Ideas of Nature: Technology and Change in the United States since 1900

    “‘Nature’ is not to be understood as that which is just present-at-hand, nor as the power of Nature. The wood is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock; the river is water-power, the wind is wind ‘in the sails’. As the ‘environment’ is discovered, the ‘Nature’ thus discovered is encountered too”(Martin Heidegger). Nature is not to be understood; nevertheless, history shows that us humans have tried not only to understand it, but also to manipulate it, sometimes, in catastrophic ways. In relationship to nature and the environment, man has always exhibited a dual perception, two opposing concepts that define us and have been reflected, as Platon claims, in the outside world, sometimes as art and beauty, other times as destruction and slaughter. Philosophies, religions, and beliefs have taught us that the land is ours to govern and value, but, unfortunately, they did not teach us the values of life, of vitality itself and the notion of preservation, for nature is alive, it is the representation of exuberance and stamina. This reflection of man’s dual conflict assimilated the concept of nature wrongfully, always resulting in a pathogenic world with ideals that benefit malice and disease in a circular manner in regards of time. Evolution wise, man has witnessed a disturbed relationship to nature, trying to control the uncontrollable. If we are to take a closer look to one of these cycles, we notice that history repeated when Europeans found the new opportunity to revise terms with the environment in discovering the New World. The virgin land of the Americas provided a blank space in the history of nature, on which man was about to write yet another failure. The enormous land of the New World nourished a society that grew, exploited, and developed a novel perspective on the values of nature, or more exactly, the lack of unnatural created by man, as he has been and always will be connected to the ancestrality of nature. Therefore, it is no surprise that people, even in current times, are longing for an escape in the concepts of nature, just as Leo Marx argues.

More exactly, Marx claims that this longing for nature synthesises in the pastoral ideals of two kinds: “one that is popular and sentimental, the other imaginative and complex”(Marx, 1967). The first one is associated with the concept of leisure, evasion from the ordinary, and time for the self. This type of pastoral ideal recalls the narratives of regeneration and connection to the ancestral. The American society and its consciousness directly apply these terms to its priorities and their actions, as the suburbs are always located outside the city, describing an ideal environment for silence and familial dimension. It is more like a safe place of nourishment, where the hardships of the city and its artificiality cannot reach. The concept of nature and its beauty is implemented so deep in the American consciousness that it has been reflected even on an artistic level in literature at Hemingway, Twain, and Frost, painting at Grant Wood, and sculpture at Bourdelle. But how did the idea of pastoralism evolve? In fact, the concept of pastoralism has always existed in the American culture as an idealized and idyllic space that pursues happiness and social advancement in simpler terms of life. We notice these republican notes at Hofstader and Meyers in an effort to mask another subtle but at the same time obvious face of the industry and urban dimension that invaded people’s lives with the brutality, complexity, and toxicity of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Surprisingly, the complexity of pastoral ideals was born from the horrors of these times and war, developing yet a new perspective on nature: shelter and refuge.

The concepts of shelter and refuge are not foreign from the area of war. In fact, pastoralism and urban suburbs go alongside these concepts and may even be compared to the primitive instincts of reaction to danger or hazard. America has always been an united nation which had values and attributed great importance to unity and solidarity during the horrors of war, but reacted in an unusual way to the man made horrors created by industrialization, urbanization, and later globalisation. Instead of rehabilitating the land, Americans tended to stigmatize the frequently called brownfields, zones that are known to be dangerous in terms of environmental hazards after the deindustrialization in the United States after the end of the second World War. The American society never received a sort of closure in this sense, as “the 1980 implementation of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was blamed for increasing instances of owners choosing to ‘mothball’ or abandon properties for fear of uncertain legal liability”(Uchiyama, 2016). Therefore, the ideal dimension of natural American land does not stop here and is furthermore romanticised and attributed a maternal aura. The land feeds the people and is associated with development and primordial years of childhood, as Sigmund Freud claims. “The birth of the Hudson River school of American painting, signalled by George Innes’s The Lackawanna Valley, married wilderness with civilization in harmonious depictions of pastoral rural towns gleaming with the prosperity brought to them by the broad-based economy of both agriculture and technology”(Nature and the American Identity, n.d.). As America did not have the intellectual ruins as Europe did, the idea of wilderness substituted that spirit and it occupied a priority position for a very long time. As industrialization settled, people’s voices started to express the concerns regarding the landscape devastation by the train railways, as smoke and noise posed the intruders in the pastoral picture. Andrew Melrose expresses his concern over technology and industry by painting Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way–near Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is the moment when the mentality shifted to romanticism, as the American nation undergoes changes in order to provide regulation and progress by controlling the untamed nature. The price paid for this innovation is at the expense of altering the environment. Romanticism set up the stage of a new era of man and his relationship to nature, as it represented the sense of individuality, liberation, and democracy. “The image of America as a garden could apply to the Romantic perspective of nature, but the gridwork of civilization had to be stripped from the landscape”(Nature and the American Identity, n.d.). As a result, even European standards of art and beauty were broken, for the wilderness and vastness of vitality became the national identity of the new nation which had an original concept of their own.

The vast resources soon made the country and its people rich, as cities on the eastern coast were flourishing. People moving from rural areas to urban areas of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, as well as immigrants from all over the world soon erased the fantasist ideals of rural America, as crime, poverty, disease, and pollution struck the land. In this stage, there is a tremendous discrepancy between the industrialized and urbanized scenery of the east coast and the wilderness and virginity of the western coast. Between 1870 and 1920 more than 25 million people immigrated to the United States for different reasons. Nevertheless, the majority was working in the urban areas and in most cases for the factories, as capitalism was starting to grow. The immigrants and the crowded cities soon started to be the target of critics, as poor administration and poor living conditions were a means of compromise to make millions of dollars for the party bosses. At this point, Americans were becoming concerned with the urban crisis, as progressive reformers were exploring urban issues and municipal reform. Meanwhile, the rural areas of America were starting to decay and the once proud image of agrar America was looked upon with nostalgia. “Sociologist Kenyon Butterfield, concerned by the sprawling nature of industrial cities and suburbs, expressed concern about the eroding position of rural citizens and farmers, noting that ‘agriculture does not hold the same relative rank among our industries that it did in former years’”(Learning, n.d.). People saw the farm issue as a concern of democratic civilization, as processes of rural depopulation and urban expansion were going against the very American values. However, other noticed the economic relationship between the rural and urban areas and defended the preservation of the agricultural status, as Liberty Hyde Bailey concludes “every agricultural question is a city question, and every producer’s problem is a consumer’s problem,” noting the economic importance and rural areas becoming more residential rather than agrarian.

As we look back, we see how the American people shifted and changed their priorities from natural to artificial, from rural to urban, from individual to community, all in an effort to sustain development and progress. It is true that all these changes may have come at a very expensive cost with irreversible repercussions, but the land, as in the spirit of the nation, gave back to the community and sustained the growth of a great country that today is America.            

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Works cited

  • Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print.

    Uchiyama, K. (2016). Environmental Kuznets Curve Hypothesis.     SpringerBriefs in Economics, 11–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-4-431-55921-4_2

  Nature and the American Identity. (n.d.).   https://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/NATURE/cap2.html.

Learning, L. (n.d.). US History II (American Yawp). Lumen. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/ushistory2ay/chapter/immigration-and-urbanization-2/.

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