Paul Andersen: Fair Game
August 14, 2011
Most Americans take pride in our frontier history, in the heroic events and characters that populate our myths and define our mores. As a culture, America owes its identity to the frontier. Forging a nation on the edge of wilderness galvanized our national character.
The American frontier ended in 1890, when the U.S. Census concluded that what was left of the Western frontier had been chopped up into pieces too small to define wilderness conditions. Since then, America has lost many of its formative influences. We’ve also lost something of ourselves as a people.
With the frontier gone, Americans seem softer, less adventuresome, more complacent, even indolent, when compared with our forebears. Our rugged individualism is mostly seen today in divisive political dysfunction.
In Aspen, the frontier era is still fresh. It took place in the early 1880s, when the line of settlement was drawn along the Continental Divide. Neighboring Leadville was then a boomtown teeming with prospectors eager for the next big strike. They found it in the Roaring Fork Valley after struggling over the high passes to get here.
The Cowenhoven/Brown party crossed Taylor Pass in a pair of freight wagons in 1880 from Taylor Park. The crude road they followed ended at the top of the ridge, so they bushwhacked across the high tundra through willows and bogs, taking two weeks to cover 10 miles.
When they reached an abrupt bluff that dropped 40 feet, they unloaded their wagons, packed everything down, and lowered the wagons with ropes. This act defined their commitment, both to their own capabilities and to their faith in frontier opportunities, on which they staked their futures.
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Today, with intense bickering over the conservation of what remains of our wild lands, opponents of conservation forget that wilderness was the defining element of American frontier life. Wilderness provided the crucible that clarified the American spirit and made us strong. Beyond mere exploitation of the land, there was a communal expression of solidarity balanced with an enlivened sense of individualism. We could use that balance today.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner described over a century ago how the frontier refreshed democratic principles along the ever-shifting borderline of civilization and wilderness. As the frontier moved west, civil and political institutions were reinvented by contact with wild lands, by distance from the authority of law, and by the innate human desire for liberty as expressed through democratic ideals.
According to Turner, the American character was revealed in: “that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, powerful to affect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism … these are traits of the frontier.”
America’s edge was honed on the whetstone of wilderness, which has become an endangered geographic species. Today, protected wilderness accounts for just 2 percent of the Lower 48 states; roughly the same amount that’s paved.
Since the end of the frontier, America has explored other frontiers: space, the Internet, medicine, science, technology. What we risk, however, is the loss of contact with a wild landscape where we can experience the frontier ethic that helped define the American experience. While most Americans will never set foot in Wilderness Areas, the majority support wilderness as an idea linked to our national identity.
The motorized lobby routinely denounces wilderness conservation as an affront to their ease of access and oil-dependent recreational pleasures. What they’re missing is the wilderness idea, a sacred heritage that is needed now more than ever to reawaken democratic principles and associate national identity to the land that honed us as a people. Wilderness is also essential to test us physically and reward us spiritually.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” warned author Wallace Stegner. “Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practically-minded, but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.”
The frontier is gone, but the idea is not. We can reinvigorate the culture it created, as Stegner explained: “While we were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. In subtle ways, we were subdued by what we conquered.”