Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A natural romance

By Claude Fischer

replica of Thoreau's cabin

I recently noticed a newspaper ad for Amtrak: Designed in American Craftsmen style to evoke, say, 1910, a poster displays the silhouette of a woman, hair in a bun, sipping a hot beverage. Through a train window behind her we can see a landscape of high mountains and tall evergreens.  The title of the ad reads, in caps, “more human / more nature.”  (A video version is here.)

ad for train Trains, the ad tells us, are our vehicles for returning to a slower time, a more natural time, a more human time.

Irony alert! The train was, to humanists and other sensitive souls of the 19th century, the central symbol of modernity – the main destroyer of life at a natural, harmonious, human scale. The unintentional joke in the ad plays off the running tension between new technologies, old technologies, and our notions of the “natural.” Knowingly or not, the ad’s creators point out how the modern world defined the “natural” one.

New devices, old crafts

In a famous passage in his famous 1854 book extolling the wonders of nature, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau describes how the whistle of a nearby locomotive breaks his communing with nature; he compares its sound to the screech of a hawk. Thoreau then describes the city merchants riding the train out to the countryside as  predatory hawks. This passage is a critique of commercial, urban civilization advancing on iron wheels to ruin nature and “natural” ways of  life – a common view among the romantics of his era. (Leo Marx wrote a classic study on the era and the mindset: The Machine in the Garden.) Today, Amtrak and many train enthusiasts describe trains as the human, natural means of transport.

This elevation of older technologies into the romantic category of more human, natural technologies is common. When computers came in, essayists enjoyed writing eulogies to the typewriter; I’m sure that when typewriters came in, people bemoaned the loss of the more “natural” pencil; and I would suspect that lovers of parchment scrolls regretted the printing press. Critics of television waxed nostalgic about radio programs while critics of the radio in the 1920s worried about what it was doing to live performances. When email proliferated, sage observers bemoaned the loss of that human quality, the sound of voices, which  the telephone provided; but when the telephone became popular, commentators complained about how a mechanical device was displacing more natural conversation and more human letter-writing. (Letter-writing, by the way, required considerable technological infrastructure – in the 1700s, “paper, quills, ink, sealing

wax or wafers, inkpots, and penknives [for trimming quills]” [see here], not to mention stagecoaches and other means of delivery.) As a final example, more than one commentator on household technologies has suggested that washing machines displaced the  “natural” way of cleaning — lugging water from wells, chopping wood, stoking furnaces, and hand-scrubbing.

Seeing older technologies as more natural appears in the way we talk of older technologies as “crafts.” Some people today enjoy the kind of hand-making of clothes that their great-grandmothers gave up for sewing machines and their grandmothers gave up for mass-produced clothing; it was a chore, it is now a craft. The glassware and sealing technology 19th century women used to save food for the winter has become the natural craft of preserving. In a similar vein, I sense that a nostalgia that 1970s and ’80s computer code-writing is a lost, endangered craft.

Nature nostalgia

replica of Thoreau's cabin
Thoreau cabin replica

Beneath the nostalgia about old technologies is the deeper western, particularly American I suspect, nostalgia about nature. A sentimental view of nature – institutionalized in our national park system, wilderness areas, and major urban parks – is a world-view that, as someone pointed out to me decades ago, only an advanced, technological civilization would develop.

In most of human history, people viewed raw nature as fearsome, to be avoided, passed through quickly, a brutal test, and to be beaten back. (Consider nature and its bestiary in the Bible; even today villagers in places like India fear wild animal attacks.) Enlightenment thinkers and 19th century romantics could, most of them from a safe  distance, imbue untouched nature with  purity, which provided a standard of innocence that rebuked the corruptions of the emerging urban society. Thoreau could in this spirit disdain the materialism of his fellow New Englanders from his perch in the woods (– well, actually, from a cottage he used on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s farm, near Mrs. Emerson’s kitchen, and a short walk from town).

We have inherited this American world view. I, too, have been thrilled when backpacking into the “pristine” wilderness; I, too, tried to teach my children to feel the awe and inhale the moral uplift of nature – even as I understood that these reactions were as “natural” as feeling moved by, say, William Shakespeare, Rembrandt van Rijn, or Willie Mays – not natural at all, but learned.

Were Henry David Thoreau around today, I would enjoy a train ride with him through, say, the Rockies; we would feel refreshed by human encounter with nature, thanks to Amtrak.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer's blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.