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"First Nature" and "Second Nature",
This review is from: Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (Paperback)"Nature's Metropolis" is first, and foremost a naartive about the rise of Chicago in the 19th century. Being very similar in tone to the author's first book "Changes in the Land" (1983). Cronon seeks to establish in "Nature's Metropolis" that any understanding of the American west can not truly be comprehended unless one looks at the dominant role that Chicago played in ordering the landscape between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. By arguing that the two (city and countryside) are linked, Cronon is directly refuting the Frontier Thesis of Fredick jackson Turner - which held that the frontier (countryside) existed in isolation of the city. This is then the major premise of the book; that human actions are very much determined by the landscape.
In building his case Cronon presents some excellent case studies of the Rail+Canal, wheat, forestry and meat packing industries in Chicago, and how they helped to turn the city into a first-rank metropolitan centre. Chapter #3 on wheat is especially interesting as Cronon describes how the Board of Trade revolutionized the exchange of grain by turning the physical crop into an abstract commodity that could be easily traded amongst merchants, traders and farmers. Central to this was of course the implementation of a standardized grading system.
A final note, one of the more intriguing aspects of the book was Cronon's use of the terms "first" and "second nature". These are two concepts which he explains in the preface are derived from Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of nature - yet he does not give the reader too much more of an insight. Essentially, "first nature" is a realm where species (be they plant, animal, human) succeeded and failed mainly because of circumstances encountered within their immediate habitats. "Second nature" (such as a city like Chicago and all of its built-up environs) would put economic pressures on species hundreds of miles away - effectively altering the landscapes of these places. Unfortunately, in discussions about Cronon's book these two concepts do not really generate much debate. I find them to be very fascinating and wish they had been better explained in the book. If you too are intersted in these concepts of "first" and "second nature" I think the recent book by Steven Stoll "The Fruits of Natural Advantage" (1998) would be a good place to start - it is next up on my reading list!