Sachs (History and American Studies/Cornell Univ.; The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, 2006) offers a deep-running meditation on life, death, and our place in and responsibility to our world.
The author is an environmentalist of the romantic sort—not flighty, but with a great Whitmanesque inclusiveness, awareness of and engagement with his home places, and a honed appreciation of mortality. With considerable enthusiasm, Sachs pleads the case for the picturesque, so well met by the mid-19th-century cemetery, balancing openness, mystery, the local and the cosmic—a middle ground that brought the country to the city, a constant reminder of the need for green and, critically, a common ground when commons were fast disappearing in the wake of rampant capitalism. In the process of shaping his perspective, Sachs covers much literary and theoretical turf, examining Hawthorne’s fraught association with the communitarian experiment at Brook Farm, Margaret Fuller’s seemingly postmodern understanding of nature and culture, Thoreau’s Arcadian hopefulness, the landscape works of Downing and Olmstead, Mumford’s twining of urban and rural, and the repose of a silent battlefield and a rural burial ground. All the while, threaded through the research is Sachs’ own story, in which the mortality continues to inform his humanity: “the presence of death gives Arcadian life new meaning. Without death paradise is static, lacking the possibility of creative transformation.”
An artful blend of reflection and call to action that steers around environmental fatalism toward “the exhilaration and melancholy that mark every life.”