VISIONS OF PARADISE by John Warfield Simpson


Glimpses of Our Landscape's Legacy
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A well-conceived if sometimes plodding essay in the role of the landscape in American history. Writing in the tradition of Donald Meinig, J.B. Jackson, and other proponents of what might be called the environmental-determinist school of history, Simpson (Architecture and Natural Resources/Ohio State Univ.) explores changing ideas of nationhood as the US grew west of the fall line. The original colonial world, he writes, was one of forests and rivers, and the land outside the cities and well-tended fields was, “for most Americans, a dark, fearful, unholy place” full of Indians and dangerous beasts. That view came to be transformed by the acquisition of new lands—not only other forests in places such as Ohio, whose wildness would quickly be stripped away, but also the great prairies, deserts, and mountain ranges west of the Mississippi River. Initially, Simpson suggests, the American spirit toward the land was one of wasteful domination. He writes, for instance, that early farming practices tended to deplete the fertility of the soil, for farmers didn—t rotate crops or use sufficient natural fertilizers; “most [farmers],” he says, “thought those practices a waste of time since land was cheap and labor dear.” It took decades before the nation developed anything like a comprehensive view of land management or arrived at a uniform system of surveying, largely because different colonial regions had contrary attitudes about such things; the South tended to employ haphazard means of measuring land holdings, whereas New Englanders were far more precise. As time went on, however, Americans came to develop a uniform system of land management and, more important, to value the land more highly in the country’s idea of itself—a nation not only of farms and cities, but also of natural wonders, like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. A useful addition to the growing landscape-in-history literature.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-520-21364-5
Page count: 390pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999