Friday, October 06, 2006

The machine in the garden

With last Sunday's Musing on Thoreau, I recommended D. B. Johnson's illustrated children's book Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. Johnson takes as his theme a line from Walden in which Thoreau contrasts his own day-long walk to Fitchburg with the journey of a neighbor who works all day to earn the train fare. They arrive in Fitchburg at the same time. The message is that Henry (the bear without a last name) has used his time more wisely.

This morning I read reader reviews on Amazon. Adults loved the book -- as I did. The only review by a child -- a seven-year-old -- said, "I would have rather been Henry's friend because the work seemed like it might be fun, and I would ride a train for anything." The four-year-old child of another reviewer had pretty much the same reaction.

Take Amazon reviews with a heaping tablespoon of salt. Many writers impose upon their friends to write gushing praise, to up their number of stars. (So far, thankfully, I am not aware that any writer friend of mine engages in this practice.) But since the children's comments here are negative we might reasonably assume authenticity, and concede that kids are as interested in trains (even at the expense of a day's work) as in berry picking. Maybe more so.

Four decades ago, Leo Marx told us (as if we didn't know) that industrialization and the pastoral ideal are equally parts of the American character. I would suggest that they are equally parts of the human character, and that kids anywhere on the planet would be as thrilled to ride a train (or an airplane, or a skateboard, etc.) as to pick posies in a meadow with Henry -- which is pretty much the point I was making in my Musing (and in The Path).

Environmentalists tend to oppose the natural and artificial, at the latter's expense, as if a 747 weren't as much a part of planetary evolution as is a monarch butterfly. Our task as environmentalists is not to expunge the artificial, but to create an artificial environment that nourishes the human spirit while honoring the integrity of non-human nature -- a devilishly difficult task that will require the best angelic efforts of both sauntering Henry and his hardworking, train-riding neighbor.