A few photographs to go with the essay.
Can it be? Are we there already? Suddenly it’s Christmas and we’re gliding helplessly toward January. 2011 is nearly past, its events crystallizing into memories. No longer anything to be experienced, only sensations and impressions to be recalled. The end of the year, my birthday (which is on Christmas), and the holidays themselves, with their connotations of hope and new beginnings, invite retrospection, a consideration of where we’ve been and where we might be going. Yet I don’t feel like writing anything political today. The sort of analysis and judgment that comes so naturally to me seems somewhat out of place on this, my birthday. How much better to dwell on the more irreducible memories of a recent journey.
I love getting out to see the countryside. This fall, my husband and I took a couple of overland journeys, traveling out into the West by rail and car. Mid-October found us boarding the California Zephyr, an amazing train that takes you across the Plains and Rockies, then down toward San Francisco via the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento River Valley. The passengers’ excitement was palpable, their reserve broken down in the face of scenery so spectacular and varied. Strangers addressed one another in tones of excited exclamation, in tones that were hushed and confiding. People hurried to breakfast early, then rushed to take up posts in the observation car, their eyes trained out the windows, cameras at the ready. The land was like a drug we couldn’t get enough of: it was vast, it was awesome, it was enthralling, overwhelming. It was great, for a change, to feel proud and happy. “The United States are endless; they’re endless!” I heard an Englishwoman saying.
Yet the truth is far more complicated. To ourselves, the United States are a half-known place, some parts thriving and well-cultivated; others poor, undeveloped, ill-used; still others useless, exhausted, polluted, sterile. The frequent sight of worn-out factories and public buildings, collapsing farmsteads, wildlife in flight, and rural junkyards full of rusting machinery bespeak the exhaustion of an era and an earlier mode of living.
Back when it was known as the New World, there was no predicting what kind of place this would become. The arrivistes who came here across the centuries from Asia and Europe had wildly differing hopes, conceptions, and ideas. They were variously hunters, explorers, traders, colonists, and missionaries. Many of their odysseys were ephemeral or concluded disastrously. In the end, the people who enjoyed the most success were those able to enter into a direct relationship with the place, who got past their own fixed ideas and entered into a creative relationship with their surroundings.
Foreigners who came here with pre-conceived goals—whether it was to trap fur, find gold, or convert “natives” to Christianity—had a limited use for the place and tended greatly to undervalue its potentialities. The benefits of their forays were miniscule compared to those of the Indians who worked out an elaborate rapprochement with the land, or the Virginians who later learned the ins and outs of tobacco cultivation from the Indians. Lacking access to the most desirable oceanfront land, mid-Atlantic settlers rejoiced to have discovered what they thought of as “the best poor man’s land” in Pennsylvania. These were the people who tended to stay: the people who saw value where others couldn’t. In time, their ingenious interaction with the land and its materials gave rise to new foods, new habits, new industries, new livings.
Two hundred years later, much of the US still has a half-settled, half-developed, incipient character. The proper uses of the land are still being tried. With each decade, the population continues to redistribute itself, providing a register of Americans’ shifting perceptions of geographic advantage and opportunity. We are still working out how the nation’s natural endowments can best support our life as a people. Even in the face of globalism, however, the land beneath our feet remains the basis of security, prosperity, and innovation. The nation’s resources, varied and vast but not limitless, require careful stewardship and cultivation. Politically, the proper use of this great inheritance remains a central and complex but under-explored theme.