Romantics can easily be disappointed, as my 15-year-old son and I discovered last week on a road trip through America's stalled heartland.
Holding it out as a carrot through exams, we had planned our mother/son getaway through western Pennsylvania and Maryland down to Washington, D.C., referencing travel and gourmet magazine clippings on pretty towns and the best road-stop diners. For inspiration en route, a girlfriend had kindly loaded an iPod with audio books, and my son crafted an appropriately American folk-inspired playlist.
Our first stop, Pittsburgh, was a gem - a once-mighty steel town grand with elegant edifices to American industry. We ate giant workers' sandwiches stuffed with fries and coleslaw at the famed Primanti Brothers, walked the steel bridges and marvelled at the still-functioning Heinz 57 factory, which was a dead ringer for Willy Wonka's.
But the road itself - famously elegized as a path to self-enlightenment by the likes of Thoreau, Whitman and Kerouac - was a big disappointment.
Thanks to the one-two punch of globalization and recession, every last little Edward Hopper-esque mom-and-pop soda fountain or kitschy old motel seems to be history. Main streets that we dreamed might reveal a great hot dog stand or ice cream parlour were shuttered. The only nourishment to be had was the franchise variety, courtesy of Denny's or McDonalds, the only accommodation a charmless Days Inn or Motel 6.
It doesn't take long on the road to feel that the United States is no longer a place of discovery. Once a vigorous machine of production, it's now a diabetic blob of consumption. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, when it comes to what we used to imagine as America, there is no longer any there, there.
It would be hard to see any light in all of this, but for our accidental discovery of a phenomenon that turns out to be part of an emerging global trend.
You see it in cracks in the pavement and vacant city lots where weeds flourish. You see it in dead rural towns, converted by our absence, into country homes for raccoons and pigeons. As is evident in Detroit, where white flight, and now the crash of the auto industry, has shrunk the population and turned boarded-up neighbourhoods into wildlife refuges, nature is simply taking over.
The return to nature is known as "re-wilding," I discovered, and the idea appears to be, sorry, gaining ground among some powerful advocates, inspired by a romantic vision of conservation that aims to remove the human footprint entirely.
The America Prairie Foundation, a group based on the philosophy of Frank and Deborah Popper, who proposed restoring the upper Midwest to its native state (to be called the "Buffalo Commons"), is buying up former agricultural land in Montana and reintroducing wild bison. According to The New York Times, they have been assisted by none other than CNN founder Ted Turner, the proud owner of about 800,000 hectares over seven states, who is quietly populating his own vast holdings with the great American buffalo.
Across the pond, re-wilding is behind the recent reintroduction of the wild boar and the white-tailed eagle. Britons are buying tracts of cleared land from a trust called woodlands.co.uk, in order to return them to the wild, signing contracts not to build permanent structures, roads or pipelines on what is essentially their own land.
Even here in the true north strong and free, where on Canada Day we get chuffed over our own abundant wilderness, I'm seeing signs of re-wilding. Abutting my favourite outdoor market, held in the romantic shell of an old Toronto brickworks, a conservation group called Evergreen is restoring the Don River wetlands to its native state. And at our midtown neighbourhood park, the city has opted to re-wild what was a rather charming 1960s reservoir by planting its steep, architectural hillside with a mess of sumac and weedy marshland plants.
Our road trip's epiphany, happily, came in the final stretch. After driving vast stretches of blight punctuated by the oddly moving sight of yet another vine-choked ruin, we headed for a stretch of the Maryland shore called Assateague Island. A toe of dunes and marsh dipping into the Atlantic, Assateague is a state park rumoured to be populated with wild horses.
Crossing the bridge, I warned my son not to get too excited. Even if there were wild horses roaming free, the likelihood that we would come across one would be highly unlikely.
But on our first turn around a bend, there were four of them right there by the side of the road. Smaller than the breeds you would see at the stables, with bleached-blond manes and caramel-coloured Rasta coats, they were scratching themselves on the beach scrub. When we stepped out of the car and came closer, they sized us up before cantering off on the sand, as if we were the odd ones in the scene.
We must have seen two dozen, some mares and foals, one a big, older-looking pinto. On our way out of the park, we asked the friendly local in the pony patrol vest if they really were survivors from an old shipwreck. He laughed and said, no, that was the story, but they were the descendants of farm horses abandoned years ago, which had returned to the wild, and, apparently, flourished.
Heading back onto the freeway, with the Rolling Stones' Wild Horses cranked on the iPod, I felt my romantic faith revive. Re-wilding was possible because nature is unstoppable. No matter what a mess we may have made, something wild will be there to fill in the cracks.
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