Woods and Nostalgia and Progress

I was quite taken today when I read Historiann‘s post “Into the Woods.” She waxes nostalgic about how many of her childhood memories “seem to revolve around the woods.”

I grew up in a land of mixed fields and forests that were slowly being converted into the outer edge of a city suburb, and in the 1970s and 1980s, there were still large patches of forest surrounding my neighborhood. Riding bikes with friends to the edge of the woods, and then ditching the bikes for a walk into the unknown was how I spent my summers from ages 8 to 12…

Back then, in the days before cable TV, video games, and the internet sites like shootingauthority.com providing you with every little thing , back even before everyone had central A/C, the woods in summer meant freedom from parents and endless entertainment for anyone under the age of 16 (that is, before the precious driver’s license was proffered.) Because I came from a family that didn’t hike or camp, the woods for me was a space totally unmediated by adult influence or supervision. We could play Little House in the Big Woods, or the Swiss Family Robinson, or Tom Sawyer there. We packed baloney sandwiches and thermoses of Kool-Aid so that we could stay out all day long. We peed in the woods, and on occasion pooped there too, because no one else was around. We followed cricks that became creeks that were lined with wild strawberries in June…

Like many of Historiann’s faithful commentators, I could not help but recall my own childhood growing up in the woods. I spent almost all of my pre-adult years living on Turkey Mountain in Morris County, New Jersey (one of the more charming parts of the mountain is pictured above). We spent our summer days hiking the “blue trail,” catching crayfish in mountain creeks, sneaking peeks of the New York City skyline (including the World Trade Center towers) from the top of the mountain, hanging out in a clearing that was sometimes used by the local Lions Club for clambakes, and roasting hot dogs seated on cinder blocks at a small campfire where local teens and hunters would regularly frequent.

Most of this property is now part of a housing development of McMansions. When I visit my Mom and Dad I look through what’s left of the woods and see the kids of wealthy parents playing in the sterile and safe streets of this new suburban “paradise.” I think about myself standing in the exact same spot thirty-five years ago. The trees and the trails and the fields are gone forever. My memory grows dimmer every day.

I wonder why we get nostalgic about things like woods and other childhood play places. As I thought about this I remembered a short passage I read in William Leach’s Land of Desire: Merchants, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Leach describes a campaign speech that Herbert Hoover delivered in 1928 before an audience in his home tome of West Branch, Iowa. I will let Leach tell the story:

In his childhood there was no poverty in West Branch and little suffering from the downswings in the Chicago market. Now, in 1928, the market could affect the town’s whole economy…Hoover was quick to remind his audience of the progress the United States had made and of the many “benefits” of economic change. “I do not suggest return to the great security which agriculture enjoyed in its earlier days,” he insisted,” because with that security were lower standards of living, greater toil, less opportunity for leisure and recreation, less of the comforts of home, less of the joy of living.” Yet, with this said, he came back again to his bittersweet theme, emphasizing “sentimental regret” over what had disappeared. He acknowledged that one could not really go back home and that change was “inevitable.” “I have sometimes been homesick for the ways of those self-contained farms of forty years ago as I have for the kindly folk who lived in them. But I know it is no more possible to revive those old conditions than it is to summon back the relations and friends in the cemetery yonder…We must accept what is inevitable in the changes that have taken place. It is fortunate indeed that the principles upon which our government was founded require no alteration to meet these changes.”

Hoover, if this speech is any indication, was a man of progress. Nostalgia is always linked to progress. Why do we get sentimental for lost worlds? Is it because we truly believe that those worlds were better places than the ones that exist today? Or is it because we, like Hoover, use nostalgia as a means of reminding ourselves how “better” our lives are today? Leach, in a masterful piece of cultural criticism, takes Hoover’s progressivism to task:

Hoover’s West Branch speech was poignant in its way, but it was also nostalgia, ending in self-serving optimism; at its heart was a fervent belief in “progress” and a total confidence in the rightness (the inexorable rightness) of America’s evolution. Hoover had little sympathy, it appears, with those writers of the decade who also believed that America’s cultural life was embodied in the West Branch’s of America–small towns, face-to-face intimacies, shared loyalties, and a common sense of destiny–but who feared the pace and character of progress…For Hoover, the choice seemed clear: civilization over culture, international and national markets over local and regional ones, an ever-expanding standard of living over the relatively unchanging but sufficient simple life, mass production and mass consumption over West Branch. What is lost, alas, is lost.

I think I get nostalgic about Turkey Mountain because I believe that growing up there was good.

One thought on “Woods and Nostalgia and Progress

  1. I remember vividly the woods of Carlisle Mass where I grew up and spent all my afternoons after school. Of course as a little kid, my sense of scale was totally different than now. It some ways it's probably good that we moved away and I've haven't seen the place since. What was probably just a few acres of woods seemed quite endless to a little boy of 8 or 9, and full of possibilities both good and bad. It's kind of nice to only be able to remember it from that perspective. That kind of wonder just isn't achievable in a video game experience.
    There are some scenes in 'Bridge to Teribithia' that reminded me of the wonder of the woods.

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