Earth and her bounty
Are not a way to keep score
We should be stewards
The Pioneers was the first of the Leatherstocking Tales to be written, but it falls last chronologically. It is set in 1793 in upstate New York, lately civilized by men such as local judge Marmaduke Temple (Cooper has some great names, at least). The new roads and towns and laws are making life difficult for the elderly Natty Bumppo (aka the Leatherstocking, aka the Deerslayer), who lives off the land much as the dwindling Native American population used to. The book opens with Bumppo and Temple arguing over which one of them shot a deer (and thus owns the carcass). This argument lasts a long time—they and other characters rehash it several times, much to my intense boredom—but it is representative of a larger problem: who owns the land and its resources? Bumppo used to hunt and fish at will; now Temple insists he observe a hunting season. This leads to a confrontation that enlivens the last 100 pages of the book. (Why is it only the last 100 pages? sigh.)
Ironically, while Temple tries to control the land and restrict Bumppo's hunting, he agrees with the old hunter when it comes to the wasteful ways of other townspeople. Instead of catching only the fish they need to eat, the locals use nets to trap the biggest fish, leaving the smaller ones to go to waste. When a pigeon migration flies overhead, the locals see it as sport, shooting as many as they can and leaving most of the meat to rot. Temple even worries that the trees may be overharvested. Of course, Temple's concern isn't purely out of love of nature; he is biggest landowner in the county, and depleted lands could lose their value.
Interestingly enough, there is a romance in the novel that almost exactly parallels the one in The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne's classic that I read last month. Of course, the novel's resolution favors white landowners like Temple; it's no great spoiler to tell you that the two characters who are closest to the land end up either die or move west at the close of the novel. Maybe Cooper thought this was progress, or Manifest Destiny; maybe he thought it was a tragedy. (He published the novel in 1823, less than a decade before the Trail of Tears forced the relocation of most of the South's Native Americans to the west of the Mississippi.) I can't really tell; either the author is too subtle for my poor understanding, or else Twain was right:
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are–oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.