Blood in the Watershed: Systems Ecology, Violence, and Cooper’s The Pioneers

Matthew Wynn Sivils (Iowa State University)

Keynote Address at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference: Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 29.2 (Whole No. 82, Fall 2018): 5-15.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

We could not have asked for a better theme for a James Fenimore Cooper conference than the one the organizers selected for this year — watersheds. Like the best conference themes, it invites timely papers devoted to specific topics while also allowing for scholarship that takes off in more unexpected directions. It’s a rare example of strength in ambiguity, for even in its most literal sense, a watershed remains a relatively abstract, deceptively complex, concept. As the venerable Oxford English Dictionary contends, a watershed is merely “The line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas.” I like to think Cooper — whose works often incorporate lush descriptions of actual river systems, while also investigating the socio-political repercussions associated with invisible, and often arbitrary, “dividing lines” — would have approved of this theme as a point of entry into discussing the continued impact of his work, a project that becomes increasingly important as we move deeper into a twenty-first century marked by so much promise and so much more uncertainty.

In its more figurative sense, a watershed is, as the OED states, “a turning point (in history, affairs, a person’s life, etc.); a crucial time or occurrence.” The plots of Cooper’s works are filled with many such metaphorical watersheds, and indeed, several of his books themselves represent important watershed moments in American literary history. I think immediately of Cooper’s landmark 1821 novel The Spy, his second novel and his first popular one, a book that not only launched his literary career but also gave a strong shove to American literary culture at home and abroad, all while inventing the American war novel and the espionage tale. For perhaps the first time, it was a book by an American about America and read by the world. Two years later, in 1823, Cooper created another watershed book, The Pilot, which, depending upon how you define the genre, bears the distinction of the first fully-realized maritime novel. For the first time, the expanse of the sea and the stage of the ship’s deck formed the basis of a novel that would solidify the sea-fairing formula for every future spinner of nautical tales from Herman Melville to Patrick O’Brian.

It was, however, another of Cooper’s landmark novels, The Pioneers, that has — at least in my own estimation — come to represent the most [6] significant literary watershed of Cooper’s career. Selling approximately 3,500 copies within the first few hours of publication (Decker and McWilliams 1), no book by an American author had ever so capably tapped into the fledgling American reading public. With this book, Cooper, for all practical purposes, invented the frontier romance, an almost entirely American genre that gave rise to the panoply of adventure tales we enjoy today. We are apt to meet the cultural descendants of The Pioneers whenever we peruse bestseller lists or go to the movies. They take the form of Westerns, political thrillers, wilderness adventures, and even superhero movies. After all, it is in The Pioneers that Cooper introduces his readers to the first American superhero, the remarkable Natty Bumppo, a marksman of uncanny ability, who lives on in pop culture in a particular Marvel comics character who — like Natty — is a hell of a shot and goes by the nickname of Hawkeye.

Yet with The Pioneers Cooper invented still something more. With this formative novel, Cooper penned the first overtly environmentally conscious work of fiction. He pairs gorgeous descriptions of the wilds of 1793 Otsego County with a series of dramatic vignettes of environmental degradation. The environmental thrust of The Pioneers is by now well-known among most informed scholars of nineteenth-century American literature, but the recognition of the book’s conservationist message serves merely to begin the conversation. It’s not enough to simply say that Cooper was one of the first conservation-minded writers. To stop at this realization is to vastly oversimplify the ecological and sociological tapestry of his ideas, one that interweaves the realities of environmental degradation, the exigencies of human need and greed, the economics of nation-building, and the larger national mythology that he — along with a handful of other minds of his era — conjured out of paper and ink.


To highlight his conservationist message in The Pioneers, Cooper gives voice to his environmental concerns through the characters of Marmaduke Temple and Natty Bumppo. Marmaduke’s environmentalism stems from the fact that he owns the thousands of acres that surround the village of Templeton, a considerable amount of land and resources that he is loath to see wasted. Criticizing his cousin, Richard, for using wood from the economically valuable maple tree to fuel the Temple home’s fireplace, Marmaduke displays a surprisingly savvy environmental consciousness: [7]

How often have I forbidden the use of the sugar-maple, in my dwelling. The sight of that sap, as it exudes with the heat, is painful to me, Richard. Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine, to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extents. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel. (105)

Marmaduke’s conservationist ethic is remarkably forward-thinking, especially for a book published in 1823 and set in 1793. He demonstrates this thinking throughout much of the novel, and it serves as a companion to Natty’s hunting-based conservationist philosophy, which emerges perhaps most dramatically when an enormous flock of (now-extinct) passenger pigeons blots out the sky above Templeton. The villagers grab guns, bows, long sticks, and even an old cannon to down as many of the birds as possible. In the resulting scene thousands of dead and dying pigeons “lay scattered over the fields in such profusion, as to cover the very ground with the fluttering victims” (246). Natty, who in The Pioneers is an elderly man, surveys the scene in disgust and announces:

This comes of settling a country! ... here have I known the pigeons to fly for forty long years, and, till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skear or to hurt them. I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body; hurting nothing; being as it was, as harmless as a garter-snake. But now it gives me sore thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know it’s only a motion to bring out all the brats in the village. Well! the Lord won’t see the waste of his creaters for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as others, by-and-by. (246)

Marmaduke and Natty make several such statements across the course of the novel, and these conservationist reprimands betray an overt environmental ethic that speaks to how forward-thinking Cooper was in warning against the abuse of natural resources that to many at the time probably seemed inexhaustible.

Natty’s and Marmaduke’s criticisms of the villagers, and their repeated cautions about deforestation and overhunting, certainly make The Pioneers one of the most environmentally savvy works of literature of the nineteenth century, and arguably one of the most important works of the American environmental literary canon. The ways these characters speak about environmental degradation, however, reveal more than merely a recognition that resource abuse leads to scarcity. [8] These conservationist sentiments, which emerge not only from Natty and Marmaduke but also from the narrative voice itself, expose a type of environmental thinking that we now call systems ecology. Sven Eric Jørgensen defines systems ecology as an environmental theory that “focuses on the properties of ecosystems and tries to reveal them by the use of a systems approach — to see the forest through the trees” (1). It is, as Jørgensen contends, an “ecological subdiscipline [that] attempts to develop a theory that can be applied to explain the characteristic processes and reactions of ecosystems” (1). The goal of systems ecology as practiced by ecologists today is to look at how various components of the environment work together to form self-sustaining systems of life and then to use this knowledge to make models that, as Jørgensen writes, “at least approximately ... predict how ecosystems ... react to specific pollutants and well-defined changes” (1).

I do not claim that Cooper was somehow privy to the tenants of systems ecology, but looking at The Pioneers with this present-day theory in mind reveals a sophisticated environmental view, one that recognizes a truth Aldo Leopold shared with the world over a century later, that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (147). The settlement of Templeton and its surrounding wilds serve to demonstrate the kind of “tinkering” — much of it far from intelligent — that gave rise to industrial progress while also laying waste to a resource-rich land of biological diversity. Cooper’s cognizance of this situation permeates much of his novel, from Marmaduke’s and Natty’s admonitions of the villagers, to the natural scenes Cooper paints in what he terms his “descriptive tale.” Virtually all of these narrative moments mirror one of the key facets of systems ecology, a holistic view of the environment and its components.

Cooper peppers the book with this holistic, ecological worldview, even in the first paragraph where he sets the scene as one marked by a complex interweaving of environmental components and processes that emerge as an indivisible whole. Paying special attention to the watershed dynamics of the region, Cooper introduces his readers to the book with these words:

Near the centre of the State of New York lies an extensive district of country, whose surface is a succession of hills and dales ... It is among these hills that the Delaware takes its rise; and flowing from the limpid lakes and thousand springs of this region, the numerous sources of the Susquehanna meander through the valleys, until, uniting their streams, they form one of the proudest rivers of the United States. (15) [9]

In this opening, Cooper constructs the larger scene of the novel, and he does so in a decidedly holistic manner, describing how the area’s topography and waterways combine to channel the region’s water from its lakes and springs to the Susquehanna River, which is itself part of the greater riparian network of the continent. He follows this passage with a brief description of the area’s rich agricultural promise and “picturesque character” (15), before commenting on humanity’s presence:

Beautiful and thriving villages are found interspersed along the margins of the small lakes, or situated at those points of the streams which are favourable to manufacturing; and neat and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about them, are scattered profusely through the vales, and even to the mountain tops. (15)

Cooper then describes the roads, schools, and churches that dot his pastoral amalgam of human settlement and natural grandeur. Following his setting of this scene he invokes the title of the novel as he gives life to his vision of the area’s settlement over the years. He writes, “The expedients of the pioneers who first broke ground in the settlement of this country, are succeeded by the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father” (16). Notably, Cooper demonstrates his consciousness of how the realities of the land itself shape the human presence upon the earth. In fact, in Cooper’s description, the farms that dot the hills and the villages that border the lakes or stand astride convenient streams, seem to spring as naturally from the wilderness as leaves upon a tree.

In completing this idyllic landscape with something of a moving image of the people who built the villages, farms, churches, and other trappings of successful human settlement, he promotes an unambiguous view of such human industry as a sign of progress, of taming and taking advantage of a once wild land. He even goes so far as to close this description with a reminder of how far humanity’s impact has spread in such a short time: “Only forty years have passed since this territory was a wilderness” (16). Cooper’s narrator marvels that in such a short span of time “the population has spread itself over five degrees of latitude and seven of longitude, and has swelled to a million and a half inhabitants, who are maintained in abundance” (16). He ends this paragraph, however, with a warning that in some ways permeates nearly every chapter of the book: that despite the richness of natural resources [10] “the evil day must arrive, when their possessions shall become unequal to their wants” (16). Cooper’s warning about this slowly approaching “evil day” comes without any overt solutions. As the narrative itself demonstrates, he views the environmental degradation that follows settlement as the unfortunate but inevitable result of taming a wilderness. He follows this statement not with more discussion about the colonization of New York, nor about any possible ways of rethinking the wasteful practices that fuel settlement. He instead transitions to the opening of the narrative proper: “Our tale begins in 1793...” (16). Given Cooper’s placement of it within his opening, the ominous, unresolved invocation of an eventual “evil day” of want becomes one of the operative questions of the book, even if it is only addressed in ways that ultimately seem hopeless, or that run counter to his pride in the rapid taming of the New York wilderness.


Regardless of which stance Cooper takes on the ways settlement depletes the natural resources and grandeur of early Republic New York, it is instructive to examine the kinds of thinking that allow for what, in 1823, was a sophisticated realization that — if colonization continued at its present rate — settlers would eventually deplete the vast resources that had fueled their exploitation of the area. Cooper’s environmental intuition seems to possess an inherent understanding of systems ecology. In particular, the environmental lessons housed within The Pioneers seem especially related to the concept of autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is “the self-maintenance of an organized entity through its own internal processes.” Etymologically autopoiesis means self-creating, and simply put an autopoietic system is one with recognizable boundaries that sustain and create more of itself. The textbook example is a living cell because it bears discernable boundaries while also making more of itself through its own internal mechanisms. On the far larger scale of The Pioneers, the autopoietic system takes, predictably, the form of the ecosystem that serves as the stage and substrate for the village of Templeton. Cooper recognizes the precariousness of this complicated autopoietic system, and the environmental vignettes he sprinkles across the narrative serve to make his point that tampering with the elements of such a system will ultimately result in its collapse.

For example, both Marmaduke and Natty make direct reference to a pressing environmental threat to the region’s autopoietic stability — deforestation. The loss of timber associated with logging serves as a strong example of a holistic problem best elucidated by a systems theory point-of-view. For Marmaduke the burning of maple for firewood [11] represents a misuse of the maple, which was more valuable for its sap. His larger point, however, the one connected to his warning that “If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel” (105), was at that time a far more pressing concern. Timber, which, when abundant, is far more easily obtained than coal, serves as both an essential construction material and heating source for the ever-growing settlement. Marmaduke rightly fears the potential repercussions of allowing this valuable, though seemingly infinite, resource to literally go up in smoke.

Natty’s environmental anxiety, as evidenced by his powerful admonishment of the villagers and their wasteful slaughter of the passenger pigeons, also has at its core the problem of deforestation. He derides the villagers, saying that “till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skear or to hurt them” (246). In Natty’s estimation the clearings provide not only convenient spaces from which the villagers can more easily bring down the birds, but also — as evidence of settlement and the resources used in supporting that settlement — these clearings are emblematic of the larger and far more complicated problem of resource degradation and human greed. For Natty such wastefulness betrays a decidedly moral failing, and in an argument with Billy Kirby — who is the village’s most accomplished lumberjack — he makes this moralistic argument clear. Kirby ridicules Natty for “grumbling at the loss of a few pigeons,” but Natty retorts, “it’s wicked to be shooting into flocks in this wastey manner ... to kill twenty and eat one. When I want such a thing, I go into the woods till I find one to my liking, and then I shoot him off the branches without touching a feather of another” (247). To make this point in a dramatic fashion, Natty then shoots a single pigeon from the sky and has his dog retrieve its carcass from the lake.

Before Natty departs, Marmaduke approaches him and engages in a brief exchange that demonstrates that while each character shares what we would today term a conservationist ethic, they differ in how they think about the patent’s environmental future. Marmaduke says, “Thou sayest well, Leather-stocking. I begin to think it time to put an end to this work of destruction” (248). But Natty rejects this simplistic solution and responds, “Put an ind, Judge to your clearings. An’t the woods his work as well as the pigeons? Use, but don’t waste. ... But I’ll go to the hut with my own game, for I wouldn’t touch one of the harmless things that kiver the ground here, looking up with their eyes on me, as if they only wanted tongues to say their thoughts” (248). For Natty, if Marmaduke wants to end the atrocious waste of pigeons, he needs to [12] recognize that the clearings and the settlement from which they derive must also be stopped. For Marmaduke, who harbors both conservationist leanings and a developer’s love of transforming the wilderness into a thriving village, ending the very settlement he has started runs counter to his principles, and to his ego. At the crux of these two men’s differing environmental views is their respective understanding of the natural world as a complicated system of interdependent components. Marmaduke — at least in word — possesses an appreciation of the need to conserve the resources contained within his rich patent. He seems less capable (or willing) to accept the fact that exploitation of one resource affects the well-being of other components and thus the autopoetic stability of the forest ecosystem. Natty, on the other hand, seems more accepting of a holistic view, but — as with later Romantics, such as the Transcendentalists — his environmental imagination is hobbled by a nostalgic yearning for an unattainable pastoral ideal at odds with the realities of large-scale settlement and its attendant industrial development. Thus Cooper presents in The Pioneers two well-meaning, sympathetic, entirely untenable environmental views.


So what is Cooper’s point? I argue it is the dictum that we must recognize environmental degradation as not only a form of violence against the land but also as a form of violence against humanity itself. In The Pioneers he repeatedly demonstrates that small-scale environmental destruction can have, over time, a cumulative and wide-ranging effect upon the ecosystem. But that is only part of his lesson. Throughout The Pioneers, and indeed in several of his other novels, Cooper links environmental violence, specifically the damage humans exact in exploiting natural resources, with violence involving humans — often connecting the two types of trauma in suggestive ways. These connections underscore his recognition of the complex character of human environmental degradation. Cooper’s portrayal of human violence and its attendant environmental abuse in his fiction highlights the fact that what often begins as an isolated or ostensibly minor instance of human greed or short-sightedness creates impacts that resonate over a far longer period of time.

One example of how Cooper links human and environmental violence occurs in the first chapter of The Pioneers, when the sleigh carrying Marmaduke and Elizabeth Temple home on Christmas Eve crosses paths with a hunting party consisting of Natty and the young Oliver Edwards. Hearing the howls of Natty’s dogs, Marmaduke stops the sleigh and readies himself, shotgun in hand, hoping to shoot any [13] deer the dogs (and the unseen hunters ostensibly in their wake) might flush from the woods. Soon enough a buck springs into the path and Marmaduke gets off two shots that seem to have no effect upon the deer. Two more shots come from the unseen hunters and the deer falls dying into the snow. The hunters, Natty and Oliver, emerge from their hiding place in the woods where they had been actually waiting to ambush the deer. Cooper then introduces us, for the first time, to the character of Natty and sets up an argument between Natty and Marmaduke over whose shot brought down the deer. Cooper packs a slew of conservationist issues into this brief exchange, with perhaps the most pronounced being the fact that deer have become so scarce because of the over-hunting that has accompanied the recent settlement of the area. Natty exclaims, “Ah! the game is becoming hard to find, indeed, Judge, with your clearings and betterments. ... The time has been, when I have shot thirteen deer, without counting the fa’ns, standing in the door of my own hut” (22).

Marmaduke then attempts to claim the buck, arguing it was one of his bullets that brought down the prized deer. Natty insists that it was the shot coming from Oliver’s rifle that killed the deer, showing Marmaduke that rather than hitting the animal in question, four of his five bullets went harmlessly into the bark of a nearby tree. Marmaduke counters that then it must have been his fifth bullet that brought down the buck, asking “where is the fifth?” (24). Opening his overcoat, Oliver nonchalantly says “Here” showing them, as Cooper writes, “a hole in his under garment, through which large drops of blood were oozing” (24). Horrified by having accidentally shot the young man (whose wound, while unfortunate, is superficial), Marmaduke instantly offers assistance and not only grants that the deer belongs to Oliver but also exclaims, “I here give thee a right to shoot deer, or bears, or anything thou pleasest in my woods, forever. Leather-stocking is the only other man I have granted the same privilege to; and the time is coming when it will be of value” (25). Marmaduke’s claim that hunting rights on his patent will be of increasing value as overhunting and settlement continue brings the scene to its larger point, that the demands of human greed have created an environmental crisis that is simultaneously a symptom of and a benefit to the European-American system of ownership. In one of his more pointed comments in a book already full of them, old Natty counters by saying, “There’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right to shoot on these hills, is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid him” (25). Woven into each element of this scene is the specter of violence, both against the [14] environment and the people. The overhunting of the wilds surrounding Templeton, and indeed the settlement of the village in the first place, stands as direct injury to the ecosystem, while also inflicting injury (both literal and figurative) against those few hunters, such as Natty and Oliver who rely upon a lower-impact exploitation of the natural resources for their livelihood. Cooper’s scene functions then as an environmental parable, in which the trauma of overhunting leads to further forms of trauma against mankind. Marmaduke’s accidental shooting of Oliver aligns with the other detriments associated with humanity’s short-sighted environmental abuse, which include — as the novel makes clear across the span of its narrative — the threat of a lack of game animals for food and fur, as well as a lack of timber for fuel and building supplies. Thus environmental abuse results in blowback against humans in ways that mirror Marmaduke’s accidental shooting of Oliver Edwards.

It is Cooper’s understanding of the larger implications of environmental abuse that bring me back to watersheds, this time literal ones. A watershed is a large-scale environmental component that connects to virtually every aspect of a healthy ecosystem. While Cooper composed the plot of The Pioneers from smaller environmental set pieces, his larger lessons are inextricably tied to an understanding of what would in the early twentieth-century become the scientific discipline of ecology. Building upon and in some ways dismantling such twentieth-century notions of ecology, Timothy Morton recently coined the term “hyperobject,” which is, as he defines it, any massive entity that falls beyond manageable human scale and that exists as a non-local entity that nonetheless impacts us in a direct and individual fashion (1). Examples of hyperobjects include such colossal entities as mountain ranges, rainforests, and ocean floors, as well as less easy to visualize yet no less material systems such as global warming and human communication networks. The recognition of such hyperobjects could never have happened without the literary watershed of books like Cooper’s The Pioneers, which calls attention to a broadly conceived, broadly influential ecosystem, one that suffers from the thousand cuts of resource abuse and what Natty calls the “wasty ways” of the villagers of Templeton. Thus our present sophisticated understanding of a holistic environment is a result of Cooper’s wide-ranging view of the interactions between humanity and the ecosystems we rely upon for survival. In The Pioneers, Cooper portrays an environment that absorbs the abuse of humanity’s greed while also subtly embodying what would become twenty-first-century systems ecology. Ultimately, in this [15] watershed novel, Cooper arrives at a conception of the land as a network of interdependent components, the most violent of which is humanity itself.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers, or Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. 1823. Eds. James Franklin Beard, Lance Schachterle, and Kenneth M. Andersen, Jr. Albany: SUNY University Press, 1980.
  • Dekker, George and John P. McWilliams. “Introduction.” Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge and Kegan, 1985.
  • Jørgensen, Sven Eric. Introduction to Systems Ecology. New York: CRC Press, 2012.
  • Leopold, Aldo. Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. Ed. by Luna Leopold. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
  • OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 19 June 2017.