Odd Wisconsin Archive
Henry Thoreau claimed that "In wildness is the preservation of the world".* It's also true, though, that in wildness lies the destruction of civilization. This reflection struck young James Doty after he'd canoed and hiked from Detroit to Minnesota in the summer of 1820. Doty was stopping at a remote fur trading post on Sandy Lake when he noted in his diary,
"I very much doubt whether the desire to accumulate wealth could ever so strongly predominate in me as to induce me to forsake the pleasures, the comforts, and elegancies of civilized life for a residence in this dreary wilderness where men generally suffer their passions to go at large so totally unrestrained that they fall far below the savages with whom they associate."
As soon as wildness was accompanied by a shortage of food or water, primitive passions replaced romantic sentiment; "preservation of the world" quickly took second place to survival of fittest.
In the winter of 1680-81, the explorer LaSalle left a party of French craftsmen in central Illinois to construct a fort. Marooned in the wilderness and not knowing if their leader would ever return, they mutinied. One day while LaSalle's lieutenant was visiting a nearby Indian village, they packed all the portable food and supplies, destroyed the boat they'd been building, burned down the new fort, and before disappearing into the forest scribbled a parting message -- "We are all savages."
As we sit on the deck of our northwoods cottage sipping a gin and tonic while the July sun sets, or cruise the lake in comfort with a light hand on our Evinrude, it's easy to romanticize wildness. Every yodeling loon or silent bald eagle seduces us into thinking nature will redeem our corrupted souls. And it may.
But when the loon's cry of a midsummer night was replaced by the howl of hungry wolves carried on shrieking winter winds, people tended to feel differently. Then wildness seemed to say, "every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost."
:: Posted in Curiosities on July 15, 2008