We need a new story.
William Kittredge, Who Owns the West?
In December of 1997, desperate to live out West, I traveled from my home in New York City to Washington, D.C. A casual observer might have remarked that I needed a better map, but I was headed for the National Gallery of Art and the first retrospective of the work of nineteenth- century landscape painter Thomas Moran. Moran was only one of the luminaries in an era when Americans, seduced by their country’s beauty, fell in love with their landscape. American landscape imagery, wildly popular, graced the walls of galleries and homes and the pages of magazines and newspapers. Landscapes of all regions came into vogue, but dramatic western scenery particularly captivated the public, and such images became the aesthetic backdrop of expansionist mythology. Although art and taste have certainly evolved, the national love affair with landscape imagery has never ended, and that December day, this exhibition was as close as I could get to my panoramic dreams.
Many of Moran’s works were crafted according to an aesthetic of awe that art historians call “the sublime.” Early theorists, artists, and much of the public believed that forbidding landscapes revealed the formidable power of God. Moran is best known for his images of what would become Yellowstone National Park, but among the most striking (to me) of the works in this exhibit was his 1875 Mountain of the Holy Cross (shown in figure 1), which portrayed a snow-filled cross near the peak of a Colorado mountain. The curator’s note indicated that the public generally perceived the mountain’s cross as a sign of God’s blessing on the nation’s expansionism. Since the Christian cross originally symbolized humility and sacrifice, and since American empire building included slavery, land theft, genocide of Native Americans, systematic abuse and marginalization of ethnic minorities, the deaths of emigrants duped by the promise that rain really did follow the plow, and massive environmental degradation, the curator’s note was troubling.
But this was still the Manifest Destiny era, when expansionism was largely promoted as divine mission and the West was still the frontier. The American studies scholar Richard Slotkin observes that “Frontier Myth and its ideology are founded on the desire to avoid recognition of the perilous consequences of capitalist development in the New World, and they represent a displacement or deflection of social conflict into the world of myth.”1 Many of the landscape images that post–Civil War painters and engravers produced reflect what I have come to call Manifest Destiny aesthetics, which project the mythology of the expansionist era, romanticize the landscape, and obscure the violent stories of those places. The cross on the mountain elevated expansionism into mythic space suffused with nationalism and sublime authority that expansionist-era boosters attributed to God. While Yellowstone country has its own complicated stories of displacement of indigenous peoples, development of resources, and animal abuse, I found it easier to get lost in Moran’s watercolor and oil paintings of “Wonderland,” which had so charmed the nation that Congress designated Yellowstone as our first National Park in 1872.2
Six months later I was in Yellowstone country for real, where I paused en route to Montana. If I had driven into my dreamscape, I woke up in Yellowstone. I made all the right tourist’s moves, like taking pictures of Old Faithful, visiting areas that Thomas Moran had painted, and logging hours in my car. I bounced over potholes and idled in clots of traffic so dense I decided that Yellowstone was New York City with elk. Things got better when I drove out of the park, toward my new home. A gentle rain tapped the windshield, the sun was to my back, and—I’m not making this up—a rainbow straddled the road. I was listening to a composition of guitar, flute, and storm sounds by string-musician William Eaton and Native American flutist Carlos Nakai, so the scene even had the right soundtrack. The rainbow looked like the gateway to the Promised Land, and since I wanted to believe that I was driving toward a destiny as beautiful as the landscape, I took the rainbow as a sign. And then, as if on cue, a pebble torpedoed my windshield and left a crack the size of a quarter.
The pebble provided a reality check. I was hardly the first to invest the American landscape with my own longings. My immigrant mother and paternal great-grandparents had done as much, as had the emigrants who pushed westward during the expansionist era, just as others had done since Europeans first invaded the Americas. Nor was such dream-driven migration simply archaic. The West was the United States’ fastest growing region between 1990 and 2006, and Nevada, where I would eventually make my home, was the fastest growing state throughout the last four decades of the twentieth century.3
I saw hope in the landscape because American landscape mythology had taught me to look for it there. Thomas Moran’s Mountain of the Holy Cross had troubled me the first time I saw it, but renditions of that image were everywhere in late twentieth- and early twenty-first- century culture, often with a sport-utility vehicle taking the place of the cross and cruising over mountains that would have struck our pioneer forebears as treacherous. Aesthetics evolve, and since the late nineteenth century, renditions of the sublime have frequently reflected what critics call the “technological sublime,” which reveals the formidable power of human engineering.4 Images like the SUV ads linked drivers to the nation’s pioneer heritage, deified technology, and lifted consumerism to mythic space, where its true stories—for example, the environmental costs of building and driving the SUV—were obscured by the product’s glitter and the afterglow of nineteenth-century landscape mythology.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. observes that nature “is the infrastructure of our communities.”5 What, then, are the costs of framing the environment according to inherited aesthetic standards, and then employing these aesthetics in the service of commercial enterprises and national mythology? Scholars have documented the influence of landscape imagery on the development of American nationalism during the nineteenth century.6 How are landscape aesthetics informing our sense of national community and the patriotism that the historian Merle Curti, in his early studies on the subject, defined as “love of country, pride in it, and readiness to make sacrifices for what is considered its best interest”?7 How do landscape aesthetics work with representations of patriotism, which, throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, have drawn upon landscape, war, and commerce?
I contend that nineteenth-century landscape aesthetics remain so influential in contemporary culture that they may encourage us to view our environment much as expansionist-era boosters viewed it—as a stockpile of resources to be exploited or as scenery to be preserved. This aesthetic framework perpetuates Manifest Destiny–era ideas of the environment as commodity, scenery, and cultural trashlands, and it romanticizes or conceals acts of environmental violence.
Given the pervasiveness of landscape mythology in contemporary culture, how might one learn to see critically, or ecocritically? Ecocriticism began as a branch of literary studies examining “the relationship between literature and the physical environment,” but we might think of it as the study of the correspondence between human beliefs and activities and the physical world.8 As the art historian Allan C. Braddock and the cultural theorist Christoph Irmscher note, ecocriticism “emphasiz[es] the particular ways in which human creativity— regardless of form (visual, verbal, aural) or time period (ancient, modern, postmodern)—unfolds within a specific environment or set of environments, whether urban, rural, or suburban.” An ecocritical perspective, they add, “mak[es] us see things anew—and perchance more ethically—in their relation to the environment.”9
Think of landscapes as the rock on which cultures inscribe their complicated stories. This Ecstatic Nation is an ecocritical memoir that traces my journeys around bombing grounds in Nevada, logging sites in Oregon, and energy fields in Wyoming—all scenes of extreme environmental violence on contested ground. These places serve as starting points for explorations of the overlapping trails of national mythology, landscape aesthetics, patriotic discourse, and public policy. These regions have long figured in American frontier mythology and patriotic discourse, and they reveal much about how business and government agencies choose to frame our national stories.
Stories of Manifest Destiny aesthetics are not limited to these places or to the West; they also extend into virtual space, a frontier of mythic space where the virtual sublime depicts humans in control of technology, including technology that our engineers have yet to master. The stories of these landscapes reach beyond their regions and our borders. Weapons testing, clearcutting, and energy extraction exert dramatic regional impact, but they also contribute to the larger stories of consumption and global warming, affecting the lives of regional, national, and global communities in intimate ways. While I chose these sites, in part, because I could reach them from my home, the activities in these places—including the bombing grounds, according to the dominant cultural discourse about war—enable my lifestyle. So I examine my complicity in a system that still, like the nineteenth century’s Manifest Destiny art, often links exploitation of the land to progress and patriotism. I drove to each place in a 1998 Toyota Corolla. It was the most efficient car I could afford, but the footprints and tire tracks I left in my wake are deeper than they should be. And I am complicit in environmental destruction in far more ways than those I explore here.
These journeys raised questions about my nation and my lifestyle that were sometimes difficult to face. But as the Oregon historian David Peterson del Mar remarks, “Mythic, uncritical history impoverishes and distorts both our past and our present. . . . To care about a place entails building on its strengths and weaknesses.”10 I found great cause for hope in the work of scientists, artists, historians, and other original thinkers who continue to tell us the truth about our actions and who strive to find the means by which we might step more lightly on the land we claim to love. Their work points toward what we might call green patriotism, an ethic of caretaking that transcends outdated divide-and-conquer landscape mythology and political party lines.
Environmental concerns are not partisan affairs, although they are often represented that way. Evolving Euro-American aesthetics have figured in the framing of the American landscape and in the conquest and use of natural resources since the first European settlers arrived here. But as the western writer William Kittredge observes of American landscape mythology, “We need a new story.”11 We also need new ways of looking at the land. I hope to increase public awareness of the costs of representing our environment through the aesthetic lens of the empire-building era.12