Nature in American Pop Culture
Air Date: Week of July 16, 1999
From car commercials shot in scenic locations to plastic pink lawn flamingos, pop culture representations of nature are everywhere. Author Jennifer Price talks to Steve Curwood about what these things reveal about how we connect with nature, and she reads from her new book, entitled Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may remember a television commercial for Nissan Motors' Infiniti that ran several years back. Though it was selling a car, the ad never showed an image of the car, just a flock of geese in flight and this narration.
MAN (Voice-over): An automotive designer looks at the shapes of nature. The soft lines. And because he sees things a certain way, those lines suggest an automobile design that is honest and natural. Where the driver is more important than the car itself. And what is discovered, just watching nature, is an ancient Japanese notion of what is beautiful. It's called Infiniti.
CURWOOD: Author Jennifer Price writes about this Nissan ad and other examples of what she calls "representations of nature in popular culture," in her new book Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America.
PRICE: There's been a real greening of TV commercials in the 90s. What Nissan did is sort of the logical extreme of this trend, which is they just took away the product entirely.
CURWOOD: No Infiniti, no car, no nothing.
PRICE: No Infinity, no leather, no petroleum, no highways (laughs), no traffic. I think the point is actually to dissociate the car from consumerism, from modern life. And so, it kind of naturalizes the car: this is the natural way to build a car.
CURWOOD: To have no car at all. I mean, if they tell us that it's natural, does it make it natural?
PRICE: No, of course not. But I think this is a lie that we tell ourselves very often. I mean I think it's very easy to criticize TV commercials, and the problem is that we do exactly what the Nissan commercial asks us to. Which is that we sort of cherish nature as this place apart from modern life. And yet, in modern life, we dis-consume nature voraciously. I think that we want to live sustainable lives, and I think we want to consume as much as we possibly can. You know, you can have as many SUVs and TVs and you can also have this beautiful, pristine wilderness out there. And there's a sense, there's no better place to look than TV commercials for this conviction that you can have as much of both as you want and you don't have to compromise.
CURWOOD: Can I ask you a personal question?
PRICE: Yeah, sure.
CURWOOD: Where do you live?
PRICE: I live in Los Angeles, which is the last place I ever thought I would live. I sort of pictured myself in a cabin in Alaska. Before my ideas of nature made me quite uncomfortable when I returned to the cities, because they seemed to be places where we were destroying nature and desecrating it just ceaselessly. In the course of writing the book, I began to redefine nature as something in fact that we use to make cities, and to think not just in terms of wilderness preservation but in terms of how to use nature in the cities better. Which I think has actually been a trend, now, of 90s environmentalism.
CURWOOD: Your book is called Flight Maps, and on the cover I'm looking at some birds, including -- I've got to say, this is pretty tacky looking plastic -- flamingo, here. And although your book is not just about birds, you've got a lot of stuff in here about birds, including the whole passenger pigeon story, and another piece on women's bird hats from the 1800s and the starting of the Audubon Society. Okay, so why is this all about birds?
PRICE: I was a bird girl as a kid. I think that, like a lot of people who love nature and love nature experiences, we get into nature through something. You know, it could be caves, it could be snakes, it could be rock climbing, and for me it was birds. I got into bird watching in high school.
CURWOOD: Okay, I get this part of it, but I don't get the pink flamingo part of it. (Price laughs.) I mean, pink flamingos are plastic and they have these little metal things on them that rust, and you -- well, you're really into the pink flamingo. In fact, there's a section here. Would you read a passage for us here from your book?
CURWOOD: The one on plastic pink flamingos?
PRICE: Okay, sure. (Reads) What can a pink flamingo mean? If you visit the Union Products factory, you see outsized Mobile and Phillips 66 boxes that contain the raw ingredients of plastic flamingos: polyethylene crystals flecked with pink petroleum-based dye. Workers paint the bills with black and yellow petroleum-based paints and cut lengths of rolled steel, made from iron and other ores, for the legs. The plastic pink flamingo is literally real and wholly natural. It's the nature that's been mined, harvested, heated, shipped. It is the nature we lose track of: newspapers, computers, Armani suits, art museums, breakfast and chicken. Like a lawn and even a wilderness area, it is nature mixed with artifice. Would you believe that the history of the pink flamingo has a moral? The symbol of artifice is actually nature incarnate.
CURWOOD: So, what do you think they symbolize? What do they tell us?
PRICE: I think in order to answer that question you have to go back and look at its history a little bit. The ratio of plastic to real flamingos in the US is 700 to 1. So most of us have far more experience with plastic flamingos than real flamingos. So I think this question, what does a pink flamingo mean, is actually worth asking. Well, in 1957, this plastics factory outside Boston invented the pink flamingo, and working class people bought it and put it on their lawns, because they thought it was beautiful and it sort of conjured the glitz of south Florida. And then, over the next 10 years, highbrow critics come along and they just bash the flamingo, and they say, "That's the most unnatural object we've ever seen." And then what happens is the baby boomers, like John Waters, who makes this disgusting movie, Pink Flamingos, use it intentionally to cross boundaries of taste and to transgress boundaries. And then by the 80s, the baby boomers are doing remarkable things with it, like traveling with it, putting it on wedding cakes, giving it as birthday presents. It becomes a symbol of gay culture. And I think it's that, in the 90s, in an age when it seems like no boundary ever stays put any more, you know, with the Internet, multi-culturalism, post-modernism, there's really only 1 boundary that we really haven't challenged to any significant degree. And that's the boundary that we draw between nature and what is not nature.
CURWOOD: Jennifer Price is a writer and a historian. Her new book is called Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. And she came to us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. Thanks for joining us.
PRICE: Thanks so much.
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