amiable….. But another common instance of the good effect of gardening may be mentioned:--it naturally inclines one to be open-handed” (81). Her account of the cycle of seasons around Lake Otsego entwines references to the Bible, her Anglican Christian faith, and related holidays, with meticulous descriptions of the flora and fauna that engage pan-American and trans-Atlantic botanical and zoological discussions. In this she reflects the patristic and pansemiotic approach of seeing the symbolism of information-energy infusing Creation with meaning. She explicitly approaches ecosemiotics in her discussion of how study of God’s Word in scripture can combine with experience of springtime in Creation to uplift the sorrowful heart. She compares this to the illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, of old, and remarks that “when the previous Book of Life has been withdrawn from the cloisters and given to us all, as we bear its sacred pages about in our hands, as we carry its holy words in our hearts, we raise our eyes to the skies above, we send them abroad over the earth, alike full of the glory of Almighty Majesty,--great and worthy illuminations of the written Word of God.” She takes the narrative overlay landscape of her father, which as a kind of chronotope included both the “wilderness” past of Otsego Lake and its later settlement, and relates it to contemplation of the everlasting.

Susan Cooper’s detailed concern with the cultivation of place relates it to the cultivation of the heart in earlier Christian asceticism, in which the desert could be both wilderness and garden of the heart, and by extension community. Indeed, her life as unmarried founder and director of an orphanage, in tandem with being a pious Episcopal parish member, bespeaks a dedication to sacred calling that makes it possible to think of her as a quasi-Anglican monastic in an era and region with no such available vocations. Her concern with gardening in an integrated physical and spiritual sense reminds us of the image of the “garden of the heart” discussed by Fr. Alexis Trader in his recent book on points of contact between patristic Christian psychology and modern secular cognitive therapy. Trader ponts out how the image of a garden symbolizes a deep-structural renewal of the human person, as discussed and experienced by patristic writers, and modeled by Christian ascetics. In the words of Gregory of Nyssa, amid the incarnational grace of Christ redeeming humanity and ultimately Creation, “The soul becomes a garden, in the likeness of paradise, [but] not neglected and open, as in the time of Adam” (250). Likewise the sixth-century Byzantine monk John Moschus referred to the spiritual life as The Spiritual Meadow abloom with examples of spiritual lives. A section of Susan Cooper’s description of summer explicates the biblical story of Ruth, celebrating Ruth’s homely and communitarian practice of faith as related to the idea of gleaning—how a community can share its gifts of horticultural bounty through the participation of all working together as best they can. Her vision of the garden, integrating town and wilderness, emerging from her father’s Christian sense of the overlay landscape related to native traditions, provides a fundamental alternative to American divisions between city and country, culture and wilderness. The alternative is different in both regionalism and kind from views of nature exemplified by the Unitarianism of an older contemporary of her father’s, Joseph Priestley farther down the Susquehanna at its middle confluence, or in New England Transcendentalism by Thoreau’s Walden. Rather than needing to go into the laboratory like Priestley, or to live in the woods like Thoreau, to find nature and herself, the Trinitarian Susan Cooper in her work celebrates both garden and the churchyard as relational icons of engagement of Creation and the human soul with divine energies in the sense of Moschus’ spiritual meadow. In discussing Ruth, she in effect asks: Why is there not in our rural landscape, as in the biblical account, the symbiotic relation between those with too much, who do not over-harvest their fields, and those with too little, and who work to participate in the harvest of the God’s gifts in creation, through gleaning? She advocates for that community of people and countryside, which she sees expressed in horticulture, while simultaneously celebrating the devotion to extended family and personal relationships that she highlights in Ruth’s life.

The Coopers’ legacy influenced the formation of America’s National Parks and conservationism. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was inspired in his youth by reading the Leatherstocking Tales in connection with camping in the Adirondacks. Later as governor of New York he established the Adirondacks park that became a prototype for the National Park system. But by that time views of wilderness had become involved in the same secularization as American Pragmatism. John Muir would cross out God in some of his writings and replace them with nature to make them more acceptable to scientists and philosophers of his day. And based in the Discovery Principle of legal sovereignty, the National Parks emerged as government-owned wilderness apart from human community, removing Native communities from them. The Christian ascetic impulse in American responses to nature evident in the Coopers became obscured by service to technology in which wilderness figured as a transcendental abstraction. In the service of American progress, Mark Twain’s Injun Joe became a dominant literary image of native people, and the river journey of landscape, rather than the heroic Chingachgook succeeded by Susan Cooper’s devotion to horticulture in rural countryside from her village orphanage. The Coopers’ perspective as literary gentry became identified with contemporary American conservatism, while having really no equivalent in it today.

The contrast is worth noting between the legacy of the Coopers at the Susquehanna headwaters, with conservation and historic preservation measures based in part on their narratives have helped shape a thriving integration of human community and rural countryside, and the situation downstream. Interestingly a key aspect of conservation, preservation and community efforts at the headwaters was the intersection of the Clark Foundation with interest in overlay landscape of the Coopers, the Clark family having made its fortune from the Singer sewing machine, a kind of personal craft aspect of industrialization whose scale one imagines Susan Cooper would have approved.

At the midpoint of the Susquehanna, at the river’s confluence of main and west branches, similar landscape conservation and preservation efforts are only just now beginning, inspired in part by rediscovery of Moravian accounts of early landscapes and cultural exchange with Native peoples in the eighteenth century by my colleague Katherine Faull. These efforts build on new concepts of National Parks, a proposed historic corridor involving Native Americans integrally in planning. At the confluence, the foundational Euroamerican literary figure Joseph Priestley had a concern less with the natural environment and more with his laboratory and with doctrines of millennial progress more in syc ultimately with American dreams of manifest destiny than the Coopers’ pessismism. The mid-Susquehanna became a thriving artery of industrialization, now suffering a post-industrial slump and rediscovering its history and its river.

The overly landscape of the Coopers’ approach to the environment offered by contrast to mainstream American narratives of development a non-ideological, incarnational, and personally spiritual approach to nature, which emphasized relationships. It was pragmatically rooted in traditional spirituality that informed both Native American and Christian cultures and the emergence of American Pragmatism. But as that Pragmatism severed from the earlier traditional contexts evident in the Coopers’ writings, and joined with a technological worldview, it arguably became less successful in interactions with the environment. In their writings, the Coopers still offer a traditionalist yet dissenting view in the stories of American environmental history.

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