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The search for something within
Landscape and Memory offers some insights

by Jesse Garon


"I grew up in England, after the second World War," Simon Schama relates, "with Churchill's historically rich rhetoric still ringing in our ears. The past was both a badge of honor that we wore, like John of Gaunt's speech about the sceptered isle in Richard II, and a burden, in that it was impossible to ever get clear of the past because it lay over everything like a very thick blanket. In America, it's very different; the past is usually an occasion to reinvent everything and that's wonderful in a way because it rescues you from a sentimental view of history, but what's less wonderful is that it's hard for history to have its own identity. I hate the fact that in American elementary schools, history is swallowed alive by this monster called 'social studies,' this constant desire to make history 'relevant' rather than to respect the past and the integrity of the stories it might tell about people quite different from us."

In previous books, Schama, who has taught history at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and currently at Columbia University, has told the stories of the golden age of Dutch culture (The Embarassment of Riches) and the French Revolution (Citizens). He's also written the remarkable Dead Certainties, a book which, through examining the lives of men as diverse as Francis Parkman, Benjamin West, and General Wolfe, becomes a meditation on the very nature of history and history writing. His new book, Landscape and Memory (Knopf, $40.00), is an equally creative document. Using a variety of historical examples, Schama explores the relationship between nationalism and the ways in which men have conceived nature.

"I'm really picking up a thread from The Embarassment of Riches," Schama says, "where I took the notion that the Dutch were creating their own national identity as they were physically creating their landscape out of the swamp in the 1500s. I was struck by the various aspects of differentiation. There's the way in which they pulled dry land out of a very water-logged part of Europe, and at the same time a differentiation of themselves from the Holy Roman Empire. I was struck by the interaction of history and geography at that moment, and wanted to expand on the idea, talk about other types of obsession with the landscape, such as the German obsession with the forest primeval, which is the complete opposite of the Dutch situation. Instead of extensively remaking the land, the Germans imagined the forest as their homeland, a landscape which remained unaltered, and saw themselves consequently as noble savages, literally forces of nature." From the sketches of the mental topography of nationalism, the book quickly grew to tackle various mythic images of nature, organized into three categories: wood, water, and stone.

The relationship between American identity and the American landscape is extensively explored, especially with regard to the discovery of the sequoia forests and the sculpting of Mount Rushmore. "The response to the discovery of the big trees seems to be a very powerful moment of American distinctiveness, in that it enabled that generation of the 1850s and 60s to stop being deferential to the ruins of history in Greece and Rome, with which they'd had a defensive relationship, almost an inferiority complex. The trees, the landscape itself, seemed to declare America's differentness, its magnitude, its holiness: the idea that the sheer green territory of America was a text on which the meaning of America's history had been written by God." The passages on Mount Rushmore are equally exciting. Schama begins by telling the story of Rose Arnold Powell, a woman who petitioned for years to have Susan B. Anthony's head added to the monument, and skillfully makes the transition to Gutzon Borglum, the man behind the project. Borglum's colorful story then serves as the basis for a discussion of mountains both geographically and historically diverse.

The issues of nationalism and nature which are discussed in this book are very timely, given the current American political climate. "The real question for a historian," Schama explains, "is whether things like the Oklahoma City bombing or the Unibomber are just pieces of violence that will flicker on and off the television screens of the American public, or are they real turning points in American consciousness?" The end of the Cold War and the shifting, inconstant world of developing technology has left many people scrambling for an identity. "There's a desperate attempt to find some non-existent ancient America, the America of the frontier and the family farm and the heavily armed stockade. We've always had that image, but it's intensified because of the growing strength of the world of technology." Technologies such as the World Wide Web, which create fluid, global concepts of community and information, have become the latest 'invisible enemy' in the tradition of the Trilateral Commission or the International Monetary Fund, because of the way in which they are perceived as threatening a way of life that is fixed, local, and self- sufficient. And so people retreat into the hills and forests of the wilderness, in ways that parallel the European examples Schama presents.

It's technology, however, that helps spread many of the conspiracy theories of the paramilitary movement, as a glance at alt.conspiracy will demonstrate. Talk radio also serves as a medium for those who are unable to get into the 'elite' world of cyberspace. Talk radio and the various forms of 'cyberspace' seem to be developing along parallel paths, but Schama sees them as very different types of media. The fervor of talk radio, the shouting, the fast pace, and the sound effects strike him as a reaction to the perceived "coolness" of the Internet, where you sit alone at a keyboard and type into emptiness.

Yet Schama is careful to point out that Landscape and Memory is not an elegiac book, harking to a golden age before technology and society despoiled the environment. The book "points out that the human eye and the human hand are all we have," he comments, "and that nature and scientific reason can coexist without being involved in an endless slugging match." He closes his book with an examination of Thoreau, which drives home the point that when we are searching for some kind of wildnerness, whether it is halfway around the world, or just over the nearby hills, we are also searching for something deep within our own character.


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