We have all had defining moments. An event–small, medium or large–that seems to change the course of everything. For me, it was the rather random choice of topic (more on which after the jump) for a research project with a friend in graduate school, leading to my doctoral dissertation and then onward to nearly two decades in entrepreneurial conservation. Not my expected career path in my teens, my twenties or even my early thirties. When I saw this opening line in a “culture” piece on The New Yorker‘s website, I was hooked:
In 1833, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a New England pastor who’d recently given up the ministry, delivered his first public lecture in America. The talk was held in Boston, and its nebulous-sounding subject (“The Uses of Natural History,” a title that conceals its greatness well) helped lay the groundwork for the nineteenth-century philosophy of transcendentalism. It also changed Emerson’s life.
With no illusions or delusions about the significance of Emerson’s random epiphany, versus my own, I can still relate. Emerson’s ideas and their impact had consequence during his lifetime for the place that became my research focus a century later. As it happens, Emerson visited that place just before his 60th birthday, and was deeply amused (it inspired his writing for another two decades) and amazed. That place, which I was interested in for historical reasons related to collective action (thus the occasional posts on this site with that topic as centerpiece), had consequence for late twentieth-century notions of how to develop tourism under a new model.
I will have to serialize my thoughts on Niagara Falls as the possible birthplace of what is now called ecotourism. It is as good a candidate as any to be given credit for some of the earliest entrepreneurial conservation efforts. More on that in the next post. For now, another dot to connect to. Even before seeing this item about Emerson, I was reminded of Niagara Falls, and its relation to my work since the mid-1990s, several times over the last few months starting with an item that appeared in the news when an entertainer wanted to use the Falls as a backdrop to his talent. It all sounded eerily familiar.
The New York Times coverage a while before the approval said:
Wallenda’s dream now rests in the hands of a 12-person board of Ontario government appointees with the noble-sounding mission of “protecting the natural and cultural heritage along the Niagara River.” Without having seen his request, several members of the Niagara Parks Commission have made it clear that neither his vision nor his family name particularly moves them. “It’s sensationalism, and that’s not what the falls is supposed to be about,” Janice Thomson, the acting chair of the commission, told Maclean’s in an interview. “It’s supposed to be about the natural beauty of the river, and recognizing the preservation of the environment that it’s in.”
This is not an ad hominem attack. The commission was created in 1885 to insulate the falls from the hurly-burly of the adjoining city, whose hucksterism then defined the entire Niagara experience. Today, the town remains a monument to kitsch, with a wax museum, a giant Ferris wheel and a casino with 1,500 slot machines. But it also features a scale model over one street of Blondin making his famous crossing—an event Thomson concedes is embedded in the falls’ mystique. And rarely has the commission been so wildly out of step with prevailing opinion: this week—as Wallenda prepared his formal request to the commission—a country-wide poll done for Maclean’s found 54 per cent of Canadians think authorities should give him the green light. Only 19 per cent said no, with the rest undecided (women and older respondents are the least supportive)….
…Not surprisingly, his proposal has been warmly received by businesses on the Canadian side, who have been struggling with a downturn in U.S. tourism, and who have been frustrated in the past by the parks commission’s literal interpretation of its mandate. “This has the potential to bring a lot of people into the city,” says Carolyn Bones, president of the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce. “I think there may be some ruffled feathers if the commission rejects it out of hand.” City council has passed a resolution in favour of Wallenda’s idea. “People like Blondin are part of the city’s heritage,” Mayor Jim Diodati told one reporter. “I think it would be great to have this here.”