The Nature-Culture Paradox
Marguerite S. Shaffer and Phoebe S. K. Young
In 2000 the Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term "Anthropocene" to mark the emergence of a new geologic epoch in which humans have become the most "globally potent biogeophysical force" on the planet. As Crutzen and his fellow authors Will Steffen, a climate scientist, and John R. McNeill, an environmental historian, have explained it, "The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita." Crutzen and his fellow authors argue that in the two centuries shaped by the Industrial Revolution, humans have transformed the environment on a global scale: altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the oceans, significantly modifying the terrestrial landscape, consuming substantial quantities of freshwater, and impacting species biodiversity at incomparable levels. These transformative changes in the cycles and systems that support all life on Earth, according to Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, demonstrate that "humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself." Although the Anthropocene has yet to be officially sanctioned as a new era in Earth's history, it signals a paradigm shift in the sciences that has widespread implications for a diverse array of scholars interested in nature and culture.
Interestingly, three decades ago the cultural historian Raymond Williams identified the Industrial Revolution as the moment when the concepts of "nature" and "culture" diverged as disparate and opposing realms. By the mid- to late eighteenth century, Williams noted, "Nature was where industry was not." As scientific and technological advances transformed nature into something that could be systematically and extensively improved and made over through human and mechanized labor, nature emerged as a place apart, separate from human civilization and outside of human history, a pristine place of refuge unsullied by human activity. For Williams, this philosophical separation between man and nature was "a function of an increasing real interaction." In other words, tighter bonds between human culture and material nature accelerated the attempts to conceptualize and inhabit them as separate domains. Williams concluded, "In this actual world there is then not much point in counterposing or restating the great abstractions of Man and Nature. We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out." Through a different route Williams arrived at a similar conclusion to that of Crutzen and his colleagues: in the modern world nature and culture are inextricably entangled.
The recognition that nature and culture are fundamentally linked is perhaps nothing new. As these interpretations show, scholars have interrogated this dyad from different cultural, scientific, and environmental standpoints. One might argue, however, that both accounts assume some essential or romantic view of nature: the Anthropocene idealizing its predecessor, the Holocene, as the geologic moment during which the "great forces of Nature" both sustained and constrained human life to create a relatively stable Earth system and where it seemed possible to separate out human influence; and in Williams's case, the notion of a preindustrial, or more accurately a precapitalist, moment when human labor mixed with nature in a more balanced relationship. Yet these are also divergent trajectories; they chart the decline either from healthy separation to hazardous meddling or from organic reciprocity to ideological division. And yet pairing these two interpretations suggests a more nuanced understanding of the interconnections between nature and culture. These contrasting paradigms call to mind the theorist Donna Haraway's concept of "naturecultures," which, as she explains it, refuses "typological thinking, binary dualisms, and both relativisms and universalisms of many flavors" in favor of "relational categories" focused on "process, historicity, difference, specificity, co-habitation, co-constitution, and contingency."
By focusing on the relational dynamic, Crutzen and his coauthors, Williams, and Haraway all point to a critical paradox: how might we both account for the fundamental entanglement of nature and culture and understand the persistent modern attempts to divide, define, and categorize them separately? To describe the hybridity of nature and culture or clarify the distinctions between them sheds little light on this question. More revealing, perhaps, are the ways in which we render those relationships meaningful in place, time, and context. The process of rendering exposes how nature and culture are transformed into categorical narratives and frameworks, material and philosophical products that might point to either separation or integration. It is in this spirit that we have put together this volume of essays: we want to identify and interrogate the ways that the relationship between nature and culture has been rendered in the last two centuries of American life. Favoring neither nature nor culture, we instead seek to foreground the complex interconnections between them—what the environmental historian Gregg Mitman has recently referred to as a "relational ontology" that integrally links these two realms and concepts.
As the Anthropocene suggests, we exist in a world where entangled issues of nature and culture confront us at every turn, whether it be at the most basic level of survival—food, shelter, health, energy, work—or in connection to our more comfort-driven desires—consumption, media, recreation, travel. We believe that understanding how nature and culture are coconstituted matters more than ever as globalization expands its reach, as commodity chains become more complex, as the world population grows, as demand for resources both necessary and unnecessary increases, and as we become more implicated and interconnected by all of these things. We also believe that exposing the ways in which nature and culture are and have been rendered as meaningful categories—both cultural and material—is central to understanding the ways in which power, identity, and survival are implicated in the entanglement of nature and culture. The fields we represent, environmental history and American studies, are conducive to thinking through the interconnections between nature and culture in a more integrated way. Yet each of these fields has an established practice and history of prioritizing one side of the nature-culture relationship over the other.
The field of American studies emphasizes culture as an independent realm. This prioritization emerged from the complicated and problematic origins and evolution of the field. As American studies developed in the early 1930s, evolving out of an insecure cultural nationalism and in some ways responding to the looming threat of the Great Depression to the future of American society, scholars sought to identify and define a distinct American character, a national identity rooted in American history and traditions and defined by America as a place and nation. In the aftermath of World War II, as a Cold War consensus sought to promulgate a democratic and capitalist American way in the face of communist aggression, American studies scholars looked to literature, art, and intellectual history to define a cultural nationalism, legitimize American exceptionalism, and explain the American character (specifically the core values of democracy, freedom, and individualism). Interestingly, the route to explicating American culture during this era often seemed to go through nature, implicitly drawing on theories of nationalism linking nature and culture. Leaders in the field—Perry Miller, Henry Nash Smith, and Leo Marx—connected American identity and values to American wilderness, the frontier, the pastoral landscape. This early body of interdisciplinary scholarship established a rich tradition of examining conceptions of nature and its impact on culture. Specifically, wilderness became, in the words of Richard White, "the highway to the American psyche most favored by intellectual historians" who identified with American studies.
However, the focus on a unified American character grounded in wilderness and nature began to crumble as political, social, and racial divisions of the 1960s exposed deep fissures in American society. As civil rights activists, anti-Vietnam War protesters, feminist advocates, and other socially disenfranchised groups demanded rights, recognition, and change, American studies scholars called into question the idea of a unified America. They abandoned the study of the American character and began to examine the deep divisions that cut across American society in every direction. Race, gender, ethnicity, and class displaced wilderness and nature as defining categories in the field. Simultaneously scholars turned to anthropological theories of culture to define an interdisciplinary method that would address issues of identity and difference that expanded beyond an elite white male perspective to give voice to everyday actors including women, working-class laborers, immigrants, and African Americans. Nature as a subject of study became suspect, associated with an old-fashioned, elitist, nationalist, intellectual, and literary history and a mythology of American exceptionalism that sought to legitimize imperialism abroad and at home. The growing prominence of cultural studies during the late 1980s and early 1990s further emphasized and expanded the cultural focus of the field by providing new ways of thinking about issues of identity, difference, and power. Cultural studies brought new attention to situating the object of study in context—social, historical, political, and geographical—which in part has revived fledgling interest in topics related to environmental issues and cultural geography. Ecocriticism, the analysis of texts from an ecological perspective and topics related to environmental justice, has gained ground in American studies as well. But the field of cultural studies has predominantly served to legitimize an understanding of nature as a social and cultural construction. In other words, to study nature in the field of American studies is still another way of getting at culture—and for many scholars, a more marginal route than other pathways to understanding identity and power.
Environmental history, on the other hand, prioritizes the material integrity of nature. The environmental historian Ellen Stroud states this succinctly: "Environmental history is sometimes about power, sometimes about place, occasionally about space, and more rarely about all three, but it is always about nature." Or as Linda Nash recently put it, "What binds [environmental historians] together is a strongly held belief that material environments—for all their sociality, historicity, and constructedness—always matter to history." This commitment to the biological and physical materiality of history—nature, environments, landscapes, ecological systems, and natural resources—as significant historical actors and forces stems from the complicated origins of the field and in that way is not unlike American studies. One of the founding figures in the field, Donald Worster, acknowledged this emphasis early on in a 1990 essay tellingly titled "Seeing Beyond Culture": "If I seem to be pushing the agency of nature a little hard, it is because I believe that nature ought to be valued a little more highly in our society, given more credit in our list of civilization's achievements, and respected as a self-managing set of patterns and processes." At the very moment when American-studies scholars were beginning to flee from nature, wilderness, and the garden, those who would call themselves environmental historians began to turn to those areas. While the social upheaval of the 1960s brought increased interest in issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class, it also sparked a growing concern for the natural environment. Concern about pollution, resource use, energy policy, and wilderness conservation coalesced around an emerging politics of environmentalism. As the historian Richard White has noted, "environmental history as a self-proclaimed new field emerged on the academic scene deeply involved with, if not married to, modern environmentalism." Although environmental historians drew from a wealth of established scholarship that extended from the work of U.S. intellectual, political, and regional historians, to historical and cultural geographers and to French historians connected to the Annales School, the field sought to distinguish itself through an approach that foregrounded the role of the physical world as a crucial context for understanding human history.
This scholarly turn toward nature, defined originally as "the nonhuman world," rested on an implicit vision of equilibrium: that humans and nature could be in or out of balance, where humans might historically have worked to preserve or degrade nature. As a result, the earliest works in the field focused on issues of environmental policy, conservation, and conceptions of nature. Those scholars leading the field, including Donald Worster and William Cronon, identified three distinct levels through which one might track environmental historical change. As Cronon summarized, "First, the dynamics of natural ecosystems in time; second the political economies people erect within those natural ecosystems; and third, the cognitive lenses through which people perceive their relationships to the other two. Nature, political economy, and belief—these, in varying mixes, have been the chief fascinations of environmental historians' work"; and quickly, as Cronon went on to note, the issue became "how to best integrate the three." Environmental historians worked to bring nature on par with human actors in the historical narrative—to give nature historical agency and define what that meant. In the process they understandably questioned, challenged, and mitigated the role and power of culture and mapped out the many ways in which the physical world exerted unrecognized influence on historical events. Nature established limits, reacted to human efforts, and shaped the possibilities for culture. Culture, in this formulation, became a subsidiary product of nature. The environmental historian Ted Steinberg, drawing on the authority of science, made this case in point: "humankind 'survives biologically or not at all.'" The first generation of environmental historians endeavored to give these biological, ecological, geographical, climatic forces in history their due. The result was a growing collection of compelling histories that foregrounded rivers, grasslands, farming, wilderness, fire, water, disease, pollution, smog, and garbage. What people thought about them, what they meant in culture, followed the material fact.
By the 1990s a number of environmental historians had begun to borrow from a range of fields influenced by cultural studies and the history of science to challenge the holistic tendencies in environmental history, which implicitly, sometimes explicitly, leaned toward idealized social and ecological communities. Challenging the fixed categorization of nature and culture, they turned their attention to "hybrid environments"—landscapes, both natural and human, shaped by "interweaving the natural and the cultural in complex ways." This second wave of environmental history critically interrogated the dualistic opposition between nature and culture. Specifically scholars have focused on contesting and deconstructing the category of nature in an effort to challenge and problematize earlier conceptions of nature as an objective, idyllic, uncontaminated realm beyond the human. Recent work has explored the ways in which social inequities and conflict connected to race, gender, class, and power impact and complicate human interactions with the physical world. Scholars have also begun to probe the notion of normative biology by examining issues related to the body and health, genetic engineering, and environmental science. In addition there is a significant body of scholarship in the field that has sought to highlight the power of culture—shopping malls, ski resorts, photographs, film, recreation, tourism—to frame nature and our relationship to it. Through this work environmental historians have found a range of new terms to reflect a more complex give-and-take between nature and culture: "second nature," "organic machines," "ecotechnological systems," "workscapes," "industrial organisms," "creole ecosystems," "novel ecosystems." Nature has increasingly become "contested terrain." Despite the growing attention to the existence of spaces that contain both nature and culture, such terms presume that there are some spaces that might contain only one or the other, and thus posit hybridity as end-product rather than first principle. If environmental historians had to choose, the field overall has sought to privilege the role and agency of nature within the historical narrative.
In some ways over the past three decades, environmental historians have been more troubled by culture than American studies scholars have been concerned with nature. Early on, scholars in the field struggled to articulate where culture fit and how to integrate it. Donald Worster and William Cronon debated the issue as they sought to outline a defining methodological approach in the early 1990s. As a body of scholarship in environmental history grew, critics upbraided the field for essentializing and depoliticizing nature. For example, the social historian Elizabeth Blackmar questioned the way in which environmental historians early on "appropriated the language of nature . . . to project and promote normative concepts of social equilibrium." Similarly the Dutch historian Kristen Adsal has asserted that environmental history has depended too heavily on a conception of nature grounded in a scientific method that claims neutrality and objectivity. However, the heated response to William Cronon's essay "The Trouble with Wilderness" and the ensuing critique of his edited volume Uncommon Ground, which further elaborated the cultural construction of nature, perhaps best exposed the broader discomfort with culture. Uncommon Ground elicited strong responses from scholars who criticized "the tendency of many contributors to treat nature as a mere linguistic bauble whose meaning can be constructed—and deconstructed—at will." The book provoked outrage from environmental groups such as EarthFirst! and others who worried about the consequences if nature ceased to be a "real thing" to be managed, preserved, or destroyed. Although many environmental historians turned their attention to culture after Cronon's controversial challenge, the ecological paradigm, given the support it lends to the primacy and agency of nature, remains.
Efforts to discount cultural understandings of nature as "not real" attempt to sidestep the thorny paradox that results when we acknowledge that "[b]iophysical and human nature are incomprehensible outside of culturally-based knowledge schemes," as the geographer James Proctor asserted. Once we do that, then "the vision of nature as culture cannot be readily dismissed as merely a vision of ideas of nature versus nature itself." Acknowledging the power of "culturally-based knowledge schemes" is not a concession to the power of culture over nature. Rather it is an invitation to probe how concepts and categories of knowledge have been used to render both nature and culture. For example, as the anthropologists Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar suggest, the term "environment" serves to "avoid the cultural baggage of 'nature'" and thus provide "a more neutral and prosaic [that is, scientific] way of saying almost the same thing." But in so doing, it produces "something flatter and more instrumental than the view of nature as inevitably mixed with human labor"—or, we would argue, culture. Taking "environment" as the object thus constrains scholars from moving "beyond . . . the functionalist/materialist"; whereas nature may suggest less "accuracy," it also affords greater "ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty." Precisely for such reasons, environmental historians have been more comfortable with concepts of environment, material products, and natural resources and have danced around the analytical primacy of nature and the natural. They have questioned theories and methods, debated concepts of agency versus structure, defined hybrid categories, and begun to ask questions about whose nature, what nature, and which nature. But as these criticisms suggest, nature and the natural have retained much of their material power as "autonomous, independent energies that do not derive from the drives and intentions of any culture."
The most recent state of the field round table reaffirms this commitment to the physical materiality of nature as an organizing principle. Tracing recent historiography, the round table highlights the persistence of "many of the methodological and analytical tensions laid bare in the 1990 roundtable [sic]." Paul Sutter documents the turn toward "hybrid environments," explaining that "[t]he hybrid turn has not only been a cultural shift . . . hybridity also implies that human history and culture cannot be easily isolated from environmental forces and circumstances." Sutter traces a significant body of scholarly work that has sought to explore the complex intersections between nature and culture, identifying four prominent categories of recent scholarship: "the environmental management state"; "agroenvironmental history"; "environmental history of disease and health"; and "the human-built world." Yet even in celebrating the analytical and theoretical nuance of this more complicated give-and-take between nature and culture, Sutter expresses concern about the relativity of this perspective. Hybridity, he laments, "has not always offered analytical or normative clarity"; and he goes on to note that "scholars have found this world, without Eden or sin—without a pure nature or universal human transgression against it—a disorienting place." He concludes with a plea for the field to return to its commitment to "environmental prescription." One of the round-table respondents, Linda Nash, makes this case even more emphatically: "If the second generation of environmental history successfully demonstrated how what was presumed natural was already intertwined with culture, now is the time for scholars to return to the material—to show how what is presumed to be social or cultural is thoroughly intertwined with the natural."
In American studies, the ways in which nature has crept back into the field exhibits similar, if less obvious, quandaries about the underlying assumptions of the discipline. As issues of globalization, transnationalism, and border crossing have become increasingly significant in an expanded vision for the field, scholars have returned to explore the intersections of place, identity, and power more critically. Postmodern and postcolonial geography, diasporic studies, and global studies have called into question the fixed materiality/physicality of the nation-state and provided new ways for examining the social construction of place, global commodity chains, and transnational identity. In this way nature has gained ground to the degree that it is imagined in terms of politicized geography, environmental resources, and commodity flows. Ecocriticism, animal studies, queer studies, and a growing focus on the body have raised questions about the liberal enlightenment vision of humanity, the centrality of human agency as a cultural historical force, and the anthropocentric worldview and interpretive stance that go with it. For example, the American Quarterly recently published a special issue focused on what it means "to think and act in a multispecies world." The issue examines species as an organizing framework of difference in relation to other "categories of human difference" in an effort not only to "bring the animal into fuller visibility" but also to articulate a posthumanist, planetary perspective that seeks to expand the established conceptual boundaries of social justice, ethical behavior, and "taxonomies of power." In their introduction the editors note that the field of American studies "has yet to engage species/race/sex fully." While these recent turns in the field have largely served to open up new theoretical territory on which to deconstruct systems of human power and normative cultural frameworks of identity and meaning, there has been no broader attempt to connect and organize new interpretive approaches around the concept of nature or to hypothesize an integrated understanding of nature-in-culture.
As the debates in both of these fields reveal, it is difficult to unpack the entanglement of nature and culture, possibly because we have become so deeply immersed in the separation between the two realms. Whether it be the legacy of the enlightenment mindset and the related scientific worldview, which signified "the death of nature"; or the analytical remnants of Hegelian philosophy, which distinguishes the ideal from the real; or its spin-off, Marxist theory, which so clearly separates modes of production and the material world from ideology and culture; or just the intellectual, methodological, and professional boundaries that have sharply divided scholarly disciplines related to science and the humanities—as scholars we inhabit a conceptual and material world that predisposes us to understand nature and culture as distinct and separate domains that inhabit a seemingly fixed relationship to each other.
Recent works in the fields of posthumanist studies and animal studies offer new frameworks for rethinking well-established nature-culture binaries. By situating the concept of humanness in historical context, posthumanism challenges the naturalized and reductive ideal of the human as an independent contained organic being. Building on Foucault's work detailing the connections between science and structures of power, posthumanism examines the process by which humans have defined themselves as a distinct biological species. Specifically, posthumanist scholars have highlighted the ways in which humanness is the product of a complex array of performed, constructed, historically situated relationships between humans and technologies, humans and nonhumans (both animate and inanimate), humans and "Others." "Within such webs," argue the scholars Julie Livingston and Jasbir Puar," the human becomes one of many nodes, certainly not the originator of categories, matter, or meaning." In a related approach, the field of animal studies positions the nonhuman animal as the organizing object of study. Scholars in the field have sought to contest the naturalized logic of human exceptionalism by historicizing and deconstructing the "shifting boundaries between humans and nonhuman animals." Exploring issues of nonhuman agency, animal cognition, consciousness, communication, and the hierarchies of human-animal relationships, the field explores the ideologically charged oppositions that have long legitimized human exploitation and exoticization of animals. Specifically, animal-studies scholars have embraced the concept of "interspecies," referring "to the relationships between different forms of biosocial life and their political effects," to examine the construction and ideological implications of species difference.
In questioning taxonomies, species, and naturalized biological categories, both posthumanism and animal studies seek to provide an interpretative approach that recognizes relationships and processes over fixed types and finalized products. They offer new analytical tools with which to explore the relationship between nature and culture. Just as William Cronon's deconstruction of the concept of wilderness recalibrated the ways in which scholars defined and approached the concept of nature, posthumanism is poised to reframe the fundamental categories of humanness central to conceptions of culture. Where Cronon opened up wilderness to new lines of inquiry by understanding it as a mutable, material, and cultural space, posthumanism disaggregates the standard unit of historical agency—the human—into an ongoing product of a complex network of relationships of biology, politics, and power. This approach draws attention to "the moment human bodies are . . . rendered available for biological qualification through population construction." This process of rendering that frames concepts of nature, culture, human, and animal then becomes the central concern. Through what means, what processes, and what kinds of relationships are such concepts and products rendered historically?
Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, by the animal-studies scholar Nicole Shukin, offers a useful theoretical model for examining human-animal relationships by focusing on this process of rendering. Building on the multiple and conflicted meanings of the verb "to render" (to represent, to perform, to surrender, to return or restore, to process or melt down, to cover, to translate into a computer image or Web page), Shukin argues, "[t]he rubric of rendering encompasses a cacophony of logics." These logics signify "both the mimetic act of making a copy, that is, reproducing or interpreting an object in linguistic, painterly, musical, filmic, or other media (new technologies of 3-D digital animation are, for instance, called 'renders')[,] and the industrial boiling down and recycling of animal remains." Although focused specifically on the cultural work of animals, both economic and ideological, Shukin's framework shows how the multiple meanings of the term suggest provocative ways for thinking through the interconnections and boundaries between representation and materiality. The process of rendering offers a useful conceptual tool to interrogate the entanglement of nature and culture without presuming either to solve or to sidestep the paradox. That is, an inquiry into how we render nature and culture in conjunction contains more points of entry than asking, for example, what nature or whose culture. Such an inquiry sheds light on both the dynamic processes that link the two categories and the layers of thought, practice, and history that have served to divide nature and culture into distinct realms. The essays in this volume all speak to the multiple ways in which nature is rendered. Together they show that rendered nature brings us back to the complex interplay—the "relational ontologies"—of nature and culture.
The authors in this volume operate from a core assumption that nature and culture exist not as distinct realms but as a reciprocal give-and-take that blurs the boundaries of each and rejects the prioritization of either. Each of us works to situate nature in history and open it up as a negotiated process that involves a constant shifting of relations between people, places, animals, resources, images, and texts. We share a desire to experiment with the way in which we tell stories about nature and culture and what stories are told. We rely on hybrid intellectual traditions—American studies, animal studies, cultural history, environmental history, labor history, public history, visual studies—that are premised on questioning normative categories and unpacking core assumptions, such as concepts of nationhood, identity, agency, audience, and representation. We agree that nature and culture could benefit from this same kind of critical approach. We want to carve out space to place this work at the center of inquiry rather than on the margins of several fields. The rubric of rendering encompasses our individual analytical approaches to nature-culture relationships and embodies the conceptual themes of the volume.
In seeking to interrogate the way nature is rendered, the essays in this book explore a diverse array of physical spaces and historical moments—from antebellum slave society to atomic testing sites, from gorillas in Central Africa to river runners in the Grand Canyon, from white sun tanners to Japanese American incarcerees, from taxidermists at the 1893 World's Fair to tents on Wall Street in 2011. Understood neither as perversions of nature (or culture) nor as hybrid products of the two realms, these topics present scholars with valuable opportunities to explore and understand how nature and culture manifest in tandem around some pivotal issues in the American past and present. They demonstrate the variety of ways nature and culture are rendered as meaningful categories—both separate and connected—in historical context. As such, these essays seek to model new approaches, to showcase new topics, and to explore the intricacies of how we have lived and live out nature and culture in relationships rendered in time, place, and context.
While the connections between the essays are multiple and will emerge in whichever order one might read them, they cluster into four categories: animals, bodies, places, and politics. This thematic structure highlights the multiplicity of renderings that precede apparently related topics and subjects. In the opening set of essays, for example, the horse that opens Thomas Andrews's chapter manifests as a different sort of animal from the horse that stands in John Herron's essay; and the dog, gorilla, bison, and moose discussed by Andrews, Herron, and Marguerite Shaffer speak to very distinct renderings of animals in relation to humans. Yet all these authors explore how animals play material and historical roles in the construction of human power, knowledge, and culture. Thomas Andrews begins with the often overlooked but striking fact of the ubiquity of animals in antebellum America. By revisiting the 1836 slave narrative of Charles Ball, Andrews pays close attention to the relationship between humans and animals in the slave system in a way that prompts a rethinking of key conceptual junctures. Learning how slaves, slave owners, and animals interacted in these moments, as Andrews importantly highlights, begins not only to dismantle the nature/culture binary but also to reveal the ways in which other such pivotal divisions have been rendered: namely energy and power, animals and humans, freedom and slavery.
John Herron moves forward to the late nineteenth century to examine the physical and intellectual developments that made taxidermy and museum displays of animal forms a potent mode for negotiating human relationships to animals and to each other. Taxidermy combined nature, art, craft, science, and culture in carefully curated displays that spoke to viewers' conception of narratives of "the ideal" and "the authentic." Gathered in a panorama at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, these scenes, of course, reflected gendered, racialized, and nationalist assumptions of the era. But more than a prop to insist on the natural basis of such hierarchies, the choreographed poses and communities on the other side of the glass engaged visitors in practicing how to see nature—not as pristine space absent of humans but as space that fostered active reflection on the organization of human society, politics, and sense of belonging.
Marguerite Shaffer reminds us of the famous tale of Digit the Gorilla and Dian Fossey, his primate girl, and their star-crossed love story calls attention to an animal encounter that renders both connection and separation. A charismatic animal and a celebrity scientist, portrayed as intermediaries between the worlds of nature and culture, became emblematic creatures for the 1970s, when stories about nature reflected much about American anomie, desires for redemption, and deeply personal experiences. The afterlives of Fossey and Digit echoed a broader social and economic trajectory, which commoditized that very desire for authenticity, connection, and innocence through nature. All three essays in Part I suggest that what we portray about animals (and about ourselves) hides as much as it reveals, concealing the great cultural (and physical) work that produces animals as natural objects apart from humans while making them available to claim as instruments of power and identity, ideal specimens of social life, or innocent experiences of authentic contact.
The essays in Part II move from the animal to the human to examine the body as a powerful site (or sieve) for rendering nature, whether through the forces that shape bodies or as embodiments of environmental vulnerability. Susan Miller provides useful perspective on tensions between ways of understanding the body as a sealed, unified container and those envisioning it as a mutable, porous entity constituted of both nature and culture. Adolescence, a concept that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, became a consequential medium for sifting the influence of nature and culture. The members of a single, significant family, the Gulicks—among them natural scientists, Progressive reformers, and religious missionaries—envisioned adolescents' developing bodies as a crucible for natural forces and cultural imperatives. Though they evinced a modern confidence in their ability to manipulate the environment to produce healthier youths, cultural change, and a better race of Americans, along the way their suggestions about the malleability of adolescent bodies posited a view of humans-in-nature as fundamentally "in a state of becoming." If nature and culture together rendered this stage we define as adolescence, then so also has adolescence become a powerful source for the way we categorize and correlate nature, culture, and the human body.
Progressives such as the Gulicks shared a faith in the environment to influence cultural and material transformation, but as Catherine Cocks argues, the emergence of tanning as a popular practice represented a simultaneous but contrasting intellectual trend—one that sought to divest nature of its power to determine cultural identity. The general acceptance by the mid-twentieth-century of white people's deliberate pursuit of "skin darkening" was predicated on seeing "the tan" as a cultural affect rather than material transformation, even if it is seen and sensed on the body itself. Shifting beliefs in the permeability of skin and identity had everything to do with a complex relationship of race and nature to culture and history. Cocks traces a new path through the complex thicket that separated nineteenth-century notions of race as social destiny into the seemingly independent variables of biology and culture—which all the while continued to generate deep and complex physical connections.
Finis Dunaway examines a different nexus of biology and culture: emotions. In particular he demonstrates the emotional power wielded through images of vulnerable bodies that became central to the making of American environmentalism in the Cold War era and leading into its 1970s high point. Invoking the body at risk tapped into Americans' worries about the potential destructive transformations of nuclear energy and stimulated a transformation in attitudes regarding the uses of the environment. Dunaway reveals the covert links between biological, emotional, irrational responses and public actions in defense of nature. Human bodies as permeable hosts for genes, color, and emotions are thus transformational sites where nature and culture mingle on molecular, social, rhetorical, visual, and imaginative planes.
The essays that comprise Part III address the multivalent ways we know places of nature: through sensory experiences of landscapes as well as by narratives realized through text, time, and art and through the archives that collect them. Andrew Kirk examines how nature is rendered through a medium of tools, both things and images, art and technology. Using a place typically rendered as destroyed or absent of nature—the atomic landscape of the Nevada Test Site (NTS)—Kirk eschews a focus on the material impacts of atomic testing or the symbolism of the nuclear reaction as a moment of both mastery and destruction of nature. Instead he reveals the complex relationships that people who worked on the ground forged with the material landscape they inhabited, which, rather than blasted clean, was surprisingly full of flora, fauna, and human structures. Alternately participating in and resisting federal attempts to publicize the NTS as a blank spot and advertise the invisibility of its nature, they struggled to reconcile their destructive labors with often-insightful comprehension of the places they lived.
Annie Gilbert Coleman asks what it means to know the Colorado River as an environmental palimpsest of sensation, text, place, and archive. River runners from John Wesley Powell to Barry Goldwater to Dock Marston made their marks on a river that has not remained fixed in time, place, or substance. By examining these layers of physical and textual attempts to organize the experience of the river, Coleman challenges the division between material and representational modes, between words and water, between real and written.
Frieda Knobloch establishes a framework for thinking about the desert not only in terms of place but also in terms of time. She proposes that we deepen landscapes into "chronotopes," places propagating particular senses of time. What renders an arid place into "the desert" are the relational bridges between modern consciousness, concepts of decadence, visions of geologic time, rainfall patterns, literary imagination, and wilderness expectations. Her formulation challenges us to see yet another binary—time and place—as deeply entangled as nature and culture. These essays share a focus on a place that American environmental historians have highlighted frequently, the arid West, but their inquiries examine this region in ways that augment our understanding of it as a definable geographic zone with a view into how its nature is rendered through multiple ways of knowing.
The essays in Part IV concern the political implications of rendering nature. Connie Chiang examines the relationship of nature to nation as articulated through the politics and practices of discrimination, nationalism, and control made manifest by the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Within a broader framework of what she terms "environmental patriotism" during the war, the incarceration mobilized the rhetoric of conservation alongside positive and negative versions of scientific racism to frame the war effort in environmental terms. Chiang looks beneath the victory-garden narrative of war-time conservation to see a multiplicity of contradictory purposes for environmental debates and manipulations, even as a fundamentally undemocratic place could, by way of nature, get a patriotic spin. This highlights not only the transformation of resources by way of ideology but also the ways Americans sought to envision nature through nation.
Brett Mizelle looks at the political dynamics embedded in human relationships to pigs, pork, and bacon. The stories of slaughter that humans tell and do not tell and how we idealize the domesticated pig but deliberately unknow the realities of the mass-production process every time we eat illuminate the political structures that sustain investments in separating animals and humans, nature and culture. The relationship between invisibility and hypervisibility exposes not only our assumptions about the differences and relationships between species but also the politics of the meat industrial complex.
Phoebe Young argues that the tents of Occupy Wall Street tapped into some of these latent connections, employing narratives of nature to frame a political protest. Camping for a political cause highlights how the outdoors has acted as a critical space for negotiating civic belonging and national identity. Physical and symbolic uses of tents generated competing modes of citizenship and dramatized a key connection between access to public spaces and the ability to participate in public life. Drawing upon a thick history that has associated camping with the nation as well as an ideal of behaved middle-class citizenship, examining Occupy Wall Street reveals how we render relationships between nature, culture, and the public. Looking for nature in incarceration facilities, slaughterhouses, and protest movements prompts us to rethink our assumptions about how and where nature has political, national, or public meaning.
In sum these essays reveal humans rendered into animals and animals rendered into humans; nature rendered as innocent, invisible, and elemental; environments rendered through race and race rendered through environment; nature rendered through time, text, and archive, while also making visible the politics of rendering nature as patriotic, as product, and as a form of protest. Portraying a broad range from enslaved peoples of the nineteenth century to encamped protesters of the twenty-first century, these essays neither coalesce around a singular theme in American history nor present a unified theory of how nature and culture finally relate. A dozen among many possible examples, together they offer new perspectives and conceptual tools that foreground the complicated and crucial relationships that render nature and culture: perspectives and tools that we believe can help us better negotiate and understand the paradoxes of our new epoch.