Erick Villagomez takes a look at Ginger Strand's witty and entertaining book that explores the myths and meaning behind America's natural wonder, Niagara Falls.
Author: Ginger Strand (Simon & Schuster, 2009)
Reviewed by Erick Villagomez, re:place magazine
Humans have always had a peculiar relationship with nature. On the one hand, we've worshipped it for its beauty and grandeur. At the same time, we have attempted to control its power by altering its systems and consuming its resources. The tension created by this odd circumstance has continued to grow since the industrial revolution: the beginning of a process of technological development that continues to make the transformation of nature easier.
In North America, no other landscape has felt the ever-changing cultural attitudes towards nature more than Niagara Falls
: having seen its history, rooted in aboriginal culture, transformed many times before its most recent incarnation as a "Land of Oz". It's this complex mutation that writer Ginger Strand
so wonderfully captures with wit and sharp observation in her book Inventing Niagara
Simple in format, the structure of the book is straightforward, with an Introduction followed by nine chapters and an epilogue. The chapters are roughly organized from past to present, although timelines overlap across the entire book. Each individual chapter covers one overarching theme that is cleverly embedded into one of Strand's personal Niagara Falls narratives - be it a tour, interview, or event. Sub-themes and quirky tangents are wonderfully weaved throughout.
The first chapter - White Man's Fancy, Red Man's Fact
- examines the myth of the Maid of the Mist
and how it came to be. Seamlessly flowing through native history and the effects of European colonization, it touches upon the influence that led to the construction of this fictitious legend.
This transitions perfectly into The Eighth Wonder of the World
that carefully surveys how Europeans set out to subdue this "natural wonder." Strand does this by looking specifically at the intentions and transformations brought about by Augustus and Peter Porter
. Universally considered the first champions of the Falls, Strand's thorough analysis debunks some of the popular conceptions of these popular figures.
Skipper The Two-Legged Dog
offers an interesting look at the history of the Niagara Museum and its collection of curious and grotesque objects. It describes it's many owners and how it transformed over time.
The fourth chapter - The Other Side of Jordan
- focuses on the renowned tight-rope walker Charles Blondin
who was the first person to cross the Falls on a rope. This narrative threads its way into a broader discussion of how his spectacle related to larger cultural issues that were occurring at the time, in particular the mysterious Underground Railroad.
This is followed by a chapter looking at the Free Niagara movement
spearheaded by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Omstead
. Always looking for ironic twists, Strand chronicles this momentous and important undertaking while showing how it opened up the door for industry to take over.
Exploring the relationship between industry and the Falls more fully, King of Power, Queen of Beauty
describes the taming of the Falls for electricity. It also discusses the powerful role Robert Moses
played in shaping the Niagara landscape as well as the creation of the notorious Love Canal
Breaking the serious industry-environment theme, Sentiment in Liquid Form
analyzes Niagara and its association with honeymooning and sex. Threading into a story of her experience with the Red Hat Society
event that was going on in Niagara, this chapter offers the lighter tone necessary to go into the next - The Bomb and Tom Brokaw's Desk
- which looks at the dark history of the area. In particular, its pivotal role in the Manhattan Project
and the destructive pollution effects that this has left on the landscape.
The final chapter - Boulevard of Broken Dreams
- analyzes recent urban planning approaches and transformation of Niagara Falls as a tourist-focused area. Comparing American and Canadian approaches to inhabiting the land adjacent to the Falls, it offers readers a glimpse into what the future may hold. The Voice of the Landscape
epilogue cleanly concludes the book with her story of a visit to the Falls with a video artist friend and the events that transpired.
Overall, this is a fantastic book that superbly chronicles society's changing relationship with the natural environment. Easy-to-read and extremely well written, Strand's engrossing personal narratives, intelligent insights, and wonderful sense of humour pepper the pages of the entire book and make for a very engaging read (beyond the fact that one is learning a lot about the history of Niagara Falls). Awe. Wonder. Anger. Joy. Sadness. Surprise. These are just a few of the emotions I felt while reading.
But beyond this, I think the power of Inventing Niagara
lies outside of its geographical confines, since it touches upon a variety of currently important issues, relevant beyond the specifics of Niagara Falls: the sublime vs. the banal, the natural vs. the constructed, western vs. non-western perceptions of the landscape, the effects of technological progress on the land, tourist culture and branding, and responsible resource management - to name just a few.
With environmental issues gaining more and more momentum, Inventing Niagara
offers us a valuable look at how cultural values affect our landscapes. One can only hope that it not only provokes thought, but inspires change.
For more information on the book, visit Ginger Strand's website.
Erick Villagomez is one of the founding editors at re:place. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with academic and professional interests in the human settlements at all scales. His private practice - Metis Design|Build - is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places.