Shadow Country

Over the past half century, no American writer has celebrated the beauty of wild animals or mourned their vanishing more eloquently than Peter Matthiessen. Beginning with Wildlife in America (1959) and continuing through such recent books as End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica (2003), he has surveyed many of the planet’s most captivating and endangered creatures, from bison and forest elephants to snow leopards and penguins and cranes. Over the same period, in books such as Indian Country (1984) and African Silences (1992), he has shown a parallel concern for indigenous peoples, who are endangered by the same forces that are ravaging wildlife.

Matthiessen makes clear that the chief forces driving the extinction of so many species and cultures are the rapid expansion of human population and the limitless pursuit of human appetite. Unless constrained by stringent ethical rules, customs, or laws, our kind tends to use whatever tools are available — stone axes or chainsaws, fishhooks or factory ships, wood fires or nuclear reactors — to impose our will on the Earth and its creatures. Where the cultural constraints on human appetite are weakest, as on the American frontier or in today’s global “free” market, the devastation of flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples proceeds most swiftly.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, frontier lawlessness and buccaneer capitalism combined to transform the southern tip of Florida from a watery wilderness to a tamed landscape planted to sugar cane, carved up by canals and roads, and stripped of much of its wildlife. A century later, Matthiessen chronicled this transformation in a magisterial work of fiction, by telling the story of a larger-than-life Florida pioneer, Edgar Jack Watson. Matthiessen’s fifteen-hundred-page manuscript was broken up by his publisher into three separate novels, all released in the 1990s — Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone. After paring away five hundred pages from this earlier version and rewriting much of what remained, he has now fulfilled his original intention by publishing the entire saga in a single book, Shadow Country.

The novel is divided into three sections, which roughly correspond to the three volumes of the earlier trilogy. The main action occurs between the time of Watson’s arrival on the southwest coast of Florida in the late nineteenth century and his murder by a posse of neighbors in 1910. The opening section recounts those events through the voices of characters who knew Watson, all of them biased to some degree by admiration or hostility. The middle section, told through the perspective of one of Watson’s sons, a historian, ranges into the 1920s, providing a retrospective view of the pioneer’s life. And the final section, narrated by Watson himself, ranges from his childhood in the aftermath of the Civil War up to the moment of his death.

Why did Watson’s neighbors conspire to kill him? And which of the many violent deeds attributed to him did he actually commit? These are the questions that drive the narrative, yet they are less compelling than the question of why the white settlers of southern Florida so ruthlessly displaced or slaughtered the native people, abused the descendants of slaves, and exploited nearly to the point of extinction every commercially valuable species, from egrets and alligators to clams. While the details of the onslaught varied from region to region, European settlement of the New World was everywhere marked by similar rapacity.

In Matthiessen’s telling, the legend of Edgar J. Watson is the story, in miniature, of the American frontier. As Watson regarded the Everglades and the “virgin coast” of Florida as raw material “awaiting man’s dominion,” so our ancestors looked on this entire continent as “a huge wilderness to be tamed and harnessed.” Inheriting their handiwork, we live among countless ghosts — of felled forests, drained wetlands, plowed grasslands, paved meadows, and all the living things these wildlands once supported. In this sense, our whole nation is shadow country.

Watson describes himself, with justice, as a “man of enterprise,” but in pursuit of that enterprise he is also a man without scruples, who grabs what he wants, yields easily to anger, betrays wives, begets bastards, threatens everyone who balks him, commits a first murder by accident and subsequent murders by plan or whim. If he were simply evil, he would be less disturbing. But Watson is also shown to be a man of great ingenuity, courage, drive, and charm.

“Americans love a desperado,” he remarks, “not the scurvy villain with a scar but the suave rascal of style and courtly manner.” He relishes his role as desperado, enjoying his reputation for violence right up to the instant when a crowd of his neighbors and erstwhile friends put thirty-three bullets in his body. In killing Mr. Watson, his fellow pioneers are eliminating the man who embodied with gusto the fair and foul traits that opened the wilderness to their own designs.

Scott Russell Sanders teaches at Indiana University. His latest book, A Conservationist Manifesto, will be published in spring 2009.