Unsettling Wilderness

Keith Pluymers

February 07, 2020

Wilderness has long been a powerful and fraught concept with which to understand North American nature. Seventeenth-century English colonists deployed it to denigrate the cultures of Native peoples and advance legalistic claims to "uncultivated" land. After the creation of the United States, novelists and painters of the early republic celebrated vast, empty or thinly populated wilderness as the foundational landscape in which the new nation would craft its identity. Battles about whether to tame or preserve "untouched" places over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been at the core of the most canonical and well-known writings, moments, and movements in mainstream U.S. environmentalism.

This notion of a vast continent of untouched land has always been a fiction, one that Native peoples, often forced from but continuing to assert their rights and sovereignty to these lands, have resisted and continue to resist. Scholars in the environmental humanities have joined these critiques with decades of essays and books investigating this history and calling for new ways of engaging with other-than-human nature and the landscapes of North America. Despite this, wilderness remains powerful in the US, demanding that we find new ways to think through the fiction.

In their 2013 album, "Wilderness," the iconic Albuquerque-based Americana duo Brett and Rennie Sparks—The Handsome Family—attempt to reimagine the concept. Over the course of 12 songs drawing on country, bluegrass, folk ballad, and rock instrumentation and an identically titled book of essays and art that Rennie Sparks created alongside it, the Sparks seek out wilderness in red finch nests in the rafters of a Walmart or in battles between armies of ants "beneath the blades of our great empire of lawns."1

The Handsome Family, “Wilderness,” Carrot Top Records, Saki 055, 2013.

The notion of wilderness as the untouched lands of colonial myth shows up, but is quickly subverted, on the album's first song, "Flies." Atop a held accordion chord and gently plucked banjo, we come upon George Armstrong Custer's corpse, stretched out in the Montana grass in 1876, warm blood still spreading across his fashionable attire and the smell of rose and cinnamon lingering on his famous golden locks. "Dear Custer there's a Walmart now where once the grizzlies roamed," Brett continues plaintively. There is no Walmart at the Custer National Cemetery (the closest is 63 miles away in Billings), which makes it difficult to pinpoint precisely where the dreadful homogeny of big box retail sits atop former grizzly territory. Perhaps that's the point. "Wilderness" exists as geographic ambiguity, able to attach itself to particular places but also as nostalgia for a past that never was. The next line quickly snaps us back to the violence undergirding the myth in the store's interior. The culture of the frontier lingers in the cowboy shirts for sale amid "mountains of hairspray." Having tamed the prairie grasses with an "empire of lawns," shoppers can indulge frontier fantasies with novelty garments but also with very real instruments for continued bloodshed. "Everyone has a gun," they remind us, "Everyone still has a gun."

Colonial kitsch is nothing new. Rennie muses on that history in her essays. As she notes, the Anheuser Busch Brewing Association created a poster in 1896 titled "Custer's Last Fight" selling beer, nationalism, and nostalgia on a single sheet. It is precisely these moments, she writes, when threats of physical harm faced individual English colonists or American soldiers that become etched in popular memory, reinforcing the call for further expansion. Beyond Custer, Sparks points to the story of Hannah Duston, the Massachusetts colonist cast as an emblem of innocence and heroism in Cotton Mather's colonial narrative and in nineteenth-century paintings and statues in multiple New England towns. Historian Barbara Cutter writes that Duston's memory is part of a broader pattern: "The idea of a feminized, always-innocent America has become the principle by which the United States has structured many interactions with enemy others." Sparks seems to agree on the purpose of this type of memory and mythmaking: "The idea of a beautiful soldier fighting to his death in the name of our nation is a far better story to dwell on, I suppose, than the genocide of a continent full of people."2 "Flies" forces a confrontation with the bloody history of U.S. expansion and our still-present realities of armed violence in a country clinging to frontier fantasies atop carpets of crabgrass.

Custer’s Last Fight (1896), by the Anheuser Busch Brewing Association.

As the Handsome Family sing this history, they introduce a twist: "Flies" is also a song about insects and the worlds outside of human history. Custer looked "beautiful" to flies present at the battle, though for different reasons than those making commemorative posters. "Everyone gorged, made love, and laid their eggs in the bounty," Sparks muses, making it a day of "great celebration." It's a jarring shift in perspective that unsettles the historical narrative sketched in the verses.

To tell stories that unsettle and help us reimagine the relationship between humans and the other-than-human world has been a central demand of much recent work on the overlapping catastrophes of climate change, mass extinction, and environmental degradation captured under the notion of the "Anthropocene," the proposed geologic epoch defined by significant human influence over the Earth system. Among those works, environmental humanist and feminist science scholar Donna Haraway's 2016 collection of essays, Staying with the Trouble, best provides a lens to engage with the Handsome Family's album. Haraway accords great importance to narratives and storytelling. Stories structure our world and, she claims, ours must change. The essays offer both analysis of the stories we have and advice for those Haraway wants to see.

The constant, unexpected shifts and blurred boundaries between human and other-than-human on "Wilderness" evoke Haraway's sense of sympoiesis, of "worlding-with, in company." To recuperate and "reseed" the world, we must work and storytell "in multispecies alliance, across the killing divisions of nature, culture, and technology and of organism, language, and machine." By singing across these boundaries, the Handsome Family have offered a new narrative for wilderness that lets us stay with the trouble – Haraway's claim that our myriad environmental issues cannot be solved but must be thought and worked through perpetually.3

Wilderness in the album is less a specific place than a force. This is best captured in "Eels." After a verse presenting theories of spontaneous generation ("They used to think the geese budded from the branches/Each gentle sunny spring when they came back again"), the Sparks turn to animal migration. Geese and swallows hear "the ringing of the bells that echo through the earth." Monarch butterflies and eels too hear the sounds:

They are following a path to places never seen
They see the secret map the moon draws on the sea

Throughout these verses, a bell-like keyboard invites us to listen for the chimes that animate and guide wild life. This drops out entirely for the final, unaccompanied verse:

But the airplanes overhead hang heavy in the air
And all the shiny cars, they circle in despair
"Where am I?" They cry. "Where are you? Where am I?"
But they will never hear the bells that ring tonight

The juxtapositions of sound and silence, conceptually and musically, produces an eerie effect. Has the constant din of automobility—the sense-shattering soundscape of fossil fuel modernity—left us unable to hear deeper melodies of life?

"No," seems to be the Handsome Family's answer, though there is peril as well as pleasure when tapping into the wild forces that remain.

Mary Sweeney, the "Wisconsin Window Smasher," who made headlines in the 1890s for leaving her family in St. Paul, MN and going on glass-breaking sprees across Wisconsin before being confined to an asylum, reappears on the album as a woodpecker trapped in human form or a multi-species hybrid. In an essay titled after the bird, Rennie Sparks again returns to non-human soundscapes. With the woodpecker's delicate sense of sound, we would live in a world simultaneously quieter and full of "great orchestral melodies" played with insects' subtle movements and the rhythms of plant life. Sparks wonders if Sweeney "lived in just such a world of secret revelation." With mandolin tremolos evoking the woodpecker's hammering beak, the Sparks sing that Sweeney undertook her shattering spree because she "was a woodpecker, she couldn't help but free/ All the things that hide inside all the pretty trees." To see and hear such mysteries comes with a price, in Sweeney's case, involuntary confinement in a state asylum. "It's a dangerous business," Sparks writes, "to see what is meant to be invisible."4

Despite the risk, the force of wilderness is seductive. The simultaneously jaunty but eerie "Octopus" tells a tentacular tale (as Haraway might see it) on the hypnotic powers of the cephalopod. The first verse narrates the claims of fishing folk that octopuses dazzle schools of fish and even the waves with their rhythmic undulations. The song's speaker notes that this knowledge breeds caution: "That's why I try and stay away from seashore holidays." Yet the potential to connect with such a force is irresistible. Minor chords reassert themselves as Brett Sparks sings, "but I know that no one has to know if I take an evening stroll/ Down to the edge of the wooden pier where the water's deep and cold."

To stare into the dark water is both to long for seduction in the present and to hope for communion with the deep past. "Chthonic ones are beings of the earth," Haraway writes, "both ancient and up-to-the-minute." To entangle ourselves in their tentacles and tentacular tales is "not safe" but "living-with and dying-with each other in the Chthulucene can be a reply to the fierce dictates of both Anthropos and Capital." (Anthropos and Capital are references to the Anthropocene and Capitalocene, the latter a term of critique centering responsibility for ecological crises in capitalism). The octopus is the perfect creature to think with in this way. Sparks connects the prehistoric with the present in her essay, "Octopus," imagining interactions with the giant cephalopods of the prehistoric ocean "The creature would have been as large as a football field. Oh, to have seen it dance!"5

The second verse dreams of what that might be like:

For if I should see an octopus lift its arms out of the sea
Or see its shadow rising up across the rooftops above the street
I'd follow those dancing limbs to the spinning edge of the sky
Where all the boats fall off the world into the octopus's eye

Death under the spell of the giant octopus, entranced and united with the wild, is deeply seductive.

For most of the album, seeking or finding connection with the force of wilderness means courting death, dislocation, or the states of being that get one labeled "mad." "Frogs" suggests that we can and should embrace this force and that doing so might even save us. Seeing a fish leap from a stream, scales shimmering in its moment of flight; watching the earth change color as it soaks to mud and dries again; listening to frogs sing at night in a field, all these experiences can connect us with the wild. Sung questions—"Have you ever…" "Will you come outside and see?"—beckon the listener to join in.

Fear is not entirely absent. The speaker in the song is ambiguous. Is it another human, calling to "brother" and "sister" to commune with the world? Or might it be a wolf?

Consider this: what if the big, bad, black wolf has also been trying to draw you out into the wider world all these years he has chased you? Has he been huffing and puffing all these centuries not to blow your house down but simply to get you to come outside and look at the stars? Does he long to gobble you up simply to give you a chance to finally see through his eyes the dark forest full of shining light?

To be consumed here is not an unpleasant fate, nor is it entirely clear if the consumption is literal or metaphorical. Sparks suggests that we might also be consumed in her essay on the songs of frogs, which plays with the story of the Frog Prince. Rather than fear the mud and muck, as the princess in the tale does upon losing a golden ball in a muddy pool, Rennie tells us to embrace it. Let wet leaves and "every creeping, crawling, slithering thing" reclaim the deathly sterile realm of human dwelling. "Become compost! Become humus!" Haraway might add. "Lie down in the empire of muck and let it be your mirrored throne. Reflect the beautiful darkness of the night," Rennie writes; Brett sings, "Lie down in the dirt, brother, be a mirror to the night/ Lie down in the dirt, sister, we are mirrors of the night."6

For decades, scholars in the humanities have shown us the trouble with wilderness. In the present, wilderness remains a popular and potent concept that is no less fraught: recently, it has served in collaboration between environmentalists and Native communities across one border and has provided legal framework for the harassment and prosecution of activists seeking to prevent the deaths of migrants crossing another. Rather than getting past the trouble with wilderness, we need to learn to stay with it. To do so will require many things but one may be to listen for the bells that ring out from the earth.

Keith Pluymers is Assistant Professor in the department of History at Illinois State University where he works on early modern environmental history.

  1. The Handsome Family, "Flies," on Wilderness (2013). 

  2. Rennie Sparks, Wilderness: Essays & Art (Albuquerque, NM: Handsome Family Music, 2013), 21 (on Hannah Duston); 140 (quotation); Barbara Cutter, "The Gruesome Story of Hannah Duston, Whose Slaying of Indians Made Her an American Folk Hero," Smithsonian, 9 April 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gruesome-story-hannah-duston-american-colonist-whose-slaying-indians-made-her-folk-hero-180968721/ 

  3. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 58 (sympoiesis); 118 (multispecies) 

  4. Sparks, Wilderness, 3-4 (revelation); 54 (dangerous business); Sweeney's story again captivated readers after being told in Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip (University of New Mexico Press, 1973) and in James Marsh's 1999 docudrama of the same title. Sparks cites Lesy as an influence for the song in her New York Times essay, "What the Woodpecker Told Me." 

  5. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2 (Chthonic ones), 30-57 ("Tentacular Thinking"); Sparks, Wilderness, 76-77. 

  6. Sparks, Wilderness, 17, 91; "Compost" is a recurring theme throughout Staying with the Trouble, for the fullest treatment of the concept as part of several stories, see 134-168. On humus see 2, 149, 160. 


Keith Pluymers, "Unsettling Wilderness," Enviro-History.com, February 07, 2020, http://Enviro-History.com/unsettling-wilderness.html.