There are two worlds; the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imaginations. — Leigh Hunt, English poet, 1847
The words “environment” and “nature” conjure images for us in the mind’s eye, whether of pristine woodlands or polluted streams. The work of artists, scientists, inventors, activists, and government regulators helps shape those ideas and illustrates our changing ideas about the environment.
FEAR & OPPORTUNITY
The forests’ edge in colonial America has been characterized as a place of both danger and opportunity. The danger, scholars argue, arose primarily from the wild animals, unknown terrain, and miscreants in the forest, and also from the colonists' fear of the communities of Native Americans who called the forests home. Historian Simon Schama asserts, “The forest had been represented in the popular imagination as the enemy,” symbolizing “the long Puritan legacy that equated the forest with pagan darkness and profanity.” But wilderness could also represent opportunity. For some, this meant exploiting its natural resources, especially the wood of the trees themselves. For others, living beyond the limits of a village meant freedom from the rules of communal life.
When English colonists arrived on the Mayflower, however, they were not faced with an untamed wilderness. Instead, they found newly-empty Native American villages. In the 1520s, Charles C. Mann writes, the Italian mariner Giovanni de Verrazzano had described the New England coast as “densely populated” and “smoky with Indian bonfires.” Other travelers agreed that “New England was thickly settled and well defended.” But a few years before the Pilgrims arrived, a staggering proportion of the native population had succumbed to a deadly plague, possibly introduced through contaminated food from earlier European visitors. The colonists also found that the forests had been tended by those past inhabitants, who kept the underbrush down through regular controlled burns, creating “a forest of oak, chestnut and hickory, open and park-like,” contrary to the popular lore of the primeval dark, mysterious, and dangerous forest.
So even in these very early days of European settlement, we see two themes that I will return to often in this blog. First, ideas about nature, wilderness, and environment are always fluid. Second, we need to continually ask, who isn’t in this picture?
AWE & EXPLOITATION
By the mid-1800s, as American explorers discovered the natural wonders of the young country, writers, painters, and photographers created images of the mighty wilderness. John Wesley Powell, a soldier who lost an arm in the Civil War, went on to become a geology professor, American Indian expert, western conservation advocate, and an explorer; his most famous expedition was a 900-mile journey on the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1870. Powell and photographer John Hillers were just two of the surveyors, photographers, and adventurers who explored the American West after the Civil War. Hillers’s photographs, especially those distributed as stereo views (three-dimensional images created by visually superimposing two photographs on a card) and the paintings of artists including Albert Bierstadt did much to romanticize the West.
Images of the Yosemite Valley were especially effective in inspiring awe. For painters, including Bierstadt, and photographers like Eadweard Muybridge, the Valley was a place that historian Simon Schama argues came “to represent . . . the holy park of the West; the site of a new birth.”
Photographs of the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias by Carleton Watkins and others captivated the public imagination in the mid-1860s. Those who venerated the trees enough to name them (like the image by Watkins of the tree known as the “Grizzly Giant”) saw the grove as proof of a preordained heroic destiny for the American republic.
Writers including naturalist John Muir, who was strongly influenced by Henry David Thoreau, also found awe in majestic landscapes. Muir saw Yosemite as virgin wilderness, ignoring the Native Americans who had lived there and shaped the landscape for thousands of years. In 1894, Muir wrote in The Mountains of California, “The great yellow days circled by uncounted, while I drifted toward the north, observing the countless forms of life thronging about me, lying down almost anywhere on the approach of night. And what glorious botanical beds I had!”
The power of spectacular verbal and visual images of Yosemite didn’t end in the 19th century, as the well-known photographs of Ansel Adams attest. Nature, represented by these artists in what they deemed its purest form, both humbled and inspired.
Beneath the majestic views, however, are other stories. Getting back to our question about who isn’t in the picture, artists clearly interpreted scenes of Yosemite differently than the Native Americans who called the valley home. In fact, Ansel Adams is somewhat infamous for keeping the Miwok inhabitants of Yosemite out of his photos. Journalist Mark Dowie argues that Adams and others “sought to preserve an idealized version of nature called ‘wilderness,’ a place that humans had explored but never altered, exalted but never touched.”
In defense of selective portrayals of “wilderness,” Adams said, “Dreams and illusions and adventure were given people through the written word; photography and other graphic arts confirmed and clarified them.” But environmental historian William Cronon pointed out that “the removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.”
Other groups had also moved into Yosemite, hoping to capitalize on natural resources. Gold miners, surveyors, sheep ranchers, and naturalists inhabited the supposedly pristine spaces. And, as William Cronon points out, with the original inhabitants “forced to move elsewhere, . . . tourists could safely enjoy the illusion that they were seeing their nation in its pristine, original state, in the new morning of God’s own creation.”
A growing number of tourists began to frequent Yosemite and America’s other scenic wonders in the 19th century. Awe-inspiring Niagara Falls became a popular tourist attraction—with all of the connotations that expression carries today. In 1872, poet William Cullen Bryant remarked: “In no quarter of the world is the traveller ﬂeeced as at these falls; he cannot take a single glance at any object of interest without having to pay dearly for it. Still there are few people who can afford to visit the place who do not go there; for man’s impertinence and rapacity, though they poison the pleasure, cannot rob the scene of its awful sublimity.” Then, as now, reverence competed with development and access.
One other actor began to have an impact on the environment, beginning in the late 1800s. Images of Yosemite, like those made by the photographer Carleton Watkins, helped spur President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to sign the Yosemite Land Grant. This law entrusted the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees to the state of California “for the beneﬁt of the people, for their resort and recreation.” In 1872, the federal government established Yellowstone as the first national park. Federal legislation increasingly factored in the management of the environment.
LISTENING TO THE DATA
Since the early 20th century, scientists and inventors have played an expanding role in the public perception of the environment. Our ability to judge just how bad (or good) things are developed, in part, along with inventions in environmental technology. By investigating the physical characteristics of land, air, and water with a range of instruments, scientists collected and interpreted data that often led to better conditions in both the workplace and the wild.
For example, samples retrieved from below the surface of rivers, lakes, and oceans are used to study the physical characteristics of the water and the life forms it contains.
Instruments such as “mud snappers” captured bottom samples in waterways. The Sigsbee water bottle, developed in the 1870s by Charles Dwight Sigsbee (1845-1923), a Navy oceanographer and hydrographer then assigned to the U.S. Coast Survey, was used to collect water and plankton from speciﬁc ocean depths. Water-current meters, used mainly in rivers and canals, measured the rate of water ﬂow, an important factor in designing and monitoring municipal water supplies, dams, bridges, and culverts, and in solving public health problems resulting from stream pollution.
Inventions also gather data on air quality, providing benchmarks for meeting legislated guidelines for protecting health. Anemometers measure the rate of air circulation, a critical factor for workers in mines, sewers, and other closed spaces.
Barometers measure atmospheric pressure. Meteorographs would be placed in an aluminum case, attached to a kite or balloon, and ﬂown high into the atmosphere to gather information on temperature, humidity, wind currents, and atmospheric pressure. Recording hygrometers trace the amount of moisture in the air over time. A radiosonde could be used to measure temperature, pressure, and humidity, and send data back by radio signal.
Accompanying these data-gathering technologies were important pieces of legislation, especially in the last half of the 20th century. As historians Jeffrey Stine and Joel Tarr have pointed out, “as more and more people became concerned about environmental quality after World War II, reform-minded individuals and groups turned to the government to bring about change.” Here are just a few of the laws passed in the 1960s and ‘70s:
- 1964 Wilderness Act
- 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers System
- 1970 Clean Air Act
- 1972 Clean Water Act
- 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act
- 1973 Endangered Species Act
- 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act
- 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act
Even the titles of these laws offer evidence of how ideas about managing and protecting natural resources began to shift. As environmental historian Samuel P. Hays has noted, “prior to World War II, . . . conservation emphasized physical resources, [and] their more efficient use and development.” But sometime in the 1940s, the term “environment” started to replace “conservation” as the label that described the management of natural resources. Similarly, for the most part, “game” transformed into “wildlife.”
The 1960s heralded the growth of numerous grassroots preservation movements and the beginning of the “environmental era.” Combined with concerns about air and water pollution and aided by legislation including those noted here, Hays argues that “one of the most striking differences between . . . post-war environmental activities, in contrast with the earlier conservation affairs, was their social roots.”
Environmentalism began to mix activism with reverence, popularized by events and groups such as Earth Day, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. “Think globally, act locally.” “Give a hoot—don't pollute.” “Save the Bay.” If pins, posters, and bumper stickers are any indication, cleaning up and protecting the environment became a priority for many people. A number of factors contributed to this greater environmental awareness, but art, invention, and science continue as tools of persuasion for environmental advocacy—and for those who are often left out of the picture.
ADVOCACY & INCLUSION
For example, across the U.S., people live in the shadow of hazardous waste facilities, refineries, energy production plants, and other industrial sites that can emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Residents of these “fenceline” communities, as they are known, may experience increased air pollution, higher rates of respiratory and other diseases, particulate deposits on homes and belongings, and other negative effects.
Fenceline communities are overwhelmingly comprised of low income people of color, without access to the kind of resources needed to challenge the industries across the fence to mitigate the causes of pollution. In the mid-1990s, grassroots activist organizations stepped in to work with citizen scientists in the community. One example of this partnership is the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which introduced a low-cost air-sampling “bucket” to capture samples from oil refineries.
Originally developed under the direction of attorney Edward Masry, whose California clients were suing an oil refinery over sickening fumes, the bucket captures an EPA-approved air sample that can be analyzed for concentrations of toxic chemicals. “This is a powerful experience,” the Louisiana Bucket Brigade says, “for community members who are used to being ignored, overlooked and disrespected by corporations and government. . . . Monitoring is the only way to confirm what is in the air.”
Roughly 20 years ago, Don Gamiles developed another type of air monitoring device to measure industrial pollutants in fenceline communities. Nicknamed the “hound,” the apparatus could be placed in the back seat of a car and driven around a neighborhood to collect data from different areas. With the attached hose stuck out the window, air was fed into a box where it passed through a beam of ultraviolet light. Different gases absorb different wavelengths of light, so each gas is identifiable. Today, Gamiles is the CEO of Argos Scientific in Washington State, which offers a range of air monitoring technology, including a current version of the hound for mobile monitoring.
Both the buckets and the hounds give community members an active role in shaping their environment. And organizations like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade promote and support community activism, offering this advice:
"When industry spokespeople tell you that nothing harmful was released, that nothing crossed the fenceline, that residents only imagined their health symptoms, or give other assurances after an accident, you should demand proof and ask, 'How do you know?' If you are a community member, ask questions, get information, call the media and get your side of the story told."
Independent inventors continue to respond to calls to action, especially as climate change concerns grow. For example, concrete is used in the construction of buildings, roads, bridges, sidewalks, and more. But making all of the cement that is used as the binder in concrete is not only incredibly energy intensive but the process also releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
What if someone could change that by incorporating recycled materials and making a material that is not just carbon neutral but carbon negative, meaning that it absorbs more CO2 than was used in its production? That's exactly what Tucson-based inventor David Stone has been doing with his invention called Ferrock.
Stone brings together the vision of the artist with the analytical approach of the scientist. He originally trained as a sculptor, but, as he put it, he tired of being a starving artist, literally. Driven by a love of nature and living close to the earth (he and his wife had built a log home by hand in the Pacific Northwest woods years ago), Stone enrolled in graduate school in environmental sciences at the University of Arizona when he was nearing 50 years old. In the course of experimenting with new materials, he created a substance that, at first, he thought was an experiment gone wrong. But when he examined that failure more closely, he realized that the sample had some unique properties, including unexpected hardness and strength, and Ferrock was born.
One of the materials that Stone incorporated into Ferrock was waste steel dust, which was not recycled and was available at no cost. Another ingredient was recycled glass. About a dozen years ago, Stone started working with Richard Pablo, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, to collect discarded bottles from drinking sites on the reservation. Pablo recalled that “cleaning the desert and picking up those bottles, it kind of gave me an energy, a positive outlook.” The bottles were run through a glass crusher and became part of the aggregate used to make Ferrock.
As Stone explained, “The glass . . . and the steel dust are mixed with minor ingredients that promote iron corrosion (rusting) and carbonate formation. Then water is added to make a wet paste that is similar in consistency to ordinary concrete. It can be poured and troweled like concrete to make the same kind of products. Finally, we expose the mix to carbon dioxide gas, which diffuses into it and reacts with iron to form iron carbonate. This mineral keeps growing for about a week into a solid matrix that binds all the glass together. The result is a hard, durable material that is as strong as concrete but greener because it is truly carbon negative and is composed almost completely of recycled wastes.”
“Through this project,” Stone noted, “we have transformed the discarded bottles into a green building material that in turn has been used to make a variety of products including tiles, pavers, and blocks as well as bigger structures such as benches, sidewalks, slabs, walls, and a storage building based on traditional design practices.” In late 2020, Stone’s company, Iron Shell Material Technologies, entered into collaboration with the Concrete and Structures Laboratory at VIT Chennai in India to further develop Ferrock. Stone pledged, “When the time comes and the world wants to build with new materials that are carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, I will be able to step forward and say, yes, I have such a material.”
Stone’s work illustrates how society's beliefs about “the environment” raise questions about concepts of “nature” and what constitutes a “healthy” and desirable environment. This, in turn, affects the technological side of “inventing for the environment.” If we don’t care about the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we don’t need Ferrock.
How we think about, judge, and interact with the environment continually changes. Where once an image of a factory belching smoke represented prosperity and progress, we may now see it as an unwelcome source of pollution and environmental degradation. Where we once may have seen the remains of an idyllic pastoral field of rice, we now imbue this image with the knowledge that the crop was sown, maintained, and harvested by enslaved people, whose work supported the wealth of the plantation without benefiting from it. And we begin to understand that the "pristine" wilderness of our national parks was shaped by humans, including those original inhabitants who were displaced from the land.
The social anthropologist Timothy Ingold argues that these differing interpretations of the world around us result from a shift in how we view the world at large. He suggests that we have transitioned from a “spherical” worldview, in which humans look up and out and around as part of their surroundings, to a “global” point of view, from which humans are on the outside looking in—a view most poignantly illustrated by the “Blue Marble” image taken from Apollo 17 in 1972.
Nature and humanity are complementary realities that contain one another.
While we broaden or narrow or otherwise transform our understanding of the “Environment” (with a capital E), I believe it is important to keep these words from philosopher Gary Backhaus in mind: “Nature and humanity are complementary realities that contain one another.” For me, that means that we can no more “get back to nature” than we can exclude ourselves from it. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met nature and it is us.
So who invented the environment? We did. And we will continue to reinvent it. Artists, scientists, inventors, legislators, writers, naturalists, activists, campers, gardeners, mountain climbers, surfers, and everyone else who interacts with the world will have ideas, beliefs, and actions that shape the environment. And I believe that our constant and inclusive reassessment of our place in the world is healthy, necessary, and empowering.
 Leigh Hunt, Men, Women, and Books; a Selection of Sketches, Essays, and Critical Memoirs, from His Uncollected Prose Writings (London, Smith, Elder and co., 1847): 4, https://archive.org/details/menwomenbookssel21hunt.
 Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995): 190, 201.
 Charles C. Mann, “Native Intelligence,” Smithsonian Magazine, accessed April 20, 2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/native-intelligence-109314481/.
 Schama, Landscape and Memory, 7.
 John Muir, “The Bee Pastures,” in The Mountains of California (1894), reprinted in Richard Mabey, ed., The Oxford Book of Nature Writing(Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995): 144.
 Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred - Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011). Kindle Edition.
 Ansel Adams, “1975 Horace M. Albright Lecture in Conservation: ‘The Role of the Artist in Conservation,’” accessed April 21, 2021, https://nature.berkeley.edu/site/lectures/albright/1975.php.
 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90. https://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Trouble_with_Wilderness_1995.pdf.
 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness."
 William Cullen Bryant, ed., Picturesque America; or, The Land We Live In, Volume 1 (New York: F. Appleton and Co., 1872): 438, accessed April 21, 2022, https://archive.org/details/picturesqueameri01brya/.
 Schama, Landscape and Memory, 191.
 “The World’s First National Park,” National Park Service, accessed April 21, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm.
 Jeffrey K. Stine and Joel A. Tarr, “At the Intersection of Histories: Technology and the Environment.” Technology and Culture 39.4 (1998) 601-640.
 Carolyn Merchant, ed., Major Problems in American Environmental History: Documents and Essays, 3rd ed, Major Problems in American History Series (Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012): 345.
 Merchant, Major Problems, 346.
 “The Bucket,” Louisiana Bucket Brigade, accessed April 21, 2021, https://labucketbrigade.org/pollution-tools-resources/the-bucket/.
 Living on Earth / World Media Foundation / Public Radio International, “Living on Earth: Chalmette’s Troubled Vista,” Living on Earth, accessed April 21, 2022, https://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=07-P13-00031&segmentID=3/segmentprint.html; “Hound Monitoring, Argos Scientific,” Argos Scientific Web, accessed April 21, 2022, https://www.argos-sci.com/mobile-monitoring.
 “The Bucket—What to Ask,” https://labucketbrigade.org/pollution-tools-resources/the-bucket/.
 “This Cement Alternative Absorbs CO2 like a Sponge,” PBS NewsHour, April 13, 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/cement-alternative-absorbs-carbon-dioxide-like-sponge.
 David Stone, “Recycling Glass into a New Green Building Material,” n.d., http://ironkast.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Steel-Dust-Concrete-White-Paper.pdf.
 Stone, “Recycling Glass.”
 “Collaborative Venture between Iron Shell LLC of US and VIT Chennai,” ANI News, accessed April 21, 2022, https://www.aninews.in/news/business/collaborative-venture-between-iron-shell-llc-of-us-and-vit-chennai20201224134427/.
 “This Cement Alternative.”
 Kofi Boone, “Notes Toward a History of Black Landscape Architecture,” Places Journal, October 28, 2020, https://doi.org/10.22269/201028.
 Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment (Routledge, 2002): 210, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203466025.
 Gary Backhaus, “The Triangulation of Nature—Humanity—Modern Technology: Diagnosis of Our Time: The Crisis of Earth,” Environment, Space, Place 10, no. 2 (2018): 90, https://doi.org/10.5749/envispacplac.10.2.0084.