The Last of the Mohicans is set against a backdrop of immense beauty, wildness, and strangeness, especially for Europeans who are not accustomed to vast expanses of “unsettled” land. The natural features of upstate New York, described by Fenimore Cooper, serve several purposes in the novel. First, the caves, ledges, mountains, streams, and paths of the New York woods are essential elements of the battle-plans of the natives and Europeans. War cannot be fought, there, as it was in Europe—in long lines, from which soldiers marched in unison. Instead, battle in the rugged forests is mostly a guerilla affair, with both natives and Europeans hiding behind objects and using the “element of surprise” to overwhelm their foes. Those who can make better use of the natural environment tend to have the upper hand in battle.
Second, there is an argument made throughout the text that natives like Uncas and Chingachgook have a better sense of the natural world than do the Europeans—that they are somehow “closer” to nature. To a certain extent, this is true, as both the Mohicans demonstrate a mastery of the woods that enables a good deal of scouting, and certain military victories. But Hawkeye has also acquired this knowledge after living among the natives for a great many years—indicating that it is a cultural heritage of the native population, rather than a “biological” one, that allows them to live close to the environment around them.
Third, Fenimore Cooper writes from the position of a newly-formed American society, one that has passed through the French and Indian Wars, its own Revolutionary War with Britain, and a War of 1812 that again challenged American supremacy over its own soil. Fenimore Cooper understands, even in 1826, that the world of Uncas and Chingachgook is rapidly disappearing—that the towns near Lake George and Lake Champlain will only grow in size, adding more settlers, and causing the deforestation of a region that was once so densely wooded, one could barely see through it. The author is not an environmentalist—he does not argue for the preservation of the woods as such—but his description of the natural beauty, the lakes and rivers and forests, of the region are inflected by a longing for those “wilder” times, when America was not even a country, and when its settlement required heroic efforts on the part of both Americans and natives.
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The Natural World Quotes in The Last of the Mohicans
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet.
These Indians know the nature of the woods, as it might be by instinct!
What is to be done? . . . Desert me not, for God’s sake! Remain to defend those I escort, and freely name your own reward!
It is impossible to describe the music of their language, while thus engaged in laughter and endearments, in such a way as to render it intelligible to those whose ears have never listened to its melody.
I little like that smoke, which you may see worming up along the rock above the canoe. my life on it, other eyes than ours see it, and know its meaning. Well, words will not mend the matter, and it is time that we were doing.
We must get down to it, Sagamore, beginning at the spring, and going over the ground by inches. The Huron shall never brag in his tribe that he has a foot which leaves no print.
If the Great Spirit gave different tongues to his red children, it was that all animals might understand them. Some He placed among the snows, with their cousin the bear. Some he placed near the setting sun, on the road to the happy hunting-grounds. Some on the lands around the great fresh waters; but to his greatest, and most beloved, he gave the sands of the salt lake.
Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the redmen has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis [the Mohicans] happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.