On the Nature Trail

As easily as we throw the word around, you'd think we had nature all figured out. Nature Company, Wild Nature, Nature's Way: The word beckons, seduces, teases, sells. It promises, as Jennifer Price puts it early in Flight Maps (Basic Books)," something "more Real and Essential" than mere human artifice. Nature is "Out There," a place we can visit, learn from, or even destroy, but that always remains fundamentally separate from the rest of our lives. Even when it's used to pitch sport utility vehicles or justify social policy (as in "human nature.")

Price's book is an effort to pick apart these contradictions. Hers is not a brand-new idea; contrarians for years have been taking swings at capital-N Nature, though not always with such wide distribution. They've examined nature photography: Those images of waterfalls and mountains we admire on postcards and seek to replicate on road trips are works of art (or, as writer Bill McKibben has argued, pornography), carefully choreographed to appeal to a specifically twentieth-century, and specifically American, aesthetic. They've taken on the concept of wilderness: University of Wisconsin environmental historian William Cronon, among others, has noted that most of the places we imagine as untrammeled and untamed are, in fact, deliberately managed (think of the "controlled burns" the state of Minnesota conducts in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Or consider that the mere act of putting boundaries around a wilderness fundamentally changes its, um, nature). And more than a few critics have dissected the way we fantasize nature as a source of inalienable rights and timeless imperatives (the U.S. Constitution could not have been written without the concept of "natural law"). What Price adds to the discussion is a book that skips the walk in the woods and heads straight for the mall (where, after all, Boundary Waters is a trademark stitched into the back of sweatshirts). And television. And women's fashions. And lawn art. All in an effort to locate nature not in some far-distant place, but here, in front of us; a nature close, intimate enough to be reckoned with.

The reckoning starts with a tale that has been told lots of times before, the story of the passenger pigeon's extinction. This is the bird that once darkened the North American sky--literally: "I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness," Price quotes the ornithologist Alexander Wilson, who in the early 1800s witnessed a flock of passenger pigeons pass over his house. The sky remained dark for five hours; in all, Wilson estimated, the flock was some 240 miles long and contained as many as two billion birds. And while numbers are tough to verify a century later, there's no question that passenger-pigeon flocks were large, awe-inspiring, terrifying in a way not even Hitchcock could begin to approximate.

And what do humans do when nature darkens the sky with tasty bits of meat? They get dinner. All you had to do was point a shotgun when a flock passed over; in 1864, Price notes, "the citizens of St. Paul were brazenly ignoring the laws against the discharge of firearms in the center of town" on such occasions. Pigeon pies, with a couple of feet sticking out to announce their content, were popular at roadside eateries and (sans feet) fancy restaurants. By the late 1800s, pigeons were almost impossible to find in the East; in the Midwest, a pigeon industry flourished, with men shooting the birds by the thousands and shipping them via refrigerated railcars to the likes of Delmonico's in New York. The outcome, now, seems predictable: The last passenger pigeon in North America--a bird named Martha--died at the Chicago Zoo in 1914. Ever since then, the life and death of the passenger pigeon has served as one of the touchstone tales of contemporary environmentalism, its moral neatly encapsulated on a memorial stone near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, site of the great pigeon roost of 1871: "This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man." It's to Price's credit that her story begins where the standard version ends. In retelling the passenger pigeon's last century, she chronicles Americans' changing relationship with nature--or their various images of it--from Seneca folktales to the stone in Wyalusing State Park. People used pigeons to "tell stories about themselves," she notes--first of the bounty of the land, then of refinement, then of sorrow and remorse. By 1973, folkie John Harold sang of pigeons landing "soft as the moonglow"--not exactly the same story as Alexander Wilson's tornadolike flock. Moral: Nature is in the eye of the beholder.

And that, in essence, is the point of the rest of the book. Price chronicles the bizarre, amusing, and vastly underappreciated story of the crusade against bird hats, which helped give birth to the Audubon Society, and which had as much to do with late-Victorian notions of the "nature" of men and women as it did with birds. Then it's on to the plastic pink flamingo and its use by John Waters et al. as "the very symbol of what is artificial...and, at the same time, of the meanings of Nature." The book is worth the cover price for the first few pages of this chapter alone, in which Price traces the "natural" look in landscape architecture to the work of English authority Lancelot "Capability" (!) Brown. His acolytes "constructed hills where the ground was flat, and dug new lakes. They planted tens of thousands of trees on each estate, chopped down entire groves of others, added dead trees back in for effect.... In some cases, they evicted longtime tenant farmers and razed their villages. The architects created not nature itself, in all its diversity, but an idea or definition of nature." More than 100 years later, Midwestern urbanites plant big bluestem grass, to evoke a prairie long since plowed under--"not nature itself, but an idea of nature."

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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