In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part IV)

From the storm systems of Florida to those of Washington, D. C.
On Feelings About Nature in America

For a European, one of the most enigmatic characteristics of the American ethos is its relationship with nature.

There's the wildness of nature here, first of all. The closeness of this wild nature that we tend to think has been domesticated by technology—when in fact it's just been pushed back a little, moved farther away. Here, for instance, in the Everglades, in this national park scarcely thirty miles from Miami, it's been contained within an immense reservation right at the edge of populated areas. In Europe, I believe, they would have exterminated the wildlife that continues here to paddle around in the swamp's deep waters. I am convinced that these boa constrictors, these lizards, these cottonmouths with their deadly poison, these powerful blue herons that feed on baby alligators—and the alligators themselves, presented to us as the "guardians of the Everglades" and carefully observed by the old nature buffs in the county—would doubtless have been victims of the great prophylactic cleanup demanded by European civilization, whose dream ever since Descartes has been to turn us into masters and possessors of nature. Not here. Here there is no real mastery. No possession. The Floridians don't tame nature; they push it back. Instead of subjugating it, they drive it away. Florida is so vast, and space is of such lesser importance than it is in Europe, that there's room for both city and nature. And the same goes for California, where, my friend Charlie Lyons tells me, some nights he hears coyotes howling in the hills behind his house.

There is the violence of nature. There is the extreme brutality, also unimaginable in Europe, not just of certain animals but of the elements, especially hurricanes and tornadoes. I heard them talked about at every stage of my journey, and I ended up realizing that they are more numerous and, in a sense, more devastating in the United States than anywhere else among so-called developed countries. "Florida under attack!" a disheveled, livid journalist shouted on CNN the other day, live from some coastal town buffeted by a storm in this paradise for retirees. Attack by what? I wondered. Who was attacking? Which Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein emulator? But it was just Jeanne. It was the nascent Hurricane Jeanne, coming from the Bahamas, fast approaching the southeastern American coast. It would be easy in this case to wax ironic. One could detect in this journalist's anxiety an additional manifestation of the American taste for grand spectacles and exaggeration. But you might snigger a little less if you tried to imagine behind Jeanne—and also, in recent months, behind the familiar names Alex, Frances, Ivan, Charley, Karl, and Lisa; or, last year, Kate, Larry, Isabel, Erika, Ana, and Claudette—the torrential floods, the walls of furious water beating down on the beaches, the houses with their roofs blown off, the rain of frogs and lizards, the trees uprooted; in short, the landscapes of desolation that we have no actual concept of in France and that three weeks ago in Punta Gorda, for instance, resulted in sixteen dead … People in the United States don't need to imagine; they know. (And this knowledge feeds their extreme sensitivity to this kind of cataclysm when it takes the form of a tsunami and devastates a destitute country.)

Finally, the most striking aspect for a European when faced with this implacable recurrence of natural catastrophes, some of which (Hurricane Andrew; the Mississippi flood of 1927) have gone down in history and have shaped the construction of the American landscape—the most incomprehensible thing—is the relatively passive roles of politicians and citizens. Oh, I'm well aware of how television carries on about the weather. I know that Florida has the most effective meteorological-forecasting stations in the world. And in New Orleans I saw the ingenuity deployed to avoid a repetition of the 1927 scenario. But let me tell you about Homestead. I'll take the example of this town on the road to the Everglades, in a landscape of fake trees painted yellow, orange, blue, and red as if to liven things up, this town devastated a dozen years ago by Hurricane Andrew, and also hit by many of the ensuing hurricanes. What takes you by surprise in Homestead is the vulnerability of the houses. What bewilders and stuns you is that everything has been rebuilt just as it was before, with the same prefab kits and the same kinds of trailers, which look as if they've been set down ready-made, patched together, a little rickety. You wonder what will keep them from flying apart in the same way when the next Andrew, Mitch, or Allison comes along. America has the means to protect Homestead. The America that hasn't ceased to dream of the Star Wars missile-defense shield has the most effective warning and prevention systems in the world. But, strangely enough, it doesn't use even a tenth of its capacity to keep the inhabitants of Homestead out of danger by strengthening building and insurance codes. Just as I've never seen a European airport as profoundly paralyzed as the major American airports can be by a snowstorm, for instance, so I can't imagine the principle of precaution so poorly applied in my country as it is here in Homestead. Why is it so neglected?

There's the culture of risk, stronger than the culture of security and the inclination to self-protection.

There are the remains of a pioneering spirit that for decades, or rather for centuries, has accommodated itself to a sense of temporary habitat, perched as it were on the side of the road, pressing forward with the frontier, and by definition precarious.

But there is also, anchored deep in the mentality of the country, a magical, semi-superstitious relationship to what Americans, even the secular ones, are prone to call Mother Nature. As if their omnipotence found its limits there, reached its rational confines there. As if the Promethean will to get the better of all things and all people imposed on itself a limit of principle and wisdom in this relationship to the elements. No pity for our enemies, the American of the twenty-first century seems to be saying; no mercy for terrorists, certainly, or even for opponents of the country's economic supremacy. But we'll let nature take her best shot.

My Own Phantom in Savannah

All right—I've changed my mind. If I had to take up residence in one city in this country—if I had to choose one town, and only one, to live in—it might not be Seattle after all but Savannah. Savannah's charm. Its striking, Old South beauty. The pastel houses—water-gray, pale mauve, sea-blue, sepia. The mixture of Italianate and Greek Revival architecture, Victorian and Doric, Second Empire and Regency, witnesses to bygone eras when rich shipowners from London, settling in Savannah, vied with one another for style and splendor. The foam-colored stucco imitating cut stone. The rare marble, the columns that lend the town an air of triumphant grace. The wide avenues lined with moss-covered trees—giant magnolias, sycamores, myrtles—where, more than in Atlanta, you really expect to see the ghosts of Gone With the Wind appearing any instant. The squares—there are twenty-one of them—with huge oak trees, around which the town was built. The deliberate, thought-out quality of the city. (Didn't its founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, mean to create a model city, a utopia, cleansed of the sins of crime, alcohol, prostitution, and—even more unusual for the South—slavery?) At the same time, there is the absence of that hysterical, leveling modernism that swallows up the past and all shades of difference, which almost always goes along with programmed urban growth in America. Here is a city as methodically marked out in grids, as perfectly geometrical, as the city-camps of the West, but which has managed to preserve its past, cultivate it, enhance it, with the same conscientious care of Venice, Amsterdam, or any other European museum-city. This cemetery over here, for instance—this old cemetery with just a few graves scattered among the wild grasses, all, or almost all, dating back to the Civil War or earlier. This necropolis in the middle of the town is not a museum, and anyone can wander through it, without aim or itinerary, without ticket or guided tour. These lopsided obelisks and crypts, these slabs and tombs of cracked or crumbling stone, these monuments, these uneven flagstones, which anywhere else would be either destroyed or museified, like the Cardiff Giant and the dinosaur teeth of South Dakota, but which here, in Savannah, just form part of the landscape, as objects of a discreet but passionate piety. And it's here I come to realize the importance that the memory of their wars possesses for the men and women of the American South—not so much the world wars but the other wars. Wars that we Europeans barely think about, but that southerners, in one way or another, in shame or glory, bitterness or exaltation, never seem to tire of commemorating. The Indian wars, obviously. The Civil War, which here they call the War of Secession, and which, I begin to realize, remains an open wound in the side of this refined Savannah, infused with aristocratic values, where, one is convinced, this very aristocracy, this art of living and this taste for art in life, even more so than slavery itself, inspired Northern resentment. And then the War of Independence. Here, in this cemetery, in the intricate shadows of 200-year-old trees, are half-effaced plaques from this first American war, on which one can still, with great difficulty, make out the names of young men from England, France, or Poland, caught in obscure affairs of duels, honor offended or avenged, heroic deeds, who now have only these humble inscriptions in these great books of stone to recall them to the memory of the living …

In short, I love Savannah. I love the way the inhabitants love their town. I love the gesture, for instance, of those officers who in 1864 wanted to surrender to General Sherman rather than see Yankee troops sack the city. And I love the story of those citizens who a century later mounted guard in front of the Davenport House to prevent it from being demolished, and thus founded the Historic Savannah Foundation, which watches over the memory and integrity of the city to this day. I have seen so many unloved cities in America since this journey started. In my mind's eye there are so many cities half destroyed, or simply disfigured, by vandalism and the indifference of their inhabitants. Buffalo … Detroit … Cleveland … Lackawanna … The cities die off, the great shattered cities of the American North and also the northern-style cities in the South. Savannah is the anti-model, then. Savannah—a rare but all the more precious case of metrophilia, or city-love, in America. The love in Savannah of this portion of intelligence and beauty that dies when cities die. The way time passes slowly in Savannah. The extraordinarily special, almost enclosed, space of Savannah. This feeling you have of walking around in a greenhouse, almost a bubble, a minuscule and fragile island protected from barbarian invasions. And also the enchantment of Savannah. And this other feeling that overwhelms you soon enough: that this unostentatious town is subtly poisonous, decadent. And then Savannah by night, even more enigmatic than it seems, less pure, bathed in a twofold light and exhaling the two habitually opposite flavors of flaunted austerity and secret liberty, of the most extreme puritanism and most concealed licentiousness: moral bewilderment, noxious spells, gardens of good and evil. Isn't that right, John Berendt? For all these reasons my mind is made up. For these reasons and a few others it's Savannah I choose. Especially since … one last element in my story. I am at John Duncan's place, on East Taylor Street, facing Monterey Square and the famous Mercer House, which is the center, if ever there was one, of the actual event that gave rise to Berendt's fiction. On the mezzanine I visit Duncan's "antique maps and prints" store. Then I visit the several floors of his private apartments, whose wood paneling, costly mirrors, rare books scattered about on polished inlaid tables, offer a concentrated dose of Savannah's elegance. And impishly Duncan tells me that Savannah has, in a way, already chosen me. Do you know who the first known owner of this house was? he asks, and then corrects himself. Do you know to whom we owe its most drastic renovations? Well, it was a Frenchman … An Alsatian, in fact … He had a store not far from here, on Bryan Street, and then another one on Jefferson, and then, at the end, on East Broughton … And guess what this Alsatian's name was—this Frenchman whose ghost haunts this house. B.-H. Lévy! He had a brother, his partner, whose name was Henry Lévy. But his name was B.-H. Lévy, Benjamin-Hirsch Lévy—BHL.

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