Title: American Perceptions of the Wilderness324

Key Words: wilderness, perceptions

National Standard: 6
How culture and experience influence people's perceptions of places and regions.

State Standard: 11
Students will demonstrate an understanding of the physical and human geographic features that define places and regions.

Teaching Level: High School

Lesson Introduction: Geography, as the umbrella discipline, can assist us in teaching other content areas, among them, history. Over the centuries, the American perception of wilderness has changed substantially. The following lesson plan focuses on the differences between two commentators on the American scene, William Bradford and Frederick Law Olmsted. It may be used at the beginning of a U.S. History course to introduce the idea of changing landscapes and the perceptions of them.

Objectives/Purpose: To analyze differences in American perspectives about the wilderness over time; to evaluate possible reasons for the changes in perspective.

Materials: Readings from William Bradford and Frederick Law Olmsted, as included; standard library resource materials on Bradford and Olmsted.

Procedure: l. Ask students to define "wilderness." Discuss.

2. Distribute readings from William Bradford and Frederick Law Olmsted.

3. Divide the class into groups of four, comprised of a leader, who will keep the discussion on track, an analyst/recorder, who will listen to the different perspectives and summarize them, and one spokesperson each for William Bradford and Frederick Law Olmsted.
Spokespeople will read their selections, then present them to the group in a discussion/debate. Group members will summarize the major points of each author, determine the differences between them, and speculate as to the reasons for these differences.

4. Provide standard library resource materials on the two authors in the classroom. Each group will consult these sources to learn about the two authors and to assess whether or not their speculations about the reasons for their differences are valid.

5. Meet as a whole group to discuss group findings.

6. Engage the class in a discussion about the role of wilderness in American life today. Possible questions to include are:

Is the preservation of wilderness areas important today? Why or why not?

Does the preservation of national or state parks mean that we then return to our communities from camping trips and place our used styrofoam cups in the local landfill?

What responsibilities do we as citizens have for the American landscape? How can we best fulfill these responsibilities?

How have perceptions of wild places changed substantially over time? Why? Do changes in perception represent changes in fundamental values?

6. Students should write on one of these questions in essay form for homework.

Evaluation/Assessment: Student group work to interpret readings from Bradford and Olmsted; student speculations on the causes for their differences; student research on the two authors; student answers to discussion questions; student essays on perceptions of the American landscape.

Extension/Enrichment: Interested students may wish to pursue these issues through their own research. Some excellent background sources are: Rodernick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967; Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964; Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950; William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground. New York: W.W. Norton and company, 1995; Carolyn Merchant, ed., Major Problems in American Environmental History. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993. [These are challenging books].

Additional Standards: National standard 4 (physical and human characteristics of place); standard 12 (settlement); standard 14 (human actions modify the environment); standard 17 (interpret the past); standard 18 (interpret the present and plan for the future); state standard 13 (human systems; cooperation and conflict); standard 14 (human/physical systems and resources); standard 15 (interpret the past and present and plan for the future).

Reflection: How successful was this lesson? Did all students benefit? Were there any surprises? What might you do differently another time? Please note any changes that will make this lesson more effective and useful in the future and pass them along to the NHGA. We appreciate your comments.
Thank you,
The authors.


Bradford records the responses of the Pilgrims upon landing at Plymouth.

"Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought saf to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils & miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element....Being thus past the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by that which went before), they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor. It is recorded in scripture as a mercy to the apostle & his shipwrecked company, that the barbarians showed them no small kindness in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they met with them (as after will appear) were readier to fill their sides full of arrows then otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp & violent, & subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous & desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts & wild men? and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah, to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a mainbar & gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world....What could now sustain them but the spirit of God & his grace? May not & ought not the children of these fathers, rightly say: Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness...."


"It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness. The want of such occasional recreation where men and women are habitually presses by their business or household cares often results in a class of disorders the characteristic quality of which is mental disability, sometimes taking the severe forms of softening of the brain, paralysis, palsy, monomania, or insanity, but more frequently of mental and nervous excitability, moroseness, melancholy or irascibility, incapacitating the subject for the proper exercise of the intellectual and moral forces....
If we analyze the operation of scenes of beauty upon the mind, and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended."

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