The Quiet Crisis
This is a centennial worth some meditation and prayer. In 1864 Congress passed and President Lincoln signed a bill preserving Yosemite Valley “for public use, resort and recreation.” In the present nightmare condition of our land, both city and country, this may not sound like much. The valley, as Secretary Udall puts it mildly enough “was the first scenic reserve created by federal action, and the event is a landmark in the history of conservation.” The main mover in the affair was the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park.
The drama is in the historical context of the event, both past and future, and it can perhaps be taken as a point in that, that this forthright and absolutely crucial book by our Secretary of the Interior has been out for several months without creating much of a stir, if any. Certainly there has been no public response anywhere near matching its importance and the fact is as dismal as any recounted in it. It is no slur on Rachel Carson, and her great value as a propagandist, to say that Udall’s subject is vastly more basic than the question of insecticides. To be sure, she was a professional writer and a good one. Udall’s prose is that of a harried public figure with a staggering schedule and burden of responsibilities; it is adequate but was presumably gotten off in moments snatched on planes or in the early hours, so is remarkable mainly in having been written at all. The full scale of the achievement is in the man and the material. The combination is not only important, it is news—how many Secretaries of the Interior have we had who thought of cities in terms of “space, beauty, order and privacy”? and the real question raised by the fate of the book so far is whether anybody cares if the U.S.A. becomes a place unfit to live in or not.
That it is going that way fast anybody can see. America the Beautiful became a term of derision and Ugly America a commonplace quite a while ago, and there are plenty of plain citizens, ordinary squares, who are saying or thinking nowadays, “To hell with it, I wish they’d cover the whole country with asphalt and get it over with.” Meaning the Rocky Mountains and all, and they is always somebody else, which in itself is an odd fact. For a nation of busybodies, boasting around the world of our social conscience and with some reason for it on certain grounds, we have been singularly helpless against the “ruthless commerce” that goes on ripping up our countrysides at will and has made our cities the most hideous in the world—right now in every town and suburb people who could help to stop it are out collecting funds for mental health. The connection there is of a sort Udall presents very well, along with many others both broader and more subtle. The apparent simplicity of the book is deceptive, and so in this case is our American assumption that writing by anybody in our government is bound to be rather gross, for expedience when not from native limitation. The sentences are sometimes clumsy and some of the verse quotes could have been better chosen, but the real stuff of the book comes from both strong convictions and a high and complex order of intelligence. From a cabinet member this is news, it is a treat, and given the subject, it is scary.
The aesthetic and breathing-room angles are only half of it. The story is of the plunder of this country’s resources in all respects—from the beaver trappers, buffalo hunters, early lumbermen and oilmen, and hydraulic miners for gold among others, all with their trails of devastation and all supported at the time by “the myth of superabundance” as well as the romance of frontier personality, down to such present phenomena as “city subdividers in search of quick profits,” pollution and waste of water (“In a matter of decades many regions will face an insistent water crisis”; “We are now faced with the need to build 10,000 treatment plants and to spend $6,000,000,000 to conserve water supplies”) and the car junkyards now taking the place of trees for our meditation, to which five million cars are being added every year. “National sloth” is one characteristic phrase. Another is “the mindless, planless approach that ruined vast sections of our land.” There are excellent accompanying photographs of eroded land, horrible buildings, billboards, etc., and set against them are some views of what we are losing or have lost: far views, mountain streams, waving fields. The same pattern of juxtaposition is followed by the architect Peter Blake in his bitterly accurate portfolio God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of the American Landscape. The captions in the Udall exhibit should make for sorrow if it weren’t used up in this domain—“Nearly every acre was covered by trees”; “The soil was anchored to the land by grass”; and of course from Emerson, “In the woods we return to reason and faith.”
What woods, what faith, one tends to feel about that. In that sense the author might be considered an innocent, and if he is, that is where we had better look for reason.
The reason, and perhaps faith of a guarded kind—since Udall is too practiced in politics and too well-read in history to assume we will get anything better by wishing for it—show up very pleasantly in his treatment of various wise and noble people on the other side: the anti-grabbers, of the category Peter Blake calls “all-the-rest-of-us,” only Udall has culled the history books for heroes of the long war between loot and life, not just the angry or sodden victims that most of us are. To glance at any city and most of the country now you wouldn’t think Olmsted and the other heroes—the Vermonter George Perkins Marsh, Audubon and the Bartrams, John Weir, Gifford Pinchot, the two Roosevelts, and a good many others—had accomplished much, but they did. Believe it or not, it would all have been much worse without them. To them, sometimes along with anonymous members of societies for the preservation of this and that, we owe all our national parks and forests except for the bits here and there granted as philanthropic bequests, and each one, like the TVA and every other triumph over the private raiders, represented a fierce battle. Peaceful brooding men had to turn themselves into orators and wirepullers. One wonders how many would bother now, though the breed is not extinct. Lewis Mumford must have prevented at least a few abominations in cities, as have a few architects; and there is Udall himself. “Why not tax the owners of ugliness, the keepers of eyesores, and the polluters of air and water, instead of penalizing the proprietors of open space who are willing to keep the countryside beautiful?” Why indeed. But the rate of destruction in its new forms is as dizzying as when our forests were being ruined forever in millions of acres at a whack, regulations and good will are always several laps behind, and at the best—meaning if enough people read The Quiet Crisis—it would be a fearful race for time.
It would also involve a huge effort of organization, of a kind that has been lacking except as aimed at one specific abuse at a time. “Too few organizations have entered the fight for the total environment,” Udall remarks, and he quotes E. M. Forster addressing the English: “It needs men of good will who can continue and work together lest destruction spread and cover the fields and the hills with its senseless squalor. Now is the moment. Soon it will be too late.” That is a big challenge. To rise to it entails money, speeches, TV time, political pressure, movies on the order of the photographs in this book to be made by the best directors we have, and above all intelligent programs in schools. It can’t be disgust that is insufficient to bring this about; it must be something else.
Meanwhile there is always the specific, sickening abuse, such as the present proposal to build over another piece of Olmsted’s great work, Central Park—for so-called public housing this time of course, since the fashion in plunder is to pretend to be doing it for “the people.” And while they’re at it they might as well bulldoze the Yosemite too; there would be nothing surprising about it. The scheme for the park was made public after this book came out, but if it succeeds will be another of what the author calls “the shallow triumphs of penny-pinching officials.” Social conscience or not, in corrupt old Paris an official would stand a good chance of being lynched for trying to chop up the Luxembourg Gardens or build on the Park Monceau.
“Central Park,” Udall writes, “was a dreary stretch of rock and mud when Olmsted took charge. Working with nature, he tried to visualize and anticipate the growth patterns of a great metropolis. All effects in the park—trees, mounds, ponds, paths, meadows, groves—were carefully composed with an eye to creating life-promoting surroundings. Shrubbery screened out the works of man, and Central Park became an oasis where urban man could refresh his mind and soul.
“Olmsted doggedly fought off the politicians and the well-meaning promoters who wanted to install on the grounds a stadium, a theater, a fullrigged ship, a street railway, a race track, a church, a permanent circus, a cathedral, and a tomb for Ulysses S. Grant. In each victory he affirmed the primacy of park purposes and strengthened the idea that some parkland had to remain inviolate.” But as to Olmsted’s further plans for the city—“Open space and elbow room cost money even then, and in a period of hectic growth the vision of a Frederick Law Olmsted was too advanced for the apostles of ‘progress.’ The result was predictable. Like most of our large cities, New York fought a losing battle against congestion and blight, and Central Park today is a solitary symbol of what might have been.”