Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Landscape of Disturbance

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Landscape of Disturbance

Article excerpt

Where is Arcadia in the 21st century? Ancient poets found it in the Rus, or countryside, in a pastoral place where the cultivated mingled with the uncultivated, or in sacred groves that were uninhabited but managed unobtrusively by eccentric sibyls or priests. In 18th-century America, the Founding Fathers found it in the agrarian archetype of the virtuous small town, with its meetinghouse and gentleman farmers with thumbed copies of Plato and the Bible on their shelves. This is an enduring ideal for Americans, as the work of late-20th-century writers such as Wendell Berry show. In the 19th century, the poets and painters found Arcadia in what they thought were wild landscapes - the Alps, the Lake District, the Rocky Mountains of Albert Bierstadt, the prairies of Frederic Remington. They did not realize that such landscapes were the product of the careful work of Swiss and Cumbrian farmers, of a continent full of Native American hunter-gatherers and gardeners of considerable ecological sophistication. To the Romantics, the human impact on nature was always a loss of innocence, a violation. Thus their attitude to Arcadia was elegiac, as they foresaw the encroachments of the city, the dark satanic mills. Twentieth-century poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound found Arcadia, by sardonic reversal, in the city, where the evening is laid out on the sky "like a patient etherized upon a table," and where the faces in the Paris metro are like "petals on a wet, black bough." In the 21st century, we will find Arcadia in a Rus that is both suburban and subrural, not so far away from the groves of the bucolic poets, of Virgil and Horace, Tu Fu and Li Po, Kalidasa and Hafiz, Miklos Radnoti and Boris Pasternak.

But this landscape will be a post-, not a pre-, technological one. It will be a landscape in which the technology is perfecting itself into invisibility, and where form has ceased to follow function but rather elaborates itself into new, delicate, intelligible structures that create new functions, functions that we suddenly recognize from the cultural past - a temple, a folly, a bower, a tomb. There are times when the present breaks the shackles of the past to create the future - the modern age, now past, was one of those. But there are also times, such as the Renaissance and our own coming 21st century, when it is the past that creates the future, by breaking the shackles of the present.

In North Texas, where I live, there is a strange zone of savannahs, residential real estate, and huge artificial lakes, very tangled and unkempt in places (and then suddenly tamed or as suddenly let go wild again), where a whole new ecology is evolving - plant and bird species from Louisiana, the eastern forests, the Gulf coast, the Yucatan. It must extend for hundreds of square miles around the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Each year I walk there I find a different dominant weed species, and huge flocks of birds. It is a melange of original Texas prairie and low forest, ghost towns with little cemeteries, tract housing, sculpture parks and wildlife preserves, radio and TV towers, and the fantastical margins of the huge new lakes. Such landscapes are everywhere in America, but nobody sees them: they are what one passes through to get to Yellowstone. I have seen them around Oklahoma City and Tulsa and Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, throughout central Florida, northern Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and the southern half of New England.

This half waste-dump, half theme-park place, this Disneyland of the incomplete, has its detractors. It is in doubtful taste; indeed, it is kitsch, for its irony is aimed not at itself but at the censoriousness of its critics. Friendly bikers customize their Harleys in backyards still heaped with dead leaves from last winter's flash flooding. A tiny garden of clubferns and dragonflies nestles in the mud-soaked foam rubber of a seat cushion lost from a boat in a fishing accident. A thousand white birds settle on the lake, or a gigantic blue heron, as massive as a pterosaur, lumbers up into the air. …

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