"Flight Maps"

Feathered hats, plastic flamingos: Five essays examine Americans' uneasy relation to nature.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

An intriguingly quirky blend of academic discourse and personal, common-sense reasoning, "Flight Maps" has moments of brilliance and an agreeable humility that is lacking from most writing about culture and nature. But the manuscript began life as Jennifer Price's Ph.D. dissertation in history at Yale, and its roots are showing. On the one hand, Price professes to follow a single question through the five disparate essays that make up the volume: "What does nature mean to me?" On the other, she feels duty-bound to thread all her excellent scholarship and all her wry observation of contemporary American life into one central thesis. Like many other contemporary scholars of environmentalism, Price argues that the American notion of nature as a pure and separate Last Best Place only serves to conceal the complex web of connections that binds together the realms we call wilderness and civilization.

"Flight Maps" begins with historical studies of the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the campaign against the use of birds and their plumage on women's hats, two turn-of-the-century events that altered American thinking about nature permanently and gave birth to the conservation movement. Price argues convincingly that the pigeon's demise resulted not from individual cruelty or rapacity but from the demands of an exploding consumption-based economy, and that the bird-hat crusade was really an intragender debate over the social role of women. But the details of her research are of limited interest to non-historians, and she has a distressing tendency to sweep away vast and complicated areas of discussion with simplistic, open-ended formulations: "What makes women women and men men?  Think of Teddy Roosevelt's 'strenuous life,' Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and men's hunting clubs  And think of ecofeminism, Bly's Iron John, the Marlboro Man and 'Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman' -- all very popular and powerful stories about women, men and nature."

Not even Price's stylistic tics, which sometimes create the impression that she's not sure whether her readers are graduate students or sixth-graders, can ruin her book's marvelous centerpiece, "A Brief Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo." Among other things, this is a treatise on the evolution of taste since the 18th century and on the connection between the aristocratic English garden, with its pretentious evocation of nature, and the tiny front lawns of trailer parks, littered with cement gnomes and fluorescent simulacra of wildlife. It's also a graceful exploration of the multiple associations and meanings that have attached themselves to the pink flamingo since it first appeared in the 1957 Sears, Roebuck catalog at $2.76 a pair. Initially viewed by bourgeois society as the epitome of mass-culture kitsch, the ersatz bird emerged as a symbol of camp-bohemian rebellion a mere 15 years later in John Waters' legendary film "Pink Flamingos." That meaning was just as rapidly subverted in turn, and the flamingo morphed into a stylistic signifier of '80s and '90s yuppie culture, "like blue jeans in boardrooms and Jeeps in Upper West Side garages," as Price writes.

She concludes with an overly obvious critique of the rise of the Nature Company and similar mall-based "nature stores" and a breezily enjoyable, refreshingly honest discussion of the uses of natural imagery in TV dramas, commercials and nature documentaries. Neither of these pieces, however, is up to the standard of the flamingo essay, and like "Flight Maps" as a whole, both are plagued by Price's irritating pattern of introducing issues with strings of rhetorical questions -- "Why watch TV to look for the meanings of nature?" "Can a Volvo, even an All-Wheel-Drive, save my soul?" (At one point in the flamingo chapter she asks five questions in a row.) With her breadth of scholarship and her open-minded curiosity about the world, Jennifer Price is well positioned to write an outstanding book about Americans and nature. But for all its undeniable appeal, this messy, scattershot collection isn't it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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