Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 10


Jefferson Sculpture
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Naturalists, Puritans, and New Territories
"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt."

- Thomas Jefferson, 1787
The American polymath Thomas Jefferson ranks highly in my pantheon of heroes. Yeoman farmer, architect, inventor, philosopher, naturalist, Virginia gentleman, and statesman, Jefferson defies easy classification. His political pragmatism and philosophy reflect his broad excavations, and the complex of sometimes contradictory ideas that Jefferson put down over the course of his long life allows his legacy to be fairly claimed by contemporary pundits of every stripe. His name and statements are marshaled to support causes across the political spectrum, including state's rights, internationalism, provincialism, gun control, the right to bear arms, unregulated capitalism, anarchy, secularism, and even the call for the United States to be officially deemed "a Christian nation." It is not, however, Jefferson's nuanced political philosophy that is responsible for his cultural ebb; he was a slave-owner and a patriarchal figure who decried "intellectual women." By today's standards, he was a deeply flawed man. But Jefferson died 183 years ago. It is wrongheaded to dismiss the whole of the man for latter-day sins. In any case, his accomplishments and legacy are profound.

Jefferson was irredeemably curious and hopeful. The man's hunger for knowledge and his faith that the human lot can forever be improved upon vitalize the Jeffersonian heritage. The Enlightenment-inspired, exuberant optimism of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson, and others in their mold watered the soil of American social, political, and technological revolution. And, as I wrote two days ago, "it's a happy wonder to contemplate [...] the maturation and proliferation of human technology." But at what price did so much "happy" change come?


Mandan Fort recreation
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

President Jefferson, in March of 1803, commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery with William Clark. Jefferson obtained federal funding for the expedition on the grounds that, if successful, Lewis and Clark might "offer the most direct and practicable water communication across [the] continent for the purposes of commerce," but the president's principal interests were other. He wrote to Lewis,
"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River. [...] Objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S.; the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S., the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct; the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character; volcanic appearances; climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects."
Historians suggest that the excitement Jefferson felt on the eve of this great expedition was quite real. His impetus was curiosity, not Puritan conquest.


Mt. Zion African Methodist Church yard
Mayhew Historic Village; Nebraska City

The Pilgrim settlers of this country had little curiosity about the natural history or native peoples of their "New World." William Bradford, five-time governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 - 1657, described (what little he knew of) the North American continent as "a hideous and desolate wilderness." Jefferson, by contrast, wrote that "there is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me." He saw the natural world as an Eden to be studied and, as author Erik Reece describes it, as "an antidote to the deadening forces" of civilization. For Jefferson, the notion of "God and country" was shaped by topography and the human place in it.

But Lewis and Clark's great voyage of discovery didn't simply educate Americans living east of the Appalachian spine about the continent's interior and western Edens. It paved the way for mass migration, mass slaughter, and mass industry. What happened on this vast continent parallels the greater history of mankind and, indeed, of all life.


Bison diorama
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1953 that, "the genius of American democracy comes not from any special virtue of the American people but from the unprecedented opportunities of this continent." Similarly, the remarkable evolution of the human ape, from tree-dweller, to hunter-gatherer, to agriculturist, to civilized man, comes from no special virtue of our species, but from the unprecedented opportunities of this Earth. One thing, as it were, led to another, and our species proved able and willing to exploit to the fullest extent. Loren Eiseley writes, in The Immense Journey,
"The stolen energy that would take man across the continents [as a hunter-gatherer] would fail him at last. The great Ice Age herds were destined to vanish. When they did so, another hand like the hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand."
So it was with North America. The "meteoric, messy, and astonishing history" of the United States was fueled, above all, by a distinctly un-Jeffersonian conquest of the land's native peoples, animals, and resources.

Near the end of his sweeping ecological history of North America, The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery writes,
"During the nineteenth century, [...] the European Americans were developing a new economy. It was an economy based on systems of mass production and mass exploitation that needed enormous resources to operate. The key decade was 1880-90, for only then did European machinery become sophisticated enough to destroy the great herding and flocking species [the passenger pigeon, the American bison, and the Eskimo curlew]. Their enormous numbers provided an ideal teething rusk for an economic machine that would soon produce cars in the millions and hamburgers in the billions."
We devoured the continent.


Fake Prarie Dog burrows and mural
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

What allowed for this? What became of the Enlightened foresight of the founding minds? How did we move, in one hundred years, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Ford? And could we have made such astounding, "happy" progress in human rights, suffrage, and science without surrendering to this demonic appetite? There is no tidy answer to these questions and, in any case, it's irresponsible to wade in what-might-have-been when you can instead strive toward what-yet-could-be. Still, the history perplexes.

Jefferson bemoaned the Christian scriptures' inclusion of miracles and the emphasis, in Christian doctrine, on the afterlife. Erik Reece explains in An American Gospel that Jefferson realized,
"the more Christian fundamentalism emphasizes that the kingdom of God awaits as a reward in the afterlife, the more it ignores [...] Jesus' teachings of how we should act while we inhabit this earthly realm. [...] The relevance of Christianity to most Americans has far more to do with the promise of eternal salvation from this world."
Jefferson's famous and sensible solution was to edit the Christian New Testament, deleting any and all miracles, including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He called the result "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Today, the book is best known as "The Jefferson Bible." Perhaps, if more good Christians had followed their incarnate God's example and teachings in this life - the one that actually matters! - the west would have been settled in accord with the land. Unfortunately, most in our "Christian nation" don't know of Jefferson's earnest effort to save Christianity from other-worldly supernaturalism, from, as he called Puritanical ministers, "the soothsayers and necromancers."

Neither do most Americans know of Jefferson's effort to temper our faith in industrialism. Jefferson's agrarian dream for America was impossible; the United States was then and is now a burgeoning country, and true pastoralism can only ever be embraced on a small scale. But we would do well to remember Jefferson's vision, to remember that we are part of a greater system, and that the expiration date for America's frontier mentality, its faith in boldly going and exploiting, is past.

Despite our exceptionalist tendencies, our nation is like any other. Every nation is a tiny part of the greater superorganism, and every nation's story is a life cycle. The sprawling, arrogant United States is no longer an adolescent, and it can't afford to continue acting like one, to continue "lighting out for the territories." If we fail to mature, our reckless faith in what lies over the next mountain, in the future and in the afterlife, will prove our nation's undoing. It is faith in what exists here and now, in the place where we stand, that needs resurrection.


Missouri River Overlook
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Most Americans are estranged from their own nature, as well as from the nature all around them. Reece writes,
"[We are estranged from] the sources of our food, the sources of our clothes, and the sources of the energy that run our homes. Beyond these basic needs, money and corporate influence have estranged us from our own government. Our isolation within suburban homes has estranged us from our neighbors and communities. [...] Cars have estranged us from our own bodies. [...] Our modern condition of estrangement has led us to live in ways that show a remarkable abdication of responsibility."
Reece proposes that Aldo Leopold's philosophy "carries us back into an ethic of responsibility." I agree.

Leopold, the godfather of modern conservation, inherited Jefferson's dream. Like Jefferson, he was a Romantic pragmatist, a type as well-suited to diplomacy as to conservation. Leopold acknowledged that resource use, like the economy, can be regulated thoughtfully, but the Romantic in Leopold was dismayed by the dark side of our equating land with money. He wrote,
"I suspect that the forces inherent in...economic evolution are not all beneficent. Like the forces inside our own bodies, they may become malignant, pathogenic. I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land."
He deemed his heroically optimistic response to the increasing pressures of population and market a "land ethic." Despite the difficulties of cultivating such an appreciation of the natural world in the twentieth century, Leopold persisted.
"That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. [...] A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land. [...] We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."
The American estrangement from land and from the rest of nature (including the dark, interior wilderness of the psyche) is redressed through cultivation of a land ethic. And, in so far as I am "happy" to contemplate the incredible rate of technological evolution, I am made happier still by the prospect of a mature, tempered America.


Vacant lot on Central Avenue; Nebraska City

This morning, I sat for a while and talked with an older gentleman in Long Home Coffee Shop, on Nebraska City's Central Avenue. A retired physicist, he expressed concern about the future of America and, more generally, of the human species. "It's all terribly depressing," he observed. "I have my good days and my bad," I concurred. "But the bleak pessimism is more rare than it was, just because it's unproductive." He nodded, and his heavy eyes seemed to say both, 'Thank goodness for the optimism of youth!' and 'Bloody damned fool!'

But I'm not a fool, and neither is he. An hour after we talked, as I sat at a table scribbling the notes that became this essay, he attended, in the back room of the coffee shop, a meeting regarding the construction of a community garden at the west end of town. The city has provided the group with a vacant lot, a local corporation will provide the initial revenue for construction, and the garden will be tended and managed by volunteers, providing food for those in need.

Now that, I contend, is positively Jeffersonian!

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009