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Conservation in the Progressive Era
The Lay of the Land

Dallas Lore Sharp, a Bostonian professor, was a noted and well-respected nature essayist. Through his essays, Sharp hoped to guide American citizens to appreciate the natural world. Sharp's topics centered on the woods and fields in which most Americans came to know "nature." He urged his fellow-countrymen to be sensitive to the natural world and to view it as something to be valued and preserved. In his book The Lay of the Land, Sharp includes a chapter on the nature movement. In the chapter he attempts to place Americans' interest in nature and conservation in a historical perspective. Several excerpts taken from the chapter are included below. What evidence of the American people's interest in the natural world does Sharp identify? In what ways does Sharp think the American national character is influenced by the nature movement? Why does Sharp think that the nature movement is peculiarly American? How does he view the relationship between the nature movement and American history?

View the entire document from which this excerpt was taken, from Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

The Nature Movement

I was hurrying across Boston Common. Two or three hundred others were hurrying with me. But ahead, at the union of several paths, was a crowd, standing still. I kept hurrying on, not to join the crowd, but simply to keep up the hurry. The crowd was not standing still, it was a-hurrying, too, scattering as fast as it gathered, and as it scattered I noticed that it wore a smile. I hastened up, pushed in, as I had done a score of times on the Common, and got my glimpse of the show. It was not a Mormon preaching, not a single-taxer, not a dog fight. It was Billy, a gray squirrel, taking peanuts out of a bootblack's pocket. And every age, sex, sort, and condition of Bostonian came around to watch the little beast shuck the nuts and bury them singly in the grass of the Common.

"Ain't he a cute little cuss, mister?" said the boy of the brush, feeling the bottom of his empty pocket, and looking up into the prosperous face of Calumet and Hecla at his side. C. and H. smiled, slipped something into the boy's hand with which to buy another pocketful of peanuts for Billy, and hurried down to State Street.

This crowd on the Common is nothing exceptional. It happens every day, and everywhere, the wide country over. We are all stopping to watch, to feed, and to smile. The longest, most far-reaching pause in our hurrying American life to-day is this halt to look at the out-of-doors, this attempt to share its life; and nothing more significant is being added to our American character than the resulting thoughtfulness, sympathy, and simplicity, the smile on the faces of the crowd hurrying over the Common.

Whether one will or not, he is caught up by this nature movement and set adrift in the fields. It may, indeed, be "adrift" for him until he gets thankfully back to the city. "It was a raw November day," wrote one of these new nature students, who happened also to be a college student, "and we went for our usual Saturday's birding into the woods. The chestnuts were ripe, and we gathered a peck between us. On our way home, we discovered a small bird perched upon a cedar tree with a worm in its beak. It was a hummingbird, and after a little searching we found its tiny nest close up against the trunk of the cedar, full of tiny nestlings just ready to fly."

This is what they find, many of these who are caught up by the movement toward the fields; but not all of them. A little five-year-old from the village came out to see me recently, and while playing in the orchard she brought me five flowers, called them by their right names, and told me how they grew. Down in the loneliest marshes of Delaware Bay I know a lighthouse keeper and his solitary neighbor, a farmer: both have been touched by this nature spirit; both are interested, informed, and observant. The farmer there, on the old Zane's Place, is no man of books, like the rector of Selborne, but he is a man of birds and beasts, of limitless marsh and bay and sky, of everlasting silence and wideness and largeness and eternal solitude. He could write a Natural History of the Maurice River Marshes. . . .

Among the cultural influences of our times that have developed the proportions of a movement, this so-called nature movement is peculiarly American. No such general, widespread turning to the out-of-doors is seen anywhere else; no other such body of nature literature as ours; no other people so close to nature in sympathy and understanding, because there is no other people of the same degree of culture living so close to the real, wild out-of-doors.

The extraordinary interest in the out-of-doors is not altogether a recent acquirement. We inherited it. Nature study is an American habit. What else had the pioneers and colonists to study but the out-of-doors? and what else was half as wonderful? They came from an old urban world into this new country world, where all was strange, unnamed, and unexplored. Their chief business was observing nature, not as dull savages, nor as children born to a dead familiarity with their surroundings, but as interested men and women, with a need and a desire to know. Their coming was the real beginning of our nature movement; their observing has developed into our nature study habit.
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View the entire document from which this excerpt was taken, from Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.