Without diminishing the work of the later conservation thinkers, Judd says it’s important to look at the broad social and intellectual background of American conservation ideas that were being developed by naturalists such as Nuttall and the hundreds of others who worked and wrote in the century before America’s first national park was established in Yellowstone in 1872. In his newest book, The Untilled Garden: Natural History and the Spirit of Conservation in America, 1740-1840, Judd argues that “America’s conservation giants” drew on ideas that these early explorer/naturalists developed in their expeditions a generation before.
Those ideas included “a practical concern for protecting those species of birds, animals, and trees deemed useful to human society; a romantic appreciation for the beauty of natural form and primitive landscape; and a close understanding of the complex biological interdependencies that sustain all natural systems,” Judd writes in his book. “These themes — commercial utility, romantic attraction, and ecological necessity — became the foundation for turn-of-the-century conservation, and they are so ingrained in our environmental consciousness today that we hardly give them a second thought.”
Nuttall was at the forefront of this early naturalist movement in America and epitomized the zeal for exploration and discovery in a country whose borders were rapidly expanding. At 22, Nuttall arrived in America in 1808, four years after Lewis and Clark began their journey in search of a westward passage to the Pacific. He had little background in science, but possessed a strong interest in botany and an ardent desire to explore.
“He was curious,” Judd says, “not in the sense of being strange, but he was interested in everything.”
After initial tutoring under prominent Philadelphia botanist Benjamin Barton, he began traveling on collecting trips, first, to nearby Chesapeake Bay and eventually moving farther west into the frontier. One such trek alone covered more than 12,000 miles. Nuttall’s journeys took him from Arkansas to the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. He even spent two winters collecting specimens in Hawaii.
Despite the traders’ earlier assessment of his sanity, Nuttall became a well-regarded botanist. Several species of American plants bear his name and he wrote several volumes on botany and ornithology. Even without a formal academic background, he held an endowed chair in botany at Harvard for more than a decade. But Nuttall did not enjoy academia, Judd says, and he left Harvard and went back into the field. By the time he returned to England in 1842, he had earned a reputation as “one of the great field naturalists of his generation.”