MyAmericanFuture

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MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, July 28, 2016

July 28, 2016: American Camping: Appalachian Trailblazers



[This week, I’ll be camping with family up in Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park. So I wanted to AmericanStudy come contexts for this longstanding form of national recreation and escape. Share your camping contexts in comments, please!]
Three men who helped blaze the nation’s (and one of the world’s) premiere hiking trail.
1)      Benton MacKaye: It stands to reason that the idea for the Appalachian Trail was first developed, in the 1921 article “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” by a Forestry professor and civil servant. But what is perhaps more surprising, and very important, is MacKaye’s lifelong emphasis on such wilderness exploration as an integral part of human society, rather than in any sense separate from it; he called this connection of nature to society both “Regional Planning” and “Geotechnics,” and dedicated his career to arguing for and enacting it. As other posts this week have illustrated, many of our narratives of camping and the wilderness define them as distinctly outside from (and contrasted with) our more “settled” social spaces and communities—but that’s not the narrative or understanding with which the Appalachian Trail began, and remembering MacKaye’s vision is a vital part of celebrating the Trail.
2)      Myron Avery: The building of the Trail required not only a visionary creator from within the forestry world, but also dedicated laymen advocates and leaders from outside it, and it found two such champions in retired Judge Arthur Perkins and his lawyer protégé Myron Avery. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Perkins and Avery worked to make MacKaye’s vision a reality; Perkins passed away in 1932, but Avery continued the work, serving as chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference from 1931 until his own death in 1952 (the wonderful 75th anniversary article at that hyperlink includes a great deal of info on all of the subjects of today’s post). MacKaye and Avery did have their conflicts, most especially over the relationship between outside influences (both governmental and business) and the trail; as you might expect, the lawyer Avery was more open to such connections than the forester MacKaye. Yet the simple truth is that the creation, development, and maintenance of the Trail depended on both men and perspectives, and still does as we near the Trail’s 100th anniversary.
3)      Earl Shaffer: Yet for the Trail to grow and prosper and endure, it needed more than creators and leaders—it also, and most crucially, needed hikers. No AT hiker was more famous or influential than Earl Shaffer, the outdoorsman and World War II veteran whose 1948 through-hike was the first documented journey of the whole Trail (and earned him the nickname The Crazy One). Shaffer’s associated with the Trail continued for the rest of his life, most especially in his 1998 anniversary through-hike (at the age of 79!), which provided the material for his book The Appalachian Trail: Calling Me Back to the Hills. While of course Shaffer was singular in many ways, I would argue that he was also and most saliently deeply representative—not only of those intrepid souls who have completed the whole of the Appalachian Trail, but of all for whom it has become a meaningful journey and space. Shaffer once said that he completed the 1948 hike in order to “walk the war out of my system,” and who among us doesn’t have such life experiences and motivations for a walk in the woods?  
Last camping context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other camping contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

July 27, 2016: American Camping: Into the Wilds



[This week, I’ll be camping with family up in Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park. So I wanted to AmericanStudy come contexts for this longstanding form of national recreation and escape. Share your camping contexts in comments, please!]
On the distinct but equally American cultural traditions for two recent wilderness stories.
From their titles on, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996; later made into the 2007 film starring Emile Hirsch) and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012; made into the 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon) seem to have a great deal in common. Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Krakauer’s book, was 24 years old when he hiked alone deep into the wilds of Alaska’s Stampede Trail; Strayed, the protagonist of her own memoir, was 27 years old when she hiked the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail solo. Both young people were responding to tragedies and traumas in their lives and families and seeking something different, something more and more meaningful, in those wilderness escapes. Yet their stories could not have ended more differently: McCandless died on his trek, his body found months later by hunters, requiring his mysterious story to be re-imagined and told by Krakauer; Strayed not only survived her journey but turned the experience into a bestselling autobiographical book that has helped launch her evolving and very successful literary career.
There are lots of specific details and contexts for each of these individuals and stories that help explain their divergent outcomes, as of course do the vagaries of luck and fate in each case. Yet at the same time, each story can be linked to broader, longstanding American narratives, national images that can help us understand why these stories have resonated so deeply with audiences on both page and screen. Strayed’s story exemplifies two famous American quotes about which I have written previously in this space: Henry David Thoreau’s lines from Chapter 2 of Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”; and John Muir’s belief that “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Like those two iconic figures, as well as many others both real (such as John Woolman) and fictional (such as Rip Van Winkle), Strayed turned to the wildnerness both to escape unattractive aspects of her life and society and to find compelling alternative perspectives and ways of living, ones that she could then bring back with her upon her inevitable return to society.
Yet as McCandless’ story reminds us, such returns are not at all inevitable, as the wilderness is not just and not mostly a place for our own self-discovery; it is also its own distinct world, one with realities and dangers that we ignore or minimize at our own peril. Innumerable American cultural texts have focused on stories of those dangers and their destructive and often fatal effects, from classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1902) to recent works such as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men against the Sea (1997) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (2006). While a cynical case could be made that we return to such stories again and again in the same way that we rubber-neck at accidents on the highway, I would argue that we also and most importantly find in such stories reminders of both our own limitations and of powers and forces outside of and beyond our own identities. While those realities can be too much for any individual to experience first-hand—and I’m not suggesting for a moment that McCandless’ death was anything other than a tragedy, for it certainly was—the stories of them have an important cultural role to play, one complementary to and as valuable as the lessons taken from wilderness survival stories like Strayed’s.
Next camping context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other camping contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

July 26, 2016: American Camping: The Gunnery Camp



[This week, I’ll be camping with family up in Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park. So I wanted to AmericanStudy come contexts for this longstanding form of national recreation and escape. Share your camping contexts in comments, please!]
Two vital lessons we can learn from the father of American camping.
I couldn’t possibly do a better job telling the amazing American story of Frederick Gunn, the educational reformer, abolitionist, and activist considered “the father of recreational camping,” than does this wonderful ConnecticutHistory.org piece by scholar and Gunnery School historian Paula Gibson Krimsky. Along with urging you to read that piece before you continue with my post, I’ll also note that (at least of the mid-June moment in which I’m writing this post), CT Humanities, the vital organization that runs ConnecticutHistory.org among many other resources and projects, is in serious danger of disappearing, having had its funding cut entirely from the state budget by Governor Malloy. After you read that piece and before you return here, I’d ask you to support CT Humanities in any and every way you can—I know Frederick Gunn would agree that such public and communal humanities organizations represent an essential part of education, civic life, and American society.
Welcome back! Clearly Gunn’s life and work have a great deal to teach us, on many topics; but here I want to emphasize a couple lessons related specifically to his emphasis on the great outdoors and on recreational camping (as Krimsky’s piece notes, Gunn’s 1861 two-week camping trip with a group of students is considered by the American Camping Association to be their historical origin point). For one thing, Gunn would most certainly argue with my use of the term “escape” in the bracketed intro section for this week’s series; to him, the Gunnery camping trips, like all explorations of the natural world, were a vital part of the education he and his school offered, a necessary complement to the students’ classroom work. The first 1861 trip drove home that point with particular clarity, as the campers spent time practicing military drills in preparation for Union Army service during the Civil War; not sure any camping activity could be more overtly distinct from the concept of “escape” than that. But Gunn and the school continued the trips long after the war’s end, and so they became a more overarching and philosophical component of his educational and service work—and thus remain a powerful argument for what camping can add to our identities and communities.
To this day, however, as I’ll analyze at length in the week’s final post, camping is associated with some ethnic and racial communities in America much more than others. And on that note as well Gunn and his school and camp have a great deal to contribute to our collective conversations. Gunn’s abolitionism and his educational reform efforts were very much of a piece, as he saw his school as helping prepare students and citizens for a future society that would be transformed by such activism and would require new skills and perspectives as a result. Although Gunn did not, as far as I can tell, have African American students in his school and camp during his lifetime, I hope and believe that was due to circumstance rather than prejudice—a hope given credence by Gunn’s early 1870s admission of four Chinese students who were part of Yung Wing’s Chinese Educational Mission in nearby Hartford. In any case, Gunn seems very likely to have seen camping in precisely the same progressive and egalitarian light as he did education and society—and that’s a light that we could still do a far better job shining consistently on the possibility and power of recreational camping.
Next camping context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other camping contexts you’d highlight?