Adventures with Nature in Modern America
By Jennifer Price
New York: Basic Books, 1999. $24
Reviewed by Adelheid Fischer
Book Review January/February 2000
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|In 1991 I toured the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, site of one
of the world’s richest iron deposits. Nearly a century of open-pit mining
had sheared the boreal forest from the region’s mounded hills, gouging
huge canyons from the exposed rock. From the looks of it, the place could
have just as easily been in the Arizona hinterlands. Flat-topped buttes
rose from the canyon floors, and narrow ore-hauling roads—reminiscent of
the layering of ancient sedimentary rock—switchbacked up the sides of canyon
walls. So much did the land look as if it had been sculpted by wind over
eons that, according to mining historian Richard V. Francaviglia, in time
people begin to regard these features as natural.
The Iron Range provides the kind of stark geological setting so much in vogue these days with the advertisers of sports utility vehicles. So why don’t car manufacturers showcase their Troopers, Navigators, and 4Runners on a human-chiseled mesa within the city limits of Hibbing, MN, instead of perched on a 360-degree wilderness overlook in Navajoland? After all, some—if not all—of the ore that went into their buffed-out chassis would have come from the range’s Mesabi veins.
The question comes up in Jennifer Price’s lively and enlightening first book, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in America. To answer it, Price, a self-proclaimed “Thoreau of the mall,” takes readers on a tour whose stops include the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the culture wars over using bird parts to decorate women’s hats, the history of the pink flamingo lawn ornament, such successful commercial enterprises as the Nature Company, and the meanings invested in nature by such wildly popular television programs as Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
What links these disparate topics, according to Price, is the deeply rooted American belief in a “Nature Out There”—a sacred place apart from the fray of modern life, a more genuine, alive world that starkly contrasts with the degraded urban world where most of us live. This belief, Price maintains, has helped cause many of nation’s environmental ills. Specifically, she says, it has distanced Americans from the places that supply us with food for our bodies, wood for our houses, and metal for our cars, and thus it has allowed us to ignore the evils committed to provide us with the goods we so thoroughly enjoy. It explains how the passenger pigeon could have been pushed to the brink of extinction in the far wilds of the Upper Midwest before East Coast urbanites—who used the birds in haute cuisine and as targets in increasingly popular sport of trap shooting—even realized their populations were declining. It also explains how “pristine” nature can help sell machines with no environmentally redeeming features—the wildly popular gas-guzzling, big-polluting SUVs.
“Wild pieces of nature will, and should, take on different meanings in different places and eras,” Price admits, but some meanings are better, truer, and more useful than others. In the late 1990s, when Americans connect to pieces of nature across great distances, and through vastly complex economic networks, it’s so easy to lose track of our connections. So as we craft ideas of nature to navigate an increasingly complex era, and as we use them to tell us about ourselves, shouldn’t we ask our meanings to help us identify rather than avoid a reckoning of all these connections among people and nature?
Indeed, it’s imperative that we should. My complaint is that Price never elucidates what these meanings might be—an unforgivable omission in an otherwise brave and ambitious book.
Adelheid Fischer is co-author of the new book Valley of Grass: Tallgrass Prairie and Parkland of the Red River Region (North Star, 1998), winner of the 1999 Minnesota Book Award for Nature Writing. This year, the University of Minnesota Press will publish her environmental history of the north shore of Lake Superior.
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