Friday, November 11, 2011

A few more words about art and nature

I first drove Connecticut's Merritt Parkway in the mid-1960s. It was a revelation. A concrete ribbon through gracious woodlands, naturally screened from less felicitous environs. And the bridges! Dozens of bridges, each one different, each one designed and decorated with an eye for beauty. It was like driving through a museum.

The Merritt was one of the first limited-access divided highways in the United States. It was built during the years 1938-1940, a time of economic hardship. It provided employment, infrastructure, and esthetics. The bridges were designed by architect George L. Dunkelberger in various styles, including Art Deco, Gothic and Rustic. Some of the bridges were built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) I mentioned yesterday.

The Merritt Parkway has been rendered obsolete by speed. Even in the 1960s it was dangerous; we were too anxious to get from A to B to take the time for art or nature. The bridges went by in a blur. I was in a hurry too. We are all in a hurry, although I can't imagine why. We need our superhighways so we can hurry to our strip malls. Speed and ugliness.

In the autumn of 1728, Samuel Johnson, 19 years old, rode with his father from his birthplace at Lichfield in the English Midlands to the university town of Oxford. His biographer, John Wain, describes the countryside that young Sam passed through: "It was a place in which ugliness was very rare; indeed, with the important exception of the ugliness that disease and disfigurement produce in human beings and animals, ugliness was unknown."

Wain continues: "In [Johnson's] day there was probably no such thing as an ugly house, table, stool or chair in the whole kingdom." This was about to change. By the end of the century the Industrial Revolution was in full bloom. "Industrialism, by moving people away from the natural rhythms of hand and eye, and also from the materials which occur naturally in their region and to which they are attuned by habit and tradition, cannot help fostering ugliness at the same time as it fosters cheapness and convenience," writes Wain.

It's all of a piece, of course. Speed, industrialization, ugliness, yes, but also longevity, good health, clean water, and universal education. Can we have the latter and nature and beauty too? Last year, the Merritt Parkway was named one of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.