"I commend you to Allegany underbrush": The Subversive Place-made Self in Elizabeth C. Wright's Treatise on Nature, Lichen Tufts.
Nature writing in America, since its emergence as a recognizable literary genre in the late eighteenth century, has consistently been used as a means of bringing about changes in culture, generally by attempting to change readers' attitudes toward the natural environment.  It is essentially, as Thomas J. Lyon characterizes it, a subversive genre. A continuum of authors from William Bartram to Susan Fenimore Cooper and from Henry David Thoreau to Barry Lopez have worked within the broad boundaries of this genre while trying to adjust their culture's stance toward nature. Because Elizabeth Wright thought her contemporaries' ideas about nature lay at the root of her culture's deficiencies, she naturally found this subversive genre attractive. That she was conscious of doing so appears in her text when she allies her work with Thoreau's Walden (1854) by having her narrative persona carry and quote from a copy and by referring to her ideas for living as the "deliberate philosophy" (16-17, 69).  This is cert ainly one of the earliest published references to Walden after the initial reviews, and it is undoubtedly the first time that a fellow nature writer pays literary tribute to the project of cultural change that shapes Walden.
Unlike most other nineteenth-century works of nonfiction by American women in which the natural environment is represented to a significant extent--Margaret Fuller's Summer on the lakes (1844) and Caroline Kirkland's Forest Life (1842) are examples--Wright's prose treatise builds its entire argument on a theory of nature. The four essays contained in Lichen Tufts constitute one of the very few works by a female author in the nineteenth century totally devoted to literary nature writing.  The first of Lichen Tufts' essays, "Into the Woods," narrates a camping trip that Wright, or her persona, made with several companions along the Allegheny river in its northern-most reaches, where today it forms the northern and western borders of New York's Allegany State Park. This narrative essay puts into practice, or enacts, her "nature cure"--that is, her means of correcting the faults of her contemporaries by involving them in the vigorous outdoor experience of the wild and by inspiring them to acquire a much more accurate knowledge of natural history. Wright then theorizes and discusses the "nature cure" in the second and third essays, in which she applies the cure to the body and to the mind, respectively. The fourth and final essay, entitled "The Perfection of the Natural," develops and explores implications of Wright's belief that throughout time nature has been guided by God to its perfection in the human species.
One reason the book has received so little attention in its 140 years is that one tenet of its theory of nature was doomed the year before it was published by the appearance of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Along with practically everyone else in the Western world at the time--including even all of the leading geologists (Mayr 404-08)--Wright still believed that the number of all plant and animal species was fixed when God completed the Creation and that the fossil evidence reported successive and discrete waves of creation by God (a theory referred to as special creationism), not the evolution of new species through variation and natural selection.  However, the totality of Wright's conception of nature does not fit within the confines of so fixed and framed a model of nature as provided by special creationism, and it is in the excess--the ideas and their implications that exceed the essentialist model of creation--that we can see the subtle achievement of Wright's treatise. She spoke during the last days of special creationism, yet her textual representation of nature clearly reveals that she was moving toward an ecological understanding of the nonhuman environment. And it is to the greater complexities and dynamics of the ecological model that she directs her readers' attention as she offers the truths of nature as cures for the ills of human culture. Through Lichen Tufts, Wright presents her argument that a deep knowledge of one's local natural environment can remake the ailing self and realign the erring culture, yet the world of nature that she imagines and represents is one that has not been described or fully accounted for in the works of essentialist scientists. We see in Lichen Tufts, the older, more static understanding of nature being eclipsed by a dynamic world in which there is as much creation before as behind. Thus Wright's expose of important weaknesses in her culture--especially those that inhibit the self-fulfillment of women--is based upon her argument that a culture that knows nature will be superior to the present one. Cumulatively, this treatise in four parts develops a thorough cultural critique based on Wright's theory of nature; but it also provides us with a view of the growing pains experienced by American nature writing amid the cultural swing from Agassiz to Darwin--that is, from teleology to ecology.
Assumed in the very conception of Lichen Tufts is the belief that a literary representation of the other-than-human environment can contribute to the nation's physical, intellectual, and moral health. Nearly all of Wright's suggestions for cultural improvements depend upon deepening both her contemporaries' shallow conception of their natural surroundings and their ability to belong there. The two maul strategies she uses to help her achieve these ends also become important indicators of Wright's distinctiveness in the history of American nature writing. First, she implies through her figurative use of Protestant typology and various passages from the New Testament that a deep knowledge of local ecology has the power so to improve a person morally and intellectually that this knowledge of one's home environment has, in terms of her trope, a salvific power. Second, she presents this theory incarnate in her narrative persona, who is so imbued with an affinity for her Allegheny woods and an experiential knowledg e of that bio-region that she exemplifies the fulfilled self Wright hopes to encourage.
The first step Wright takes toward establishing the power that a knowledge of nature has to remake, or "save," a person is to set up a dichotomy between those who see nature properly and those who will need some coaching. Early in the first essay, "Into the Woods," much of which is given over to a narrative of a camping trip that Wright's persona and friends make along the Allegheny River, Wright dismisses most of her contemporaries as loving poetry about nature more than nature itself. In the opening paragraphs, Wright satirically condemns her "sentimental" and "croaking neighbors" who "professed to love poetry, and to appreciate the enthusiasm of the poet-lovers of Nature" but who refused to experience the realities of the natural world firsthand (11, 10). These characters are left behind to the clearly inferior environs of city comforts and books of poetry about nature. Since the original impulse of the camping trip is to escape the city and dwell for awhile amidst the "divine poem" of nature, their rambl e then becomes a challenge to enthusiasts of nature-poetry to put down their books for a less mediated encounter with truth:
We were wearied with the experimental rehearsal of life's drama, and ready to go back of all rehearsals and acting, into the forests and grottoes where the air breathes poetry, and all the elements of grander dramas than ever we have enacted, are created and exhaled by rock, and tree and moss--by cool spring and shady river--by many-toned birds, and bright-hued insects, and shy wild beasts--by fog, and cloud, and wind, sunshine, and rain, and dew. (11)
In its equation of nature, truth, and poetry, this representation of nature is conventionally romantic; however, Wright turns it into her first suggestion of the need for humans to adopt a humbler ethical posture toward nature. She does this by emphasizing the dynamic and dramatic interactions and interdependencies of minerals, plants, animals, water, sunlight, and wind, and by then claiming that the phenomena of the local ecology are "grander" than any of the comedies and tragedies ever enacted by humans.
Wright further distinguishes the saved from the damned, as it were, by speculating that the saved might be inspired to express their perspectives on nature in writing:
If one of us should be endowed with genius enough to write out a faint transcript of the divine poem we found growing wild in the wilderness, our croaking neighbors would perhaps shed tears of sentimental rapture over the beauty of the fragmentary transcript (especially if they did not know who wrote it), although they believed the living poem was not worth taking the trouble of going to see. (11-12)
Thus nature writing at its best accepts its place as "a faint transcript of the divine poem," but only the faithful followers of nature will be allowed the "genius" needed to attempt such representation.
In a related trope, Wright teases her idea of nature as the messiah (in Christian soteriology) out of her play with Protestant typology. At the beginning of her narrative, during a verbal celebration of the freedom she and her fellow pilgrims are about to enjoy from the dreary ceremonies of daily life, Wright conjures the Hebrew rules of worship:
It was utterly delightful to let ourselves loose, and live freely; to have no rules for coming in or going out, for rising up or sitting down; to be emancipated from the bondage of the ceremonial law, and do what pleased us best was paradisiacal enough. (17)
In part, this freedom recalls her analogy with children freed "to play in the woods" (9),but the allusion to "ceremonial law" gives the passage implications from Protestant exegesis. That is, since she and her camping companions in being freed from this ceremonial law are leaving their benighted neighbors behind, those lost souls are figuratively equated with the Tribes of Israel, whose messiah has not yet come. The blessed campers are freed from their ancient bondage and redeemed by their savior, Nature.
Wright develops this conceit even further at the close of the third essay in Lichen Tufts, "The Nature Cure.--For the Mind." Here, Wright approaches her readers in a much more polemical tone; where earlier she relies on a wry humor cast in irony or paradox, she now abandons the levity and preaches. In the first essay, the neighbors she left behind in town were dimwitted but largely innocuous; here they become "poor mammon-ridden wretches" (91). Similarly, much of the freedom gained through one's closer knowledge of nature is associated here, not so much with the greater proximity to truth, but with one's ability not to care what other humans think about one's affinity for nature: "By and by you get the habit of being free, even among your fellows" (93) While widening the gulf between the followers of nature and the followers of Mammon in this essay, Wright takes a truly dramatic step when she posits a dichotomy between "we, the working people" and the "aristocrats" (96).  Thus, the votaries of nature beco me a social class oppressed by the members of the ruling class who rise to their positions of power and affluence by birth and unearned privilege. We are, she writes, capable of making "ourselves the peers of any class we please" (96). In the terms of this analogy, those opposing nature's guidance are no longer simply left behind, figured as the wandering Tribes of Israel; now Wright figures them as positive obstacles between nature's faithful and their Truth by the aristocrats' insistence that "it is necessary to have a privileged class to do the learning and thinking, leaving another class to perform all labor; for labor, they say, is incompatible with study and thought" (96). To serve their own ends, then, the ruling class would prohibit the workers from the close study of nature--wherein lies their salvation. This idea, of course, has clear implications for the lives of urban workers who have moved into towns and cities away from their rural places of origin, and no other voice in American nature writing in the nineteenth century so overtly discusses this aspect of the new class struggles.
Nature, however, in Wright's representation, perpetually offers her "treasures" to anyone who attends to her even if only in "the odd scraps of half worn hours, and the fag end of holidays" (98). Having emphasized, by means of her condemnation of the "aristocrats," the great distance separating the two classes, Wright then reverts again to Protestant typology as she closes this essay:
To the weary and heart-worn, or to the empty soul, she [i.e., Nature] is an untiring solace--a faithful friend. Her lessons are food and rest, and like a fountain in a desert place, or "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." (98)
By quoting Isaiah's prophecy of the messiah (Isaiah 32:2), Wright once again figures the nonhuman environment as bearing the redemptive power of the Christian savior. By contrast, Wright's relatively gentle criticism of the human world in "Into the Woods," the book's first essay, seems much less consequential than here, where she develops the much harsher criticism of figuring human society as the Old Testament wilderness. The nonregenerate, who were cast simply as "croaking neighbors" before, are now condemned as "aristocrats" making life oppressive and soul-deadening for the poor working people of the world. The more polemical tone of the third essay, the harsher implications of its typology, and the emphasis on the distance between the two major classes of humans--all this suggests that the workers' oppressors are so distant from their own potential salvation that Wright's readers can fairly dissociate themselves from that group and more readily identify with Wright's persona and the regenerate followers o f nature, those devoted to the moral and intellectual advancement of self and culture.
Her analogy between religious piety and the love of nature is most significant for the history of nature writing in that she avoids conventionality by making one's moral and intellectual salvation depend upon a close knowledge of one's natural environment. Wright begins to establish this point by casting those who venture out with her narrative persona as "devout... pilgrims" 12, and she figures them variously as innocent, Wordsworthian "happy children" 9, 12, as "novices" 15, 23, and--paradoxically, perhaps--as "the initiated" 21. Thus the nonhuman environment becomes the site of divinity, and Wright's group of elect souls enjoy their regeneration through the influence of the "divine poem" 11. But Wright gives her use of this conventional metaphor what we might call an ecological dimension by making the salvific power of her Allegheny wilderness dependent upon the pilgrims' close attention to and knowledge of this particular place. It is not enough simply to profess a love of the land; the salvific power bec omes efficacious only when one has an affective familiarity with the natural phenomena. This knowledge comes to one not by divine grace, but by having experienced over time, and by having been alert to all the while, the natural phenomena of one's home place.
One phenomenon she develops at some length is "the voices of the trees" 21. One enters the ranks of the initiated only after having paid close attention to the different sounds made by the various species of trees in her woods. These voices sing "the poetry of the unwritten language of the trees" 26. This, of course, is the true poetry that her derided but comfortable neighbors in town will never hear in their volumes of William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, and "Robbie" Burns. Her readers, however, have an option in the dichotomy Wright has established. They can choose to align their sympathies, not with the urban effete, but with Wright's enlightened persona, which the author obviously wants, so that she can instruct and inspire them to some degree by describing a sample of "tree dialects" and by enacting her own understanding of them 22; but her larger purpose, like Thoreau's, is to awaken her readers generally so they are newly authorized to make their own observations and discoveries.
To reinforce her idea that the close study of nature can save her readers' intellectual and moral lives, Wright moves, in her third essay, beyond the Old Testament types to a significant manipulation of a series of passages from the New Testament. Amid a sustained argument for improving "starving" minds through education, Wright echoes Christ's admonishment in the Sermon on the Mount to think less about what we shall eat and drink and more about "the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6: 31-33). For "the kingdom of God," however, Wright substitutes the natural sciences, specifying geology, botany, entomology, astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry (83-84). By means of this substitution, she conflates the means to Christian salvation and a knowledge of these sciences. Wright makes similar use of Christ's promise that God will not give a stone to one who asks for bread (Matthew 7: 9-11). She equates the valueless stone with shallow social amusements, such as dances and circus or theatrical performances; the study of natur e and the natural sciences provides the needed "bread for the intellect" in Wright's use of this analogy.
In her closing comment on these empty diversions, Wright echoes Paul's important definition of faith: "Whatever of value these things may have in their own place, they never can be satisfactorily substituted for the substance of worthier things" 85. Rather than the "faith" which Paul defines, in part, as "the substance of things hoped for" (Hebrews 11: 1), Wright implies that it is a knowledge of nature that has the power to remake the person. In describing the qualities of such a new-made person, she explains, "mental liberty is a prerequisite to all deep and abiding happiness, and Nature sets you free, if you are willing to be emancipated" (93). In echoing Christ's "the truth shall make you free" (John 8: 32), Wright once again puts nature in the place of the means to Christian salvation. The freedom gained from nature enables one to "make your own observations" and "deduce your own conclusions" about the natural world, and thereafter to "enrich mankind with new revelations of science" (93-94). In a culmina ting move, Wright thus presents revelation as coming from nature and from humans' observations of natural phenomena; she directs her readers' attention to "the material, visible, tangible revelations of Nature" (107). The unavoidable implication of her repeated conflation of Christian salvation and an experiential knowledge of the physical environment is that women and men can raise themselves by means of the close observation of nature to the highest moral and intellectual levels.
This deep knowledge of local ecology is the identifying characteristic of Wright's persona, who thereby becomes a chief device by which Wright seeks to persuade her readers that such connectedness to place is the basis for a fulfilled self. She develops this affinity at first generally:
I had grown up in woods like these, and they were home to me. I had been absent from them two years in the west, and had longed with more unspeakable homesickness for the evergreen woods and mountain air, than for home or friends. (19)
With this introductory homesickness as a base, Wright continues to deepen her persona's feeling of belonging to her home place. At one point she focuses specifically on her closeness to the region's flora:
Having spent in woods like these more summers than I care to count just now, this forest growth was well nigh as familiar as the foliage in a kitchen garden; and two years' residence in prairie land had made me hunger and thirst for these woods and waters so keenly that I went "maundering" about, greeting my old friends beside every log and under every bank. (41-42).
Wright presents her persona as one who has attuned even her sense of hearing to the specific sounds of her native forests, and who was therefore necessarily dissatisfied by the sounds of the prairie during her stay in Illinois:
The mountain echoes were ravishing music to ears wearied with the flat echoless sounds of prairie land. Who could afford to sleep indoors and thus lose any part of that grand Oratorio of unwritten music played by the wind on a wilderness of harps? (19)
Finally, since her return to western New York had been prompted by an illness she contracted on the Illinois prairies, Wright suggests that good health and an affinity for place stand in a vaguely causal relation to one another. Accordingly, she gives her persona a faith in the power of her home waters to cure her, as displayed in the following passage that recounts the "bit of a ducking" she received "in crossing Great Valley Creek":
Here my western enemy, the ague, which had tormented me through Illinois "and back again"... came on with double force and drove me home. When I lay sick and fevered by the Mississippi, drinking warm wiggling water, I felt as though the cool springs and clear air of these hills would cure me at once--but it took more than one week. (54)
Beyond these more or less direct declarations of her affinity for her native place, however, Wright's narrative self enacts this affinity, most clearly perhaps in the passage in which she explicates what she apprehends in the "birch's voice." In the following passage, Wright recreates a fulfilling childhood memory shaped by the heightened powers of perception that result from knowing one's place as well as Wright's persona knows hers. The passage weaves from language an ecology of smells, sounds, tastes, and sights that emphasizes the interdependencies of life forms--old tree and young, moss and tree, grouse and mossy tree, bee and sap, and the children dependent upon tree, grouse, sap, and bee: I cannot describe its [i.e., the birch's] voice, for it is to me so associated with a very different sound, that I cannot think of them separately, though they are not alike in the least. In our old sugar bush there used to be a great black birch which had many years agone taken root on a fallen log, and its long roo ts had run down on either side to the earth and taken fast hold there while the fallen tree decayed away from beneath it, leaving our birch standing on a five-legged stool of its own twisted roots, in the air. Another fallen log lay near by, covered with a thick mat of yellow, feather-like mosses, and on this used to stand a patriarch grouse, or "pheasant," or "partridge," as he was called, and wake the dreamy echoes with his drumming. We very rarely saw him, for he was a shy bird, but we heard him many times a day in his season, and found his tracks there. We children used to tap the old birch and catch its profuse sweetish sap in a little trough, to drink of its diluted spicery; and that draught and its neighborhood, and the tremulous thunder of the grouse's wings, with the hum of the wild bees which used to drink at the same place, are all called up by the birch's voice, and become part and parcel of it, past the power of analysis to separate them. (25-26)
Here she shows nature in its salvific powers, shows her soul in its best spiritual health, and thereby acts out her principle that the close knowledge of one's home place is saving. In her declared affinity, in her announced desire, for her native place, the "Allegany underbrush," the persona becomes a textual embodiment of Wright's intention of changing how Americans view their home places.
By means of a crucial textual link between her admirably liberated and fulfilled persona and her principle that knowing one's native environment is saving, Wright develops the most profound implication of the importance of one's sense of place. She achieves this in her commentary on the first two clauses of Proverbs 23: 7' which she renders, "As a man thinketh, so is he." In her gloss on Solomon's words, Wright establishes the causal link between the fulfilled self and the knowledge of place she has been advocating: "Our thoughts are us. What we think, we are. What we know, we are. What we learn becomes part of our minds" (84). Since we are what we know, and since a knowledge of nature is saving, the saved self is the self shaped by a knowledge of local ecology. Thus this knowledge of place becomes more than a storehouse of memorized facts, ecological relationships, and observations. Since we are what we know, this knowledge shapes a new personal identity which Wright's text very closely links with the highe r intellectual and moral levels she encourages readers to attain.
The implications of Wright's words here are remarkably bioregional. She has transformed the rhetoric of Puritan conversion morphology into an early voice for an environmental ethic based on a deep affiliation to one's specific bioregion. The "conversion" Wright attempts to coach her readers through in Lichen Tufts creates a new person whose newly independent mind perceives the truth that is regularly obscured by the "crust of conventionalism" (85), and the sufficient requirement is an intimacy "with nature at home" (90). Susan Cooper wrote extensively about her Otsego Lake region, Henry Thoreau traveled (and wrote) extensively in Concord, but Elizabeth Wright in her Allegheny woods articulated a theory for doing so: the deep knowledge of one's local ecology so informs, clarifies, and thereby liberates the mind that the self is fulfilled and the overall quality of the culture is enhanced.
Although her "nature cure" is likely a phrase intended as a satiric echo of the spate of "cures" being hawked by various physicians of the time, Wright also presents her ideas as offering tangible and practical "cures" for real ailments of body and mind in her culture--all of which result from a skewed perception of the physical environment.  Numerous undesirable conditions in her society are linked to representations of nature that are flawed in any of several ways, but most of these affect specifically women. Of these Wright most aggressively attacks abuses of botany and the deleterious effects of "romance." Since women (as well as men) need to study nature in order to improve themselves, Wright views all inaccurate representations of the physical environment as dangerous to the culture.
One specific obstacle her culture places in the way of women's progress comes from the popular realm of botany, a natural science for which Wright shows a deep respect, dubbing it "the beautiful science" (32). Because she intends her own book about nature to guide readers toward a less anthropocentric and less sentimentalized perception of their physical environment, she poisons her pen for a formal excommunication of the flower-language books, a genre of gift-books that proliferated in France and America from the early nineteenth century. Wright mentions by title (but not by author's name) Catherine H. Esling's Flora's Lexicon (1841), Sarah J. Hale's Flora's Interpreter (1833), and Floral Diadem.  These and other books like them were designed for women, offering them a floral world as an alternative to human society, "and mixing botany, horticulture, folklore, poetry, and personal narrative" (Seaton, "Flower Language Books" 3). Most of them feature a floral language, that is, a "symbolic language" consist ing of a list of specific flower names, and another ordered by the meanings assigned to each flower (Seaton, "Flower Language Books" 1). 
Of course, Wright condemns such "sentimental flummery" because "many people take such stuff for poetry" (29). Anyone at least half-serious about botany or poetry would be annoyed by such books, but the success of these publishing boondoggles especially concerns Wright because she sees that they are actually damaging her culture. She practically flays alive the FloralDiadem and its author (for a range of offenses against botany, the Bible, common sense, and internal consistency), concluding, "If the Diadem's piety, which it professes to teach, is as bogus as its botany, we wish it a speedy death" (32). Her attack on these books is so venomous because she believes they pose a threat to her society:
If these books, and the counterfeit "language" they teach, had not usurped the place of the beautiful science on which they have grown like parasites, they would not be worth the trouble of chastising. But when sensible people come to the conclusion that botany amounts to little more than the language of flowers, and that language such idiotic gibberish as I have quoted from, surely it is time to enter a protest against such usurpation and desecration. (32)
Botany, then--and by implication the other natural sciences--is usurped by such sentimental representations, and it ought not to be; all written representations should be informed by the natural sciences as well as by the author's direct observations of natural phenomena. A society that viewed the plant kingdom through the distorting filter of such anthropocentric fustian, Wright argues, could never stand in a proper relationship to its natural environment.
After the problems posed by the misty sentimentality of these floral language books, the women readers with whom she is primarily concerned face further problems if they turn to the clearly scientific literature for help as they begin their studies in nature. There they will find the equally unhelpful excesses of the "mechanical" botanies:
There are a class of botanists of the mechanical sort, who are to science what the patent-note singing books are to music--mechanical, soulless anatomists of parts, and dictionary-like vocabularies of technology, who perceive no laws, conceive of no causes nor forces not laid down in the text-books: mere shallow smatterers and quacks, who look at a plant as they would at a new chimney, to see how it is built, and when its external structure is discovered, and its habitat indicated by a vegetable directory, and its name and lineage discovered in unintelligible Anglo-Graeco-Latin, are satisfied, especially if its chemical qualities recommend it to the cook or the physician. These scientific bores disgust those who love flowers and trees for the sake of their beauty and poetry; and so, because some scientific prattlers are stupid and prosy, they think that the science of plants itself is unlovely and undesirable. (36)
In this two-pronged critique of the available literature of botany, the natural science that most readily welcomed women, Wright informs her female readers that they are patronized and deluded by the ridiculous content of the books designed specifically for them by their culture and that they are repelled by the hard science whose goal is simply to classify and control. Neither serves to encourage or enable women to know nature; both constitute hindering misappropriations of the other-than-human environment. Wright thus calls for a representation of nature that brings "music" to the otherwise mechanical. She speaks from within the tradition of women botanizers and calls for a literature of nature that blends art and science.
A cultural problem that runs parallel to these hindrances in botany that Wright targets is the victimization of women by the romanticization of both nature and women, especially as occurs in romantic fiction, which she blames for much of the failed development and unsatisfying lives of women. While Wright prods her female readers to accept their own complicity in this victimization, she also condemns this romanticization for its power to keep women from nature study. Romance, as she explains, is a very demon when it comes to its representations of women--a culturally damaging demon since it succeeds in preventing their full development. In the following passage she clearly associates that full development with the direct observation of nature:
Young ladies in their teens, who have resolution enough to defy parental advice and authority, and run away with some perfumed popinjay, to be "married in haste to repent at leisure," have not moral force nor physical courage enough to put on a pair of calfskin shoes, and a dress short and loose enough to climb hills in without stepping on the skirts, or gasping for the breath they have no room for in their dress waists; and then, thus equipped, to take rambles, and even scrambles, in places rough and smooth in pursuit of those objects of beauty or curiosity, of scientific or artistic interest, which are always accessible in the woods and fields. (64)
The sentimental fiction consumed by her culture's young ladies is corrupting in two ways. The rebellious energy it inspires in them does no more than lead them to marriages they will regret, and it does not encourage them to study the world around them. The writers of romantic fiction also bear much of the blame, especially where they actively discourage women from attending to their natural environment:
Scientific young ladies are never the heroines of novels! They are absurd and unfashionable, and are supposed always to have ragged blue stockings, inky fingers, and dowdy hair....All the oracles of romance have shown that women never take to science or art, except from starvation or disappointment. (64)
But Wright does not allow her female readers to escape all responsibility for their condition. She expresses contempt for women who allow their perception of life to be shaped by the delusions of romance:
I am not going to dispute her prey with Romance, for her votaries are too destitute of gumption to be brought to their senses by anything short of the sharpest realities of life, and then it is often too late for them to undo the absurd mischiefs they have done to themselves. (64-65)
Wright puts the finishing touches on her condemnation of such women in a fine echo of Thoreau's most poignant style: "Half of the American people are women, or will be, if they live long enough, but how is the nation to stand alone with so flimsy a 'better half' as these women make?" (65). There is blame enough to go around in Wright's deluding culture, but she emphasizes the complicity of her largely female readers as a polemical prod to action.
A further consequence of so false a culture is that both men's and women's views of life are so beclouded in marriage by superficial values and beguiling expectations that both, according to Wright, can be considered co-sufferers--but women's lot is worse: "Men usually seek refuge in business from hungry needs of their inner selves, and try to quench their soul's perennial thirst with eager draughts of gain." But women bear the added burden of being victimized by the deficiencies of their men:
Women commonly seek their refuge in matrimony, only to find themselves called upon to feed instead of being fed; and behold their garners are empty and their fountains dry--they perish of thirst and starvation of mind and heart, and others perish with them. (79)
Wright's solution to these serious cultural deficiencies is for American women to acquire the "gumption" together with the "moral force" and "physical courage" to improve themselves by means of their close study of their local ecologies. Hugh Miller, the Scottish quarry worker and poetic renderer of geology, had advised the young working-class men of England to improve themselves by the same method. In Wright's own country, various authors, such as J. T. Headley, had recommended vigorous backcountry activity as a means to the emotional and physical well-being of men.  However, in recommending to women that they free themselves from a confining, limiting society by scrambling through laurel thickets in order to experience and study uncultivated nature firsthand and by learning the skills needed to travel in the wild, Wright clearly intends for her nature writing to correct a serious gender bias of her culture. In doing so she precedes by two decades and more the work of other women writers who, whether dir ectly or indirectly, made similar suggestions. 
Much of the cultural meaning of Lichen Tufts comes from an internal tension between its affiliation with a scientific tradition reaching its end and its author's belief that her physical environment has more than symbolic or typological meaning. On the one hand, Wright's treatise endorses some ideas that reduce the natural realm to a divinely appointed typology of human soul, which in turn reflects the mind of God. Nature's purpose--as seen by Louis Agassiz, Hugh Miller, and others--was to provide for humankind, the pinnacle of God's achievement in the Creation. On the other hand, however, Wright represents the natural as having a history and legitimacy that does not depend upon a relation to humans. Furthermore, as we will see, the nonhuman environment that Wright presents her readers is not reducible to a conglomeration of separate facts or types; her emphasis is on the interconnectedness of all life forms and natural phenomena, and on the power (which she casts as a redeeming power) that a knowledge of thi s has to remake the person who pays attention. This writer's only known book might have been a clever, attractive, marvelously well written, thin recycling of somebody else's theory of nature if her own close relationship to her particular bioregion had not permeated her representation of nativeness and nature. The result is a flourish of individual talent at the end of a ponderous tradition.
Wright's view of nature writing, "a faint transcript of the divine poem" (11), parallels Agassiz's view of comparative zoology as demonstrating, not parental descent among species, but rather thoughts in the mind of God. In Agassiz's own words, "To study, in this view, the succession of animals in time, and their distribution in space, is therefore to become acquainted with the ideas of God himself" (Agassiz and Gould 206). This was a pattern of thought based in the ideas of Plato, and which Agassiz derived from his most revered teacher, Baron Georges Cuvier, who held that all similarities between life forms in different branches of the plant and animal kingdoms were the result of God's plan and not indicators of genetic relationships (Lurie x-xii). This theory provided the basis for Agassiz's career-long commitment to the fixity of species. Because all species exist in the mind of God, all variation will always occur within a species and never can result in a new species. Using the same pattern of thought, Hugh Miller, the geologist who inspired Wright, explained that the fossils of extinct plant and animal species he studied in Scotland stood in relation to humankind precisely as the Old Testament types stood in relation to the anti-type, Christ: "Man, in short, is pre-eminently what a theologian would term the ante-typical existence,--the being in whom the types meet and are fulfilled" ("Geology" 231). Such radically anthropocentric, essentialist thought can easily lead a person of philosophically idealist leanings to conclude with Emerson not only that the physical universe lay in one-to-one correspondence with the soul--"Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact" (18)--but also that "All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life" (19).
Wright's direct references to Agassiz (90) and Miller (96-97) show that she cultivated a direct knowledge of this tradition of thought about the physical environment. Important aspects of her representation of nature further display the influence of this dominant Western view. Most notable here is her acceptance of the theory of nature's perfection in the human creature, which Wright develops in the book's fourth essay, "The Perfection of the Natural." By this model of nature, God imbued his creation, in "the very elements themselves" (101), with a "great yearning towards the better and the higher" (99.) The highest achievement of this primal impulse is the human creature, "the highest type of animal existences yet known" (105). Humans, then, are the result of the divine "tendency in the natural to perfect itself" and the fulfillment of the "universal law of progress" (107). It is difficult to imagine a purer statement of the premise for reducing nature to a more or less interesting set of anthropocentric sym bols than this rendering that Wright was prepared for by Agassiz and Miller. However, crucial but subtle elements in Lichen Tufts show the thought of its author has pulled away from rarified essentialism to the Earth of her living experience. In several ways, Lichen Tufts offers a view of nature laced with suggestions of biocentrism and largely informed by an ecological, rather than a symbolic, understanding of the relationships among species.
An element of biocentrism pervades Wright's theory of nature, and this is a severe qualification of the extreme anthropocentrism of Emerson's and Agassiz's symbolic views of nature. One important indication of this element in her thought occurs in her critique of the human need to tell the history of natural objects as if that entire history centered around human needs. When, for example, we tell the history of the ash tree through human legends, literature, and history, we study
only historical, and not the natural language of the trees themselves. They [that is, legends, etc.] speak of them only to those who know the story, but never tell the stories themselves even to the most intimate of their acquaintances. They are no part of the tree history proper, only an episode in which there is more of the history of men than of trees, and we cannot expect trees to learn a new dialect to add to their speech, that they may be able to prate of men. Yet we, being human, like this odor of old human ideas clinging to them, and would willingly interpret their speech awry in order to find our fore-fellows mentioned in their chronicles. (28-29)
Nature has existence and legitimacy beyond the human experience of it, beyond Emerson's theory of correspondences, beyond Thoreau's pre-1854 claim that "Nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all" (Journal 164). An implication of Wright's notion that the human treatment of trees in literature and legend (which is slanted, "awry") tells more about us than about trees is that "tree history proper" exists outside any human perception or representation of it; thus, nature has meaning beyond the human need for it to reflect our souls and minds. She thereby teaches a humbler environmental ethic than was available from either Agassiz, Emerson, or Miller. Wright's nature cannot be appropriated so easily because it cannot be reduced to a typology of the human soul.
An equally important difference from the symbolic view of nature arises from the great importance Wright places on knowing one's local ecology well. So long as the purpose of nature study is to describe and classify flora and fauna as a means to discovering the keys to their control, there is no great difficulty in maintaining a Christian teleology such as prevailed when Wright published Lichen Tufts. But Wright, even while apparently subscribing to the world view of Agassiz and other essentialists who subordinated the natural sciences to theology, granted nature its own standing and argued that the purpose of nature study is to remake the moral and intellectual self--even one's very identity--by a deep, experiential knowledge of one's native region. This is radically democratic because it grants everyone equal access to Truth while also authorizing them to draw their own conclusions. This is the way, Lichen Tufts makes clear, to a free and enlightened culture that will be much more likely to dedicate itself to the nurturing of community based on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. From our perspective today, it is clear that the ultimate goal of Western science from Bacon onward has been the control and exploitation of nature. However, when Wright presents her women readers with a nature that has meaning older than the human need of its life-giving powers, and when she liberates them from their corsets so that they can go pursue personal fulfillment in the close study of their home places, she is not reducing nature to a coded set of symbols of the human soul, and she is not subordinating nature study to theology. She is giving them Galileo's telescope, but with the necessary license.
Through her persona Wright seems to have liberated herself from the barriers of class and gender that stood ready to keep her in long skirts, to keep her from the study of nature, to keep her from the truth she claims is accessible to all in every field and forest. Her prose is designed to liberate others who might identify with her. However, to the extent that Lichen Tufts allies itself (as it does most clearly in the fourth essay) to the symbolic theory of nature taught by essentialists such as Agassiz, Miller, and Emerson, the book bears within it a contributing cause of the fall from the natural grace Wright promised her readers. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that while remaining to a great extent within the confines of essentialist thinking and the teleological branch of natural science that would not produce any new limbs, Wright--with considerable subtlety, grace, and humor-managed to have her say. The disparity between the two modes of thought in Lichen Tufts is a sign of growing pains i n the genre of American nature writing, the pain caused by the declining sway of Christian teleology and the rising influence of ecological science. Consider that Wright published this in the same year that Thoreau read and felt much of his post-Walden--that is, post-symbolist--thought crystallized by On the Origin of Species (McGregor 188), and you can observe a sea-change in American nature writing as it happens.
In the decade before Lichen Tufts, both Susan Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau published expressions of their deep affinities for their respective home places, in each case as an attempt to change the culture's view of nature. Elizabeth Wright acts out the same principle of nature writing in the northern Allegheny woods. In doing so, however, Wright very interestingly inverts the now mythic trope of westward travel, returning to the East after two years in "prairie land" and publishing a prose treatise in i86o that announces the curative and redemptive powers of staying where you were born and raised. Cooper's Rural Hours (1850) and Thoreau's Walden (1854) convey much the same message, and together these three authors form a triad of nature writers suggesting bioregionalism as an antidote to the two forces that ripped people away from their known places: industrialization and rabid westward expansionism.
(1.) Following a paper I read on Wright's Lichen Tufts at the American Literature Association's conference in May 1998, Hugh MacDougall, founder and secretary/treasurer of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, kindly offered to look for Wright in the census records and genealogical resources held by the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, New York. His preliminary findings point to an Elizabeth Wright listed in the 1860 United States census as twenty-eight, a book dealer. They were living in Dunkirk, New York, at the time of the census, and had two children. As of this writing, however, there is no evidence identifying this Elizabeth Wright as the author of Lichen Tufts. Mr. MacDougall has also located a poem published by an Elizabeth C. Wright in The Ladies' Repository for May 1855 (263). I am grateful to Hugh MacDougall for his expert work and for his generosity.
(2.) Professor Buell shared this anecdote with me in an e-mail message, 1 May 1998. He comments further, "Thumbing through it, my attention was immediately caught by both its earliness and by the fact that the author was a woman with a zest for Thoreau and for being contrarian." The only published discussions of Lichen Tufts to date occur in Professor Buell's "American Pastoral Ideology Reappraised" and The Environmental Imagination.
(3.) As my working definition of "nature writing," I offer the following, which is my adaptation of a definition offered by Barry Lopez (297): A work of nature writing is a nonfiction prose consideration of the other-than-human environment in the author's world experience, the whole imbued with implications for how humans should live in relation to the land and nonhuman life forms. The work will also display an awareness of the evocative power of language.
(4.) Readers will quickly recognize an affinity for Thoreau's style in Walden that pervades Wright's prose. Wright tends, however, to be a bit more caustic or, by turns, jauntier than Thoreau, whom she refers to as "Walden" (16) One example from Lichen Tufts will serve to indicate this stylistic affinity: "The majority of people live because they were born, and have not yet died yet" (88-89). The stylistic affinity reflects more than imitation; Wright clearly found in Walden a mind that was an analogue to her own.
(5.) The volume entitled Lichen Tufts contains more than the four essays which comprise Wright's treatise on nature (9-116). Wright also includes forty poems (117-228); the poems, however, treat a variety of topics and are not unified by a concern with nature. Since Wright's place in American nature writing will be determined by her treatise on nature, the present study analyzes only the prose portion of Lichen Tufts. The poems are nonetheless deserving of close study.
(6.) Mayr provides an authoritative discussion of special creationism and its basis in essentialist thought--that is, the theory that all life forms on Earth are physical manifestations of invariable thoughts, or essences, in the mind of the creator. See especially 45-47 and 401-08.
(7.) Wright's thoughts about class are influenced by the Scottish quarry worker and geologist Hugh Miller, who encouraged the young working men he addresses in The Old Red Sandstone to reconceive the basis of happiness and to overcome their jealousy of the upper classes by not letting "them get ahead of you in intelligence," and further that "if all your minds were cultivated, not merely intellectually, but morally also, you would find yourselves, as a body, in the possessions of a power which every charter in the world could not confer upon you, and which all the tyranny or injustice of the world could not withstand" (2-3).
(8.) One of the most significant events in the medical profession in the decades before the publication of Wright's "nature cure" is the battle between the mainstream physicians and thc deepening presence of homeopathic physicians, whose founder, Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann (1755-1843), is credited with one of the great discoveries of his time: "[G]iven the existing state of medical knowledge, the absence of therapy was vastly superior to heroic therapy" (Rothstein 157). But homeopathic thought also led to abuses for profit and fame, and "cures" of many types were advertised. In her use of the phrase "nature cure," Wright seems to echo other phrases current in her day, notably the "water cure" of Hahnemann. S. Weir Mitchell, some years after Lichen Tufts, advocated a "camp cure." (See his Wear and Tear. I wish to thank Laura Dassow Walls for bringing Mitchell's camp cure to my attention.) When Wright published Lichen Tufts, homeopathic physicians of every shade were developing their theories and prac tices in reaction against what many perceived to be the disastrous effects of "heroic medicine"--that is, treatments by "regular physicians" based on the corollary theories that a patient's observable symptoms provided a sufficient understanding of the illness and that a
treatment that affected any of these symptoms was beneficial since it was, by the first principle, affecting the disease itself (Rothstein 42-43).
(9.) I have been unable to locate any volume with "Floral Diadem" in its title. However, Wright quotes and criticizes it so extensively that it must exist.
(10.) See also Seaton's fuller study, The Language of Flowers.
(11.) Headley's The Adirondack, or Life in the Woods bears quoting amid a discussion of blatantly gendered representations of outdoor experience. Headley's persona leaves his demanding city occupations behind in order to be restored in the wilds of Adirondacks, making at an inspired moment the following observation:
[T]he pathless woods, the long and steady stretch up the mountain side and the coarse fare, are better than all the "poppies and mandrigoras" of the world to "medicine" not only the body but the mind. Your Saratoga water and Nahant bathing and Rockaway dinner tables will do, perhaps, for healthy men, cripples and women. But for the reduced system that needs tone and manliness given it, strong physical exercise is demanding. (13-14)
Wright aims to bring down precisely this variety of high-flown machismo.
(12.) The works by women writers following Wright chronologically that might be said to inspire women to undertake travel in American wilds include Isabella Bird's A Lady's life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) and Constance F. Gordon Cumming's Granite Crags (1884).
Agassiz, Louis, and Augustus A. Gould. Principles of Zoology: Touching the Structure, Development, Distribution, and Natural Arrangement of the Races of Animals, Living and Extinct. 1848. New York: Arno, 1970.
Buell, Lawrence. "American Pastoral Ideology Reappraised." American Literary History 1 (1989): 1-29.
-----. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
Dzwonkoski, Peter, ed. American Literary Publishing Houses 1638-1899. Vol 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. 2 vols.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, 1836. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol 1. Ed. Alfred R. Ferguson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971. 1-45. 5 vols.
Headley, J. T. The Adirondack, or Lifr in the Woods. New York: Baker and Scribner, 1849.
Lopez, Barry, et al. "Natural History: An Annotated Booklist." Antceus 57 (1986): 283-97.
Lurie, Edward. "Editor's Introduction." Essay on Classification. By Louis Agassiz. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962. ix-xxxiii.
Lyon, Thomas J. "Nature Writing as a Subversive Activity." North Dakota Quarterly 59.2 (1991): 6-16.
Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Though: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
McGregor, Robert Kuhn. A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau's Study of Nature. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1997.
Miller, Hugh. "Geology in Its Bearings on the Two Theologies: Part I." The Testimony of the Rocks; Or, Geology in Its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1859. 211-36.
-----. The Old Red Sandstone; or, New Walks in an Old Field. Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1841.
Mitchell, S. Weir. Wear and Tear, Or Hints for the Overworked. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1871.
Rothstein, William G. American Physicians in the Nineteenth century: From Sects to Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1972.
Seaton, Beverly. "The Flower Language Books of the Nineteenth Century." Morton Arboretum Quarterly 16 (1980): 1-11.
-----. Tile Language of Flowers: A History. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995.
Thoreau, Henry David. Journal Ed. Patrick F. O'Connell. Vol. 5. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 5 vols. to date.
-----. Walden. 1854. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
Wright, Elizabeth. Lichen Tufts, from the Alleghanies. New York: M. Doolady, 1860.
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|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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