+ Jacket Description
“The American people sees itself advance across the wilderness, draining swamps, straightening rivers, peopling the solitude, and subduing nature,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835. That’s largely how we still think of nineteenth-century America today: a country expanding unstoppably, bending the continent’s natural bounty to the national will, heedless of consequence. A country of slavery and of Indian wars. There’s much truth in that vision.
But if you know where to look, you can uncover a different history, one of vibrant resistance, one that’s been mostly forgotten. This Radical Land recovers that story. Daegan Miller is our guide on a beautifully written, revelatory trip across the continent during which we encounter radical thinkers, settlers, and artists who grounded their ideas of freedom, justice, and progress in the very landscapes around them, even as the runaway engine of capitalism sought to steamroll everything in its path. Here we meet Thoreau, the expert surveyor, drawing anticapitalist property maps. We visit a black antislavery community in the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York. We discover how seemingly commercial photographs of the transcontinental railroad secretly sent subversive messages, and how a band of utopian anarchists among California’s sequoias imagined a greener, freer future. At every turn, everyday radicals looked to landscape for the language of their dissent—drawing crucial early links between the environment and social justice, links we’re still struggling to strengthen today.
Working in a tradition that stretches from Thoreau to Rebecca Solnit, Miller offers nothing less than a new way of seeing the American past—and of understanding what it can offer us for the present . . . and the future.
+ Table of Contents
When the Bough Breaks
Act One: At the Boundary with Henry David Thoreau
Act Two: The Geography of Grace: Home in the Great Northern Wilderness
Act Three: Revelator’s Progress: Sun Pictures of the Thousand-Mile Tree
Act Four: Possession in the Land of Sequoyah, General Sherman, and Karl Marx
In conversation with Kris Welch, for KPFA's The Talkies. Interview here. April, 2018.
In conversation with Steve Paulson, for To the Best of Our Knowledge. Interview here. April, 2018.
In conversation with Brian Edwards-Tiekert, for KPFA's Up Front. Interview here. June, 2018.
7 questions for Daegan Miller about This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, University of Chicago Press Blog. June, 2018.
In conversation with Sam Seder, for The Majority Report. Interview here. August, 2018
“A Map of Radical Bewilderment: On the Liberation Cartography of Henry David Thoreau.” Places (March, 2018).
“A Future Just, Green and Free, Under a Tree Named Karl Marx,” Aeon (March, 2018).
“Voices in Time: An American Timbuctoo,” Lapham's Quarterly (March, 2018).
Through interpretive brilliance and gorgeously crafted prose, Daegan Miller's This Radical Land: A Natural History of Dissent rescues this sense of environmental awe from excessive skepticism.... One of the most elegant and insightful examples of environmental writing I've seen in many, many years.
-James McWilliams, Pacific Standard
Miller crafts exquisite, lyrical sentences, and each act takes the reader on a journey that results in a deeper understanding of what wilderness has become, what it could have been, and what it might still be.... All told, Miller has produced a wonderful work, not just of environmental history, but also of nature writing in its highest form.
-Miles Powell, Environment and History
Miller offers an engaging interplay of natural and political history, and demonstrates an eye for that single detail that can illuminate the whole damn diorama.
-Jeff Ferrell, Times Higher Education
Nuanced, provocative and immensely learned.
-Daniel Herman, Nature, Plants
Miller’s study is not just a historical counternarrative, then: It’s also a way of thinking about the contradictions of modern environmentalism, of asking whom the movement serves, what ideas are allowed, and who is marginalized.
-Rebecca Leber, Bookforum
Seeing nature as wild, rather than curated wilderness or resource for the taking, gave Miller’s characters opportunities to chart alternate paths for the nation. If they can do it, Miller implies, why can’t we?
Miller delights in his sources, and readers will feel that they are walking beside him as he paces off the seven feet of one of Thoreau’s maps and opens the heavy covers of the Union Pacific’s promotional book of photos.
-Flannery Burke, Environmental History, https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emz012
Although they are less famous than Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir, political radicals…were among the first to view the preservation of wildlands as inextricably linked to the struggles against slavery, Manifest Destiny, and industrial capitalism run amok.... In Miller's words, “who we are depends on where we are . . . that the best boundaries are not the ones that securely wall off one thing from another . . . but the ones that invite transgression so that we all may awake to a new day in a wild, enchanted world.”
-Jonathan Hahn, Sierra
Miller’s debut views landscape...as both a witness to and a participant in American history, especially in stories of resistance.... The result is a text that succeeds not only in arguing its theories and presenting an elegant narrative but in reminding us just how easily certain people and places can be erased from our popular histories.... Fans of Derrick Jensen, Howard Zinn, and Rebecca Solnit will appreciate Miller’s fascinating and unexpected perspective on American history.
A debut book that ranges across disciplines and decades to connect the natural environment—especially long-lived trees—to a scathing critique of American-style capitalism. Alternating abstract theory with impressive research, both bolstered by extensive sources . . . the author builds his case about understanding American history by examining destruction of the environment through essays grounded in the 19th century…. He offers an eclectic education often marked by soaring prose.
Inventive. . . . A creative linking of landscape and radicalism.
Drawing on superb scholarly detective work, This Radical Land tells fascinating stories about the history of our ties to the land that give us an alternative to viewing natural spaces as either a resource to exploit or a wilderness museum for the privileged. Miller peels back the history to reveal that, however ignored, Americans have always resisted the exploitation of nature. Perhaps his more nuanced environmental history will inspire those today who, continuing the mute protest of the witness tree, would pull the planet back from the brink of death.
-Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees
Daegan Miller rekindles a legacy of environmental dissent. The ideas and landscapes of nineteenth-century “countermoderns” are signposts, still legible, to alternative futures. This book bears witness like a burning bush.
-Jared Farmer author of Trees in Paradise: A California History
Reviews on Goodreads.com.