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American Pastoral


In 1915 my great grandfather, Dennis Dwyer, entered a church raffle. Against all odds, he found himself holding the winning ticket for a brand-new Model-T Ford. Now that he had a ready means of transportation, he carried out a dream he had nursed since first arriving in the U.S. from Ireland: he bought a small plot of land on Lake Ontario, sixty miles northwest of his hometown of Syracuse, and built himself a summer cottage. My grandmother and her sisters photographed themselves hanging on the car’s running board in front of the green-shingled house, mugging for the camera in flapper scarves and drop-waisted shifts circa 1920. My mother and her sisters spent their summers there during the war and after; there is a photo of her at eight or ten years old, tow-headed and knock-kneed, reclining in the white sand dunes leading down to the water. By the 1970s and 80s the dunes had disappeared, replaced by a shoal of slippery rocks along the lake’s edge. But my sister and I could still scrape together enough sand to fill a bucket, and spent hours sifting through the stones to find sea glass washed smooth by the surf.

Today, one hundred years after my great-grandfather hammered the last nail, the cottage still stands, barely: it groans and rocks and creaks in the wind and damp, all buckled panes and warped wood floor, but it does not topple. Every summer when I turn off the dirt road and pull up into the front yard, my daughters and her cousins tumble out of the car and race to the water, wind catching at their hair. I watch as they pick their painful, barefooted way over the rocky beach, arms outstretched like tightrope walkers. In the afternoons we collect wildflowers, Queen Anne’s lace and chicory and buttercups, and weave them into fairy garlands.

The fantasy of a retreat from civilization into nature, far from the madding crowd, is almost as old as humanity itself. As early as the eighth century B.C., Hesiod was already lamenting the loss of a Golden Age when “the fruitful earth unforced bare fruit abundantly,” and men “dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands.” Theocritus and Virgil wrote of shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs and satyrs, frolicking in the Sicilian sun.

Inspired by these literary idylls, city-weary Roman nobles escaped from the care and corruption of civilization by building the pastoral sensibility into the very architecture of their villas. Semi-circular dining rooms opened out onto gardens so that residents could dine al fresco, just as Theocritus’s shepherd made a bed of “scented rushes and new-stripped vine leaves” on which to take his simple country repast, “as overhead rustled many a poplar and elm.” The most elaborate of these ornamental gardens contained streams, fountains, and concrete nymph grottos. Fast forward over a thousand years, and we find the European leisure class still at it: in 1783 Marie Antoinette famously ordered a rustic hamlet built on the grounds of Versailles, stocked with live animals and real-life herdsmen and dairy maids, where she could dream of simpler times beneath thatch-roofed huts.

Yet my family cottage—fond as I am of it, and sylvan flower crowns notwithstanding— is not a place that lends itself easily to rustic reverie. Oswego County is thinly populated and among the poorest counties in New York state, with 19% of its inhabitants living below the poverty line. Driving from Oneida to Ramona Beach, as the interstate gives way to numbered county routes and then nameless dirt roads, we pass through hamlets with one intersection where the only show in town is a Dunkin Donuts or a Taco Bell. We pass ramshackle farmhouses; collapsed barns; trailers with giant satellite dishes stuck like toadstools on top of them; abandoned country cemeteries, tipped and mossy headstones rearing up like a jaw full of crooked teeth. We pass by Ezra, our Amish neighbor’s farm, his cornflower-blue-and-black-clad sons behind a horse-drawn plough in the July heat. Land is cheap here, bringing an ever-growing community of Amish. Further on, in front of one paint-blistered house we see a hand-painted sign planted in the grass: “SWEET CORN AND AMMO FOR SALE.”

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station 001.jpgOur cottage is nestled on the edge of Mexico Bay, a shallow crescent on the Lake Ontario coastline. In 1969, the year I was three and my sister was born, the Nine Mile nuclear power plant was built in the county seat of Oswego, 25 miles down the coast.  It was the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Atom splitting, for over twenty years associated with the horrors of nuclear holocaust and radiation sickness, was attempting to re-brand itself as the energy of the future. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was in Oswego for the Nine Mile dedication ceremony, and touted nuclear energy as a giant step for humanity in our ongoing quest to bring light to the darkest recesses of the universe. “On an occasion such as this, it hardly seems possible that a brief 70 years ago, electrical power was a curiosity rather than a necessity,” he observes. “Today, when the power stops, modern living stops. We get an instant reproduction of the Dark Ages.” He knows all about the perils of splitting the atom, he assures the audience. But, “we live in the nuclear age, and we can no more turn back the clock than could our ancestors in the age of steam or when fire was first discovered.” The sensible course is not to fear nature’s inscrutable power, but to “understand it, to master it and turn it to our advantage.”

So now as my sister and mother and I sit in our aluminum chairs on our shrunken patch of beach, sipping our morning coffee, we spy the twin nuclear reactors at the far tip of the bay: squat and gray, giant white plumes of water vapor melting into blue sky. Nine Mile Point has the dubious distinction of being the oldest functioning nuclear reactor in the country. We joke about three-eyed fish, radioactive seaweed. How cousin Roxane never let her kids get near the water.

The dream of a pristine state of nature has always been a ruse; it is innocence recollected from the rueful perspective of experience; that is to say, not innocent at all. This is no arcadia, no untouched idyll: for every pound of sweet corn, a pound of ammo; for every flower crown, a sluice of radioactive waste. The marks of human artifice, here, hit you like a poke in the eye.


Human-induced blight isn’t the only sinister element in the landscape around Ramona Beach. Nature, too, is menacing, imposes its own mysterious scourges. There were a number of summers during my childhood when heaps of dead alewife fish (we called them mooneyes) would inexplicably wash up on shore. “Few things look as dead as a dead alewife,” observed one science writer of these mass die-offs in the 1990s, and a truer sentence was never written. We would wake to find the mooneyes littering our beach front, as if the lake were a housecat faithfully depositing its daily kill on the owner’s stoop. Their perfectly round, silver eyes, pitted with giant black irises as deep as wells, lent the mooneyes an air of shocked indignance, as though death had caught them by surprise. They rocked lazily in the surf, fixing the sky with sightless orbs. By midday they reeked so that my father had to shovel them into buckets and haul them away.

Other times it was algae. Thick, pea green, an invasive vegetable mucous. We went swimming anyway, and emerged from the depths dripping like shaggy green Neptunes, soft globs of plant sticking to our suits, our skin, our hair.

Then, a few summers ago, Ramona beach was visited by a plague of frogs. They were suddenly everywhere: hopping down the oil-slicked dirt road; rustling in roadside weeds; squatting quietly camouflaged in tufts of grass on the front lawn. Their skin was exquisite, luminescent silk swirled with a paisley of mud-brown and peacock-green. The frogs were so plentiful that after a day the kids didn’t even bother to catch them. A captive frog thrills only by reason of its rarity, cupped hands slivering open to reveal a pulsing emerald gem against pink flesh: nature neatly imprisoned for our scientific or aesthetic pleasure. But we were outnumbered by the frogs and it was we, not they, who began to feel like interlopers in this landscape.

Far from wishing to catch them, we grew weary of the constant vigilance it took to dodge and shield ourselves from them, to avoid treading them underfoot and turning them into hash. One day my daughter was jogging down to the creek in flip-flops when a frog with an unfortunate sense of timing leapt, lodged itself between her heel and sandal mid-step. She limped home and we had to scrape bits of frog-pancake off the sole of her foot.

Welter of frogs, raft of mooneyes, glut of algae. Nature’s unbidden, often ruinous, surfeits have always been cause for human soul-searching: whose wrath have we piqued, which god have we slighted? Let my people go, called Moses; Pharaoh hardened his heart, and we know the rest: frogs, lice, flies, hail, boils, locust rained down on Egypt. Nature’s whimsy flouts the best-laid of human plans, and it is no wonder humans had to imagine a murderous divinity to account for these assaults. Someone who would listen to reason or, failing that, would listen to burnt offerings and prayers; grant forgiveness for our trespasses, restore nature’s disordered rhythms.

But if in Biblical times the wrath of God’s nature was largely mysterious, punishment for secret sins, today we know all too well from whence these ever-escalating swells and gales and gluts and droughts come. We fret; we eye the algae with growing panic. What infernal machinery has raised the water temperature by a hair’s breadth, killed off the algae-eaters, unleashed this ghastly green tide? We count the frogs, chat with neighbors. Could their population rebound possibly be a good sign—nature righting itself? Or is it, after all, another click of the climate change wheel as it whirls off its axis?

We have sickened the earth, and now it is coming for us.

A few hundred yards down the dirt road from our cabin sits Snake Creek, a stagnant basin where water from the seventy acres of marshland and forest that fan out behind it comes to a standstill before trickling out into the lake. The creek is brown as molasses and almost as thick, edged with cattails and pickerelweed and jewelweed. Jewelweed plants pump their bright green seed pods full of water so that the casing is stretched to bursting; at the lightest touch the pods explode, sending seeds flying. These sudden firings made the plant stems arc and crackle, as if the whole bank of vegetation were alive. As kids we wandered back along the creek edge popping jewelweed and picking horsetails until the ground became spongy and then we knew we were no longer on terra firma but had crossed over into swamp. We’d scuttle back to the safety of the road like insects fleeing a spider web.

Snake Creek is home to snakes, turtles, frogs, leeches, snails and all manner of fresh-water pond-dwelling fish from the cyprinid family—carp, minnow, sunfish. Cyprinids are a primitive class of fish with toothless jaws and no stomachs; they suck at their food, mash it between jaw bone and palate like babies gumming apple sauce. Swamps provide vast, murky mounds of the decaying biomatter, plant and animal, on which they feed. We jerry-rigged fishing poles and went out early mornings to the creek, using Oreos for bait. Now and again a giant carp would surface in the distance, mouth gaping, then disappear among the cattails. While the big fish ignored our cookie-crumble bait, we caught several small sunfish this way, lured to the edge of the sunless lagoon by the taste of industrial-grade corn syrup.

I always got goosebumps sitting there in the quiet, looking out across the mist-swirled swamp, slip of a sunfish dangling from my pole. In that marshy, fathomless netherworld I knew humans didn’t stand a chance. In an instant the world could flip: catcher become the caught, fisher become the prey. That swamps (marshes, quicksand, lagoons) pose a threat to individual human life and to civilization as a whole is a locus classicus of American horror fiction. Swamps always cue the possibility of sudden, brutal payback for mankind’s transgressions.


Governor Rockefeller’s paean to “the peaceful power of the atom” notwithstanding, some of the most iconic American monster movies ever made emerged in response to the specter of atomic energy.  In the 1954 cult classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a paleontologist in the Amazon uncovers the fossilized remains of a giant webbed claw. He whisks it to the nearest science lab where they surmise that it may be one of nature’s first, abortive attempts to catapult life up out of the seas and onto land. They launch an expedition to the Black Lagoon, in the darkest heart of the jungle, to search for the rest of the skeleton.

What they find instead is “gill-man,” a Devonian-era human-reptile hybrid, a missing link who is still alive and well and out for blood. Despite their fancy boats and winches and diving equipment and evolved brains, humans meet their match in gill-man, who is supernaturally strong and has home-court advantage in the swamp.  Scores of brown natives (too child-like) and white scientists (too soft, effeminate) meet grim watery deaths before the team finally devises a muscular, brainy way to more-or-less humanely eliminate the creature. As the closing credits roll and gill-man slowly sinks back to the bottom of the lagoon where he belongs, we feel relief but also pity. Science and human ingenuity win out, but only softened by a healthy reverence for all of nature’s creatures.

Other atomic-era films were more pointed still in their efforts to reassure Americans that humans could mine and exploit nature without fear of any real reprisal. 1953 saw the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which opens as a posse of cheerful scientists are carrying out nuclear tests in Antarctica. “You know, every time one of these things goes off I feel as if we were writing the first chapter of a new Genesis,” gloats one technician as he watches the mushroom cloud blossom. The hero of the story knows nature is trickier than that. “Let’s hope we don’t find ourselves writing the last chapter of the old one,” he warns. Man has no inkling what the cumulative effects of all these atomic explosions will be; the world has been here for billions of years, while “man’s been walking upright for a comparatively short time,” the wise physicist cautions. “Mentally, we’re still crawling.” Evolution can be turned on its head; perhaps the earth knows best and we are, after all, mere babes in understanding when pitted against her ancient wisdom.

Lo and behold, the blast dislodges a Mesozoic-era lizard trapped beneath the ice. Following an ancient homing instinct, the beast swims down the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Maine to Boston until he reaches home: the subterranean canyons in the Hudson River off Manhattan. It clambers ashore just north of Wall Street, crushing cars and munching policemen as he makes his way up to Times Square.

In the end, it is only by taking the power of atom-splitting and turning it against him that the monster’s destruction is assured, and man’s absolute right to manipulate nature as he pleases reaffirmed. The monster’s blood is filled with a dangerous pathogen that sickens all who come into contact with it. Only by neutralizing the microorganism with the curative properties of radioactive isotopes—curing and then killing the beast— can the threat of human annihilation be avoided. This is a job that requires both brain and brawn: a scientist to provide the radioactive material, and a trained solider to shoot it into the animal. “Do you know what a radioactive isotope is?” the nuclear physicist asks the soldier. “No, but if I can load it, I can shoot it,” he tosses back, cowboy-style. Donning hazmat suits, the two men set off to slay the dragon who has now run amok in Coney Island. Yes, splitting the atom destroys cities and unleashes prehistoric hell. But it also cures diseased tissue, so it can’t be all bad.

Last summer at Ramona Beach we made friends with a dusty old dog, a hefty German shepherd Saint Bernard mix, who licked our hands and followed us back to the cabin where we fed him scraps of lunch meat. My eight-year-old nieces named him Seymour, but we eventually discovered his real name was Cujo—after the rabid killer dog in Stephen King’s 1983 horror film of the same name. In the movie, Cujo is on a forest frolic chasing rabbits when he stumbles into a cave and is bitten by a bat. But it is not clear whether nature or man is the true culprit in the demonic transformation that ensues. Cujo’s owner is a feckless, poor, wife-beating rural car mechanic. When Cujo rips his throat out atop a trash pile of rusty bed springs and empty beer cans, surely he had it coming?

Nor are the affluent spared the vengeance of nature outraged. Across town lives a wealthy advertising executive from the city. He plays tennis and drives a red jaguar convertible, but the raspberry breakfast cereal he markets has just been recalled for making kids pee and puke red dye. “Nothing wrong here,” runs the cheerful jingle shilling poison cereal on the television. But we suspect otherwise: nature has been violated, not only by the shiftless poor but by greedy corporate types as well. Payback will be swift. When the ad exec’s son and wife are inadvertently caught up in the Cujo mayhem, it comes as no surprise.

The film doubles as a prescient 80s-era class parable, one that foresees the escalating ravages of extractive capitalism in America, and scrambles to reassure the audience that we will all be OK. Cujo could only be spawned in the derelict back yard of a poor white trash mechanic, and only the ad executive’s rich wife—chastened, to be sure, but still rich— can ultimately re-establish order. In 1983 we didn’t know it yet, but the rural poor were on their way to getting much poorer, as the corporate wealthy were poised to consolidate themselves as the 1%. Cujo hedges its bets, acknowledging evil on both ends of the economic spectrum, but ultimately places its faith in a middle term—here represented by a white housewife, able to wield a gun when necessary, but only in defense of maternal values—who can bridge the gap and restore both natural and socio-economic balance to the heartland. That balance will be restored in the end is never up for question.

I have to squint to see the resemblance between this dog in front of me and movie Cujo: nothing could be less threatening than the fat, shambling, doe-eyed creature angling for tummy-rubs at our feet. Then again, who can be sure? The domesticated is always capable of re-wilding; the civilized always risks sliding back into the savage. I side-eye this possible turncoat in our midst.

Horror movies know, of course, that nature’s monsters are only ever a proxy for the deeper threat of darkness coiled like a serpent in the human heart. “It’s not a monster, it’s just a doggie!” screams the ad exec’s wife to her terrified child, all evidence to the contrary: the bloody, slobbering beast is lunging at them through the cracked window of their Dodge Pinto. That’s the fairytale we tell ourselves, tell our children, and one with which I am all too familiar. No, it’s not climate change; this is just regular summer, a little hotter maybe. No, it’s not end-times. Humans are resourceful: we’ll find a way, we’ll stop global warming, don’t you worry. We’ll shoot it full of radioactive isotope.

For the moment, gathered around Cujo on the front lawn, we feel trusting. It is so much easier to believe that it all turns out alright in the end. That one day we’ll learn not to waste the earth and the souls of the people who labor on it. We hand-feed snacks to the shaggy beast; we ruffle his oily fur and knuckle his head. A temporary truce.


“I’m done,” my sister declared one summer in exasperation. That year the lake algae was particularly thick, impossible to rinse out of the twins’ knotted hair, and the outdoor shower filled with spiders. It was the same summer that, pulling up our beach chairs to watch the sunset, we kept spotting water snakes: a few feet from shore, their heads held just above the surface of the water, jerking their way like mini-Loch Ness monsters back to the mouth of the creek. Were they water moccasins, we worried? Would they bite our children? The nuclear reactors glowered orange in the dimming light.

 All we have is this fallen planet, and fallen things require our love—even when we suspect that love isn’t strong enough to save them, or us.

In the twilight I watch as my younger daughter pedals off down the dirt road, executing a series of lazy dips and turns atop a rusty bicycle she salvaged from the neighbors’ trash. This human-made machine left for scrap still holds together, barely. Above her, the canopy of blackening trees above the swamp pulses with hundreds of fireflies, winking like strings of white Christmas lights: as if the stars had been netted and dragged down to earth, an artificial firmament. I watch and listen as the creak of bicycle springs grows dimmer and her silhouette is swallowed up by the dusk.


Ellen Wayland-Smith (@EllenWaylands) teaches writing at USC and is the author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table and The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America.

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