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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Summertime Wildness


Now that summer's undeniably here at last, most of us head for the outdoors. Whether it's a cottage up north or a tent in a state park, we turn to nature to restore our souls. This is why Henry Thoreau claimed that "in wildness is the preservation of the world."

But it's also true that in wildness lies the destruction of civilization. Far from the restraints of society, many of our ancestors found their fear, greed and licentiousness ran unchecked. The crudeness of fur traders depressed 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."

And as soon as supplies of food or water ran low in the wilderness, primitive passions replaced romantic sentiment. Thoreau's notion of wildness as the "preservation of the world" quickly yielded to survival of fittest.

For instance, in the winter of 1680-8, 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 to leave behind -- "We are all savages."

As you sit on the deck of that northwoods cottage sipping a gin and tonic, or cruise the lake with a light hand on the 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 on 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 June 19, 2013
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