One of the many fascinating (and frightening) things about the Sarah Palin furor is how she encapsulates much about the basic American contradictions about nature. To the extent Alaska is seen as the last American frontier—which like all Americans frontiers requires a heavy governmental subvention to support a lifestyle of rugged individualism—it has become the repository of all of our contradictions about the great outdoors. We love nature; and we want to subdue and ravish nature, and we want nature to remain unravished, despite our previous efforts. As the Catholics might say, we want nature to be our virgin mother, undefiled and untouched but fecund, birthing our dreams, and of course, remaining full of grace despite what we do to it.
These reflections on Palin were prompted by two books, Bill McKibben’s excellent anthology of American nature writing since Thoreau (Rob likes to be in nature; I feel more comfortable just reading about it) and Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty , Power and Lies (Simon and Schuster, 2008.) It is the best book ever written on Niagara Falls; funny, clever, and sharply argued. It is based on the academic commonplace that “nature” doesn’t exist, it is an artificial human construction, and that Niagara Falls is at the same time nature at its most powerful and nature at its most artificial and manipulated. (She has some funny pages on the “turning on” of the falls in April for the tourists after much of its flow had been diverted to power generation in the winter months, and how the current view of the falls, manipulated to the hilt, has more in common with Disneyland than anything else.)
Niagara Falls is the tale of two cities; Niagara Falls Ontario, the tourist trap from hell, with every hokey and glitzy diversion imaginable, and Niagara Falls, New York, undoubtedly the most depressed of all the depressed rust belt cities in New York State, a ruin of failed industrial dreams. (And although Robert Moses and his fight with the Tuscarora is definitely one of the least defensible of his long career of many indefensible actions, she falls too easily into the Robert Moses as boogeyman-demiurge school; by her own showing, Niagara Falls, New York would have turned into the dump it is today, or something very similar, without his interventions or ministrations.)
But Strand’s book captures the Niagara Falls of the mind; I particularly liked her account of the Niagara Falls Museum in Ontario, a collection of heterogeneous bric-a-brac and paraphernalia, like no other, and her speculation that the vogue for tight-rope walkers across the falls c. 1860 was connected, at least at some subterranean level, with the flight of escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. Her affection for run down and dowdy Niagara Falls, New York is touching.
In any event, Strand’s Niagara (and the same can be said for Palin’s Alaska, filled with freshly conceived babies and freshly killed moose flesh) is closely connected to the to the varieties and vagaries of human desire. Niagara, Strand points out, is but one line-stroke away from Viagara.