Ideas v. Chronology Again

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (Connecticut River near Northampton), 1836

I'm rereading Leo Marx's 2008 essay, "The Idea of Nature in America," to decide whether I want to use it again as an introductory reading in my EnvHist class. I was thinking I might assign it, but urge the students to try to read it critically. The article brings up some important ideas, but in a way I think is too long, intellectualized, and roundabout.

The essay is a little like a journey. In the first paragraph, Marx states his thesis that the "idea of nature" has been one of the core ideas, along with freedom, democracy, and progress, that have defined what it means to be American. Up until the closing of the frontier in 1890, Marx says, "wilderness -- unaltered nature -- was
the defining American experience" (the article appears in Daedalus, Spring 2008, p.8-18).  As I'm reading this section, I'm thinking I will assign the piece, but with a series of "discussion questions" to point out a few things to the students along the way. For example: How is the idea of nature like and unlike the ideas of freedom, democracy, or progress? (I think we'll find over the course of the semester that it is both vaguer and more subject to change over time than these other ideas) Or: "wilderness -- unaltered nature"? Is this what most Americans have experienced? Even white settlers on the frontier?

But Marx does have a point that by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, more than half of Americans lived in cities. Of course, that means that up until a hundred years ago, most Americans lived "on the land." why does this lifestyle not count in Marx's mind as a connection with nature?

Marx remarks that in the seventies (when Environmental History became a field of study) the word nature was partly replaced by the "refurbished, matter-of-fact word
environment" -- the implication being that there's something wrong with trying to be a little more specific. Marx then turns to the many meanings of the word Nature, which he observes can also be used to describe the "nature" of something. This usage, he says, is "idealist or essentialist -- hence ahistorical." As if people are unable to distinguish between "human nature" and trees, grass, mountains, and animals; and might be misled into believing the "nature" out their windows is some type of unchanging ideal.

The only people likely to fall into this trap, I think, are people who never go outside. Marx is impressed by Raymond Williams's assertion that "
nature is probably the most complex word in the English language," and he wants to explore the "historical trajectory traced by the idea of nature in American thought." But what is "American thought"? How many Americans have ever really been so completely in their heads that this type of discussion even makes any sense? Is this "historical trajectory" about the way most Americans experienced the natural world? Or about how writers and painters used it in their art? Or about how preachers and politicians used it in their polemics?

The essay moves on to the idea of mankind's loss of a connection with nature. Emerson worried about it in 1836, Marx says. And Darwin defined nature as "all that is
separate from us." Again interesting -- but this is material for either intellectual history or high-cultural history. Is this environmental history? Carolyn Merchant seems to think so, as Marx notes. Her Death of Nature is the story of patriarchy and in-the-head "male-oriented Newtonian-Cartesian philosophy" conquering a more grounded and obviously matriarchal reverence for Earth. But once again, what does this imagined war between Bacon and the Mother Goddess have to do with the environmental history of America?

The point of Marx's essay, I think, is to take the reader on a journey of sorts. We tend to go along with the argument in this type of piece, and Marx uses this tendency to try to give the reader an aha moment of discovery. You get all comfortable in the ideas I challenged at the start, and then at the end he flips them over. The "mythic image of a 'virgin, uninhabited land,'" he says, "was an ideological weapon in the service of the white European conquest of the Americas." But he notes that even William Cronon (whose
Changes in the Land debunked that myth of virgin land) "cannot bring himself to repudiate the idea of wilderness." In the end, Marx proposes a perspective that embraces a "first nature" (the physical world as it existed before humans) and a "second nature" ("the artificial -- material and cultural -- environment that humanity has superimposed upon first nature").

But how much help is this, really? Is second nature the Merrimack River in the 1850s, dammed for the hydropower needs of the Boston Associates' textile mills? Or is it Turner's idea of the closing frontier? In other words, how does it distinguish between the altered physical environment that we actually live in (and that
everyone, including the Indians, has always lived in) and our ideas and cultural constructions? Sure, there's an interaction between the two, and that interaction is central to Environmental History. But I don't think we're any closer to it a the end of this essay.

So I guess that's it. I won't assign this essay. My goal in this class is to tell the story of American Environmental History to regular people. The students in an online class are almost never History majors. Most often they're adults finishing a degree program in another field, filling the Gen Ed requirement they had left to the last minute. But that's great for me, because it's an opportunity to get outside the academic box and try to figure out how and why environmental history is important to regular people (it is, and it should be!) -- and then how to communicate this importance. I'm going to have to keep looking for a way to introduce the dialog between chronology and ideas in Environmental History. Maybe I'll just write it myself.