Back to the Land

Joyce Bartlett is a fourth year psychology major at Grinnell College. With aspirations to pursue counseling and the healing arts, she hopes to spend the next couple of years being well in the company of loved ones and good food.


“Going back to the land.” There is something sentimental about this. For land is more than just a physical place. There is an emotional connection associated with going back to the land that symbolizes community, sustainability and well-being. Today, the reality of climate change and a diminishing resource of fossil fuels have sparked movements fighting for increased intentionality in our interactions with the land. Using the experience of early American colonialists, I explore how the interaction between human and land reflects the struggle of coming to terms with one’s humanity and how the land came to be conceptualized as a source of holistic well-being. I uncover the properties contributing to the view of land as healthy or unhealthy, specifically during the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century, and consider the benefits of conceptualizing land in this way.

From the late 1500s to early 1600s, English colonists traversed the Atlantic Ocean to America. The New World was advertised as a profitable opportunity and as such entire families headed to America in pursuit of a better life. While some were pulled toward the New World, others were pushed from England by oppressive religious conflict or financial hardship. Either way, these colonists viewed the land as under their ownership.

The land of America looked deceptively similar to that of England. However, new dangers such as snakes, poisonous plants, and harsher winter conditions reminded colonists that they were in a foreign land still unbeknownst to them. “Fears of dissolution or invasion almost always surface in the early descriptions of the Northwest Territory.”[1]

In the winter, colonists suffered from poor housing ventilation, unsanitary conditions, and dismal nutrition which increased susceptibility to disease. Epidemics such as smallpox, malaria, measles, and yellow fever had devastating effects on early American settlements. Wyndham Blanton counted 7,549 people entering the colony, but at the end of the 1624 only 1,095 remained.[2]

Colonial narratives reveal how the understanding of the body was inextricably tied with the ‘wellness’ of the land.[3] The fact that people were experiencing such powerful reactions to the physical geography of the new frontier has implications for their physical, mental, and emotional health and their approach to healing. Hailing to their European roots, colonists approached healing through the lens of humoral theory. But attempts to balance the humors in the body were futile when pitted against the wrath of Mother Nature.

“Each changing Season does its Poison bring.
Rheums chill the Winter, Agues blast the Spring.
Wet, Dry, Cold, Hot, at the appointed Hour,
All act subservient to the Tyrant’s Pow’r.
And when obedient Nature knows his Will,
A Fly, a Grapestone, or a Hair can kill”
by Titan Leeds [4]

So while the land symbolized opportunity and freedom to one’s own beliefs, it was also a threatening unknown—unforgiving and tyrannical.

It was with the coming of the Scientific Revolution that people began to question their surroundings and go out of their way to interact with them. This revolution empowered many people to feel that they could be in control of something as forceful as the natural world. Electrical experiments in the 1730s by people such as C.W. Franklin reproduced natural phenomena such as lightning. As time passed, colonists became more familiar with the land and how to use it to not just live but thrive. The Linnaean method of plant classification was developed, indicating more regulation over the natural world.[5]

Roderick Nash argues that people “imaginatively transformed their ‘untamed’ surroundings out of fear,”[6] which supports the argument that it is only when colonists felt dominant—exerting and shaping the land as they saw fit—were they able to go back to the view of America as a promised land as opposed to wasteland.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the American conception of wilderness as a dark, evil, and foreboding place transformed into a new idea of wilderness as a regenerative landscape, a romantic environment, a religious haven, and a site for outdoor sports.”[7] People began to move to the outdoors for leisure. William Bartram traveled up and down the East Coast and wrote about all the beautiful things he saw. Enchanted by the natural world, he wrote about the flowers that struck “on the imagination delight; and one can’t look on it but with admiration”[8] and the natural health in the “Native air”[9] of America.

In the 19th century, the Civil War ravaged the East Coast. The reality of a Civil War and an institutional system of slavery certainly changed the land. Ted Steinberg writes that

“if nature shaped the evolution of slavery, the reverse proposition—that the slave system had significant environmental implications—seems even more persuasive. Land played a secondary role in a society in which so much wealth remained tied up in owning and trading slaves. It followed that little incentive existed for planters to maintain soil fertility, especially when an expanse of fertile land was always available further west. Thus the stage was set for the brutal cycle of clearing, ecological degradation, and eventual abandonment that characterized southern agriculture in the 60 years after 1780.”[10]

At the end of the Civil War, people were traumatized physically, mentally, and emotionally. The land was a literal battleground and graveyard from which people wanted to escape. With the passing of Louisiana Territory into US hands in 1803, Americans began to move west.[11] The West symbolized adventure and the promise of abundance and health. For others it was an escape from the rapidly crowding cities of the east coast. Few physicians journeyed west because a knowledgeable layman could provide all the medical attention necessary (as shown by Lewis and Clark’s expedition in which all thirty-three people survived under the sole care of layman Merriweather Lewis).[12] The lack of trained medical authority allowed the continuation of the holistic approach to healing provided by a warmer climate, sunshine, hot springs, and fresh air offered by the West.

In 1885, Charles Fletcher Lummins walked from Cincinnati to Los Angeles while recovering from Malaria.[13] After 143 days of walking, Lummis arrived in SoCal and became editor of a magazine named Land of Sunshine. The Magazine argued that California’s sunny climate made people healthier and fostered intellectual and creative talent. Colorado also stood as a beacon of hope. Individuals placed their faith in the healing properties of wide open spaces; enticed by the promise of the Rocky Mountain air that was described as “buoyant and delicious,” “bracing and exhilarating,” “the ethereal properties of champagne,” with “no subtle, malarious taint.” George Ragan wrote in 1873 that he sought gold “but found a greater treasure—good health.” Union Pacific Railway said that the health of Denver had a value “above rubies” and Mrs. W.H. Smith spoke of how thankful she was that “that there is a place in God’s world, that I can breathe His air with comfort and ease.”[14]

While people found themselves healed by nature, technology and medicine continued to progress. The American sanatorium movement of the late 19th century shattered the consumptive’s belief in the restorative powers of nature.[15] Cleanliness became an obsession and scientific developments such as germ theory brought on yet another shift in which the medical hospital was prioritized over the land.

In typical fashion, in time we progress and in history we repeat. The natural landscape of the West is still romanticized today as a place of escape, respite, and healing. The land shapes how we live. Picking apart the role of land itself brings into discussion economics, health, food, race, and gender. Analyzing the tangible marks humans have made on land facilitates a space where we are able to reach out and grasp the thoughts of the past. These imagined and physical landscapes were, and continue to be, a source of hope and healing. Having a connection to the land roots an individual with a sense of belonging. The physical, mental, and emotional impacts of the land itself are a result of the fact that the land has the power to provide as well as to deprive. Good health and overall well-being requires homage to the physical land that we are on. Colonists used the land as a means to better health. However, eventually it became a power dynamic in which the land was capitalized upon. In order for our land to be healing we must respect it and remember “that is not just a head-way but a heart-way and a gut-way to remember our relationship to the land. That we are part of the land community. Its story is in a very real sense our story. And people who forget the story of their relationship to the land are the people most vulnerable on this planet.”[16]
For Further Reading

[1] Thomas Hallock. From the Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics, and the Roots of a National Pastoral, 1749 – 1826 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press., 2005), 3.
[2] Elaine Breslaw. Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America (New York: New York University Press., 2012), 478.
[3] Conevery B. Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books., 2002), 53.
[4] Sara S. Gronim. Everyday Nature: Knowledge of the Natural World in Colonial New York. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press., 2007), 38.
[5] Ibid., 107.
[6] Hallock, 19.
[7] Peter M. Hopsicker. “The Adirondack Guide: The Wilderness Representative of Invasion and Invitation into an Imagined Community.” New York History, vol. 87 (2006), 345.
[8] William Bartram. William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press (2010): pp. 68.
[9] Ibid., 167.
[10] Ted Steinberg. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. (New York: Oxford University Press., 2002), 87.
[11] Wendy Richter. “The Impact of the Civil War on Hot Springs, Arkansas.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 43 (1984), pp. 125.
[12] Kent Mathewson. “Alexander von Humboldt’s Image and Influence in North American Geography, 1804-2004.” Geographical Review, vol. 96 (2006), pp. 419.
[13] Steinberg, 176.
[14] Gregg Mitman. “Geographies of Hope: Mining the Frontiers of Health in Denver and Beyond, 1870-1965.” Osiris, vol. 19 (2004), pp. 95, 97.
[15] Ibid., 101.
[16] Jack Loeffler. Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. (New Mexico: Museum of New Mexico Press., 2008), 21.

Further Reading:

Bridenbaugh, Carl. “Baths and Watering Places of Colonial America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 3(1946): 151-181.
Feld, Steven and Keith H. Basso, ed., Senses of Place. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996.
Hailey, Charlie. “From Sleeping Porch to Sleeping Machine: Inverting Traditions of Fresh Air in North America.” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements 20 (2009): 27-44.
Howell, Andrew J., Raelyne L. Dopko, Holli-Anne Passmore, and Karen Buro. “Nature Connectedness: Associations with Well-Being and Mindfulness.” Personality and Individual Differences 51(2011): 166-171
Pinkley-Call, Cora. “Stories about the Origin of Eureka Springs.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 5 (1946): 297-307.

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