Brits often disparage American History as being short - almost to the point where the association of the one with the other is imputed as oxymoronic: what they are suggesting is that the duration of the Republic, of these United States, is comparatively short-lived when weighed against the venerable statist traditions of the English kingdom. What they ignore, is that in terms of nationhood, this country is older than most, and predates that great efflorescence of nation states that occurred throughout, but often towards the tail end, of the nineteenth century (think Italy and Germany). More crucially, the very idea of assessing the venerability (or any other characteristic) of histories through the matrix of political associations (in which Nation States hold a privileged position) is decidedly reactionary.
This epiphany emerged out of my reading Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World, 1992, at more or less the same time that I ingested the great Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism, 1990, about twenty years ago. It was in this latter work that it became apparent to me that fictions of nationhood were the convenient tool of elite groups wishing to conduct feats of social engineering conducive to their aggregation of power. Quoting Ernest Gellner, Hobsbawm writes, "Nations as a natural God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent political destiny are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality" - a reality, incidentally, almost totally reflected in the initial establishment and subsequent development of the United States.
We all move on. Now there is an understanding that what matters to us, at this cosmic moment, is history on a geologic time scale. The whole world, it seems, is obsessed with the human impact on the ecologies that envelop us. Us: a.k.a. Humans. This Anthropocene is an age when we (We) are creating sedimentary strata of toxic waste, collapsing aquifers, reshaping and perforating the lithosphere, drastically reducing levels of biological diversity and fundamentally changing the composition of the earth's atmosphere.
Set against this elemental reality, the disfunctions or otherwise of political arrangements validated by nationalist mythologies which, in this country, are based on moldering documents crafted by a few wealthy British diasporans more than two hundred years ago, or in this and other continents, less transparently, on histories of pillage and conquest, are of trivial import.
In Britain, the nationalist religion of patriotism is nurtured by a Royal family founded just 99 years ago by George V as the House of Windsor: an act of xenophobic re-branding (from the Germanic Saxe Coburg and Gotha) at the end of World War One. (There was, in Ojai, a faint echo of this, in the same year of 1917, as it was transmuted from its erstwhile Teutonic place name of Nordhoff).
Part of being a nation is, as Hobsbawm points out, getting its history wrong: but neither this country nor Great Britain have national histories, however delusional, of any great consequence except as they contribute to the great Modernist project that has seen the planet globalize under the flag of Capitalist convenience, Neo-Liberalism. It is, operating under this credo, that they are assured of a significant place in new histories that operate on a millennial and geologic time scale and have as their protagonist, not petty princes or nattering nabobs of nationalism (to paraphrase the late and unlamented Spiro Agnew) but the Lonely Planet itself.
I have mentioned Clive Ponting's seminal 1992 text: it opened up a space which has been populated by a plethora of 'green' or environmental histories of the world. Enter Joachim Radkau with Nature and Power, A Global History of the Environment, 2008, in which he notes that "environmentalism is the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption".
Remarkably, in this nation based exactly, explicitly and proudly on the pursuit of private profit and consumption there has been a parallel history of appreciation and concern for the natural world. It has been advantaged in this by the scale and variety of its natural setting and its convenient extirpation of native populations who fully inhabited its vast range of ecological niches. Absent indigenous peoples, killed in great numbers by introduced disease, by the U.S. Cavalry who supported the western migration of Anglo-Americans, by frontiersmen and women on their own account, or forcibly removed to marginal lands where their traditional means of sustainability were no longer viable, the nation’s great and glorious landscapes were fetishized in the nineteenth century as objects supporting a range of broadly romantic ideologies centered on our relationship to the divine. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many of these areas were institutionalized as National Parks and in this process the last vestiges of their indigenous populations were banished. The Eurocentric traditions of Emerson, Thoreau and Muir were validated in this creation of vast reserves set aside for the aesthetic, moral and spiritual delight of newly wrought and quickly populating ‘Americans’, enabled in their peregrinations by the mass production of the automobile by Henry Ford and others.
In the 1960’s and 70’s an Environmentalism emerged in the U.S. that truly challenged the cash and consumption nexus and, arguably, initiated an epochal shift toward a revision in the ways the natural world might function as a sustainable setting for its top predator: humankind.
Not much these days goes uncolored by the recent death of my friend Will Reed with whom I hiked the Sierras last summer, along with Victoria Salmon (Wild America). He was a man without a nation, having left his native New Zealand in his early twenties and subsequently been refused permanent status in both the U.K and the U.S., despite his living in one or the other place for over forty years. I regret that he will not read this piece which touches on the spurious nature of the nation state and might give him a reason for celebrating his statelessness. Now he has truly transcended such petty considerations!
He and I were, in different ways and in different places, children of the various revolutions that occurred a little after mid-century which established in us an anti-authoritarian ethos and a profound love of the natural world. We both arrived in Ojai about eight years ago and quickly established a kinship. We subsequently co-taught at Lori Pye’s feisty on-line start-up, the Viridis Graduate Institute, where we wrestled with many of the issues with which this blog concerns itself. We both lived in a world where the concerns of environmental histories were very real. He, perhaps, was more comfortable in the timelessness of the eternal present that holds sway in the lives of indigenous peoples and his mind, I believe, actually resonated on a frequency that enabled insights into the natural world that were profoundly pre-verbal, while I am forever pursuing intellectual fashion in such histories, true to my more academic, very western understanding of wilderness as cultural artifact and ideological talisman.
The last book we talked about together was Roderick Frazer Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967, just a few days before he died. Will’s was not an American mind; he disliked this country precisely because it was mired in materialism - but he loved its wildlands and understood their history on a millennial and geologic scale, his mind in harmony with the cosmic energies that pulsed through his lanky frame.