Monday, February 9, 2009

Schizophrenic America

I really enjoyed William Cronon's "The Trouble with Wilderness." I think he truly captured the duality that exists when it comes to perceptions of the wilderness, both within the environmental community and in America at large. Lowenthal spoke of American dislike for nostalgia and the past. Early Americans, after all, came to the new world to be "reborn" (so to speak) and make their own mark on history, unencumbered by their European ancestry. The same can be said for immigrants in the early 20th century who came to the US to escape religious persecution, blight, starvation and other forms of suffering in order to make new lives for themselves. Yet despite the freedom that America and the wilderness have come to represent, the very idea of primitivism, returning to nature and the simpler things in life, contradicts this very notion. Thoreau and others have used the wild to reinvent themselves. Their journey into nature was a way to discover the bare essentials that made them human, the very roots of humanity. Our obsession with the past doesn't stop at nature. Just look at the entertainment industry. How many films in recent years have been period pieces? There are more revivals on Broadway than there are fresh new plays. Even the fashion industry is looking towards the past to pave the way for next season's styles. Our vision of wilderness is just as romantic as it is idealistic. We see it as both a place to escape "history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions" and somewhere to reminisce about the ol' frontier and commiserate about the problems of modern life. Cronon describes our bipolar attitude with compassion and insight, and suggests the only way to reconcile the two is to invite the wilderness into our world instead of making the journey into it.

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