Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon

Preface

First nature = original, prehuman nature

Second nature = the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature pg xix

Prologue

  • “If that wall was more a habit of thought than a fact of nature, then decrying the “unnaturalness” of city life in a place like Chicago was merely one more way of doing what my own environmental ethic told me to oppose: isolating human life from the ecosystems that sustain it.” (8)
    • I’ve always had this dilemma too! What exactly is natural? How do we define what is natural? The wall he refers to as the divide between country and city is one that is seemingly then made up! It was a mentally created one, not physical.
  • “But such freedom was also a kind of prison, a retreat from the sources of value that gave human life a large meaning: closeness to neighbors, a sense of rootedness in the soil, a feeling of belonging, faith in something larger than the self or the merely human. In the city, even amid all the crowds and the human artifacts, one stood curiously alone.” (16)
    • Cronon talks about the freedom given by the city. But also when in nature, I also feel this larger than human life meaning. When I feel a breeze, I feel this largeness. In some senses, a city is both liberating and a prison of sorts. Simultaneity.
  • “pastoral simplicity to cosmopolitan sophistication, from rural bondage to urban freedom, from purity to corruption, from childhood to adulthood, from past to future.” (17)
    • Interesting question to ask, how would you map the journeys in your life?
      • Mine: from suburban unknowing to worldly seeing, from purity to retaining to self, from selfishness to appreciation and gratitude, from me to others, and from past self to present self.
    • “The urban-rural, human-natural dichotomy blinds us to the deeper unity beneath our own divided perceptions. If we concentrate our attention solely upon the city, seeing in it the ultimate symbol of “man’s” conquest of “nature,” we miss the extent to which the city’s inhabitants continue to rely as much as on the nonhuman world as they do on each other.” (18)
      • The dichotomy is an example of dualistic thinking. Nothing is ever dualistic, yes or no, true or false. We are all a blend of dichotomies, a merging of stories, experiences, and complexities. The human-natural dichotomy is no exception.
      • Growing up, I don’t think I ever deeply thought much about our reliance on the natural world. I remember having thoughts that all our things come from farmers, but they get paid so little! Why is that so? And then my reality of living with food on the table, it coming from the supermarket masked deeper questioning.
    • “flight from “the city” creates “the wild” as its symbolic opposite” (19)
      • It’s all created by us.
    • Architect Anne Sprin: “The city is a granite garden, composed of many smaller gardens, set in a garden world…. The city is part of nature.” (19)
      • A different way of seeing.

Chapter 1: Dreaming the Metropolis

  • Potawatomis! On pg 27
  • The Frederick Jackson Turner frontier thesis:
    • “The frontier begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.”
  • “He who is the Author of Nature, selected the site of this great city … and hence her future will not be subject to those causes which have paralyzed or destroyed many of the cities of past ages.” – Newspaper editor William Bross in 1880
    • Gross sense of human exceptionalism
  • “city’s growth… ordained by God”
    • Parallel to the Crusades
  • “region’s natural endowments were proof that God had “diversified” the land’s “surface with hills, vales, and plains, and clothed them alternately with fine groves of timber, and beautiful meadows of grass flowers.” (36)
    • . poetic description but wholly utilitarian
  • “Cities were the stars around which town and country satellites would come to orbit.” (39)
    • So dreamlike, lore
  • “linking new communities to the emerging metropolis” (39)
    • The actual focus of expansion for boosters.
  • “In ancient times all roads led to Rome; in modern times all roads lead to Chicago.”
    • This one sticks for me.
  • “William Gilpin could thus wax eloquent on behalf of America’s various “empires” – “the empire of our continental geography,” “the empire of our free peope,” the empires …” (44)
    • Reclamation of the word empire
  • “Perceiving America as a commercial empire allowed boosters and others to believe that the flow of “tribute” among its various parts enriched all and impoverished none.” (45)
    • Justification!
      • “Although the countryside .. paid tribute … the exchange was anything by a zero-sum game.”
    • “Because Chicago is sure of being chiefest, it is her interest and ambition that her own section should have several chief cities.” (45)
      • Now this is interesting!!! Why did they attribute the city as being female? Why her? It’s almost as if there is this sense of respect, but also ownership and control. Reminds me a lot about gender inequality and dynamics!!
    • “the more you prosper, the more you all will contribute to the wealth and the prosperity of Chicago.” (45)
      • All the cities growing together mentality.
    • Page 49 is Von Thunen’s Isolated State (the circles idea)
    • “Where human beings organize their economy around market exchange, trade between city and country will be among the most powerful forces influencing cultural geography and environmental change.” (50)
      • Market forces and how we live is what shape our landscape. But we live in very different times now. How are things different now? How, specifically, is our modern market forces influencing our cultural geography and environmental change?
    • Turner said in his frontier thesis: the frontier as “the outer edge of the wave”. Unintentionally though it became “the extension of market relations into the ways human beings used land – and each other – in the Great West.” (53)
    • Potawatomis!
      • They “did not dream of how a hinterland territory could pay tribute to an imperial city” (53)
    • “The United States are primarily a commercial society…and only secondarily a nation…” – 19th century French political scientist Emile Boutmy (53)

Chapter 2: Rails and Water

  • “extending from it like the spokes of a great wheel and dividing the region into a series of pie shaped wedges” (68)
    • What a graphic! This is a good way of putting Chicago’s railroad influence and reach.
  • “East saw their own interests converging with Chicago’s” (70)
    • All about converging of interests
  • “The lake, the harbor, the river, and the canal might by themselves have made Chicago the most important city in Northern Illinois, but they would never have made it the interior metropolis of the continent.” (70)
    • The railroads did.
  • “assimilated the railroad”…”merging first and second nature so that the two became almost indistinguishable.” (72)
    • Booster rhetoric that railroad and locations were natural! Thus the pre-human and human dichotomy is entirely blurred.
  • People “never paused to explain how so “natural” a route could be constructed from rails…Instead …less an artificial invention than as a … geographical power..that people must shape their lives according to its dictates” (72)
    • What I find interesting is that people welcomed this new invention openly. New technology reshaping. The railroads solved a LOT of problems like transportation, it made things a lot more convenient, work was able to be conducted year round, everything as we know it today was a result of this pivotal step. But it also came with the transformation of the hinterlands. A deep and insightful question would be, how can we improve the world, provide technology that, yes, does solve an actual need or desire, but at the same time, be sustainable and positive to environment and social institutions?
  • Page 76 – the page the blew my mind!
    • “for no earlier form of transportation had ever moved people so quickly”
      • So true!!
    • Telegraph + railroads: “together they shrank the whole perceptual universe of North America. Because people experience distance more in hours than in miles.”
    • Farmers “no longer thought it worth their while to spend a week or more driving a team of horses over bad roads to sell their crops in Chicago”
      • A whole shift in lifestyle! It enables so much! Displacement of technology
    • “In 1860, Chicago received almost a hundred times more wheat by rail than by wagon; ten years later, no one even bothered to keep statistics on the latter.”
      • This is a radical and shifting transformation.
    • Page 78 and 79 also
      • With ships and their delays, “one could not place a very high value on one’s own time.”
      • “Time does not yet seem to enter as an element into Western thought. It answers about as well to do a thing next week as this; to wait a day or two for a boat, as to meet it at the hour appointed; and so on through all the details of life.”
      • Train services measured in days vs weeks
      • “The long term consequence was to move timekeeping into the realm of the mechanical clock, away from the various natural cycles which had formerly marked the flow of time.” (78)
        • Stark contrast with the sun at the highest point
          • Page 79!! “Noon was the moment when the sun stood highest in the midday sky.” Different everywhere.
        • “the safety and clockwork regularity of an artificial universe”
        • 1883 marked the creation of “four time zones” thus breaking the connection with the sun
      • “”managers, engineers, and accountants whose emerging professional skills became essential to the system as a whole” (81)
        • Data processing was direly needed and necessary for the vast amount of data to be processed.
        • Almost like an origin of a larger economy and proliferation of professional jobs.
      • “The railroad thus became the chief device for introducing a new capitalist logic to the geography of the Great West.” (81)

Chapter 3: Grain

  • “Farmers bartered their produce because they were cash poor. In an economy short of cash, where credit was essential to making exchange possible, merchants served as translators between the world of rural barter and the world of urban money.” (105)
    • Pg 104 has a description of the role of storekeepers
      • Their job was quite expansive and hard
      • I found these two descriptions of life back then interesting because it’s so different than now, but was very much so life back then
    • “Crops from dozens of different farms could then mingle” (114)
      • Mixing of grain to create homogeneous commodity. That’s how I grew up, the food I ate. Farmers market is different though.
      • Leads to quality differences. A lot of story behind how our products come to market and its historic development
    • “The elevator helped turn grain into capital by obscuring and distancing its link with physical nature.” (120)
      • I mean, this is it.
    • “The wider the telegraph’s net became, the more it unified previously isolated economies. The result was a new market geography that had less to do with the soils or climate of a given locality than with the prices and information flows of the economy as a whole.” (121)
      • Telegraph helped bind these geographically disparate regions together. Now, we see this on a globalized scale. The effects?
    • Speculation explained on page 125
      • “simply exchanging the difference between the grain’s contracted price and its market price when contract expired”
      • Leads to: “transactions without any grain ever changing hands”
      • I found this just so interesting, this shift from physically selling, trading, bartering, to this economy so disconnected from the producer, elevated to the abstraction of speculation and settling contractual differences!
    • “Corners, in short, seemed to call into question the legitimacy of the entire futures market.” (131)
      • Deviation from intention and human nature.
    • Big picture view: “Corners were an almost inevitable result not just of the futures contract but of grain grading and elevators as well; all three derived from the same artificial partitioning of the economic landscape, the same second nature.” (132)
    • “Hostility … toward Chicago’s grain trade in general, flowered from rural suspicions that there was something not quite real – something false, something dishonest – about its markets.” (144)
      • This hostility still exists today. In their days, it was because the farmers did not know how the whole system worked.
      • Furthermore grain was redefined: “abstracting and simplifying it to facilitate its movement not as a physical object but as a commodity. The trading of grain as a commodity was what made Chicago’s market seem unreal to those who stood outside it.” (145)
        • The root of it, no longer simple physical transactions
      • “Wheat and corn came to Chicago from farms that were themselves radical simplifications of the grassland ecosystem” (145)
        • If we thought the commodities were simplifications, so were the farms that produced it! The backdrop then to all of this is our natural landscape!! Second nature is created and shrouds, and erodes first nature.
      • “the linkage between a farm’s products and its property rights came to seem worse than useless to the grain traders of Chicago” (145)
        • Local movement, in many ways, resemble this.
      • “to understand wheat or corn in the vocabulary of bulls, bears, corners, grades, and futures meant seeing grain as a commodity, not as a living organism planted and harvested by farmers as a crop for people to mill into flour, bake into bread, and eat.” (146)
        • Today, the bulls, bears, corners, etc are corporations. Only wheat and corn is talked about here. But this could probably be applied to a whole host of our agricultural products.

Chapter 4: Lumber

  • “Unexploited natural abundance was the central meaning of Turner’s frontier… The exploitation of nature came first (before people). “ (150)
  • Abstract and big picture view of the world on bottom of page 150.
  • “Few things more worried lumber operators than how much snow the winter would bring.”
    • Ultimately bounded by nature
  • Hire “good men and good Families without Children” (164)
    • Already this sense of unhuman expectations of human experience
  • “The Chicago wholesale yards were thus a long way – in thought as much as in space – from the forests that had been cut down to supply them.” (177)
    • This concept of distance being created can be traced throughout this book.
  • In the 1860’s, “Nebraskans and Kansans were buying much of their lumber from Chicago and the city’s wood was framing buildings as far away as Colorado and Wyoming.” (181)
    • This is starting to make sense to why food travels so far. Distribution centers like Chicago make things more efficient.
  • Trains had to return, so westbound lumber rates moved cheaper. Pg 181
  • “railroads made Chicago, a city located in one of the nation’s most treeless landscapes, the greatest lumber center in the world” (183)
    • Well, isn’t that something!
  • “Few had ever seen those forests, and fewer still had seen what those forests were becoming as the ax wielders continued their relentless work on behalf of Chicago’s merchants and customers.” (183)
    • Concept of “Distance” yet again, created.
  • “The very success of Chicago in dominating the regional lumber trade was among the most important factors contributing to its decline.” (184)
    • Seeing this again and again.

Chapter 5: Meat

  • “The cowboy was the agent who tied von Thunen’s livestock-raising zone to its metropolitan market.” (219)
    • Honestly, I never knew what a cowboy did. I always thought they were cool explorers of West and South. Now the name cowboy makes sense.
  • “invading Canadian thistle, expanded their range in intensively grazed areas.” (220)
    • This is how landscapes are shaped.
  • “the more you cut, the more you sell” (237)
    • Dressed meat is what we see today. This development was fascinating.
    • Consumer psychology.
  • “What seemed artificial and abnormal at the end of the 19th century would look conventional in the twentieth.” (247)
    • Describes change
  • “The packers could claim more direct responsibility for severing the natural relationship between death and decay.” (248)
  • “To separate an animal’s death from the decay that ordinarily followed hard upon it, they had harvested the winter’s cold and suspended the wheel of the seasons.” (248)
  • “Its ties to the earth receded, and in forgetting the animal’s life one also forgot the grasses and the prairie skies and the departed bison herds of a landscape that seemed more and more remote in space and time. The grasslands were so distant from the lives of those who bought what the packers sold that one hardly thought of the prairie or the plains while making one’s purchase, any more than one thought about Packingtown, with its Bubbly Creek and its stinking air. Meat was a neatly wrapped package one bought at the market. Nature did not have much to do with it.” (257)
    • This quote captures so much for me. I’m looking outside my window right now and I see tall grasses. Nature is all around us to the eye of the beholder. But oh, how everything has changed! We were born into this world, a world distanced from itself, from nature.
  • “The whole point of corporate meat-packing had been to systematize the market in animal flesh – to liberate it from nature and geography.” (259)
    • Another sense of distancing.
    • The thing is, they did consciously know they were doing this? I have a feeling they didn’t, that what they were doing was right.. and only in hindsight…

Chapter 6: The Gateway City

  • “tendency of human settlements to organize themselves into hierarchies” (279)
  • “The number and quality of such institutions (professional orchestras, theaters, libraries, art galleries, etc.) that a community could sustain related directly to its rank in the urban hierarchy.” (281)
    • All about what a place can supply: high ranking economics goods and services.
    • .
  • “A Chicagoan could often do a greater volume of business with the same amount of money than a person in the same line of trade lower down the urban hierarchy.” (294)
    • Setting up shop faced greater competition, but allowed for a faster overturn and cycling of capital.
    • Different than the storekeeper we read at the beginning who had all his interests tied in commodities.
  • In talking about St. Louis: “The city always has been and must necessarily remain dependent upon her rivers for the bulk of her trade.” (299)
    • How times have changed…
  • “No matter where in the country tey were located, banks low in the 19th century urban hierarchy had to establish “correspondent” relations with larger metropolitan banks in order to redeem banknotes, etc..”
    • This is how centers are created.

Chapter 7: The Busy Hive

  • On page 310, imagine doing one of those descriptions of where everything comes from for all the items and furniture in your house!
  • “Winter locked up capital” (321)
    • Life backed in the 1860’s
  • Railraods allowed merchants to travel to the city once or twice or month, refilling their shelves and allowing them to cycle “capital more quickly instead of typing up $10,000 in merchandise for six months or a year, once could turn over $1000 ten times in the same period” (325)
    • This is a game changer.
  • This concept of escaping into “pastoral suburbs and parks.” (in the picture section: Scene in Jefferson Park)
    • Why is it that we do this? Truly a phenomenon, urban parks, the whole of it! But Cronon explains this: it offers “all the comforts and amenities of urban life in a beautiful rural setting.”
      • We want the freedom of the city (no longer tied to the hard land), but also the “sources of value that gave human life a large meaning: closeness to neighbors, a sense of rootedness in the soil, a feeling of belonging, faith in something larger than the self or the merely human.” (page 16)
      • Us humans!
    • “Ward’s money-back guarantee was a new institutionalized basis for long-distance transactions, in which cash payments and direct inspection took the place of personal acquaintances and credit.” (336)
      • Shift in how business is conducted. Just look at internet stores, Amazon, eBay, the whole lot of it.
    • “Mail order catalogs brought city and country together by affording their readers at least a fantasy glimpse of what civilized life was life” (338)
      • Shaping society.
    • Page 339 was groundbreaking for me
      • “All were about buying and selling, about city and country confronting one another to discover their common ground in the marketplace. All were about capital, which was itself not a thing but a relationship. The geography of capital was about connecting people to make new markets and remake old landscapes.”
        • What the warehouses was really about.
        • Moreso, this is still relevant for today.
      • The mail order catalog … “offered its readers a map of capital, of second nature. In its pages, these relationships all came together.”
        • I mean, just browsing through the catalogues of Amazon, we are walking down the lane of 21st century America, of the unimaginable and scale of operations that makes up each and every commodity item. Electronics, clothes, shoes. Each and every material. How we have evolved into such such such complexity and scale. The maps of capital, of second nature in 1890 is so different than today…
      • “The most remarkable thing about the catalog, like capital itself, is how thoroughly it obscures these relationships.”
      • “There was no need to wonder where such things came from – how they had been created, by whom, from what materials, with what consequences for the place in which they had been made – for the answer to that question stopped at the busy hive.”
        • This has helped understand this whole phenomena of materialism
      • One could make purchases “without reflecting upon the web of economic and ecological connections that stretched out in all directions from oneself and the busy hive.” (340).
      • “The more concentrated the city’s markets became, and the more extensive its hinterland, the easier it was to forget the ultimate origins of the things it bought and sold. The ecological place of production grew ever more remote from the economic point of consumption, making it harder and harder to keep track of the true costs and consequences of any particular product.” (340)
        • Now instead of products, lets think of oil, coal… This statement then rights true..
        • Another example of “distancing”
      • Hive and catalog became two different things, but actually, were “different sides of the same coin” (340)
        • This is Cronon’s point. That everything is connected to nature. But there are a lot of obstructions, all this distancing caused the concentrated markets, the catalogues, the ease of purchase, the credit, the artificial worlds created by the security and stability of the railroads, the detachment from the natural cycles of our world (the winter, noon).

Chapter 8: White City Pilgrimage

  • “A suburb was a place of trees, lawns, winding lanes, and comfortable houses.” (347)
    • Urban comforts combined with rural amenities; the rural amenities being the things that give life larger meaning.
    • I exactly grew up in suburbs, perhaps that is why I’ve always had this connection and longing, a sense of attachment to our natural world..
  • “Explanation for the failure of Grange cooperatives” lay in the Grangers not understanding the central place hierarchy and “the distribution networks that went with it.” (363)
    • Everything evolves for a reason.. but doesn’t mean it is necessarily good, only that it solves the problems at that specific time
  • William T. Stead writes in 1894 for his attack on urban life, “The healthy natural community is that of a small country town or village in which everyone knows his neighbor, and where all the necessary ingredients for a happy, intelligent, and public spirited municipal life exist in due proportion.”
    • “If the city was to locate its civic heart, it would first have to recover its rural roots.” (367)
    • This is interesting, because here in Europe, a sense of community is important in many countries. Ahh, this is interesting to think about.

Epilogue

  • Leopold’s quote on pg 371 is a keeper
    • “land as a community” “biotic interactions between people and land”
  • “If the railroad was a force for centralization, the diesel truck and the automobile would be forces for decentralization.” (375)
  • “tallgrass prairie, white pine forest, and shortgrass bison range as past places no longer a part of living memory. But before these things disappeared, they created a good share of the world we inhabit today.” (379)
    • Part of and a large part of the story behind our society today.
  • “delightful prelude to a meal of steaming golden ears that had been picked just an hour or two before.” (379)
    • That would be so satisfying!
  • “The pastoral retreat in its mythic form is a story in which someone becomes oppressed by the dehumanized ugliness of urban life and so seeks escape in a middle landscape tha is halfway between the wild and the urban.” (380)
    • Half way through! We can never completely leave it behind. Our worlds have become so intertwined.
  • “How a city’s life and markets connect to the countryside around it – can be asked of every urban place that has ever existed.” (384)
    • What a fascinating question.
  • “It turns out that green lake and the orange cloud had more in common than I thought.” (385)
    • We’ve entered this world where both worlds are so finely interwoven (the natural and the artificial), that to understand it all, is to understand that we are not separate from nature, and that we are ever so more intimately so, connected to it.