Three Books: Paths Not Taken

“One could be an environmentalist, or a social activist, but not both, and the recent rise of environmental justice helps underscore just how little justice has historically meant to environmentalism.”

Daegan Miller’s vital This Radical Land: The Natural History of Dissent explores the paths not taken since Henry David Thoreau mixed it all up. Thoreau is one of the founders of environmentalism, but a funny thing happened on the way to the present: we lost sight of him. “Instead of Thoreau’s multifaceted radicalism, mainstream American environmentalism has followed the lead of Theodore Roosevelt — a man dedicated to wilderness and whiteness and wealth and martial manliness and the market — the nation’s ‘eugenicist in chief'[…].”

Miller digs into the dissenting, counter-modern tradition, not to be confused with the antimodern. Things like the abolitionist settlement of African American farmers in the Adirondacks, and communards in the red woods long before the 1960s, two histories I wasn’t aware of.

The fiction that “nature” is some kind of thing outside human history erases the genocide and ethnic cleansing that depopulated the lands that became our national parks. These weapons also set the stage for the colonial settlement and exploitation of land, minerals, water, even the air. I bet most Americans still remain ignorant of the Gold Rush-sparked genocide in California.

All this is important not least because the big conservation groups are creations of capitalism. Is it any wonder they have proven themselves so impotent against climate change? Of course, they’ve done some good things, but they have also helped lock up what Miller calls a “free-ranging green imagination” into a capitalist box whose walls are closing in. For “progress,” this thing that is always supposed to be moving ahead and expanding possibilities, is quite plainly thinning out and reducing the Earth’s life systems.

Be sure to read Miller’s final chapter.
Here’s another, echoing book. Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by A.H. Deming and L. Savoy, can serve as an further opening into these themes. It’s a collection of essays exploring the question “why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” As you can imagine, the category “nature writing” is itself interrogated by the thirty contributors. Nature was as segregated as society, and in some cases still is (take that train up to Breakneck Ridge). Poisons are still disproportionately dumped on the poor: lead in cities; pesticides on farms; toxic dumps next to black communities. The black bird watcher still has the cops called on him or is threatened more directly by the racism-twisted, who’ve been so savagely unleashed by Donald “neo-Nazis are fine people” Trump.
Let’s explore another text: Gina Crandall’s Tree Gardens: Architecture and The Forest. A study of trees used in parks and memorials, the book uses Gateway Memorial Park as one of its case studies. Maybe you’ve been there? The Gateway Arch was built on land fronting the Mississippi in St. Louis. That space was created by “urban renewal,” which James Baldwin more appropriately called “Negro removal.” The so-called “blight” was home and workplace of thousands. It was wiped clean off the map. Then the space was left abandoned as a big empty lot for a decade because WWII stymied plans for the arch. The ground-level erasure of history was complete. The ironies are bitter indeed: this ethnic cleansing was done to celebrate westward expansion. Then the construction unions building the arch and surrounding park refused to hire black workers. None of this is mentioned in the book. You may argue that this is not the book’s topic. My point here is that history must be a part of such stories.

Miller organized his history around “witness trees,” — “green, enchanted, ungovernable, wild-talking” trees rooted in living history. The trees in Gateway have entirely too shallow roots.

1 Response to “Three Books: Paths Not Taken”


  1. 1 alaspooryorick July 22, 2018 at 11:01 am

    James Baldwin! and Langston Hughes’ short story collection, “The Ways of White Folks,” Snapshots of growing up during segregation. pdf’s available at NYPL.


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