Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
It’s a challenging and complex task: loving the landscape and wilderness of the United States while deconstructing the mythologies and media-messages that have such a prominent place in our society, mythologies that can so easily mischaracterize land, the environment, and the people’s place on and in it. In Terre Ryan’s new book, This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism, she tackles this problem by writing about her own travels in the West, travels that earned her insight into some environmentally impactful industries—timber, weaponry, mining—while also examining the history of American landscape mythology, specifically the language and artwork of the pioneering frontier. Her message: truth and myth don’t always synchronize. Environmental violence is the part of the story most often left out of the myths surrounding the creation and pioneering spirit of this American empire.
What looks like a strictly academic text is actually a mix of essay, memoir, and research. It’s refreshing. This is no academic tome with an inch of 6-point font footnotes on every page. Ryan has inserted herself firmly in the book, author as protagonist, so to speak; and in a way, she’s the lynchpin holding the wagon wheel in place for the journey. Here we discover the landscape as Ryan does, as she journeys west to witness for herself what the romantic Wild West is all about. Her eyes are our guide. “I saw hope in the landscape because American landscape mythology had taught me to look for it there.” This is the true north of the Ryan compass: research and travel exploring the difference between what Americans tell themselves about the wild and what the wild (or no-longer wild) really is. She says, “In the United States, landscape aesthetics are so deeply embedded in the ‘poetic constructions’ of national mythology that they continue to offer us a way of identifying ourselves as Americans.”
Ryan brings us first to Nevada as she takes a controlled tour of former atomic bomb testing sites. It’s a reminder of what happened out in the ‘wasteland’ of Nevada: nuclear bombs exploded above and underground in the name of progress. An example of how a population may exploit a landscape we consider useless, the ugly side of the coin to “placism”. The flip side is a preserved space like Yosemite, where a scenic, beautiful landscape gets saved. Ryan shows us the way language allows us to soften the blow: bombs are called devices; triggers are mechanisms; the earth is called real estate; missiles are named Minuteman, Patriot, and Peacekeeper. We meet “Howie,” the elderly tour guide who revels in the end of the Cold War: “We broke ‘em,” he says, meaning the Russians. “We outspent the bastards.” In Ryan’s attempt to understand, she shows us a “pocked and irradiated landscape littered with war trash and celebrated in a language that fused nostalgia, patriotism, and a burly sexuality.” Ryan tells us this type of landscape is the descendent of the mythical sublime, the Manifest Destiny ideas that promoted God as a leader proclaiming man held dominion over nature, that nature serves humankind’s needs.
The forests of Oregon are the next stop on our tour. The clearcuts denuding mountains and mountainsides are disturbing to her, and Ryan takes us first back to Massachusetts in 1846 when George B. Emerson (relative of Ralph Waldo) “warned that his state had already depleted much of its forestlands and was axing up those of its neighbors.” It’s the juggle between loving a forest landscape and valuing a forest as a material resource. At the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, Ryan learns how forestry science is changing as scientists come to understand the biodiversity inherent in old growth forests. The issue balances the gorgeous views from the Pacific Coast Highway with the ruined landscape of scalped mountains just over the hill, hidden away and out of sight from tourists. The ignored chapter of the story.
Our last stop is Wyoming, with its reserves of coal, oil, and gas. Ryan quotes Wallace Stegner: “The West has been raided more often than settled, and raiders move on when they have got what they came for.” She shows us that “contemporary energy projects frequently evince a strain of patriotism…” Energy companies can mine (fracking) for natural gas by injecting toxic chemicals into the earth; coal-fired energy plants pollute Wyoming’s cowboy country with record carbon dioxide production. Our mythical belief in inexhaustible resources and the pioneering language of the frontier allow us tolerate this, to look the other way. Ryan quotes William Kittredge in showing that the West is “a story inhabited by mythology about power and the social utility of violence, an American version of an ancient dream of warrior righteousness.” Ryan adds that “violence against the environment is also violence against human communities.”
So what kind of Americans are we? What’s the true story of the frontier, of our wilderness, of the environment and how we relate to it? And what can the future bring? Ryan quotes Kathleen Dean Moore: “What we need next is a new ethic—call it an ‘ecological ethic of care,’ call it a ‘moral ecology.’” Ryan asks us to consider: What if we “were to think of our economy as a subsystem operating within a set of global ecosystems, rather than as separate from, or in control of, our environment?” This kind of thinking requires a rewriting of our mythology, a new understanding of our place in the world.
This is thoroughly researched book, and Ryan has included a significant Notes section, tracking her sources diligently; her research is informative and thorough, whether about art history or the U.S. Department of Energy. Ryan keeps picture postcards above her desk to remind her of the West that she loves, but she now realizes that these representations are “far more complicated than a glance at the surface reveals.” This book helps us understand what other true stories exist beyond the myths, and the way history and its language have created cultural beliefs now desperately in need of revision.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.