By Timothy Mahoney
We live and work in an environment which we disparage as “inauthentic” and thus ignore the “wildness in our own backyards” and the beauty in nature around us—which William Cronon calls the environmental “middle ground”—even as we continue to cover it in sprawl, highways, and the detritus of civilization. Cronon’s critique angered environmental purists who argued that a pristine “sacred” view of wilderness must be sustained exactly because not doing so will erode a commitment to it.
Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies and Vilas Research Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is researching the land between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers on which the small town of Portage, Wis., was established. Like other portages that traverse two watersheds, the area has been a key region in the patterns of human migration, transportation, and exchange since humans first entered the area after the last ice age. Cronon’s goal has been to write a complete history of the place from the glaciers to the present, viewed through the prism of individuals’ personal memories and stories. He is particularly interested in exploring how people’s people’s sense of place is shaped by the stories they tell about their homes, their lives, and the landscapes they inhabit. The fact that John Muir, founder of modern environmentalism, emigrated with his family to a farm near Portage and lived there as a youth in the 1850s and 1860s, and Frederick Jackson Turner, prominent American historian, lived there from 1860s through 1880s, enhances the historical stories and memories of Portage, today a town off the interstate of less than ten thousand10,000 people, but once a prominent stop on old U.S. Highway 51 heading into Wisconsin’s north woods.
Cronon, a native of Wisconsin and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, after a stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Fellow, went to Yale University and stayed there for sixteen 16 years as a graduate student and faculty member before deciding to return to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992. Intertwining personal experience and memories with his analysis, Cronon’s work is sprinkled with references to his Wisconsin “home.”
In one of Cronon’s major works, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
(Norton, 1990), he examined how entrepreneurs in Chicago built the railroads to expand and supply their markets. Innovations in transport, grain, livestock, and lumber businesses gave these entrepreneurs an edge in regional markets that enabled the city to become the entrepotentrepot of a vast regional system stretching across the Midwest and the Great Plains. This system brought people, raw materials, and technologies from the east, and established them on the Great Plains environment to create a kind of man-made “second nature” atop the “first nature” of the environment.
followed the themes Cronon had developed in his breakthrough first book, Changes in the Land
, in which he reminded us that Europeans did not arrive in some pristine, untouched land occupied by Native Americans, but that Native Americans had been transforming the landscape for centuries. In a now classic article in the field of environmental history, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” in a volume he edited, entitled Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
(Norton, 1996), Cronon asserted that “wilderness” — imagined by so many as pristine, untouched, unoccupied by humans, and thus a “sacred” and “sublime” place — never really existed. It was a creation of the culture that imagined it, derived in part from the frontier tradition, and was thus “constructed.” It is the wilderness in which millions of people every year seek a “wilderness experience” to relax and relieve the stress of modern life. What concerns Cronon about this radical separation between wilderness and civilization is that promoting the preservation of “wilderness” areas seems to give many of us an excuse to be environmentally irresponsible in “the homes we actually inhabit.” Yet his views have inspired an entire generation of backyard environmentalists by raising their consciousness to the nature around them and encouraging them to garden environmentally, shop and consume organically, to recycle, to cut fuel and energy consumption, and to seek daily “sustainable” lives that will leave a smaller carbon footprint.
“To protect the nature that is all around us, we must think long and hard about the nature we carry inside our heads,” said Cronon. “Although we too often forget this fact, history is not the past, but the stories we tell about the past.”
William Cronon will give a public lecture, “The Portage: How to Read a Landscape,” September 27, 2007, at 7:30 p.m. on the UNL campus in the Nebraska Union Auditorium, 14th and R Streets. This talk is a Research and Region Lecture sponsored by the Plains Humanities Alliance, Center for Great Plains Studies, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For more information, contact the Center at 402-472-3082.