Thoughts about humans and nature/Dan Schneider

In the prints and drawings gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts, there is a series of five drawings rendered in ink and pencil by Saul Steinberg, American, 1914-1999. The untitled works were selected from a series of 24 illustrations Steinberg made for the 1949 DIA exhibition “For Modern Living.”

The first drawing shows an energetic city with tall buildings and voluptuous lighted signs: “DANCE”; “DRINK”; “BEAUTY, Inc.” Illustration two is of tall, uniformly rectangular apartment buildings dwarfing scraggly, transplanted trees. There are cars parked neatly and endlessly in rows, a supermarket with cans stacked in pyramids, industrial buildings, electricity on its way in via high tension power lines. To the right, a few cottages surrounded by trees stand in Edenic contrast to the identical buildings and stacks of cans that make the city seem soulless.

In the third illustration in progression, a man loses his hat as he plummets anonymously from a tall skyscraper, unable to cope with the soulless city. In illustration four, city dwellers have moved to the country. Closer to nature. Tree boughs swirl around gingerbread-type houses. These folks are shown to be city dwellers by the modernist furniture they unload from the back of their delivery truck.

The fifth and final selection is an illustration showing the city dwellers nestled in the woods in lounge chairs, in hammocks. Embraced by trees. The dog sits at the end of the driveway, his hair grown shaggy. The humans, having escaped from the city, appear indolent.

In these drawings, Steinberg presents an ambivalent view of a return to nature. On the one hand, there is no doubting the oppressiveness of “civilized” life as it is depicted in the second and third illustrations. On the other, his humans seem ill-suited to life in the woods.

This quintet of illustrations may not have struck me so forcefully last Friday, had I not spent an hour earlier in the day reading chapter nine of Roderick Nash’s Wilderness in America. The chapter’s title is “The Wilderness Cult.” It begins by recounting the story of Joseph Knowles, who walked naked into the Maine woods to great media fanfare in early August of 1913, and lived two months there in wild isolation. Knowles’s story made national headlines, captivating an American public so disillusioned with city life and industrialism they were willing to overlook strong evidence that Knowles’s feat of wilderness survival was a hoax.

Nash goes on to describe further celebrations of wilderness around the turn of the 20th century, embodied in such personages as Theodore Roosevelt, for whom wild lands were a stage for the performance of masculinity. Others, following the influence of the Transcendentalist poets, “accorded wild country value as a source of beauty and spiritual truth.” All this stood in contrast to the pre-industrial mindset, which saw wilderness as the bleak no-man’s-land into which Adam and Eve were cast after the Fall.

A third perspective, articulated by historian William Cronon in his essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” will help bring these thoughts back full circle: it relates to the uneasy interactions between humans and nature which Steinberg depicts in his illustrations. Cronon sounds a word of caution in his essay: that by viewing wilderness as the one pure place where our souls can find true expression, we risk de-valuing the places where we actually live. The danger is that by comforting ourselves with the knowledge that wilderness is being preserved elsewhere, we might ignore soullessness and environmental degradation in our everyday surroundings.

None of this is to suggest that wilderness should not be valued and protected, or that we should not find beauty and sublimity in nature. This is to suggest that we should strive to create human habitats that more meaningfully integrate nature – places where the trees are not merely scraggly saplings growing among soulless structures.