On the Nature Trail

Flight Maps, by Jennifer Price, takes the scenic route--over the mountains and through the mall

Unfortunately, as Price shifts from an examination of history to a dissection of the present she starts to lose steam--or, more specifically, her tale devolves into the kind of generational navel-gazing that is interesting for only about 15 minutes. "The flamingo had become a baby-boomer signpost for boundary transgressions--having evolved in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s into the metonymy of Artifice and anti-Nature.... In the 1980s we logically began to use it as a marker for crossing into new places, times, eras, stages of life, and even into the most sacrosanct reaches of Nature itself." Um, right. Maybe Price's publicist told her to skew the argument this way; no doubt there's marketing wisdom in pitching her work to the same demographic the Isuzu Rodeo ad (the one that promises that mountains can "save your soul") appeals to.

If you can get past the packaging, there are still goodies to be found, including a sharp portrait of the Nature Company (headquartered, like Price, in the Bay area), where nature becomes "a key therapeutic resource" in the form of anatomically correct inflatable penguins and humpback-whale CDs. Listening to the latter, Price admits, "I readily lose track of real facts about the actual Arctic landscape--yet...its oil might be in my stereo system, or in the CD itself. Who thinks of the whale calls on the Glacier Bay CD as Petroleum more than Freedom?" But given the promise Flight Maps started out with, there's also a lot left unsaid and undone. Like: What about those "real facts about the actual Arctic landscape?" And those nineteenth-century bird hats, and the way "nature" was used to define men and women--don't we still do that? And if we do learn to think of the plastic lawn flamingo as so much petroleum and iron ore; if we learn to think of "newspapers, computers, Armani suits, art museums, breakfast and chicken" as lowercase-n nature, then what? Maybe Price ends the book on the vaguest of notes because to further explore those questions means to consider some pretty brutal answers--or else, to get used to a nature that looks a lot like the mall.

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