Wednesday, May 23, 2018, 7:00 p.m., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
discussing the subject of his new book
This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent
from University of Chicago Press
"The American people sees itself advance across the wilderness, draining swamps, straightening rivers, peopling the solitude, and subduing nature," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835. That's largely how we still think of nineteenth-century America today: a country expanding unstoppably, bending the continent's natural bounty to the national will, heedless of consequence. A country of slavery and of Indian wars. There’s much truth in that vision.
But if you know where to look, you can uncover a different history, one of vibrant resistance, one that’s been mostly forgotten. This Radical Land recovers that story. Daegan Miller is our guide on a beautifully written, revelatory trip across the continent during which we encounter radical thinkers, settlers, and artists who grounded their ideas of freedom, justice, and progress in the very landscapes around them, even as the runaway engine of capitalism sought to steamroll everything in its path. Here we meet Thoreau, the expert surveyor, drawing anticapitalist property maps. We visit a black antislavery community in the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York. We discover how seemingly commercial photographs of the transcontinental railroad secretly sent subversive messages, and how a band of utopian anarchists among California’s sequoias imagined a greener, freer future. At every turn, everyday radicals looked to landscape for the language of their dissent—drawing crucial early links between the environment and social justice, links we’re still struggling to strengthen today.
Daegan Miller has taught at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his writing has appeared in a variety of venues, from academic journals to literary magazines. He is on Twitter at @daeganmiller.
Critical praise for This Radical Land:
"A debut book that ranges across disciplines and decades to connect the natural environment--especially long-lived trees--to a scathing critique of American-style capitalism. Alternating abstract theory with impressive research, both bolstered by extensive sources . . . the author builds his case about understanding American history by examining destruction of the environment through essays grounded in the 19th century. . . . He offers an eclectic education often marked by soaring prose." - Kirkus Reviews
"Inventive. . . . A creative linking of landscape and radicalism." -Publishers Weekly
"Drawing on superb scholarly detective work, This Radical Land tells fascinating stories about the history of our ties to the land that give us an alternative to viewing natural spaces as either a resource to exploit or a wilderness museum for the privileged. Miller peels back the history to reveal that, however ignored, Americans have always resisted the exploitation of nature. Perhaps his more nuanced environmental history will inspire those today who, continuing the mute protest of the witness tree, would pull the planet back from the brink of death." Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees
"Daegan Miller rekindles a legacy of environmental dissent. The ideas and landscapes of nineteenth-century 'countermoderns' are signposts, still legible, to alternative futures. This book bears witness like a burning bush." -Jared Farmer, author of Trees in Paradise: A California History