Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

Synopsis

Although suburb-building created major environmental problems, Christopher Sellers demonstrates that the environmental movement originated within suburbs--not just in response to unchecked urban sprawl. Drawn to the countryside as early as the late 19th century, new suburbanites turned to taming the wildness of their surroundings. They cultivated a fondness for the natural world around them, and in the decades that followed, they became sensitized to potential threats. Sellers shows how the philosophy, science, and emotions that catalyzed the environmental movement sprang directly from suburbanites' lives and their ideas about nature, as well as the unique ecology of the neighborhoods in which they dwelt.
Sellers focuses on the spreading edges of New York and Los Angeles over the middle of the twentieth century to create an intimate portrait of what it was like to live amid suburban nature. As suburbanites learned about their land, became aware of pollution, and saw the forests shrinking around them, the vulnerability of both their bodies and their homes became apparent. Worries crossed lines of class and race and necessitated new ways of thinking and acting, Sellers argues, concluding that suburb-dwellers, through the knowledge and politics they forged, deserve much of the credit for inventing modern environmentalism.

Excerpt

This book’s most formative moment came in 1994, when I became a suburbanite. That year, my wife and I bought a house on Long Island, New York, by local lights “the nation’s first suburb.” Seeking shelter on Long Island seemed about as far as you could get from anyone’s idea of a nature quest. Driving around, my overriding impression was how, as if in archetype, its endless subdivisions, malls, and traffic matched my preconceptions of what a suburb was. To the realtor, we must have seemed just as true to type: first-time home buyers, looking for a place in between our jobs to raise our seven-month-old. After two months of house touring and haggling, we agreed to buy a three-bedroom Cape. Trading away decades of salary, but eager to end our bit part as buyers, we signed the papers for a tiny piece of the New York metropolis.

At least, that side of the place seemed easiest to see. Later, I grew to realize there was more to our new home than that.

I found it difficult to disentangle my initial, favorable impression of the house we had bought from its trees. Reaching perhaps seventy feet up, far above the roof, an oak and a linden, thick in trunk, framed our view of the house from the front the moment we first drove up. They had in all likelihood been planted, but many years back, before the house itself arose. After we had tucked away our title papers and settled into familial and workaday routines, those trees kept gaining in girth and leaf span, sprouting and shedding with the seasons, nourished by the rain. As the act of home buying faded into memory, they and other plants and creatures close by crept further into our consciousness. Around the house, they were hardest to miss when they spurred work or worry: the grass, when begging for the mower or sprinkler hose; some field mice, after wriggling their way into our kitchen; an ant colony that tracked from the linden tree’s roots into our basement walls. in idle moments, as well, our minds could . . .

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