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Introduction: STRANGE VICTORY
Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is the most popular attraction on the Northern California coast. It receives more visitors than the Lost Coast, through which steep trails navigate cloud forests, waterfalls, and ocean panoramas. It gets far more traffic than the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and Mendocino Headlands State Park. From the parking lot off Glass Beach Drive, tourists descend a steep staircase between graywacke cliffs to photograph a narrow cove that sparkles with turquoise and brown and ruby shards, buffed and rounded by the surf. Posted signs beg visitors—a couple of thousand a day during the summer—not to pocket the glass but they can’t help themselves.
In 2012, J. H. “Cass” Forrington, a retired sea captain and the owner of the nearby International Sea Glass Museum, which displays more than three thousand poached pieces, led a campaign to “replenish” the beach with tons of broken glass. Forrington’s argument rested on an ecological claim. Because the sea glass, which created habitat for microscopic marine life, had integrated into the local ecosystem, it deserved the same protections granted to the coast redwood, the mountain beaver, the red-legged frog.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is responsible for protecting and maintaining “natural communities for their intrinsic and ecological value and their benefits to people.” The fate of Glass Beach hung on the definition of “natural.” Forrington argued that California was legally bound to dump more glass on the sand. “To say the glass is not ‘natural’ is simply wrong,” he wrote, in a manifesto littered with an unassailable profusion of quotation marks. “Because of the damage we can do to an overall habitat, we tend to think of ourselves as being somehow ‘un-natural,’ and ‘outside’ of ‘nature,’ but we are an integral part of ‘nature’ and we can also do great good.”
The great good to which Forrington referred dates to 1949, when the beach was designated for use as a landfill. The tons of glass pebbles and ellipsoids that littered the cove were the remnants of beer bottles, taillight lenses, and Tupperware. For the next two decades the beach was known to locals as the Dumps. The only way to regain the beach’s natural beauty, wrote Captain Forrington, was to bury it every year under a few more tons of trash.
In the end the Department of Fish and Wildlife was unpersuaded by Captain Forrington’s definition of “nature”; it declined to intervene. Forrington would not be so easily defeated, however. In defiance, he continued to sell plastic bags of pre-tumbled glass to tourists who lugged them down the wooden stairs and emptied them onto the sand. Captain Forrington believed he was doing his part to save nature, or at least “nature.”
* * *
Long after the last copy of the King James Bible has disintegrated and the Venus de Milo has gone to powder, the glory of our civilization will survive in misshapen, neon-flecked rocks called plastiglomerate: compounds of sand, shells, and molten plastic, forged when candy bar wrappers and bottle caps burn in campfires. Additional clues will be found in the ubiquity of cesium-137, the synthetic isotope produced by nuclear detonations; a several-thousand-year diminution in calcium carbonate deposition, the consequence of ocean acidification; and glacial ice cores (should glaciers remain) registering a dramatic spike of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Future anthropologists might not be able to learn everything there is to know about our culture from these geological markers but it will be a good start.
In the beginning, human beings tended to view nature as a mortal enemy—with wariness, dread, and aggression. The war began before we had even bothered to name our enemy. Already in the earliest literature, the assault is well under way, the bellicosity raw, the motives unquestioned. In “The Lord to the Living One’s Mountain,” Gilgamesh, terrified of death, decides he must perform a heroic feat to achieve immortality. As he can imagine nothing more honorable than the destruction of a virgin forest, Gilgamesh travels to the sacred Mountain of Cedar, beheads the demigod who defends it, and razes the forest to stubble, reserving the grandest tree for use as a gate to his city.
About seventeen centuries later, in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates, reluctant to venture outside Athens’ city walls, declares, “I am a lover of learning, and the outdoors and trees have never taught me anything, whereas in the city there are people and they do teach me.” Aristotle is more direct in Politics: “Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.” In the Old Testament, “the wilderness” is a godless domain, the anti-Eden. As in: “He led you through the vast and dread-ful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.”
“Wilderness”: from the Old English -ness + wild + deor, “the place of wild beasts.” Samuel Johnson defined it as “a tract of solitude and savageness.” William Bradford, a founder of Plymouth Colony, reacted to the New World with horror, calling it “hideous & desolate … full of wild beasts & wild men.” The most widely collected work of the Enlightenment, Comte de Buffon’s thirty-six-volume Natural History, proliferates with words like “grotesque,” “nauseous,” “pestilential,” “terrible,” and “filth.”
Nature invited subjugation—for its own good. The American jurist James Kent extended this conceit to the human beings who had lived for millennia in harmony with the land as he sought to construct a legal basis for seizing territory from Native Americans. The continent, Kent argued, was “fitted and intended by Providence to be subdued and cultivated, and to become the residence of civilized nations.” The gospel of Nature was a license to dominate, brutalize, and pillage—and feel proud of it.
Some of these examples come from Roderick Nash’s totemic history, Wilderness and the American Mind, which describes how finally, in the nineteenth century, the terms of humanity’s relationship with nature flipped. Scientists and philosophers began to question the premise that nature was a threat to civilization. They’d had it backward: civilization was a threat to nature. It had become obvious that humanity was winning its thousands-year war against nature in a rout. It was a costly victory, however. The prize was civilizational collapse.
This understanding was first articulated by Alexander von Humboldt, who was born in 1769, during the era in which human beings stopped fearing nature and took pride in their ability to master it. It was the age of the steam engine, the smallpox vaccine, the lightning rod. Timekeeping and measuring systems became standardized; the blank spaces remaining on world maps were shaded in. Even before Humboldt began his global tour, analyzing everything from wind patterns and cloud structures to insect behavior and soil composition, he intuited that Earth was “one great living organism where everything was connected.” It is commonplace today to speak of “the web of life,” but the concept was Humboldt’s invention. It followed that the fate of one species might have cascading effects on others. Humboldt was among the first to warn of the perils of irrigation, cash crop agriculture, and deforestation. By 1800 he had come to realize that the damage wreaked by industrial civilization was already “incalculable.”
Humboldt’s insights were developed by acolytes like George Perkins Marsh (who warned that “climatic excess” might lead to human extinction); Charles Darwin (who plagiarized Humboldt in the final, crowning paragraph of On the Origin of Species); Ralph Waldo Emerson (“the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind”); and the besotted John Muir (“This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us!”). By the turn of the twentieth century, Americans increasingly began to see wilderness as a spiritual refuge from the mechanization of modern life. Horror had turned to infatuation.
Yet the romantic view of nature proved counterproductive. It encouraged the protection of natural cathedrals like Yosemite and Yellowstone while devaluing the pedestrian swaths of forest, swamp, and grassland that make up most of the country. Before long the cathedrals were besieged too, victims of political pragmatism. Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, embraced a utilitarian approach to ensure that wilderness sanctuaries could be enjoyed by both hikers and oil prospectors. When such interests came into conflict, however, conservationists lost—most flagrantly in the battle over Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, dammed in 1923 to provide water to San Francisco.
“Engineering is clearly the dominant idea of the industrial age,” wrote Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology, in 1938. “Ecology is perhaps one of the contenders for a new order … Our problem boils down to increasing the overlap of awareness between the two.” Ecology, though the severe underdog, made tentative advances over the course of the twentieth century. By the first Earth Day, in 1970, it had birthed a new political movement. In the following decade, the politics of nature evolved to reflect a broader understanding of the interconnectedness of ecological threats. Concerns over air and water pollution, climate change, land development, resource extraction, species extinction, drought, wildfires, and roadside littering were consolidated under the rubric of “the environment.” The definition has since expanded further to reflect the insight that ecological degradation, by exacerbating the inequalities that poison our society, degrades democracy itself. This realization has sounded the death rattle of the romantic idea that nature is innocent of human influence. We’re innocent no longer.
* * *
What we still, in a flourish of misplaced nostalgia, call “the natural world” is gone, if ever it existed. Almost no rock, leaf, or cubic foot of air on Earth has escaped our clumsy signature. As Diane Ackerman has written, “It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.”
No one has better articulated the incoherence of the nature ideal than the historian William Cronon in his transformational “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Cronon takes, more or less, Captain Forrington’s position. Nature, he writes, “is quite profoundly a human creation … As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.” The idealization of wilderness is not merely a myth; it is antagonistic to the aims of any environmentalist. For if, in the future, something resembling wilderness is to survive, it will be only “by the most vigilant and self-conscious management.”
Copyright © 2021 by Nathaniel Rich