Monday, July 5, 2010

"Inventing Niagara" Tells Unique History of Cultural Icon

My parents honeymooned at Niagara Falls in 1955.  I visited once in the early 1980s.  I've always thought of it as a natural attraction surrounded by lots of tourist traps in a region struggling with its post-industrial economic fate.   Ginger Strand's "Inventing Niagara:  Beauty, Power and Lies"  gave me a comprehensive tour, including the seventeenth-century discovery of the falls by LaSalle and Hennepin, treaties and conflict with Native Americans, early landownership, tourist development, hydro-power development, massive industrial contamination, and contemporary economic renewal efforts.

Today, Niagara Falls, while still beautiful and popular, is at the beck and call of hydro-power operators.  Half to three-quarters of the Niagara River is diverted for electrical power generation, but the falls have been rebuilt so that they still appear vigorous and full.  They are actually turned up each morning during the peak tourist season and turned down each night to capture more water to generate electricity.

Strand's engaging narration is ultimately about our relationship with the natural world.   We are attracted to great forces of nature, and ultimately seek to dominate them, whether by climbing mountains, hunting game, or  building public works.  On the other hand, we yearn for natural experiences, but even these are often manufactured.  Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of New York's Central Park and numerous other urban landscapes, advocated the rescue of the falls from post-Civil War tawdriness, leading to the appointment of his firm to design the first state park in the United States.  But fundamentally, Olmsted was not an environmentalist, but saw natural beauty as a tool for educating and elevating the common man.    Strand describes Central Park, built by 4,000 laborers on swampland, as the city's largest art object, rather than a recreation of Manhattan prior to Dutch settlement.

Certainly, parkland and urban tree canopies enrich our lives and are critical to making cities livable today, and I don't think Strand would argue this point.    Rather, she advocates a middle ground between those who seek to minimize our impact on the land and those who see it as a "limitless resource for exploitation", urging us to consider "the natural an equal partner in shaping the future of our planet".

This eclectic book offers something for everyone, including lovers of natural and human history, ecology, engineering and travel.   Although she does not mention it in her book, Strand's holistic approach to her subject embodies the discipline of systems thinking that Peter Senge teaches in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. But more about that later...

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