Study Guide

A Walk in the Woods Technology and Modernization

By Bill Bryson

Technology and Modernization

If the global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years [...] the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. (1.1.5)

That's some harrowing stuff—especially because A Walk in the Woods was published back in 1998. Wow. The consequences of human pollution become a major theme in the book, as Bryson is constantly faced with the evidence of environmental catastrophe along the Appalachian Trail.

By the late 1980's [...] it was the only significant player in the American timber industry that was cutting down trees faster than it replaces them. (1.4.14)

Ironically, the Forest Service seems to hurt America's woodlands more than it helps them. Shouldn't their name be the Forest Smashers instead? Jokes aside, this is a pretty bleak picture—trees aren't some magical resource that endlessly replenishes itself. It's not like they grow on... hmm—wrong cliché.

In the Smokies, over 90 percent of Fraser firs [...] are sick or dying, from a combination of acid rain and the depredations of a moth. (1.7.27)

There are tons of plant and animal species that have been essentially wiped off the face of the planet by human interference. That might not be too surprising, but what is surprising is just how fast this process can move along. That scares the pants off of us.

Having gotten everyone in a lather by interfering with nature for years, it has decided now not to interfere with nature at all, even when [...] demonstrably beneficial. (1.7.30)

Whoever guessed that this is another quote about the Forest Service earns a Shmoop Gold Star (disclaimer: Shmoop Gold Stars are not redeemable for real money). For real though: these guys just can't do anything right, according to Bryson. While there are a ton of smart and dedicated people who work there, the organization as a whole seems like a mess.

In 1951 [...] Gatlinburg had just one retail business [...] By 1987, Gatlinburg had sixty motels and 200 gift shops. (1.8.12)

That's insane. Here, we see a different sort of consequence to technological progress: the rise of consumer America. To be honest, we're not really sure what's worse: environmental pollution or strip malls and infomercials.

In just over thirty years the American chestnut became a memory. The Appalachians lost four billion trees, a quarter of its cover, in a generation. (1.10.18)

Dang—we never thought we'd shed a tear over a chestnut (except in appreciation of their inherent deliciousness, of course). Once again, however, we're presented with evidence that mankind is wreaking havoc on the planet Earth, destroying species that have thrived for thousands of years.

For miles it was either entirely barren or covered in the spindly trunks of dead trees, a few still weakly standing but most toppled. It brought to mind a World War I battlefield. (2.14.80)

This metaphor lays things out perfectly: polluting the environment is like declaring war on Mother Nature. We're not hippies or anything, but we think that it's pretty scary to see how a beautiful countryside can become barren and decayed in only a few years. That leaves us with only one question—how can we prevent stuff like this from happening again?

If there is a greater reason for being grateful to live in the twentieth century than the joy of stepping [...] into [...] an air-conditioned establishment, then I really cannot think of it. (2.16.53)

Despite his love for all things environmental, Bryson still gets plenty of kicks out of modern technology. This is actually important to note. Bryson isn't arguing that we should renounce all modern technology and head back to the Stone Age, but simply that we should be responsible with our use of technology and conscious of its impact on the planet.

In 1850, New England was 70 percent open farmland and 30 percent woods. Today the proportions are exactly reversed. (2.16.54)

It's encouraging to know that there's been positive change somewhere—in most places, the complete opposite thing happened over the same time period. If nothing else, this shows us that it is indeed possible to put a bigger spotlight on environmental concerns.

I hate all this technology on the trail. Some AT hikers, I had read, now carry laptop computers and modems. (2.16.66)

Oh no, Bryson probably hates the Appalachian Trail these days—we're sure it's littered with people with selfie sticks. He has no respect for this, as it defeats the whole purpose of coming to the AT.