“The Sigh of Companionless Age”: Images of Lost Landscapes in Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours

Robert Beuka (Bronx Community College, City University of New York)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 21-24).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

A year ago I had the pleasure of coming here to Oneonta for a conference on the nature writer John Burroughs and his contemporaries. At that time, I read a paper on Sarah Orne Jewett’s classic story “A White Heron,” which culminates with a climactic scene atop a great pine tree, the last of its kind remaining in the Maine woods Jewett depicts. And now, a year later, I found myself-until unforeseen obligations prevented my attendance in person-drawn here again, this time to discuss Susan Fenimore Cooper’s book of nature writing, Rural Hours (1850), and in particular a memorable passage concerning a stand of mighty, towering pine trees, the last of their kind in the Otsego woodlands Cooper depicts. So, what is it with Oneonta conferences and tall, highly symbolic old pine trees? Could there be something in the air here in the Oneonta/Cooperstown region that leads to ruminations on the delicate fate of the old-growth woodlands?

At any rate, it is fair to assume that Susan Cooper thought so, as she takes pains, in Rural Hours, to caution her contemporaries about the need to conserve the remaining woodlands surrounding and supporting villages such as her own Cooperstown. While the majority of the book warmly celebrates the beauty of the region around Cooperstown, and while Cooper is “careful to locate her town ... securely in the middle landscape” between the extremes of untouched wilderness and overdeveloped city (Maddox 86), certain sections of Rural Hours do take a complex look at the costs of nineteenth-century “progress.” The author counterpoises a romanticized image of a pre-modern landscape against her description of a contemporary landscape of rapid change and development. In a similar manner, she offers contrasting visions of the Native Americans indigenous to the region, whom she characterizes as shepherds of the land, and the conquering white men — who, in the course of a half-century, had presided over an “astonishing” decimation and domestication of the local wilderness. Through her combined use of detailed natural observation and imaginative geography, Cooper is able to both celebrate the achievements and critique the costs of Cooperstown’s settlement over the first half of the nineteenth century.

In offering imaginative reconstructions of landscapes of the past, Cooper moves beyond mere nostalgia to explore a theme in Rural Hours — the lament for a lost, Edenic landscape — that is central to American literature and the American experience. As Lawrence Buell has pointed out, American writers of the mid-nineteenth century and onward, Susan Cooper’s contemporaries, “nurtured the image of a wild, unsettled continent as an article of cultural nationalism,” creating a romanticized vision of nature that has remained central to American thought to this day. (14) Nowhere is this use of the image of nature more telling than in classic American literature that laments the loss of natural landscapes in the face of contemporary “progress.” One thinks in this regard of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo assessing the “wasty ways” of the Otsego area settlers in The Pioneers; or of Fitzgerald’s Nick Caraway imaginatively transforming the materialistic Long Island landscape that surrounds him back to its primordial state, as a “fresh, green breast of the New World”; or of the Southern pastoral tradition and its influence on Faulkner and other Southern writers of the modernist period who grappled with the reality of a rapidly evolving landscape. Classic American nature writing, of course, expresses strong trepidation over the fate of the natural world in the face of civilization’s spread; Thoreau’s Walden, preceded by some four years by Cooper’s Rural Hours, clearly retains currency in contemporary culture, as evidenced by the recent high-profile battle over the fate of Walden Pond. The lure of a romanticized vision of nature seems only understandable in the contemporary United States, as urban spread and suburban sprawl continue to devour countryside and transform the national landscape. At the outset of the twenty-first century, we live in a nearly fully suburbanized nation, whose neatly ordered backyard lots indicate both a possessive love of nature and the inexorable destruction of wilderness that this love of nature ironically brings.

And while the world of the McMansion and the backyard swimming pool may be far removed from the mid-nineteenth-century Cooperstown and its surrounding environs that Susan Cooper describes in Rural Hours, environmental concerns facing the two settings might not be as entirely different as one might suppose. Even established suburbanites of today know the dread of witnessing their landscape in transition, of seeing a parcel of previously untouched land in the process of being leveled for another new development; similarly, Cooper expresses in Rural Hours the anxiety that accompanies continued development of once pristine wilderness. One reaction to this specter of destructive development, for both the contemporary observer and for a nineteenth-century naturist like Cooper, is to take psychic refuge in the image of lost landscapes of the past. As Leo Marx put it in his classic study of American pastoralism, The Machine in the Garden, “The soft veil of nostalgia that hangs over our urbanized landscape is largely a vestige of the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages, and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness” (6). Several sections of Rural Hours evidence such a “soft veil of nostalgia,” as Cooper offers, in the image of landscapes of the past, a model of abiding relationships with the natural world. A writer “caught between two worlds with opposing values” (Dawes 155), Cooper ultimately attempts to reconcile the competing pulls of conservation and progress by envisioning the contemporary Cooperstown region as an idealized middle ground between the wild and the urbanized realms. This tendency puts her work squarely in line with the pastoral tradition, though passages such as the following suggest the fragility of her argument, and the tacit recognition that the delicate balance of humankind and nature can not last for long:

The whole surface of the country is arable. ... This general fertility, this blending of the fields of man and his tillage with the woods, the great husbandry of Providence, gives a fine character to the country, which it could not claim when the lonely savage roamed through wooded valleys, and which it must lose if ever cupidity and the haste to grow rich shall destroy the forest entirely, and leave these hills to posterity, bald and bare, as those of many older lands. No perfection of tillage, no luxuriance of produce can make up to a country for the loss of its forests. (160)

At least in part, it is this inherent conflict between town and country, between the life of the village and the life of the wilderness, that drives the tension, in Rural Hours, between idyllic descriptions of the natural environment and sometimes ambivalent depictions of those who inhabit it. The book is arranged as a series of journal entries that are grouped by season, tracking one year of the author’s naturist observations. While the majority of the text is devoted to careful observations of the Otsego country woodlands, Cooper also discusses the settlement and inhabitants of her village. Buell suggests that “the book’s structure implicitly asserts the need for the human order to accommodate itself to the natural as well as vice versa” (48). Nonetheless, several key sections indicate that this balance has failed. As Michael Branch rightly notes, Rural Hours is more than a celebration of the natural surroundings of the Cooperstown region, as “the book also has a decidedly elegiac quality,” in that it “measures environmental loss nearly as often as it rhapsodizes on natural beauty” (69). In one of the book’s central sections, Cooper uses the image of a stand of old pine trees to speculate on the environmental costs of human progress. She uses personification in her description, as she does often throughout the book, to establish a sense of “kinship” (Bakken 15) between her readers and the natural world she describes: “Just at the point where the village street becomes a road and turns to climb the hillside, there stands a group of pines, a remnant of the old forest. There are many trees like these among the Woods. ... But although these old trees are common upon the wooded heights, yet the group on the skirts of the village stands alone among the fields of the valley; their nearer brethren have all been swept away, and these are left in isolated company, differing in character from all about them, a monument of the past” (129).

The position of the trees is important to understanding this passage: Standing on the “skirts of the village,” the pines mark the boundary line of humankind and nature. That Cooper describes them as the last of their kind, a “monument of the past,” underscores her point about the inexorable march of civilization. The trees are, in Jennifer Dawes’ terms, “harbingers of a way of life that is passing away before her eyes” (154). But they are also something more: Cooper uses the image of the trees as a springboard for a section of the book in which she imaginatively reconstructs the history of the region, conjuring visions of a romanticized environment from the days prior to European settlement and contrasting it to the time of the white settlers’ arrival, when the “great change began,” and “the axe and the saw, the forge and the wheel, were busy from dawn to dusk” (131). Buell points out that “In effect, Cooper reinvents the whole cultural ecology of Cooperstown within the space of a half-dozen pages as falling under the aegis and tutelage of the ancient pine grove. ... Her historical recitation ... puts human history under the gaze of the pines in order to redefine it as accountable to natural history” (265). Indeed, Cooper’s personification of the pine trees as witness to American history amounts to more than a flight of imaginative fancy; rhetorically, this section serves as a last-ditch plea for environmental permanence in an era of rapid change. As Rochelle Johnson argues, “Without these trees, then, America’s history — the nation’s sense of its presence on the land-is incomplete and, therefore, in the mind of Cooper, inadequate. This passage from Rural Hours thus makes an implicit argument for the importance of preservation as a means of reconstructing natural history” (42). Cooper imbues the long passage with a wistful, and times mournful, tone, seeing in the stand of pines the mark of unchanging character that in a sense validates the profound changes wrought to the environment by settlement and development:

... whenever we pause to recall what has been done in this secluded valley during the lifetime of one generation, we must needs be struck with new astonishment. And throughout every act of the work, those old pines were there. Unchanged themselves, they stand surrounded by objects over all of which a great change has passed. The open valley, the half-shorn hills, the paths, the flocks, the buildings, the woods in their second growth, even the waters in the different images they reflect on their bosom, the very race of men who come and go, all are different from what they were; and those calm old trees seem to heave the sigh of companionless age, as their coned heads rock slowly in the winds. (131-132)

Central to the profound change that has remade the local landscape is, as Cooper highlights here, the change in its human inhabitants. In her depiction of the displacement of the native population by white settlers, Cooper displays an ambivalence that mirrors her more generalized ambivalence over the effects of settlement and civilization. Throughout various sections of the text, she conjures images of the Native American “savage” or “brave” of the past as “an element of the scenic landscape,” and — like the treasured pine trees — as “a representative of the old world that is passing away” (Dawes 161). This tendency to romanticize the former residents of the land has the double effect of creating a negative depiction of the Indian as an animalistic “noble savage,” while also generating a sense of empathy and kinship. Both qualities are featured in passages such as the following:

When standing beside these unfettered springs in the shady wood, one seems naturally to remember the red man; recollections of his vanished race linger there in a more definite form than elsewhere; we feel assured that by every fountain among these hills, the Indian brave, on the hunt or the war-path, must have knelt ten thousand times, to slake his thirst, and the wild creatures, alike his foes and his companions ... have all lapped these limpid waters during the changing seasons of past ages. ... It was but yesterday that such beings peopled the forest, beings with as much life as runs in our own veins, who drank their daily draught from the springs we now call our own; yesterday they were here, to-day scarce a vestige of their existence can be pointed out among us. (62-3)

Interestingly, the sense of empathy for displaced natives is strongest in passages such as this one, where the Indian is an image, a reconstruction from an imagined and idealized natural past. In passages where she discusses actual Indian neighbors, Cooper is less sanguine, at times bemoaning the appearance and behavior of individuals seemingly unfit for “civilized” society. Her reaction to the state of the contemporary Indian remains ambiguous. While she argues on behalf of assisting the displaced natives — “Let us acknowledge the strong claim they have upon us, not in word only, but in deed also” (123), she plainly states — Cooper also laments the difficulty in bringing “civilized” ways to the natives: “a savage race is almost invariably corrupted by its earliest contact with a civilized people,” she writes; “they suffer from the vices of civilization before they learn justly how to comprehend it merits” (124). In the end, Cooper also suggests that the white settlers have not fully lived up to the ideals of a just civilization, not only for their mistreatment of the Native Americans, but also for their careless stewardship of the land and unchecked passion for development. She returns to the image of the trees to make her point, arguing that proper care of the wilderness is fundamental to the establishment of a true civilization: “Our people seldom remember that the forests, while they provide food and shelter for the wildest savage tribes, make up a large amount of the wealth of the most civilized nations,” Cooper writes. “But independently of their market price in dollars and cents, the trees have their importance in an intellectual and in a moral sense. After the first rude stage of progress is past in a new country ... something more is needed; the preservation of fine trees, already standing, marks a farther progress, and this point we have not yet reached” (153).

Reading Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours today sheds light on how certain environmental concerns have persisted in the United States over the course of centuries. If, as Duncan Faherty has suggested, Cooper’s work in Rural Hours was “part of a broad-based cultural movement away from the commodification of nature that was a hallmark of the Jacksonian era” (109), then we may be able to discern a reason for its continued relevance and freshness today. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, after six decades of massive suburban expansion, we have come to a point where the commodification of the natural environment has become a given. Hence the appeal of a book like Rural Hours, that offers us a glimpse back in time to a pastoral world that now seems impossibly distant and quaint. The irony to be found within its pages is that even then the landscape seemed imperiled and in transition. Facing an uncertain environmental future, Susan Cooper looked back in time — as we, her readers, do — to imagine lost landscapes of the past, primordial terrains of American wilderness.

Works Cited

  • Bakken, Kerry Neville, “Housekeeping is for the Birds: Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art. Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12). Ed. Hugh C. MacDougall. Oneonta, NY: State University of New York at Oneonta, 2000. 14-17.
  • Branch, Michael P., “Five Generations of Literary Coopers: Intergenerational Valuations of the American Frontier.” Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works. Ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens, GA; London: University of Georgia Press, 2001. 109-126.
  • Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Rural Hours [1850]. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
  • Dawes, Jennifer, “A Farther Progress: Reconciling Visions of Time in Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours.” Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works. 154-168.
  • Faherty, Duncan, “The Borderers of Civilization: Susan Fenimore Cooper’s View of American Development.” Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works. 109-126.
  • Johnson, Rochelle, “James Fenimore Cooper, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and the Work of History.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art. Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12) 41-45.
  • Maddox, Lucy, “Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rustic Primer.” Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works. 83-95.
  • Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.