Intro: Collecting and displaying the artifacts of American culture is hard work, and sometimes Dr. America is overextended. Like most of us, he has methods for dealing with stress. This week, in the magnificent (but wholly imaginary) American Studies Museum, the institution’s imaginative curator discusses the curative properties of a new product.
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When Dr. America spotted the package in the Nature Store, he was immediately interested. The big black letters said “Soothing Salts,” and the doctor did need soothing. But as he settled into the warm bath water, and his jangled nerves began to unjangle, he began to cogitate. What was the meaning of this bath, these salts, this situation? The actual ingredients don’t help much to answer the question. Two ounces of sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, jojoba oil, and fragrance–this is basically souped-up salt at twenty dollars a pound. In this case, as in so many in American culture, the package is as important as the product itself.
This bath additive is part of the “Explorer Bath Collection,” which, we learn in the brochure, “takes you on a botanical voyage of discovery.” The special fragrant formulas, it says, “nourish the skin and stimulate the senses while evoking distant lands.” The collection includes bath salts, lotions, and massage oils thematically linked to exotic places–the Serengeti, the Great Barrier Reef, and Angel Falls. Serengeti, the brochure says breathlessly, “intoxicates with its notes of honey, fig, and African woods and grasses. The Great Barrier Reef refreshes with the cool scents of water and wind. And Angel Falls nurtures with rare orchid against a green background.”
Dr. America bought the Great Barrier Reef at the Nature Store, because he liked the bright picture of tropical fish in the coral sea. He also liked the supposedly handwritten excerpt from the explorer’s journal, lyrically recording the sighting of “fish and fauna of every shape, design, and color in the Great Barrier Reef.” So Dr. America followed the simple directions: “Add to Bath, Relax, and Enjoy the Journey.” Dr. A, who traveled only as far as his bathroom, did enjoy the journey. After adding the soothing salts, he did relax, as he always does when he sits in warm water. But his journal was not so lyrical. “I am sitting in the bathtub,” it said truthfully.
The Explorer Bath Collection urges weary bathers to “let your senses run riot.” This is an inviting proposition for modern Americans, who often run themselves senseless. And it’s part of the appeal of shops like the Nature Store, which bathe consumers in myriad meanings. The Nature Store, which now serves as a retail outlet for the Discovery Channel, is a place where Americans can go “looking for nature at the mall.” In a revealing essay by that title, historian Jennifer Price unpacks the cultural meanings of nature that are stored within the Nature Store. The nature that we look for, the nature that we buy, is not generally the nature that we live in. The nature that we buy is exotic, unspoiled, wild, remote and romantic. It’s also peaceful–among the plush animals in the Nature Store, there’s not much Darwinian “nature red in tooth and claw.” It’s not so much the state of nature as a state of mind that appeals to busy Americans. People who rush every morning to get through the shower need an excuse to slow down, and expensive soothing salts provide an occasion to linger in a bath. Having paid two-fifty for two ounces of salt, you need to get your money’s worth.
Of course, while these products restore us, they don’t necessarily restore nature. Both the Explorer Collection and the Nature Store tell us that “no habitats were damaged by harvesting in any way.” But for most of our purchases as Americans, habitat is affected, and we don’t much think about it. We forget that every store is a nature store, since they’re all full of nature converted to commodities to be converted to cash. In this culture, Dr. America notes, it’s only natural. But when we buy the nature that evokes distant lands, it helps us to distance ourselves from the nature nearby, the nature that’s increasingly domesticated, spoiled, conquered, and not quite so romantic. Why do we need “Explorer” salts and sport utility vehicles? Why couldn’t we be satisfied with the “college professor” massage oil or the “computer programmer” lotion? Why couldn’t we market the smell of suburban grass, or the Midwestern scents of hay and alfalfa? It seems to Dr. America that, until we can appreciate the sensual pleasures of our own place on earth, we will continue to evoke nature without understanding it. We may be in the Nature Store, but we won’t know really what wonders nature has in store for us.
From the American Studies Museum, this is Dr. America, finding himself, as usual, in hot water.