Book review: State epitomizes nation’s ecological history

In “The Nature of New York,” David Stradling provides a readable, well-organized environmental histo

In “The Nature of New York,” David Stradling provides a readable, well-organized environmental history of the state.

He teaches history at the University of Cincinnati, but he is from New York. His grandfather, Glen Haynes, was from the heart of the Catskills and the Haynes family lived in that region for more than 100 years.

While researching the book, Stradling visited New York frequently. Every few pages, he underlines a concept with details from a visit to places such as Love Canal or a woodland pond in Hamilton. This gives him a reassuring credibility: He was actually here and not just writing from his office in Cincinnati.

He has also written “Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills and Smokestacks” and “Progressives: Environmentalism, Engineers and Air Quality in America.”

The introduction defines environmental history “as the study of human interaction with place, the physical and biological world.” Ecological, cultural and economic forces, he says, “operate on the streets of midtown Manhattan as surely as on the slopes of Mount Marcy.”

‘The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State’

Author: David Stradling

Published by: Cornell University Press, 296 pages

How much: $29.95

The book is full of information that will appeal to local readers. And Stradling asserts that the state’s leadership in cultural and environmental matters means that “a study of New York can serve as a primer of the nation’s environmental history.”

“The Nature of New York” has a chronological format. Chapters address particular topics or New Yorkers who have been significant in environmental history. It has a “bibliographic essay” rather than a standard bibliography and is well-indexed.

Throughout there are clear black-and-white photographs and 12 color pictures. One color picture is a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of New York City at night, an appealing contrast of skyscrapers, dark geometrical shapes, and bright lights everywhere.

Marshalling data

Stradling combines strong, vivid writing with exceptional organization of countless facts and impressions. His research required him to read millions of words in hundreds of books and other written sources. He clearly loves New York and at times it must have been painful for him to choose which items to include or omit.

I have read many of the books in the bibliography. From these, Stradling summarizes in a few words or paragraphs key concepts and facts that deserve a book-length treatment. He clearly explains complicated scientific and social concepts, and keeps topics that could have been dull lively and suspenseful.

His writing gives the impression that he likes everything about New York and tempts readers to visit places they have not yet been to.

He finds something important and insightful in each part of the state and every environmental issue; the book is not a rehash of his Catskills and air pollution research.One problem not covered is nuclear waste, an issue at the now-closed West Valley nuclear reprocessing plant in western New York.

The author of a history book must provide a strong organizational structure or the reader is lost. Stradling provides this structure, but in such a way as to make it invisible.

He smoothly leads the reader from one topic to another in a way that seems casual and unplanned, like walking along a path and then suddenly coming to an appealing view.

Roots in past

Stradling demonstrates that many modern-day environmental practices have roots in history. Car companies or airlines that plant trees as carbon offsets are taking a page from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s programs for reforestation.

Recycling goes back to 1894, to George Waring’s “military precision” in reforming the New York City Department of Street Cleaning and developing a system to sort and dispose of solid waste.

Stradling quotes Basil Hall, a 19th century travel writer, who asserted, “Nature is on the side of New York.”

Since Hall made this assertion, the state has been through social, economic and environmental crises. But Stradling’s long view of history offers qualified optimism that Hall’s statement is still true.

Categories: Life and Arts

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