The Influence of Nature on American Literature
Affects of Nature on Early Settlers and Explorers
As the early explorers began leaving Europe and discovering new lands they were filled with wonder. These explorers had never seen such pristine and untouched landscapes. Nature had an important role in what was to become known as ‘The New World.’ The early explorers and settlers were greatly affected by nature both in positive and negative ways.
Early landscape painting
Beautiful Places, Harsh Weather
The stories of these beautiful places with the curious inhabitants drew the adventurous out of Europe. They traveled across the sometimes dangerous and wild seas for a glimpse at these beautiful lands, and for some, the possibility of a better life. The early explorers and settlers provide accounts of shipwrecks, awful storms that damaged their ships to the point that the ship was barely seaworthy, as in the account of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation”. The draw to the New World was strong enough that people were willing to risk their lives and travel over the treacherous ocean. These voyages required extensive planning and money from investors interested usually in either a cause or the promise of riches.
Often as people traveled across ocean they fell ill from disease and famine, for the voyages were long and difficult. Many lost their lives as a result of the lack of food, fresh water and exposure, either during the voyage or soon after. Arguments and power struggles were often present, possibly sparked by a fear of being cast off because of rank when food ran low or disease ran high.
Once land was in sight some saw beauty, some saw industry, and some saw freedom. It was the beauty and promise of the land that drew them. Columbus came to conquer, and to obtain riches for his country. Others came because of commerce, such as investors who saw the possibility of using the land produce goods for profit. Others still came purely for the beauty and to study the land and its species.
Christopher Columbus voyaged to discover new lands that he believed would be filled with gold. Because of the gold he saw that the Indians had, he planned to overtake them and gain gold and riches for his country. He was unsuccessful in finding gold during the first voyages and was sent home in shackles. He had hoped nature could provide money for his country. The basic reason for many travelers to the new lands was the hope of commerce. When they say the lush land and heard stories of riches to be made it sent many businessmen overseas.
Inspired by the Beauty
Many others came because of the stories of unbridled beauty. Thousands of stories were sent to Europe documenting the first site of the land from sea. Descriptions of the lush trees, and endless beauty of the land spread. No one had seen this type of landscape in Europe. It had long been torn away for industry and communities built to house the many residents of Europe. Artist’s traveled to survey and paint landscapes of “The New World”, others came to study the trees and animals unknown to them before. The land inspired many poets to write about the strength and wonder of the land such as Anne Bradstreet in her works named “Contemplations”.
Throughout her writings she refers back to the beauty and strength of nature. She directly says that nature can sustain everyone and outlive humans. She acknowledges that all pearls and gold come from the earth, and she seems to be in complete wonder of the world around her. She mentions the sky, the animals, and the plants. It is probable that her thoughts reflect the thoughts of many of the early settlers and explorers. Although the new discoveries also meant that these people had not experienced this type of life in Europe and they were not prepared for the long harsh winters or the shortages of food. Many who came were not farmers they were business men and religious leaders.
During ‘The Starving Time” in 1609 a group of settlers landed in Virginia and founded the Jamestown settlement. Bad planning and little farming skills cost most of the new settlers their lives. The placement of the settlement was ill planned. They placed it next to a swamp that was infested with mosquitoes which bit them and caused a Malaria outbreak. They also did not account for the location when thinking of food. There were not enough fertile hunting grounds in the area to supply them with food. They were relying on shipments from England that either came late or never came at all because of shipwrecks. The winter was cold and there was not enough time to plant for ample food supplies. They were unable to trade freely with the local Indians because of frequent and violent disputes with them over land leadership. This ultimately lead to a mass attack on the settlers and most of them were killed. The few that survived were dead or dying by the time help arrived. The harsh elements of nature including weather and the massive power of the ocean caused many of the problems that Jamestown experienced.
Thick brush and forests also made travel difficult for the early explorers. They were not used to the harsh landscape in which they traveled. They often got lost and suffered from extreme sun, heat and cold exposure. Traveling through the landscape to track Indians, hunt or look for safe places to settle was difficult and dangerous. The native Indians had the upper hand in these matters and were more easily able to ambush settlers. Travel was slow and dangerous, they would send a party out to find food or a good place for shelter and be gone from the rest of their group for days and sometimes weeks. But nature did not always have negative effects on the settlers there were many that profited from nature.
Prior to 1500 Jon Cabot came to New England and began to trade with the Indians. He traded European goods for fur. This was very profitable for Europe and the early settlers. Fur was abundant in “The New World” and scarce in Europe. This became a booming business for many business men. European land had been cleared for harvesting and industry and little forest remained. What did remain was mostly areas considered to be the King’s forest and off limits to the layman. The native Indians at that time were willing to trade with the Europeans for items of little value. This was convenient for the early settlers because they didn’t have hunt and clean the fur. This saved time and money. In Europe and in the new country beaver felt hats were in high demand and the fur obtained from the Indians produced high profits.
Agriculture was another source of income for many settlers. Tobacco was the main crop in the new colonies. John Rolfe is said to be the first successful tobacco farmer. He started his crops from just a few seeds brought to the new world and planted in the Virginia Colony. Soon the tobacco industry was formed. Soon tobacco was grown as a main crop and caused many men to become very wealthy. Plantations formed along the James River and were so successful it competed with European trading companies. The ability to successfully grow tobacco for profit and the use of the James River for water and transport is a positive influence nature had on early settlers.
When analyzing what influence nature had on the early explorers and settlers one has to consider human nature as well. Human nature is a complex subject. As humans we drive toward our desires whenever we can. As people in Europe heard the stories and promises of this new world being discovered and explored, curiosity and hope naturally rose in people. This curiosity and hope drove many to risk dangerous sea journeys to lands unknown. People went even after hearing stories of the supposed savages and many dangers that awaited them in this new land. Many of the first explorers had nothing to loss. They were criminals and outcasts. Others were business men wanting to profit from an uncharted land.
When the early settlers arrived to the new lands many of them, law abiding in their original countries became torturers ‘and murderers. Because of the space between them and their mother country ignored laws directed to them, and excommunicated or murder ones who tried to enforce the laws. Many humans have a need to be free to express themselves, be independent and individualistic. Being out from under direct rule from the church many people enjoyed the independence they had never experienced before which caused them to rebel and eventually break free of Europe and become a new and separate country. This is when the peoples of that time started referring to themselves as Americans and began to form the government and attitudes that are common place now.
Every aspect of the lives of the settlers was affected by nature. Whether you look at the dangerous journeys across the ocean; the famine and death from inadequacies and disputes with the native Indians and amongst themselves, or the drive to be free, successful and curious. Nature both helped and burdened the settlers for many years after the first voyage.