The Law and Sacred Spaces Part I: America in the Face of European Time Reply

I have been working on some scholarship for the past two years on Property Law’s interactions when law does not apply — a very social science view of law’s reach.  But part of the quest for how the law reaches into areas in which it does not apply requires us to understand how law accomplishes certain things.   For example, how is it that law purports to define purposes for space — whether those purposes are sacred purposes, economic purposes or what have you.   Over the next few posts, I want to look at the National Parks and how American law was defined by the purposes underlying the parks creation.   Particularly, I will pay heed to the writings of Susan Fenimore Cooper and her views of the National Parks as necessary to a broader American identity.

One way that we define purposes for space is through a process of political consensus.   The political process in creating the national monuments established by legislative action the cultural significance of certain natural areas – significance that did not have the benefit of time honored reverence by the culture itself. Such protection of organic spaces begins in the period that Alfred Runtes calls monumentalism, a period in which deep seated insecurity about the lack of national monuments, such as found in longer standing European countries pervaded the American psyche.   Attempting to establish itself as a peer with the older European nations, Americans could not look to man-made things of antiquity to claim cultural bona fides.  Instead, Americans would look to something not-man-made to fills its psyche and sights to strike awe as a country worthy of inclusion with the older historical, and castle laden countries of old Europe.   For the young country seeking to validate its existence to the world, it could not look about to find ancient structures that have stood for hundreds of years.  Existing American architecture was new, compared to cathedrals, castles and columned statehouses of France, England and Spain.  And the structures that America did have seemed temporary.  Instead, Americans looked to the natural wonders around it, particularly those west of the Rocky Mountains – land though virtually worthless for its economic use, could be quite bountiful as a place to strike an identity for the still young country.

Susan Fenimore Cooper described the tension between comparing the present and the struggle for American identity.  She begins her commentary by describing the effect of man over time in a land:

“The monuments of the succeeding age, raised by a more skillful people are much more prominent.  Indeed it would seem as if man had no sooner mastered the art of architecture, than he aimed at rivaling the dignity and durability of the works of nature, which served as his models.”

Of course as Cooper would go on to say, America, though holding an abundance of the later, lacked the former edifices that testify to man’s ingenuity and wisdom.  But it was not just the aesthetics of the ancient buildings that forced Americans like Cooper to look around and wonder about their own landscapes in comparison to their European counterparts, it was their age that defined the structures as emblematic of a thoughtful culture:

The durability of their architecture still remains to the present day one of the most remarkable characteristics of those ancient ages.  Such is the wonder excited in the minds of the most skillful architects of the present day at the sight of the immense masses of stone transported and uplifted , apparently at will, by those ancient nations that some have supposed them to have possessed mechanical power of their own, lost to succeeding ages and not yet regained by ourselves.  Certainly if would appear a well-assured fact, that the oldest works of the first great architects have been the most enduring and the most imposing of all that human art has raised.

And, from many Americans view point, these great creations have passed to all nations but America.  Cooper notes that Egypt has the great pyramids and India has her ancient temples.  The Roman and Grecian civilizations produced “architectural labors which for excellence and beauty” American struggles to find a comparison. And the civilizations of Europe, thanks to the Gothic architecture of the middle ages, are endowed with Cathedrals, castles and bridges, “which with a few exceptions here and there, [shall] outlast modern works of the same nature.”

Indeed, looking across the American landscape, persons such as Cooper were certainly remiss to find edifices that lasted the test of time.  But the test of time, was not merely showing the technological capacity of individuals to create lasting structures, but inspired the modern ages architecture to do likewise in these places.  America suffered with few architectural examples to follow and therefore know which ones to keep:

How different from all this is the aspect of our own country!…. The fresh civilization of America is wholly different in aspect from that of the old world: there is no blending of the old and the new in this country; there is nothing old among us.  If we were endowed with ruins we should not preserve them; they would be pulled down to make way for some novelty.  A striking instance of this tendency will be found in the fact that the last Dutch house in New York has disappeared.  For a long time a number of those historical way marks existed in the older parts of the town, but now, we understand that the last high gable, the last dutch walls, have disappeared from New Amsterdam.

Indeed, without a past that reveals itself in the sights of the American landscape, the American experiment might be deemed to be like its architecture – slight and fugitive.  America needed something different to claim as establishing its antiquity.

Next Post — Natural Monumentalism

 

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