- Who Are We, and What Is the Land to Us?
In recent years scholars of U.S. culture and society have demonstrated heightened interest in theorizing and questioning the relationships of people to their physical environment. Scientific evidence of environmental calamity caused by modern lifestyles, and public concern about the fragility of a physical world whose resilience was previously taken for granted, have surely encouraged this turn toward environmental inquiry. Contemporary calls to pay attention to the environment have been, however, only a starting point; they have provided no clear intellectual direction to scholars whose expertise lies in discerning the meanings and values embedded in culture and society.
Rather, it has been up to us to devise conceptual frameworks and avenues of inquiry that fruitfully connect our core concerns about culture and society to the physical environment, to landscapes of human activity, and to human experience of the physical world. Fortunately, American studies scholars have been aided by an exchange of ideas and methods with environmental historians. For decades, environmental historians have written declensionist narratives about the modern willful despoliation of our natural environment and belated efforts at restoration and protection, thereby offering a corrective to older nationalist narratives that stressed the inevitably positive outcomes [End Page 1099] of such interventions in nature. More recently, historians such as William Cronon, Carolyn Merchant, Mark Fiege, Steven Stoll, Louis Warren, Aaron Sachs, Linda Nash, Jared Orsi, and Neil Maher have also become sensitive analysts of society and culture, inclined to probe Americans’ interactions with, and understandings of, their physical environments and to challenge the assumption that modern society exists outside of nature and in fundamental opposition to it. They, along with Americanists across a range of disciplines, are advancing important new approaches to studies of the environment.
One of the most important new approaches is a trend among scholars to broaden notions of the environment to encompass the full range of settings in which humans interact with the physical world. And they are seeing all of these settings as both natural and cultural constructs. Thus, scholars are working to understand how the confluence of nature with human values, social relations, and political economies has produced urban, industrial, and suburban environments; eroded, polluted, and diseased environments; frontier, pastoral, protected, and “wild” environments. Equally important, scholars of U.S. culture and society are exploring how human relationships with the environment mediate the construction of identities, contributing to understandings of self and community, human agency and limitation, place and belonging, individual well-being and social welfare, “we” in relation to an othered “them” across time, land, and space.1 In short, such scholars have conceptualized the relationship between people in the United States and their environment as interactive and mutable; their work sees humans as actors on and interpreters of the environment and, simultaneously, as beings whose physical existence, values, identities, and institutions are shaped by the environment’s power and form. Moreover, American studies scholars are using notions of a culturally inflected human-environmental dynamic to help frame studies of conflict about nature and its resources.
This is not to say that American studies scholars are uniform in their approaches to environmental study. Three new books about the United States and the environment reveal some of the distinct investigative openings created by scholars who are attentive to the social and cultural dimensions of human interaction with the environment. Jake Kosek, the author of Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico, uses cultural analysis to illumine environmental politics, claiming that incompatible constructions of identity and nature are at the heart of recent conflicts between Hispanos, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) workers, and Anglo environmentalists...