Just when you think you know your iconic American landmarks, someone comes along and bursts your (large) bubble. Environmental writer Ginger Strand gets down to the business of illusion-busting in her iconoclastic expose of Niagara Falls, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies. Strand investigates the foundations of Niagara's story with wit and passion, showing that man's eager, sometimes Machiavellian, manipulation of nature often destroys Earth's glories, leading to appalling environmental and spiritual degradation, what she calls a "boulevard of broken dreams."
Strand, a self-proclaimed "hydrogeek," set off on a New York state road trip to explore "hydroinfrastructure" (aqueducts, reservoirs, canals) and ended up at Niagara Falls. Upon learning that the waters can be turned up or down (either for impressing tourists or generating hydroelectricity), she became obsessed with the fakery behind this so-called "natural" wonder. Seeking Niagara's past, one of "elisions, artifice and outright deception," Strand delves into the numerous streams of its history: its mythical beginnings as Native American land; its role in the Underground Railroad; its aesthetic heyday under Frederick Law Olmstead; and its ongoing exploitation by merchandisers, sensationalist stuntmen, tourists and honeymooners, preservationists, big industry, rapacious politicians and the military. From the creation of the silly "Maid of the Mist" myth to the advent of Love Canal and the industries that helped create the atomic bomb, Strand reveals and sometimes laments Niagara's secrets - although with cogent humor and insight - making for a sometimes heartbreaking portrait of a ruined Eden.
Inventing Niagara is not only an entertaining, enlightening blend of history, aesthetics, science and cultural commentary, it is Strand's important plea for our future: "Environmentalism is a way of seeing. It's time to look the world squarely in the face and try to understand our role in it. . . . we must consider the natural world not as merely waiting to be of service or to be saved, but must respect it as equal partner in shaping the future of our planet."
Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.