Arcadian America

Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition

Aaron Sachs
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Arcadian America
    Book Description:

    Perhaps America's best environmental idea was not the national park but the garden cemetery, a use of space that quickly gained popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. Such spaces of repose brought key elements of the countryside into rapidly expanding cities, making nature accessible to all and serving to remind visitors of the natural cycles of life. In this unique interdisciplinary blend of historical narrative, cultural criticism, and poignant memoir, Aaron Sachs argues that American cemeteries embody a forgotten landscape tradition that has much to teach us in our current moment of environmental crisis.

    Until the trauma of the Civil War, many Americans sought to shape society into what they thought of as an Arcadia-not an Eden where fruit simply fell off the tree, but a public garden that depended on an ethic of communal care, and whose sense of beauty and repose related directly to an acknowledgement of mortality and limitation. Sachs explores the notion of Arcadia in the works of nineteenth-century nature writers, novelists, painters, horticulturists, landscape architects, and city planners, and holds up for comparison the twenty-first century's-and his own-tendency toward denial of both death and environmental limits. His far-reaching insights suggest new possibilities for the environmental movement today and new ways of understanding American history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18905-6
    Subjects: History, Architecture and Architectural History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue. Waterfalls and Cemeteries
    (pp. 1-18)

    I have one of the best commutes in the world: I walk to work through a gorge. Around each twist of the trail is another waterfall. On hot days, the gorge feels about ten degrees cooler than the rest of town. In winter, the blooms of shape-shifting snow and ice provocatively defy the distinction between solid and liquid. When we Ithacans are lucky enough to see the sun, it slants through the trees and makes the crystals, or the currents, or the spray, come alive.

    Ithaca is justifiably notorious for its progressive politics and hippie culture, but its waterfalls are...

  5. 1 Common Shade: Cultivating a Place for Death
    (pp. 19-61)

    Repose: it conjures ambivalence. In the twenty-first century, we spend our time in motion. Mostly we work. And when we pause, we note the dip in our average productivity. Those of us with antimodern tendencies might speak wistfully of peace and restfulness. We might try to read more slowly, eat more slowly, have longer conversations; we might even walk to work, through a gorge or cemetery—but only if we can still get to the office on time.¹ Repose sounds lovely as long as we are keeping busy. Perhaps in our golden years we’ll finally stop climbing, having attained some...

  6. 2 The Middle Landscapes of New England Culture
    (pp. 62-95)

    Arcadia has always managed to be an ideal that defies abstraction. Death brings it back down to earth, keeps it close to home.

    In August 2008, while I was immersed in my work on Mount Auburn, there was a death in my extended family: Stuart, a still-active seventy-year-old psychologist, my mother’s cousin’s husband. He had lived in the Boston area for decades, so I’d known him my entire life, and he had become a trusted, avuncular advisor. When I told him where I was going to graduate school, and what I planned to study, he suggested that I look up...

  7. 3 Sleepy Hollow: A Young Nation in Repose
    (pp. 96-136)

    Before Thoreau and Hawthorne were buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, there was another Sleepy Hollow, on the Hudson River, named by Washington Irving in 1820—a wild, wooded area haunted not only by moose and Indians but also by the ghosts of Dutch settlers and former slaves, by all the spirits of the local borderlands. It was an imaginary place, but it was based on Irving’s impressions of towns along the Hudson River valley, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took on such force in American culture during the antebellum years that Irving’s imagined community got mapped onto...

  8. 4 Stumps
    (pp. 137-209)

    Stumps haunted the American landscape in the 1850s, the decade after Thomas Cole’s death. (Figure 27.)

    In the 1860s, the phantoms multiplied unimaginably.¹ (Figure 28.)

    Many Americans noted the grim parallel, the linguistic echo, the bond of kinship between wounded veterans and devastated trees, the limbs and trunks cut down in their prime. Amputees, formerly a tiny minority, now became the limping symbols of the entire nation: they lined city streets, begging, singing melancholy ballads, demanding attention, sympathy, prosthetics. They embodied the lingering of war’s horror.² And out in the countryside, rough patches of woodland from Maine to Georgia, from...

  9. 5 Three Men of the Middle Border (Part One): Twilight
    (pp. 210-251)

    The official borders of the continental United States were at least roughly established as of the Civil War, thanks to topographical surveys conducted in the north and south during the 1850s. But the wavering western frontier, the zigzagging line of settlement, was still a place of violent uncertainty in the postbellum decades, a liminal space, a transitional zone, an area of constant contestation. As veterans looked across the Mississippi for new beginnings, some dreamed of planting Arcadian communities, but few were able to leave behind their belligerence, or their scars. The United States, on its way to some kind of...

  10. 6 Three Men of the Middle Border (Part Two): American Homelessness
    (pp. 252-299)

    I knew that I had started to confront mortality in my college years—when Ian died, and then my grandparents, and Aunt Bitsy, and Auntie Grace. But it felt different when I started to think about the imminent death of my parents—which happened right after I had submitted my graduate school applications, in January 1998, when my mother called me in California to tell me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. A few weeks later, my father crumpled at the dinner table: his heart had stopped. Both of them survived, thanks to a couple of surgeries, and,...

  11. 7 Atlantis: Arcadia and Armageddon
    (pp. 300-346)

    The great American apocalypse, according to many observers, seemed to arrive in 1893, with the most devastating economic collapse the country had ever experienced. But it had been sighted many times before. In the previous year, for instance: when the Populists gathered in Omaha to choose their presidential candidate and articulate their political vision, they characterized America as being “on the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” “A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents,” they asserted, in the famous preamble to their official platform, “and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not...

  12. Epilogue. American Gothic; or, Death by Landscape
    (pp. 347-368)

    Graves tend to be important to children and grandchildren; by the time we are three generations removed from the dead, their burial sites begin to look abandoned. Individual stones soften and crumble at the edges, sometimes start to lean; inscriptions fade. But cemeteries, as public spaces, as landscapes of both mourning and hope, cared for by municipalities or nonprofit organizations, have demonstrated some staying power. They can serve as connections to our common past, and reminders of where we are all headed.

    Environmentalists, of necessity, are future-oriented: the whole point is to cultivate modes of interaction with nature that can...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 369-374)
    Aaron Sachs
  14. Notes
    (pp. 375-460)
  15. Illustration credits
    (pp. 461-464)
  16. Index
    (pp. 465-484)