Valuing the Earth

The values Americans placed on the natural environment in the process of settling the continent helped to shape the nation's history. They ranged from those of:

• pre Colombian settlers of North America who expressed a need for harmony with nature in their legends and religious practices,
• to early European immigrants who brought with them an idea of individual land ownership foreign to the natives,
• to a sense of manifest destiny and a right of continental conquest - the right to make unfettered demands of the land,
• to a romantic sense of wonder at nature that mixed equal parts of awe and fear of the natural.
• to the idea from Progressive politics of gaining the greatest benefit from the nation's natural resources for the greatest number of people

These ideas help us understand a variety of issues in American history and they are fundamental to understanding the controversy around the decision to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 20th century and the efforts today to breach the dam and restore the valley.

To Start You Thinking -

In the following activity you are going to explore values about land and its use expressed in the resources linked in the map above. The images and written excerpts extend from the time of the Sioux poem into the early 20th century and the time of the Hetch Hetchy controversy. The ideas expressed helped to shape the arguments on both sides of the issue. The activity is best completed in groups of 2-3, sharing your thoughts about the resources as you work.

1) Complete a note card like that in the example below for each of the links in the map.


Title: The Adirondack Guide

Date: 1894

Values Attached to Nature

man as a part of nature

Author/Artist: Winslow Homer

Supporting Evidence
(short quote, literary or artistic

man's beard, arms, and age, are like the tree's limbs in front of him

the colors in the man's shirt reflect and blend with the colors in the scene

the man's hat and the green shrub behind it are the same shape


2) Sort your note cards into 3-4 groups based on similarities in the authors'/artists' points of view about the natural environment. Be prepared to defend the way in which you organize your cards.

map image Tom Patterson, "Physical Map of the Coterminous United States," available at Shaded Relief
Last modified in January, 2011 by Rick Thomas