Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Lately I've been contemplating the artificialities of modern life.
I'm reading David McCullough's "1776," about (obviously) the Revolutionary War. And always when I read of this time period or before, I'm struck by how people existed back then with so little relative to modern times. They seemed to live quite well without all the shit we think we can't do without today. People made their way even very long distances on foot--sometimes on horseback--and this pretty much guaranteed that the common person traveled lightly: a change of clothes, a book perhaps, maybe a letter of introduction. It also guaranteed a general level of fitness, and served as a limbo stick for some key thing in life: if you couldn't withstand the travel, you couldn't go (or perhaps you couldn't get back). Many people did not travel widely, and so those who did occupied a special place in the public imagination.
So much of this seems different from today. Hospitality was more extensive then, visits were more liesurely. I imagine our sense of hygiene and grooming is much changed today, our sense of what is acceptable in odor or appearance. (Don't you wonder in a movie like "Pirates of the Caribbean" what they must have smelled like? And how any woman could possibly be in love with a guy who smelled like a barnyard, much less act on that attraction?). The Eighteenth Century seemed a much more animal time for humanity. Or maybe it's better to say it was easier back then to see our humanity as something unrelated to our material achievements. Nowadays, we seem to be ushered into the human race by our adoption of the trappings of accumulated technology and knowledge--something quite different. People were defined by the their trade, I suppose, as they are today, but many people lived closer to the bone, without nearly the safety net that exists now.
This is not a new subject for me. Some time back in this past year I wrote a post about an old flying buddy who, on his days off, would ride around the country by hopping freight trains. I'm quite mesmerized by the idea of this, and by the suggestion of the depression-era lives of the hobos who lived in the shadows of the railroads. I don't mean to be flip or silly-romantic about people who were destitute and suffering; but the fact of it raises questions. The hardships these people suffered are maybe more familiar than other, positive things which must have attached to some degree to this vagabond lifestyle. What would it be like--good and bad--to have nothing more in the world than what one carried with one? How would our self-image change if we were forced to evaluate ourselves solely on the basis of who we are, rather than what we have, what we do, what we've attained? I have this recurring image--no doubt hopelessly, foolishly romantic--of a hobo making his way cross country, jumping off his train at the end of a long day of travel some distance outside a rail yard to put up trackside for the night beneath a clump of trees or next to a small country stream. And always a fire. I can imagine a contentment in sleeping outside under the stars next to a quietly-crackling fire, with no place one had to be, no obligations to anyone, no bills or appointments. It's like a prehistoric existence, where one's main job is to find food and shelter and be happy.
I know this little vision conveniently ignores physical danger and disease and lots of things. But the revelation for me is that without our social safety net one could fall, but how far would one fall? Only so far as to leave our modern world behind and live as humanity and proto-humanity lived for many thousands, perhaps millions, of years. The guy during the depression riding a train from place to place looking for work and a soup kitchen seems not so different from, as I read, a young man who starts off on foot to the distant town of Boston where he believes there is fighting going on. He surely has little if anything with him, and likely little money. But there's an adventure going on and he chooses to steer his life in that direction and see where it leads him.
My own life will not fall apart, I know, if my cell phone or my computer stop working. In fact, I think back to my years between marriages when I stored my stuff in a $130-a-month room in St. Paul and more or less lived out of my truck as I roamed from place to place to fly. I had pretty much no savings and few bills of consequence and I kind of lived day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. At the time, I wanted a bit more stability and to put some roots down, but looking back now it's cool to have been so untethered. Well, at least in the context of this post!