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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

Beauty & Death on the Upper Fox

Editor's Note:

Rev. Marsh here expresses two radically different attitudes toward nature that were just then coming into conflict in the American mind.


He first praises the beauty of the prairie and admires the varieties of wildflowers that grow spontaneously on the banks. In this passage, he expresses a romantic view of wild things that was only then beginning to enter people's consciousness. He even reflects on the restorative effect that this had on him, an idea that would culminate in the writings of Henry Thoreau ("in wildness is the preservation of the world") and Wisconsin's own John Muir.


But in almost the same breath he portrays nature as a hostile adversary to be tamed -- "where none except savage beasts and savage men have for generations dwelt" -- which is a how his Puritan ancestors had conceived of the wilderness that surrounded them in New England. Nature, to them (and obviously to him, in some moments), was something evil to be tamed and conquered.


The hill with the spring a few miles up the Fox from Omro would appear to correspond with a similar location described by Jesuit priests more than 150 years before. Fr. Jacques Marquette passed through the same vicinity in June of 1673 and wrote, "on approaching Machkoutens, the Fire Nation, I had the curiosity to drink the mineral waters of the river that is not far from that vil-
lage." The spring and nearby hill where a large Indian town existed from about 1660-1700 are a few miles southeast of the modern village of Berlin (map).


Mon.[day, June 16, 1834]

As we passed up the river in some places saw beautiful Prairies covered with rank grass, and groves of woods scattered here and there in rows, as tho' planted there by art. -- In others, the banks were lined with flowers of various hues, and in the course of a few rods could count as many as four or five different kinds. These much relieved the weariness which I shoud otherwise have experienced in consequence of traveling this, a wilderness, where none except savage beasts and savage men have for generations dwelt.


At length we came to a hill about the foot of which was a fine spring. Upon the top of this I found bones, apparently human, thickly scattered over the ground, and a place where some wild creatures had dug up a body and devoured it. The bones and clothing lay scattered around the grass, presenting a truly shocking appearance-- it seemed to be indeed a hill of death...


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