Basic Books, 1999
Jennifer Price takes apart the meanings behind American relationships with nature as carefully as if she were disassembling a 3D wooden puzzle cube, revealing much more to the stories she examines than I would have thought possible. Its five chapters look at different aspects of that relationship, moving forward through history: The extinction of the passenger pigeon; birds in women's hats; the pink flamingo lawn ornament; the Nature Company; and television shows and commercials of the 90s.
The interaction of increasing American affluence with Nature's increasing distance (as the frontier was pushed back and the continent settled) is the crux of the matter. Nature becomes more and more a thing apart, separate from direct experience, something we visit to escape the pressures of our daily lives. Nature is more Real, more Authentic, than Artifice.
The artifice with which we approach nature can be seen, for instance, in The Nature Store, the darling of upscale malls in the 80s and 90s. Located in some of the most artificial and carefully constructed environments, The Nature Store veneered itself with costly authenticity:
Jet has been fashinoned into beads and amulets for 5,000 years and Native Americans have fashioned turquoise into... jewelry for centuries. Now Chilean artists combine the gems to create a handmade necklace, bracelet, and pair of earrings which follow the natural curve of the throat, wrist, and ear.... Bracelet $95.00
Our Dakota Earth Mailbox is a piece of history, using reclaimed barnwood...to looke like a rustic, wind-weathered birdhouse. Each one-of-a-kind piece...recalls a way of life amid hard Great Plains winters.... $49.95
The layers of irony and self-duplicity become almost maddening. Gas-guzzling and resource-hogging SUVs are sold to us by showing them climbing mountains to prove how rugged and real they are. PBS and Nature bring us the world -- in highly dramatized and edited sequences. (I heard someone say recently that it's pretty easy to get a video of a lion eating a kill; the tricky part is keeping all the other wildlife documentary crews out of the frame.)
I think we need to erase, as much as possible, the mental barriers between artifice and nature, to see the artifice that goes into trail maintenance in national parks, and the nature in the bird and animal life that surrounds us every day. Then we can see that CDs of Glacier Bay sounds can bring us closer to Alaska (minus the mosquitos) not least because the plastic may be made of oil from Alaska.
Flight Maps was originally published in 1999, and during the last two chapters, I wondered a bit about some of the differences twelve years on. Every time Price mentions "affluent baby-boomers" I ruefully shook my head: Yeah, that was a couple bubbles and wars ago. The Nature Store was bought out by the Discovery Channel and phased into a marketing arm. Out go the backpacking guides, in come the Swamp Loggers season DVDs. The way nature shows are presented on PBS is probably still the same, and yogurt and shampoo are still sold to us as more authentic, more natural.