Getting What We Wanted

And Wanting What We Got

Maybe the world has become too comfortable, too easy. For long thousands of years, many of them lost to memory, the race has sought to tame the earth, reduce it to order, make it secure. It has worked. We are warm, fed, safe, but…have we lost something?

Of old the world was wild, forbidding, perilous, a looming unknown stalked by hunting animals, swallowed by drifting fog, wracked by storms of uncomprehended provenance, roofed by stars and planets sharper than those of today that had not yet reduced to the dry equations of celestial mechanics. Men were few, the land large. We were strangers in that world, not yet its masters. Men defended, by violence and shedding of blood, pockets of warmth and safety for their wives and children. A fire in a Norse winter in 735 AD meant something that fire doesn't now.

That world was another place because we did not control it, or believe we understood it. The imagination had room to stretch. In the black forests of medieval Europe, in murky blue shadows closing around cultivated fields by twilight, in the vast soughing deserts of Roman North Africa – monsters lurked, or men thought they did, which was as satisfying. Horizons lay closer. Men often didn't know what was fifty miles away, much less on another continent. China, India, Cipango were lands of fabulous rumor, where men with three heads dwelt and one might fall off the edge of the earth on the way. There was magic, the pull of the unknown, a sense of things yet undone and places yet unseen. .

Today little remains of that world of portent and possibility. The ensemble has collapsed, possibilities become knowns, become certainties ordered and catalogued in books and available on the Internet. There is little mystery, little to explore, little of that odd stew of danger and uncertainty that once spiced life. The explorers and swordsmen of other times are now clerks, speaking of gigabytes and megahertz.

We have succeeded perhaps too well.

Think. In 1900 a band of men setting forth into Africa did not know what they might find – mountains never before seen, great rivers, curious animals and savages of strange custom. Today, every inch of every land has been mapped, photographed, explored, trampled upon, and packaged for the Discovery Channel. Blue-haired grandparents in Toyota Land Cruisers make safari through Kenya – a Kenya as mild and ordered as Disneyland, and anyway they've seen it all many times on the babbling box. Travel has become not exploration but confirmation: Yes, the Taj Mahal looks exactly as it did on television. The Indians got it right, we think. It looks like television

We know everything, have seen everything. Children of ten have watched the inner workings of nests of termites in the African veldt, have seen the surface of the Moon and of Mars, the mating of implausible worms in the black night of geothermal vents, and the social customs of gibbons. What is left?

In a world so very tame, in which all is controlled and watched and manicured, in which we keep as parks a few vestigial traces of the former wildness to visit like a movie theater -- what is there for us in our more hell-for-leather moods, if we still have them? Where is the risk, the danger that once made life seem worth living? Where are the wolves, the dragons, the bears we feared? Bears? Once we ran from them. Then we built houses proof against them, then we hunted them, and now we put them in zoos.

Am I alone in thinking that we have circumscribed our world to death, made it vaguely pointless and without savor? In thinking that we might, some of us, be happier with less comfort and more to find?

Those who feel the pull of the distant, of the yet mysterious and the still hazardous, may even today find satiety, though it will be encrusted with artificiality. The hardy sky dive, ride motorcycles, swim100 feet below the surface of the night seas. A few may still join the Pathan tribesmen and live as in the thirteenth century. Thirty years ago we hitchhiked and hopped freights. Some still do.

And yet . . . and yet there is a growing sense of fraud in the search for peril, for adventure, for a sense of not being in control – in the search for something left to do. So we have bungee jumping, paintball, and wilderness racing. One may walk the Appalachian Trail, tame as a topiary garden with the distant roar of the jets overhead. We know what we want. We try.

But we're pretending.

Ever the world becomes snugger, more secure, more enswaddling in its concern for our safety. I don't say that it is wrong precisely, only that it is – constricting. Motorcyclists must wear helmets, not an evil notion – one saved my life once – but too civilized. Now children must wear helmets on bicycles, and modern parents would never, ever, let their boys of fourteen take the .22 and go to shoot rats, or set forth up a river in a canoe,. They would need life jackets and supervision and, no doubt, inoculations. And should the rash-but-alive decide to Kon Tiki their way across whatever ocean that may remain somewhat untraveled, they will have cell phones and air support and hourly coverage on television.

We have built our trap well.

Yes, always there have been people, the majority no doubt, who wanted only a roof in rain, fire in winter, enough to eat, and not too much work. Throw in a pub, a game of darts or, now, the idiot box, and they are content on their passage through whatever it is that we are passing through. But for some, for those who once set out on matchbox ships to cross the Pacific, it is stifling. And perhaps the tedious security robs the race of something important though not easily explained, certainly not to the wan little clerks who manage our fear of radon.

What of the young of today, who know nothing but the controlled and modulated? They sit in the meat bars night after night to hook up, not really happy with it, wondering what else there might be, and then go back to the office with its controlled temperature and fluorescents that never fail. Do we want this? One succeeds too well sometimes, and then one must live with what one has done. And so we have, and so we must.