The Construction of Nature

August 19, 2017 History, Interpretation, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (1) 3276

Over the dozen years of this blog I have sprinkled in historical facts about how old certain ideas and institutions are. This is because these things are so fundamental to our way of seeing and interacting with the world that we assume them to be eternal, not a few decades or a couple centuries old.

Now we do have a slight quantum mechanical problem here in terms of observation affecting phenomena. I am a historian, and indeed the discipline of history is – like capitalism, museums, heritage conservation, etc. – but two and a half centuries old. Like the United States, it is “an Enlightenment Project.”

Quick – which is older?  The pyramid or the palace?

That makes it much older than other things we consider have been around forever, like engagement diamonds (90 years), weekends (120 years) or the nuclear family (70 years). We are pretty comfortable dating technology like photography (180 years), telegraphy (175 years), radio (120 years), and microwave ovens (70 years, like the nuclear family.)

Some technology seems timeless.

Technological shifts often cause social and cultural ones. One of the most dramatic was the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s and the ensuing “sexual revolution.” Another is the creation of central heating systems in the 1880s and the ensuing open space plans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses a decade later. Heck, even our new friend the American nuclear family is made possible by the radical revision of mortgage policy during the New Deal.

Plumbing issues remained.

You need to watch the dates carefully, because when something is invented is not the same as when it becomes a mass-market item that changes how people live. So, we have had glassware and kilns for thousands of years but mass-production of glasses and the newly precise barley kilns of the 19th century paved the way for the invention of pilsner lager beer in 1842.  This baseline “normal” beer is as old as the telegraph, baseball and the grain elevator.

And then there are IPAs – 150 years old, but really something new the last 15 years.

We are used to technology changing our lives – it has been but a decade since the iPhone, which spread a new interactive technology and has very nearly eliminated the need for cameras, watches, flashlights, calculators, guitar tuners, radio-cassette-CD-mp3 players, road maps, etc. Interestingly, Pilsner beer exploded across the globe with surprisingly similar velocity in the 1840s – by 1855 lager breweries has been built throughout the world, including the first in San Antonio – Menger’s.

San Antonio Brewing Company – now known as The Pearl.

What got me started on this was an article in Smithsonian “Inventing the Beach” that traced the transformation of the sandy shore from a harrowing place to be avoided to a recreational pursuit. This happened beginning in England in the 18th century when places like Scarborough and Bristol became vacation destinations. (Also, vacations had to be invented.)

How does this photo make you feel?  Are your feelings natural?

I was reminded of when I went to Cape May, New Jersey for Michelin back in 1996. Cape May is arguably the first seaside resort in the United States, and I recalled that it witnessed the transition from forbidding pirate cove to luxurious resort in the second half of the 18th century. Having also read Wolff’s Invention of Nature about Alexander von Humboldt I was suddenly struck by the fact that most of our ideas about Nature dated from the Enlightenment as well, and they are profoundly different from how people thought about Nature before that.

How about this one?  High jungle in South America.  No cell service.

Nature was horrifying even into the 20th century. The prairies of the western United States were like oceans, devoid of any reference but a horizon line, and capable to burning faster than your horse and cart could carry you. Mountain passes were treacherous until the railroad connected the continent in 1869. Swamps harbored snakes and alligators and forest bears and mountain lions. Nature was something to be feared and subdued, and to a great extent, it was.

Today the mountain lions are primarily found in the median strip of Interstate 280.

People were still “discovering” parts of the world throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, so while older landscapes like continental Europe and New England, devoid of wildlife and forests, came up with landscape architecture and started creating “parks,” there were always the forbidding prairies and sheer peaks of the Wild West or the unforgiving ice floes of the North and South poles.

Proper footwear was essential.

The fascinating thing about this historical shift is that because it has to do with nature – which we tend to see as external to us – its historical nature is hidden. We think of it as “natural,” because – well, because it is “Nature.” But the shift is huge. By the 1870s we are already creating national parks in the Western United States, recognizing the loss of “wilderness” and trying to save some of it. The modern practice of heritage conservation/historic preservation dates from the creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite and the opening of Mount Vernon as a house museum.

El Capitan, Yosemite.  No, it is not actually in the median strip of the highway.

San Antonio will celebrate its Tricentennial next year. It is fair to say the soldiers and monks and of 1718 saw our world in very different terms. They were in an unforgiving and inhospitable frontier, exploiting and sheltering one group of indigenous while resisting the onslaught of others.

I always like noting that my local church, Mission Concepcion, was founded before George Washington was born.  That was 1731, the same year the English figured out (from the Turks) how to inoculate against smallpox.  The Missions grew from frontier outposts to the nation’s seventh largest city in these 300 years, transforming a hunting-and-gathering “natural” world to an agricultural and ranching one overlaid by military installations.  Our present landscape seems “normal” or “natural” to us.

2016.  Stage age 75.  Play age 420.

Those three centuries encompass a radical shift in how we perceive our world and our place in it, and I hope our celebration can explore these constructions and their mechanics.



One Response to :
The Construction of Nature

  1. Tim Draves says:

    Is part of the thinking that until American life moved indoors due to urbanization and factory work in late 19th century, American life was the out-of-door life, and there was no need for concept of “nature?” Outdoor activity in agriculture, transportation, and extraction of natural resources made up American life, and made up the U.S. economy. That’s all there was. Even household cooking involved outdoor activities from smoking the hog and chopping the kindling, to gathering the vegetables and toting water. So the concept of “nature” and the “invention of nature” evolved as life moved from farm and outdoor exterior activity to city and interior lives.

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