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Module 3 • Natural Resources: Tundra Farming
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into its water table and on which crops are strange, if not dangerous, is afoot. Year by year,
left to rot. The Pitjantjatjara might shake their the number of people with firsthand experience
heads in bewilderment and bemusement, not in the land dwindles. Rural populations continue
because they are primitive or ignorant people, to shift to the cities. The family farm is in a state
not because they have no sense of irony or are of demise, and government and industry con-
incapable of marveling, but because they have tinue to apply pressure on the native peoples
not (many would say not yet) realized a world of North America to sever their ties with the
in which such manipulation of the land—sur- land. In the wake of this loss of personal and
mounting the imperatives of distance it imposes, local knowledge, the knowledge from which a
for example, or turning the large-scale destruc- real geography is derived, the knowledge on
tion of forests and arable land into wealth—is which a country must ultimately stand, has come
desirable or plausible. something hard to define but I think sinister
and unsettling—the packaging and marketing
In the years I have traveled through America,
of land as a form of entertainment. An incipient
in cars and on horseback, on foot and by raft, I
industry, capitalizing on the nostalgia Americans
have repeatedly been brought to a sudden state
feel for the imagined virgin landscapes of their
of awe by some gracile or savage movement of
ancestors, and on a desire for adventure, now
animal, some odd wrapping of a tree’s foliage
offers people a convenient though sometimes
by the wind, an unimpeded run of dew-laden
incomplete or even spurious geography as an
prairie stretching to a horizon flat as a coin
inducement to purchase a unique experience.
where a pin-dot sun pales the dawn sky pink. I
But the line between authentic experience and
know these things are beyond intellection, that
a superficial exposure to the elements of experi-
they are the vivid edges of a world that includes
ence is blurred. And the real landscape, in all its
but also transcends the human world. In memo-
complexity, is distorted even further in the pub-
ry, when I dwell on these things, I know that in
lic imagination. No longer innately mysterious
a truly national literature there should be odes
and dignified, a ground from which experience
to the Triassic reds of the Colorado Plateau, to
grows, it becomes a curiously generic backdrop
the sharp and ghostly light of the Florida Keys,
on which experience is imposed.
to the aeolian soils of southern Minnesota and
the Palouse in Washington, though the mod- In theme parks the profound, subtle, and pro-
ern mind abjures the literary potential of such tracted experience of running a river is reduced
subjects. (If the sand and floodwater farmers of to a loud, quick, safe equivalence, a pleasant
Arizona and New Mexico were to take the black distraction. People only able to venture into the
loams of Louisiana in their hands they would be countryside on annual vacations are, increas-
flabbergasted, and that is the beginning of lit- ingly, schooled in the belief that wild land will,
erature.) I know there should be eloquent evo- and should, provide thrills and exceptional scen-
cations of the cobbled beaches of Maine, the ery on a timely basis. If it does not, something
plutonic walls of the Sierra Nevada, the orange is wrong, either with the land itself or possibly
canyons of the Kaibab Plateau. I have no doubt, with the company outfitting the trip.
in fact, that there are. They are as numerous
and diverse as the eyes and fingers that ponder
People in America, then, face a convoluted situ-
the country—it is that only a handful of them
ation. The land itself, vast and differentiated,
are known. The great majority are to be found
defies the notion of a national geography. If
in drawers and boxes, in the letters and private
applied at all it must be applied lightly, and it
journals of millions of workaday people who
must grow out of the concrete detail of local
have regarded their encounters with the land
geographies. Yet Americans are daily presented
as an engagement bordering on the spiritual,
with, and have become accustomed to talking
as being fundamentally linked to their state of
about, a homogenized national geography,
health.
one that seems to operate independently of the
land, a collection of objects rather than a con-
One cannot acknowledge the extent and tinuous bolt of fabric. It appears in advertise-
the history of this kind of testimony without ments, as a background in movies, and in patri-
being forced to the realization that something otic calendars. The suggestion is that there
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