|Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Belle Isle Park|
The booming event reminded us that the apparent calmness of the scenery was only a marginal instant in our highly technological urban world. Belle Isle Park stands as a testament of the machine-in-the-garden-trope suggested by Leo Marx in his foundational book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964).
In it, Marx found that in the work of canonical American writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Henry Adams, Frank Norris, and many others) there is a recurrent particular episode:
“in which a machine, or some other token of the new industrial power, suddenly intrudes upon the serenity enjoyed by the writer, or a fictional protagonist, situated in a natural, perhaps idyllic, setting. The event typically arouses feelings of dislocation, anxiety, and foreboding. Its evocative power derives from the seemingly universal connotations of the contrast between the industrial machine, say a steam locomotive, and the green landscape. [...] The recurrence of the “interrupted idyll” testifies to the salience of the conflict of meaning and value generated by the onset of industrial capitalism. It prefigured the emergence of what has proved to be a major cultural divide, separating those Americans who accept material progress as the primary goal of our society from those who – whatever their ideals of the fulfilled life – do not.” (373-374)
The trope of the-machine-in-the-garden, as understood by Marx, became, for some writers, a tactical maneuver (a symbolic resistance) against the processes of industrialization or a way of presenting a complex view of the tensions between civilization and nature. The trope became embodied in the material transformation of topography and economics (with the surge of industrial work gaining momentum against farm work). But it was also embodied, like in the case of Robert Beverly, in an inner process whereby a (romanticized) primitive stage of life was admired. Nature was thought of as a calm, beautiful and exotic site where freedom could be enjoyed and the pressures of civilization would be absent. The figure who came to represent the idealized subject was the farmer because “[i]nstead of striving for wealth, status, and power, he may be said to live a good life in a rural retreat; he rests content with a few simple possessions, enjoys freedom from envying others, feels little or no anxiety about his property, and, above all, he does not what he likes to do.” (98)
|Belle Isle Park, Detroit|
Belle Isle Park, designed in 1883 by Frederick Law Olmstead, can be thought of as standing for sentimental pastoralism, a longing for a more “natural” environment away from the complexity, distractions, and anxieties of civilized modern life. (5) However, I argue that it can also be represented by what Marx thought of as the "middle state" between urban civilization and the wilderness; “[i]t is a moral position perfectly represented by the image of a rural order, neither wild nor urban, as the setting of man’s best hope.” (101) The island "floats" outside the city of Detroit, in the middle of the river, as a site where the population could go relive the pastoral ideal of a leisurely place to be in peace and in contact with nature.
It is an excellent example of the interplay between nature and art "if we take the vital element in pastoral to be the design, the ordering of meaning and value around the contrast between two styles of life, one identified with a rural and the other with an urban setting." (94) In many instances, the flora in the park was carefully selected, planted, and groomed to generate a rustic ambiance. Paradoxically, it is wild by design and not by nature. The same can be said of Central Park in Manhattan, also designed by Frederick Law Olmstead with Calvert Vaux.
We feel surrounded by nature in each of these parks, as if the urban lays far away from us. The pastoral episodes discussed by Leo Marx can be re-imagined here. The anxieties and complexities of civilized city life are kept at bay. They flow away through the river's currents without entering our minds. We convince ourselves that the machine is outside the garden, threatening to enter.
But as in The Matrix (1999), we are so immersed in the machine it seems natural now. The garden is a design, a construction that appeases our nostalgic longing for "nature." However, while we are in the garden we are still not outside the machine and -if you permit me to stretch the metaphor a bit- its systems of representation and knowledge/power. The garden is in the machine, it is part of the matrix. Like Morpheus explained to Neo: "It is all around us. Even now, in this very
room garden. [...] It is the
world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."