Nostalgia often follows conquest, and our relationship with the natural world is no exception. As human control over nature (or, at least, its illusion of control) has increased, many have responded by racing back to the forests. However, the motivation behind this nostalgia remains unclear – do we return to keep vigil (bearing the knowledge of our mistakes) or simply to purview our spoils?
The American quintessence of this tension is, arguably, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau took to the woods, hoping that the simplicity offered by nature might allow the distance necessary to understand (or ‘transcend’) industrial society. The irony, or perhaps the gift, of Thoreau is two-fold. For not only does his account of this experience (in Walden, or Life in the Woods) call into question the ‘intellectual’ conquest (as yet another kind of conquest) of nature but it, also, reveals the negligible risk usually taken in these ‘returns.’ Thoreau did build his cabin in the woods. But the area was so close to the edge of town that he could not help but hear the all-too-industrial trains bustling by.
Recent headlines suggest that, in this way, Thoreau might best be seen as the first of a long line of individuals who return to nature with cell phone in hand. An increased number of farms across the States have begun offering vacation packages to city-dwellers looking to ‘experience country life.’ Of course, like Thoreau’s time at Walden, these farm-vacations are only as authentic, only as risky, as one would expect. With hot showers, flushable toilets, and even pizza ovens, travelers participate more in the ‘country-esque’ than ‘the country.’ Still, for a few hundred bucks a night, aspiring naturists can pay to milk goats, bale hale, and arise by rooster. And, as one guest of Stony Creek Farm in New York said, “No one can argue that watching your child wander after a chicken isn’t cool.”
Yet, one wonders if the reason why so many farmers have been forced to turn their livelihoods into weekend-fun (i.e., near financial ruin) is precisely because so many refuse to see the natural world as anything more than an entertaining way to spend the afternoon. In that light, Thoreau’s more intellectual intentions, his ‘rational’ conquest, might be the lesser of two evils. To read more, see this article in the New York Times.
The Aesthetics of Nature,
Glenn Parsons , Ryerson University,
Philosophy Compass 2/3