Environment: Working the Land

The landscape of every place on earth is a complex mix of natural and human creation. The region we call the Global Heartland centers on the Great Lakes of North America, and extends westward to the Great Plains, south to the Ohio River, and north to Hudson’s Bay. The region’s natural wealth has been one of its defining features. Abundant fresh water, vast forests, rich mineral deposits, and fertile soil made the region a desirable place to live and a crossroads of trade for over 300 years.

The ecological transformation that took place in North America during the 19th century is a distant echo of what is happening today in the earth’s tropical rainforests, and in the quickly industrializing zones of China and India. In North America, lumberjacks cut down the forests for houses, telegraph poles, and matchsticks. Railroads brought hunters to decimate the great herds of buffalo, and steel plows broke the thick prairie grasses to make way for farms. A century later, the farms made way for suburbs. The pristine waters of the Great Lakes—the earth’s largest basin of fresh water—became a filter for waste at the same time they provided drinking water to millions, and a transportation route for goods and people.

The expanse and beauty of the North American landscape inspired artists and poets, even as the rush of progress devoured it. By the early 20th century, a movement to preserve what was left of the older landscape was well under way. Conservationists, sometimes occupying the highest political offices, pushed for laws to separate “natural” areas from the rest of the landscape, hoping to preserve them for the benefit of all of society. In the process, conservationists often came into conflict with American Indians who continued to use the land in traditional ways, and with Euro-American landowners who claimed the right to use their land as they wished.

The resources in Global Heartland provide an opportunity to examine the changing landscape of mid-continent North America. Readers may seek information about such issues as the changing look and flow of the Chicago River, the demise of the white pine forests of the upper Great Lakes, or the transformation of the wild prairies into the most productive agricultural lands in the world. There are also primary sources related to the tourism business, the perceived benefits of getting “back to nature,” and the early stirrings of conservation movement.

Related Images

“Dubuque in Iowa,” in Henry Lewis, Das Illustrirte Mississippithal: dargestellt in 80 nach der Matur aufgenommenen Ansichten vom Wasserfalle zu St. Anthony an bis zum Golf von Mexico (Düsseldorf, Arnz & Comp., 1857), 168.

“Plain Crees Driving Buffaloes Into a Pound,” in Henry Hind, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860), vol. 1, 358

“An American Log-House,” in Georges-Henri-Victor Collot, A Journey in North America (Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1826), Plate 16, Edward E. Ayer Collection, Newberry Library.

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