Claiming our historic place
BY RUSSELL POWELL
THE RIVER IS A THEME Of this inaugural issue of New England Watershed. To some extent it will remain so. Nearly every one of us who lives near it looks at the Connecticut every day. Its color and line, light and movement contrast with terra firma, expanding our sense of possibility. Blue, versus brown or green. Linear and contained, rather than sprawling and uneven. Elements of the sky reflected beneath our feet, suggesting a world beyond our vision: overhead, upriver or downstream. The river connects St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to Saybrook, Connecticut, even as it divides Hartford and Springfield.
Yet we often take the natural world for granted, and we risk a great deal when we do. We ignore a basic, humbling truism: despite our considerable accomplishments and technology, we remain human, animal; dependent on clean water and oxygen, on our next meal, on a solid surface to put one foot before the other. As poet Cynthia Huntington writes on page 44, “Air, sun, water are everything.” To forget this is to forget ourselves.
When we forget who we are, we become vulnerable to the impressions of others. Our hunger can be turned against us, manipulated to represent objects or causes that may have nothing to do with us. If we fail to appreciate our landscape, we undermine the very things which keep the body functioning and the spirit alive. The powdery soil, the roiling current, the distant mountain, locate us in time and place. We are New England, with its peculiar climate and life forms—and a particular culture.
We are a people of snow shovels and swimsuits, icicles and mist. We ride buses and bicycles past 17th-century farms and 21st-century strip malls, over town commons and city streets. Our glacial rocks and ice have been smoothed into brick, steel and pavement. Our human faces, like the day’s advancing sun, have changed over time from red to white to a rich, dusky mix of ivory, browns and yellows. Society, writes Ilan Stavans elsewhere on these pages, is now in Technicolor. The constant is our landscape and its paradoxical spine: the river, always, but never, the same; its familiar, calming surface belying its ever-changing depths.
I recently read a quote attributed to writer Bill Bryson that the average American walks 1.4 miles per week, or 350 yards a day. This is a remarkable statistic. I wonder, who made this calculation? Who undertook a study of how much we move, and what methods did they use? Determining the veracity of our “news” has become a central challenge of our times. We have more sources for news than ever, but much of it feels unknowable. Who are the human faces behind our communications technology, Web page or video feed? How accurate is their information, and what are their motives?
To me, the idea that the average American walks just 350 yards a day borders on incredible. The daily trips from bed to bathroom, kitchen to living room, surely add up. Step outside to your car or to catch a bus, climb some stairs, go for groceries, the pharmacy, video store … how can even these modest efforts not amount to more than 350 yards?
Based on my experience, this statistic does not represent New England. But it does get me thinking about this problem of how we trust our news. The more we limit our physical interaction with the world, the more vulnerable we are to being misinformed or manipulated. The less we know firsthand about others, the less we know about ourselves. If is true that the average American walks just 350 yards a day, it helps explain how rumors can destroy political careers, science can be subverted, images combined in ways that distort or confuse rather than clarify.
Landscape is, of course, just one aspect of our experience. As curious, thinking people, we are equally dependent on a free exchange of ideas. Yet New England, the site of great acts of bravery and conscience which fueled the revolution that gave us independence, finds itself strangely marginalized in the current debates about our future. New England, home to the Puritans with their astounding faith and radicalism, has had religious and spiritual language wrested by those who use it for personal ends. New England, source of some of the most inspired rhetoric of our fledgling democracy has seen words like “liberal” become, not an expansive vision for humankind, but a discredited, political anachronism.”Hope” and “freedom” have been appropriated to disguise failed policies. “Intellectual” has become a virtual epithet. In the name of Dickinson and Emerson, DuBois and Kennedy, how did this happen?
We cannot idly allow others to narrow our public discourse, or accept others’ cynical view of the world and our place in it. It is as perilous for the nation to devalue our tradition of thoughtfulness as it is for us to ignore our landscape.
New England Watershed will embrace without apology our rich intellectual and cultural heritage, and explore without flinching the dynamic and complex physical and moral landscape in which we move and which informs our contemporary world. On such a basis-the importance of landscape and the power of ideas-New England Watershed makes its debut. I am as excited as anyone to see the results.
Russell Powell is editor and publisher of New England Watershed.