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.)