On the road to nowhere
Americans see themselves as a society literally on the move. David Watson looks at how this
nomadic urge was born and explores its impact on both the land and the people.
‘After all this long journey... here it was all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined.’
Looking to change my life, at the age of 19 I decided to pack my belongings into a knapsack and hitch-hike to California. Two miraculous rides carried me through prairies, deserts and mountains into Los Angeles to a friend’s place at the edge of Hollywood. In those days California was considered the ultimate destination for every dream of freedom and opportunity, spiritual and economic.
In one sense, I was following an east-to-west pattern. It is said that 60 per cent of US citizens arrived through the immigration centre at Ellis Island in New York Harbour, or are descended from relatives who came via the same route. We Americans are thought to be rootless escapees from every other continent – nomadic, free spirits who get ourselves going when the going gets tough – pulling up stakes and moving on to the next ridge or mountain top, the next adventure. The country is billed as a ‘Promised Land’, a nation of immigrants who made good.
Movement and migration, always a large part of the human experience, have taken on a dramatically different character since early modern times. The rapid pace, enormous dimensions and universal permanence of movement have become characteristic of what is now a global urban-industrial civilization. The European invasion of America essentially financed the emergence of capitalism. In the process, old cultures were entirely uprooted, indigenous peoples slaughtered and displaced and whole regions pillaged.
It was the un-settling of Europe, social critic Lewis Mumford once remarked, that brought about the settlement of America. Those who came here were themselves uprooted, detribalized people. Settlement was itself vastly unsettling, what writer Frederick Turner called ‘a spiritual story...of a civilization that had substituted history for myth as a way of understanding life’.
Turner recalls finding himself in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sacred Paha Sapa of the Lakota Sioux. In a sudden flash he recognized how utterly estranged he was from the place, how it could never have the same deep meaning for him as for the Lakota – not because of the amount of time they have been there but for the way they have lived there.
According to Turner, the West’s turn from cyclic myth to an obsession with linear time (and hence with geographic expansion to fulfil its history) underlies the frenzied outward movement of Western society in general and American civilization in particular. The archaic myth of traditional peoples, which we might visualize as a circle, was transformed into a new mystique of history: a single line, an ever-receding horizon. This turn toward history banished the sacred from nature, making the Europeans ‘alienated sojourners’ whose only outlet was ‘the restless drive onward’. Such spiritual repression inevitably brought colossal levels of violence towards the world they encountered. The westward wanderers’ testimonies of ‘lavish and exhaustless’ abundance, says Turner, were also narratives ‘of waste, destruction, and frantic despoliation’.
Ambivalence toward the land set the tragic conditions of the American experience. The sentimental idea of paradise – a lush, abundant garden – had its corollary in the image of an immense threatening wilderness. Incapable of loving the land for what it was, the invaders had to ‘improve’ it, pulverizing and reconstituting everything in their path. That acute observer of early American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, likened their advance to a march: ‘turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes and subduing nature’.
De Tocqueville noted the tendency of early nineteenth century Americans to abandon a homestead before even finishing the roof. The settler typically was sustained by the idea that the frontier – a middle ground between corrupt civilization and chaotic wilderness – would bring redemption. Of course, the utopian urge for movement and change also reflected a profound desire for a stable home and roots. Furthermore, connected as they were to the American commitment to markets, these desires were paradoxical. The market system, based as it is on abstract economic exchange, is inherently destabilizing and must ultimately undermine any roots that have been set down. Thus each frontier was eventually exhausted and abandoned by the same forces which caused it to be settled in the first place.
Official history says the devastation of the original lands and peoples was a necessary evil to bring about a vital civilization. So deeply ingrained is this mystique that a 1992 exhibit on the quincentennial of Columbus at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute was severely censured – simply for referring to the genocide brought by the conquest. The pioneer ideology, a New World version of holocaust denial, is still very much alive. Every US child grows up with it. Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and early TV shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke provided my generation’s archetypal heroes: larger-than-life men bringing light to the darkness. We grew up on them, immersed ourselves in the blue light of their ideological shadow play.
Daniel Boone was the prototypical US folk hero. His characteristic misanthropy and urge to escape to the frontier became a familiar theme in American popular culture, from Huck Finn’s meander down the Mississippi to Beat novelist Jack Kerouac’s pilgrimage west in On the Road. Boone’s statement that he left ‘domestic happiness... to wander through the wilderness of America in quest of the country of Kentucke’ reveals the pre-eminently masculine aspect of the American nomadic mystique. In this story, men abandon ‘domestic happiness’ for the ‘Great Adventure’. Throughout the Boone tale, a sexually-charged ambivalence toward the land is visible – his yearning for the ‘virgin wilderness’ and his fear and loathing toward the actual place and the people already living there.
In Facing West: The Metaphysics of Empire-Building and Indian-Hating, historian Richard Drinnon reveals Boone as a land speculator who ‘went in for body counts’ of enemy dead. ‘We burnt them all to ashes,’ writes Boone in a typical account – linking him both to earlier and future wars against America’s indigenous people. ‘We entirely destroyed their corn and other fruits and everywhere spread a scene of desolation.’ Indeed, desolation is the public secret underlying the Euro-American pursuit of happiness.
If Boone and his ilk were the tools of real-estate promoters, no less was that hero of heroes, the cowboy. This profession drew little attention until the cowboy was concocted as an heroic figure by Buffalo Bill Cody for his Wild West Show at the end of the last century. By the time Cody had finished, the cowboy was synonymous with America. Even the first celebrity cowboy, Cody’s protégé Buck Taylor, had become an actor. Since then actors from John Wayne to Ronald Reagan have come to supplant reality. The myth firmly established, the Wild West has become a gargantuan, lucrative theme for the culture industry.
Cowboy-inspired clothing is ubiquitous; upscale customers can even buy blue jeans said to have once been worn by ‘authentic’ cowboys. The paraphernalia and symbols are employed not only to sell products like tobacco, alcohol and automobiles, but to market the macho, individualistic and superficially-independent mode of life that, as we are frequently reminded, makes the country great. There is now even a ‘cowboy’ channel on national cable television for the devoted. Quips country singer Bobby Bare: ‘Today, being a cowboy is more an attitude than an occupation.’
In those days the cowboy industry was just another get-rich-quick scheme for the same settlers who first annihilated tens of millions of buffalo to starve out the natives before introducing livestock grazing. ‘Forage fever’ was like gold fever or oil fever, with predictable results: grazing rivals, or surpasses, any other single factor in the ecological destruction of the American West. As Lynn Jacobs writes in The Waste of the West, our real national totem should be the cow, not the eagle. One half of all US land outside Alaska is grazed by livestock, mostly cattle, with another 15 per cent used as cropland to feed livestock. Half the water and 40 per cent of all plant food production goes to livestock. The country is a veritable cow factory. In the process grasslands, brushlands, forests and deserts have been despoiled. According to US Department of Agriculture estimates, Western rangelands are only about half as botanically productive as they were before the livestock invasion of the 1880s. But cattlemen have had more than an environmental effect.
After massacring the natives, they consolidated huge land holdings through theft and coercion. Since then, despite their small numbers, they have dominated state and federal governments, fostering a ‘frontier justice’ based on intimidation and violence. In the recent Texas election for Governor, Democratic and Republican candidates ran on who would execute more criminals the most swiftly. The Republican, a son of George Bush, claimed the higher number and won. Cowboy justice seems more popular than ever in the US today.
The range war is in fact an apt replica of aggressive capitalism, its fundamental war-of-all-against-all. The shoot-out and the hostile corporate buy-out are linked spiritually, certainly symbolically, frequently right down to the western clothing worn by both sets of protagonists. Of course, the cattle barons are now often multinationals or giant eastern insurance companies. Despite the myth’s images of neighborliness, community in the American west is mostly an aggregate, dominated by the powerful: atomized individuals, ‘alienated sojourners’ relentlessly whipping and stripping the countryside to scrape off a profit. After being pushed onto reservations and seeing the land suffer under the onslaught of white invaders the Navajos believed their region to be literally bewitched. Anyone who has seen the hysteria on the floor of the commodities exchange, or its result on the landscape, might agree.
The romance of the horizon is a mirage concealing the boom-bust and subsequent dust-bowls of the market. Restless and unsentimental, capital must constantly abandon yesterday’s faded paradise to conquer the next or face collapse. The frontier is always somewhere else. In the beginning, the Indians were driven out with the justification that because they were nomadic, they could lay no claim to the land they occupied. But what came after was fragmentation, not stability, and a contempt for the land still visible in ugly Alaska frontier towns, the denuded industrial landscapes of the Rust Belt and rural lands everywhere obliterated for ‘development’.
Looking honestly at the movements of indigenous peoples, we would mostly see a peregrination based on a profound awareness of and ability to live with the land, not against it. Traditional nomads move in a kind of sacred circle, or perhaps an ellipse; in their stories and migrations they return to the source and centre of the world.
In contrast, today’s restless ‘nomad’ moves along a line, following a receding horizon, wrecking and abandoning along the way, never at home, always scheming the next move across shifting, breaking ice. Or maybe the movement is a circle, but it now goes from nowhere to nowhere, around and around like the subway line or the circulation of money. One thinks of De Tocqueville’s prescient comment that in America life was ‘always changing, but it is monotonous, because all these changes are alike’.
It may be the singular genius of the country of my birth to turn every unique setting into the same monotonous place. The grid plan of early American towns was designed to facilitate land transactions. Now the grid is inescapable and everywhere one encounters the same sterile housing development, strip mall, ‘industrial park’ or cleared hillside.
Early in our history the romance of the landscape shifted to the machine. The railroad and telegraph were destined to ‘annihilate space and time’, according to common parlance. As the physical setting was indeed annihilated, wild nature lost its power to dominate the imagination (except increasingly as the site for automobile advertising) and only the machine remains. Today’s post-modern nomad channel surfs or wanders in cyberspace, no longer worrying about the world outside or even believing it exists. Consumerism delivers paradise; the miracles of abundance no longer come from loamy earth but from genetic engineering, space flight and the media.
Yet the frontier idea still elicits loyalty, especially in the high-tech, mid-sized towns and rural areas of the west and the Sun Belt, where nationalistic, conservative, fundamentalist Christian forces are strongest. There the old myths have found new vigor in a weird but potent mix of frontier and ‘new age’ values. Where the middle class is no longer fascinated by the pioneer spirit, it chases Indian shadows in ‘new age’ healing rituals fashioned from the purloined fragments of native religion. During the Gulf War millions of Americans thronged to the film Dances With Wolves, a white man’s romance about living among the Lakota, while the contemporary cavalry incinerated more recently demonized ‘savages’ in Iraq. But the essential question ‘who are we?’ remains unanswered. We’re too busy moving on.
Like many Americans my family has now been scattered to the winds. So it should be no surprise that I began this article on an airplane headed to Hawaii to visit my mother. She moved there 25 years ago to work and then stayed. Over the last quarter of a century Hawaii has provided a stunning lesson in the effects of our special nomadism. A small, exquisitely beautiful place stolen from its original inhabitants, it continues to undergo changes both rapid and horrendous. ‘Development’ is turning it into part Southern California and part Detroit. As I drove from the airport this time, I noticed a huge new K-Mart encroaching on a bird sanctuary. By the edge of the parking lot stood a beautiful white egret poking through debris for food, looking like a homeless person at a trash bin.
They were ‘careless people,’ Fitzgerald’s protagonist Nick Carraway concludes in The Great Gatsby: ‘They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ I know the defiled wilderness has also become a common cultural motif. In certain post-modern circles, being ‘on the road to nowhere’, as the Talking Heads song goes, is even counted as a blessing, however precarious. But our wandering comes at a great price – to egrets and to people. Throughout it all, we remain foreigners – in America and elsewhere.
It’s true we can’t go back to sacred circles long lost. We’re already torn from our roots. But space and time have not yet been altogether annihilated: it still may be possible to find out where we’ve been, where we really are, to recognize the integrity of the place and what it has lived. It’s time to start cleaning up our mess, to ‘grasp rock and soil’, as Lakota writer Luther Standing Bear put it. It’s time to come home.
David Watson is a writer and teacher who lives in Detroit.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995