Monday, September 14, 2020

Jon T. Coleman's "Nature Shock: Getting Lost in America"

Jon T. Coleman is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, winner of the W. Turrentine Jackson Award from the Western History Association, and Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation.

Coleman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Nature Shock: Getting Lost in America, and reported the following:
Opening Nature Shock to page 99 may disappoint a reader hoping to encounter a lost person. Instead of a crazed hiker or a hyperventilating backwoodsperson, we meet a thoroughly anchored New Hampshire woman named Miriam Newton who made history by staying put and jotting daily notes in a journal.
Miriam Newton kept a diary for sixty years. In it, she collected a handful of natural occurrences that swerved from the norm. The weather events that drew her attention tended to uproot trees, lift houses, and stun people. The Dark Day lived alongside freak whirlwinds, cold snaps, wild thunderstorms, and “dreadful gales.” Against these outbursts, Newton banked hundreds of uneventful dates. She paused to write terse descriptions of daily life, marking a pattern in time that absorbed the shock of the occasional disruption.
Newton’s appearance, however, comes at a pivotal moment in the book. In Nature Shock, I recount many dramatic episodes of people who got totally lost, but I also explore the shifting conception of what it meant to get lost. Over five centuries, I argue, North Americans traveled from relational space, where people navigated by their relationships to one another, to individual space, where people understood their position on earth by the coordinates provided by mass media, transportation grids, and commercial networks. The best vantage point to see this transition and thereby understand its consequences is on the edge of those spaces where people sometimes got terribly lost. I call the experience of utter bewilderment nature shock.

In her eighteenth-century diary, Miriam Newton patrolled the edges of relational space. She noted the comings and goings of neighbors, the passing of the seasons, and the changes in the weather. She described the remarkable day in May in 1780 when an “uncommon darkness” blotted out the midday sun and Thaddeus Hastings lost his way in the woods. Through her keeping track, Newton along with hundreds of other New England diarists mapped the out of bounds for her family and community. Getting lost in relational spaces was as much about losing connection with other people as it was becoming geographically disoriented. Newton’s diary helped spin a web of connections that held people in place, and it epitomized the social nature of nature shock throughout most of American history. Page 99 is the perfect introduction to a key concept of the book, especially since relational space may seem strange to those of us who are used to navigating alone with aid of a blue dot pulsing on a display screen.
Learn more about Nature Shock at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue