"Dream of Arcadia" by Thomas Cole (1838)
February 19, 2013
There really is a place called Arcadia. It is a region of the presently-troubled nation of Greece, and for centuries its name has been synonomous with beauty, tranquility and the "contented pastoral simplicity of its people", according to one dictionary definition. Oddly, even with all our classical place names there is no Arcadia in upstate New York (there is an Arcade, NY, in Wyoming County). But finding the spot on a map and attaining the ideal should be two different things. In his new book "Arcadian America", Aaron Sachs goes in quest of both the spirit and the specific locales that would characterize Arcadia. The book is an appeal for environmental awareness, an appreciation of landscapes, an analysis of American writings about nature and design, a review of 19th century American history and, most strikingly, a personal memoir as its author deals with very basic matters of life and death.
"American Arcadia: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition" opens with Aaron Sachs describing his hometown of Ithaca, NY (a fine classic name there). Dr. Sachs is associate professor or history and American studies at Cornell University, and he began his association with Cornell when the campus was in the midst of an uproar about paving over a woodland to create another parking lot. The balance between the appreciation and protection of the natural world and the desire for development and Progress has torn this nation throughout its history. During the 19th century, a time when the design of a rural cemetery might stir feelings of natural order,
Arcadia seemed within reach to Americans who paused in the quieter corners of particular landscapes, on the back acres of farms, in parks and gardens, where the atmosphere was restful, where nature and culture seemed at peace with each other. Of course, it is quite likely that no true Arcadia has ever come into being; in any case, it would demand a huge amount of hard labor. So predictably -- but distressingly -- scholars have tended to dismiss nineteenth-century Arcadians -- like Thoreau, or the pioneering landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, or Populists like Ignatius Donnelly and Henry George and Hamlin Garland -- as dreamers or elistists who were ultimately complicit in the mainstream embrace of Manifest Destiny. I think of them as both men of their time and, in some respects, environmental prophets.
The Arcadian outlook was harshly tested in the mid-19th century by the Civil War and the advance of the Industrial Revolution, forces that Professor Sachs details in a central chapter of "Arcadian America" entitled simply "Stumps". That title refers to both the remains of trees levelled to clear farmland or for construction, and the soldiers' limbs amputated on the Civil War battlefields. Stumps even appear in the Arcadian images of landscapes by Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole and other painters. "Americans finally began to realize, in the 1860s, that they had to confront limits, that logging caused ugly, long-lasting scars," writes Sachs, "that the renewal of timber resources would take a mighty effort." At the same the human sacrifice of war was well-described by poet and nurse Walt Whitman, another of the great figures who carry forward the story of "Arcadian America".
In the midst of reviewing the environmental and social history of the 1800s, Aaron Sachs shares his own personal story. Passsages of autobiography blend with the advance of history, telling of opportunities, challenges and impediments that Sachs faced and of his own relationship to the natural and built world. He is concerned about the illness and death of friends, family relationships and especially the aging and well-being of his parents. He also tells about the development of "Arcadian America" itself.
What, in the end, can we say about all of humanity? We are born; we die; in life, we depend on sunlight, air, water, soil and the rooted things that soil nurtures. Other thinkers (usually seeing to prove the legitimacy of the Bible) had already pointed out how many different cultures owned legends of the Flood: we all start off enwombed, surrounded by lapping water, but soon we crawl out onto the shore and cling to mother earth, and then water, the universal solvent, with its power of erasure, comes to embody our fear of death. When the deluge comes, it wipes out any hint that you ever lived. Donnelly's brilliance lay in giving our shared dependence, our shared fear, our shared community, a specific name and place: Atlantis belonged to eveyone. It was the ultimate commons.
Dr. Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history and American studies, Cornell University