To walk through Frick Park – at least for me – is a pilgrimage into Milton’s Paradise Lost, read not in words, lines, and stanzas, but rather rocks, trees, and water.

By Ed Simon 

The following is an excerpt from Ed Simon’s Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost released by Ig Publishing as part of their Bookmarked Series. 

At the eastern edge of Pittsburgh, only a few blocks from where I grew up, there is an arched stone entrance to the 644 acres of wooded trails, streams, valleys, and craggy overlooks which constitutes Frick Park. Conversion into a public park began in 1931 after the family of the coke magnate Henry Clay Frick – a demonic character himself – donated land for the project. Architect John Russell Pope, the same man who designed the Jefferson Memorial and who had recently finished transforming the Frick family mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York into an art museum, was tasked with constructing the four stone gate houses that act as entrances to the park at various junctures along its perimeter. The gate house closest to where I grew up is off of Reynolds Avenue, in the neighborhood of Point Breeze; it’s a tall arched edifice of slate-grey granite with a peaked green ceramic tile mansard roof which under which passes a path that then meanders past flat grassland, bocce courts, stone walkways, and another route which leads into the Homewood Cemetery and then through a forest primeval. No cherubim with flaming swords have to be encountered before passing under the gate. With the park straddling the neighborhoods of Point Breeze, Squirrel Hill, and Regent Square, the Reynolds Street entrance abuts the pleasant, vaguely English-looking stone Tudor homes, brick rowhouses, and Cape Cods which replaced what essayist Annie Dillard called “The Valley of the Kings,” the neighborhood of Gilded Age robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, George Westinghouse, and H.J. Heinz who made this corner of the earth among the wealthiest in the world for a time. Now only Frick’s mansion survives, overseeing the northwestern entrance into the park named for him.

To walk through Frick Park – at least for me – is a pilgrimage into Milton’s Paradise Lost, read not in words, lines, and stanzas, but rather rocks, trees, and water. Descending into the valley you enter an exquisitely maintained illusion of wilderness; a sylvan enclosure not far from the kingdom of traffic noise and bus exhaust, train whistles and sirens. It feels as if you’d returned to seventeenth-century Pennsylvania, when French explorers claimed that a squirrel could jump from tree to tree all the way unto the Pacific. As is the want of some gardens, Frick Park is an exemplary mimesis of nature; pristine, bucolic, and pastoral. The hiker doesn’t necessarily notice the sculpted path her feet tread on, blanketed with maple leaves and pine needles, or the irrigation pipes feeding bubbling brooks, and the stone walls shielded by ivy and moss that reinforce hills. Even the strategically placed benches seem more the design of nature than of man. A realm of red oak, green maple, yellow hickory, golden birches, and, as is befitting our fallen world, hemlock. Dogwood, butternut, and even gingko. Squirrels, of course, but also white-tailed deer, some two hundred bird species including owls and wild turkeys, frogs and salamanders, beavers, foxes, badgers, and occasionally black bears that wander in from the actual woods that border the park, those ursine visitors once or twice having ventured onto sleepy early morning city streets. And several varieties of snake – serpents. Regardless of intentional sculpting, Frick Park appears much as it would have in the centuries before coal was mined from Western Pennsylvania hills, before coke was processed and steel produced in mills along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. A world before the fall. These are the same woods where during the religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening during the early nineteenth-century a wealthy Massachusetts itinerant farmer, who was an initiate into the mystical Swedenborgian faith, as well as an orchard enthusiast, named John Chapman spread apple seeds on his way into the Ohio Territory, earning his famous nickname. Here is where the Jacobin radicals of the late eighteenth-century Whiskey Rebellion marched, all armed against injustice and inequity with some of them dreaming of a millennial, utopian city descending from heaven onto the Alleghenies and being christened the New Jerusalem. Where a few decades before Scottish General Edward Braddock marched his Virginia regulars – including George Washington and Daniel Boone – from Georgetown, Maryland in an attempt to dislodge the French from the forks of the Ohio while triggering the Seven Years War. He was ambushed not far from Frick Park and his troops were slaughtered, the site now a town which bears his loser’s name. Disorder even within paradise. When I die, spread my ashes in Frick Park. It is the most beautiful place I know.

In high school, during a pique of irreverent, profane, blasphemous, sacrilegious, heretical punkery, a friend and I gathered several cheaply bound, orange covered Gideon Bibles that some evangelists were distributing at my inner-city high school as we left for the day, all of the missionaries the requisite constitutionally mandated distance from public property. With our stack of scripture in hand, we took the bus over to Frick Park, walked beneath the Reynolds Street stone gate house, and like Hansel and Gretel left a trail of ripped bible pages along the path, tearing each thin piece of crinkled paper out and letting them fall to the ground like shining white autumnal leaves. Each page shone brought in the orange fingered sunset of fall’s early dusk, squibs of sun even lower beneath the gothic hooked branches of the tree canopy above, and with every step that led us deeper into the woods, another passage of scripture fell to the earth. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light – And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so – And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every singed fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good – And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good – And God said, let us make man in our image. So he drove out the man; and he placed the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. Of my many disobediences.

Following those paths downward into the base of the park, and eventually you’ll emerge at the banks of the Monongahela, where across the southern embankment you can view the town of Homestead. A generation ago the mighty smoke stacks of the Carnegie Steel works had forever dyed the sky an ochre glow, millions of tons of molten steel coming off the assembly line every hour of the day, every day of the year, a cacophonous, metallic, empire of industry that with its belching and hammering would have resembled Pandemonium, an evocation of what Milton’s great reader Blake described as “those dark Satanic mills,” albeit by the nineteenth-century these factories in the United States would have dwarfed anything that the poet had seen only a few decades earlier in southern England. Mulciber’s foundry, Moloch’s Bessemer convertor, and Mammon’s bank account on the Monongahela. For a week in 1892, members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers at the Homestead plant, many of them immigrants, went on strike for better wages and conditions. With Carnegie at his summer home in Scotland, his lieutenant and company operator – Henry Clay Frick – called in agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to put down the strike, and in the melee seven of the plant workers were shot and killed, the river running red with blood. What’s visible from the banks of the park named for Frick is not the spot where that same man had those workers killed, though seven freestanding smoke stacks still hold sentry in memoriam, but rather the outdoor shopping plaza built upon the ruins of the mill. Should you head east rather than south, you’ll eventually come to the town of Braddock, still the site of the Edgar Thompson Steel Works, which even after the collapse of western Pennsylvania’s steel industry accounts for more than a quarter of the material produced in the United States. A bit further up the river is the Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke producing facility in the country, which produces so much hydrogen sulfide that its presence alone makes the Pittsburgh metropolitan area the eighth worst for air quality in terms of year-round particle pollution, not unrelated to the region being the third highest for incidents of cancer, with an astounding 20% of Pittsburghers ultimately dying from that disease (including my father). East of the park and into the corrupted world, for “Must I thus leave thee, Paradise? – thus leave/Thee, native soil, these happy walks and shades?”

Paradise Lost remains the first and greatest environmental epic ever written. Milton deals directly with issues of industry, ecology, exploitation, and colonization in a manner so seamlessly intrinsic that it’s easy to overlook those themes. What Milton’s epic is concerned with is the environment of Paradise and how through rapacious exploitation it can be Lost. Printed a century before even the nascent Industrial Revolution, and Milton was still able to draw upon the cannibalistic consumption of the Americas by European colonial powers in imagining what humanity’s expulsion from Eden felt like. By the time that the poem was printed, English audiences had been regaled for a century with narratives that described the Americas as perfection, as a place where the climate was temperate, food was abundant, and the people lived in an idyllic state of nature. Thomas Harriot writes in his 1588 treatise A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia that in America “we found the soil to be fatter; the trees greater and to grow thinner; the ground more firm and deeper mold; more and larger fields; finer grass and as good as ever we saw any in England.” In his 1595 report The Discovery of Guiana, Walter Raleigh describes South America as a terrestrial paradise, where the Incan Indians repose in a “garden of pleasure in an island… where they went to recreate themselves, when they would take the air of the sea, which had all kind of garden-herbs, flowers and trees of golden and silver… magnificence till then never seen.” Two decades later, and the renegade pilgrim Thomas Morton would be even more rapturous in his enthusiasms, writing in his 1622 The New English Canaan that “I did not think that in all the known world it could be paralleled for so many goodly groves of trees, dainty fine round rising hillocks, delicate fair plains, sweet crystal fountains, and clear running streams that twine in fine meanders through the meads, making so sweet a murmuring noise to hear as would even lull the senses with a delight sleep.” He adds that the “more I looked, the more I liked it.”

Such descriptions must have impacted the environmental perspective of Paradise Lost, for Milton who read everything had to have read authors like Harriot, Raleigh, and Morton. Keeping with its partial Edenic setting, the epic is replete with lushness and fecundity, the poem taxonomizing subjects botanical, zoological, and geological. Of plants, Milton enumerates the delights of hyacinth, laurel, irises, violets, ivy, pansy, thistle, sedge, myrtle, elm and pines; more exotic plants are also referenced, from the tart citron and delicate red tropical amaranth, to the mighty and holy banyan tree of India, as well of course as the estimably familiar and forbidden “fruit of fairest colours mixt, Ruddie and Gold… [for] To satisfie the sharp desire I had Of tasting those Fair Apples, I resolv’d Not to defer.” Nor are animals ignored by Milton, as the garden houses sheep and wolves, dogs and lions, as well as bees, doves, bulls, horses, fish, deer, and obviously a serpent (among others). Adam and Eve may have been created with primacy over this world, with the former already intuitively knowing the names of flora and fauna as opposed to being given the responsibility of christening them himself, and yet the first couple are also symbiotic with this world, seamlessly integrated into an elysian realm, where their relationship with plants and animals are harmonious, balanced, and ordered. Such claims were often made by European observers like Harriot, Raleigh, and Morton about the native inhabitants of the Americas; that these claims were not just racially condescending but obviously untrue – the boulevards and canals of Tenochtitlan, the sophistication of Incan engineering, and the Mississippi metropolis of Cahokia on the Midwestern plains all attest to the naivety and opportunism of European claims of America’s virginial promise – they also were imaginings that configured a different way of doing things, a rejection of the rank pollution and filth even then growing in booming London. Incidentally, the word “American” only appears once in Paradise Lost, though that reference in Book IX is a crucial one describing how before the fall the first couple experienced “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and wild/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” A fantasy of what life was like among the Algonquin who lived along the Atlantic Coast, or the Iroquois who resided in, among thousands of square miles of other places, what would one day be Frick Park.

A dream of pure ecological sustainability, where even if humanity occupies a higher vantage on the Platonic Great Chain of Being, they’re also to be tasked with responsible stewardship. His Puritan coreligionists in New England had largely departed from the previous century’s enthusiasms that saw America as a New Eden, rather hearing it as a howling wilderness, and yet this sense of the Western Hemisphere as a place where the fall hadn’t happened permeated European intellectual circles, so that a few decades after Milton’s epic was published, and the philosopher John Locke could faithfully declare with biblical overtones in his 1689 Second Treatise of Government that “in the beginning all the word was America.” Privatization, industrialization, and even civilization had infection a degeneration about the world that now corrupted these newly found lands. America was a world before the fall, but by the time that Milton was writing that Eden had been assaulted for two centuries by its own demons traveling across the Chaos of the Atlantic to exploit, pillage, and rape. Not that Milton would have been unaware of the shameful record of colonialism, even while like many English he minimized his own kingdom’s role in such atrocities. Among stolid Protestants the bloody exploits of the Spanish in the New World were well accounted for in what’s known as El Leyendra Negra, “The Black Legend,” with its tales of blood-thirsty conquistadors and zealous inquisitors. The Dominican friar Bartolomeo de las Casas’ 1542 first-person A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies was both accurate and still essential to English propaganda, the tale of despoiling colonists who like Satan introduce evil into Paradise. It was first translated from Spanish into English by Milton’s nephew and tutelage John Phillips. A claim that Paradise Lost is “really” about colonialism, or industrialization, or the environment is bound to be risible to a certain type of reader who is staid, traditional, conservative. What’s risible is the claim that anything as multifaceted and polyphonic as Paradise Lost is “really” about one thing, but certainly Milton’s epic is partially about that thing. How could it be otherwise, how could a century which saw the despoiling of that which was considered an Eden not be on his mind when writing about how paradise was lost? As J. Martin Evans observes in Milton’s Imperial Epic, ultimately Paradise Lost does happen to literally be about “a corrupt and power hungry adventurer [who] discovers the New World, enslaves its inhabitants, and takes possession of their land.”

Whither because of Satan or industry, the fall is experienced through the loss of connection to the natural world, so that “progress” signals a cleaving from the environment which we evolved in, that nurtured us. “O unexpected stroke, worse than of death!” laments Eve in Book XI, and there are few plaintive cries about our exile from nature more melancholic than hers. “O flowers, /That never will in other climate grow, /My early visitation, and my last/At even, which I bred up with tender hand/From the first opening bud, and give ye names!” The horticulturalist’s mourning, as Eve realizes that the easy climate, the lush foliage, the pliable beasts will all be consigned to memory, as she and her husband must confront a wholly darker, colder, meaner world. “How shall I part, and whither wander down/Into a lower world, to this obscure/And wild? how shall we breathe in other air/Less pure, accustomed to immortal fruits?” Fallen reality is but a pale shadow of the existence which Eve and Adam would have once known, reared on the sweetness and light of perfected nature for the short duration of their lives, only able to keep paradise but for a short time. Milton’s epic is not nature writing – it’s post-nature writing. A poem which conveys the understanding that Eden may not be real – perhaps it never was, though its certainly not an actual location on the map right now – but that this beautiful, abstract idealization remains holy in the human soul, a blessed “No Place,” a utopia. That dream of being totally in tune with nature, of perfect synchronization, if always a myth at least a potent one. When Milton had finished Paradise Lost, London was already a metropolis of well over a million people, the confines of the capital packed with human beings, streets filled with horse and human shit, lye clogging the Thames, soot, smog, and industrial run-off punctuating everyone’s lives, where as Emily Cockayne writes in Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, the “infrastructural development could not keep pace and parts of the city became increasingly crowded, dirty, and noisy.” For those trapped within the urban jail of London, the New World did seem a paradise – the promise of a fresh, green continent without pollution, without enclosure, without the fallenness. Seven years after Milton died, and his fellow non-conformists the Quakers were granted a land charter by the king to establish their utopia of Pennsylvania, the largest proprietary holding on earth. By 1775, and the first anthracite coal would be discovered in the province, as miners “Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands/Rifl’d the bowels of thir mother Earth,” as Milton wrote in his first book, men having “Op’nd into the Hill a spacious wound.” The first steel would be produced a century after that, with Carnegie’s Edgar Thompson facility still visible from the Monongahela just a hike through the park and the woods, for “There stood a Hill not far whose griesly top/Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire/Shon with glossie scurff, undoubted sign/That in his womb was hid metallic Ore, /The work of Sulphur.”

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.