Becoming One With Nature: It Ain’t What It Used to Be

Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature in Modern America , by Jennifer Price. Basic Books, 325 pages, $24.

You’re still hovering, uncommitted, unsure whether to dive into Flight Maps or toss it aside, when Jennifer Price nets you with a marvelous anecdote. She’s writing about a late-19th-century fashion craze, and mentions an ornithologist named Frank Chapman who in 1886 trekked across Manhattan, counting bird species: “In two afternoon trips, he saw … three bluebirds, nine Baltimore orioles, five blue jays, 21 common terns, a prairie hen, a saw-whet owl–Chapman was a talented birder–and 132 other birds. There were 40 species in all.” Here’s the catch: The birds, whole or in pieces or represented only by a few telltale feathers were decoration on women’s hats.

You don’t have to be a PETA loon (that is, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or an Animal Liberation Front storm trooper to wonder about slaughtering songbirds to make hip headgear. Read on and discover–no surprise–that by the 1890’s a furious reaction set in and pretty much stamped out bird hats as a fashion accessory. Ms. Price fills in the history as a way to illustrate her argument about how people connect with nature. In other chapters she revisits the extinction of the passenger pigeon; scopes out America’s lawns in search of plastic pink flamingos; cruises the mall to get to a retail outfit called the Nature Company; and channel-surfs her way to the deep inner meaning of nature as seen on the tube.

What Ms. Price has to say, as I understand it, is that those chic New York women who wore dead and dismembered bluebirds and owls on their head had a more honest relationship with the natural world than their eco-friendly, Rainforest Alliance descendants. Having read Flight Maps right through to the end (though I was tempted, even late in the game, to give up on the grounds that sloppiness cancels wit and that people who write badly shouldn’t)–I’m inclined to agree with her.

New Yorkers, like most urban folk since the heyday of Athens, locate Nature elsewhere. Nature with a big “N” has always been what was there before man meddled. These days it’s also where you go for the weekend or on vacation. It’s an elsewhere we visit in our leisure time, “a Place Apart,” in Ms. Price’s phrase. We crusade to conserve nature, establish parks and wilderness preserves to protect it. And yet nature is also the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and even (in ingeniously modified form) the sidewalk beneath our feet. We are always inevitably tapping natural resources, sometimes depleting them, sometimes degrading them. We preach, “Conserve and protect,” and all the while we use and abuse. What better way to acknowledge the truth of the matter than to wear like a badge bits of a pretty little bird?

Ms. Price joins a chorus of writers whose work pushes us to reconsider our habit of separating in our minds the urban and suburban from other ecological zones we designate as more “natural.” Three books spring to mind, all published in the last 18 months (and all of them better than Flight Maps ): Red-Tails in Love , by Marie Winn, the story of hawks making a life in and around Central Park; The Meadowlands , Robert Sullivan’s eco-tour of an industrial wasteland five miles west of the Empire State Building and in its way as wild as Borneo; and Ecology of Fear , Mike Davis’ gleeful catalogue of the ways in which man and nature work hand in hand to insure catastrophe in Los Angeles.

The common thread is a heightened awareness of the interpenetration of the artificial and the natural, the man-made and the wild. Nature as we experience it is not now pristine, hasn’t been for centuries, and won’t be ever again. Man’s meddling has been so total and so pervasive and so layered through time that the idea of Nature as “what was there before” loses relevance. Nature is now a co-production. But that fact diminishes the beauty and importance of our “natural” surroundings not one bit (nor, as Mike Davis proves, does it temper the force of “natural” disaster). The flip side of this heightened awareness is the recognition that our modern urban and quasi-urban existence is shot through with wonderfully adaptive wilderness–rats and mosquitoes and suburban coyotes and red-tails who nest 12 floors up on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 74th Street.

Ms. Price’s contribution is on the one hand delightfully trivial (“the ratio of plastic to real flamingos in the United States is 700 to 1″) and on the other hand insistently serious–she hammers us with her argument, she even pleads for it. “How do I really want to connect to nature?” she asks, with the writer’s equivalent of a lump in her throat. She finds her answer (or the clearest expression thereof) at the mall–at the Nature Company, to which her reaction, when she first saw it sometime around 1989, was an equivocal and reverberating “Wow!”

“What has the Nature Company been selling us, exactly? Why have they sited most of their stores in upscale malls, within bowling distance of Emporio Armani?” According to Ms. Price, the store sells us not nature but nature’s meaning . With its 12,000-odd products (including wind chimes, herbal teas, Rainforest Crunch, pruning shears, petrified wood, Amish rockers and Zuni fetishes), the store “hawks” (sorry) a definition of nature as a Place Apart, a definition you can use to “critique or counteract” the “artifice and alienations” of modern America. The store provides “a mall version of a Thoreauvian outing.” An upscale mall is the perfect place for selling “Nature” because it, too, is a Place Apart, a commercial zone from which all traces of the manufacturing process, all the sweat and noise of making and packing and hauling, have been carefully erased. The mall is pure retail, a never-never land designed to disguise “our complicity in the economic networks through which people convert nature and human labor into the stuff and sustenance of everyday lives.” The mall disguises what the Nature Company’s products also disguise: our inevitable participation in the “ravenous global consumption of natural resources.”

Anyone who stops to think realizes that the very idea of the Nature Company is absurd, an oxymoron even on its own terms. So is a television commercial for the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle: “Where the pavement ends … the world begins.” But as Ms. Price repeatedly suggests, Nature gums up our thinking. Flash us some unspoiled scenery and the delicate balance of our irony seesaws out of control. Sticking to the age-old definition of Nature as a Place Apart helps us have it both ways: Nature as pristine elsewhere and nature as fungible commodity.

To recalibrate our sense of irony, we could all meditate once a day on the plastic pink flamingo ($9.95 a pair at K-Mart), a manufactured substitute for the bird hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century. The plastic version, invented in 1957, “is literally real and wholly natural,” Ms. Price writes. “It is the nature that has been mined, harvested, heated and shipped.”

Making us ponder plastic flamingos is probably the best thing Ms. Price does for us in Flight Maps , which is admirably jargon-free even though the author has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. Ms. Price avoids the lumpy language of the lecture hall, but she retains the egghead’s simultaneous reverence for and suspicion of meaning : “To make nature exceptionally meaningful–and to use our everyday encounters to navigate the world and define who we are–is simply to be human.” After a dozen encounters with variations on that same sentence, you know for sure that repeating an idea is not the same as refining it.

The city dweller who zooms north to the country on a Friday afternoon, comfy in the leather bucket seat of an air-conditioned Range Rover, wants to get to a place where Nature’s vestigial purity is on tap. Ms. Price likes to quote a Volvo commercial about how a trek to the mountains in an all-wheel drive station wagon just might save our souls. But soul-saving wilderness, even in vestigial form, could be a concept we can no longer afford. As the mercury in the global thermometer rises, maybe it’s time we settled for a messy, planet-saving compromise–something in pink and petroleum-based, perhaps.