Terrain.org Reviews.
View Terrain.org Blog.





Along the Appalachian Trail and Into the Heart of America

Mark Luccarilli reviews Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail and Ian Marshall's Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail

In 1921 Benton MacKaye, a forester and a former Labor Department official, published an article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects proposing that a foot trail be constructed along the Appalachian backbone of eastern North America.  The trail was eventually realized through the efforts of hiking clubs, notably those in New England and New York.  These clubs had pioneered trail construction and maintenance in North America.  In 1925 the Appalachian Trail Conference, initially a kind of congress of hiking clubs, was formed and by the 1930s the AT had became a reality, though parts of it were not completed until the 1950s, and even today sections are periodically re-routed.  Currently, it stretches for approximately 2,140 miles and has become famous as the grand-daddy of the "through trails"—long distance hiking paths designed to lead us out of civilization and into the backcountry.

These are the bare facts.  But there's also a mystique attached to the trail.  People see it as a kind of portraiture of America.  In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson sets out to poke fun at this icon and, at the same time, reveal what the AT tells us about American culture and what he clearly sees as the misplaced passion for wild nature.

A self-admitted tenderfoot who has been on an extended twenty-year leave in England, Bryson sets out to hike the entire length of the trail in a single season: not surprisingly, he never makes it.  Along the way, we are introduced to several characters and places (mostly off-trail) that serve to relieve Bryson—and us—of his experience of hiking as excruciating tedium: "[I trudge] along for hours, in a private little world of weariness and woe, up and over imposing hills, through an endless cocktail party of trees."  (p. 38)

Bryson and his cast of characters are captives of a silly romantic notion, and much of the book consists of Bryson poking fun at himself for even conceiving of the project:  "You don't have to do this," he tells himself:  "You're not in the army" (p. 38)  The characters become grist for Bryson's humor mill, but, inevitably, as his narrative progresses, these humorous diversions help Bryson to address his central concern:  the symbolic and cultural significance of the AT.  Bryson's AT is both a symbolic landscape itself-a (socially constructed) stage resounding with the silly assertions of (false and funny) identity taken on by various hikers—and a route to landscapes found along the trail.  These include not only the endless woods, but the towns and outposts of urban America which the trail skirts.

Despite an admission at the end of the book that he has come to recognize the value of hiking, Bryson presents the AT, and by extension the whole wilderness idea, as an American failure, a failure that reflects a fatal inability to create a viable middle landscape in which culture and nature find a pleasing balance and symmetry.  The route of the AT never really made any sense, he says, because it "had no historical basis." (p. 29)  Rather than revealing the cultural geography of "Indian trails or post colonial roads,"  the AT, accordingly, was conceived as an exercise for "through hikers." (p. 29)  The important thing for Bryson is what the AT reveals about America:  the lack of a middle ground is what impoverishes landscape and culture here, leaving it a failure in European terms.  The "through hike" which he presents as a kind of mania of "getting it done," turns out, not surprisingly, to be meaningless, as does the wilderness experience itself.  

Hiking the AT with Bill Bryson, we become part of an old narrative that he cleverly re-spins:  the hero's romantic quest for "possibility" in the new land falters and he comes face-to-face with America's lack of a cultivated way of life, a true middle ground between culture and nature.  In many ways, Bryson makes it quite clear that Europe sets the standard that he admires, noting, for example, that in Luxembourg, footpaths lead us into a cultural landscape of fields, wood lots, farms and villages, an encounter with "the whole of Luxembourg, not just its trees," and an experience to be sharply contrasted with that of hiking the AT. (p. 200)

One of the ironies of Bryson's account lies in the origins of the AT in MacKaye's 1921 article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.  MacKaye's plan was designed to address what Bryson is complaining about:  the lack of viable middle landscapes.  MacKaye understood this, in large part, as a problem of using design and technology ("geo-technics") to complement, rather than conquer, the natural world.  The AT was to be the cornerstone of what he called the "new exploration:" partly a movement toward a new environmental consciousness founded on knowledge of the land, and partly a program of architecture, engineering and technology designed to re-negotiate our relation to the land.  The AT was conceived as the foundation of a national plan, which became the program of the Regional Planning Association of America for reworking the landscapes of eastern America. 

Admittedly, Bryson was aware of part of MacKaye's plan: a proposal to create forestry cooperatives along the AT that could ensure stewardship of the land.  But the original AT proposal included a network of trails that linked the outskirts of cities, rural lands, and wilderness.  The trails were to be part of a system of what contemporary planners call greenbelts and greenways that would create a vast scenic and ecological reserve, right down to the edge of the cities of eastern North America.  This was part of an effort by progressive planners to use regional planning to fundamentally reshape the suburban sprawl which by the time of MacKaye's proposal had already begun its advance into rural America.  The idea was to save rural landscapes and to help promote the building of exurban communities in pastoral settings (what were then called "garden cities"). 

The notion of a pastoral city may strike us as utopian folly at its height, but in other respects MacKaye's idea of landscape was not only more radical, it was far more creative than the essentially conservative pastoral landscapes of Europe Bryson admires.  MacKaye's conception of landscape was, at least in one respect, actually dialectical.  He sharply differentiated among urban, rural and wild lands, the differences of which were to preserved, and, at the same time, symbolically and physically united by a network of trails.  The system of trails was a device of planning, but the landscapes thereby made accessible were meant to be open to individual exploration.  The feeder trails, those connecting metropolitan America to the vast interior, were particularly important, providing immediate access to urban dwellers and were therefore suitable for short-term exploration—though hiking not required!

MacKaye's proposal was probably the most vigorous attempt to unite certain traditions of literary and artistic representations of the seen world (particularly those of American Transcendentalism, but also of the Anglo-American picturesque tradition), with the existing cultural landscape which reflects the integration of human and natural phenomena.  His hope was to engineer and design the cultural landscape to mirror aesthetic and moral principles and social purposes.  Like John Ruskin half a century earlier, MacKaye sought to elevate the cultural landscape, to make the appreciation of landscape more than a personal experience by giving it social significance—namely, the task of reforming industrial society.  The failure to act on the opportunity to integrate natural landscapes with urban development stands as one the great lost opportunities of American culture.  And it also explains why the existing AT could be seen by Bryson, and others, as a retreat from civilization, a retreat to wilderness.

Commonly, we think of wilderness as an original condition, the existing condition of the North American continent before its settlement by Europeans.  The very existence of this unsettled land, (we can see the English word in its early Germanic form— wild/dyr/naess—related to modern Scandinavian languages, literally "the nesting place of wild animals") presented the possibility of creating a different cultural and moral landscape from that of settled Europe.  The Puritans attached great moral significance to the moral struggle against (but also through) wilderness, and many 19th century Americans attached equal significance to its preservation: in both cases, wilderness is understood as an opportunity to re-make or re-invent self and culture.

Recent scholarship has undermined the notion of wilderness as an original condition, as it has called into question the project of personal and cultural re-invention.  Clearly, scholars point out, what Europeans saw as wilderness was inhabited by native American tribes; and what Europeans saw as untouched landscape was actually managed by native Americans, often through burning.  Just as importantly, the ecological underpinnings of "original" nature, expressed in idea that biomes evolve toward a state of equilibrium or "climax," has not been supported by empirical evidence.  Nature has its own randomness and is continually changing.  There is no steady-state world in which to contrast with the human world.

There are, however, other ways of understanding what "wilderness"—and thereby of understanding the American project of an "errand in the wilderness" which has been central to American literary and intellectual tradition.  More than eighty years ago the literary historian and cultural critic, Van Wyck Brooks, argued that the only thing which generally characterizes the American landscape is its impermanence: one technology follows quickly on the heels of another (canals, railroads, automobiles) and there is virtually no integration of these technologies; one regional economy (Silicon Valley) is born and another is virtually abandoned (Cooper Mining).  The present regime of "globalization," which amounts to a kind of hyper-decentralization of the modes of production, has been with America for a long time.  Whether this is attributed to the effect of a dynamic economy or ascribed to the character and culture of America, as Brooks did, the effect is clear: in contrast to, say, France with its long-inhabited and intensely individuated regions, there has developed no deep-rooted American relation to the land, and as a result, land, and the communities dependent on it, have been abandoned, physically and psychically, and with alarming frequency.  Communities that once flourished become isolated, cut-off from the cultural and economic mainstream.

I think "wilderness" can be represented by that abandoned land (metaphorically—for we've abandoned stewardship, integration, a settled life—and to a certain extent in actuality; after all, the eastern wilderness is built largely out of abandoned farm land, and farming in various regional guises was the first series of economies we abandoned as outmoded).  Landscape ("environment" in the land plus the changes made to it) and community is sacrificed on the alter of continual change.  This is the core of Bryson's complaint:  "If a product or enterprise doesn't constantly re-invent itself, it is superseded, cast aside, abandoned without sentiment in favor of something bigger, newer, and alas, nearly always uglier." (p. 104)

Certainly this creates a terrible burden on civilized (as in cultivated) life, but it has the virtue of creating what Wendell Berry called a margin.  Admittedly such marginal lands can be, and have been, appropriated as "countryside"—the sphere of second homes for the wealthy, but they can also be recovered as places outside and in imaginative opposition to the mainstream.  The AT provides a conduit into these "marginal" lands, marginal places, that were at one time cast aside and now stand as sources of inspiration for would be poets and visionaries. 

In Story Line, Ian Marshall takes us deep into these lands, describing what their intrinsic value means to him, while reflecting on their social and cultural significance.  The "story line" begins with Marshall's hike in Georgia and his reflections on ecology, ecological consciousness, and the sense of place; it proceeds to the north into and through different landscapes (corresponding to different segments of the trail) and reflected through various works of literature, only to bring us full circle in discussing the deep ecology of Thoreau in Maine. The book is scholarly (reflecting ecocritical debates), and experiential: reflecting Marshall's experience on the trail over the past twenty years (he does away with the pretense of a single through hike, telling us that over the years he has hiked almost all of the trail in segments).

It's a deeply personal book and an ambitious one—an account of Marshall's intellectual journey to find out what he already knows intuitively: the natural world presents great aesthetic and moral virtues, valuable intrinsically, personally and culturally.  And yet, these values are enmeshed in a number of cultural and social contradictions between individual and community, diversity and unity, male and female, active process (or participation) and passive perception (or seeing).  In confronting the symbolic and experiential meanings of the AT, Marshall finds it impossible to simply reject the individual in favor of the community, unity in favor diversity, a male perspective in favor of a female one, or even the value of scenic views (in the picturesque tradition) in favor of close empirical observation of natural processes.  He values those wild lands, for many reasons, not the least of which is because Marshall realizes that they are representative of one of the last and still most significant margins of civilization.  But it's impossible to understand them entirely outside of cultural representations, just as it's silly to deny what intuition and experience tell many of us that there is nature as thing-in-itself and we often come closest to it in those marginal places we call "wilderness."

It's difficult on the surface to understand why Marshall seems so reluctant to make theoretical choices among approaches to the literature he considers.  One could simply say that like Whitman, Marshall's approach is broad ("I contain universes").  And it would be very easy to simply accuse of him of all kinds of inconsistencies.  But I would say that there are good reasons for his approach.

Consider the broad spectrum of nature writing he explores from Jefferson and Bartram to Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau, and others who are far less well known, including the ecofeminist Mary Noailles Murfree and the outdoor writer and camping enthusiast Horace Kephart.  Each writer has been inspired, in some way, by the landscapes crossed by the AT, and each raises substantive issues about our relation to the natural world. 

Marshall doesn't reject new approaches or perspectives, like those of deep ecology or poststructuralist social ecology, but he refuses to deconstruct old texts or to dismiss as irrelevant the representative Western landscape traditions such as the sublime, the picturesque and the transcendentalist.  Marshall is deeply grounded in an ecological sensibility, he values inter-relationships, knows the importance of science as an instrument for a deep empirical understanding of environment, sees the intrinsic value of nature, apart from its human use.  At the same time, he is sensitive to social diversity and he argues that there is a metaphorical relation between an ecological view and a multicultural one: both, he says, "decenter" us.

But it seems to me that Marshall is less interested in an abstract project of decentering than in a concrete and pragmatic one of encountering and recovering.  When he encounters a young couple on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, camping with all the paraphernalia of civilization along the Skyline Drive on Virginia's Blue Ridge, Marshall is prepared to "despise [them] with their motorcycles and their propane tank and all the comforts of home.."  He wonders, is this not simply part and parcel of a "logic of domination" that has brought "our noisy, smelly civilization" to the woods? (p. 118)  But after facing them, talking with them, and reflecting on their enjoyment of "the country," Marshall recognizes that the 19th century symbolism that equates the natural scenery with the nation is still very much alive, and that such symbolism has value:  "Of course the land is more than just symbol, and of course we diminish it when we see it as no more than a representation of our moral or political virtues.  But symbols do matter.  And symbolic associations give us all the more reason to love our country.  We may even love something for its symbolic value first, and then find the real value inherent in the thing itself." (p. 119)

One could say that Marshall is a healer, but he's not rubbing a balm over our deep wounds.  He's really trying to re-create a dialectic between (wild) nature and culture and in the process recover the moral imagination.  Marshall's AT is as much a cultural landscape (or a set of related landscapes) as it is an opening of consciousness to ecological processes.

The book is about a search for relationship, for contact among people and between people and nature (ecology, Marshall reminds us at several points, is about inter-relationship).  There is no ideal middle ground to be found, of course, nothing approaching the landscape MacKaye imagined he had found in new garden cities that synthesized the best of the new technologies with the natural world.  But the necessary search for connectiveness, of finding a relation of self to world and of restoring a culture that knows its relation to its own traditions and sources, goes on.  Perhaps it may be said that Marshall can only find that human interconnectiveness in ad hoc relationships he enters into along the trail (he certainly doesn't find many in the academy).  He knows that part of the struggle originates in our individualism, including his own:  "I'm not sure if a typical hiker's preoccupation with matters of self can be compatible with the commitment to place and one's neighbor that are an essential part of belonging to a community." (p. 71-72)  But he remains open to the search for community, and knows that if it is not to be imposed, it can only come through a process of widening and deepening of self.

Fifty miles north of New York, the AT crosses Harriman and Bear Mountain State parks and then fords the Hudson over the Bear Mountain bridge.  Nearby, at Hessian Lake, Marshall finds a statue to Walt Whitman, reminding him that Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" is perhaps the greatest American celebration of moral values to be found in nature—a celebration of an open and democratic world.  Yet the behavior of the city crowd at the lake, "unwilling to make eye contact with a stranger," leads Marshall to lament what we haven't achieved.  He refers us to Louis Simpson's poem "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain:"

    Even in 1960 Simpson saw here the sort of tawdry suburbanization that troubles me.  "The Open Road goes to the used-car lot," he complains to Walt.  "Where is the nation you promised?"  Among the signs of our decay, writes Simpson, are

      the realtors,
      Pickpockets, salesman, and actors performing
      Official scenarios

    and who have

      American dreams

    In the process, either ignoring or co-opting Whitman's visions of what America ought to be, and could be.  I move on past the statue, still following the white paint blazes marking the Appalachian Trail... (p. 155)


Mark Luccarelli earned a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Iowa. He has taught at Rutgers and the State University of New Jersey, and presently teaches at the University of Oslo in Norway. Author of Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region (Guilford, 1995), Luccarelli's interests range from literature and culture to landscape, environmental geography, and urban planning. His next book concerns the idea of the "middle landscape" and the prospects for environmental reform of metropolitan areas.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



These reviews originally appeared in Terra Nova: Nature & Culture.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.