Commonweal or Common Woe

The Quiet Crisis

by Stewart L. Udall
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 209 pp., $5.00

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…

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