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Wilderness and the Hyperreal

A stack of craggy red Conway granite ledges, sculpted by frost heaves and glacial retreat, overlooks Profile Lake in New Hampshire's White Mountains. If you stand in just the right place, the rock formation conjures the image of a regal-looking man with a sharp nose and pointed beard.

Each year, five to six million visitors gaze at the rock face. The image ripples throughout the state and the virtual world. It appears on license plates, tourist brochures, Web sites, in a story by Hawthorne, in a poem by Daniel Webster, and in a painting by regional artist Isaac Sprague. A museum collects Old Man of the Mountain kitsch, displays its history, and sells memorabilia.

There's only one problem. The rock formation is no more natural than the faces of presidents at Mt. Rushmore. As early as 1915, preservationists adjusted cables and turnbuckles to keep slabs from slipping and distorting the Old Man's profile. Later, they sprayed bleach on his blemishes caused by lichen growth; filled unsightly "skin" cracks with epoxy, wire, and fiberglass; and studied upcoming needs for future facials by measuring what frost, gravity, and acid rain have done to his nose, forehead, and chin.

The Old Man joins peculiarly modern phenomena like the badlands of Disneyland or the duplicate of the Lascaux caves, where faked nature is as meaningful as nature itself. Scratch a Disney badland, and the chicken wire and plaster infrastructure reveals itself. Eviscerate a Disney hippo and it's all plastic, gears, and wire.

Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher, drove across the American desert in the late 1980s (he's French and didn't notice that there are actually five distinct deserts, but that's another story). He had coined "hyperreal" to characterize how certain places simulate the "real" and can, in fact, replace it by offering apparently identical sensuous and enjoyable feelings of the beautiful and the curious. He witnessed America pinballing its psyche between the illusions of primeval wilderness and the hyperreal. The simulacra?be it Las Vegas or the Old Man of the Mountain?contained no deep time or history, no accumulation of cultural shapes and forms. The hyperreal replaced the authentic with an artifactual surface, taken by all as the real. Elitists (but not Baudrillard who likes the hyperreal) sniveled.

Are all our future landscapes headed for the hyperreal? Does faking nature matter? At what point does constructing an exacting model of the real, like Disney's badlands, equal the technological preservation of what was once a natural phenomenon, like the Old Man? Cheryl Foster, a University of Rhode Island prof, answered Baudrillard with a more complex and sympathetic essay on American techno-natural simulations. (What follows is my interpretation, but Prof. Foster deserves great credit for her thoughts.)

We are a young nation. The Old Man has been promoted for about 160 years, and restored for about eighty-five. The Old Man has begun to move from its patriotic/tourist/ secular/commercial presence to a status as a special place that must be visited by travelers as part of a secular pilgrimage. Its scenic view muddles toward becoming a sacred place; tourist itineraries slip into pilgrimage routes "required" to be visited by families and seekers; souvenirs, postcards, and miniatures edge their way toward good-luck pieces, amulets, and sacred images pasted into photo albums. It's all embryological, and who knows if and how the US (or the world) will flow from the natural to the hyperreal to the sacred.

Already, the eclectic melange of the American pilgrimage has form. Families and seekers, once in their lifetimes, "must" see wilderness and techno-wonders?Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Las Vegas, El Capitan in Yosemite, Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon. It's a petro-based pilgrimage. It's democratic in the sense that any approach, by hitching or Lear jet, with audio tours or on backcountry overnights, is equal. As in India, pilgrimages are for rich and poor, whoever is willing to make offerings and sacrifice. Americans' sacrifices are real and financial. Their offerings have yet to be defined and remain an obstacle to completing the transition from hyperreal to sacred. Perhaps restoration work is the offering.

Here are a couple road signs for the hyperreal. First, does the locale reference Native American respect and then complement it with a parallel Euro-American sense of the divine? According to one writer, the Abenaki allegedly "perceived [the Old Man] as a great omen, the valley under the stone became a peaceful gathering place for sacred tribal ceremonies and festivals, where all weapons were left behind...."

In his corny poem, Daniel Webster overlaps their respect: "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades. / Shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; / jewelers a monster watch; / even a dentist hangs out a gold tooth; / but up in the Franconia Mountains God Almighty / has hung out a sign to show that in New England, He makes men."

Today, with ecological explanation reinforcing the spiritual, a description of the 6,000- to 17,000-year history of the Old Man, whose visage was "completed during the latter part of the post-glacial period," adds a sense of eternity and implies a kind of inevitable destiny to the mountain (see http://mutha.com/oldmanmt.html).

Another item on the hyperreal checklist is reference to superheroes (as in Las Vegas to movie stars who were here). At the Old Man, the cross-generational story of the Nielsen family, who have performed the restoration since 1960, is woven with the "service" of volunteers and the risks from rock climbing. A semi-hereditary priesthood, selfless actions, and seasonal rituals are tentatively being born.

The powwow conversing about "untouchable" wilderness, the artifact of simulations, and the limbo-places in between is healthy and, we hope, will never end. Wilderness advocates and restorationists need to relish how time and unique landscape imagery entice humans into a care for nature; how devotion to a cared-for heap of glacial rocks recasts the rocks as an animated and even animist locale. With desire comes the energy to secure a place as sacred. And once sacred, its longevity (except for wars and revolutions) has been ensured.