Letters Archive
Spring 2000, Vol. 8, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Teaching the Holocaust
  • Former Warren Center Fellow Susan Hegeman Publishes Book on Culture and Modnerism
  • The Reproduction of Nature: Cultural Origins of America's National Parks
  • The Reproduction of Nature: Cultural Origins of America's National Parks

    What do we think of when we think of America's national parks? Most of us, I imagine, would think of large tracts of unspoiled wilderness -- majestic mountains, spectacular waterfalls, or undisturbed forests. If asked, many of us would describe the goal of our national parks in terms not very different from those adopted in 1963 by the National Park Service, which insisted that "the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man." In other words, the origins of America's national parks are generally thought to consist in the desire to withdraw or preserve particularly spectacular natural areas from social, political, and economic development. For most of us, national parks are natural parks.
    The construction of American national identity has always been inseparable from nature. Unlike European nations, whose identity derived from a common language, ethnic or racial heritage, religion, or cultural history, the identity of the United States of America as "nature's nation" was grounded in large part in the land itself. Because of this centrality of nature to American self identity, questions of environmentalism in America have invariably taken on ideological and national significance. In America, the preservation of natural spaces has involved not only the creation of an alternative to the nation's cultural space, but also the creation of America itself.
    Whereas the turn to landscape painting in early nineteenth-century France, for example, was seen as a move away from the more elevated subjects of historical painting, in America the representation of landscape by Hudson River School painters was itself understood as a form of historical painting in which the landscape was imbued with culturally rich iconographic and symbolic meaning. Contending in an "Essay on American Scenery"(1835) that "the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness," Thomas Cole exalts American scenery over European, "because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified." Similarly, in "Letters on Landscape Painting" (1855), Asher Durand urges American painters to paint American landscapes, arguing that the persistence of many "forms of nature yet spared from the pollutions of civilization," combined with the "principle of self-government," should furnish the conditions for the American landscape painter "boldly [to] originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources." For both Cole and Durand, although America's untouched wilderness offers the opportunity for a distinctly American landscape painting, the westward "progress" of civilization across the continent ensures that this opportunity will not last forever.
    At the end of the twentieth century, the ideal of untouched wilderness advocated by Cole and Durand has been reconsidered. Environmental historians and ecocritics now generally agree that nature and wilderness are cultural constructions. For environmental historian William Cronon, wilderness reproduces the cultural values its advocates seek to escape: there is "nothing natural about the concept of wilderness." As ecocritic Lawrence Buell has noted, it has become almost a truism that the "nineteenth-century American romantic representation of the West was built on an ideology of conquest." For these scholars, as for environmental history and ecocriticism more generally, the American cultural ideal of nature or wilderness preservation has been demystified, has been revealed to harbor within it the very will to power it would set out to escape. Recent work in environmental history disputes a less critical body of scholarship that often took at face value the claims of early preservationists that nature offered an escape from the cultural ideologies of progress and development that fueled American expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This reconsideration of the origins of environmentalism in America has been motivated largely by the widespread acceptance of arguments for the social or cultural construction of knowledge. Historians have thus begun to rewrite the history of American environmentalism, rejecting the received account in which Americans are seen to recognize the intrinsic value of nature or wilderness in the face of its increasing destruction. Instead, environmental historians and ecocritics have begun to tell a different story -- of the increased use of the idea of nature's intrinsic value to further the social, cultural, or political interests of a dominant race, class, gender, or institutional formation.
    As powerful as these revisionist narratives are, however, they run the risk of stripping nature of any specificity whatsoever -- of transforming nature so completely into culture that the preservation of nature as a natural park, for example, becomes indistinguishable from its transformation into a ranch or a mine or a private resort. In making this claim about the particularity of nature, however, I would not propose that we undo the hard-earned insights offered by proponents of the cultural construction of knowledge, but that we undertake the challenging task of pursuing these insights more fully. Granted that nature is culturally constructed, we need to ask how the cultural construction of nature differs from (and intersects with) other culturally constructed entities. Further, we need to ask how the cultural construction of nature varies historically and how it remains constant both through time and across different geographical locations. In other words, we need to pursue locally the more global insights of the cultural construction of nature. We need a truly ecological criticism, one which understands that the cultural construction of nature circulates within what we could call a discursive ecosystem. The task of such criticism would be to trace the connections among the scientific, technological, and cultural networks within which both American environmentalism and the national parks idea emerge, for it is through such interrelations that the particularity of nature can be understood.
    In the project which I am undertaking this year as the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, I am trying to exemplify such a critical practice. I set out to understand the origins of America's national parks not simply as instances of the preservation of nature, but rather as complex cultural representations or reproductions of nature according to the cultural assumptions, beliefs, and practices of mid-nineteenth century America. To do so is not to deny the matter-of-fact sense in which establishing a national park involves preserving an area of land as "natural" as opposed to developing it as a farm, a ranch, a mine, a subdivision, a shopping mall, or an amusement park. Rather, it is to insist that the preservation of nature entailed in establishing Yellowstone as the world's first national park, for example, be understood as the preservation of culture as well -- more specifically as the preservation of a complex set of scientific, technological, aesthetic, social, economic, and other practices that makes up what we call "culture" at any particular moment. From this perspective, the origins of America's national parks not only define America's culture at a particular historical moment, but also make visible aspects of that culture and its ideas of nature that would otherwise go unnoticed.
    Consequently, my project takes up the origins of our three "major" national parks -- Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon -- as sites whose particularity and specificity emerge from the diverse cultural practices and beliefs of nineteenth-century America. Each of my project's three main sections traces out a particular cultural logic that enabled our nation to think through the creation of national parks as representations or reproductions of nature. In the first section I look at the preservation of Yosemite Valley in 1864 in terms of the relation between aesthetic and natural agency in painting, photography, neurology, geology, landscape architecture, and urban reform. In the second, I take up the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone as a national park in terms of the notion of fidelity to nature as it manifested itself in nineteenth-century geology, cartography, painting, photography, stenography, and aesthetics. In the final section I ask why it took until 1919 to make the Grand Canyon a national park, focusing on the way in which the sublimity of the canyon's scenery generates a proliferation of attempts to comprehend the canyon, each of which dramatizes the inadequacy of any single scientific, technological, or cultural mode of representation to depict it.
    My project is not in any strict sense composed of essays in the history of ideas of conservation, preservation, environmentalism, or biocentrism; the history of landsacpe art and aesthetics; or the history of the social, technological, economic, or political development of the American West. Rather, it is made up of interdisciplinary essays in what I have elsewhere called cultural historicism. The project operates from the assumption that science and technology need to be understood not simply by explaining how they are culturally constructed, but also by looking at how certain fundamental ideas or metaphors about nature are worked out at the same historical moment in different cultural practices. In taking up the idea of America as it both defines and is defined by the relations among science, technology, and culture, I will trace certain myths of American environmentalist origins as they are played out across a number of diverse discourses and different technologies of representation and reproduction. In so doing, I hope to illuminate the way in which American cultural origins are simultaneously constructed and destabilized through the "construction, destruction, and deconstruction of nature" -- the theme of this year's seminar at the Warren Center.

    -- By Richard Grusin

    Richard Grusin is William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Warren Center, visiting associate professor of English at Vanderbilt, and associate professor of the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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