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Slide Mountain: Or, The Folly of Owning Nature

Theodore Stein
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Slide Mountain
    Book Description:

    The drive to own the natural world in twentieth-century America seems virtually limitless. Signs of this national penchant for possessing nature are everywhere—from suburban picket fences to elaborate schemes to own underground water, clouds, even the ocean floor. Yet, as Theodore Steinberg demonstrates in this compelling, witty look at Americans' attempts to master the environment, nature continually turns these efforts into folly. In a rich, narrative style recalling the work of John McPhee, Steinberg tours America to explore some of the more unusual dilemmas that have arisen in our struggle to possess nature. Beginning along the Missouri River, Steinberg recounts the battle for three thousand acres of land the river carved from a Nebraska Indian reservation and deposited in Iowa. Then he travels to Louisiana, where an army of lawyers butted heads over whether Six Mile Lake was actually a lake or a stream. He continues to Arizona to investigate who owned the underground, then to Pennsylvania's Blue Ridge Mountains to see who claimed the clouds. He ends in crowded New York City with Donald Trump's struggle for air rights. Americans' obsession with owning nature was immortalized by Mark Twain in the tale of Slide Mountain, where a landslide-prone Nevada peak turned the American dream of real estate into dust. In relating these modern-day "Slide Mountain" stories, Steinberg illuminates what it means to live in a culture of property where everything must have an owner.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91846-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Fast Fish in America: An Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    The most famous legal dispute in Nevada’s history never happened. It is a story that has been told many times, but no one tells it better than Mark Twain. We begin about ten miles north of Carson City in the Washoe Valley, hemmed in on the west by mountains thousands of feet high. There we find Slide Mountain, an uncertain terrain if ever there was one.

    One day back in the nineteenth century a group of practical jokers in Carson City set out to dupe a U.S. attorney by the name of Buncombe. Dick Hyde, who was in on the...

  5. 1 Blackbird’s Ghost: Real Estate and Other Fantasies
    (pp. 21-51)

    Leave it to the people at Walt Disney to come up with a good fantasy. In the 1968 movieBlackbeard’s Ghost,a bunch of gangsters plot to take over an inn owned by some nice old ladies. The inn, located on an island off the Carolina coast, was once on the mainland, but a flood separated the property, leaving its ownership in limbo. Taking advantage of the whimsy of nature, the gangsters planned to open a casino there, until, that is, the ghost of the pirate Blackbeard appeared—intent on saving the inn on the old ladies’ behalf. The entire...

  6. 2 Identity Crisis in Bayou Country
    (pp. 52-81)

    On January 27, 1964, Six Mile Lake became a stream. No act of God, no natural disaster, no work of man played a in the lake’s sudden transformation. What sounds like shift of enormous ecological proportions was really product of just a few men huddled together in a courtroom somewhere in Baton Rouge.

    Six Mile Lake is in southern Louisiana’s Atchafalaya It is part of North America’s largest river basin swamp, bigger even than the famed Okefenokee. As the sun up in the sky and the fog begins to lift, day settles in bayou country, an aqueous, obscure world of...

  7. 3 Notes from Underground: The Private Life of Water
    (pp. 82-105)

    Perhaps you remember the Underground Man, that miserable wretch, so bitter, lonely, and worried about his liver. The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s famous novelNotes from Underground,the Underground Man is a retired civil servant, a minor one, who lives in a filthy room just outside of Petersburg. He is so bored that all he can do is write. So he tells us about his walks on the Nevsky Prospect, his friends, and a trip to a bordello. But the weight of all these encounters with the people of the real world is too much for the Underground Man to bear....

  8. 4 Cloudbusting in Fulton County
    (pp. 106-134)

    On the afternoon of Saturday, August 22, 1964, David Fulk achieved an unusual distinction. At half past one, with the sky a blend of clouds and sun, Fulk rumbled into Big Cove Tannery, Fulton County, Pennsylvania, in a pickup truck with big round fenders and curves all over. A generator for vaporizing silver iodide stood upright in the back. When he stepped out of the truck, Fulk, age twenty-five, became the first person in American history to be arrested for trying to change the weather.

    David Fulk played a small role in one of the boldest schemes ever dreamed up...

  9. 5 Three-D Deeds: The Rise of Air Rights in New York
    (pp. 135-165)

    Singer Tower was once the tallest skyscraper in the world. Over six hundred feet of red brick and steel lavished with pediments, balconies, cartouches, and consoles and capped by a huge mansard roof with decorative lantern—this futuristic gem was completed in 1908 for the famous sewing machine company. Its lobby resembled a cathedral, replete with sixteen exquisite piers of Italian marble, intricately detailed bronze railings, and a vaulted ceiling with glass domes. It boasted its own little generating plant for producing power and heat; special vacuum tubes set into the walls to make office cleanup easy; even a network...

  10. Paper Moon: A Conclusion:
    (pp. 166-176)

    Robert Heinlein always did have quite an imagination. In his 1950 science fiction classic,The Man Who Sold moon,Heinlein introduces us to that tireless lunarphile cum entrepreneur, D. D. Harriman. For Harriman, who is inclined toward the grandiose, building a spaceship sending it to the moon is just the beginning. What he really after is nothing short of “the greatest real estate since the Pope carved up the New World.” “I want sell land on the Moon,” says Harriman. “I’ll sell the whole Moon, if I can—surface rights, mineral rights, anything.”¹

    Step one for Harriman and his space...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 177-204)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 205-213)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 214-214)