Unsettled Territory

This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent BY Daegan Miller. University of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $30

In nineteenth-century America, the word progress signaled limitless expansion and domination: Manifest Destiny was in full force and Americans rushed to exploit the country’s seemingly endless natural resources. In This Radical Land, landscape historian Daegan Miller returns to the era when this idea of progress first took shape. He gives us intriguing counterexamples, writing a history of forgotten communities that advanced a radical vision of what humans’ relationship to the land could be: One defined not by exploitation but by sustainability and interdependence. Surprisingly, it’s a definition that is seemingly in opposition to today’s environmental movement, which largely holds that nature should remain unblemished. Miller’s study is not just a historical counternarrative, then: It’s also a way of thinking about the contradictions of modern environmentalism, of asking whom the movement serves, what ideas are allowed, and who is marginalized.

Miller begins with an unexpected example, detailing Henry David Thoreau’s lesser-known work as a land surveyor. The Walden author spent his days marking the trees along the Concord River in Massachusetts. Thoreau had been hired to settle a land dispute, but he delivered a seven-foot countermodern map that pictured the factory—dotted Concord “teeming with life and human usage.” Miller explains that “what separated Thoreau from many of his politically radical peers was his insight that free trade and slavery, the mill and the factory, territorial expansion and offensive war and demoralized rivers, all were rooted in a peculiar kind of landscape.” Miller then turns to the work of photographer A. J. Russell, who was hired by Union Pacific to document the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Like Thoreau, Russell fulfilled the needs of his employer while also capturing, according to Miller, “a raw current of resistance” in his photos. He composed these images so that the railroad line was contrasted with “a landscape that swallowed up its inhabitants in infinite space and drowned them in deep time.” Manifest Destiny presupposed an unruly landscape needing to be tamed and replaced with bustling commerce. The “jarring and strange” photographs instead prized “stasis over motion, stillness over noise . . . isolation over society,” and revealed deeper truths about progress.

Miller’s most compelling examples are histories of collective communities. In the Adirondacks, black pioneers settled 120,000 acres of abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s land, which came to be known as “Timbuctoo.” The plan—created by Smith and endorsed by Frederick Douglass and John Brown, who settled nearby—was to create an alternative to the racism, poverty, and violence that defined black life in the north. While the 1840s antislavery settlers did echo the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, there was an important twist: Though they cleared the woods and worked the land, “their vision of a proper human role in nature was fundamentally different from what the promoters of Manifest Destiny meant when they fantasized of forests falling to amber waves of grain.” Instead, the settlers created a sustainable, equitable community, where, Miller writes, “everything and everyone lived on a level wide open to the sun, awash in an evergreen breeze.”

A similarly idealistic community, the Kaweah Colony, consisted of a few dozen radicals who lived among the Sequoias in California and took inspiration (and their name) from the Native Americans expelled from the region by white settlers. “The idea was to create a space completely different from the capitalistic, competitive arena of the gladiatorial free market,” Miller explains, “one that integrated work, leisure, and living, and which allowed for the fullest development of each individual even as it fulfilled the social needs of security, health, and industry.” These devotees of Karl Marx pursued a vision in which wealth came from living inter-dependently with nature. To conservationists of the time, who preferred to view the land as something to be “saved,” this was a novel and disturbing idea. The colony was displaced when Congress created Sequoia National Park. Although the ostensible goal was to conserve the land, Miller sees a more nefarious aim. “The motive behind the enlarged Sequoia National Park was not preservation at all—or rather, it was,” he writes. “Preservation of the Southern Pacific’s wealth; preservation of capitalism.”

The legacies of both Timbuctoo and Kaweah are almost entirely forgotten today. Miller blames this historical erasure on the revisionism of early white environmentalists, who collapsed “all notions of wilderness into one single idea articulated by a single, homogeneous group of Americans.” This way of looking at the natural world has long distanced the white, upper-middle-class environmental movement from marginalized communities—a problem that persists today. Though the histories in This Radical Land took place long ago, the era’s conflicted ideas about preservation, sustainability, and progress still confuse the debate over just what our relationship to nature should be. Under the Trump administration, offshore drilling has been heavily deregulated and the boundaries of national monuments have been redrawn with little regard for either ecosystems or people. But while the environmentalist movement is quick to protest offshore drilling, it often struggles to respond to labor and social-justice issues. Native Americans have been especially vulnerable to the administration’s changes, with the Interior Department passing policies that could contaminate their water and give them less control over their territory. But their desire to responsibly use the land, rather than admire it from afar, seemingly leaves them at odds with some preservationists working against the Trump administration. Miller and his essay subjects remind us that we might do better to focus on the human side of these disastrous policies rather than to frame the natural world as a pristine and untouchable place.

Rebecca Leber is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She is a reporter for Mother Jones, and has written about environmental issues for the New Republic, Grist, and other publications.