I Hate Nature: An American Cautionary

I would like to use my own experience as an American as a mirror here in Reykjavik. We, too, live in a recently settled, thinly populated land whose great beauty and resources have become both its pride and its downfall. In the face of all kinds of contrary evidence, the mythology of our sublime landscape still thrives in our hearts, minds, and, especially, our media. You are at a fork in the road. Choose carefully.

I hate spiders. I hate earthquakes. I hate genetic diseases and AIDS. Nature is dirty. Birds poop all over my car. Nature causes death. It takes up too much space. It brings ice onto the roads, germs into our living rooms, and water through the windows.

REAL Nature is disconnected from our FANTASY about it: I, like most people, want Nature… functional and in its place.

How we Americans view NATURE, and how we think about it, is different from how we occupy and use it.

We all say that we love nature, but if we stop for a moment and are honest with ourselves, we can see the radical difference between what we say and what we do. This is a much-needed reality check for all of the Nature-lovers out there. Nature today is a commodity that is inserted, in bits and pieces, into an environment that is itself a constructed product of our will. It does what we want, and sadly, all we want is to enjoy the view without being inconvenienced.

We Americans continue to hold onto the myth that we are living in a wide-open continent of endless beauty and natural riches– thanks, in part, to the ad men on Madison Avenue, who, in a genius move, borrowed from the work of generations of explorer-artists who raised Nature to a cult status. The media has kept the wilderness fantasy alive and kicking through our industrialization and well into the Information Age, sustaining us through our continued historical “westward expansion” towards a manifest destiny of Big Box developments.

Somehow, despite the fact that we’ve already reached California (and beyond), we still see ourselves as a new population settling an open landscape. We believe in what is proving to be a toxic combination of “truths”: the endlessness of our land, the infinite plenitude of its resources, the tyranny of bottom-line governance and bottom-line thinking. This toxic combo of cultural mythologies prevents us from clearly seeing the devastation we have visited upon our landscape in a shockingly short amount of time. Even if we put aside the question of lack of government oversight for a moment, how have we let ourselves become this blind to ugliness?

Basically, the problem comes down to this: NATURE is somewhere out there – not where we live, work, and shop. More importantly, NATURE doesn’t include us (human beings). When NATURE does interfere with us, we flock to hi-tech solutions to figure out how to manipulate the problem (sagging breasts, bad skin, receding gums, cancer, etc.) so that we can emerge as unscathed by real Nature as possible.

Americans are evolving away from what we fantasize to be NATURE at an intensifying speed. Real Nature can interfere with our economic objectives, and to prevent that, we are working hard to contain it.

We seem to need NATURE in increasingly small doses. If you want it enough, drive or fly there – you can find our wilderness myth in National and State Parks. On an everyday basis, though, we’re happy with a potted shrub at the corner of a barren stone plaza, or a “garden” on top of a parking garage. We sport twig-shaped flash drives and leaf-printed t-shirts. I’m not denigrating these things — they are what they are. But I want to emphasize that these token gestures are, for most people, “good enough” forms of Nature. We don’t need or want a more serious engagement with the stuff Out There.

Satisfied with these tokens, we Americans are developing and building our environment in a way that results in both environmental and aesthetic degradation. We are proliferating our un-dense development, or “sprawl,” at an astonishing speed with no end in sight. Our true Manifest Destiny consists of huge tracts of big box developments, suburbs, sub-suburbs, and now, simply, subs, all strung along endless miles of highway.

Given that there seems to be no other development agenda in the USA other than making a profit, than un-dense (sprawl) is likely to increase over the next 10 years (ULI statistics). Our mythology, and the blindness it allows, has led us to where we are now – living in an environment of sprawl, aesthetic squalor, cultural isolation, and locked into a collision course with our ecosystem.

The disconnect between what we say and what we do about Nature, and our misconception of our place in Nature disallows us from developing a pro-active, form-giving attitude towards the built environment.

We must come to grips with the fact that our environment is largely shaped by us. This is a double-edged sword, because it means that we can determine its physical form, density, and function… or not. So far, our infatuation with the American wilderness myth has resulted in very ambivalent feelings about the appropriateness of imposing form on our landscape.

Our American wilderness paradigm keeps us from developing a clear idea about how to resolve our human activity upon our landscape and how to develop an attitude that can resolve this dilemma constructively. The Dutch, possessing a culture that is clear-eyed about the fact that their native landscape is a man-made artifact, have a much more pragmatic approach to building and development, resulting in healthier and more sustainable environments.

In contrast, in the USA, Landscape and NATURE are understood to be the same thing. As a result, it is a given that any built landscape has a moral imperative to represent NATURE (as long as the trees don’t get in the way of viewing the building). Most Americans believe that “A Good Landscape is One Where You Cannot See the hand of Man” (Ian McHarg). In our worldview, a developed landscape tumbles out of the NATURE category and into a nether-world where it becomes empty space – a repository for our buildings and services (which are clearly understood as man-made and therefore worthy of determination).

As a result, the American landscape can only ever be left alone, or subtly treated as a representation of “Nature.” Even at a large scale, it continues to serve as a token; it shouldn’t deal with people, communities, social issues, or ideas. It should be soft. It shouldn’t be colored (unless that color is green). Most importantly, it should look “natural.” Landscape is not an appropriate place for manipulation or design.

From our perspective, the landscape is God-given and therefore must remain untouched. If something does happen to it — if it is defiled by the economic imperatives of development, it instantaneously falls out of grace and is no longer worthy of consideration. It’s a catch-22. In this we are a lot like the Victorians with their perception of women as either angels or whores. When we forsake Nature, we really forsake it.

The strength of this angel/whore perception is obvious when you look at how these areas are treated. They are under-tended by developers and designers, as “huge parking lots” and “the vacant spaces between Big Boxes” have little significance or presence in the pantheon of “important space.”

The public allows this inattention because the constructed environment of sprawl we produce en masse (parking lots, strips, sidewalks, streets, alleyways, and transportation corridors) is not considered “Landscape.” These spaces are invisible to us and possess an “untouchable” status. They are viewed as a sad but inevitable condition. The lack of attention and low expectations for this type of environment only add to the dispiritedness and ugliness of our surroundings.

We take sprawl as a fact of life in our country, but it’s a fact of life that has to end — its inexorable spread across the American landscape is irreversibly damaging our environment.

As environmental issues become more visible to Americans, we are being forced to view our surroundings and behavior differently. Sprawl development generates ecological problems, discourages cultural and social interaction, and creates vast demi-worlds of bland, faceless, and ugly environments.

We have, historically, settled and lived in a sublime landscape of unimaginable dimension and natural wealth. We have also taken it for granted. Swallowing our landscape mythology hook, line, and sinker, we freed ourselves to exploit our greatest resource (our landscape), for any economic use imaginable. Working quickly, we never bothered to come to terms with the very real diminishment and degradation of the very thing that created that mythology.

We are still embedded in this delusion. The thinking still goes that our landscape and resources are limitless, that we only need to move a little bit more west to discover new lands and riches for further exploitation. These myths have disabled a culture of stewardship, conservation, and regard for the landscape. As a result, the sublime nature of our landscape today resides in cordoned areas of national parks and on Madison Avenue, where it is sold in pretty, clean packages. And it does sell.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost 1

In the US, we came to the fork in the woods and took both paths. Lost in dreams of our fantasy wilderness, we sold our land out from beneath our feet until we ended up in an endless suburb made Nature-friendly by the hollow can of New Urbanism and by those less sophisticated, with a thin coat of green paint on the median strips.

The land seemed vast and overwhelming and indestructible when we first got here — it seemed that we could never tame it. We were wrong about that. At an astonishing rate, we are becoming visually degraded, less sustainable and more energy-intensive, and more destructive towards both our cities and our natural habitats — the very thing we idealize in our images, stories, and dreams. This is the true American success story: how we fell in love with our country’s greatest resource — its beauty – abused it, and sold it.

1 Untermayer, Louis. Modern American Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1919

Martha Schwartz

15 May 2008