When did nature become a luxury?
By Johann Díaz
Today, people consider natural surroundings to be a luxury. Lavish vacations might involve a retreat in the wilderness, a mountain lodge, or a safari in Africa. Landscapes that appear untouched by humans are prized. Luxury spas often feature gardens or swimming pools surrounded by lush vegetation. High-end restaurants feature outdoor seating areas where guests can enjoy the sounds of nature. Those sounds, like a babbling brook, chirping birds, or crashing waves, are associated with relaxation, providing an escape from the bustle of daily life. In the following clip, I offer an idealized soundscape, one where you can hear the birds, insects, wind, and the crunching of leaves. It is free from the sounds of human activity.
Sound clip created by Johann Díaz
But, when did nature and its sounds become so valuable? This change may have happened, roughly, during the lifetime of Henry Clay Frick. Did Frick, for instance, buy Clayton to be surrounded by nature? Perhaps he wanted an estate simply as a status symbol. Nobles in Europe gained prestige by living in castles on large properties, acres of land that provided rich earnings for the aristocratic owners. Rising American capitalists, like Henry Clay Frick, may have aspired to be American “aristocrats” who acquired land as a sign of status and power. It wasn’t a profitable choice, however. The historical research of McNeil and Riello shows that land ownership in late 19th-century America was not nearly as profitable as investing money in a bank. This would suggest that Frick valued other aspects of the Clayton estate, like the natural surroundings.
During the industrial revolution, noise pollution from machines and factories could be heard around the clock in urban areas. The sound was oppressive at times. In 1864 France, the Goncourts described the sounds of an industrial town, writing: “The noise of foundries and the screams of steamwhistles broke, at every moment, the silence of the river” (Schafer, 74). The SoundSite in 1890’s Homestead, shows that Pittsburghers were similarly inundated with loud sounds all day. In this new sound world, only people with wealth had the resources to purchase land and build houses in the countryside to escape the sound of industry. When you listen to the sound reconstruction of the soundscape of Clayton’s Great Lawn in the 1890’s, it becomes clear that Frick’s new home provided him with a peaceful and sheltered environment from the noise pollution of the industrial revolution.
In recent years, architects and builders have begun to think about sound pollution when they design apartments and houses. They are soundproofing techniques, achieved through thicker walls, double glazed windows, and hermetic seals on doors and windows. By blocking out the sounds of traffic, sirens, and air pollution, people can achieve a greater sense of tranquility within their homes. However, this solution also mutes the natural sounds of the environment. This means that the wealthy have the luxury of uninterrupted natural sounds, while others must settle for a muted and soundproofed experience. In this way, we could say that soundproofing has created an even greater divide between those who can and cannot afford to escape the noise of civilization.
The contrast between the sound of untouched nature and the noise of industry in the nineteenth century reveals a lot about the social and economic structures of the time. The natural soundscape became a symbol of exclusivity, since it was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Today, as we face new environmental challenges, we are faced with similar, important questions about the relationship between wealth and the environment. Can we truly enjoy the natural soundscape while living in a society that is built on the exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of ecosystems? Can we find a way to make the pure and natural sound of nature accessible to everyone? These are important questions that we must continue to grapple with as we strive for a more just and sustainable future.