Vanishing America

IN E. M. FORSTER’S 1909 science fiction classic, The Machine Stops, human beings live underground in isolation from the world and from each other. Their every bodily need is met by the giant underground city of the Machine; their time is spent discussing abstract ideas to ward off the ennui of their lives. No one ever goes anywhere. “Why,” the inhabitants ask, “go to Pekin when it is just like Shrewsbury? Why go to Shrewsbury when it is just like Pekin?”

America used to be a country where people wrested a living from small farms, pastured cattle on the open range, hunted whales and buffalo, made useful things in workshops and factories, and built cities that were unique in their local culture and politics. Today, it is fast becoming a coast-to-coast strip mall full of people consuming the same products, doing jobs that involve the manipulation of abstract symbols, and driving, always driving, in their automobiles. Why go to Fort Lauderdale when it is just like Federal Way? Why go to Biloxi when it is just like Duluth?

Why have we done this to ourselves? James Conaway is an able magazine journalist who has given this phenomenon a lot of thought. In Vanishing America, he takes us from the high plateaus of the Arizona Strip to the streets of New Orleans, from Big Sur to the Dry Tortugas, from the wilderness of the West to the yacht clubs of Nantucket. Conaway interviews people struggling to preserve ways of life that, while superfluous and even quixotic in purely economic terms, serve to define them as human beings. He talks to people fighting to preserve environments, both natural and cultural, that lend meaning to the lives of those who inhabit or come to visit them.

All these people, all these places, are swimming against the tide of standardization and efficiency and profit, all of which our society has raised to a semi-divine status, just as the people in Forster’s novella begin to worship the Machine. Conaway is at his best when he talks about how our mental landscape influences our surroundings. In his introduction — as succinct a summary of the problem as I have seen anywhere — he describes how he and his wife are local preservationists at their vacation place in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the midst of some land-use fight with other weekenders “indifferent to the past and hostile to even the smallest sacrifice for the general good, even if gratifying their desires meant wrecking views for others and sullying the way of life that had attracted them in the first place,” he turns to her and says: “Let’s just enjoy it here for as long as it lasts.”

According to Conaway, preservationism — the love of the natural and the manmade environments of an earlier time — is still seen as an affectation, “discounted as sentimental or attacked as an obstruction to the overriding quest for material gratification and maximum profits in minimal time.” Yet people have a yearning for beauty, harmony, a life that makes sense. As the glaciers of the northern Rockies melt away to nothing, 2 million people a year visit Glacier National Park, “all of them eager to experience an American version of the sublime even as it dwindles before our eyes.” But preservation requires sacrifice, and that makes for difficult politics among a people who believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they can have their cake and eat it too.

Conaway’s writing is clear and powerful. His gift for listening and his capacity for empathy make him one of the finest journalists covering this story today. Each chapter is a bijou of the magazine story form; if the book has a weakness, it is the difficulty in stringing them all together in a necklace. The best chapters are the ones in which he appears as a participant, not just a reporter, like “God and Olmsted in Washington, D.C.,” where he talks about the gymnasium the National Cathedral School rammed through the great landscape architect’s magnum opus, or his description of the scene at the local dump in “Old Dominion.”

This is a powerful book, a thinking man’s road trip that puts its finger on the flaw in our national character. America has always been about reinventing yourself and leaving the past behind, but Conaway detects something new in the rash of sameness and ugliness spreading across the land. It is indeed astonishing that the “totality of the natural and the built environments could be changed in a lifetime.” He ruefully concedes that the contrary impulse, the preservation and conservation movements as we know them, are no match for the inexorable logic of capitalism. Islands where nature is preserved and the impulse toward the gaudy and wasteful is restrained — like Nantucket — are restricted to the small group that can afford them, while the rest of us will see “the best reflections of what the country once stood for lie around us, abused, exploited, or ignored.” Unless, of course, something happens to the Machine.

Daniel Bellow is a freelance journalist who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, one of the last best places in America.