Whether merely traveling or settling down to start new lives, American emigrants to the Western frontier held certain beliefs about the “salubrity,” or health, of the land and how it could affect their own wellbeing. Such is the subject material of Conevery Valenčius’ book The Health of the Country, which explores the realm of eighteenth-century settlers as they struggled to cope with new and changing environments—primarily in Missouri and Arkansas.
Like Ann Greene in her book about horses that I reviewed last week, Valenčius does not discuss environmental degradation or change on a scale anywhere close to some other authors I’ll refer to in future posts (partly due to the limited temporal scope of the work but also given the text’s narrower subject of “medical geography”), but both The Health of the Country and Horses at Work share the distinction of being a creative sort of environmental history that readily utilizes some of this new field’s best characteristics: use of interdisciplinary evidence and modes of analysis, reconstruction of past landscapes through culture (e.g. myth, law, perception) and science, and concentration on the two-way discourse between man and nature.
Examining letters, diaries, newspapers, scientific publications, and popular stories, Valenčius demonstrates the complexity of settlers’ evolving culture and their interactions with what they often perceived as a dangerously productive country. Americans’ treatments of the frontier, Valenčius argues, were varied in expertise and experience, in fact and fable, but shared certain rhetoric and ideas of health and its importance to both land and body.
As wary of the new lands as they were excited to profit from it, settlers characterized the areas to which they moved as “healthy” or “insalubrious,” with “good air” or “bad water,” and applied the terms not only to the landscapes but also to themselves, as organisms living off those lands and imbibing their qualities. Sudden changes in weather and climate were thought to cause various ailments just as they could compromise a crop, while disease-provoking ‘miasmas’ exuded from rotting swamps could be evaded by moving to higher ground upwind, thus avoiding the imbalance provoked by such perilous (not to mention unprofitable) land. Valenčius shows us the contradicting aims and realities of settlers, where ambitious men were “bold in their ambitions with respect to the environment they coveted,” and eager to physically change the land through the improvement of hard work. Yet often they merely ended up “bending themselves to the environment around them … in thrall to a climate powerful in its changes,” and placing themselves “with modesty in the very natural world they came also to change and remake.” She focuses most on this idea of improving the land in her chapter covering cultivation, where settlers unwilling to work the earth for sustenance were looked upon with surprise and even disdain, and the Lockean ideal of personal industry leading to ownership was put into laws concerning squatters’ rights.
Valenčius’ history has implications today in part because Americans often see the health of the land around them as affecting their quality of life, though scientific advancements have taught us to quantify “bad air” and see environmental insalubrity not necessarily as negatively impacting our own wellness but reflecting our poor management of resources. But today, the health of the land is our responsibility to ecosystems greater than ourselves, and of which, as environmental history likes to remind us, we are always a part.